Bill Zehme is at a loss. It has been five months now. Five long months since he bagged Johnny Carson, his personal white whale, and presented him to America on the pages of Esquire magazine’s June issue. Once again, Zehme was the envy of every writer in the country. Another coup. Johnny’s first interview in a decade. Another unattainable celebrity profiled in artful prose. But, none of that mattered. Johnny is what mattered. And now it’s over.
Johnny was it. Always had been. Not only is Carson America’s “king of late night,” he is Zehme’s personal god. Ever since he was a pop-culture-obsessed kid in the south suburbs (“I thrilled at TV Guide’s Fall Preview” he says), Carson has meant everything to Zehme. “It was like I had two dads,” Zehme says. “Johnny was the cool dad with the television show.” The adult Zehme courted him. He hung at Johnny’s Santa Monica offices. Treated the “ladies of Carson” (who work there) to lunch. He wrote a polite letter, gently “telling” Carson that he was doing a story. Johnny bit. They had lunch. They talked. Carson ordered a second glass of wine—he was having fun. They kept talking. Zehme was in heaven. He had climbed Everest.
Then he had to write. Zehme hates writing. Hates every damn aspect of the process except for finishing. He hates writing, but he loves having written, as the saying goes. Then he’s happy. When his stories are published, he “carries them around like a baby,” says art-dealer Carrie Secrist, Zehme’s girlfriend of six years, “to the bathroom, to restaurants, to bars—everywhere.” It’s when he’s happiest.
But now, Zehme’s past happy. Past the giddy post-Johnny, carry-the-magazine-everywhere thing. It took him until mid-September to remove the Carson material from his desk. Johnny now sits in boxes under Zehme’s desk, waiting to be put in storage. He’s not miserable. That’s not his thing. He’s just at a loss.
So, here sits Bill Zehme. Forty-four years old, the nation’s foremost profiler of celebrities and author of several books. Chicago resident and Roscoe Village loft dweller. Lost. Where does he go?
Television, that’s where. Bill Zehme has turned to television where he will host “Second City Presents” on the Bravo Network. It’s an “Inside the Actors Studio” for comedy. And television is good for Bill Zehme. (“It’s like he was born to do it,” says Sun-Times media columnist Robert Feder, a long-time Zehme friend and fan.) He is charming, unassuming in the extreme, tall as hell (6 feet 5 1/2 inches) and very smart. (Being with him, says comedian Rich Lewis, “is like walking with a brilliant giraffe.”) He’s what they call telegenic. He comes across. And being on TV gets him out of the house and provides much needed social contact. It provides rare moments of focus for his well-checked Midwestern ego. Perhaps that’s why it makes him so uncomfortable. And perhaps it’s why Zehme is so good at what he does.
“Welcome to the ‘Fortress of Solitude,’” Zehme says at the door of his condo (also known as “The House that Regis Built,” after Zehme co-authored Regis Philbin’s autobiography). During the course of the next few hours, Zehme will give a self-conscious but good-natured tour of his career and apartment. He will divulge potentially damaging secrets, the most incriminating of which is an unnatural enjoyment of “Yanni: Live at the Acropolis.” He also loves Barry Manilow. And you may come to love Manilow too after reading his profile of the schlock icon/guilty pleasure. Such is the power of Zehme.
If Bill Zehme dies tomorrow, it will take a strong-willed, compulsively organized genius of a librarian or anthropologist to make sense of the place where he lives. The loft is an understated tribute to its inhabitants’ keen sense of irony, kitsch and hero worship, along with his eternal ability to remain young at heart. “It’s a 12-year old’s fantasy,” Secrist says. “It’s what happens when a man lives alone for too long,” Zehme says. Regardless, it’s where he lives and works, drinks coffee and listens to the radio, all the while watching the slow, mournful decline of his beloved Cubs each summer. (“I weep for the lovely Bruce Kimm” he says days after the team’s skipper is unceremoniously deposed.)
Following is an incomplete inventory detailing some of the contents of Zehme’s apartment: large oil paintings of Bing Crosby (smoking a pipe) and Carson (in action at his talk-show desk); a papier-mâché Mr. Magoo; what appear to be several “Shriner” bobbleheads; poster-sized artwork for several issues of Esquire magazine for which Zehme wrote the cover story (Letterman, Leno); 5-8,000 CD’s, many of them by Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis; hundreds of videos, including a boxed set of the eighties television series “St. Elsewhere;” many pictures of his 15-year-old daughter Lucy; a bronze set of those “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” monkeys; Sinatra mementos and memorabilia of all shapes, forms and sizes (paintings, photos, street signs); a Bob Crane “Hogan’s Heroes” action figure still in the box. A flip-book depicting the picture-perfect swing of former Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly sits atop a large speaker and the CD “Peter Allen At His Best” provides beyond-ironic support for the VCR sitting at a jaunty angle atop Zehme’s TV. And somehow this place doesn’t come off as messy.
Upstairs are Zehme’s office (which notably contains a shot glass once used by Dean Martin), an extremely purple bedroom for his beloved daughter Lucy (who lives in the suburbs with Zehme’s first wife)—because he’s the kind of dad that lets his daughter have a purple bedroom—a collection of PEZ dispensers and a bedroom where he enjoys sleeping.
And sleeping is one of the things about Zehme’s profession that causes him just a little bit of self-loathing. He likes to sleep late. His father, on the other hand, is 76 years old and a hard-working florist in south suburban Glenwood. While Zehme the elder wakes at dawn and spends his days engaged in man’s work, planting gardens and getting his hands dirty, the eldest of his two children, and only son (a sister, eight years his junior, works for the family business) sleeps late and writes stories about famous people for a living.
“It’s sort of embarrassing in the world we now live in,” Zehme says. “My subjects aren’t exactly firemen or policemen.”
Now, he’s going to be on TV. Part of the entertainment culture that he has scrupulously avoided becoming part of for twenty years. Now he will be ankle-, if not knee-deep in its epicenter. The irony, if you must call it that, isn’t lost on Zehme.
“I feel like such a dilettante sometimes,” he says, “My dad is such a hard-working guy. I’m sure I’m consumed with guilt about it.”
Being the only son of a florist is a bond that Zehme shares with frequent subject David Letterman (Zehme’s grandfather and Letterman’s dad were friends; Zehme’s mom called Dave’s dad “Uncle Joe”). Both did work for their dads. Letterman, Zehme points out, went on to be a grocery-store bag boy, the ultimate All-American young male job for Letterman’s generation. Zehme’s fate, however, may have been sealed when he made a floral delivery to South Side music legend Mavis Staples.
“That sustained me,” Zehme says.
His taste for celebrity had always been with him. Since then he has sustained himself by treating what he calls “the lowest form of journalism” as a creative avenue for entertaining himself and readers. He has made a tremendous career out of doing so. Out of being a true stylist among the legions who write about celebrities.
“We all have to write about the same people,” he says. “Why not do something different?”
It began with a high-school column called “Monologues”—a youthful tip of Zehme’s hat to Carson. Then at Loyola University (he is a 1980 graduate), he drove the priests insane by writing about Hugh Hefner—who along with Carson and Sinatra make up Zehme’s “holy trinity of cool.” He became the bane of their Catholic existences, writing more about Hef each time they sent a letter to the editor decrying his work. There were profiles of Hef, visits to the Chicago mansion, a road trip out to visit half-dressed beauties of the West Coast mansion—all accompanied by glorious pictures taken by a Zehme pal known as “Pix.” (Zehme was “Scoop.”) He drove them insane, but did so with an unassuming and disarming brand of charm. It is one of his gifts as a writer and as a human. There is never malice aforethought. Zehme is a very genuine guy just trying to have fun. Even Oprah (whose size and manner he mocked) and David Copperfield, with whom he had a full-fledged “show-business feud,” have forgiven him.
His first job out of school was with Montgomery Ward’s, as a copy editor for magazines—which bore regrettable names like Vital and worse—sent to members of their auto, health and travel clubs. He then moved on to W. Clement Stone’s Success magazine, which is notable if only for the fact that former Nixon appointments secretary Dwight Chapin was its publisher.
All the while Zehme did freelance work for Playboy and others, taking on celebrity profiles and finally winding up as the Chicago correspondent for Vanity Fair during what he refers to as Tina Brown’s “fabulous” phase.
“Chicago was fabulous,” Zehme says.
Zehme landed the job when Brown called Bob Greene, got his assistant and asked if there were any good writers with their fingers on the pulse of the city. Zehme was the name that came to mind. The rest, as they say, is history.
The job, however, is one Zehme likens to being the Maytag Repairman. He was on the outer reaches of a magazine that focused on LA, New York, London and the decidedly more “fabulous” cities on the earth. He wrote about Sugar Rautbord, Linda Johnson Rice and anyone else who passed for Chicago society. Notably, though, he did a piece about Siskel and Ebert, which showed that young Zehme wasn’t just another member of the ridiculous gaggle that generally follows celebs.
Zehme’s piece about Gene and Roger took a different angle on the argumentative movie critics and their relationship. He took them to a Chicago pizza place and the meal turned into a metaphor for their entire relationship. He dissected how the two men ordered their pizza, experienced past pizzas and finally, how they discussed the perfect pizza—one which they devised right there at the table, a donut-shaped pie with both inside and outside edges so that each piece would have a maximum amount of (they agreed on something) crust.
“That epitomizes how great [Zehme] is,” says Feder. “It was never about him. But he ingratiates himself with these people and through something totally unexpected, he is able to elaborate on their personalities to a greater degree.”
Simply put, he is the master of the profile. Where others write a puff piece or standard fare, Zehme is his own thing entirely. His choice of subjects is idiosyncratic (he turns down many) and based on what interests him. (“He has immaculate taste,” says Richard Lewis. “He has an authenticity Geiger counter in his brain.”) He blanches at writing about the new new thing and favors older stars, people who have lived (or perhaps died—“The truth is all I want are dead people. I yearn still to write a dead-person profile, because the greatest and bravest and most candid subjects seem to be dead”). His research is endless. When he writes, he is part psychologist, part comic and part fan, yet never a kiss-ass. He is tough with his subjects, but never unfair or cruel. His profiles are stylistic where others are flat and his voice is strong, yet it never crushes the story. At Vanity Fair, these gifts were not utilized to their full effect.
After Vanity Fair there was a six-year period (1989-1995) during which he lived in both Chicago and Los Angeles. (“I was living somewhere over Denver,” he says.) While in LA the following occurred: he avoided the ocean because it reminded him of how far he was from his daughter; he dated actress Polly Draper (Ellen on “Thirtysomething”), who in true LA fashion dumped him for Arsenio Hall’s bandleader; he dated a studio exec who used to scream at her assistants while Zehme was on hold; and Chasen’s (a legendary “old Hollywood haunt,” where Pepe the bartender created the “Flaming Martini” for Dean Martin) closed. It was everything a Midwesterner fears about Hollywood.
“LA … proved too much for the man,” Zehme says, quoting Gladys Knight.
He came home to Chicago. He went to work for Esquire in 1994 after a stint at Rolling Stone. He has been there ever since. He has been here ever since.
And during these years he has appeared on television. He was a regular correspondent on Bob Sirott’s “Fox Thing in the Morning.” He was on the short list to follow Bob Costas as host of “Later” (he guest-hosted twice). They chose Greg Kinnear. He appeared on “The Joan Rivers Show.” Regis had him on too. People (TV people) told him he belonged on TV. He kept telling them that he was “a writer boy.” But TV lurked in the background—as it always does.
During the past ten years, as TV has beckoned, Zehme has enhanced his reputation as “the king of the celebrity profile.” He has taken on everyone from Woody Allen to Sharon Stone—with whom he got nude (if only for a massage) and baked cookies (fully clothed). He has co-authored celeb bios for Regis and Jay Leno (“mercenary work”). He has asked a humorless Arnold Schwarzenegger whether anybody would die if the Terminator had sex—and turned it all into art. He has interviewed a reticent and squirrelly Warren Beatty and made that actor’s long silences into compelling journalism. He has deconstructed the entire genre of celebrity profile in a piece about hottie-of-the-month Heather Graham. And he has covered the “Holy Trinity” like a glove—profiling Hef’s post-divorce resurrection, writing a cool-guy lifestyle manual of advice from Sinatra and a love letter to Johnny. Each piece is well-crafted; each is funny; each has its own distinct approach.
It is all pure Zehme and it’s all in his new book “Intimate Strangers.”
Zehme rises from the sofa. It’s been hours and he has an appointment. He has been a good host and as I leave his apartment he calls out, “I’m dizzy from all of this narcissism. I’m pretty sick of me right now.”
Zehme calls to say that that we ought to go check out the “Windy City Inn” a Lincoln Park B&B owned by Channel 7’s Andy Shaw and his wife Mary. It seems the place has named each of its rooms for a great Chicago writer and, much to Zehme’s mortification, there is a Bill Zehme room. We will be going to check out Zehme’s horror at such recognition.
Sitting in the courtyard is a woman who has just checked out of the Zehme suite and enjoyed her stay. Her arm is in a sling, but the injury is unrelated to her stay in the room.
Zehme’s namesake is a garden apartment (he dislikes the early morning sun when sleeping late—a good omen here) that is quite lovely, with a spacious sitting room, nice kitchenette and a cozy bedroom. It sits underneath the Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel suites in a coach house.
In the main house are rooms named for Sara Paretsky, Hemingway, Royko and Gwendolyn Brooks. Zehme’s is far larger than those places.
Instead of being horrified, Zehme is mostly very polite, inquisitive and interested in talking with Mary Shaw about anything other than the fact that she named a room for him. He seems genuinely honored and moderately embarrassed at the attention. By the way, somebody ripped off the copy of his Sinatra book, “The Way You Wear Your Hat,” which is kept in the room.
Zehme tells Mary Shaw that he’ll come back and spend the night with his girlfriend.
They love him at Jilly’s. The Rush Street saloon that was Sinatra’s favorite haunt is home to legions of Frank wannabes and young hipsters looking for a Rat Pack night on the town. Zehme is the author of their bible. Management won’t let him pay for drinks. He tips massively, just like Sinatra (who used to carry around rolls of hundreds for “duking” waitresses, drivers and the like) did back in his day.
Zehme squires the lovely Ms. Secrist to the table. They drink vodka and lemonade. She and I get very nice shoeshines. Zehme leaves so that she can talk about him.
He is very shy, she says. Not unlike Carson and Letterman. He is an incredibly serious guy who is slightly overwhelmed by everyday stuff. “Driving across town can be cause for a nervous breakdown,” she says. Yet, he never sweats when it comes to his subjects. Unless of course that subject is Johnny.
“That was the only time he didn’t do a ‘piece’ [with a voice],” says Secrist. “That was right from the heart.”
He is incredibly loyal and never complains. He courted Secrist by calling her on the phone at night and asking for the name of a song, which he would then find it in his vast collection and play for her.
On a trip to St. Bart’s, shortly after the Sinatra book came out, Zehme and Secrist found themselves sitting behind a man reading “The Way You Wear Your Hat.” When Zehme noticed, he asked the man if he was enjoying the book. He was. Zehme then asked if the man would like an inscription. He was so flattered at the man’s interest he wrote nearly three pages.
“He doesn’t believe that people read his stuff,” Secrist says.
When he is writing he is obsessed. He pays so much attention to each word that editorial tinkering is akin to someone “touching up” a finished painting.
His research is equally obsessive, as he often takes on the form of his subject.
“Frank was great fun,” says Secrist, “He dressed great and it was ‘ring-a-ding-ding time.’”
Andy Kaufman was another matter. When Zehme wrote “Lost in the Funhouse,” his Kaufman bio, he took on the form of the eccentric comedian, big-eyed weirdness and all. It wasn’t Secrist’s favorite point in their relationship.
He is a great gift giver. She loves Jimmy Stewart (who Zehme’s father is said to resemble). While in LA he climbed a fence onto a construction site where Stewart’s house had recently been knocked down. He retrieved a brick from the actor’s old Tudor mansion, had it engraved and presented it to Secrist.
There are three things about Zehme that annoy Secrist. 1) He uses big words when they fight, 2) there is a 48-hour delay before he has a reaction to almost everything (Zehme is back and we assure her that this is just because he is a man) and 3). Well, she can’t remember three.
Following is a list of things that you should know about Bill Zehme and his brushes with fame:
He was consoled during his difficult divorce by Adam “Batman” West (in costume at “Limelight” no less) and Barry Manilow—with whom he had long breakfasts (and dinner when Manilow now comes to Chicago) during which they discussed their mothers; among his showbiz friends are Regis Philbin (“one of the nicest people I’ve ever met”), whose wife Joy makes a Chicken Zehme, Richard Lewis and Sandra Bernhard; Sharon Stone has seen his ass; he has sat in Jay Leno’s living room while Jay obsessively watches Letterman; he has gone skiing with Geraldo Rivera (for a story) but refused to ski, so just took the ski lift up and down while conducting interviews; he has had a blowup with Hef over a proposed biography that Hef backed out of because it was too honest; he and Hef are OK now; he and Jay are not, as Jay thinks that Zehme is on Dave’s side. Such is Zehme’s life.
Bill Zehme is a shy man. An extremely shy man who has developed a hail-fellow-well met persona to cope with the world and his profession. That persona is used to full effect tonight.
At Second City’s ETC… stage, Bravo is hosting a kick-off party for Zehme’s new show. Chicago’s media mafia and glitterati are there. Rich Melman, Kevin Matthews, Garry Meier, Richard Roeper, Phil Rosenthal, Bill Zwecker, Tim Kazurinsky and more. It is clearly a big deal because Susanna, of “Susanna’s Night on the Town” is there with her photographer. Zehme mingles as much as anyone can when they tower above the crowd.
Before the show’s first episode, with guest Jim Belushi, is to be shown, Zehme takes the stage for a few introductory comments. He is not a super-slick polished guy, but he’s very engaging. He thanks a few folks and notes the presence of Roy Leonard, “who is show biz in Chicago.” He talks of himself as the “Chicago writer boy,” who was given a chance by Brillstein-Grey Entertainment (“who knew they’d represent a guy like me?” he says) and has a TV show to show for it.
Zehme then introduces a Bravo promo for his show. It is a send-up of the QVC shopping channel, with a southern hostess offering a “Bill Zehme” for sale. Zehme is in the corner of the screen rotating on a turntable for all to see. He appears nauseous from the circling and puts his hand to his mouth. A woman calls in to say that she got a Bill Zehme for herself and one for her sister. It is very funny. Zehme tells the crowd that shooting the ad was “a proud, proud day for me.” During a previous meeting he says that he literally watched “all journalistic credibility fly out the window,” while the shooting the promo in New York.
The episode with Belushi is shown and it’s clear that Zehme will be a likable and intelligent host. He knows when to talk and when to let his guests run wild. Belushi, not the most outgoing character, lets down his defenses and tells stories about his brother John for the first time on television. It’s clear that he is very comfortable talking to Zehme and others will be as well. Television, it turns out, is good for Bill Zehme and it appears that Bill Zehme will be good for television.
The lights come up and everyone applauds the episode and Zehme. Ever the self-deprecator, Zehme tells the crowd, “I don’t know what we got here … but it’s on TV.”
The evening devolves into a party. Belushi will show up (his flight was late) and much hell will be raised well into the night. Warner Saunders will note the party and Zehme on that evening’s newscast.
And now, after the party is over, Zehme returns to himself. He returns to his “Fortress of Solitude,” with the omnipresent Sinatra memorabilia and Deano’s shot glass. He returns to find that the Cubs are gone again, that the “holy trinity” has been profiled and that Esquire probably wants him to do a career retrospective on Tara Reid.
And somewhere, Bill Zehme is dizzy. He is dizzy from all of this narcissism. But, Johnny is gone and what’s a man to do.
“Second City Presents” airs Monday evenings at 8pm on Bravo beginning October 14, the Jim Belushi episode.