In the world of broadcasting, the death of CBS Chairman William Paley five weeks ago was the equivalent of the passing of the last emperor.
By extraordinary coincidence, on the very day he died, Oct. 26, a remarkable and unsparing biography of Paley illustrating just how imperial he was--Sally Bedell Smith’s “In All His Glory"--had begun appearing in stores in New York.
Smith was “shocked” when she heard of his death, even though he was 89 and ailing: “I had just bought into the idea that he was immortal in some way, that he wouldn’t succumb, that his will would prevail. And it was an eerie experience that he happened to die on the day that the book should appear.”
“In All His Glory,” a sweeping study of the emergence of broadcasting, the American immigrant experience and the ravenous personal and professional tastes of Paley as he charmed and clawed his way to the top of society, almost screamed out to be a miniseries.
Not on CBS, of course. It is not an authorized or sanitized picture that Smith paints of Paley; it is, in fact, often brutal in its meticulously researched and impressively non-malicious assessment of the chairman.
But the richness of the saga had already been recognized by HBO, which optioned the book 1 1/2 years ago after seeing only part of it. After Paley’s death, HBO announced that it will present, in 1992, a miniseries of his life, produced by Barry Levinson, whose films include “Rain Man,” “Avalon” and “Diner.”
CBS is terse about the project. Noting that HBO previously did a biography of the network’s legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow, a CBS spokesman said: “There’s no Angst in the troops here. We didn’t write the book. It’s not an official CBS biography. We have nothing to say. HBO seems to find CBS lore good television.”
“It turned out to be more of a yarn than I thought it would be,” Smith said over breakfast at the Polo Lounge. “With the building years and the World War II years and all the women, he was this expansive, larger-than-life character. And there was the tragedy, too--professionally, his inability to give up control, which was his fatal flaw.
“He was ruthless and tough and vindictive and in many ways unlikable. But as the story went on, I could see him witnessing the disintegration of the very empire he had built. It was identified more with K mart than Tiffany (CBS, the onetime “Tiffany network,” has joined in promotions with K mart). And it was taken over by a man he didn’t choose (CBS President Laurence Tisch).
“There was a poignant aspect that I never thought I would have encountered.”
Acknowledging Paley’s great accomplishments, Smith nonetheless methodically uses countless witnesses in her biography to debunk some of the myths that the CBS chairman propagated about himself in his own memoir, “As It Happened.”
Paley’s showmanship, his eye for talent and his magnetism, which often gave great pain to his relatively colorless--but far more visionary--competitor, NBC’s David Sarnoff, were undeniable, and often breathtaking.
But the lengths to which he and a phalanx of publicists went to give him credit for far more than he deserved--often ignoring those who originated ideas and made them happen--are prominently illustrated by Smith.
Paley was “the first person I contacted when I signed the contract for the book back in 1985,” said Smith, who covered television for the New York Times before taking on the biography. “So we did end up in the fall of ’85 having two long conversations over lunch. I think he was curious about what I was doing.
“There was one great moment when he was surveying the menu. He called the maitre d’ over and he said, ‘How many are in this order of littleneck clams?’ And the waiter said six. And he said, ‘I’ll have nine.’ He had a real imperial presence about him.”
Smith does not think that Paley, then 84, resented the fact that she was doing a book about him. “I think he had already put the wheels in motion for a second volume of his memoir, which was his standard defense whenever anybody was about to put together a book that he didn’t control.” The second Paley memoir never materialized.
Were his lunches a subtle attempt to dissuade her from doing the book?
“I don’t think so. There was nothing very heavy-handed about it. There was just, ‘Gosh, you know, as you go along, maybe we could talk more and you could show me what you’re writing.’ That kind of stuff. And I said, ‘Well, that’s not really the way I operate. I’d rather just do this on my own, and if you’re willing to talk to me on that basis, that’s fine.’ ”
Smith’s book deals in great detail with Paley’s marriages to two high-profile women who helped to shape him and his tastes, Dorothy Hart Hearst and Barbara (Babe) Cushing. There are also telling insights into his strained relations with Murrow and Frank Stanton, the executive who many believe gave CBS its finest corporate image. Both eventually left the network to which they had given their lives.
Others who pass through the pages include Paley’s friends David O. Selznick and cult actress Louise Brooks (“Lulu”), Truman Capote, tons of socialites and old-money types whose company the chairman inexplicably craved--though he was more important than most of them--plus lots of royalty and world leaders such as Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower.
Because the book pulls no punches about his personal life, “the people who have taken the strongest exception to it,” said Smith, are Paley’s “tightly knit social set in New York. They’ve all felt that, well, yes, it’s true, but it was sort of naughty to have written a book like this about him. That’s the way they think about things.”
As a woman, says Smith, she found Paley’s treatment of his wives “very distressing--the fact that he was so egocentric and demanding and not terribly appreciative when these women would really throw themselves into creating a perfect world for him. And I found it distressing to see how distant he could be from his children. You know, why do you have children?”
The fact that the Paley miniseries has wound up on HBO says something about the disintegration of the networks. CBS would be expected to pass on it; ABC and NBC predictably would not want to publicize the competition. But in fact, there is also a sort of instinctive, mental gentlemen’s agreement in which all of the Big Three networks protect each other, and that way lies a dead-end and extinction.
“I think HBO wanted to do a story that had to do with the whole sweep of radio and television in this century,” said Smith. “And there was the idea of telling it through Paley, who was one of the two great pioneers (the other was Sarnoff).”