Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Art of the Deal

The Wrath of Cohn, Part 1

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Not long ago, I was browsing through Peter Manso’s enormous oral biography Mailer: His Life and Times, which has been one of my favorite reads for years, when I came across a passing reference to Norman Mailer’s friendship with the attorney Roy Cohn. Mailer and Cohn couldn’t have been less alike in their politics, but they found each other useful, and they were linked by the late publisher Si Newhouse, who passed away just last month. Cohn doesn’t figure prominently in any of Newhouse’s obituaries, but the two of them first met as teenagers at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx and remained lifelong friends. In the book Newhouse, Thomas Maier explains the Mailer connection:

With Cohn’s help, Norman Mailer was convinced to become a contributor to Newhouse’s Parade magazine and later to sign a lucrative book contract with Random House…Si [had] expressed a desire to sign up Mailer, hoping to add that lustrous name to his publishing house’s stable of well-known authors…Cohn relayed this version of Si’s intentions to Peter Manso, a writer who then was close with Mailer and would later write a biography about him. Si Newhouse wanted Mailer to write a magazine piece about his views on capital punishment, Cohn told Manso…”He’ll pay cash,” Cohn told Manso about the Newhouse offer. “We’ll give him seven thousand dollars for the piece.”

Maier doesn’t mention how the two men happened to know each other, but they had evidently met when Manso was assigned to interview Cohn for Playboy in 1981—which is a detail that I’ll explore further in a moment.

Cohn took obvious pride in serving as a power broker, with what Maier describes as a talent for “making things happen,” and he systematically cultivated his famous contacts. After Mailer wrote the article on capital punishment and another piece on Russia, the two men became friendly, despite what Cohn saw as Mailer’s Soviet sympathies. Maier writes:

“I think Norman was always a little embarrassed about his association with Roy—he didn’t want to be too public with it,” said Peter Fraser, Cohn’s companion during the early 1980s when Roy’s personal life became an open secret. Cohn became involved in other business matters with Mailer. He rented a small cottage for himself and Peter Fraser in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The house was owned by Mailer and was next to a larger house where Mailer’s family stayed during the summer. On some summer evenings, Cohn and Mailer would hold court at a large dinner shared by family and friends.

Manso, who was living with Mailer at the time, goes even further, recounting that Cohn wanted to join their plan to turn the house into a condo, securing an interest-free loan of $300,000 from Si Newhouse for “all of us.” When Manso told Mailer about the deal, the author responded: “It’s about time I had a patron.” This is already pretty good gossip, but it gets better. In 1985, according to Manso, the Mailers attended Cohn’s fifty-ninth birthday party, which had a guest list that included Si Newhouse, Roger Stone—yes, that Roger Stone—and Donald Trump. After Cohn died the following year, the Mailers didn’t go to the memorial service, but a number of other prominent friends did, as Manso relates: “Donald Trump sat in the audience weeping with Cohn’s lover, Peter Fraser, and the ubiquitous Si Newhouse.”

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I want to focus for now on the thread between Newhouse, Cohn, and Trump. Cohn’s mentorship of Trump has been closely scrutinized, including by Peter Manso, who wrote a reminiscence for Politico last year about a party at Cohn’s house in 1981, at which he found himself seated next to “the boyish-faced real estate mogul, habitué of Le Cirque and staple of Page Six.” (In Manso’s account, Trump inquired of him: “Roy says you live on the Cape, and that you’re writing a book about Norman Mailer. Norman’s smart but a little crazy, right?” He then asked Manso whether or not he should do an interview with Playboy, which he eventually did, kicking off what became a long association between him and the magazine.) What’s more surprising is that Newhouse’s friendship with Cohn and its obvious relevance to Trump hasn’t received more attention. Last year, a profile in The New Yorker—which Newhouse still owned at the time—highlighted the publishing magnate’s role in the writing of The Art of the Deal. As the reporter Jane Mayer relates:

The idea of Trump writing an autobiography didn’t originate with either Trump or [ghostwriter Tony Schwartz]. It began with Si Newhouse, the media magnate whose company, Advance Publications, owned Random House at the time, and continues to own Condé Nast, the parent company of this magazine. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Peter Osnos, who edited the book, recalls. GQ, which Condé Nast also owns, had published a cover story on Trump, and Newhouse noticed that newsstand sales had been unusually strong.

Cohn’s name isn’t mentioned here at all. Yet it’s hard to believe that he didn’t have anything to do with what turned out, in the end, to be a far more significant literary deal than the one that he had pulled off a few years earlier by luring Mailer to Random House.

For a connection that exists in plain sight, this angle remains strikingly unexplored. The only reference to it that I can find online is a tantalizing quote from Thomas Maier himself, who said last month in an interview with Bloomberg: “Newhouse’s fondness for Trump, the link with Roy Cohn and the way in which the Newhouse publications promoted Trump over the last twenty years really helped make him a nationally known figure and is one of the great unknown stories of the Trump rise to power.” I can’t help but agree, and while it’s tempting to suspect that Newhouse’s influence kept the story from being fully investigated during his lifetime, it’s also possible that the subsidiary players remained genuinely unaware of it. Mailer’s case provides an instructive parallel. After describing Mailer’s big contract with Random House and how his first novel with Newhouse, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, was excerpted in the resurgent Vanity Fair, Maier writes:

None of the Newhouse editors, however, were aware of Si’s guiding hand or the help of Roy Cohn in securing Norman Mailer’s services. “Upon reading the manuscript it was my idea, purely my idea, to buy it for Vanity Fair,” insisted Leo Lerman, then Vanity Fair’s editor, in describing how he decided to run excerpts of Tough Guys after talking with Mailer’s Random House editor, Jason Epstein.

Cohn was content to remain in the shadows, and he had reason to take satisfaction in the service that he had rendered to his friend and new neighbor. Mailer had suffered from money problems for decades, and the deal with Newhouse offered him an important source of stability, as his editor Jason Epstein observed: “I sensed that what Norman really wanted was to clear the decks and have nothing to worry about financially for the rest of his life.” Trump was at the beginning, not the end, of his career, and what Cohn and Newhouse had to offer him was rather different, but no less precious—and the consequences would be immense. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

The ghost writer

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The Art of the Deal

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the recent New Yorker profile of Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter behind Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, is a sickly fascinating read. Schwartz, to put it mildly, is suffering pangs of regret over his role in Trump’s career: “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility that it will lead to the end of civilization.” But if we can manage to put that image out of our minds, at least for now, we’re left with a gossipy glimpse behind the scenes of the packaging of a certain kind of bestseller. Trump wasn’t even the one who pitched the project, as writer Jane Mayer notes:

The idea of Trump writing an autobiography didn’t originate with either Trump or Schwartz. It began with Si Newhouse, the media magnate whose company, Advance Publications, owned Random House at the time, and continues to own Condé Nast, the parent company of this magazine. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Peter Osnos, who edited the book, recalls. GQ, which Condé Nast also owns, had published a cover story on Trump, and Newhouse noticed that newsstand sales had been unusually strong…At one point, Howard Kaminsky, who ran Random House then, wrapped a thick Russian novel in a dummy cover that featured a photograph of Trump looking like a conquering hero; at the top was Trump’s name, in large gold block lettering. Kaminsky recalls that Trump was pleased by the mockup, but had one suggestion: “Please make my name much bigger.”

The Art of the Deal, in short, was the brainchild of an entrepreneurial publisher who saw a promising subject and built a project around it. It’s admittedly unusual to have the initial idea come from the chairman of the board, although nothing about Trump has ever occurred on an ordinary scale. In other respects, however, it’s fairly typical. Memoirs or even novels have long been a component of a celebrity’s branding empire, and Trump wasn’t the first or last famous name to end up on the cover of a book that he didn’t have any hand in writing. A New York Times article from a few years ago notes that literary agents actively encourage their clients to pitch novels, as Robert Gottlieb of Trident Media group observes: “It’s a way to extend the footprint of the celebrity.” (My own favorite detail from the story is the image of Tinsley Mortimer, “the socialite and handbag designer,” taking meetings with publishers with her ghostwriter in tow, which is like Natalie Wood going to auditions with Marni Nixon.) The result is usually so blatantly about its author it barely qualifies as a roman à clef: L.A. Candy by Lauren Conrad, for instance, gives us “Jane,” “Madison,” and “Gaby,” who are asked—get ready for it—to star in a hot new reality series set in Los Angeles. And while Trump’s book is ostensibly an autobiography, Schwartz’s account makes it clear that it’s really a work of fiction, less in matters of fact than in the transformation of its subject into a sympathetic protagonist. As Schwartz says: “I created a character far more winning than Trump actually is.”

The Art of the Deal

I’ll confess that I never finished reading the battered paperback copy of The Art of the Deal that I picked up at a church book sale in my teens, but judging from its success, Schwartz appears to have done a pretty good job. (For writers in search of new tricks, the New Yorker profile provides useful tips on how to transform a character’s otherwise unlikable qualities into something a reader can admire. Instead of portraying Trump as driven by greed, for example, Schwartz turns him into an artisan: “I don’t do it for the money…Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” It’s impossible to imagine the real Trump ever saying or thinking this, but if we take it as a tactical move on the ghostwriter’s part, it’s brilliant.) But what really stands out is the fact that Trump didn’t seem particularly interested in writing a book in the first place. He didn’t make the rounds of publishers, à la Tinsley Mortimer, with his cowriter already attached: the publisher came to him, and the decision to hire Schwartz as a ghostwriter seems to have been made almost casually. Instead of the driving force behind the project, Trump was a convenient brand around which Random House could and did package a book, almost without his involvement, much as developers would later license his name for hotels and condominiums that he didn’t build. The Apprentice, which did more than anything else to keep Trump relevant in the new century, came about in a similar way: Mark Burnett, the producer, read The Art of the Deal and came up with a pitch for the show. Trump, not surprisingly, agreed. It’s not like he ever would have turned it down.

And it’s hard not to see our current predicament through a similar lens. Trump’s accomplishment may be twisted, but it’s very real: he’s taught all of us how little we knew about what a large swath of voters really wanted or found important, which is altogether different from what the political class fondly told itself for so long. But if he’s gotten to this point—and it’s unclear to what extent he ever wanted to come this far—it’s for the same reasons that he attracted publishers and television producers. Like any great brand, “Trump” stands for something that is easy to grasp but hard to articulate. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump, or Schwartz, says in The Art of the Deal, and any good fantasy means different things to different people. The fact that Trump is so hard to pin down on concrete policy positions isn’t a shortcoming, but central to his appeal: he’s selling whatever people want to buy, and the details might change from one minute to the next, even if a dark core remains consistent. It’s a brand that can be slapped on just about anything, so it makes sense for shrewd operators to license it, literally or otherwise. Random House and Mark Burnett did pretty well by it. The G.O.P. didn’t, even though its motives were largely the same: it tolerated and encouraged Trump for much of the primary season, hoping to cynically leverage his celebrity, his media exposure, and his followers before channeling his support toward a more acceptable candidate. It tried to license the Trump brand, not to sell books or a reality series, but to turn the political process into entertainment for as long as it could. We know how that turned out, and it isn’t over yet. Trump’s brand, as Tony Schwartz was among the first to recognize, is more powerful than anyone could have guessed. And his brand is crisis.

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