Celebrity author in town to promote book
By Timothy Gillis
Even prodigious authors sometimes gets writer’s block. Bob Spitz, the well-known author of biographies on the Beatles and Bob Dylan, has a new book out on beloved TV chef Julia Child. Although the bio is a richly-detailed, imminently readable work, he said writing hasn’t always come easily.
Spitz was in Maine this week with his wife, Becky Aikman, for a friend’s wedding. He stopped by Longfellow Books to sign copies of “Dearie,” and spoke about the writing process.
Bill Lundgren of Longfellow Books was talking to Spitz about some of Maine’s own literary stars, sharing an anecdote about how writers help each other in times of frustration.
He said Monica Wood, whose book “When we were the Kennedys” is one of the few outselling “Dearie,” recently assisted fellow writer Paul Doiron. He was struggling with “Bad Little Falls,” his publisher was unhappy with it, and he called Wood looking for advice.
“Monica invited him to visit for a weekend. She made them a pot of tea, and they sat down and went at it,” Lundgren said. “By the end of the weekend, the book was fixed.” Doiron, the editor of Down East magazine, dedicated the book to her. Spitz said the same type of support came his way when he was younger.
“I was in the middle of “Barefoot in Babylon” (about Woodstock), and it was a mess. Rafael Yglesias took me to Washington Square Park. He took a look at what I had and helped me. He taught me all about writing.”
Actually, Spitz hasn’t always been a writer. The one-time Rolling Stone music critic comes from a musical background. He played guitar for a little-known rocker named Bruce Springsteen. He became his first manager and played guitar for him 1971-1975. Next he managed Elton John from 1975-77, during the “Yellow Brick Road” era. A current project has him ghostwriting Graham Nash’s memoirs. “I’m not putting my name on it,” Spitz said. “He’s a great guy. I’m just going to write it and give it to him.”
Though he has already turned his attention to new projects, he loves to talk about “Dearie,” which is #7 on the New York Times best-seller list after just two weeks.
“Julia not only changed the way we ate, she completely changed the way we live. She got us to sit down and enjoy a meal. Most women were told that convenience meals were the way to go, with canned food and frozen vegetables,” he said. “Julia launched PBS. There were no networks, just independent tv stations, with a local professor giving a talk. They syndicated her. No one had done that for an educational program.”
Her husband Paul Child designed all the war rooms in southeast Asia, and would animate all the troop movements so they could see how the war was developing in front of them. He was an intellectual, friend with the Hemingways and Gertrude Stein. And Julia downplayed her own role in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. While she always maintained she was just a secretary, she knew the identities and whereabouts of all US spies, so she had top-level clearance.
When she met him, she was an “empty vessel,” according to Spitz. “Paul took this and began filling her up, got her to read philosophy, taught her about food and great art. The irony is he was a failed artist, all his life. He was a magnificent photographer, a world class artist. He became Mr. Julia Child, but he never resented her for her success.” Spitz met Julia Child in 1982, when she was in her 80’s.
“Someone told me she needed a young arm to hold onto,” he said. “It was a great opportunity. And I had the presence of mind to record her. I told her I wanted to write her biography. She called me and told me she was unhappy with her current biographer, and I told her I would write her book as soon as I got done with the Beatles.”
That project was supposed to take three years, but it took almost nine. During that time, Julia passed away and his fourteen-year marriage dissolved. Spitz doesn’t regret her not getting to see his finished, however. “I don’t owe my subjects anything. That book (The Beatles) almost killed me. I got divorced, got custody of my 11-year daughter, was working on that book day and night,” he said.
Next up for Spitz was the geographic cure. “When “The Beatles” was finished, I turned 50 years old. I left New York City for the suburbs. I ran away to Europe, learned how to cook – I was trying to put my life back together,” he said. “Through cooking, you can find an equanimity.”
That appreciation of the culinary arts comes through powerfully in “Dearie,” for which Spitz spent four years researching the lives of the Childs. Some of the best information for the book came from her husband’s writing. “Paul wrote a letter to his twin brother (Charlie) every day for forty years,” Spitz said. “It’s some of the most beautiful prose I have ever read.” Some of the surprises that Spitz uncovered during his research?
“Well, number one was that Julia at age of forty couldn’t cook, couldn’t so much as boil water. At fifty, she had never been on TV. At fifty-one, she reinvented herself. How do people do that? And then go on to make a mark as important as Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy.”
Spitz attributes her remarkable success to the passion with which he confronted even the most mundane of domestic tasks. “If she wanted to roast a chicken, she roasted fifty of them, to try to figure out he best way to cook them,” said Spitz, who was smitten by how meticulous, how scientific she was, how much she cared about getting it right.
“I went though all of her testing notes,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was like looking at the work of a Nobel prize winner. And she documented everything, so it was all there for me to look at.”
Spitz sees a correlation between the famous chef and the other luminaries he’s chronicled. “I knew one or two months into the research for Julia, that it was the same book as the Beatles, that I was researching the life of someone who was so unique, who came from a place that didn’t nurture her. She believed in her talent, despite what everyone was saying. She went against the world, against all odds. Like Lennon or McCartney, I felt I was writing a book about the same person. They practiced their craft in Hamburg, (Germany) and she did in the kitchens of Paris and Marseille and did it the same way, with the belief that they were going to create something that was special.”
The best-selling writer has found the perfect muse. He remarried five years ago to Becky Aikman, a twenty-year feature writer for New York Newsday. Her own book, called “Saturday Night Widows,” is coming out in January. “She was a young widow,” Spitz explained. “Her husband was a well-known writer, Bernard Lefkowitz. He died at 66, when she was in early of 40s. She decided Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief was bullshit. She met every month on a Saturday night for a year, with five other young widows, and the arc of their life is amazing.” Aikman took those Saturday night experiences and weaved them into text. “‘Julia’ might be on the best-seller list, but her book (Aikman’s) is the best book in our house,” Spitz said. The two work in the same room, with back-to-back writing desks. “I wasn’t sure how it would work, but it’s been great.”
The next book for Spitz that will carry his name on it will be a biography of Ronald Reagan, “a full-scale presidential bio the way (David) McCullough does it.” Spitz said he didn’t vote for Reagan but “it’s a great American story. I like to take someone who is beloved, and do an enthusiastic but critical biography.”