A leisurely lunch between two men on a summer's day in an office in 1982 launched one of the most successful biographies ever published. The book told a particularly American story with surefire elements: son of immigrants works for auto magnate, rises to the top, then crashes, only to resurrect himself—as well as a car manufacturer that was running on fumes.
The immigrant son was Lee Iacocca, CEO of the Chrysler Corporation and former president of Ford Motors. The man who wanted his story was Alberto Vitale, president of Bantam Books. And the other man who helped seal the deal was Stuart Applebaum, at the time Bantam's vice-president of publicity.
Vitale and Applebaum flew out to Michigan for a meeting with Iacocca at Chrysler headquarters. "Mr. Iacocca said, 'I'm not a writer,' " recalls Applebaum, now executive v-p of communications at Random House. After Applebaum presented his proposal and Iacocca agreed to do the book, the auto magnate was not only a writer—he was on his way to becoming a phenomenon.
Iacocca: An Autobiography, written by Iacocca and collaborator William Novak, was published in 1984 and sold over two million copies, a remarkable feat in age before online retailing and mega book chains. Aside from an excerpt in Newsweek and a particularly charismatic speech delivered by Iacocca at the ABA convention that year, the book's fortunes were tied to exceptionally strong word-of-mouth. The narrative captured Iacocca's business acumen and forthright style but did not flinch when it came to depicting the low points in his starry career. Iacocca's recounting of the day Henry Ford fired him presented the picture of a shattered man; yet, it was something everyone could understand.
"Everybody related to some aspect of Iacocca's life," Applebaum says. "He was canned, came back more successful, took the government bailout on Chrysler and came back as hard a worker at the top of his game as he was in the beginning. He spoke plainly when many CEOs were double talkers. Men and women from the assembly line to the boardroom could relate."
Though Iacocca: An Autobiography topped bestseller lists even in countries where readers couldn't pronounce the author's name, Iacocca, who donated the book's profits to charity, took a different measure of its success—in the thousands of letters that flooded the mailroom at Chrysler. "The press department had to hire extra people to handle the volume," recalls Applebaum.
Applebaum looks back on that time like a "wild ride" in Iacocca's most famous cars, the Mustang. "We all wish we could find the memorist like him for 2006 and beyond," he says.