I ALWAYS WANTED to be rich. I know that probably sounds crass, but it’s the truth. A true confession.
Around a year ago, I got my wish. After a ten-year bad luck streak – a toxic accumulation of endless rejection slips, and ‘we’re going to pass on this’, and the usual bevy of near-misses (‘you know, we were really looking for this sort of thing last month’), and (of course) never getting my calls returned – the gods of happenstance finally decided I was worth a smile. And I received a phone call. Check that: I received the phone call which anyone who has ever scribbled for a living always dreams of receiving.
The call came from Alison Ellroy, my long-suffering agent.
‘David, I sold it.’
My heart skipped five beats. I hadn’t heard the words ‘I sold it’ for… well, to be honest about it, I’d never heard that sentence before.
‘You sold what?’ I asked, since five of my speculative scripts were currently doing the Flying Dutchman rounds of assorted studios and production companies.
‘The pilot,’ she said.
‘The television pilot?’
‘Yep. I sold Selling You.’
‘FRT – as in Front Row Television; as in the smartest, hottest producer of original programs on cable …’
My heart now needed defibrillation.
‘I know who they are, Alison. FRT bought my pilot?’
‘Yes, David. FRT just bought Selling You.’
‘Are they paying?’ I asked.
‘Of course they’re paying. This is a business, believe it or not.’
‘Sorry, sorry … it’s just, how much exactly?’
‘Don’t sound so enthusiastic.’
‘I am enthusiastic. It’s just …’
‘I know: it’s not the million-dollar deal. But that kind of a slam-dunk for a first-timer is, at best, a twice-a-year event in this town. Forty grand is standard money for a TV pilot … especially for an unproduced writer. Anyway, what are they paying you at Book Soup these days?’
‘Fifteen a year.’
‘So look at it this way: you’ve just made almost three years’ salary in one deal. And this is only the start. They’re not just going to buy the pilot … they’re also going to make it.’
‘They told you that?’
‘Yes, they did.’
‘Do you believe them?’
‘Honey, we’re living in the Forked Tongue capital of the universe. Still, you might get lucky.’
My head was spinning. Good news, good news.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ I said.
‘You could try “Thank you”.’
I didn’t just thank Alison Ellroy. The day after I received that phone call, I drove down to the Beverly Center and dropped $375 on a Mont Blanc fountain pen for her. When I gave it to her later that afternoon, she seemed genuinely affected.
‘Do you know this is the first time I’ve received a gift from a writer in … how long have I been in this business?’
‘You tell me.’
‘Try three decades. Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything. So … thanks. But don’t think you’re going to borrow it to sign the contracts.’
My wife Lucy, on the other hand, was appalled that I had dropped so much cash on a present for my agent.
‘What is this?’ she said. ‘You finally get a deal – at WGA minimum, I might add – and you’re suddenly Robert Towne?’
‘It was just a gesture, that’s all.’
‘A $375 gesture.’
‘We can afford it.’
‘Oh, can we? Do the math, David. Alison gets a fifteen per cent commission from the forty grand. The IRS will skim thirty-three per cent off the balance, which will leave you just under twenty-three grand, plus change.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘I did the math. I also did the math on our combined debt to Visa and MasterCard – twelve grand, and rising monthly. And on the loan we took out to cover Caitlin’s tuition last term – six grand, and also rising monthly. I also know that we’re a one-car family in a two-car town. And the car in question is a twelve-year-old Volvo that really needs transmission work which we can’t really afford, because –’
‘All right, all right. I was recklessly generous. Mea maxima culpa. And, by the way, thanks for pissing on my parade.’
‘Absolutely no one is pissing on your parade. You know how thrilled I was yesterday when you told me. It’s what you – we – have been fantasizing about for the last eleven years. My point, David, is a simple one: the money is already spent.’
‘Fine, fine, point taken,’ I said, trying to put an end to this.
‘And though I certainly don’t begrudge Alison her Mont Blanc pen, it would have been nice if you had maybe thought, in the first instance, about who’s been keeping us out of Chapter 11 all these years.’
‘You’re right. I’m sorry. But hey, good times ahead. We’re in the money.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ she said quietly. ‘We deserve a break.’
I reached out to stroke her cheek. She smiled a tight, tired smile. With good reason, because the last ten years had been, for both of us, one long slog up a steep incline. We’d met in Manhattan in the early nineties. I’d arrived there a few years earlier from my native Chicago, determined to make it as a playwright. Instead I found myself stage-managing off-off-Broadway and paying the rent by stacking inventory at the Gotham Book Mart. I did get an agent. He did get my plays seen. None were produced, but one script – An Ordinary Evening in Oak Park (a dark satire on suburban life) – did get a staged reading by the Avenue B Theatre Company (at least it wasn’t Avenue C). Lucy Everett was in the cast. Within a week of the first reading, we decided we were in love. By the time the play had its three performances, I had moved into her studio apartment on East 19th Street. Two months later, she landed a role in a pilot sit-com for ABC that was being shot on the coast. Being wildly in love, I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation when she said, ‘Come with me.’
So we moved to LA and found ourselves a cramped two-bedroom apartment on the King’s Road in West Hollywood. Lucy made the pilot. I turned the tiny second bedroom into my office. The pilot was ditched by the network. I wrote my first speculative screenplay, We Three Grunts – which I described as a ‘darkly comic heist caper’ about a bank job pulled off by a bunch of ageing Vietnam vets. It went nowhere, but it did get Alison Ellroy in my corner. She was one of the last of an endangered species – the independent Hollywood agent, operating not out of some hyper-architectural monolith, but from a small suite of offices in Beverly Hills. After reading this ‘darkly comic’ screenplay, and my earlier unproduced ‘darkly comic’ stage stuff, she took me on as a client – but also gave me the following piece of advice:
‘If you want to scratch a living writing in Hollywood, remember that you have to write generic … with the occasional “darkly comic” flourish. But only a flourish. Bruce Willis gets to crack wise, but he still blows away the chiselled-jawed German terrorist and then rescues his wife from the burning building. Got the idea?’
I certainly did. And over the next year, I turned out three spec scripts: an action film (Islamic terrorists seize a yacht in the Mediterranean, containing all three children of the President of the United States); a family drama film (mother dying of cancer tries to achieve closure with her grown children whom she was forced by her wicked mother-in-law to abandon when they were young); and a romantic comedy (a Private Lives rip-off, in which a newly married couple fall for each other’s siblings while on honeymoon). All three scripts played by the genre rules. All three scripts had ‘darkly comic’ moments. All three scripts failed to sell.
Meanwhile, after the television pilot sank without trace, Lucy found that the casting doors weren’t exactly swinging open in her direction. She got a commercial here and there. She came very close to landing a part as a sympathetic oncologist in a Showtime movie about a marathon runner battling bone cancer. She was also up for a role as a screaming slasher victim in some screaming slasher movie. Like me, she lurched from disappointment to disappointment. Simultaneously, our bank account began to hit the red zone. We had to find proper paying jobs. I talked my way into a low-impact thirty-hour week at Book Soup (probably the best independent bookshop in LA). Lucy was persuaded to try telemarketing by a fellow unemployed SAG member. Initially she hated it, but the actress in her responded to the ‘hard sell’ role she was forced to play on the phone. Much to her horror, she turned out to be an ace telemarketer. She made okay money – around thirty grand a year. She kept going up for auditions. She kept failing to connect. So she kept on telemarketing. Then Caitlin came into our lives.
I took time off from Book Soup to look after our daughter. I also kept writing – spec screenplays, a new stage play, a television pilot. Not one of them sold. Around a year after Caitlin’s birth Lucy let her SAG membership lapse and graduated to the rank of telemarketing trainer. I was back at Book Soup. Our combined post-tax income just touched 40k per annum: chump change in a city where many a player spent 40k a year on his pumped pectorals. We couldn’t afford to find a new apartment. We shared an ageing Volvo which dated back to the first Reagan administration. We felt cramped – not just by our lack of physical space at home, but also by the ever-growing realization that we were now trapped in small lives with ever-narrowing horizons. Of course, we delighted in our daughter. But as the years accelerated – and we both started to cruise into our late thirties – we began to regard each other as our respective jailers. We tried to cope with our varying professional failures and the knowledge that, while everyone else we knew was reaping the booty of the Clinton boom years, we were stuck in nowheresville. But though Lucy had given up all future hopes of an acting career, I kept churning out stuff – much to her exasperation, as she felt (rightly) that the major breadwinning burden was on her back. She kept urging me to give up the Book Soup gig – to burrow my way into some proper job. And I resisted, telling her that the bookshop job suited my writing life.
‘Your writing life?’ she said with the sort of sarcastic edge that went way beyond withering. ‘Don’t talk crap.’
Naturally, this triggered one of those thermo-nuclear marital disputes, in which years of built-up resentments, enmities, and domestic frustrations suddenly scorch the earth beneath both pairs of feet. She said I was self-absorbed, to the point of putting my going-nowhere writing career in front of Caitlin’s welfare. I countered that besides being a model of domestic responsibility (well, I was), my professional integrity was still intact.
‘You’ve never sold a single script, and you dare talk to me about being a professional?’ she said.
I stormed out. I drove all night and ended up just north of San Diego, walking the beach at Del Mar, wishing I had the recklessness to continue south across the border into Tijuana, and vanish from my disaster of a life. Lucy was right: as a writer I was a failure … but I still wasn’t going to abandon my daughter on a furious whim. So I went back to my car, pointed it north, and arrived home just before sunrise. I found Lucy wide awake, curled up on the sofa in our cluttered living room, looking beyond forlorn. I collapsed into the armchair opposite her. We said nothing for a very long time. Finally she broke the silence.
‘That was awful.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It was.’
‘I didn’t mean what I said.’
‘Nor did I.’
‘I’m just so damn tired, David.’
I reached for her hand. ‘Join the club,’ I said.
So we kissed and made up, and fed Caitlin her breakfast, and got her on the school bus, and then both went off to our respective jobs – jobs that gave us no pleasure whatsoever, and didn’t even pay well. By the time Lucy arrived home that night, domestic detente was re-established – and we never mentioned that malignant fight again. But once things are said, they are said. And though we tried to behave as if things were on an even keel, a chilly under-current now ran between us.
Neither of us wanted to confront this, so we both stayed busy. I knocked out a thirty-minute pilot for a sit-com called Selling You. It centred around the tangled internal politics at a public relations agency in Chicago. It was peopled by a group of smart, edgy neurotics. And yes, it was ‘darkly comic’. Alison even liked it – the first script of mine she had praised for years … even though it was still a little too ‘darkly comic’ for her taste. Still, she gave it to the head of development at FRT. He, in turn, handed it to an independent producer named Brad Bruce, who was starting to make a name for himself as a generator of edgy, out-there sit-coms for cable. Brad liked what he read … and I got that phone call from Alison.
Then things began to change.
Brad Bruce turned out to be that rare species – a guy who believed that irony was the only way to cope with life in the City of Angels. He was in his late thirties, a fellow Midwesterner from Milwaukee (God help him) and we hit it off immediately. Better yet, we quickly established a fluid working style. I responded positively to his notes. We riffed well off each other. We made each other laugh. And even though he knew that this was the first script I’d managed to sell, he treated me like a fellow veteran of the television wars. In turn, I worked hard for him because I knew that I now had an ally … though I also understood that if the pilot didn’t get made, his attention would move elsewhere.
Brad was a forceful operator, and he actually got the pilot made. What’s more, it was everything a pilot should be: tightly acted and directed, stylishly shot and funny. FRT liked what they saw. A week later, Alison rang me.
‘Sit down,’ she said.
‘The best. I just heard from Brad Bruce. He’ll be calling you in a nanosecond, but I wanted to be the messenger. So listen to this: FRT are commissioning an initial eight-episode series of Selling You. Brad wants you to write four of them, and be the overall script supervisor on the series.’
I was speechless.
‘You still there?’
‘I’m just trying to pick my jaw up from the floor.’
‘Well, keep it there until you hear the numbers on offer. Seventy-five grand per episode – that’s 300k for the writing. I figure I can get you an additional 150k for supervising the other episodes, not to mention a “Created By” and between five and ten per cent equity in the entire show. Congratulations: you are about to become rich.’
I quit Book Soup that night. By the end of the week, we had put a down payment on a delightful little Spanish vernacular house in mid-Wiltshire. The geriatric Volvo was traded in for a new Land Rover Discovery. I leased a Mini Cooper S, promising myself a Porsche Carrera if Selling You made it to a second series. Lucy was dazzled by our change in circumstances. For the first time ever, we were awash in material comforts. We could buy proper furniture, spiffy appliances, designer labels. As I was under extreme deadline pressure – I had only five months to deliver my four episodes – Lucy took over the decoration of the new house. She had also just started training an entire new platoon of telemarketeers – which meant that she too was working twelve-hour days. The only free time we had was devoted to our daughter. This was no bad thing – because as long as your days are ultra-full you can continue to gloss over the telltale cracks in a structurally damaged marriage. We both kept busy. We talked about the wondrousness of this lucky break, and acted as if everything was back on track between us … even though we both knew that this was hardly the case. And there were many melancholic moments when I often found myself thinking, far from making things better between us, the money has pushed us even further apart.
Nearly a year later, when the first episode of Selling You was screened and became an instant critical hit, Lucy turned to me and said, ‘I suppose you’ll leave me now.’
‘Why would I do that?’ I said.
‘Because you can.’
‘It’s not going to happen.’
‘Yes, it will. Because it’s what the success scenario demands.’
Of course she was right. But it didn’t happen for another six months, by which time I had traded my Mini Cooper for that Porsche I had promised myself. Not only had the show been renewed, but I suddenly found myself the subject of considerable public attention – as Selling You had become the hip, cutting-edge, must-see show of the season. The reviews were fantastic. Esquire ran a 500-word story about me in their ‘Guys We Like’ section, which referred to me as ‘the Tom Wolfe of cable television’. I didn’t exactly object. And I didn’t say no when the Los Angeles Times asked to interview me for a piece which detailed my long years in professional purgatory, my extended stint at Book Soup, and my sudden ascendancy into ‘that small select league of smart LA writers who don’t do Generic’.
I had my assistant clip this story and messenger it over to Alison. Attached to it was a Post-It, on which I’d scribbled, ‘Thinking of you generically. Love and Kisses. David.’
An hour later, a messenger arrived at my office with a padded envelope from Alison’s agency. Inside was a small gift-wrapped box, and a card: ‘Fuck you … Love, Alison.’
Inside the box was something I had coveted for years: a Waterman Edson fountain pen … the Ferrari of Writing Instruments, with a list price to match: $675. But Alison could afford it, as the deal she’d closed for my ‘creative participation’ in the second series of Selling You was worth just under $1 million … less her fifteen per cent of course.
Alison was quoted in that LA Times profile of me. Per usual, she was deeply droll, telling the interviewer that the reason she never dropped me as a client during all the bad years was because ‘He knew when to not call – and believe me, there are few writers in this town with that skill.’ She also surprised me by saying something touching: ‘He’s living proof that talent and extreme perseverance can sometimes triumph in Hollywood. David kept at it long after many another aspiring writer would have folded. So he deserves everything: the money, the office, the assistant, the recognition, the prestige. But most of all he’s now getting his phone calls returned, and I’m fielding constant requests for meetings with him. Because everyone who’s smart wants to work with David Armitage.’
As I was deep in the planning stage of the second season of Selling You, I was turning down most requests for meetings. But, at Alison’s urging, I did go to lunch with a young executive at Fox Television named Sally Birmingham.
‘I only met her once,’ Alison said, ‘but everyone in the industry is earmarking her for the big time. She has a big war chest at her disposal. And she absolutely adores Selling You. In fact, she adores it so much she told me that she would be prepared to give you a quarter of a million for any thirty-minute pilot of your choice.’
That made me pause for thought.
‘250k for one pilot?’ I asked.
‘Yep – and I’d make certain it was pay or play.’
‘She knows I couldn’t even look at any new projects until the new series is wrapped?’
‘She anticipated that. And she told me she’s willing to wait. She just wants to sign you up for the pilot now – because, let’s face it, it would also up her market value to have snagged David Armitage. Think about it – all going well, you’ll be taking six weeks off between series two and three. How long is it going to take you to knock out a pilot?’
‘Three weeks max.’
‘And the other three weeks, you sit on a beach somewhere, if you can actually sit still so long, thinking to yourself that you just made a quarter of a million in twenty-one days.’
‘All right – I’ll do the lunch.’
‘Smart guy. You’ll like her. She’s super-bright and beautiful.’
Alison was right. Sally Birmingham was super-bright. And she was beautiful.
Her assistant had called my assistant to set up the lunch date at The Ivy. Thanks to the usual tailback on the 10, I arrived a few minutes late. She was already seated at a very good table. She stood up to greet me, and I was instantly captivated (though I worked damn hard not to show it). Sally was tall, with high cheekbones, flawless skin, cropped light brown hair, and a mischievous smile. At first, I pegged her as the sort of dazzlingly patrician product of East Coast education and high-end breeding who undoubtedly had her own horse by the age of ten. But fifteen minutes into our conversation, I realized that she had managed to undercut the Westchester County WASP background with a canny mixture of erudition and street smarts. Yes, she had been raised in Bedford. Yes, she had gone to Rosemary Hall and Princeton. But though she was ferociously well read – and something of a cinephile – she also had an astute understanding of Hollywood in all its internecine glory, and told me she actually delighted in playing the ‘player’ game. I could see why the big cojones at Fox Television so valued her: she was a class act, but one who spoke their language. And she also had the most amazing laugh.
‘Want to hear my favorite LA story?’ she asked me.
‘All right – I was having lunch last month with Mia Morrison, head of corporate affairs at Fox. She calls the waiter over, and says: ‘So tell me your waters.’ The waiter, a real pro, doesn’t blanch. Instead he starts listing them: ‘Well, we’ve got Perrier from France, and Ballygowan from Ireland, and San Pellegrino from Italy …’ Suddenly, Mia interrupts him: ‘Oh, no, not San Pellegrino. It’s too rich.’
‘I think I’ll steal that.’
‘“Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.”’
‘So you really did go to Dartmouth?’ she asked.
‘I’m impressed by your background research.’
‘I’m impressed by your knowledge of Mr Eliot.’
‘But surely you’ve picked up the references from “Four Quartets” throughout my show?’
‘I thought you’d be more of a “Waste Land” kind of guy.’
‘Nah – it’s too rich.’
Not only did we have instant rapport, but we also talked widely about just about everything. Including marriage.
‘So,’ she said glancing at the ring on my finger, ‘are you married or are you married?’
Her tone was light. I laughed.
‘I’m married,’ I said. ‘Without the italics.’
‘For how long?’
‘That’s impressive. Happy?’
‘That’s not unusual,’ she said. ‘Especially after eleven years.’
‘You seeing someone now?’ I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
‘There was someone … but it was a minor diversion, nothing more. We both ended it around four months ago. Since then … just flying solo.’
‘You’ve never taken the conjugal plunge?’
‘No … though I could have done something disastrous – like marrying my boyfriend at Princeton. He certainly pushed the issue – but I told him that college marriages usually only have a two-year life span. In fact, most relationships burn out when passion turns prosaic … which is why I’ve never lasted more than three years with anyone.’
‘You mean, you don’t believe in all that “there is one person meant for you” destiny crap.’
Another of her laughs. But then she said, ‘Well, actually I do. I just haven’t met the guy yet.’
Once again, the tone was blithe. Once again, a glance passed between us.
But it was only a glance, and we were quickly back in our conversational whirl. I was astonished by the way we couldn’t stop talking, how we riffed off each other, and shared such a similar world-view. The sense of connection was astonishing … and a little terrifying. Because – unless I was reading things very wrong – the mutual attraction was enormous.
Eventually, we got down to business. She asked me to tell her about my proposed pilot. My pitch was a sentence long:
‘The harassed professional and personal life of a middle-aged female marriage counsellor.’
She smiled. ‘That’s good. First question, is she divorced?’
‘A teenage daughter who thinks that Mom is a serious jerk.’
‘Nice. Does our marriage counsellor have an ex-husband?’
‘Yes – and he ran off with a twenty-five-year-old yoga instructor.’
‘We’re obviously talking about an LA setting.’
‘I was thinking San Diego.’
‘Good call. The Southern California lifestyle without the LA baggage. Is the marriage counsellor dating?’
‘Relentlessly – and with disastrous results.’
‘And meanwhile, her clients …?’
‘They’ll raise a smile, believe me.’
‘Talk It Over.’
‘Sold then,’ she said.
I tried not to smile too broadly.
‘You know I can’t start work until after the second season …’
‘Alison briefed me on that already … and that’s fine with me. The important thing is: I’ve got you.’
She briefly touched the top of my hand. I didn’t move it away.
‘I’m pleased,’ I said.
She met my stare. And asked, ‘Dinner tomorrow night?’
We met at her place in West Hollywood. As soon as I was through the door, we were tearing each other’s clothes off. Much later, as we lay sprawled across her bed, sipping a post-coital glass of Pinot Noir, she asked me, ‘Are you a good liar?’
‘You mean, about something like this?’
‘Well, it’s only the second time it’s happened in the eleven years I’ve been with Lucy.’
‘When was the first time?’
‘A one-night stand back in ’99 with an actress I met in the book shop one night. Lucy was back east at the time, visiting her parents with Caitlin.’
‘That’s it? Your only extramarital transgression?’
‘My, my – you do have a conscience.’
‘It is a weakness, I know – especially out here.’
‘Are you going to feel guilty now?’
‘No,’ I said without hesitation.
‘Because things between Lucy and myself are now very different. And also …’
‘Yes?’ she asked,
‘… because … well, because it’s you.’
She kissed me softly on the lips.
‘Is that a confession?’
‘I guess it is.’
‘Well, I have one too. Ten minutes after meeting you yesterday, I felt: this is the guy. I felt it all last night and all today as I counted down the hours to seven o’clock, and you walking through my door. And now …’
She ran her right index finger down the curve of my jaw.
‘… now I’m not going to let you go.’
I kissed her. ‘Is that a promise?’ I asked.
‘Girl Scout’s honor. But you know what this means … in the short term, anyway?’
‘Yes – I’m going to have to start learning how to lie.’
Actually I had already started, having covered my first evening with Sally by telling Lucy that I was flying to Vegas overnight to do a little look-around for a future episode. Sally didn’t even mind when I used her phone at eleven to call home and tell my wife that I was happily ensconced in The Bellagio and missing her terribly. When I arrived home the next evening, I studied Lucy carefully for any telltale signs of suspicion or doubt. I also wondered if she had perhaps called The Bellagio to see if I was actually registered there. But she greeted me pleasantly, and didn’t drop any hints about my whereabouts last night. In fact, she couldn’t have been more affectionate, pulling me off to bed early that night. And yes, the guilt chord did ring between my ears. But its reverberations were silenced by an even louder realization: I was madly in love with Sally Birmingham.
And she was in love with me. Her certainty was over-whelming. I was the man with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. We would have brilliant fun together. We would have great careers, wonderful children. And we’d never lapse into the passionless ennui that characterized most marriages – because how could we ever be anything but ardent about each other? We would be golden – because we were meant to be.
There was only one problem, though – I was still married to somebody else. And I was desperately worried about the effect that any future domestic decampment might have on Caitlin. Sally was completely understanding.
‘I’m not telling you to walk out now. You should only make that move when you’re ready – and when you think Caitlin’s ready. I’ll wait. Because you’re worth the wait.’
When you’re ready. Not if. An explicit when. But Sally’s definitiveness didn’t disturb me. Nor did I think events were moving too quickly after just two weeks. Because I shared her certainty about our future together. Just as I privately fretted about the pain and damage I was about to inflict on my wife and child.
To Sally’s credit, she didn’t once pressure me into leaving home. Or, at least, not for another eight months – by which time all my work on the second series was finished, and I had become completely expert in covering my extramarital tracks. When deadline pressure on the three episodes I was writing became particularly intense, I decamped for two weeks to the Four Seasons Hotel in Santa Barbara, on the pretext of needing to lock myself away for a concentrated work blitz. And work I did – though Sally spent one of the weeks with me, not to mention both weekends. When the show moved to Chicago for a week of exterior filming, I decided to stay on for a few days afterwards to catch up with my old network of friends, though, in truth, that weekend Sally and I hardly left our suite at the W. Through careful juggling of our respective schedules – not to mention the use of a room at the Westwood Marquis – we were able to spend two lunchtimes a week with each other, and at least one evening at her apartment.
I was often amazed at just how good I had become at covering my tracks and inventing storylines. Granted, it could be argued that, as a professional storyteller, I was simply practising my craft. But in the past I had always considered myself an appalling liar – to the point where, a few days after my one previous extramarital encounter in ’96, Lucy turned to me and said, ‘You’ve slept with someone else, haven’t you?’
Of course, I blanched. Of course, I denied it all vehemently. Of course, she didn’t believe a word I said.
‘Go on, tell me I’m hallucinating,’ she said. ‘But I can see right through you, David. You’re transparent.’
‘I am not lying.’
But she walked out of the room, and didn’t mention the matter again. Within a week, my intense guilt (and my equally intense fear of discovery) had dissipated – cushioned by my silent vow never to be unfaithful again.
It was a vow I kept for the next six years – until I met Sally Birmingham. But after that first night at her apartment, I felt little guilt, little anguish. Perhaps because my marriage had become governed by the law of diminishing returns. Or perhaps because, from the outset of my romance with Sally, I knew that I had never felt so ardent about anyone before.
This certainty made me an expert in subterfuge – to the point where Lucy never once questioned me about my whereabouts on a night when I was ‘working late’. In fact, she couldn’t have been more affectionate, more supportive during this time. No doubt our improved material circumstances had enhanced her affection for me (or, at least, that was my interpretation). But once I delivered the final drafts of my episodes, and began editing the four other scripts that had been written for the new series, Sally began to make increasingly loud noises about ‘regularizing’ our situation, and moving in together.
‘This clandestine situation has to end,’ she told me. ‘I want you for myself … if you still want me.’
‘Of course I want you. You know that.’
But I also wanted to postpone the final day of reckoning – the moment when I sat down with Lucy and broke her heart. So I kept stalling. And Sally started getting impatient. And I kept saying: ‘Just give me another month.’
Then, one evening, I got home around midnight – after a long pre-production dinner with Brad Bruce. When I walked in, I found Lucy sitting in the living room. My suitcase was by her armchair.
‘Let me ask you something,’ she said. ‘And it’s a question I’ve wanted to know for the past eight months: Is she a moaner, or is she one of those ice-maiden types who, despite the drop-dead looks, really hates the idea of anyone touching her?’
‘I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I said, trying to sound bemused.
‘You mean, you honestly don’t know the name of the woman you’ve been fucking for the last seven – or is it eight – months?’
‘Lucy, there is no one.’
‘So, Sally Birmingham is no one?’
I sat down.
‘That certainly gave you pause for thought,’ she said, her voice even-tempered.
I finally spoke. ‘How do you know her name?’
‘I had someone find out for me.’
‘I hired a private investigator.’
‘You spied on me?’
‘Don’t play the moral outrage card, asshole. You were obviously seeing someone else …’
How did she know that? I had been so careful, so circumspect.
‘… and when it was clear from your constant absences that this was something more than just a little ego-enhancing fling, I hired a private eye …’
‘Wasn’t that expensive?’
‘Thirty-eight hundred dollars … which I will reclaim, one way or another, in the divorce settlement.’
I heard myself saying: ‘Lucy, I don’t want a divorce.’
Her voice remained steady, strangely calm. ‘I don’t care what you want, David. I am divorcing you. This marriage is finished.’
I suddenly felt a desperate fear – even though she was doing the dirty work for me, and instigating the beginning of the end. I was getting exactly what I wanted … and it scared the hell out of me. I said, ‘If you had only come to me at the outset …’
Her face tightened. ‘And what?’ she said, the anger now showing. ‘Tried to remind you that we had eleven years’ history, and a daughter, and that, despite all the crap of the last decade, we’d actually come through and were finally living well.’
She broke off, on the verge of tears. I reached for her. She immediately pulled away.
‘You’re never touching me again,’ she said.
Silence. Then she said, ‘When I found out the name of your squeeze, do you know what I first thought? “He’s really trading upwards, isn’t he? The senior head of comedy at Fox Television. Magna cum laude from Princeton. And a babe to boot.” The private investigator was a very thorough guy. He even supplied pictures of Ms Birmingham. She’s very photogenic, isn’t she?’
‘We could have talked this out …’
‘No, there was nothing to talk out. I certainly wasn’t going to play the poor little woman in some country-and-western song, begging her faithless husband to come on home.’
‘So why did you stay silent all this time?’
‘Because I was hoping you might come to your senses …’ She broke off again, clearly trying to keep her emotions in check. This time I didn’t reach for her.
‘I even gave you a deadline,’ she said. ‘Six months. Which, like a fool, I extended to seven, then to eight. Then, around a week ago, I could see you had decided to leave …’
‘I hadn’t reached that decision,’ I lied.
‘Bullshit. It was written all over you … in neon lights. Well, I decided to make the decision for you. So, get out. Now.’
She stood up. So did I.
‘Lucy, please. Let’s try to …’
‘What? Pretend the last eight months didn’t happen?’
‘How about Caitlin?’
‘My, my, you’re finally thinking about your daughter …’
‘I want to talk to her.’
‘Fine – you can come back tomorrow …’
I was going to argue my case for staying the night on the sofa, and trying to discuss everything in the saner light of day. But I knew she wouldn’t listen. Anyway, this was what I wanted. Well, wasn’t it?
I picked up my suitcase. I said, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I don’t accept apologies from shits,’ Lucy said and stormed upstairs.
I sat in the car for ten minutes, immobile, wondering what I should do next. Suddenly, I found myself on my feet, racing back to my front door, and pounding my fist against it, yelling my wife’s name. After a moment, I heard her voice behind the door.
‘Go away, David.’
‘Give me a chance to –’
‘What? Tell me more lies?’
‘I’ve made a terrible mistake …’
‘Too bad. You should have thought about that months ago.’
‘I’m just asking for the opportunity –’
‘There is nothing more to say.’
‘We’re done here.’
I dug out my house keys. But as I tried putting the first one into the lock, I heard Lucy throw the inside bolt.
‘Don’t think about trying to get back in here, David. It’s over. Just leave. Now.’
I must have spent the next five minutes thumping the door again, pleading my case, begging her to take me back. But I knew that she was no longer interested in hearing what I had to say. Part of me was absolutely terrified at this realization – my little family, destroyed by my own vanity, my new-found success. Yet another part of me understood why I had travelled down this destructive path. I also knew what would happen if the door suddenly opened now and Lucy beckoned me inside: I would be returning to a life without edge. And I remembered something a writer friend told me after he left his wife for another woman. ‘Of course the marriage had a few problems – but none that were so overwhelming. Of course there was a bit of ennui – but that’s also par for the course after twelve years of togetherness. Fundamentally, there was nothing that wrong between us. So why did I go? Because a little voice inside my head kept asking me one simple question: is this everything life is going to be?’
But this recollection was superseded by a voice bellowing inside my head: I can’t do this. More than that, I thought: you’re so conforming to male cliché. And you’re also upending everything that is important in your life for a headlong dash into the unknown. So I fished out my cellphone and desperately punched in my home number. When Lucy answered, I said, ‘Darling, I’ll do anything …’
‘Yes, anything you ask.’
‘Then fuck off and die.’
The line went dead. I glanced back at the house. All the lights downstairs were off. I took a deep steadying breath, then walked to my car and got inside. I dug out my cellphone and stared at it, knowing if I made the call I was about to make I would be crossing the frontier marked ‘No Way Back’.
I made the call. Sally answered. I told her that I had finally done what she’d been asking me to do: I had told my wife it was over. Though she asked all the touchy-feely questions about how Lucy took the news (‘Not well,’ I said), and how I was faring (‘I’m glad it’s behind me’), she sounded genuinely thrilled. For a moment I wondered if she saw all this as some sort of victory – the ultimate merger and acquisition. But the moment passed when she told me how much she loved me, how hard this must have been for me, and how she would always be there for me. But though I was reassured by these declarations, I still felt a desperate hollowness – to be expected under the circumstances, but disquieting nonetheless.
‘Get over here now, darling,’ she said.
‘I have nowhere else to go.’
The next day, Lucy and I agreed in a terse phone call that I would pick up Caitlin after school.
‘Have you told her?’ I asked.
‘Of course I told her.’
‘You’ve just destroyed her sense of security, David.’
‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘I’m not the one ending the marriage. That was your decision. Like I said last night, if you’d just give me a chance to prove …’
‘No sale,’ she said, and hung up.
Caitlin wouldn’t let me kiss her hello when she saw me outside her school. She wouldn’t let me hold her hand. She wouldn’t speak to me when we got into the car. I suggested a walk along the seafront at Santa Monica. I suggested an early dinner at Johnny Rockets in Beverly Hills (her favorite restaurant). Or maybe a trip to FAO Schwartz in the Beverly Center. As I reeled off this list of potential options, the thought struck me: I’m already sounding like a divorced dad.
‘I want to go home to Mommy.’
‘Caitlin, I’m so sorry about –’
‘I want to go home to Mommy.’
‘I know this is awful. I know that you must think I’m –’
‘I want to go home to Mommy.’
I spent the next five minutes trying to talk her into hearing me out. But she wouldn’t listen to me. She just kept repeating the same line over and over again: ‘I want to go home to Mommy.’
So, eventually, I had no choice but to do as she asked.
When we reached the front door of our house, she fled into Lucy’s arms.
‘Thanks for brainwashing her,’ I said.
‘If you want to talk to me, do it through a lawyer.’
Then she went inside.
Actually I ended up talking to Lucy through two lawyers from the firm of Sheldon and Strunkel, who came highly recommended from Brad Bruce (he’d used them for his previous two divorces, and had them currently waiting in the wings if Marriage Number Three tanked). They, in turned, talked to Lucy’s lawyer – a woman named Melissa Levin, whom my guys described as an exponent of the ‘Let’s eviscerate the sonofabitch’ school of legalistic practice. From the outset, she didn’t simply want to seize all my material assets; she also wanted to make certain that I came out of the divorce hobbled, and boasting a permanent limp.
Eventually, after much expensive wrangling, my guys managed to curb her scorched-earth tendencies – but the damage was still pretty formidable. Lucy got the house (and all my equity in it). She also received a whopping $11,000 per month alimony and child support package. Given my new-found success, I could afford this – and I certainly wanted Caitlin to have everything and anything she wanted. But it did appal me to think that, from this moment forward, the first $200k of my gross income would be spoken for. Just as I wasn’t pleased about the clause that Levin the Impaler also included in the settlement: allowing Lucy the right to move with Caitlin to another city, should her career require it.
Four months after our fast-track divorce was finalized, she exercised that option when she landed a job heading the Human Resources division of some software company in Marin County. Suddenly, my daughter was no longer down the road. Suddenly, I couldn’t play hooky from my desk for an afternoon, and take off with her after school to Malibu, or to the big ice-skating rink in Westwood. Suddenly, my daughter was an hour’s flight away from me – and as the series went into production, I found it impossible to see her more than once a month. That bothered me to the point where, on those frequent nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d pace the floors of the large West Hollywood loft that Sally and I rented and ponder why I had fractured my family. I knew all the reasons: a marriage that had become inanimate … the dazzling style and brilliance of Ms Birmingham … the seductive momentum that accompanies success (and the desire to slam the door on all those past years of failure). But in those four-in-the-morning moments of private despair, I couldn’t help but think: I shouldn’t have fallen so easily when pushed. Surely I could have talked Lucy into taking me back. Surely we could have made a go of it again.
But then, come morning, there would be a script to finish, a meeting to take, a deal to ink, an opening to attend with Sally on my arm – in short, the relentless forward momentum of success. It was a momentum which would allow me to temporarily dodge the lingering guilt; the silent, ever-present uncertainty about everything in this new life of mine.
Of course, news of my changed domestic set-up was on the Hollywood bush telegraph within moments of my departure from the family home. Everyone said all the right solicitous things (to my face, anyway) about the difficulties of ending a marriage. The fact that I had ‘run off’ (to use that meretricious expression) with one of the most high-profile young television executives in town didn’t do my standing any harm. I had traded upwards – and, as Brad Bruce told me, ‘Everyone knew you were a smart guy, David. Now everyone’s going to think you’re a really smart guy.’
My agent’s reaction, however, was typically caustic. Alison knew and liked Lucy – and in the wake of the deal for the first series of Selling You, she had warned me to dodge all home-wrecking temptations. So, when I broke the news that I was about to start a new life with Sally, she fell silent. Finally she said, ‘I guess I should congratulate you for waiting over a year before doing something like this. Then again, it’s what always happens out here when somebody has the big breakthrough.’
‘I am in love, Alison.’
‘Congratulations. Love is a wonderful thing.’
‘I knew you were going to react this way.’
‘Sweetheart – don’t you know that there are only ten stories in the world … and, right now, you’re acting out one of them. But I will say this – at least your story has a different twist to it.’
‘In your case, the writer’s fucking the producer. In my jaded experience, it’s always the other way around. So bravo – you’re defying the laws of Hollywood gravity.’
‘But Alison – it was you who got us together in the first place.’
‘Tell me about it. But don’t worry – I’m not going to demand my fifteen per cent on your future joint earnings.’
Alison did point out, however, that as Sally and I were now an item, it was best if we let the proposed Fox pilot (which I still hadn’t written) lapse.
‘Face fact, it’s going to look like her wedding gift to you – and I can just imagine some Peter Bart wannabee making a big issue out of it in Daily Variety.’
‘Sally and I have discussed this already. We agreed that it’s best if we forget the pilot for Fox.’
‘What charming pillow talk you must have together.’
‘It was over breakfast.’
‘Before or after working out?’
‘Why do I put up with you?’
‘Because, “as a friend” I really am your friend. And also because I watch your back … to the point where the advice I have just given you is going to cost me almost forty grand in commission.’
‘You’re such an altruist, Alison.’
‘No – just plain stupid. Still, here’s one final piece of counsel from your fifteen per cent big sister: Keep your head down in the coming months. You’ve had it too good recently.’
I tried to heed her advice but Sally and I were playing the ‘power couple’ game. We were ‘the perfect exemplars of the New Hollywood’: the sort of Ivy League, literate folk who also happened to thrive in the combustible world of television. Well-heeled, but trying to look like we abhorred all ostentation. Our loft was minimalist in design; my Porsche and Sally’s Range Rover were symbolically astute vehicles – ‘upscale, but smart’ cars driven by ‘upscale, but smart’ people who have obviously achieved a significant level of professional success. We got invited to the right parties, the right premieres. But whenever I was interviewed, I spoke about how we weren’t seduced by the lure of celebrity or the need to maintain a high public profile. Anyway, we were both far too busy to crave the fast lane. Los Angeles is largely an early-to-bed city. So – with Sally planning on the new comedy slate for the autumn, and with the second season of Selling You now deep into production – we hardly had time for social pursuits, let alone each other. And Sally, as I discovered, lived her life as if it was a perpetual time-and-motion schedule: to the point where, though she never said it, I knew that she had even silently scheduled three ‘love-making windows’ per week. Even those random moments when she suddenly jumped my bones started to feel curiously pre-meditated – as if she had almost calculated that, on a rare morning when she wasn’t doing breakfast with someone, we could just about find the ten or so minutes required to reach mutual orgasm before she started her workout.
Still, I wasn’t complaining. Because – bar the constant twinge of regret I felt about Lucy and Caitlin – everything was going my way.
‘We all should have your problems,’ my new friend Bobby Barra told me on a rare late night (well, it was a Friday) when I drank one martini too many, and confided in him that I was still being nagged with silent guilt about busting up my marriage.
Bobby Barra loved the fact that I was using him as Father Confessor. Because that meant we were tight. And Bobby Barra liked the idea of being tight with me. Because I was now a name, a personage; one of the few true winners in a city of desperate aspiration and pervasive failure.
‘Look at it this way. Your marriage belongs to that segment of your life when nothing you did really worked. So naturally, you had to jettison it once you crossed over to the charmed side of the street.’
‘I guess you’re right,’ I said, sounding unconvinced.
‘Of course I’m right. A new life means new everything.’
Including new friends like Bobby Barra.
© 2006 Douglas Kennedy
“A page-turner with real emotional heft.” —Booklist
I always wanted to be rich. I know that probably sounds crass, but it’s the truth. A true confession. Like all would-be Hollywood screenwriters, David Armitage wants to be rich and famous. But for the past eleven years, he’s tasted nothing but failure. Then, out of nowhere, big-time luck comes his way when one of his scripts is bought for television. Before you can say “overnight success,” he’s the new toast of Hollywood as the creator of a hit series. Suddenly a major player, he finds that he’s reinventing himself at a great speed, especially when it comes to walking out on his wife and daughter for a young producer who worships only at the altar of ambition.
But David’s upward mobility takes a decidedly strange turn when a billionaire film buff named Philip Fleck barges into his life, proposing a very curious collaboration. David takes the bait and suddenly finds himself inadvertently entering into a Faustian pact and an express ride to the lower depths of the Hollywood jungle.
Douglas Kennedy describes his writing process
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
After eleven years of failure, would-be screenwriter David Armitage lands a big break: his script is bought for television production. The show is a runaway hit and he is an instant success. In a whirlwind of events he finds himself at the top of the Hollywood heap, being lauded as the creator of the hit series, Selling You. This newfound success brings about major lifestyle changes; David walks out on his wife and daughter for a young producer who worships only at the altar of ambition, yet he believes that nothing could ruin such a successful time in his life.
Enter Philip Fleck, billionaire film buff. Fleck whisks David away to his private island and makes him a bizarre offer to transform one of David’s original movie scripts into a Caligula-like remake that highlights the power of control. David balks at the proposition but with some goading, changes his mind and agrees.
Upon David’s return to Los Angeles, his life takes a bizarre turn. Accused of plagiarism by a Hollywood gossip report see more