The Charmed Life: a conversation with Michael Korda

Interview by Rob Couteau

The former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Michael Korda is considered to be one of the most influential people in the recent history of publishing. He’s also the author of the memoirs Charmed Lives,Another Life, and Horse People; the biographies Ike and Ulysses S. Grant; as well as several bestselling novels. A powerful public speaker and gifted raconteur, he attributes his storytelling ability to the creative influence of his father Vincent and his famous uncles Zoltán and Sir Alexander Korda (“who were brilliant at that”), but adds, in his typically self-deprecating manner, “I’ve never met anyone who was Hungarian who wasn’t.” After speaking at the State University at New Paltz, NY, about the future of books and book publishing, he kindly agreed to this interview, which took place on 22 April 2010.

Robert Couteau: In Charmed Lives, you speak about your shyness, and how you were “frequently at a loss for words . . . in social situations,” and you found the accents of the English intimidating, and so on. How did you go from that rather introverted figure to such an articulate and powerful public speaker?

Michael Korda: It would be almost impossible for me to know how I do that. I think also that there’s a huge difference between speaking to an audience and speaking to individuals. I can certainly suffer from nerves from time to time when speaking to individuals, but, faced with an audience, I’m really able to separate them from individuals, if you see what I mean. And I was certainly never trained for it; it just comes out on its own. I didn’t know until I started, when I wrote my first book, Male Chauvinism, then did an unexpected and large amount of publicity for that book, that I had a gift for it. But there it was. I attribute that entirely to my mother. My mother was a terrific actress, and I must have inherited that as a part of my gene pool. Along with the teeth.

RC: You also relate in that book how, just before he bought you a motorcycle, your Uncle Alex said: “Years ago, I remember that Lawrence of Arabia was coming to see me to talk about a movie ofSeven Pillars of Wisdom, and he was killed on the way in a motorcycle accident. I still own the rights.” Did this anecdote plant a seed for your later desire to write about Lawrence?

MK: I’ve always been interested in Lawrence, but that item is not entirely correct. Alex met Lawrence and bought the rights not to Seven Pillars of Wisdom but to Revolt in the Desert, and did so on the promise that he would never make the movie in Lawrence’s lifetime. And that was extremely important to Lawrence—he comments about it very, very nicely in his letters, about how Alex had removed from him this fear that somebody would make the movie during his lifetime. He was not killed on his way to see Alex. I may have supposed that when I wrote Charmed Lives, but on further examination it isn’t so. But they did meet, and liked each other enormously, and Alex made him this promise.

It certainly played a part. My Uncle Zoltán would have directed the movie, which was to star Leslie Howard as Lawrence, and the screenplay was written by Miles Malleson, who later became that very famous character actor, and Winston Churchill was working as screenwriter for my Uncle Alex in the ’30s, since he was then removed from any kind of political power and in desperate need of money because of his lifestyle. So I knew a great deal about this, and it certainly steered me in the direction of Lawrence. And there are numerous resemblances, quite accidental, between myself and Lawrence: I joined the Royal Air Force and I’ve always owned motorcycles (until quite recently, when I’m really too old to be riding around on one anymore) and, of course, I’ve spent time in the Middle East and liked it.

Alex would have made that film before the war if he could have, after Lawrence’s death, but couldn’t get the financing for it because the British government very much wanted the film not to be made in the 1930s, for very obvious reasons. They didn’t want to offend the Turks or . . . There was constantly an Arab resentment towards the portrayal of the Arab revolt as being something for which Lawrence was in any degree responsible. And Alex, who had a very acute political sense, simply shelved the film and put it to one side and made Four Feathers instead, which my Uncle Zoltán directed and my father art directed. And then, after the war, it was even harder to make a movie about Lawrence immediately. Because, first of all, it was enormously expensive and difficult to do, and, secondly, things were even more exacerbated because of Israel. So he sort of put it to one side completely and then, as with so many other things that he owned, sold it for a considerable profit to Sam Spiegel, who eventually got the backing to make his film.

It’s interesting to speculate on what it would have been like as a film, but we’ll never know. Leslie Howard would have been very good actually, as Lawrence. So, I don’t doubt that it would have been an interesting movie.

RC: The other day you said it was the most difficult book that you’ve worked on, in part because he was such an unsympathetic character.

MK: I never said he was unsympathetic. I said “difficult to work on,” because he’s like an oyster. There are lots of things going on in Lawrence’s life, but he had a great capacity for hiding what he thought and what he was really doing. Sometimes, even from himself. So, with Lawrence, you have to probe constantly beneath the surface and try and figure out what it is that’s really going on there. Which is not the case, for example, with Eisenhower or Ulysses S. Grant.

RC: So what, in fact, drew you to doing this book on him? Was it the similarities you felt you shared with him?

MK: No, I don’t think so. Lawrence is just a wonderful story and one that interests me a lot and that I know quite a bit about. So when I’d done the Battle of Britain book, it was fairly natural to, in looking for a new subject, to think about Lawrence. There was a suggestion that I should do a book about the marriage of Winston Churchill and Clementine Churchill, and that interested me, but when somebody mentioned Lawrence, I said of course that’s what I should do. [Laughs] And I think it’s worked out. I think Lawrence was in need of a contemporary clearing away of some of the cobwebs that had gathered around him. That’s a valuable thing to do.

RC: How would you rate his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom?

MK: Well, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is one of those strange books. It’s not an easy book to read, in part because Lawrence tried so hard to make it a great work of literature. And I think it can be argued that he succeeded. There are great scenes in it that are absolutely spectacular; but it’s a little bit in the category of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Which is that, you know, it is admittedly a great work of literature, but it’s not an easy read. And I certainly feel that about Seven Pillars of WisdomRevolt in the Desert, which is the condensation of it, is in fact much more readable. But for all that, Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a more interesting book. Certainly, the fact that it’s still in print after all these years, and in two versions, and continues to sell, is some indication of the fact that Lawrence succeeded.

RC: In your opinion, was it his greatest literary work?

MK: I actually think that Lawrence’s best writing and most interesting writing was as a letter writer. He was a prodigious letter writer. And his letters are amazing. And quite extraordinary. And, you know, represent one of the great bodies of letters of any English figure at any time.

RC: Would it be fair to say, then, that Seven Pillars is a bit strained in its style, whereas the letters . . .

MK: No, I think it tries too hard to become a great work, and you can feel that constantly in reading the book, but there are whole scenes that are just among some of the most striking in English writing. And certainly, it’s one of the great nonfiction books about war that I’ve ever read. Or that anybody’s ever read.

RC: One of the most amusing portraits in Another Life is the one you paint of President Nixon. You describe his odd behavior as a tragic inability to communicate on an interpersonal level. I was wondering if you ever felt there was a deeper pathology there.

MK: I think he was a very strange personality; there’s no question about that. I don’t claim to have known him any better than I described in the book. So, there’s a limit to my ability to parse him. But even Henry Kissinger would always agree that the president was a very odd personality.

On the other hand, he’s in that curious range of people who set out to become something totally unlikely, which is President of the United States. And then succeeds in doing it. And also succeeds in being an extraordinary and revolutionary president for a Republican. For all Nixon’s faults—and I would be the last to deny that there were many—his grasp of foreign policy and his strategy for getting what he wanted out of foreign policy was altogether extraordinary. Henry Kissinger, whom I also have edited for many, many years, is the first to agree that even though Nixon’s genius in choosing Henry Kissinger—not an obvious first choice at all—to be his foreign policy advisor and then Secretary of State is a curious but very powerful stroke of genius, none of Henry Kissinger’s achievements in foreign policy could have been made without the president first accepting or agreeing to them. And, in many cases, without the president first coming to that knowledge.

I mean, the opening of the China policy is not something that Henry Kissinger brought to Richard Nixon on a plate and said, “Why don’t we do this?” It’s something that Nixon, in that lonely and sometimes embittered but very determined isolation of his, thought out. Now, that’s a very unusual thing for a West-Coast Republican, when every other Republican was in favor of Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan and against any agreement with the Communist Chinese. For Nixon to sit there in the dark and come up with the brilliant notion of recognizing China and using China as a third party in negotiating with the Soviet Union so that, in effect, the United States would become the dominating power, by being able to manipulate both of the two Communist powers against each other . . . This is something that Nixon thought up. Once Nixon had introduced it, then certainly Henry was probably the only person in the world with the patience, and the charm, and the ability to make this happen in the way that Nixon wanted it to happen. But it should never be forgotten that this was Nixon’s policy, not Kissinger’s.

RC: Why do you consider Grant’s memoirs to be the Moby-Dick of American nonfiction?

MK: Well, it just is. [Laughs] There are two great American classics. In fiction, it’s Moby-Dick. And in nonfiction it’s Grant’s memoirs. I don’t think there is another book in the American literary universe that is as powerful as Grant’s memoirs.

RC: I was wondering if I could quote a couple of excerpts from Grant’s memoirs and have you react to them. Here’s one from volume one: “Every Sunday there was a bullfight for the amusement of those who could pay their fifty cents. I attended one of them—not wishing to leave the country without having witnessed the national sport. The sight to me was sickening. I could not see how human beings could enjoy the sufferings of beasts, and often of men, as they seemed to on these occasions.” And then he goes on to characterize the matadors as “murderers”! We’d probably be hard-pressed to find such a sympathetic general in the United States military today, saying something like that, you know?

MK: Yeah, but . . . although Grant was a West Pointer, remember that he resigned from the army as a captain because of his drinking problem and only came back in the Civil War because of special circumstances. You can’t think of him as a normal general. And Grant’s fondness for animals and his dislike of the sight of blood is a very deep characteristic of Grant. It’s not just that he didn’t like bullfighting; he didn’t like to be anywhere on the battlefield near where the wounded were being taken care of and operated on. That’s why he was out in the rain at the end of the first day of Shiloh. Which, by the way, does him credit. He was not afraid of effusion of blood, as he would have put it. He was a very, very tough general and understood exactly how best to win on the battlefield. And was certainly not afraid of casualties. But he was the last person in the world to have enjoyed cruelty for its own sake. Or condoned it. And I think that that’s a genuine aspect of Grant to be taken into consideration.

RC: My father’s roughly from the same generation as you are, and he’s fascinated with the whole World War II period. So I bought him a copy of your Ike biography, and I asked him what he would have liked to ask you if he were interviewing you. He said, “I’d like to know his opinion as to why the right constantly refer to Ronald Reagan as their paragon of greatness but never refer to Ike in that mode.”

MK: Ike was never, I think, a natural Republican. You know, probing Ike’s deeper opinions is something which I am reluctant to do because I can’t channel him, as it were. But he never had a natural taste for the Republican right wing. After all, he had to fight Robert—talk about bullfights—he had to fight Robert Taft almost to the death to get the Republican nomination. And the Republican right wing was always much more sympathetic to Taft than Ike. I mean, when Ike ran for the presidency in ’52, the Republican Party and those who supported Taft were against NATO; wanted to get American troops out of Europe; talked about preventative war against the Soviet Union; or wanted the United States either to resume the war in Korea or felt that the war in Korea should never have been ended, except for the victory.

None of these were things that Ike believed at all. Ike was an internationalist; his strength was that he got along well, in general, with the British and the French and even with the Russians. He enjoyed Stalin’s company when he was in Moscow. And he is virtually the creator of NATO. So the last thing he would have wanted was to draw American troops out of Europe. So in social terms, it’s difficult to know what Ike was interested in or what he was for, if only because Ike was too clever to be pinned down by it. He was certainly, in modern terms, slow to move on civil rights, although very firm when he finally did move. But then, for a mid-Westerner of Ike’s generation, that’s just par for the course.

RC: Actually, Truman was far ahead of his time in that regard.

MK: Very far. Although whether he was far ahead of his time in terms of his personal feeling about blacks is a separate matter altogether. Once again, he was born in the 19th century in Missouri.

RC: We have to judge these things in their context, obviously.

MK: Yes. But Ike was an atypical Republican. And by the way, no sooner had Ike left the presidency than the Republican Party moved a huge step rightwards. Where it has remained ever since.

RC: It’s certainly moved several steps to the right in the last five to ten years! I mean, it’s quite unimaginable where things have ended up.

MK: Exactly. Yeah, that would have infuriated Ike, actually.

RC: Perhaps we can briefly touch upon some of the ideas you spoke about the other day, on the future of publishing and about the form that the book may take in the future. You were saying the form itself is not so important; it’s the book that’s important, and we can’t compare the book in its present form to an electronic book, like the Kindle, but we have to apply our imagination to it much further, in that it might become something that’s just beyond anything we can imagine today.

MK: Well, I think that that’s true. You know, you’re looking at the Model T Ford and trying to predict what road transportation will be like in 2010 . . . ultimately, it’ll still have four wheels, and some form of propulsion, and a steering wheel, but beyond that, you’re trying to imagine something which is beyondimagination, if you see what I mean.

Now, there are two important differences. One is that the speed of progress is now so rapid, and transition is so quick, that the next step in reading-technology will come very rapidly, rather than very slowly. So that there’s not going to be a long lag between its inception and its development, and any changes that take place. Already, the iPad is a huge step ahead of the Kindle. Although whether it’s a useful step ahead for readers remains to be seen. On the other hand, also clearly, it’s a rather large and cumbersome device, which needs to be replaced with something altogether different. But that is going to happen with such incredible rapidity that we really can’t forecast what it will look like.

Ultimately, my guess is that all the world’s literature and knowledge will be contained in something the size of a refrigerator, and that you’ll be able to pick it up with your computer, or with a handheld device of some kind, with some system of payment, with no problem at all. I can’t see how, exactly, that will take place. But my guess is that, in ten years time, it will be in place and that nobody will have a problem with it. It’s just amazing the degree to which things are changing rapidly.

RC: There are a lot of people who say, “Well, I would miss the feel of the book.” But if you really unleash your imagination, it’s actually quite easy to imagine how digital book producers could appeal to the tactile sense; it doesn’t have to be just a visual innovation.

MK: Yeah, no doubt. But you know, I don’t have a clue. The person to talk to about that is Steve Jobs. [Laughs] Because unless he dies first, he’ll probably be the one who will invent it. But it’ll be something quite different. But I don’t think that that’s in any case something that one should be afraid of. People react the same way about a whole variety of things, ranging from smoking cigarettes to using typewriters or fountain pens. But nevertheless, the technology leaps ahead and people simply adapt to it.

RC: Absolutely. Well, you even mentioned this about ten years ago. InAnother Life, you talk about the sudden appearance of computers and word processors, and how a lot of people at Simon & Schuster were terrified that this would be like movies being replaced by video cassettes and everyone was going to go out of business.

MK: Yes, exactly. And some people will go out of business. [Laughs]

RC: But other things, other businesses, will be created.

MK: Right. If you had said to somebody ten years ago, what do you think the music business would look like, nobody would have guessed that people would be downloading individual songs onto their computers and that record stores would disappear. So, you know, a very similar thing is going to happen to reading. And it will also not take place, it’s not going to take place in a sort of huge, explosive way. The book will continue to be a major factor for as, certainly as long as I live, and maybe as long as you live. But eventually it’s going, in the form of something else.

RC: What about the future of publishing?

MK: It will have to be reinvented with that in mind. Already, I think it’s evident that the major publishers are looking to find a partner in Steve Jobs, so that Apple will become, in effect, a kind of publishing house. How that will work remains to be seen. There isn’t anyone in the book publishing business who can tell you, because nobody knows at this point in time. But that’s what everybody is clearly attempting to move towards.

RC: And what about the role—perhaps not only in terms of the future, but today—of small press publishers?

MK: I think that they can only be improved by this, because they will have access to a media that’s open to everybody. How they’ll make money, I don’t know. But then, how do they make money now? I mean, that’s enough of a mystery right there.

RC: That part might not change that much?

MK: They may come out ahead. I mean, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t rather be a small publisher than, say, Random House—not right now, but five years from now.

RC: And why is that?

MK: Because how are you going to keep a large organization like Random House—with a lot of editors, and headquarters in New York—functioning if books are going to be sold for, say, anywhere between ten and fifteen dollars, by downloading them onto some device which hasn’t yet been invented? Will not the publisher then in effect become Apple or whoever makes the device? But a small press could issue a book, you know, on the Internet, and it could either be read on the device or printed off the device without any particular problem; all of that is surely coming in the future. And given that, the small press should do better than the large press. I mean, there’ll be no difficulty in finding a way of doing small books. It’s whether the big publishers will in fact have a place at all, which remains to be seen.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010