"OKAY, THE TOOTHBRUSH, I admit to the toothbrush," says Michael Korda, but it's not dental hygiene that's on his mind. Korda, who as Simon and Schuster's editor-in-chief wields the power (Power!) and radiates the success (Success!) he's written about, has just been asked a question that links his just-published first novel, Worldly Goods (Random House), with his previous book, Charmed Lives. You see, Michael Korda's uncle, Alexander, a Hungarian ,emigr,e-turned-influential British film producer, was a charismatic, contradictory figure who loomed large over his nephew's youth and young manhood; this relationship is at the center of Charmed Lives, a family memoir. The protagonist of Worldly Goods, a Hungarian ,emigr,e-turned-reclusive American billionaire, is also charismatic and contradictory, after a fashion. And, like the real-life Uncle Alex, he has a butler who each night puts out a brand-new toothbrush upon which exactly a half-inch of toothpaste has been freshly squeezed.
But that's about it as far as taking any of the details of Worldly Goods from his own past, Korda insists. The novel, a veritable strudel of past wrongs and present revenge, does feature a Hungarian-Jewish family which finds riches and fame in exile; however, Korda, an aficionado of Third Reich history, says he found the prototypes for his characters when reading large hunks of the Nuremberg Trials transcripts 30 years ago. "That's when I had the first germ of the idea for this book," he explains, somewhat surprisingly. Surprising because the Oxford-educated Korda, a slight, dapper man with a folding-umbrella smile, looks not that much past 30 himself -- more like a slightly vulpine boy in British banker's clothes. But it's been 25 years since he began his career at Simon and Schuster, and the group of authors he has worked with there is hardly a beginner's list. Graham Greene, Joan Didion and Carlos Castaneda are three of them, and he's edited two decades of Harold Robbins.
Before Worldly Goods, Korda published four books, beginning with Male Chauvinism! in 1973. Already an established editor, he'd gotten his start as a writer when a friend recommended him to do a piece on rock music for Glamour. He went on from there to produce some ground- floor articles with a sympathetic male view of the budding women's movement, mainly because, he says, "I knew a great many young women in publishing and they were being badly treated." Nan Talese, then at Random House, read the pieces and suggested collecting them. "I wrote a book instead."
Korda was unprepared for the book's popularity and the amount of attention he got. "Two pages in Time and Newsweek, Carson, Griffin, New York magazine. I'd had a 15- year dose of anonymity, after coming from a family in which everyone was a celebrity." Marlene Dietrich had dandled him on her knee, Merle Oberon was his aunt, but now it was his turn to be recognized on the street by strangers. He liked it -- a lot -- and even, he slyly confesses, as if such a lapse could no longer be, let it all go to his head.
Two books and two exclamation points later, Korda had gained a reputation as a student of American corporate life: Power! was subtitled How to Get It, How to Use It and Success! -- How Every Man and Woman Can Achieve It. New meaning was given to office furniture and the number of windows in one's workspace, and Korda maxims for executive upward mobility were becoming part of urban folklore. But a change of pace was needed, and Korda decided to do what a number of fellow editors had been encouraging him to do for years, write about the Korda clan. Charmed Lives, while not exactly an act of exorcism, did give Korda the opportunity to see what his relations and their milieu looked like from the outside. It's rather as if the grown-up Alice gets to go back and reexamine the personalities of Wonderland.
Now, with one novel under his belt and another in progress (a fictionalized life of "Auntie Merle" Oberon, Uncle Alex's second wife), Michael Korda maintains that he isn't a workaholic or even particularly high in energy. "I'm obviously overcommitted," he says, cocking a pale eyebrow, and then explains, "but I got there gradually." A NEW CHAPPAQUIDDICK MYSTERY A RECENT MENTION in the British press of yet another book, supposedly bought by Random House, claiming a new angle on the Chappaquiddick tragedy, has as of this writing engendered a stonewall of almost Chinese proportions. Does such a book, containing heretofore suppressed medical information about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned when a car being driven by Senator Edward M. Kennedy plunged off a bridge, actually exist? Random House isn't saying, or at least publicity director Carol Schneider, sounding unhappy, will repeat only that they have no such book on their schedule. New York agent Lucianne Goldberg, reportedly the negotiator for the elusive work, has, on the other hand, a different and marginally more revealing way of keeping mum on the subject. "I can't discuss it," she states, seeming a bit gloomy herself. She too describes the mysterious project as "not yet scheduled."
Thus, one doesn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that, in this election year, there's a book, or maybe the germ of a book, waiting to cause trouble. The ladies are protesting too little; their circumlocutions are too revelatory. Neither came flat out and denied the book's existence; they only showed maximum reticence and discomfort. Goldberg, when asked if it was her or her client's or the publisher's idea that the book's title and author be shrouded in secrecy, referred "Book Report" to Random House and its editorial director, Jason Epstein. "If they want to say anything they can say whatever they want," she elaborated, if that's the right word. Epstein did not return phone calls.
The British news service, Reuters, along with a number of English papers, has also been trying to track down the book and its author, with little success. Gordon Ditchfield, a retired Reuters editor now living in Edgartown, on Martha's Vineyard, who does some stringing for his former employer, told "Book Report" that none of the local principals in the case -- the court clerk, the former police chief, etc. -- have been contacted by anyone writing a new book. These people, who without Senator Kennedy's accident in 1969 might never have had to endure the spotlight glare of notoriety, have over the years been interviewed within an inch of their lives. But is it possible to write another volume on the subject without talking to at least some of them? (This seems to thicken the plot while thinning one's belief in the book's existence.)
There's a precedent at Random House for publishing explosively newsworthy books with no advance warning. Frank Snepp's Decent Interval in 1977 was one they kept under their editorial hat to great effect. Is the same need for secrecy operative again? You don't need me to tell you: stay tuned. A NEW DEFINITION BILL ADLER, agent and author, in his new book, Inside Publishing, says of Nancy Reagan that she is "one of the most literate celebrities I have ever represented." He goes on to explain, "By literate, I don't mean in the literary sense of the word, but literate in the sense that if you tell Mrs. Reagan that you will have something ready on Tuesday, she expects it on Tuesday, not on Wednesday. It is not a question of being demanding; it is just that Nancy Reagan expects people to keep their word." Safire, Newman and company, where are you now that we really need you?