BY FRANK DIGIACOMO
M NOVEMBER 16, 1997
When the morning delivery of The New York Times brought news on June 27 that Harper Collins had canceled more than 100 titles from its publishing list to cut costs, Ellen Hawkes turned to her longtime companion, Peter Manso, and said: "We should be so lucky."
At the time they read the article in their Berkeley, Calif., home, Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso, accomplished book authors both, had been collaborating for almost a year on a biography of the deceased model and actress Margaux Hemingway for Regan Books, the Harper Collins-owned imprint run by publishing's brash wonderwoman, Judith Regan. The deal had been signed with high hopes on both sides-including an ABC-TV mini-series tie-in for the book, dreamed up and arranged by Ms. Regan.
But all was not well between the authors and their editor. They claimed they had not been in contact with Ms. Regan since September 1996. She had, however, made her presence felt in a phone call on June 6 to Ms. Hawkes' agent, Marion Rosenberg. "They are assholes, unprofessional beasts, reprehensible, unprofessional motherfuckers," she told Ms. Rosenberg (who took notes), by way of complaining about manuscript chapters that she had not received. Ms. Regan also allegedly threatened to "ruin" Mr. Manso's chances of working again.
For 15 months, the authors, their two agents, Ms. Regan and several other Harper Collins representatives battled one another in a barrage of correspondence. Ms. Regan reserved much of her most descriptive vitriol for Mr. Manso, calling him, in one memo "a reptile, a weasel" and someone with a "dog-shit reputation."
One of their many editors, at Ms. Regan's behest, wrote them that Margaux Hemingway "is symbolic of an era of excess, of discarding women when they age; men used her her whole life." He then asked: "Who killed Margaux?"
The answer: "We all did."
The authors themselves were no shrinking violets when it came to memos. "Judith (and we) have all along thought of this as a 'woman's' book," they wrote to Mr. Manso's agent, Elaine Markson, when they learned that Ms. Regan wanted a shot of Hemingway "with breasts visible under [a] sheer wet dress" on the book's cover. "We must prevail on whoever at this publishing house might have some standards of taste, as well as marketing and common sense, to put a stop to this ill-conceived notion immediately." Ms. Markson at one point wrote Harper Collins' general counsel, James Fox, "Please inform Regan Books that, like E.E. Cummings, there is some shit I will not eat."
Believe it not, things are now worse. On Oct. 17, Ms. Regan rejected the authors' manuscript, which had been titled American Girl . A few days after, the authors learned an additional bit of information that they contend is significant. Ms. Rosenberg called Frank Konigsberg, whose production company was going to produce the Hemingway project for ABC, to let him know that Ms. Regan had canceled their book and to see if he might still be interested should the book be picked up by another publisher. It was then that Ms. Rosenberg learned that one of the points holding up Mr. Konigsberg's deal with ABC was the size of Ms. Regan's fee. The authors contend that when Ms. Regan suspected her TV deal might not fly, she pulled the plug on their book.
Although Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso claim their contract was violated on a number of counts and have retained attorney Jerome Traum, they told The Observer that as of press time, they had no plans to take legal action. They, as well as their agents, have decided to go public about their experiences.
Meanwhile, the usually outspoken Ms. Regan has remained mum on this subject. She declined to talk to The Observer and instead chose to issue a statement through Regan Books' marketing director, John Ekizian, who denied that Ms. Regan canceled the book because of the stymied miniseries.
According to Mr. Ekizian, American Girl was "deemed unacceptable by Regan Books last month and canceled." He added that "Mr. Manso failed to honor the terms of his agreement by failing to cooperate with the Harper Collins legal department's vetting process, including the identification of key sources, the refusal to provide photo permission that was necessary to the book's content and failure to respond to the professional judgment that the book was excessively long and required substantial cutting."
"Bullshit," said Ms. Markson, who explained that her clients were ready and willing to cooperate on every front and were simply waiting, as is traditionally the case, for "editorial acceptance" of the manuscript. "Why would you give a book to the legal department for vetting, and waste their time and money, if it weren't accepted editorially?"
Mr. Traum told The Observer that his clients were "willing, at the appropriate time, to meet with the lawyers and to justify every factual statement in the book."
Meanwhile, Mr. Manso sounded fairly apoplectic. "These are smear tactics," he said. "It's wrong. It's demonstrably wrong. It's demonstrable slander." He seemed further vexed that Ms. Regan seemed to be singling him out in this whole deal. "Why is this Manso, Manso, Manso?" he said, then answered his own question: "It goes to Regan's vow to destroy me. Either that, or she's the biggest fucking sexist on earth."
Ms. Hawkes offered a more psychological explanation, saying that Ms. Regan may have focused on him because "he is the male who is rejecting her."
Mr. Manso, who admitted that initially he was seduced and charmed by Ms. Regan, characterized his editor in another way. "We made a pact with the devil, we did," he told The Observer.
It wouldn't be the first time that Ms. Regan has been fingered as publishing's Antichrist. She has a foul mouth, a tabloid sensibility and a desire to be a Hollywood producer. ("She's a latter-day Harry Cohn," said Mr. Manso, referring to the late, heavy-handed Columbia Pictures president, "except she doesn't have Harry Cohn's taste.")
On the other hand, Mr. Manso-who is certainly the more talkative of the American Girl duo-knows, too, how to turn out a hypermuscular quote. ("Judith Regan does not believe in the soul," he said at one point.) According to one person involved in the making of American Girl , when tension ran high, Mr. Manso tended to "seize on all sorts of small things and blow them up out of proportion."
A closer look at the chain of events-and the extensive correspondence that resulted among the authors, the agents, Ms. Regan and representatives of her imprint-reveals the anatomy of the book deal from hell. And it reveals the rift between publishing's old school, represented by Ms. Hawkes, Mr. Manso and their agents, and the new school, where Ms. Regan has written a number of the rules.
A Miniseries, and They Were Hooked
When Mr. Manso first met with Ms. Regan, he was coming off his 1994 biography of Marlon Brando ( Brando ), a book that he spent seven years-an eternity by current publishing standards-writing for William Morrow & Company before moving it to Hyperion. Ms. Hawkes was also no stranger to complex, even difficult book subjects. In 1993, she had written about the warring wine-making Gallo family in the critically well-received Blood and Wine Prior to those efforts, Mr. Manso took on Norman Mailer (Mailer: His Life and Times), and Ms. Hawkes the Ginny Foat murder case (Feminism on Trial).
Mr. Manso, whose meeting with Ms. Regan was set up by his agent, Ms. Markson, told The Observer that, initially, he liked Ms. Regan's "moxie." It was Ms. Regan who broached the idea of doing a book about Margaux Hemingway; it was she who also had the idea that the book be turned into an ABC miniseries. (Mr. Manso said that he, too, had had the idea for a TV tie-in.) According to Mr. Ekizian, Ms. Regan had successfully pitched the series to ABC before attaching Mr. Manso and Ms. Hawkes to the book. Mr. Manso, who called the lure of TV "undeniable," was hooked.
At the time, Mr. Manso said, the Hemingway book "was envisioned as a happy opportunity to write a quick book about a decent subject where one could put some money in the bank."
Sources familiar with the deal put the American Girl advance in the low-six figures, not including the anticipated money from the television deal. (Mr. Manso would not confirm this.) But the first signs of trouble arrived with the deal memo, dated July 29, 1996. Although Ms. Rosenberg is Ms. Hawkes' literary agent, she is by trade a talent agent whose clientele consists largely of actors, directors and screenwriters. She has also served as a producer on numerous films, including The Deer Hunter and The Missouri Breaks . Hence, Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso decided that Ms. Rosenberg would represent the couple on matters pertaining to the Hemingway TV project, and Ms. Markson would handle their book contract.
Ms. Rosenberg noticed that the deal memo called for Regan Books to serve as the agent in the television deal (which would bring Ms. Regan a 10 percent commission) and for Ms. Regan to serve as an executive producer of the resulting TV project. Given that one of a producer's jobs is to keep a lid on the production costs, whereas an agent's responsibility is to get her clients paid, and as handsomely as possible, Ms. Rosenberg reckoned that a potential conflict of interest existed. She called Ms. Regan to ask her to better explain the deal.
Ms. Rosenberg said that Ms. Regan initially told her that she didn't want to "talk to any fucking Hollywood agents," but then said, "I always protect my writers." Ms. Rosenberg said that Ms. Regan also said that she would not sign off on the publishing deal unless she was handling the TV rights. "She said it was a deal breaker," recounted Ms. Rosenberg. "From that moment on, I was on the sidelines."
Said Mr. Ekizian: "Mr. Manso's representatives and agents knew exactly what he was agreeing to."
Told to Get a Book Doctor
Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso went ahead with the deal. But by mid-November 1996, said Ms. Hawkes, "it was real clear" that the couple's mid-December deadline was "unrealistic." ("They covered a lot of ground in a real hurry," said one Regan Books insider, who nonetheless added: "Frankly, I don't know how they could have hit that schedule.") The authors agreed to hand in a draft of the first half of the manuscript by Jan. 1, and Regan Books agreed to move the book from its spring to its fall list.
Regan Books' response to the draft took Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso by surprise. Mr. Manso said that Kristin Kiser, the editor handling their project, informed them that they needed a book doctor-industry parlance for a rewrite man-and that the $16,000 to hire one would be deducted from their advance. Ms. Kiser, who now works at Crown, declined to comment. "I'm not saying I'm Henry James, but I am saying this is preposterous," Mr. Manso told The Observer .
Enter Ms. Markson: "I said there's no reason for us to pay for a book doctor. These are real writers. What they need is an editor." Regan Books then picked up the tab for the services of Noel Greenwood, a freelance editor based in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Mr. Greenwood declined to comment, except to say, "Giving birth to a book is an ordeal. It's a tough process, and people get very emotional. So naturally there's some tension back and forth."
Sources familiar with the American Girl manuscript said that Mr. Greenwood was brought in to focus and shape the book. The manuscript that Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso turned in, said one of the sources, was "a very journalistic account" that was not easily molded into a book "that moved along in a literary fashion" or, perhaps, that would easily translate into a high-concept TV movie or miniseries.
Ratcheting up the tension was the rush to get the book done. It has become the new modern problem of the publishing world. More and more, readers-sated on the media coverage that results when a celebrity dies or becomes involved in scandal-are ready to move on to a new scandal long before a book can be published.
Hence, today's book-publishing schedules resemble yesteryear's New Yorker deadlines. One source who worked on the book said about American Girl , "the more [Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso] scrambled and started to bust their deadlines, the more nervous people in New York got. Then Peter and Ellen got nervous, and it fed on itself. There was constant tension and anxiety." (For the record, the writers said, they never missed a deadline.)
By May, the tension levels continued to notch up. Mr. Greenwood had left for a long-planned three-month vacation in Ireland, and the authors groused that they were spending hundreds of dollars to send computer diskettes carrying chapters of their manuscript-via Federal Express-to Galway.
Meanwhile, Ms. Kiser left for Crown. Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso were informed that their new in-house editor was David Craig. Mr. Craig had heretofore been working as a vice president of film development for Ms. Regan's company and, according to the authors, had little experience in book publishing. Mr. Craig, who has also since left Ms. Regan's employ, declined to comment.
On May 23, Mr. Craig sent a letter to Mr. Manso and Ms. Hawkes telling them that June 20 was the "drop-dead" date for a final, edited manuscript. It required, he wrote, that the authors turn in their final chapters sooner than planned and take less time to review Mr. Greenwood's edits.
Then, in her June 6 phone call to Ms. Rosenberg, Ms. Regan blew. She charged that Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso had not delivered the manuscript and photos for the book as promised and were in breach of contract. Mr. Manso explained that the couple were holding on to the first and last chapters and the photos for the book because they were afraid, as Mr. Manso would write in a memo to Ms. Markson a few days later, that Ms. Regan was going to "ram the Greenwood edit into production without giving us time to review it."
On June 27, Harper Collins' general counsel James Fox stepped into the picture with a letter to Ms. Markson, reassuring her that her clients would have time to review the final manuscript, although Mr. Fox added that the authors could reinstate only those passages that were "absolutely necessary" to the accuracy or clarity of the book. Mr. Fox then added that he trusted that the authors would now send in the rest of the manuscript and the photos.
On July 22, the authors' latest editor, Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, wrote the authors to say that Ms. Regan felt that the first and last chapters of the book needed "more." Mr. Ruby-Strauss flexed his own muscles, writing that his interpretation was that the book needed perspective and conclusion. "Well, if I just read 256 pages, I want to learn something about life, something about me."
Margaux: Up for Interpretation
From its inception, the deal for American Girl had been one long struggle for control between Ms. Regan and the authors. Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso had allowed Ms. Regan to be both executive producer and their agent on the TV deal, but now they were determined to resist what they said were Ms. Regan's attempts to remold their sympathetic portrait of Margaux Hemingway into a lurid cautionary tale about the pitfalls of celebrity and the wild 70's. Researching their book, the authors said that they were touched by Hemingway's battle with epilepsy and depression. "This story softened me up and knocked me on my ass," said Mr. Manso.
Three days after the final manuscript had been submitted, Mr. Ruby-Strauss sent Ms. Marks a fax informing her that Ms. Regan wanted to appeal to her "sensibilities as a woman" in order to better shape American Girl . Via Mr. Ruby-Strauss, Ms. Regan argued that the "Hemingway hex" (Hemingway's grandfather, Ernest, took his life) was not enough. "What did it mean to be a woman, childless, not investing in a family, opting instead for glamour?" Ms. Regan wanted to know. "What happened to those women when beauty fades and men stop desiring them?"
Ms. Hawkes was outraged. Until this point, she said, Ms. Regan had virtually ignored her. The following day, she wrote to Ms. Rosenberg. "Perhaps Judith is so crazy that she's trying to write her autobiography (and address her worst fears) on the back of Margaux's biography," Ms. Hawkes wrote. "And it should be noted, whether Judith likes it or not, Margaux never lost her looks and desirability to men."
"How can Judith hope to 'appeal to my sensibilities as a woman,' when she's repeatedly offended my sensibilities as a woman, as a real feminist," Ms. Hawkes continued. She then voiced what both authors had begun to suspect. "Tell her to read the entire book, not just Chapter 1, and all her questions, if not her own fears, will be answered."
'What the Hell Is Going On?'
In another three-page letter to Ms. Rosenberg dated Aug. 19, Ms. Hawkes asked, in capital letters, "What the hell is going on?"
On Aug. 29, an annoyed-sounding Mr. Fox wrote Ms. Markson to point out that, despite her claims that Regan Books had been incommunicado for several weeks, he had been talking to her about American Girl "at least once, and often more than once" every day. He then informed her that the book had been moved to the winter list, and that it would not be considered for acceptance until the authors had responded to queries from Mr. Greenwood "on factual matters" and had provided Regan Books with photo permissions.
Ms. Regan finally weighed in with a three-page letter to the authors that arrived in the second week of September. Once again, Ms. Regan called for a broader perspective at the book's start and close. The fact that her suggestions were limited to the first and last chapters further demonstrated to Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso that Ms. Regan had not read the manuscript. But there was one additional point. On Aug. 31, Diana, Princess of Wales, had perished in a Paris car accident, and the implications of her early death seemed to be on Ms. Regan's mind. "Like Princess Diana, she was a bauble for some and was betrayed time and time again," Ms. Regan wrote.
Finally, Ms. Regan wrote that she had a much more "arduous" task for the couple to attempt. The book was supposed to come in at 100,000 words; instead, it came in at 160,000. She explained that the target market would "hesitate" to pick up "such a weighty tome," that its size made it "prohibitive to sales." She wanted 20,000 words cut from American Girl .
With their attorney Mr. Traum in the picture, Ms. Hawkes and Mr. Manso said, they agreed to some concessions. Still, they said, they remained in the dark until mid-October, when Ms. Regan pulled the plug on their book. They have not been paid the rest of their advance, and Mr. Manso claims he is out $50,000 of his own money that was spent on researching the book.
As Ms. Markson sought a new publisher for American Girl , Ms. Rosenberg sought to salvage the TV deal, and Mr. Manso and Ms. Hawkes had fended off a Page Six item on Nov.11, the flurry of activity recalled yet another memo that Ms. Markson sent to Mr. Fox on Aug. 25. In it, she wrote: "To assume we will all live happily ever after requires a wilder stretch of imagination than even I can muster."