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10 July 2000

My slide down the greasy pole

A regard for geography lost Bryan Rostronthe chance to emulate Jacqueline Susann

By Bryan Rostron

“South Africa . . . whad d’ya think when ya think, South Africa?” mused the exquisitely tailored New York publisher who had summoned me to his plush Manhattan office. “You think hot, right?” Suddenly he was struck by a bolt of literary inspiration. “Got it! How’s about if someone . . . kidnapped South Africa and towed it to Antarctica?”

I blinked; perhaps my jaw dropped. Shame: such is fame. In that instant I lost, probably for ever, the chance of being portrayed in a Hollywood movie by Bette Midler.

In Isn’t She Great, recently on release, Midler plays the spectacularly vulgar Jacqueline Susann, who, in her relentless quest for fame, virtually invented the mass-selling potboiler novel of sex, sleaze, pills, glamour and schlock. The film charts how Susann’s first book, Valley of the Dolls, was rebuffed by all New York publishers – until she met that bizarre showman who, 13 years later, suggested I write a thriller about South Africa being hijacked and taken to the polar regions by a bunch of desperadoes . . .

This publisher, played in the film by the manic John Cleese, makes a spectacular entrance sliding down a fireman’s pole. I recognised that pole immediately. For me, however, it did not represent – as it did for Susann – a magic slide down to bestsellerdom, chat shows, celebrity and fabulous riches. Where did I go wrong?

Perhaps the first clue came when the publisher told me: “We like your writing.” In Isn’t She Great, Susann’s editor sighs: “Your manuscript is nigh unto incoherent” (to which Bette Midler replies, wide-eyed: “Is that bad?”). In fact, Valley of the Dolls, published in 1966, went on to break all records. For years, it registered as the bestselling novel of all time. This failed starlet, failed model, failed everything, also became the first author to top the bestseller list three times in succession.

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Susann had bombed spectacularly as an actress. She had even been fired from a Broadway play after failing to master a French accent for her three lines of dialogue. On the other hand, I had arrived in New York after a brief movie career in Rome, having not only starred in a film, but also played the terrorist baddie in a television thriller with Bill Cosby.

Yet I wanted to be a writer. Since leaving Cape Town, I had written two youthful, intense novels about South Africa. The first, completed on the cargo boat to England, was short, sharp and brutal. The other, written in a dark, hot garret in Naples, was long, fevered and, probably, “nigh unto incoherent”.

I hid both in a bottom drawer, as I struggled with my new novel. By then, I was living impecuniously in Brooklyn in a “cockroach motel”, where there was a suicide on my first day. My dear mother, anxious to turn me into the next Wilbur Smith, kept sending me articles about writers who, having seen the light, churn out a blockbuster, thus earning, as Bette Midler gloats, “a shitload” of money.

One day, she sent a clipping about a publisher in New York who had discovered Jacqueline Susann. He was now looking for young writers to shower with moolah.

“We give our writers lots of money and tell them to go away and write,” Bernard Geis was quoted as saying. “If the money runs out, then we give them more.”

My stomach rumbled with hunger. Geis, the article explained, packaged deals. He concocted plots. He even introduced writers to team-constructed plots in search of an author. He had, above all, launched Valley of the Dolls.

I quickly typed a 40-page outline for a thriller set in Italy. “We were, indeed, tempted,” Geis wrote back. However: “The narrative art is an elusive one and, in this case, we’re not quite prepared to gamble that the moonbeams would be caught in your net.” Though unsure about Geis’s prose, I weaved a bigger, better net: a 50-page synopsis for a political thriller set in South Africa.

This time, to my astonishment, he phoned and invited me to “take” a meeting. Nervously, I walked all the way to his swanky mid-Manhattan office. Geis did not look like John Cleese: he looked tanned and rich. He came straight to the point: “We like the writing, Bryan. But we don’t like politics. We’re off politics.”

“You lack sustained love interest,” chipped in a much manicured lady editor.

“What we need is something incredible,” mused Geis. “Something that could affect the life of the reader.” He paused. “If the Titanic had sunk off Cape Town, you could’ve raised it there, brought in the CIA, KGB . . .”

Then Geis came up with his $64,000 humdinger: abduct South Africa to the Antarctic! He beamed. The lady editor said she’d read my new novel. “It’s not exactly a thriller,” I muttered. “We get all sorts here,” she shrugged. “The last prospective author wanted to know where to put the dialogue.”

Geis led me back to his own magnificent office, with the fireman’s pole. “Bryan,” he boomed as we shook hands, “I like all my prospective authors to slide down the pole. Test of nerve. Wanna try?”

Wow! I was about to glide down to fame, fortune, chat shows and limos. Look out, Jacqueline Susann. As I vanished through the hole in the floor, I heard a manic cackle from above: “Of course, you’ll have to write the goddam thing yourself, you know.”

Ah. Actually write such schlock? Oh no. Before I hit the ground, three stories below, I realised I was not about to top the bestseller list. The rest is history: no millions, no Bette Midler. No regrets.