The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Zehme, who elevated celebrity profiles to an art form, dies at 64

Mr. Zehme brought humor and a literary voice to profiles of Warren Beatty, Frank Sinatra, David Letterman, Sharon Stone and other stars

Bill Zehme attends the premiere for a Johnny Carson documentary in 2012. Mr. Zehme was the last journalist to interview the former “Tonight” host, in 2002. (FilmMagic/Getty Images)
7 min

One day in the 1990s, Bill Zehme lay down naked next to actress Sharon Stone, who was also naked. They were not married. They were not dating. They barely knew each other.

Mr. Zehme, the grand bard of magazine celebrity profiles, was visiting Stone, who was sometimes naked in her starring roles, at her Las Vegas home for a profile in Esquire. She scheduled a massage.

“Take off your clothes and lie down,” Stone told him, as Mr. Zehme wrote in Esquire.

It would be a couple’s massage.

As he disrobed, she said, “Oh look! It’s your butt,” to which Mr. Zehme replied that he had seen hers too — on screen. “Who hasn’t?” she said. “Anybody with seven bucks can see my ass, buddy. What’s your excuse?”

His excuse was, metaphorically, a hallmark of his two-decade career writing for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Playboy and Vanity Fair — to elevate the formulaic celebrity profile with humor, a literary voice and the polish of a short story. That was the only way Mr. Zehme, who died March 26 at age 64, could accept his fate performing what many writers consider one of the lowest forms of journalism.

“I hate celebrity journalism,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “My way to rebel has been to find a funny way to do it. I try to make it comedic and also find why a certain person touches the rest of us, the essence of why we care about this person.”

To illuminate his characters, many of Mr. Zehme’s stories employed playful hooks.

In Stone’s case, he used their massage to explore how she toyed with men on screen and off. With Jay Leno, he sat in the late night TV host’s living room and watched him obsessively watch his rival David Letterman. To explore Warren Beatty’s reticence with journalists, he timed how long it took the reclusive movie star to answer questions and included the number of seconds — 21, 34, 57 — in his story.

“He speaks slowly, fearfully, cautiously, editing every syllable, slicing off personal color and spontaneous wit, steering away from opinion, introspection, humanness,” Mr. Zehme wrote in Rolling Stone. “He is mostly evasive. His pauses are elephantine. Broadway musicals could be mounted during his pauses.” Ultimately, Mr. Zehme wrote, to interview Warren Beatty “is to want to kill him. It is also to become fond of him. He seduces anything that is not mineral.”

Stars came to covet a Zehme profile. They knew anything he wrote would become a cover story, which was a huge deal in the magazine heydays of the 1980s and ’90s before the internet gutted the industry. His gets begot bigger gets — the most prominent being his 2002 profile of Johnny Carson in Esquire. The “Tonight Show” host had disappeared from public life after retiring in 1992. Mr. Zehme wrote him a letter.

“I told him, frankly, that I wanted to commemorate his ten years,” Mr. Zehme told CNN after his story appeared. “Here is a man who spent 30 years every night sort of comforting us and putting us to bed at night, and trying to help us make sense of our personal problems, as well as world events. And it seemed to me, now more than ever, it would be nice to just sort of reconnect with him.”

Carson accepted.

“There are nights, he will tell you, that he finds himself back where he was, back where we had him, before we could not have him anymore,” Mr. Zehme wrote in Esquire. “Like no one else in a lifetime, his was the last face flickering onto the brain before so many billions of slumbers. Like sun and moon and oxygen, he was always there, reliable and dependable, for thirty years. Then he wasn’t anymore. And he didn’t just simply leave: He vanished completely; he evaporated into cathode snow; he took the powder of all powders.”

William Christian Zehme was born on Oct. 28, 1958, in South Holland, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. His parents owned a flower shop. Bill had two obsessions growing up: writing and Carson. He named his high school newspaper column “Monologue” in a nod to Carson.

Mr. Zehme majored in communications at Loyola University, a Jesuit school in Chicago where he wrote a front-page article paying homage to Hugh Hefner, whose Playboy magazine headquarters were not far from the school. Seven deans signed a letter to the editor decrying the piece. Someone sent the piece to Hefner, who loved it.

“The next thing I knew, I was invited to the Playmate of the Year party, every college junior’s dream,” Mr. Zehme told Chicago magazine.

After graduating in 1980, Mr. Zehme worked for a magazine published by Montgomery Ward, the department store. He wrote about Letterman and other stars. Playboy then hired him to do celebrity interviews. Mr. Zehme moved to Vanity Fair after that. Rolling Stone was next. In 1994, he joined Esquire, where he remained for more than 15 years.

Writing tortured Mr. Zehme. He considered deadlines an option, not a requirement. (He typically elected to ignore them.)

“Bill’s pieces just sort of drip in like it’s an IV of writing,” David Hirshey, then Esquire’s deputy editor, told Chicago magazine. “Every day you go to the fax and there’s another three paragraphs.”

To his editors, they were worth the wait.

“You get the sense as a reader,” Hirshey continued, “that you’re as close as you can be to a celebrity without being a stalker.”

Mr. Zehme published several books, including biographies of Andy Kaufman and Frank Sinatra. After his Carson profile was published, Mr. Zehme embarked on a biography of the late night host, but it was never completed.

“Bill completed the first half of his Johnny Carson book, his magnum opus, and it was a masterpiece,” his friend and Esquire colleague Robert Kurson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “And he might have finished but always felt compelled to interview a third cousin he’d just discovered, or a friend of a friend of a friend who’d emerged from his research and had a wonderful anecdote to add.”

A bigger obstacle was his health. He was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2013. Surgeries and other treatments drained him physically and financially. He died at a Chicago hospital, and colorectal cancer was the cause, his sister Betsy Archer said.

Mr. Zehme’s 1986 marriage to Tina Zimmel ended in divorce. Survivors include their daughter, Lucy Reeves of Arizona; his sister, of South Holland; and his longtime girlfriend Jennifer Engstrom of Chicago.

In the introduction to a collection of Mr. Zehme’s profiles, the director Cameron Crowe listed some of his favorite Zehme lines.

About Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon: “To be near him is to feel your power magnified exponentially.”

About “Tonight Show” producer Fred de Cordova’s chief possession: an “Acapulcan tan.”

About a question Mr. Zehme once posed to Letterman: “How would you explain your work to foreigners?”

Mr. Zehme “has slipped past the personal barricades of many a generation-defining icon,” Crowe wrote. “Like a great tour guide, he beckons you into the inner sanctum, whispering in your ear with a comic and sometimes poignant voice that says this is just between us.”