His El Paso boots fidget under the gleaming Colonnade coffee table, a hand toys with the thick red hair and Aaron Latham, the writer who has gained a measure of fame by exposing the underbellies of those more famous, now finds himself fair prey for the interviewers. This time, it's his week.
Latham's 10-page article in Esquire two years back is now a novelization and Paramount motion picture called "Urban Cowboy." It opens in Washington this week, stars John Travolta and last night attracted Zbigniew Brzezinski (in cowboy hat plus wrinkled cowboy shirt), Robert Strauss, Clay Felker, Gail Sheehy and others of the New York literary or Washington political genre to a barbeque party around the Colonnade pool.
It's also a motion picture that some say is nearly guaranteed to make Latham very rich.
But he demurs. "Journalism and the movies are not destined to make you famous," he explains, deep in the white couch that would swallow him if he weren't so large. "You do them for other reasons." He gets up from the couch in the penthouse apartment he shares with his wife, CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, and hunts through the wall of books. He plucks a Robert Frost.
"Let's see if I can find the poem that explains it all," he says, flipping through the pages. "Here. 'Mowing.'" He quotes the line he likes: "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows."
Latham's labor has taken him in very rapid and neat steps from newspapers to magazines to screenwriting and eventually, he hopes, to novels like those of F. Scott Fitzgerald, his inspiration and the subject of one of his books. But unlike Fitzgerald, Latham has had to do it in a way that may be the 1980 version of making it as an American writer: Start out with newspapers, graduate to magazines, try a novel or two, then do the screenplay.
"The glamor and the money and the fun is more in the movie and television business now," says Felker, a close friend of Latham's who works for 20th Century-Fox but used to edit New York and Esquire magazines. "You can just make so much more money and take more vacations."
Says Latham: "In the old days, F. Scott Fitzgerald supported himself by writing short stories for the Saturday Evening Post. Well, that is totally gone. Now, the only people who will pay you to write are the newspapers . . . you know, where's the farm team?"
Latham's farm team was The Washington Post, followed by New York magazine and then Esquire, where he wrote the story of Gilley's saloon in Houston that inspired the movie "Urban Cowboy." It is all about Houston hardhats who play cowboy each night, and specifically about a woman who Latham says has "basically fallen in love with this machine" -- a mechanical bull she rides better than the men do.
But along the way to Gilley's, Latham wrote critical stories about people like author Gay Talese and White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan. He also made a few enemies.
Talese still smarts from the story that appeared in New York magazine seven years ago -- the first to detail Talese's excursions into massage parlor management.
"To know Aaron very well is not to love him very much," says Talese. "He presents himself as quiet, sort of interested in you. But he really isn't. Then you get to know him a little better, and he's not what he seemed to be. And then wacko -- you wonder what happened to half of your arm."
Talese gives Latham's work a "C-plus. There isn't much work to talk about," he continues. "Work? What work? I mean, it's not like you're talking about an accomplished writer. He hasn't done anything seriously."
Responds Latham: "The Talese piece was one of the first I ever did for New York magazine, so I really didn't know what I was doing. I just tried to be totally, totally objective with someone like Talese who runs massage parlors and takes his clothes off. Even now, I still think that was an incredible story and one of the most original and powerful things I've ever done."
He brushes back his hair and the literary squabble, laying both to rest. Born on Main Street in Spru, Tex., he wears creased blue jeans and a plaid cowboy shirt with snaps. He doesn't seem to go with the parquet floors of the Colonnade and says he's nervous about the premiere party his wife had planned around the pool last evening.
But Latham seemed placid enough at the barbeque, a citified and civilized cowboy scene that threw Stahl's friends from journalism and her White House beat in with Latham's New York and Hollywood types. The result was Carter campaign chairman Strauss shoving Felker with great ceremony at the buffet ("Excuse me, please," chortled Strauss. "Jesus, Christ," responded Felker. "When a guy wins the nomination . . ."). There was also national security affairs adviser Brzezinski in the cowboy hat.
"Everybody here says it's the best hat in the house," said Brzezinski."Has the best head in it too." He said this more than a few times to more than a few guests.
"He looks like an urban nerd," remarked one highly anonymous source within the Carter administration.
Missing from the party was Travolta, the "Urban Cowboy" star. "He was invited at the last minute," said James Bridges, the director. "As I understand it, Carly Simon's son is sick and he's there with them."
"He knows Carly Simon?" asked Phil O'Connor, a producer at CBS.
"Oh yes," replied Bridges.
"Hard to keep up," said O'Connor.
For party attire, Latham changed into a smooth brown leather jacket and brown cowboy hat. You could see him easily over the guests. He lives in Washington now, although in the past months he's commuted from location in Texas on weekends. I's been hard on his marriage, he says.
"It's been difficult," he explains. "In the old days when writers got involved in Hollywood they packed up the family. I mean, when Fitzgerald went to Hollywood, he packed up Zelda. Today, when women have jobs, you can't do that anymore."
He picks up a miniature television set from the coffee table. "This is what saved the marriage," he says. "I watched my wife every day on this. She told me that if you didn't watch her on television, you didn't love her. Jim Bridges, the director, said he was going to make a movie about Lesley and me and the television set. He thought we were the modern couple, connected electronically. I have to thank CBS for helping keep us together."
Now that they really are back together, Latham says he sort of misses the "Urban Cowboy" set. "Making a movie on location is like 'The Tempest,'" he says. "It's an incredibly intense experience. There you are on your own island. You only talk to the people there. We ate together every night, weaving our own magic."
A magic undisturbed but for the CBS Evening News. Latham is reminded of the little TV sitting on the coffee table. Mechanical romance?
"That's an interesting thought," says Aaron Latham.