Beginning a New Chapter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I'll sit with my back to the wall," says novelist Gwen Davis with a grin as she slips into a seat at a corner table in the plush dining room of the Four Seasons Hotel. "That's what Mario Puzo taught me."

It's not surprising that Davis might want to watch her back in the literary world. She's had her publisher fawn over her, and she's had her publisher turn around and sue her. She's felt the power of the business' enthusiasm and the sting of its indifference.

There was a time--1969, to be exact--when she and author Puzo reigned at the top of the bestseller list, he for "The Godfather," she in second place for the sizzling sexy novel "The Pretenders." Seven years later, she was in Superior Court in Santa Monica watching her career disintegrate before her eyes.

The culprit was her 1971 novel, "Touching," which focused on a well-educated married woman who--among other things on her road to self-knowledge--goes to a nude therapy encounter session. Davis herself had been to such a nude session and observed E. Paul Bindrim, the self-styled therapist who ran it. In her book, she created a psychologist to run the nude therapy sessions.

Later, Davis would insist that her character did not resemble Bindrim. But the real-life therapist sued her for libel, and, in a landmark decision in 1976, the jury decided against Davis, making her one of the first American novelists to be found guilty of libeling someone in a work of fiction. She was ordered to pay $25,000; her publisher, $50,000.

In 1980, her publisher sued to recover the jury award to Bindrim plus interest and legal fees. (Davis settled with Doubleday out of court and declines to reveal the terms.)

In the two decades since then, she and her former agents say the publishing world has viewed her with caution because of the libel suit. However, it's difficult to measure the impact of the publishing world's timidity, because publishers had another reason to dismiss her: Some of the books she got published after "Touching" simply did not sell well. And, as she herself admits, that is the "unpardonable sin."

Her 1991 "Jade" was a commercial disappointment, and since then she has struggled to get a novel published.

"I had this libel thing, and people had never been relaxed about me since then," Davis says. "Nobody was chasing me and saying, 'What are you going to write next?' I wrote all these books on spec. And then publishing became all about computers and what was going to sell."

This year, Davis hopes to reinvent herself as a successful novelist with a tart tale of Hollywood called "West of Paradise."

"I think Gwen has had a rough go of the whole thing," says Melissa Jacobs, associate editor at St. Martin's Press, who edited Davis' new book. "She has written a terrific book. Funny as can be. I'd love to see this be her big comeback. She deserves it."

Even with 16 published novels to her name, Davis frets that she will always be best known as the novelist who got sued for libel and lost.

"It's still going to say on my obituary, no matter what I do--including if I live long enough to win the Nobel Prize--'she was the landmark libel case,' " Davis laments.

But she hopes this new book breaks that stigma.

"It's taken me all these years to get up the moxie to write a roman a clef," says Davis, who steadfastly maintains that she never libeled anyone in "Touching."

But this time she's taking no chances. She took out a $1-million libel insurance policy. And her lawyer is Gary Bostwick, a prominent 1st Amendment attorney who successfully represented author Janet Malcolm in a second trial when she was sued for libel by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson. (As much a supportive friend as an attorney, Bostwick is one of the two people to whom Davis dedicated the book. The other is actress Jamie Lee Curtis.)

Davis' book is awash in wacky characters, many of whom appear in the opening chapter at a celebrity funeral. She says nobody in the book is recognizably real--but that doesn't mean they weren't inspired by real people.

"No writer writes from whole cloth except maybe Isaac Asimov, who's dealing with other planets," says Davis. "You absorb, you take note, you experience. . . . And isn't it going to be fun to figure out who everybody really might be? But I've been very careful."

*

In her pale green pantsuit and silk scarf, Davis plays afternoon hostess in the nearly deserted dining room. Nibbling at a salad and sipping a glass of wine, she signs books brought by an acquaintance who has searched her out. She chats with the hotel's director of public relations--a longtime friend--about Davis' past hotel escapades. For instance, there was the time she secreted her late beloved Yorkie (the subject of her sweet 1994 picture book called "Happy at the Bel Air") in a black velvet bag to take him into the Four Seasons cocktail lounge. She had all but forgotten about the little dog until a terror-stricken bar patron suddenly cried out "What's that?" at the sight of a black bag walking across the floor.

Davis has lived in Paris since November, but she spent nearly three decades before that living mostly in L.A., collecting an eclectic group of friends from Hollywood and beyond. In 1968, she had moved here from New York with her husband, Don Mitchell, a television production coordinator and their two children. He died in 1984 of lung cancer.

"Her husband loved her completely--probably more than anyone else," said Curtis, who, as a child, knew Davis as a friend of her parents'. Later, the actress and the novelist forged their own long-lasting friendship. "She was this powerful voice to me as a young woman. And kind of a crazy dame. . . . It's not the easiest thing to be Gwen's friend. She demands a lot from you--she's always wanting me to be better and do more. She is the only spiritual person I ever met in this town."

Diligent and prolific, Davis, now 64, has written through all the twists and turns of her life. But the controversy surrounding "Touching" spooked her. For years, she felt as if she had an inner censor.

Her first novel after the lawsuit, "Ladies in Waiting," centered on women in Washington, D.C., who worked in museums.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, what if the museum ladies get offended?' " recalls Davis. "I was frightened of every word. When they talk about the chilling effect of the lawsuit, the chilling effect is on the consciousness of the writer, because it's hard enough to put the words on the page when you're not scared of anybody."

In 1981, she wrote "Marriage," a novel about her husband and children.

"I figured they're not going to sue me," she deadpans. (In fact, her husband was furious--but forgiving.) She claims the book never got a paperback sale because of the "cloud" over her from the lawsuit.

*

Whether Davis remained tainted by the libel decision is a matter of interpretation. For one thing, the decision came down 22 years ago--"truly prehistoric," said one longtime publisher who noted that memories in publishing simply don't last that long. Her book company at the time was Doubleday. The current Doubleday editor in chief, Pat Mulcahy, has been there two years and says she has only vague memories of the controversy from reading about it in the publishing trades. Mulcahy declined to comment on Davis.

On the other hand, Davis' editor, Melissa Jacobs, who is all of 25 years old, says she has heard stories about the fabled libel suit.

"It's amazing how many people remember the suit and how she was dragged through the mud," said Jacobs.

Owen Laster of the William Morris Agency, who served as Davis' agent from 1977 to 1987 and in the early '90s, says there was something of a cloud over Davis because of the suit.

"I think that it was a subtle issue," said Laster. "I can't say I can point any fingers. It was a sense I had at that time. As a result of that [suit] she lost some ground."

The last book that Laster tried to sell for Davis in the early '90s was a novel set against a backdrop of neo-Nazism in present-day Germany. He said about 20 publishers turned it down. "I think some of them might not have liked the locale of Germany."

Her lawyer, Bostwick, does recall the shocking effect of the lawsuit. "There was a tremendous sense in the legal community in those days that this was just one of the scariest decisions they'd ever seen. . . . In listening to her and knowing what I knew in the legal community, I put together the inference that she was treated like a hot potato."

*

Wounded by her publishing failures, Davis went off on a vacation in Bali in 1996. "I had no more future as a novelist, so I thought I might as well have my last hurrah in Bali. I wasn't even going to take my computer, because I was so disheartened. A friend said, 'If you get there and you're inspired, you'll be upset if you don't have your computer.' So I took it."

The first night she wrote 30 pages of what would become "West of Paradise." She stayed about 2 1/2 weeks--finagling a cheap room rate--and wrote 110 more pages. When she got stuck for information or a plot twist, she would fax her close friend Curtis, asking for help. "She would fax me back something so funny that it would keep me going."

Bostwick lent moral support as well as legal expertise. "My job, which I conceived for myself, was to encourage her not to let this taboo that she had begun to internalize stop her from writing this book."

Davis pushed her new novel into publication. "First I sent it to Michael Korda [at Simon & Schuster] and then I sent it to a bunch of people. . . . They all said, 'We love the book, but nobody wants a Hollywood book.' "

A public relations person whom Davis knows sent the book to a former editor at St. Martin's, who essentially acted as an agent and sent the book to the house.

"Oh, this is my comeback," says Davis confidently. "It's been seven years since I've had anything published. And I've written six books in those seven years."

Ironically, on the book jacket there is a blurb from Michael Korda--taken from a letter to Davis in which he told her he was not interested in publishing "West of Paradise" but liked things about it anyway. Davis prevailed upon him to let her use some of the letter on the jacket.

"It's the first blurb on a book jacket that comes from a rejection letter," Davis says with a chuckle.

The book party was held at Spago--where else?--and hosted by Curtis. Davis panicked when she found out it was the same day as Frank Sinatra's funeral and the opening of the much-hyped "Godzilla." After all this, what if no one came to her party?

"I started to laugh," she recalls. "I thought, 'OK, I get it now. There's no way this is ever going to be easy.' I think that's probably the truth about my life. But I am a fighter. It's what you have to be."

And, as it turned out, a crowd of well-wishers showed up to toast her.

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