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Micheners the Name by Robert Vavra

Mary Daniels
Chicago Tribune

Photos reveal private side of James Michener.

Michener's the Name

Publisher: University Press of Colorado
ISBN: 0870818562
Author: Robert Vavra
Price: $39.95
Length: 204
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-02

While millions of people around the globe read James A. Michener's books, his public identity was always a blank page. His private readability wasn't much better, seemingly written in disappearing ink even for those around him when he was alive.

"Nobody really knew the man. He was so guarded," says Debbie Brothers, his "Girl Friday" from 1982, when the author of Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, The Bridges of Toko Ri and more than 40 other titles moved to Austin, Texas, until his death in October 1997.

"Everybody wanted to get to know him, and nobody really did," adds Brothers, now the executrix of his estate. "Nobody knew who he was. Nobody recognized him when he did go out in public."

But here is the chance to take the mask off the enigma in a biography like no other, Michener's The Name by Robert Vavra (The University Press of Colorado, $39.95).

The book comes out timed to a milestone. Michener was born in Doylestown, Pa., on Feb. 3, 1907, and "Vavra has almost given him a gift on Michener's 100th birthday celebration," says Brothers.

The impact of the book's photographs, taken over 40 years by Vavra, is in the unexpected.

There's the cover shot of Michener as Neptune, the god of the sea, head festooned with seaweed, taken on a Portuguese beach in the '60s. Michener pressed in a doorway as the bulls of Pamplona, Spain, thunder past. Michener pretending to have voluptuous breasts by holding two Spanish bread rolls to his chest.

"That's not James Michener," Vavra, the author of more than 30 books, said people tell him when they first see the photos.

"I can't believe you saw him naked and in the bathtub." "I never saw him laugh like that. I can't imagine he'd clown around like a little kid." "You saw him drink wine and beer?" were other comments, says Vavra, in an phone interview from his ranch near Seville.

"All understandable," says Brothers, because "all the pictures you ever saw of him are at the typewriter, even when he won the Pulitzer Prize. Here's a side of him we never see."

How did Vavra do it?

"I knew Michener in a foreign country at a special time in his life and in mine," he says. "He was 54, and I was 26 when we met. I was not someone his age, or an employee or a business associate, but a kid, a `playmate,' buddy, collaborator and protegee."

Vavra, a Californian, was in Spain working on a book on the toro bravo, or fighting bull, when he met Michener, an aficionado. Michener gave the unknown photographer a jump-start on his career by assigning him to take the photos for "Iberia."

The book's title of Vavra's book comes from Michener's introduction of himself to John Fulton, an American bullfighter, when they passed in a Seville street in March 1961. Fulton had no idea who Michener was, he told his friend Vavra, equally clueless. But a mutual friend who overheard them, ran through the streets to find Michener, and invited him back for a drink. Thus serendipitously began what Vavra calls "the greatest adventure in a life full of adventures."

There is a quality Vavra possesses that possibly Michener intuited even then. Vavra's breakthrough was the best-seller Equus, (for which Michener wrote the foreword), a magnificent chronicle of the horse, filled with haunting photos of the private world of free-living equines.

Vavra spent paralyzingly long hours hanging in the branches of a tree waiting for a Spanish mare to foal, which she did, just below his feet. A coup, since mares notoriously prefer to foal alone.

His extreme patience is likely a virtue that worked with the man who became his mentor and for whom he became a spiritual son.

While Ernest Hemingway was the model of machismo for so many men in the mid-20th century, Michener did not measure up by comparison at first. Balding, bespectacled, chunky, with a bulbous nose, and quiet, Michener, to the young Vavra appeared to be no more than the college professor he once was.

When Vavra realized that Hemingway, whom he met in the bullfighting season of 1959, had been destroyed by fame and indulgence, but Michener had stayed the same from start to finish, he began to value him for what he was.

"He was America's storyteller; that was what he did," says Carol Schneider, vice president and executive director of publicity and public relations at Random House, which published Michener's sweeping sagas covering the lives of many generations in a particular geographic locales, incorporating historical facts in the story.

Since they were published all over the world in many languages, tallying a final number is impossible. The James A. Michener Art Museum Web site estimates more than 75 million.

From their records, says Schneider, the best-seller, among Alaska, Poland, Hawaii and so many others, has been "Centennial, for which we recorded 5.8 million sales in both hardcover and paperback. From that same tally it looks as if Texas was the best-selling hardcover, selling more than 1 million copies," she says.

"He took places in America and overseas, and he really made them come alive for people," Schneider says. "A lot of people who usually did not read fiction would buy his books to educate themselves. His books were not scholarly, they were popular."

At times the lack of personal charisma frustrated Michener. The portrait of him as Poseidon is explained in his own words: "Bennett Cerf (co-founder and publisher of Random House) ran into where I was working, with that incredible photograph of the young faun, Truman Capote, reclining languorously on a chaise longue. `Look what some SOB sent me,' Cerf bellowed. `What you need, Michener, is a photograph like this! An attention getter.'"

Vavra, as "court photographer" complied, Michener relishing the ribaldry.

Not to beat an already well-ridden horse, but I personally experienced Michener's impenetrable reserve. I interviewed him in the mid-'70s as a young reporter in a Chicago hotel room, when Centennial became a hot television miniseries. I spun my wheels, brain cells smoking, as he skirted every question. Then out of the blue he asked me about my recent book about a television spokescat who had become a furry feline folk hero. "Yes, it's been on the Publishers Weekly best-seller list," I said, wondering how he knew.

"Well," he said, extending a huge mitt of a hand, "put 'er there!" as if I were one of the guys. That moment meant more to me than the list did.

And that turns out to be Michener too. "People would keep trying to talk to him. He didn't like talking about himself. But he did like to be a parent to everybody," Brothers says of the thrice married but childless Michener. "He wanted Vavra to succeed the way he did."

"No biography captures anyone 100 percent, but Vavra's comes the closest in capturing Michener over 40 years," says Robert Daley, author of Prince of the City, Year of the Dragon, and popular police thrillers.

"I think this is the best thing Vavra has done by far. It is remarkable," adds Daley, who as a correspondent for the New York Times spent time in Spain during the halcyon days when it was a mecca for elite expatriates. Upon meeting Michener, he found him "cold and distant and did not like him." Later, "in some ways he became a hero of mine, too," he says.

"Yes, yes, yes, that too," adds Daley of how Vavra, in his storytelling, "captures not only Michener and Michener's work" but those days of wine and bulls in Spain.

Here follows only one of the adventures Michener and Vavra got themselves into, told "down to earth, perfect and totally accurate," Daley says.

The two were at a "Felliniesque fiesta in Madrid thrown by a Spanish millionaire," Vavra recalls. Everyone who had ever been anyone was there, including Orson Welles, British theater critic Kenneth Tynan, and Ava Gardner, "The Barefoot Contessa."

In the wee hours of the morning, as Michener and Vavra were leaving, they "approached a doorway nearly blocked by a woman seeming to be holding herself up by leaning against the wall." It was Gardner, though at this time Vavra says "she resembled an older sister of herself."

"`It was nice to see you again, Ava,' said Jim politely, slightly bowing at the waist, obviously trying to get past her and out the door," Vavra says. "When she did not respond, Jim repeated, `Yes, it was nice to have seen you again, Ava.' Ava's eyes opened a bit wider as her stare focused on Michener. Her lovely lips parted, and in her dusky voice she said, `Oh, (expletive deleted) off, Jack!'"

In the cab on their way back to the hotel, Michener and Vavra laughed like schoolboys, looked at each other and shared the same thought. "James Albert Michener, a Pulitzer Prize winner, inspiration for one of Broadway's most famous musicals (South Pacific), best-selling author, guest of honor at the party we just left, had been told to eff off by one of Hollywood's most glamorous movie queens. To the lady at the door, he had been just another Jack."

After this book, one can hardly imagine him as that ever again.

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