Here’s further irrefutable evidence that American lives can indeed have second, third and fourth acts:
He was a Washington creature in his 30s, a powerful official in the Nixon and Ford administrations and lightning rod who went on to be a Washington lawyer.
He was a Manhattan fixture in his 40s, an investment banker and guest at the swellest small dinner parties. Now 55 and silver-haired, looking quite at ease with a jeans-and-sweaters existence in this quiet sky-lighted house on a lake, he’s jumped the tracks successfully once again.
“The Fourth Procedure,” probably the only medico-political thriller ever written by a onetime assistant attorney general, began popping onto bestseller lists in April, making everybody’s favorite fantasy--I’ll just write a novel and make a bundle and never have to wear a tie again--Stan Pottinger’s reality.
“A successful writing life has just got to be the best,” he says, happily propping his feet on a coffee table and going on about the pleasures of research and the fact that one can write just about anywhere.
“It’s more mobile than painting. Easier than photography, less equipment! I think it’s a great life. I hope I’m able to sustain it; if not, I’ll have to consider alternatives.”
Alternatives have never been a problem for Pottinger. In fact, the news that a guy more accustomed to writing legal briefs was writing a novel came as scant surprise to old friends.
“He reinvents himself every few years,” says Warren Dennis, a former Justice Department colleague and law partner. Pottinger has encountered his share of bumpy passages, Dennis notes, “but his ability to land on his feet and turn in a stellar performance is unusual. . . . He has a golden touch.”
Indeed, he has a tradition of starting at the top. J. Stanley Pottinger was just 29, a few years out of Harvard Law and a self-described “white guy from California,” when he joined the Nixon Administration in what friends warned was “a no-win job, a mess"--as director of the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Three years later he was assistant attorney general, running the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
“It was such a bizarre balancing act, trying to do liberal work in a conservative administration,” Pottinger reflects. The intensity of the jobs and the times helped wreck his marriage, but he emerged with a reasonably vigorous record of civil rights enforcement--and a willingness to move on.
“There’s a perverse relationship between being in Washington and the state of the nation,” he says. “It’s more fun being there when the country’s in trouble.”
Maybe fun is the wrong word, he backtracks, still politically attuned enough to catch a discordant note.
“You just had the sense there was so much at stake that everything you did had impact.”
On, then, to practicing law and to tackling Wall Street. Just as he was never a legislative assistant sharing a D.C. townhouse with four roommates, Pottinger was never a junior bond salesman making cold calls.
He opened a New York investment banking boutique (“a very ‘80s thing to do”) and in short order became a millionaire courtesy of the boom, made lots of new friends in publishing and communications, invested (“in the low seven figures”) in New England real estate, narrowly avoided personal bankruptcy when the recession hit. But by then, he had already launched Phase III.
“I found myself gravitating to doing something creative,” Pottinger says. In those pre-crash days, “I didn’t have to worry about a 9-to-5 job; I’d made enough money to liberate myself from that.”
His first impulse--studying film--resulted in “an absolutely terrible five-minute film” that actually won two awards at the 1987 New School Student Film Festival.
“The story of a woman with white gloves and a pillbox hat who accidentally drops one of her gloves on the lap of a sleeping man whose fly is open,” Pottinger recounts with a wince.
But filmmaking was expensive and complicated, so he became --Shazam!--a novelist instead.
“The Fourth Procedure” incorporates hot-button topicality (it’s about abortion), preposterous plot twists (involving highly unorthodox surgery), behind-the-scenes scenes at the Supreme Court and the D.C. morgue, and plenty of sex. Pottinger is not a particularly graceful writer, but he has a fertile imagination--a combination that has proved highly profitable in publishing (dinosaurs cloned from ancient DNA?) and appears about to pay off again.
Some of Pottinger’s romantic relationships may have been useful in navigating this territory. He once shared an East Side apartment with agent Lynn Nesbit and is currently spending his time with publisher-turned-agent Joni Evans. Among his other high-powered ex’es are Gloria Steinem, Kathie Lee Gifford and Connie Chung. Give Pottinger points for appreciating women with birth dates in the general vicinity of his own: “It’s really hard to share breakfast with someone who doesn’t know what World War II was about,” he notes.
Of course, bestsellers are made, not born, as publishing types like to say. “The Fourth Procedure” was made when Ballantine agreed to pay its novice author a $500,000 advance.
The size of the investment that Ballantine has to recoup mandated a hefty first printing (100,000 copies, with 135,000 in print to date) and a major advertising budget ($250,000--enough for both newspaper and magazine ads and several weeks of 15-second TV spots). Meanwhile, there have been hefty sales to eight countries.
To Pottinger, novel-writing--even novel-writing that required him to scrub up and observe quadruple bypass surgery and a liver transplant--doesn’t seem completely disconnected from his past in government.
“If you’re able to do it, writing is the best of politics; it allows you to deal with the issues as directly, as forcefully as you want,” he argues. In his serial careers, “one thing led to another more organically than it might appear. An interest in the issues of the day underlies it all.”
He says the job-hopping stops here. He’d like to write a book every two or three years and has already started his next medical thriller, about which he will say little except that the research involves field trips to labs at the National Institutes of Health.
But is this really the final evolution (a good title for a thriller)? Pottinger-watchers are less certain than the author himself. His friend Dennis foresees another, more West Coast incarnation: Pottinger as producer.
And then, “The final reinvention, without question, is the priesthood,” Dennis predicts. “Stan’ll have some spiritual reawakening. . . . I can easily see him spending two years in some seminary.”