If he were a character in a novel, A.E. Hotchner would be larger than life. Biographer; novelist; playwright; editor; journalist; author of memoirs, movie scripts and teleplays; celebrity confidant; entrepreneur; philanthropist: Hotchner has packed more activities and adventures in his 83 years than many a hero of a sprawling bildungsroman.
To add to his reputation as a Renaissance man, Hotchner has a new book coming out this spring from Morrow, called Everyone Comes to Elaine's, and another one attracting attention since it was published in November by Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, Shameless Exploitation, in Pursuit of the Common Good, written with his pal and business partner Paul Newman.
To hear Hotchner tell it, his simultaneous output is a one-time thing, the culmination of two projects that seemed to be going nowhere. The book about mega-hostess Elaine Kaufman's eponymous Manhattan restaurant had been germinating for two decades. As every literati knows, the walls of the celebrated saloon/salon are covered with book jackets by the writers who are Elaine's habitués. Elaine often remarked wistfully that it would be nice if she had her own book up there, Hotchner recalls, but the possibility was only directly addressed when Newmarket Press publisher Esther Margolis asked Elaine how she was going to celebrate the boîte's 25th anniversary this year, and answered her own question by turning to Hotchner and suggesting that he write a book. "I coulda killed her," Hotchner says, cheerfully.
Hoping to mollify Elaine, Hotchner wrote a brief piece for New York magazine. That only intensified Elaine's conviction that she deserved a book and that her old friend and patron Hotch was the man to write it. With the restaurant's 40th anniversary looming, Elaine pressed the point again, and Hotch wrote a longish piece for Vanity Fair, liberally sprinkled with anecdotes about how a restaurant famous neither for its food nor its decor had become a New York institution. Still, Elaine continued to press for the book. Eventually, despite his doubts that a cult restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side would interest the rest of the country, Hotchner caved.
His concern, he says, was that the restaurant's mystique is intangible, and the hardest thing in the world for a writer is to make the intangible tangible. He needn't have worried. Everybody Comes to Elaine's, cobbled together from her salty reminiscences and funny/sentimental vignettes from the likes of Pete Hamill, David Halberstam, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Woody Allen, the late George Plimpton and other veterans of writer's block and boozy nights, is a celebration of literary camaraderie. All of them had empty pockets when they first started congregating there, and were nurtured by the tough-love proprietor.
Now the restaurant is the first port of call not only for writers but also for celebrities in every field. "This is where you go to find out what's happening, who's in town," Hotchner says. "It's a kind of checking in." He wishes he'd been there on a night that Elaine recalls in the book, when Rudolf Nureyev arrived straight from the airport, still carrying his bags. By coincidence, Misha Barishnikov was already there, with Peter Martins and other ballet stars. "Champagne and vodka were flowing," she says, "and Misha... picks up a chair and begins to dance with it as his partner.... Peter gets up and starts doing counterbalance with his chair. Suddenly, not to be outdone, Rudy grabs his chair and dances a pas de deux."
Serendipity, a recurring phenomenon in Hotchner's life, played a hand in the book's publication. While editor Maureen O'Brien was still at Hyperion, she wanted to do a book on Elaine's. After the Vanity Fair piece appeared, she was convinced that the time was right. In her new position as head of entertainment books at HarperCollins, she became Hotchner's "cheerful, precise and knowledgeable" editor. "We made our debut together," he says.
Yet another dynamic woman was responsible for Shameless Exploitation. That book chronicles the unlikely birth of Newman's Own products, starting from a batch of salad dressing that Hotchner helped Newman bottle in the actor's basement for Christmas gifts and metamorphosing into a philanthropic organization that created the Hole in the Wall camps for kids with cancer and other life-threatening diseases, which Newman and Hotchner established in 1985. Hotchner recalls that the idea for the book was broached on November 11, 2001, when he produced a gala, star-studded benefit performance at Lincoln Center to raise money for the camp. Naturally, after the curtain fell, he went to Elaine's, where his longtime friends Nan and Gay Talese were part of the celebration. Nan suggested that Hotch write a book about the amateur, smash-hit food business and its charitable mission. Hotchner says he was willing, but he doubted that the enterprise had legs since the peripatetic Newman was hard to pin down. He proposed the idea to his buddy anyway. "I said, 'You don't want to write a book about Newman's Own, do you?' That was a mistake. The minute you say, 'you don't,' Newman says, 'yeah, why not?' "
As Hotchner had predicted, "Paul kept running around making movies, and I was having trouble getting him to sit down." Moreover, research into the early days of the business—contacting the people who tested the salad dressing, detailing the process of establishing the camp—dragged on. He kept sending versions of the work-in-progress to Newman at movie locations and car-racing tracks, so that his coauthor could edit and add. But the end was not in sight when the VanityFair piece on Elaine's appeared, and Elaine was gung-ho to get her book under way. Hotchner figured he'd do the restaurant book first, but, courteously, he gave a version of Shameless Exploitation to Nan Talese, anyway. To Hotchner's astonishment, she managed to get Newman "to pay attention." The book came together in record time, while Hotchner was finishing Everyone Comesto Elaine's. So now he has a double header.
We are talking in Hotchner's handsome house in Westport, located on six acres of landscaped grounds entered via a pair of wrought-iron gates down an allée of venerable trees. The house is a transplanted Norman, whitewashed, with wooden trim and an honest- to-god brick turret. Wild turkeys roam the yard, while in the glassed-in sunroom, cheerful even on a gray day, two songbirds twitter in a roomy cage. Hotchner says he's always had a great affinity for birds. A colorful parade of ceramic and glass roosters marches up and down the broad windowsill. They're what he calls the "indoor group," while his collection of peacocks and pedigreed chickens reside outside. His friend Martha Stewart recommended the chicken farm in Iowa where the chicks originate.
Hotchner has just come back from the annual Christmas lunch for the employees of Newman's Own, of which he is president and treasurer. Casually dressed, in a V-necked sweater over a striped shirt and khakis, Hotchner is a compact man with curly white hair, a direct gaze and an avuncular manner that belies his self-description as a "cantankerous writer."
It's a long way from St. Louis, where Hotchner survived a Depression childhood, later chronicled with gritty and touching fidelity in his 1973 memoir, King of the Hill. After graduating from Washington University law school, he spent "two miserable years" practicing law. "I had some sort of romantic notion that I'd be a dynamic trial lawyer. The reality was that we represented corporations. But I found the real deterrent was having to deal with other lawyers," he says. Still, the experience left him with the ability "to think methodically, to use research and to read my own contracts."
WWII turned his life around. He wound up in Paris, working on an air force magazine. After he was discharged, he stayed in France until his money ran out, when returned to New York and looked up a former colleague on the service magazine, who was now the editor of Cosmopolitan. "There was no job, but he said, 'Here's a list of all the writers who used to write for us—Dorothy Parker, John Steinbeck, Edna Ferber, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway. You go find them, wherever they are, and persuade them to write for us again. We'll pay you a bounty.' So I became a freelance bounty hunter," Hotchner says, with a grin.
From that assignment came Hotchner's friendship with Hemingway, chronicled a decade later after the legendary writer's death in the now classic Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. The book was a sensation, a bestseller published in 34 countries, and it made his reputation. "Those years you can't repeat," Hotchner says. "He was a man who savored life. Every day was an adventure. We did the bullfight circuit. We went places in Havana that only he knew about. We walked in Paris. He introduced me to Venice.... Those were the good years. Then it all went downhill."
Later, Hotchner wrote a TV dramatization of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, with a musical score by Aaron Copland and featuring the young Paul Newman as a battered prizefighter. "That was in 1956. We've been annoying each other ever since."
His next big hit was a biography of Doris Day, which he was determined would not be a puff piece. He told the star famous for her adorable screen roles that he intended to give a balanced portrait, by talking to her mother, her son, her directors and fellow actors. "As far as I know, that was the first time that technique was used in a celebrity bio," he says. He repeated the technique, and the success, with a book about Sophia Loren. He was at that time living in Paris, doing research for his WWII literary thriller The Man Who Lived at the Ritz.
With his output currently somewhere around 15 books and countless numbers of screenplays and magazine articles, Hotchner has one major frustration; his career as a writer of musical comedies has never taken off. "Cy Coleman and I did a musical on Broadway called Let Em Rot! but it kicked the bucket very quickly. It was anti-feminist—about men paying alimony." (Hotchner has been divorced twice.) Undaunted, they wrote Courtroom Cantata, which has played in several venues and now will go out on the road. "I've never really hit my stride," Hotchner muses.
Meanwhile, his greatest source of gratification is the Hole in the Wall camp. "You see a group of kids who have cancer, most of them don't have any hair, some are missing a limb, some push wheelchairs with other kids in them. But they're all having a marvelous time. The big thing is that at night they can sit and talk to each other. They can talk it out in a way that they can't do with their parents." So far, the original Hole in the Wall has spawned eight camps around the world, with one under construction in Jordan, for Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian children.
A phone call reminds Hotchner that he must return to the Newman's Own office the next day to start giving away the $19 million that the business enterprise has earned this year. Actually, the philanthropy does not totally support the camp or its numerous other beneficiaries. By law, 50% of the money must come from the private sector. About $1 million of their gift to the camp comes from the annual gala he produces.
Meanwhile, Hotchner intends to stick to the writing game. "Every book is a different adventure. For me, there's no such thing as sitting down and repeating myself." So here's how the jacket copy on a biography of Hotchner might read: how a kid from St. Louis became a renowned author, hobnobbed with the literary greats, stage and screen celebrities and the trend-setters of his time, made and gave away a lot of money and is still flourishing in a multifaceted and improbable life.