At left, Nachman's
first published book
from Doubleday.

At right, Nachman
poses for his first
book cover photo.
Note the fancy
handkerchief in
his pocket, added
by the photographer.


Larry King & "Today"!
Hey, what's not to like?


You never know who might be reading you.

Someone who did, happily, was a Doubleday editor, a doughty fellow named Ferris Mack, who liked a Daily News column I’d written about Jackie Kennedy becoming a Doubleday editor, in which I imagined how Jackie would deal with writers like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth.

Ferris, an old school gent who had been at Doubleday forever, took me to lunch at the Four Seasons (the customary New York first date for authors and agents) and, as we sat pool-side in the elegant restaurant off Park Avenue, he asked if I had any book ideas. Ferris was a chuckly little guy with a twinkle who wore bowties, smiled a lot and knew everyone in the posh dining room.

I had zero book ideas, in fact, but, prior to our lunch, came up with one that interested him--a humorous look at marriage from the male perspective. At the time, 1976, funny books on domestic life had been pretty much the exclusive domain of women--Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, Judith Viorst, Peg Bracken, etc.

Mack liked the idea and suggested I talk to Scott Meredith, who offered a contract and assigned one of his minions to me, Anatole Something. Doubleday offered the usual two-book deal, with the now laughable advance of $7500--$5000 for the marriage book, $2500 for a collection of columns. It sounded just fine to me then, though, and so it was that I came to write “Playing House,” which emerged in 1978.

Ferris Mack was an editor mostly in name only. He did almost no editing on the manuscript (fine by me) and was delighted when I asked if I could write the flap copy, usually the editor’s task. When I suggested an illustrator, he said sure. As far as I could tell, his main job had been picking up the check at the Four Seasons.

He did send me up to the art department to have my cover photo taken, a thrilling moment in any new author’s life. I bought a blazer and an expensive shirt with French cuffs for the occasion, but the house photographer, Bernard Gotfryd, thought something was missing. He casually reached into a drawer, pulled out a big blue silk handkerchief and jammed it with a flourish into my jacket pocket. In the jacket photo I look like quite the dashing boulevardier, thanks to Gotfryd.

Doubleday was such a colossus then that the average book, like mine, easily got lost in the shuffle. The publisher did a minimum amount of promotion and hired a San Francisco woman, Jinx Hone, to handle the local publicity (by the time the book came out, I was back in San Francisco working at The Chronicle as its new critic and entertainment columnist.) The book got a decent amount of local attention (the San Francisco Examiner ran a few excerpts), including reviews, all positive; I did a tiny Bay Area book tour.

“Playing House” had two national breaks--an appearance on Larry King’s old late-night Mutual radio show from Washington, D.C., and a shot on the “Today” show that I maneuvered on my own. I knew Betsy Osha, who booked the show’s authors and got me on the show, where I would be interviewed by Gene Shalit, the resident wit.

Alas, Shalit was off the day I appeared, so the show’s female co-anchor, Jessica Savich, did the interview. Savich, who later killed herself (or overdosed on drugs) and became the subject of a movie, a TV movie, a play and much gossip about her wild private life, was a peppy, sparkly interviewer who made the book sound great and guided me through our three-minute chat.

I recall none of the interview except that my mouth was stuffed with cotton, as if I were sedated and undergoing oral surgery. I grinned my way through it and did reasonably well, I suppose, considering I’d had an hour’s sleep the night before. A limo picked me up at 6 a.m. and on the way to NBC I finally began to doze off.

After it was all over, toting a blowup of the book cover up Sixth Avenue and jubilant just to have survived the ordeal, I felt like I had arrived (national TV! Jessica Savich! A book in the stores!). Not quite. One of the great literary myths is that a shot on the “Today” show will turn you into a best-selling author overnight. “Playing House” sold semi-respectably, a few thousand copies, but it didn’t leap to the New York Times best-seller list a week after my “Today” appearance and I wasn’t asked for my autograph; indeed, I couldn’t even give the damn thing away.

In San Francisco, I signed copies of the book at Doubleday’s on Kearny Street, where the publicist had arranged a big window display with a huge photo of me and a blow-up of the cover. I would be signing books at noon, during lunch-hour, considered prime time. At noon, there I was, behind a table piled high with copies of “Playing House,” pen at the ready, poised to inscribe my books.

Noon came and went, as did 12:30, by which time the only person who showed up was one friend, Morrie Bobrow, who did not buy a book but was vastly amused by the turnout. A few curiosity seekers stopped by to check out the author, then moved on when they saw I was not John Updike or Dr. Seuss. Jinx, my perhaps aptly named publicist, brought two girl friends in, no doubt drafted often for just such occasions, and a couple of Chronicle colleagues came by to make wisecracks, so I wound up with a nice cozy gathering of shills and ringers.

I left at 1 o’clock after signing a stack of books for the store to sell, much to everyone’s chagrin. Why anyone would be enticed to buy a book signed by the author is a phenomenon I’ve never understood--unless it’s a favorite book you’ve already read and it’s personally inscribed. It would be nice to have a copy of “Huckleberry Finn” signed, “To Jerry, with best wishes, Mark.”

©2007 by Gerald Nachman. The Nachman caricature is ©2000 by Jim Hummel. The book cover is courtesy of Doubleday and the illustration is by Ed Renfro. The photo of the author was taken by Alex Gotfryd. This special extract from a work in progress is published by special arrangement with the author. All inquiries about this work should be directed to the author by use of the Talkback feature below. This excerpt first posted here June 4, 2007.


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