From the looks of the crowd at Michael’s today, I suspect there were plenty of big doings being finalized in betweeen bites of Cobb salad. Attorney Bob Barnett was with Huma Abedin, Charlie Rose was huddled in conversation with Marie Josee Kravis on Table Four while CBS 48 Hours Mystery’s Susan Zirinsky and producer Josh Gelman were chatting in the window at Table One.
I was joined by the one and only Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and, thanks to her new book You Don’t Look Your Age… and Other Fairy Tales, someone who can now add to her long list of credits New York Times bestselling author. HBO has a room christened The Holy Shrine of Sheila that houses all the hardware she’s won over the 35 years she’s been there. The haul includes 32 Primetime Emmy Awards, 34 Emmys for news and documentaries and 42 Peabody Awards. But who’s counting?
Sheila is having the time of her life making the rounds–and believe me, she’s left no stone unturned–to talk about her book. “I’m so used to selling other people’s wares. I am having so much fun with this.” She’s been on Charlie Rose, The View, Metrofocus, CBS This Morning and CBS Sunday Morning, The Talk (more on that later), NPR, SiriusXM and appeared at the Berkshire Film Festival. “I’m a bhooker–a book hooker. I’ll go anywhere to sell this book. I have no shame,” she told me between bites of her burger.
Just last night, she Skyped with a radio show in New Zealand. She’s done book signings in stores between television appearances and has met the masses at the new behemoth Barnes & Noble in Scarsdale, where she packed the house and wound up Skyping with an attendee’s book club a few days later. She’ll be signing books at Bookhampton on Thursday in East Hampton. And on July 30, she’ll be the keynote speaker “Deal With It,” a women’s conference in Beverly Hills hosted by the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
The process of writing the book (on her ipad) and talking about it have been a revelation for the industry icon. “I didn’t have an identity outside of HBO,” she told me. “On a documentary, there are 50-60 people you share the credit with–justifiably so. I wanted to see if I could be creative on the outside. The book is my story, my writing. I paid for [the recording studio] myself. I can say I did it by myself and I feel more confident having done it.”
Her observations from road are as colorful as the content of the book. “Everyone is twelve years old,” said Sheila. She recently spoke to a group of young women at Refinery29, where one woman told her “there’s a guy who’s hitting on me.” “I told her to say, ‘I hope I didn’t hear you say what I think you said, because I respect you too much.'” After Sheila’s talk ended, the same woman approached her to go over it again. “I told her I wish I had that line.”
After her experience on The Talk, Sheila realized, “I’m good, I can do this.” She was sequestered in the green room for about an hour before going on, alone with 7-Up and bowls of potato chips and popcorn. “I had no idea who was on the show. They come and mic you five minutes before and you’re seated at the table [on set] and then women [on the show] come in and you act like you’ve known each other your whole life. Sharon Osborne was my best friend.”
The book took root a little over two years ago, Sheila explained, when Joni Evans and Mel Berger came to her New York apartment to talk to her about writing a book. “I’m not a book person, I’m a television person,” said Shelia. But, she was a writer who had contributed to Joni’s website PureWow, which had given women of a certain age a carefully curated space to write and talk about issues with wit, wisdom and humor. ”
“My pieces were popular and Joni said, ‘You should write a book.'” You Don’t Look Your Age… is a collection of Sheila’s short stories, poem and essays about her personal and professional experiences. She writes with unflinching honesty about her plastic surgery, illegal abortion and office affairs. She tackles, poignantly and whenever possible with humor, the tender subject of her son’s Tourette Syndrome and her mother’s illness that led to amputation. Issues of age and aging get quite a going over in the book. At 78, Shelia takes “arrogant pride” in “outing my age.”
There’s also the aforementioned audio-book version, for which Sheila wrangled a head-spinning line-up of actors, activists and other famous folks to read chapters including Audra McDonald, Glenn Close, Janet Mock, Gloria Steinam, Lena Dunham, Rupaul, Edie Falco and Alan Alda. Sheila’s friend Carrie Fisher was supposed to record her chapter over the Christmas holidays, but sadly, Fisher died before she could do it.”We spoke that Monday and she said, ‘Leave me alone. Come to California and I’ll eat your book whole. It’s so sad.”
Always a director, Sheila told me she picked the pieces for each person to read “whenever I could” and remembers every encounter with the participants down to the last detail. At Larry Kramer’s 80th birthday party, she was sitting on a couch with him when Christine Baranski walked over and joined them. Sheila had written Larry a poem but didn’t want to read it aloud herself, so Christine did. When the actress was finished, Shelia asked her if she’d read the same poem for the audio version of the book and she agreed on the spot. “She was the first person [asked] and when she said yes, I thought that was so easy,” recalled Sheila. And that was that.
When Sheila dropped a letter off at Meryl Streep’s office and left it with the actress’s assistant, she had hoped for a response in about a month. In a matter of weeks, a letter arrived on Shelia’s desk with ‘M. Streep’ in the upper left corner of the envelope. “She sent a note saying ‘I’ll read something’ and I just started screaming.”
The Oscar-winning actress arrived at the studio without a handler in sight and read her chapter twice. “I think I can do better,” she said before her second attempt. Streep read the book’s final chapter entitled The Wrong Kind of Hot. “I didn’t want her to be the first [chapter in the book] because I thought no one would keep going,” said Sheila. “I’m not a woo-woo kind of person, but when she read, I thought, did I dream this? I heard my mother’s voice.”
The book hasn’t slowed Sheila down one bit with her day job. HBO has a full slate of upcoming documentaries. On July 4, The Words That Built America, produced and directed by Alexandra Pelosi, will premiere. In the film, the Declaration of Independence is read by actors, the Constitution by lawmakers and the Bill of Rights by children. Every living president–including the current one–participated in the making of the film.
Later this summer, a yet-to-be titled documentary on Princess Diana will air. The film was directed by Ashley Gething and produced by Oxford Film and Television, with Nick Kent serving as the film’s executive producer. Sheila says the interviews with Diana’s sons Prince William and Prince Harry feature them talking about their mother as they never have before. “They are so sweet,” she said.
In the documentary, William and Harry look through family photo albums and share their personal remembrances of events. There’s also an upcoming documentary from Rebecca Miller on Arthur Miller. “One of my all-time favorites,” said Sheila, who added she’s “really invested” in the project.
Think of a famous–or infamous– name and chances are Sheila has worked with them. When I told her I thought Monica in Black and White, the 2002 documentary about Monica Lewinsky where she takes the stage to answer questions from college students, was really well done, Sheila had some interesting things to say about the former White House intern. “I saw Monica as a victim. She was just a kid in her twenties. When the president of the United States [approaches], I would have crawled in.”
The documentary was filmed at Cooper Union here in the city because, Sheila revealed, when she went looking for a college or university as a location “no one wanted to do it.” Back then, Monica was a pariah for telling her story but today, said Shelia, “She’d be listened to. Her voice would be heard.”
Here’s today’s rundown:
1. CBS 48 Hours Mystery’s Susan Zirinsky and Josh Gelman
2. Euan Rellie
3. Ellin Delsner
4. Charlie Rose
5. Stan Shuman
6. Andrew Stein and Judy Miller
8. Patricia Duff
11. Trish Jefferies
12. Huma Abedin and Bob Barnett with a fellow we didn’t recognize. Discussing a juicy tell-all in the works perhaps?
Act two: Francine Lefrak and Shelia Klehm
14. Marie Gilbertson
15. Carl McCall
16. Joe Baker
18. British Heritage Travel’s CEO Jack Kliger
20. Martha Nelson
21. David Johnson
23. Michael Peterson
24. Jonathan Estreich
26. Lisa Hanson
27. Sheila Nevins, Judy Twersky and yours truly
29. David Sanford and Lewis Stein
We’ll be off next week for the holiday. See at Michael’s in two weeks!
[Diane Clehane posts reports from Michael’s restaurant every Wednesday. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.]