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Sidney Sheldon: Man for All Seasons
Photo & Story by Brane Jevric, February/March 2005

I met Sidney and Alexandra Sheldon three years ago.  From the start, they were the nicest people, really down to earth, who showed a genuine interest in what a smalltime journalist from what was once Yugoslavia had to say.
They both gave me interviews the first time we met.  Sidney Sheldon, of course, was an exclusive for my European publications, and his lovely wife, Alexandra, as well, because her ancestors came from Macedonia, a former Yugoslavian republic.

Famous novelist kidnapped!

The Sheldons were also kind to invite me to their exquisite estate at Bell Air in Los Angeles. A weekend in the luxurious home of one of the most translated and most successful writers in the world was another confirmation that Sidney Sheldon is indeed a man for all seasons.
Sure enough, when I arrived, he was writing. Actually, as Sheldon later entrusted to me, he was dictating.
“Yes, I dictate to a secretary who is my trusted assistant,” confirmed Sheldon. “I dictate numerous pages a day, and she keeps up with me.  Then, she prepares the transcript for me, and I write suggestions or ideas on the margins or on the other side of the pages. Then, we go all over again.  Sometimes, I dictate more than a thousand pages for one novel.”
During dinner at the Sheldon’s main villa, Sidney and Alexandra were perfect hosts.  Their chef prepared a meal from my country especially for that occasion.
Aside from great food that was served in an arched, high-ceiling room painted by masterful artists, there were lots of entertaining moments created from Sheldon’s jovial style. And, the man has a great sense of humor.
He asked me: “Do you know why is it simply impossible to put down a Sidney Sheldon book?” I had many answers on my mind: “Because he is a maestro, a genius...”  But before I am able to say anything, Sheldon “reveals the secret”: “It’s because the publisher puts glue on the cover.”
If you ask Alexandra Sheldon how she met her famous husband, she asks: “Do you want mine or Sidney’s version?” Later, I repeated the same question to Sheldon and he started telling a story with a twinkle in his eye:
“One stormy night I was in my kitchen and suddenly I heard a noise outside the door. A gorgeous woman was holding a puppy in her arms.  The dog was cold and wet, so I wanted to bring the puppy in, and I had to bring Alexandra in, too.  And I liked the dog, so I decided to keep them both.”
In the morning, while I was taking a half hour tour of the Sheldon’s estate, consisting of the double guest house with a stylish swimming pool, a tennis court, a main villa on the hill, a white office building where Sheldon writes, the staff quarters, the garages, the gardens and the bridge looking at the falls, the famous novelist was kidnapped by his wife!
Often, mostly when Sheldon finishes one of his novels, Alexandra Sheldon takes her husband on a surprise trip to an unknown destination.  Once it was a third-rate hotel with no breakfast served, where Sheldon was able to charm a maid to make him cookies. Then there was a trip to a wonderful ranch near Palm Springs owned by Dr. Jane Smith.
The purpose of these “kidnappings” is to put Sheldon in a situation where he can get inspiration for his new novels, and, also, to meet in person possible new characters similar to the hotel maid who, of course, did not have any idea that she was talking to one of the most famous writers of our time.

Writers cry too

During our recent interview for The Sun Runner, Sidney Sheldon told me yet another interesting tale about his way of creating such realistic and unforgettable characters, and all that again with great wit, and a dose of humor as well:
“I was on a plane not long ago with my wife, and she came up to me and asked: ‘Why are you crying?’ And I didn’t know I was crying. I said: ‘Well, a character—died.’  Once, in one of my books, I let a child die.  And I started to get hate mail. Then a woman reader called and said: ‘I can’t sleep, how could you let him die?’ It got so bad that in the miniseries I let him live.”
On a serious note, Sheldon underlines the importance of writer’s skill to bring an imaginative character to life, so to speak: “I get caught up in the characters in my books.  I think that’s one of the reasons why my books translate into so many countries. I think it’s because the characters are very real to me and therefore very real to the readers.”
As for talent versus hard work, Sheldon has his take on it, too: “No one has a right to brag about his or her talent, because talent is a given. It’s a gift. Whether it’s in music or pages of writing, it’s something given to us.  And I think we should be grateful for it and work as hard as we can at whatever talent we may have.”
Sheldon’s childhood was not an easy one either.  “I grew up in Chicago, during the Depression,” he recalls, “and, it was a very bad Depression in the ’20s and ’30s.  My mother was a refugee who came over from Russia.  My father was a salesman, and his proudest boast was that he had never read a book in his life.  So that’s the family I have.”
He started writing at an early age: “I wrote my first poem when I was 10 years old, and I asked my father to send it to a children’s magazine. And he took the poem, but he didn’t want to be embarrassed if they turned it down. So he took my name off and put my uncle’s name on. And a few weeks later my uncle said: ‘Why did the magazine send me a check for $5?’ I sold my first poem under my uncle’s name.”
Books were the most trusted companion throughout Sheldon’s youth: “I knew always that I wanted to be a writer. I had never met a writer.  I loved to read.  I read everything I could get out of the   library because we couldn’t afford to buy books.  But, I always knew, I can write. I used to read a book while playing the  piano.”

When Garland met Astaire

Before Sidney Sheldon started    writing novels at age 50, he received an Oscar, a Tony, and created and produced some memorable TV series. He told me he used to write a script a day for TV and would be producing two projects at the same time on the two coasts!
One of the most memorable moments from our interview was an amazing detail that Sheldon described to me, remembering the first day of shooting of the Easter Parade:
“I was telling Judy Garland the scene lineup when the assistant director came up and said: ‘We’re ready to shoot.’ And I saw that Judy hesitated, so I asked her: ‘Don’t you like to do this scene?’ She said: ‘No.’  I asked: ‘Why?’ She said: ‘In this scene I have to kiss Mr. Astaire and I’ve never met him.’  Everyone had assumed these two superstars knew each other. So, I took Judy by the hand and led her over to Astaire.”
Cary Grant was one of the Sheldons’ best friends, and there is a story to be told, too:
“I wrote a picture called The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer.  Cary was starring in it.  We had lunch one day and he convinced me that I would be perfect for the second lead. So, he calls the director and sets it all up.  On the way to the stage, I had a big problem, because starring in a big picture with Cary Grant means you’re gonna get instant recognition, and if you’re anything you’re gonna start getting a lot of parts, so easily become a star. So it just was easy because I had written the original story and the screenplay and the test scene. I knew every word. There was nothing to it—just say the words. Then, I recalled Cary’s lunches ... he could never eat in peace ... people coming up for an autograph.  I said to myself—I don’t want to do that. I like my privacy. It’s just gonna change my life.  And we get on stage, and the scene is just between Cary and me. And the director says: “Action.”  And I looked at Cary, and there he was, the big star, and I fled from the stage....”
It is almost impossible to mention all of Sheldon’s TV scripts because there were 200 of them; then there were 25 movies authored by him, and six Broadway plays. Not to mention his 18 novels sold in over 300 million copies; but, there is always yet another book to be written by this 87 years young master storyteller:
“I am about to put a final touch on my autobiography, Other Side of Me.  It was not hard writing it because I had a lot of reviews and references when I did things years ago. So it helped me to remember things. It did bring back a lot of memories, but in general I enjoyed it.”
And how does Sheldon keeps going?  Well, there is an answer to this too: “What’s my challenge? I don’t know what it’s going to be. But, you know, writing doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.  And if you’ve had a success it gets still harder because you want to top yourself, and you don’t want to disappoint your readers. There’s a level of expectation that keeps getting higher and higher.”
At the end of the interview, Sidney Sheldon took a long look at the cover of The Sun Runner I gave to him. “You see,” he pointed at the cover image of a lizard, “now, that’s a real bad picture of me.”
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