For a book publisher, there is hardly a more dangerous category than that of celebrity autobiography. Forget who it’s by, most books of this kind not only fail, but fail big, since they are invariably expensive. The rich and famous expect to get a lot for their story, whether they are writing it themselves or not. It’s not that they need the money, of course, it’s a question of ego, like catching the biggest fish.
It’s often said that everybody has a story to tell, and I suppose that’s true, but the problem is that most of them aren’t worth telling. Of course the rich and famous tend to have more going on in their lives than ordinary people, but they aren’t always willing to tell the interesting bits. They usually want a sanitized version written for them, and part of the ghost writer’s job is to gloss over the reality, and make the person whose book he or she is writing more glamorous, generous, farsighted, and beloved than they are in real life, the text as carefully retouched as a Vanity Fair cover photograph.
Turner is in fact a good deal smarter, more reasonable, and more sensible than he looks, or perhaps wants to be perceived.
The biggest publishing mistakes of my career have always fallen into the seven-figure advance celebrity autobiography category. Only in a very few cases am I proud of any of these books, and usually it’s because the author doggedly decided to write the book himself or herself, and do without a ghost. Kirk Douglas’ The Ragman’s Son was such a book, angry, fiery, truthful, and every word of his own. Joan Collins’ Past Imperfect was funny, outrageously frank, and a great read, and she wrote it all herself. In fact I remember sitting on the floor of Joan’s bedroom in Beverly Hills, with my wife Margaret, while Joan sat on her heart-shaped pink bed, as I edited her pages. Though he wasn’t in the million-dollar category, John Houseman’s multi-volume memoirs were rich, glorious and full of wonderful stories, many of them, it’s true, dragged out of him by the indefatigable Louise Bernikow. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan’s memoir—not only did he not write it himself, I’m not even sure he read it—sank like a stone, taking millions of dollars down with it, and countless other “as told to” autobiographies have had a shelf life of nanoseconds, despite the vast amounts spent to buy (and promote) them.
One reason for this is that any kind of celebrity overcomes the first and biggest problem for most authors, which is that nobody has ever heard of them. Merv Griffin, they at least used to have heard of, or Phil Donahue, or Marlo Thomas, or Lee Iaccoca, or Mary Walsh Cunningham, or Cher, or Marlon Brando, to name but a few over the years. The other reason is that book publishers and editors are prone to lose all sense of proportion when exposed over the lunch table or the executive coffee table to a bigger than life celebrity, and with stars in their eyes (literally) agree to numbers that they would never have dreamed of paying if they weren’t dazzled by starlight. Exposed to, say, Tom Cruise or a major sports or business figure, editors who normally have trouble deciding whether or not to pay $1,500 for a first novel have been known to pony up millions without blinking.
With that in mind, here is Ted Turner’s story, Call Me Ted, told with the writing help of a former employee (and CEO of the Weather Channel Companies), and graced by a smiling, gap-toothed portrait of Ted Turner on the cover. First, the bad news: Ted Turner (doubtless for good reasons) has much less to say about his marriage to Jane Fonda (or his first marriage, or his pilot who was once his girlfriend and who introduced him to environmental causes) than he does about winning the America’s Cup or buying the Atlanta Braves. There have apparently been a lot of women in his life—he points out that monogamy is not his shtick— but he doesn’t spend much time on them. The failure of his marriage to Fonda he attributes to scheduling conflicts, which gives you some idea of the personal soul-searching and sensational revelation quotient of the book. Ex-wives, girlfriends and children can relax—no need to pick up the telephone and call their lawyers. Anybody reading Call Me Ted in the expectation of juicy personal gossip is going to be sorely disappointed, I’m afraid. Nor is Turner big on self-analysis, but then, who expected him to be?
Now the good news: He is engagingly open and revealing about his childhood, his youth, and the shock of his father’s suicide, but really what interests him most (and will probably interest most readers) is the story of how he became, at a very early age, a rich man and a brilliantly successful businessman. To his credit, he manages to tell the reader that without boasting. On the other hand, this isn’t one of those Warren Buffet type books that tells you what you can learn from his career—Turner was simply smarter, better at taking risks, bolder, and more astute at self promotion (and numbers) than you and I will ever be, and also needs less sleep. Also, he always wears slip-on shoes or boots, so as to save the time the rest of us waste tying up our shoelaces. He ends the book with eleven lessons for the reader, but they are more in the nature of urging him or her to support the United Nations and care for Planet Earth than how to become as rich as he is and own nearly 3,000,000 acres of land here and in South America.
However, if you’re interested in big business and what goes on behind the scenes in corporate America, then this is lively reading, since Turner is a lot more outspoken than most big business figures, whose memoirs, whatever they may promise to the prospective publisher over lunch, tend to come out button-downed and neutered by corporate lawyers. “Oh, he couldn’t write about that!” are the words most often said by those around the Great Man (or Woman), when the manuscript finally comes in and gets read by the panicky publisher for the first time. .
It’s fun to learn that Turner challenged Rupert Murdoch to a boxing match in Las Vegas (how one wishes that Murdoch had accepted; what a sight it would have been to see the two media moguls duking it out!), and once Turner takes the reader into the boardroom during the Time-Warner/AOL merger (and its unhappy consequences) it reads like a good business novel (a category that has been AWOL for years)—really riveting stuff. His portraits of people like Steve Case, Jerry Levin, Rupert Murdoch, and other media moguls and executives are balanced and ring very true, which makes one suspect that despite his reputation for having a quick temper and being temperamental, Turner is in fact a good deal smarter, more reasonable, and more sensible than he looks, or perhaps wants to be perceived. Although billions are at stake—many of them his billions—he comes across a shrewd, but unvindictive and non-nonsense personality, who always knows exactly what he wants out of a deal, and usually gets it. .
Altogether much more readable than I expected, although the little views of (and stories about) Turner by his friends, colleagues, Jane Fonda, etc., don’t really add that much to the book, since his own portrait of himself is both frank and convincing, and in the end he comes across as likeable and smart without having to work all that hard to convince the reader. Anyway, his book is worth reading if only for Tom Brokaw’s comment about Jack Welch, the one-time head of GE, who wrote his own corporate autobiography which sold for a megafortune some years ago (it didn’t have nearly as many funny stories about himself as Turner’s does). But I don’t want to give that away. You’ll have to read the book for it.
New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Dutchess County, New York.