Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bill Adler, My Friend

The Reaper has hit Thriller guy pretty hard recently. Two friends and mentors have left our earthly
plane, and the world is a poorer place for it.

Bill Adler Sr. died a few weeks ago. He has a son who lives in Washington, DC who is a friend and is also named Bill Adler, (Jr.) so we called them, of course, Big Bill and Little Bill. I met Big Bill when Little Bill recommended me for a writing job. For the purposes of this blog, unless otherwise indicated, Bill will be referring to Bill Senior.

Bill is, was, what is known now as a book packager. He would think up an idea and then call one of the many writers he knew and hire them to write a proposal. He would then call around to his many contacts in the publishing industry and see who was interested, go have lunch with them and if he made the sale, the deal was signed with a handshake. The writer was then contacted, told what the money was going to be for the completed book and if you agreed, you got the green light. The check would show up when you started work and/or when you turned in the book. No one ever signed anything, and no one ever got stiffed.

TG believes Bill has more titles in his name than any author in the US. (TG just checked Amazon. Bill has 1,565 results. Some of these were written by his son, but you get the point.) Of these books, he wrote maybe 2%. If that. The rest were penned as work for hire by a long list of writers whose names never appear anywhere on or in the books. Bill became particularly prominent in the early 80’s when he “wrote” a book with Thomas Chastain (who wrote popular historical novels) called Who Killed the
Robbins Family. They, Bill and Chastain, offered $10,000 to the person or persons who could solve the murder mystery related in the book. It was a terrible book, badly written, poorly plotted and blindingly confusing, but they made millions of dollars with it. Bill went on to milk the idea in an amazing number of sequels. Before The Robbins Family he had an early hit with Kids Letters to President Kennedy, which he put together in the early 60s. Here’s the way he told the story of this book to me. Imagine the lack of security in the White House in those days. Bill had a great, raconteur’s way of speaking, so picture your garrulous old uncle smoking a cigar and telling you a story. “So what I did, Al, was I sat down and called the White House. They had a number in the phone book! Guess who answered the phone? Pierre Salinger! I asked him if I could come down and read any mail that Kennedy had received from kids, and he said sure. I hopped on a train and was there the same afternoon. They gave me a couple of big boxes of mail and a table to sit at. I read for hours and took notes. Towards evening, pretty much everyone went home, so they told me when I was finished to just turn out the lights on my way out.” After that book was a hit, he followed it up with Kids Letters to Santa Clause, Smokey Bear, Obama and a bunch of others. Every one of them made money.

He was also an agent, and some of his clients were Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Howard Cosell, Mike Wallace, Ralph Nader, Bob Dole and many others. He got in trouble with Nancy Reagan when a bio of the Reagans he had hired to have ghosted included the fact that their son might be gay. Of course she didn’t know Bill had probably never read the manuscript before it was published (he told me quite proudly that he had never read any of the books that were published under his name.) Nancy didn’t speak to him for many years after that.

TG can’t remember what the first book was that he signed on to do. Somewhere around here TG has a hefty file stuffed full of Big Bill projects. Bill would call at all hours of the day or night. The phone would ring at three AM in the morning, TG’s wife would answer it, roll over and hand it to TG saying, “It’s Big Bill.” She’d roll back and go back to sleep. There was no putting him off, so TG would get up, put his robe on and go to his desk and take notes as brilliant sparks flew off Bill’s brain. Next day TG would go to work on the idea. As often as not, Bill would forget he’d even assigned TG the project, sometimes mixing him up with TG’s writer pal Larry (oft mentioned here in this blog) who also did books for Bill.

TG edited a bunch of books under other people’s names for Bill. There was a memoir about growing up in Baltimore during the Second World War, supposedly by a famous newscaster, or at least he was famous years ago. There was a feminist treatise by, again supposedly, the daughter of a famous entertainment journalist. This resulted in a funny story.

Bill was trying to fire up yet one more iteration of the “Who Killed the Robbins Family” franchise, this time using the Internet to base all the clues and offering $200,000 as the prize. TG roped his writer pal Dan in on this one, because Dan’s smart and he could use the money as much as TG. We took the train to New York to pitch the idea to a guy who was the new chief editor of HarperCollins. This guy was really full of himself.  We were sitting in his office, TG, Dan and Big Bill, with the hot-shot editor and a bunch of his people, establishing our bona fides, and the editor asked TG who he had ghosted for in the past. TG told him a good ghost never gives up his clients, but said he had written a book for a prominent feminist titled, XXXXXXXX. (Sorry TG can’t tell you the title. Remember, a good ghost never tells.) The editor went deathly pale, stood up, turned red and shouted, “You’re telling me that (Insertnameofprominentfeminist) didn’t write that book? I published that book!” He turned to his longtime faithful assistant and said, “Did you know this? Did you know this!!!” She turned deathly pale and insisted she had no idea. All this time, Big Bill is sitting there behind me, laughing, because he’s the one who sold the feminist book to the guy in the first place!

 We were back out on the street in a couple of minutes, having had our proposal pretty much shot down. Big Bill then took us to lunch at the legendary Friars Club where we drank Bloody Marys for a couple of hours and listened to Bill’s funny publishing stories. It remains one of the most memorable afternoons of my life.

Most of the time Bill would pay TG to write a few chapters and an extensive outline for whatever fiction project he had dreamed up. Then he’d try to peddle the book. Sometime these books would sell, and TG would write them and they would never get published for many screwy reasons. TG wrote one about a sitting President who gets Alzheimer’s. (Bill got Sandra Day O’Conner to write a letter attached to that one recommending it. He convinced Reagan’s son and both Nixon daughters to submit letters of recommendation as well.) TG and his son, Little TG, wrote another one that was a mystery involving Jackie Gleason back in Miami during the Bay of Pigs days that was to have been written by Larry King. It was actually pretty good. That one was being handled by the William Morris agency and after we turned it in some sort of shit hit the fan (Bill never told TG what happened, but someone was pissed off about something TG had written.) The agent who was handling the book declared TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel, “The worst writer in the world,” and they got someone else to do the story and paid them $250,000 for it. Which was, as TG’s son put it, “The most money we’ve never made for writing a novel.” As far as TG knows, that one, by the other guys, was never published either.

As noted above, the Big Bill file is fat, and most of the projects fell through at one point or another, but TG made some money on some of them and doesn’t regret a minute of the time devoted to these projects. Big Bill was an original guy, really sui generis, and TG is very sorry he’s gone. There was an obit in the Times (NY) last week.

Old age hit Bill pretty hard, and his last years were vastly different from when he was working on all 18 cylinders. They took away his cell phone, which he had never really mastered anyway, and the phone calls stopped.

TG misses those middle-of-the-night phone calls, his brilliant mind, his great stories and his always hopeful, indomitable spirit. Once again, the world is a poorer place for his leaving it. We will not see his like again.

Rest in Peace, Bill.  

1 comment: