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Out of the spotlight, the drama and excitement of Joan Collins' life rivals the plot of the most compelling Hollywood blockbuster. Now, in Second Act, Joan Collins tells her own story with striking candor and wonderful anecdotes full of insight and wit. "Compulsively readable."--Sunday Telegraph.
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Trial and Error
When Random House, the powerful American publishers, had contracted me for $4 million for two hot novels, they hadn't insisted that I produce the next War and Peace.
However, after three years of confusing and contradictory messages, changing their minds as often as Alexis changed clothes, they decided they wanted their million-dollar advance back.
Believing that the best defence is attack, Random House sued me for it in 1994 and I immediately countersued, insisting, and rightly so, that they owed me for what I had contractually fulfilled.
Unable to rely on advice from Swifty Lazar, my fast-fading agent, my advisor had become Alan Nevins, a partner in Lazar's agency.
With each rejection of my literary efforts, Alan had suggested I try again, so I'd spent two years writing and rewriting with virtually no input from Joni Evans, my editor, other than a cursory: 'Yes, this is an improvement, very inventive, but it's got a long way to go,' etc., etc., etc. I was banging my tired head against a brick out-house but I was not about to quit.
It was a ridiculous lawsuit. I'd delivered two complete novels in a timely manner. I'd written half a million words, the rough drafts of which filled fifteen large cardboard boxes, and there was no acceptance clause in my contract, meaning that if I delivered a complete manuscript of 125,000 words, Random House had to pay me.
My contract also stated clearly that Random House was required to publish the manuscript within a year after I had delivered. If the contract was terminated all rights would revert to me.
In my eagerness to get my book published in 1992, I hadn't asked for the half-million dollars due on delivery of the manuscript, so when Random House rejected it, I agreed with Alan to write another.
It was obvious that Random House were attempting to pull a thick woolly sweater over my eyes. The book business was losing money, particularly on the sex 'n' shopping novels that had been so popular in the eighties, but instead of writing off Joan Collins' advance, Random House chose to sue me, which must have ended up costing them a great deal more.
The acceptance clause, which publishers insist on including in most authors' contracts, is the publishing world's most powerful weapon: it allows them not to pay for work they don't like. But it is also grossly unfair, as a writer can work solidly for two years, then if the publisher doesn't like the work they commissioned, they simply say, 'Give us our money back,' and the poor writer is screwed.
Swifty, oh, brilliant, super-agent that he was, never allowed this clause to appear in any of his clients' contracts, and since he had some pretty important authors, the publishers were impotent. 'If you insist on this clause we'll go to another house,' was Swifty's maxim. So nine times out of ten the publishers reluctantly agreed to omit it.
Alberto Vitale, Random House's vertically challenged chief executive officer, was so starstruck that he had to accommodate the super-agent if he wanted to sign any of his celebrity clients. But now Random House were digging in their collective heels, eager to publicly burn Joan at the stake, and with truly appalling cynicism they filed the suit six weeks after Swifty's death.
It seemed extraordinary to me, and still does, that publishers of the calibre and power of Random House should stoop to such depths by weaseling out of an honest deal.
I was in a David and Goliath situation: one small individual fighting for vindication and her rights against a multibillion-dollar monolith. I truly believed that this company deliberately set out not only to destroy me, my reputation and my finances, but also to teach a harsh lesson to other authors. They'd been throwing six- and seven-figure advances around to celebrities and stars for years and now the reality of falling sales had exposed their cupidity.
I'd recently dined with a producer in LA who'd said, 'Swifty got a million dollars from Random House for my autobiography three years ago.'
'How much was your first payment?' I asked.
'A quarter of a million.'
'And how much have you written?'
'Not one word.' He grinned. 'I guess I've just slipped between the cracks.'
Another friend told me, 'Swifty changed the rules of the publishing game so Vitale wanted to break Swifty's system, so you are now the fallguy they're using to bust it. It's being planned like a military manoeuvre. They're desperate to stop these big agents and their 'pay or play' contracts which take out the 'satisfactory manuscript' clause. It has nothing to do with you--Joan Collins--you're just being used to frighten off any other authors to whom Random House think they've paid too much, and those agents who have the temerity to force this clause on them. They hate it.'
So let us cut to the chase.
New York City on a chill February morning in 1996. A grim courthouse in downtown Manhattan; scuffed chairs and hideous artificial light. In one corner the all-seeing eye of Court TV prepares to beam the events of this trial to the world.
Ken Burrows, my lawyer, large and avuncular, married to writer Erica Jong, Don Zakarin, the dynamic counsel Ken brought in to assist him, and Stacy Grossman, Ken's young assistant, were all assembled at one end of a table with me.
At the other end was Robert Callagy, Random House's counsel, elderly, thin-lipped and stooped. He bore an uncanny resemblance to George Bush and his self-righteous manner made him look like an actor playing a Bible-belter in some schlock Western: 'Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.' He had one female assistant.
When Judge Ira Gammerman appeared everyone stood. Known around the court-houses as 'The Rocket Docket,' he was famously irascible and jumped to swift conclusions. He was smart and inflexible, a no-nonsense sixtyish toughie who was definitely the boss in his courtroom.
The jury filed in, eleven men and women, all looking like college graduates. They seemed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but their expressions were inscrutable.
My editor, Joni Evans, was the plaintiff's first witness. As my editor she'd been supposed to help me; instead she'd let me flounder. I was surprised by her raddled appearance and how much older she looked since last we'd met, probably due to her recent fall from grace. Twenty years earlier, a high flyer of driving ambition, she'd become one of the most powerful people in publishing, nicknamed 'The Manhattan Mercenary.' Her imprint at Random House had been recently abruptly terminated, Evans had dropped out of the major-player league and was now a literary agent.
I found it amazing that she was testifying against me, when it had been Random House who'd done her wrong.
'A pay-off,' said Ken. 'I've heard that Random House paid her handsomely when they dumped her. But she mustn't ever do or say anything against them.'
That made sense.
I suspected Evans was going to be a Judas and I was soon proved right. I'd realized at deposition time that this wasn't to be a case about a contract. Instead my literary ability was on trial.
'Are you sure you know what you're doing, taking on those guys? They're as unforgiving as the Mafia,' a friend had warned. But there was no question of choice. I was in the right. I'd fulfilled my side of the contract to the letter, and there was no way I was giving back my advance.
This bottle blonde on the stand, with her leathery orange skin, attempted a weak smile in my direction, then started ripping my novels to shreds--occasionally glancing in my direction with a smirk.
I sat stoically. I simply couldn't believe her falsehoods. When Joni was asked, 'Did this book have a beginning, a middle and an end?' she answered smugly, to my astonishment, 'No.'
'The B word's too good for her,' I whispered to Ken. 'She's the C word--with a capital C, worse than Alexis ever was.'
'At least Alexis had a sense of humour and bags of style,' said Ken. 'Her only bags are under her eyes.'
For almost two days Evans trashed me and lied blatantly. And, oh, how the tabloids rushed to print the slander: 'Primitive rubbish--flawed--inane--fragmented--gibberish--makes no sense.' What also infuriated me was the constant assertion by the press that 'celebrities don't write their own books', which, in my case, is absolutely NOT true. (And in case you're wondering, dear reader, this is all my own work).
With five bestselling books under my belt, the consensus of media opinion had become, 'She's no writer.'
My reputation was being ruined.
Every day Judy Bryer and Jeffrey Lane, my two dear friends, sat loyally in the court-house.
'They're destroying me,' I said sadly.
'Don't let the bastards get you down,' said Judy. 'Isn't that your motto?'
'It certainly is,' I said, 'but opinion seems to be going against me.'
'It won't be when you get a chance to speak.'
After two days Evans finished her self-serving litany and several expert witnesses were called. Thomas Lipscomb, a highly experienced publisher and editor, had read both my novels and pronounced them publishable. During his cross-examination, Callagy abruptly interrupted to demand that Lipscomb show him the file he'd brought with him. Glasses slipping to the end of his beaky nose, Callagy scanned the offending documents.
'What does "Hail Mary Pass" mean?' he asked suspiciously.
'It's an American football term to describe a despairing and spectacular attempt to score a goal in the final seconds of the game,' said Thomas. 'I wrote this note to myself because I believe that Random House had thrown all caution to the wind in suspending the Collins acceptance clause, and had left themselves with no means whatever to get back their full payment, whether the manuscript was satisfactory or not.'
At this the court erupted. 'Random House have just given themselves a knock-out blow,' Ken whispered.
Then came another expert witness, the jocular Lucianne Goldberg, who had ghostwritten a few bestselling novels and, according to several sources including Dominick Dunne, was a fine editor. She had the court in stitches several times.
When asked by the craggy Callagy, 'Why does the heroine have cancer and heart disease simultaneously and then recover?' Goldberg quipped, 'It's a miracle!' to screams of laughter from the court. Then she said, seriously, 'Putting raw material right is what editors are supposed to do. They just use their blue pencil.'
When asked by my counsel if she thought my novels were publishable, Lucianne said, 'Absolutely. All they needed was some cutting and moving things around. All the stuff editors get well paid for.'
Each day, going and coming from the trial, the press greeted me more kindly, but they all asked gleefully, 'What's it like to have your work trashed?
'Will you have to stop writing now?'
I gritted my teeth and smiled bravely.
The second night, during a meeting with my lawyers, I asked if Callagy might call me to the stand tomorrow.
'Highly unlikely,' they said.
'Because I'm sure he'll try to confuse me with what I said in my Globe deposition. I don't feel properly prepared. How can I remember what I said four years ago?'
'Stop worrying,' said the lawyers. 'We'll prepare you tomorrow night.'
The next day, immediately after the jury had filed in, Callagy barked, 'Call Joan Collins to the stand.'
My heart did the rhumba, and I glared at Ken, who shrugged. Into the witness box unprepared--an actor's nightmare.
Callagy tried basic intimidation techniques, throwing my manuscripts and depositions before me while firing off belligerent questions. When I tried to explain the differences in my Globe depositions and why I'd referred to the first novel as The Ruling Passion when it was actually Hell Hath No Fury, I was sternly reprimanded.
'Just answer yes or no, witness,' Judge Gammerman snapped.
I'd admitted in a previous deposition that my memory for dates was poor, yet the questions Callagy asked were a memory test. Example: 'Did Joni Evans tell you your writing was "too Gothic" in 1991?'
Trying to explain that it was I who had used the word Gothic about my own work was useless. Both Callagy and the judge insisted on only yes or no answers. I was surprised my lawyers didn't object to such tricky questions that were designed to trip me up on memory.
It was incredibly frustrating. Callagy was a bully, all right, and I thought the men at Random House were cowards to hide behind his skirts.
I knew that all Random House had to go on in this case were these minor differences between my two 1992 depositions, my 1994 deposition, and what I answered now! They were grasping at straws. Who remembered 'she said' or 'I said'? Not me. Callagy was trying to fluster me but each time I attempted to explain he cut me off with: 'Yes or no, witness?'
I wanted to throttle him.
Then Callagy triumphantly revealed to the jury an enormous blowup of the release I'd signed in the Globe case. 'Did you sign this?'
'Yes,' I said.
'Do you realize you were under oath and penalty of perjury when you signed?' he spat.
'Yes, but I--'
'Just yes or no, witness.' The judge sounded bored.
'So you say one thing to the Globe, when you're trying to get money from them, and then two years later when you're trying to get money from Random House you say something else?'
'No--no, no,' I stammered.
His lips curled in a 'gotcha' sneer.
'Don't you have any shame?' he sneered.
'Objection,' Ken yelled.
'Counsellor, counsellor, please.' Gammerman banged his gavel as the courtroom erupted again.
'No more questions.' Callagy turned his back on me with a satisfied smirk, the famous plagiarized line from the McCarthy trial ringing in my ears.
I couldn't believe what was happening. Callagy had insulted me, calling me a liar and a perjurer, yet I was powerless to explain. This court was theatre of the absurd.
I sat trembling with frustrated fury. Stacy squeezed my hand. 'Don't worry,' she said.
But I was worried. Callagy had made me look utterly stupid and a liar. I tried not to think about the TV camera fixed on me. I tried to dismiss the personal and professional humiliation, and the possibility that I could be ruined, but my emotional tether, stretched to breaking-point after two years of this litigation hell, finally snapped.
I fumbled in my bag for a Kleenex.
'Go into the judge's chambers, quick,' Stacy whispered, so I dashed in and cried me a river--more tears than I'd shed for years.
Two sweet courtroom officials bustled around me, dispensing Kleenex and condemnation of Callagy's venom.
'Attacking a witness doesn't go down well with the jury,' said Belinda, wisely.
'He went too far,' said Barbara.
'I've heard convicted killers treated with more respect than Callagy gave me,' I said. 'It was like being interrogated by the Gestapo.'
'No Way to Treat a Diva!' shrieked the front-page headlines of the New York Post the next day beside a photo of me crying, plus the story of my 'ineptitude' in the courtroom. 'She's no Alexis!' they crowed. 'Alexis would have given as good as she got. Joan is soft and unconvincing, a frail shadow of her TV roles.'
'Just wait,' I muttered to Judy later, as more messages of support and anger towards Callagy poured in. 'Just wait till I'm allowed to speak.'
My friend Louise Fennell telephoned from London early in the morning. 'Darling, you must get rid of that boring beige. It's so down. Wear something red or pink. Be cheerful.'
She was right. I put on a pink silk shirt, and sailed off to day four and Ken's direct examination. At last I myself would be able to tell the jury everything, including the Globe deposition, in my own words.
Ken started well enough and for ten minutes I was able to articulate how diligently I'd worked and how much I'd written.
Then, as I began to explain the inconsistencies in that wretched 1992 deposition, I was interrupted in mid-sentence.
'Objection,' Callagy called.
I could not believe this. It's hard enough for a lawyer to ask exactly the correct question without appearing to 'lead' the witness and Ken was doing all right.
'Sustained.' The judge sounded even more bored than he had the previous day.
Ken rephrased the question.
'Objection,' Callagy barked again.
'Sustained,' said the judge.
This is a nightmare, I thought.
Ken, by now slightly flustered, went to Don and was heard whispering on Court TV, 'I don't know how the hell to get out of this.'
He then rephrased the question but Callagy objected and the judge sustained it again.
This was all totally unfair and infuriating. I was now being tongue-tied by my own lawyer. Callagy, no slouch, knew that I had been on a roll of directly explaining events to the jury, so he went flat out to stop me and he succeeded! I wanted to scream.
At five o'clock, we broke for the long weekend and I went to stay with Blaine and Robert Trump in their country house in upstate New York. Friends came to visit, the consensus of their opinions being that my lawyer should never have allowed the bombastic Callagy to get away with his interrogation.
'Do you mind if I say a mass for you tomorrow?' Liam Neeson asked sympathetically.
'Say as many as you can,' I said. 'I need all the help I can get.'
'If Swifty were still alive would this still have happened?' asked Robert.
'No way. He had so much power in publishing and protected his authors to the death. One phone call and Random House would have backed off,' I said.
Monday was still a holiday, the snow was thick on the ground and I spent the entire day reading my nightmarishly confusing depositions.
'I can't remember it at all--there are hundreds of pages to memorize.'
'Study them thoroughly tonight,' Ken instructed. 'You're on with Callagy first thing. He's going to do everything he can to try and throw you.'
I was full of gloom. It was impossible to remember who'd said what to whom and when. I was weighed down with dates and conflicting statements.
Another friend, Sue St Johns, rang from London, then I spoke to her lawyer husband Dick.
'Don't let Callagy rattle you,' he warned. 'Because that's what he's going to attempt to do. If he tries confusing you with dates just tell him you don't remember. You're not a computer, for God's sake. You don't have to remember things if you can't. Be strong--be assertive and look that jury in the eye.'
I'd hardly glanced at the jury, having been warned by Judge Gammerman not to make eye-contact, but suddenly I thought, Why not? It made sense. They seemed intelligent. I would make them understand that I was telling the truth and the plaintiffs were misrepresenting everything I'd done.
I wont be persecuted any more, I thought.
Before going to sleep I did some visualization-meditation and the following morning I felt ready to take on the world. How dare Random House treat me in this degrading way? Didn't they have any shame?
I wore something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. The Faberge good luck rabbit Robin Hurlstone had given me was safely tucked in my bag. I put on all my lucky charms and talismans and felt in commanding form when I greeted Judy.
'You look totally different,' she said. 'Powerful and confident.'
'I'm ready for those bastards.' I grinned. 'And I won't let 'em get me down this time.'
While Callagy rained questions on me I stared at him coolly and unyieldingly. I'd finally realized that if I only answered what I could answer I had a chance of winning this game of trial and error.
Several times I said cooly 'I can't recall,' which seemed to irritate him. Finally he stalked over close to me holding out my manuscript contemptuously.
'Counsellor, you're supposed to ask permission of the judge before approaching the witness.' I smiled at him flirtatiously.
Callagy gulped, then stared at me furiously. I continued smiling. I was finally in the driver's seat. A line I'd often said in Dynasty came into my head: 'Don't mess with Alexis!'
'Mr Callagy, I'm not a computer,' I said. 'How can you possibly expect me to remember all these different dates?'
He tried another tack and I answered, 'You're deliberately switching about and trying to confuse me, aren't you, Mr Callagy?'
He then asked about the number of times my novel's title had been changed.
'Look, I called it Athena, Atlanta, A Ruling Passion or Hell Hath No Fury. Sometimes I even called it Hitler's Mistress.' The court and jury laughed, and the judge called for order.
The cooler I behaved, the more rattled Callagy became. Eventually, having failed to crack me, the mulish attorney conceded defeat. 'No more questions,' he hissed.
Then Don Zakarin summed up my case, ramming home the salient points.
When he finished, Callagy jumped up and gave the jury a histrionic performance that would have done credit to Richard III. His trump card was the 1992 document I'd signed with the novel's change of title, which he called, melodramatically, 'The Smoking Gun.' He mentioned this no less than nine times.
'It's all he's got,' Ken whispered.
Jury time now. The judge instructed the jury that there were only three questions to answer:
(1) Did defendant Joan Collins fail to deliver complete manuscript number one?
(2) Did defendant Joan Collins fail to deliver complete manuscript number two?
(3) Was manuscript number two a revision of manuscript number one?
I'd insisted that each juror be given a copy of both manuscripts and was feeling confident until Don said, 'I can't predict how it's going to go with this jury. You can never predict a jury.'
I went to the Harbor restaurant with my friends, a mile away from court, where the Teflon Don, the infamous Mafioso John Gotti, had waited for his verdict on a murder charge. This wait was absolute murder for me.
'It'll take them hours to reach a verdict--we'll be here all night,' I said.
Two hours later I'd just decided to order a glass of wine when our mobile phone rang. Everyone jumped several inches into the air.
'They've reached a verdict!' Belinda said from the court. 'Get down here right away.'
As the jury filed in my heart was beating so wildly I thought it would burst through my rib-cage. I tried to read the jurors' impassive faces.
'If it's "No" on question one, it's in our favour,' whispered Ken.
The foreman, a well-upholstered, bearded man, stood up to read from his piece of paper.
I started to shake uncontrollably. Although my contract was ironclad, would this jury be swayed by Random's fabrication about my 'unpublishable' writing?
I willed myself not to break down if I lost. I was squeezing Ken's hand tightly when, through the roaring in my ears, I heard the most beautiful word in the world. 'NO!' I'd won. Justice had been served, and how sweet it was.
I trembled with delight and after the rest of the verdicts were announced bounded over to the jury to shake all of their hands.
'Every author will make you a heroine now.' Ken grinned.
I realized that to millions of TV watchers the culmination of two of the most harrowing years of my life were described as 'an Oscar-worthy performance' and 'She squeezed a three-act drama out of those vital seconds before the verdict was announced.' They didn't know the anguish I had gone through, my ordeal had merely been entertainment for the winter-weary.
Did some people think I was acting? Hey, boys, I didn't ask for the cameras to be there.
The jury insisted on meeting me, and in their room they greeted me with a standing ovation.
'My God, you can smile!' I looked at eleven beaming faces. 'You were all so completely stone-faced during the trial it terrified me.'
'We were told to be,' laughed their jolly spokesman, then he said, 'This looks real good, I can't wait to read it. Each juror requested I sign their copies of the manuscripts.
Then we were whisked through the winding stone corridors and out into the freezing New York night where a large crowd had gathered, as well as press and photographers. A cheer went up as I came out of the court-house and I punched the air with my fist raised joyfully in triumph, a gesture I'd never before made in my life.
The questions came thick and fast. 'How does it feel to have defeated one of the most powerful publishing houses in the world?'
'Vindicated,' I said. 'I've been writing for eighteen years. I've had six books published, and five were bestsellers, so I'm going onward. I was terribly pleased by the verdict. I'd taken on a giant with money to burn, who didn't care if they ruined my career and my livelihood. People advised me not to continue, but I'm not a quitter.'
My lawyers answered the financial questions in which the press were most interested: 'We expect Miss Collins is owed in the vicinity of two million dollars,' said Don.
'Nice work if you can get it,' I said. 'I bet those bastards appeal.'
'If they do, they're fools,' said Don. 'They should swallow their loss and behave like gentlemen.'
'Gentlemen they definitely ain't,' I said.
'It just drags it out for them,' said Don. 'But this is a wonderful, famous victory. It's an out-and-out triumph because Random were trying to intimidate all authors by saying, "Don't mess with us." '
The next day Alberto Vitale told the New York Times that his company were 'dismayed by the decision and terribly disappointed but we're reviewing our legal options.'
A month later Random House appealed the unanimous jury verdict.
The party that night, at Peter and Jane Marino's beautiful apartment, had been planned for several weeks and would have gone ahead even if I'd lost. 'It would either have been a wake or a celebration,' I told Robin, who had flown in that afternoon from London to watch the nail-biting finale on television with Hugo Guinness.
Champagne and congratulations flowed, jubilant faces showed delight at my victory and my back ached from enthusiastic hugs. I simply couldn't stop grinning at everyone's exuberant rejoicing.
Many friends were there: Dominick Dunne, who had followed the trial closely and given me wonderful advice, Bob Colacello, Blaine and Robert, Cari Modine, Ann Jones, Kenneth Jay Lane, Marina Palma, Janey Longman, Hugo Guinness, Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson, Nan Kempner, and those who had been closely by my side every day--Ken and Erica, Judy, Sarah Standing, Lance Reynolds--and, of course, my beloved Robin.
Then, after more toasts and some touching speeches, I stood, raised my glass of champagne to heaven and said: 'To Swifty, wherever you may be, you certainly came through for me.'
And to myself I thought: and thanks to my parents who gave me the back-bone and the background to be able to have got through this and the many other vicissitudes in my life.