Both are experienced journalists, and both know a good murder story when they see it. In fact, so compelling was the murder of Utah multimillionaire Franklin Bradshaw by his grandson Marc Schreuder that both Shana Alexander and Jonathan Coleman seized upon it for the subject of separate books.
The crime was lurid enough, masterminded as it was by the mother of Marc Schreuder, Frances, who also happened to be Franklin Bradshaw's youngest daughter. But the fray that followed has included not only the total polarization of the Bradshaw family, but also a series of charges and countercharges--accusations of everything from unethical conduct to checkbook journalism, the practice of buying information--on the parts of authors Coleman and Alexander. Indeed, the exchange reads rather like a remake of Alexander's old televised "Point/Counterpoint" debates.
Coleman asserts, to begin with, that Alexander "came to this project secondhand." Alexander, on the other hand, makes no secret of the fact that she undertook the project that became "Nutcracker" (Doubleday) at the request of the children of the late Tommy Thompson, her former Life magazine colleague, "who had been powerfully drawn to this story because Marc was in school with one of Tommy's kids." Given her friendship with author Thompson, Alexander said, "I found it impossible to say no. I didn't even know what they were asking me about. But then when I got into it, I found it was a story of considerable interest."
By contrast, Coleman--once an editor at both Knopf and Simon & Schuster, later a producer at CBS News--said that "the first piece I ever did on camera was on this story." It is etched firmly in his brain: "It was the same day that Israel invaded Lebanon, March 19, 1982." Coleman said he continued to follow the Bradshaw/Schreuder saga as its details unfolded, but that finally, on the day Frances Schreuder was arrested, he suddenly realized the magnitude of the story.
"I was on my way home," he said, "I'd just finished work on a documentary on Central America, and I picked up the New York Post. This was the headline: 'POLICE: MOM TOLD SON TO KILL GRAND-DAD.'
"My first impression," Coleman said, "was that Murdoch had really stepped over the line.
"But then I thought, if this is true, it's a once-in-a-lifetime story, right out of ancient Greece."
"It isn't Greek," retorted Alexander. "It isn't Freudian. It isn't mythological. It's a story about madness, and madness doesn't follow any known patterns, because it's just pathology. It's just sick.
"It's 'Cinderella' standing on its head. If it were Greek, if it were Oedipal, the son would kill his father. This story doesn't fit any of the patterns."
But the story did fit the formula for a hot-selling book. Doubleday, Thompson's publisher, agreed to let Alexander inherit Thompson's exclusive material for the book that was to become "Nutcracker," and even stepped up the publication date. At Athenaeum, publication of Coleman's "At Mother's Request" was also sped up by several months. Originally targeted to hit the stores this fall, and some two to three months apart, "Nutcracker" and "At Mother's Request" were officially published June 21 and June 20, respectively.
Yet Alexander herself said she had no idea when she first agreed to tackle the Bradshaw/Schreuder story that another book was in progress on the same subject. From her "very first phone call" on the matter, however, she said she learned otherwise.
Because of the Tommy Thompson connection, Alexander said she had been given the name of a Connecticut private investigator who had worked on the Bradshaw murder investigation. "Everybody loved Tommy Thompson," Alexander said. "He was such a charming figure." And so help poured in, such as investigator "Jim Conway, who loved Tommy, and said, after Tommy's death, 'whoever picks up the reins on this book, let me help.' "
Though she had "50 or 60 phone calls I could have started with," Alexander happened to place her first call to Conway. "And he said ' you're doing Tommy's book?' " Alexander said the investigator was incredulous: "He said, 'well there was a fellow here last week and he said he was doing Tommy's book.' "
Coleman denies that he ever represented himself as having inherited the Thompson book project. During the trial of Bradshaw's grandson, Coleman said he and Thompson discussed the matter of a second book. "I told him it would be publishing suicide to go up against him," Coleman said. "Two months later, he died, which was such a shock. He was only 49."
Coleman began to reconsider. He said he contacted Thompson's Doubleday editor, Sam Vaughan, and was told that Alexander had taken over the project.
"I was entirely unintimidated by the fact that she was doing it," Coleman said, explaining his decision to take on the book that became "At Mother's Request."
"No one owns a story," Coleman reasoned, and anyway, "I felt I had come to it myself, with my own passion. And I felt just maybe she had come to it secondhand." Besides, said Coleman, Alexander's publishing "track record was such that it might take her forever to write this book. I just decided, I am going to write this. I had a story I had to tell. My feeling was, and is, that this story is so much bigger than the two of us. What really counts is how well we tell the story."
Alexander concedes she is "a slow writer." But this book consumed her, and seemed to take on a momentum of its own. "My own work started on the day of Frances' trial, the day after Labor Day, 1983. I think I finished the first draft in January (1985)."
Both writers produced mountainous volumes. But Coleman fumes that Alexander took a different route to her particular destination, using tape-recorded information he says Doubleday purchased from the lawyer of the imprisoned Marc Schreuder. "She admitted she didn't buy it herself," Coleman charged. "But the publisher did. She says she doesn't trust bought material, but she used it. It seems to me hypocritical."
Critical to Her Story
Those "incredible tapes of the home life of the Schreuders" were critical to her story, Alexander said. "It was a glimpse into the hideous snake pit of human suffering on the part of (the Schreuder) children." Researching what was clearly a juicy, gory, sordid murder, in which Marc Schreuder insisted the murder had been planned by his mother, and for which both were ultimately sentenced to lengthy prison terms, "I couldn't find the redeeming social value up until that point," Alexander said. "It was like writing a Grand Guignol story. It was pretty grim. But when I had these tapes, I was able to show the emotional abuse that Marc Schreuder took."
Because it was so shattering, so graphic, Alexander said she chose only to offer "a slight taste" of the taped information. "You don't have to tell everything to write a book, and I don't think you should," Alexander said. "Getting the story day-by-day is OK for weekly journalism, but when you are going to spend a year or so telling the story, the book writer has more responsibility to the story. You know what to put in and what to leave out. You don't throw everything in like the kitchen sink." And also, "you are writing about real people and they matter. You have a responsibility to them."
But in the tapes, she said she had "amazing material. And it was obviously genuine, not like buying Hitler's diary."
In any case, Alexander insists, "it isn't checkbook journalism. I didn't buy the material."
"Absolutely no money," said an equally adamant Coleman, "passed between me and them."
'The Ultimate Irony'
But the fact that money figures so prominently in the tiff between Coleman and Alexander strikes Coleman, for one, as more than a bit odd. "The irony is that this man, Marc's grandfather, was ostensibly killed because of money," Coleman said. "The ultimate irony is that this is what this story continues to be about."
Not that money is the only issue at hand. Coleman blusters that Alexander erred in offering to escort Franklin Bradshaw's 80-year-old widow Berenice to a psychiatrist Alexander had herself recommended. In her book, Alexander relates that she sat in on the three-hour conversation between Bradshaw and the psychiatrist.
"I was outraged," Coleman declared. "I mean, there's a lot of things I would do for a story, but I would not take an 80-year-old woman to a psychiatrist's office that I knew, and then use it.
"I thought that was wrong," he said.
Not that Alexander exudes praise for Coleman's journalistic practices. "At the start of Frances' actual trial," she recalled, "something else happened which was unpleasant. To everybody's surprise, Marc was the first witness. I looked around the courtroom, and from Tommy's notes I knew that Marc had had a 250-pound, 37-year-old Mexican girlfriend. And when I saw a five-foot-tall, extremely stout woman with a braid down her back, I figured, well, that's got to be Mary Lou.
"Two days later, I was in the elevator, and Mary Lou spoke to the elevator at large, identifying herself as Marc's fiancee." When Alexander identified herself, the woman then said, "I didn't think you were here. Jonathan Coleman took me out to dinner last night and I asked him where you were and he said I guess she wasn't interested enough to be here."
It was "dirty pool," Alexander charged, "and it's been a nasty game ever since.
"Evidently he is unacquainted with . . . well, do we have ethics in our business? Maybe no more so than lawyers."
'I've Never Been Sued'
Asked if she would go so far as to label Coleman's conduct unethical, Alexander replied, "Well I'll answer it another way. Who's ethical? I am. I've been at this about 40 years, I've never been sued, never been questioned, never made any money. All I have is my professional reputation, and I guess a little bit testy when people try to besmirch that."
But as Alexander pointed out, the experience was not entirely unfamiliar. "I had been through quite a severe experience with Mrs. Trilling," she said, referring to her book "Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower." Another book on the same subject, "Mrs. Harris: The Death of Scarsdale Diet Doctor" was written at roughly the same time by Diana Trilling. Still, Alexander said, the flap over those books--a dispute that might have been titled "Whose Story Is It, Anyway?"--was substantially different. "This is not reminiscent of the Harris experience," she said. "No, not at all."
For his part, Coleman chuckled when the set-to with Alexander was described by one journalist as "the most bitter publishing feud in recent memory."
"I thought that was a bit extreme," Coleman said. "It's not exactly Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, or Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman."
And it may in fact help sales of both books. His own publisher, Coleman said, "seems to feel it's helping. But what I worry about it is that it takes attention away from the issue, which is the story: why this murder took place, essentially, what happened to an American family?"
Will the fuss overshadow the content? "Well," said Alexander, "we'll just have to see."