Neal Gabler: The Biographer Stays in the Picture
Maybe it's inevitable: Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky's biographer, gave us the composer's life in bright, musical cadences. David McCullough, like his subject John Adams, appears happiest in the company of his wife. David Nasaw, before those rags-to-riches epics of Hearst and Carnegie, spent a great deal of time interviewing New York street urchins. And now Neal Gabler, who has produced three books about the film industry, confesses he is an actor at heart.
It's a phenomenon, as he says, straight out of a play by Pirandello. The self exists only as it relates to others. We become the very people whose lives we portray.
Gabler has been writing since his days at Lane Technical High School in Chicago. He wrote about sports in the 10th grade. By the 12th, he was editor in chief of his school paper. As a student at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s, he filed so often for the Michigan Daily that, at its 50th anniversary, he was cited as having produced more column inches than anyone else in the paper's history.
"I guess I was modeling myself after Pauline Kael," he says. "I wrote long, elaborate pieces the whole time I was there."
Many years would pass before he allowed himself to dream about books. He took an undergraduate degree in political science, and after that, still at Michigan, a graduate degree in law. It was a professor who lured him to take film courses, thinking that some day the budding attorney might want to practice entertainment law.
But law didn't really hold his interest. By the late 1970s, he was teaching Great Books at Michigan's School of Engineering and then film and theater at Pennsylvania State University. He fell into the habit of driving to Manhattan every weekend to see movies with his friends. When one of those friends got a job in the publishing business, she persuaded him to try to write a book on a phenomenon he was discussing in his classes: He had noticed that the majority of Hollywood moguls were Jewish, sons of Eastern European immigrants. "If they had all been Swedish, someone would have written about them," Gabler recalls. But because they were Jews, everyone was afraid of the repercussions.
He wrote a proposal anyway. In 1981, it was bought by Ted Solotaroff, then the distinguished editor in chief of Harper Collins. But that success had the odd effect of blocking the young academic completely. "The man intimidated the hell out of me," he says. "So my contract just sat there for five years." In the interim, he bided his time teaching and writing film reviews.
Eventually, his mother -- "my typical Jewish mom" -- began calling, telling him how much she missed him. She pushed him to apply for a public television job in Chicago. "To quiet her down, I did." To his surprise, he was hired as a film critic for PBS's "Sneak Previews." When he left that position two years later, he left Solotaroff, too. And then he began writing his book in earnest. An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood was published in 1989. Three more books followed: Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity (1994); Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998); and now Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination (2006).
So what Gabler is trying to get at is nothing less than the making of the American consciousness: It's a set he's bound to inhabit for some time.
-- Marie Arana