Three words about Sidney Sheldon's new book were all CBS Television needed to hand over $1 million for the mini-series rights.
The three words were "female con artist." The book is "If Tomorrow Comes," currently topping The New York Times and The Washington Post best-seller lists.
"I wouldn't let CBS see the book itself until it was published," said Sheldon. Then, in the middle of a weekly executive meeting, "the door opened and in walked four tuxedoed men with violins playing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' followed by two girls in evening dresses bearing silver trays with copies of my manuscript on it, and behind them girls strewing rosebuds.
"My agent said he figured CBS deserved some fanfare for their million."
In his checked sports coat, sincere tie, white hair and black-rimmed glasses, Sheldon, at 67, is the very image of a best-selling California author in a sitcom. Look twice to be convinced that he isn't being played by Cary Grant, one of his best friends. In town recently to interview former CIA chief Richard Helms, as well as several ambassadors, senators and foreign service types, all for his next book, he talked over a cup of coffee in his posh Regent Hotel suite.
"I don't send my books to the publisher's office," said Sheldon, whose devious mind has brought him millions. "Many publishing houses have spies who mimeograph manuscripts. They make a deal with studios, because the studios are eager to see those manuscripts first if it's a hot author." Rather, his publisher, William Morrow head Larry Hughes, flies out with his editor to Sheldon's house in Holmby Hills, Calif., or to the rented castle in Italy or the flat in London. The house guests are sequestered until they finish reading the book and make an offer.
Sheldon hasn't always been so hard to get. In 1970 he finished his first novel, "The Naked Face," and asked author Irving Wallace for the name of an agent. "Hill Black, the agent, would call me and say, 'Well, Knopf turned it down. Simon and Schuster turned it down.' . . . Finally, after 10 turndowns, he sold it to Morrow. Morrow paid me $1,000. They didn't know I would have paid them.
"It sold 17,000 copies. I was horrified, because 20 million people watched his 'I Dream of Jeannie.' "
After several million or so books sold in 32 countries, Sheldon has had his revenge. Revenge is a topic he likes writing about. In his seven best-selling novels, the beautiful but often poor and pure heroines are raped, sodomized and defrauded, and go on to avenge themselves by questionable, often illegal, but ingenious methods.
These heroines are very different from the goody-good girls Sheldon glorified in his 250 scripts for "I Dream of Jeannie" and "The Patty Duke Show," among other television series, or for the 30 general-audience movies such as "Easter Parade" and "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer," which won him an Academy Award, or for eight Broadway plays, including "Redhead," which won him a Tony. But although he writes about violent male sexual fantasies, Sheldon is anxious to say that he loves women.
"I write about women," he explained, "because women are more sensitive than men and more complex. In the kind of book I write, where there's a lot of suspense and people are troubled, it's more interesting to put a woman in that situation because they are more vulnerable. There's a greater chance that a man can take care of himself and handle it. He can knock someone out -- whatever the macho thing is. Of course, women have other weapons. I make my women attractive, bright, as capable as men in what they do. I'm tired of that dumb blond cliche' we've been saddled with so long."
Tracy Whitney is the latest and perhaps the ultimate Sheldon heroine. In "If Tomorrow Comes," she is happy, engaged and pregnant when her mother commits suicide because she's been defrauded. Tracy threatens the defrauder, is raped by him, shoots him, is jailed, gang-raped by other women prisoners, saves the warden's child and defrauds the defrauder. After stealing jewels in an empty house, she escapes police by putting her hair up in curlers and pretending to be a house guest. She plays two chess champions and wins by using one's move against the other. She steals a Goya masterpiece by painting the false signature of a famous forger over Goya's real one. She ruins an enemy by dropping his deposit slips in a bank's bin. Not to mention . . .
Sheldon was 50, he said, when he wrote his first novel, "The Naked Face," the story of a psychiatrist threatened with murder. "I got an idea that was so introspective I could see no way to do it as a television series, movie or Broadway play, because you had to get inside the character's mind. With much trepidation, I decided I'd try a novel. So I called my secretary in and began to dictate the first draft."
We've won, he thought. We've won. He kept saying the phrase over and over in his mind. And even as he said it, he knew it was meaningless. What kind of victory was it? He had thought of himself as a decent, civilized human being -- a doctor, a healer -- and he had turned into a savage animal filled with the lust to kill. He had sent a sick man over the brink of insanity and then murdered him. It was a terrible burden he would have to live with always. Because even though he could tell himself it was in self-defense, he knew -- God help him -- that he had enjoyed doing it.
Sheldon found the new form very different. "I never had to do descriptions before. With scripts, you don't describe the character too much. If you describe a tall, lanky man and Clint Eastwood is not available, the producer might not think Steve McQueen could play it." But, he said, "I enjoyed the freedom of writing a novel. When you do a picture or a play, you have a star who says, 'I can't read these lines.' A director who says, 'we're not going to shoot it in the mountains, but in the valley. The production manager who says, 'It's too expensive.' You have hundreds of collaborators. Novels gave me the freedom to write what I wanted."
"The Naked Face" has now been made into a movie, starring Roger Moore, due out this month. Two other Sheldon books, "Bloodline" and "The Other Side of Midnight," have been made into movies. Both NBC ("Rage of Angels II") and CBS ("If Tomorrow Comes") are preparing Sheldon mini-series and considering weekly series, and Sheldon is soon off to Brazil and Argentina, where his mini-series "The Master of the Game" will be shown.
"It's been a long time since I had to write for money," he said. "I write because I'm thrilled by the act of writing."
Today Sheldon, accompanied by his wife, travels a great deal, as he researches facts and locations for his books. They lived a year in London for "The Other Side of Midnight" and a year in Rome for "Bloodline." Sheldon has taken his tape recorder and notebook into South African diamond mines, the women's prison on Rikers Island, N.Y., Interpol headquarters in Paris and art museums in Italy.
"I don't make up the facts," he said. "But I do like to show the reader glamorous places."
In "A Rage of Angels" he wrote of his lawyer heroine spilling a box of weapons found in a prison and then picking them up slowly, one at a time, so the jury could get a good look at them. Louis Nizer, the New York criminal lawyer, had told Sheldon about doing just that. Later F. Lee Bailey, the California criminal lawyer, told Sheldon he was pleased that the author had used his device.
And some parts of Sheldon's books are from his own experience. " 'The Other Side of Midnight' is totally autobiographical," he said, "up until the point Catherine the heroine goes to the motel with a young man. We had the same kind of parents. Born at the same time. Went to the same school. I went to Northwestern on a scholarship but I had to leave to go to work."
At 17 in Chicago, where he started out hanging coats in a checkroom, Sheldon talked orchestra leader Phil Levant into playing the first song he had written. At 18 he got a job in Hollywood as a $17-a-week script reader and went on to write $18,000 pictures. At 25 he had three shows running on Broadway.
"I've had a fantastic life," he said. "When I was an usher, I used to lose myself and forget my problems in movies with Fred Astaire and the Marx Brothers. Within 10 years I was in Hollywood writing for Fred Astaire, and Groucho Marx to whom "A Stranger in the Mirror" is dedicated became my closest friend, the godfather of my daughter. It was really magic."
Sheldon met his wife, Jorja Curtright, when he was a producer at MGM. He saw her in the studio cafeteria with Zsa Zsa Gabor, and invited them up to his office. But when he asked Curtright to dinner she turned him down. "She said, and I deny, that a steady stream of starlets came through my office, all of them acting as though they were the next Mrs. Sheldon. It took me four calls before she'd have dinner with me."
They have been married 33 years. Jorja Curtright is a movie actress who gave up the klieg lights to travel with the peripatetic Sheldon and decorate the 36 houses (some simultaneously, some successively) the couple has owned. They are about to buy another in London. Their daughter, Mary Sheldon Dastin, 29, married to a Long Island attorney, is writing her third novel. She began her first, "Perhaps I'll Dream of Darkness," at 15. Their granddaughter Elizabeth, 13 months old, has yet to write a thing.
When Sheldon feels a book coming on, he packs up his staff -- the housekeeper, the cook, the secretaries and the chauffeur -- and heads for the house in Palm Springs. He's a fast writer, or, rather, dictator, and works seven days a week when on a new novel.
"When I was writing two scripts a week for 'Patty Duke' and 'Jeannie,' " he said, "I would dictate one script on Saturday and one on Sunday. Usually I'd get the idea for the episode 15 minutes before the stenographer would come.
"I still don't work from a plot. I start with a character. At the end of the day, I have these characters and events which didn't exist that morning. I don't know who's feeding me these stories. What if he stops? All creative people worry about that -- what if the creative flow stops?
"On a good day I can dictate 50 pages. I have to have champion stenographers. I've had court reporters with their little machines who couldn't keep up with me. I don't use a dictating machine, because I like to go back and change characters' names and such. On the weekends, the staff goes back to L.A. and I polish the week's work. When I'm through with the first draft, I go back over the typewritten pages and rewrite."
He revises his books as many as a dozen times. "I can't tell you what a brilliant editor my wife is," he said, "though she doesn't write a note. She gets into characters. She reads as an actress."
And always, he's cutting away the fat. "I do an enormous amount of research and then throw lots of it away. I don't burden the reader with a lot of details. I won't stop for a lot of exposition about how the mountain looks at dawn. If someone's on the top of the mountain ready to fall down, I want to stay with that. I throw away anything that keeps the story from moving. I threw away 250 pages from 'Bloodline.' "
And there is one last trick Sheldon uses. "I try to write my books," he said, "so that at the end of the chapter the reader has to turn the page."