Digby Diehl, a journalist and book critic who wrote, rewrote, researched and edited celebrity autobiographies, including memoirs for entertainers such as Broadway singer Patti LuPone, “aquamusical” actress Esther Williams and game show host Bob Barker, died Sept. 26 in Los Angeles County. He was 76.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Kay Beyer Diehl.
Mr. Diehl (pronounced “deal”) was a wide-ranging culture writer whose subject matter was nearly as diverse as the journalistic outposts that published him. A former book critic for Playboy and the AARP magazine Modern Maturity, he was the founding editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review; wrote about television, dance and the pointy ears of “Star Trek” actor Leonard Nimoy for the New York Times; and donned a bow tie to discuss books and Hollywood in television appearances on “The CBS Morning News” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
But he seemed most delighted in interviewing — or, as he put it, simply listening to — cultural figures such as Jim Morrison, who allowed Mr. Diehl to join him backstage for a 1968 profile in Eye magazine. “I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that has no meaning,” the Doors singer told him. “It seems to me to be the road to freedom.”
Over the course of his career, Mr. Diehl moved ever closer to the individuals he covered, switching from profiles to Q&A-style interviews in an effort to avoid intruding on his subjects. He eventually took to adopting their voices as a co-writer, beginning with “A Spy for all Seasons,” a 1997 memoir by Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, a Cold Warrior who helped found the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.
Mr. Diehl received a writing credit for the book, which featured a scathing assessment of the agency’s clandestine branch — Clarridge said it was “finished as a really effective intelligence service” — and a playful account of the difficulty that alcohol can pose for undercover note-taking. (“The trouble is you can’t ply your target with alcohol while you sit there and take notes over an iced tea.”)
He went on to collaborate on memoirs that included “Angel On My Shoulder” (2000), with Nat King Cole’s daughter Natalie Cole; “Priceless Memories” (2009), with “The Price Is Right” host Barker; “Rather Outspoken” (2012), with news anchor Dan Rather; and “Alone Together” (2013), with Theodora Getty Gaston, the fifth and final wife of billionaire J. Paul Getty.
These autobiographical works generally were praised by critics, less for any dazzling literary qualities than for sprinklings of colorful anecdotes.
“The Million Dollar Mermaid,” his 1999 memoir with Williams, described her discovery that her boyfriend, the ultramasculine gray-haired 1950s actor Jeff Chandler, was in fact a cross-dresser. She told him he was “too big for polka dots” and promptly ended their on-again, off-again romantic relationship.
The author cultivated a deep sense of trust with his clients, which often led him to leave the juiciest details out of a book to protect their reputations.
“If you were telling things about your past that he felt wouldn’t serve you well in the book, he would say, ‘Well, that’s not going to go in there,’ ” Beyer Diehl said. “He had a very conscious way of making somebody put forward not their entire naked self but their best self.”
Digby Robert Diehl — he was named for a character in the adventure novel “Beau Geste” — was born in Boonton, N.J., on Nov. 14, 1940. His father was a publicist and magazine journalist for the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, and his mother was a schoolteacher and science professor.
Mr. Diehl graduated from Rutgers University in 1962 and received a master’s degree in theater arts from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1969.
His first book, “Supertalk” (1974), collected two dozen interviews he conducted for the L.A. Times’s West magazine. He helped found the National Book Critics Circle that same year and in 1975 became the founding editor of the L.A. Times Book Review, an ambitious stand-alone section that appeared in the paper each Sunday. (The Book Review was folded into the rest of the newspaper in 2007.)
In 1978, Mr. Diehl moved east to lead the New York publishing house Harry N. Abrams. He quit after less than two years, saying he was tired of spending so much time with lawyers and agents in a job that was, he quipped, akin to “imprisonment for bad behavior.”
His first marriage, to Emilie Robertson, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 36 years, Beyer Diehl of Pasadena, Calif., survivors include their daughter, actress Dylan Diehl of Los Angeles.
Mr. Diehl and his wife collaborated on his many autobiographical works, with Mr. Diehl tinkering with the writing of individual scenes while his wife worked to shape the book’s larger structure.
He also published a history of the “Tales from the Crypt” comic-book and television franchise, and he worked on three scripts for the NBC soap opera “Santa Barbara” — an experience that may have informed “Soapsuds” (2005), a novel satirizing the soap opera business that he co-wrote with soap star Finola Hughes.
His literary talents also were called upon for the International Imitation Hemingway Competition, a long-running parody contest that he helped organize and judge beginning in 1977.
Throwing back beers at Harry’s Bar & American Grill in Los Angeles, Mr. Diehl and the rotating group of judges — including writer Ray Bradbury and Hemingway’s son Jack — adjudicated the merits of entries such as “The Dow Also Rises” and “The Toes of Kilimanjaro,” which lampooned the novelist’s laconic style.
“Diehl read the winning entry at dinner,” Jack Smith, a fellow judge and journalist, wrote in a 1993 L.A. Times column. Adopting the mock-Hemingway style himself, he continued: “It got lots of laughs. Digby could make the Lord’s Prayer funny.”