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Andrew Morton, Do Tell!

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  • By David Streitfeld
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, March 5, 1999; Page C1

    Back home in London, Andrew Morton has a cartoon on the wall of his study. It shows a mother and father reading their little girl a fairy tale. "Well," she asks, "if the prince and princess don't live happily ever after, who does?"

    "The author?" they answer.

    Morton's life couldn't be summed up any neater. He made a fortune by writing about Princess Diana, and after the crash in the Paris tunnel he made bundles more. Now comes Monica Lewinsky, who promptly confessed to the writer those few intimate things -- an abortion, a revenge fling with the brother of her first lover, suicidal thoughts -- that she hadn't been forced to tell Ken Starr.

    "She was very candid with me, in a way that she rather regrets," Morton reports. "She figures she was probably a bit too open, and said too much."

    But if Lewinsky's sorry now, Morton is practically exultant. He's shucked the "royal chronicler" label, he's the official mouthpiece for the woman at the center of the biggest news story of the last 13 months, and he's on his way to becoming a familiar name in this country, a place he quite likes. Things are looking very nice indeed.

    "This was a great career move," he says by phone from his New York hotel.

    At last! One person in this saga who isn't afraid to be honest.

    "The money," Morton notes, "was secondary."

    You mean you got paid, too? Accounts of the book deal -- Lewinsky is said to be getting $1.5 million -- always seemed to imply that the multimillionaire biographer was doing this as a lark.

    "Let's get this right. I'm from Yorkshire," apparently a money-grubbing part of the British Isles. "Of course I'm being paid. I'm getting royalties." He declines to detail how the money is being split.

    Morton's day began with a "Today" show appearance, and continued with reporters lined up outside his hotel suite. Lewinsky isn't talking, not only because the independent counsel has put constraints on chats with reporters but because the publisher figures she's gotten enough exposure.

    More interviews can only hurt; two publishing executives interviewed yesterday said that the Barbara Walters chat-fest, which was watched by 49 million Americans who have been lying to pollsters about how they're sick of this whole mess, might have been so lengthy as to have dampened rather than stoked enthusiasm for the book. In this, as in so many other things, Lewinsky didn't know when to quit.

    Still, "Monica's Story" has gotten a strong start. Barnes & Noble says its online division sold an "amazing" 2.8 copies per minute Wednesday, even before the two-hour "20/20" show. An spokesman says its rate yesterday was an "astonishing" 4.8 per minute.

    In the real world, a Barnes & Noble spokeswoman says, there was a frenzy yesterday morning for copies, but it was caused by journalists and wouldn't last. Says the chain's Mary Ellen Keating: "We still think it's a three-week book."

    That the former intern would write a book was inevitable; Morton's involvement was not. "I would like to be able to boast that she thought me her ideal biographer because I had written about Diana, Princess of Wales, and that she loved my prose style," he writes in the foreword to "Monica's Story." Actually, she had never read his bestsellers, or even thought much about Diana.

    What brought them together was a British reporter's story that Morton was in fact doing the tell-all. Lewinsky's lawyer saw the article, contacted Morton's publisher and brokered a deal.

    From false facts come real consequences. Morton gives a kind of verbal shrug, as if to say: The press, they can't be trusted.

    The British press doesn't think much of him, either.

    "A hack." "A tabloid scribbler." "He obviously discovered his forte as a royal reporter, oiling up to the flunkies." "He thought Diana was in love with him."

    He dismisses these quotations from old profiles. "The British style is a world of envy and jealousy," he says. "But you have to surf through it."

    Even the British reporters concede that the 45-year-old biographer is a hard worker. In less than three months, he researched and wrote 135,000 words on Lewinsky, interviewing not only her but her family and friends. Some reporters can barely eke out a couple of thousand words over that time span.

    "That's why I'm me and you're you," Morton explains.

    He says he had no help. "You can't trust people. They'll steal it and sell it." He did his own typing, too. "My fingers are still sore."

    Enough of this shop talk. How's our girl holding up?

    "I spoke to her last night. She was very nervous about how the interview was going to play in America. She had wanted to do it for a long time, and she was very anxious."

    Reviewing the former intern's performance with Walters, Morton calls her "quite poised for someone who's never done television before. Most of us would find it very difficult to do a two-hour interview with Barbara Walters, a television legend."

    Especially if it's about sex. "I couldn't talk 10 minutes. I couldn't talk 10 seconds about my sex life. This is the irony -- I talk about other lives, not my own."

    This weekend, his work done, Morton will go home. Lewinsky is also going to London then, for the overseas marketing tour. She'll visit Morton, too. The two are friends now. He's indulgent toward her. He doesn't agree that she, like the president, should have exercised some restraint.

    In the beginning, "it was a fling -- great fun, and a way of forgetting her previous lover."

    But shouldn't she have known better than to have a fling?

    "You watch some of these journalists talking about these things, it's like watching a convocation of angels. . . . Let's get down to its basics. This is the world's most famous office romance. And if you're telling me that in Washington there aren't a lot of office romances going on, you're living in cloud-cuckoo land."

    Moreover, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair barely qualifies as a scandal when put up against some of the shenanigans of the British royal family. Morton spent a decade covering those folks, working for the News of the World, the Daily Mail and the Daily Star. In his spare time he penned a bio of Prince Andrew, a history of the royal yacht, a bio of the Duchess of York.

    Then, while writing a book about Princess Diana, he slipped some questions to her through a mutual friend and hit the jackpot. She responded with tapes about her suicide tries, her bulimia, Charles's adultery. "Diana: Her True Story," sold 7 million copies and did much to win sympathy for the princess, which was of course her goal.

    But when Morton issued a sequel, "Diana: Her New Life," the secret relationship soured, and the princess issued a statement calling the book "a mishmash of tedious secondhand gossip assembled by Mr. Morton for his own benefit." After her death, he transcribed the tapes and published them. "A loathsome creep gorging on the memory of the woman who handed him his check," was the verdict of Bob Geldof, the pop singer turned humanitarian.

    Still, give Morton points for unconventionality. He followed up the Diana books with a biography of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, not an obviously commercial project. Moi, who has ruled the African country for two decades, has been accused of ethnic cleansing as well as torturing his opponents. Morton, however, saw Moi as "more sinned against than sinning," and said the Western media had created a distorted view.

    The portrait that the biographer drew in "Moi: The Making of an African Statesman" was so rosy that there were allegations he had been bribed by the strongman (Morton denied them). Another theory was that Morton, as one commentator put it, "was writing about some other President Moi."

    So what's next for Morton? Well, there was the project he was toying with before getting involved with Lewinsky. It was another woman who was much in the news. Who inspired controversy and debate. Who, like Monica, like Diana, might like to achieve a certain vengeance against a man who's treated her poorly.

    Hillary Rodham Clinton, Andrew Morton is waiting for your call.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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