The Charmed Life:

A Conversation with Michael Korda

by Rob Couteau





Published in abridged form in:
Rain Taxi Review of Books
(online), summer 2010 (MN: Minneapolis)

The former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Michael Korda is one of the most influential people in the recent history of publishing. Heís also the author of the memoirs Charmed Lives, Another Life, and Horse People; the biographies Ike and Ulysses S. Grant; as well as several best-selling novels. A powerful public speaker and gifted raconteur, he attributes his storytelling ability to the creative influence of his father Vincent and his famous uncles ZoltŠn and Sir Alexander Korda, ďwho were brilliant at that,Ē but adds, in his typically self-deprecating manner, ďIíve never met anyone who was Hungarian who wasn't.Ē After speaking at the State University at New Paltz, NY, about the future of books and book publishing, he kindly agreed to this interview, which took place on 22 April 2010.*

Rob Couteau: One of the things that struck me about Charmed Lives was that, throughout the book, you speak of your shyness, and you say you were ďfrequently at a loss for words Ö in social situations,Ē and you found the accents of the English very intimidating. How did you go from this rather introverted figure to such an articulate and powerful public speaker?

Michael Korda: It would be almost impossible for me to know how I do that. Probably the answer is that somewhere very deep in my genetic pattern is my mother, who was a very gifted actress, and that that emerges from time to time. I also think thereís a huge difference between speaking to an audience and speaking to individuals. I can certainly suffer from nerves from time to time when speaking to individuals. But faced with an audience, Iím able to separate them from individuals, if you see what I mean. And I was certainly never trained for it; it just comes out on its own. I didnít know until I started, when I wrote my first book, Male Chauvinism, then did an unexpected and large amount of publicity for that book, that I had a gift for it. I would have thought that I probably didnít. But there it was. I attribute that entirely to my mother. My mother was a terrific actress, and I must have inherited that as a part of my gene pool. Along with the teeth.

RC: I can think of many actors who are quite nervous without a script.

MK: I used to be able to speak quite easily without a script. And had no difficulty extemporizing when I stood up. Thatís not true any more. I find that itís difficult for me to do unless I have a script in hand. With a script in hand, I find it comes naturally. But I have to know what Iím going to say now. Before, many years ago, I was able to just get up and speak, and it would work, but I wouldnít dare to try that now.

RC: It reminds me of a story I heard recently about Robert De Niro. He was speaking at the Tribeca Film Festival, and a friend of mine was one of the judges there, and he was shocked at how nervous De Niro was, introducing the whole thing. So, thatís probably something many actors go through, I would imagine.

MK: Oh, yes. Almost every actor I know has a degree of stage fright. And I think thatís healthy. Because it makes you perform better.

RC: To bring oneís adrenaline up, and so on?

MK: Exactly.

RC: Just before he buys you a motorcycle, your Uncle Alex Korda says: ďYears ago, I remember that Lawrence of Arabia was coming to see me to talk about a movie of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and he was killed on the way in a motorcycle accident. I still own the rights.Ē Did this anecdote plant a seed in your mind for your later desire to write about Lawrence?

MK: Iíve always been interested in Lawrence. That item, by the way, is not entirely correct. Alex met Lawrence and bought the rights not to Seven Pillars of Wisdom but to Revolt in the Desert, which is the condensation of them. And did so on the promise that he would never make the movie in Lawrenceís lifetime. This was extremely important to Lawrence. And Lawrence comments about it very nicely in his letters, about how Alex had removed from him this fear that somebody would make the movie during his lifetime. And that as long as Alex owned it, nobody else would be able to do it.

He was not killed on his way to see Alex. I may have supposed that when I wrote Charmed Lives, but on further examination it isnít so. But they did meet, and liked each other enormously, and Alex made him this promise.

It certainly played a part. My Uncle ZoltŠn would have directed the movie, which was to star Leslie Howard as Lawrence, and the screenplay was written by Miles Malleson, who later became that famous character actor. And Winston Churchill was working as screenwriter for my Uncle Alex in the í30s, since he was then in political, not exactly exile, but he was removed from any kind of political power, and also in desperate need of money because of his lifestyle. So I knew a great deal about this, and it certainly steered me in the direction of Lawrence. And there are numerous resemblances, quite accidental, between myself and Lawrence. In the sense, for example, that I joined the Royal Air Force; in the sense that Iíve always owned motorcycles, until quite recently, when Iím really too old to be riding around on one anymore; and that Iíve been in the Middle East and liked it and of course spent time there.

So Lawrence is certainly somebody who was put in my mind a very long time ago, no doubt by the connection between Lawrence and my Uncle Alex. And the fact that Alex would have made that film before the war if he could have, after Lawrenceís death. But he couldnít get the financing for it, because the British government very much wanted the film not to be made in the 1930s, for very obvious reasons. They didnít want to offend the Turks. There was constantly an Arab resentment toward the portrayal of the Arab revolt as being something for which Lawrence was in any degree responsible.

Thatís one of those things that are just built in, but in the 1930s it was a serious concern on the part of the British government. They were asked to prevent it from happening. And Alex, who had a very acute political sense, simply shelved the film and put it to one side and made Four Feathers instead. Which my Uncle ZoltŠn directed and my father art directed.

And then, after the war, it was even harder to make a movie about Lawrence immediately. Because, first of all, it was enormously expensive and difficult to do, and secondly things were even more exacerbated because of Israel. So, he put it to one side completely. Then, as with so many other things that he owned, sold it for a considerable profit to Sam Spiegel, who eventually got the backing to make his film.

Itís interesting to speculate on what it would have been like as a film, but weíll never know. Leslie Howard would have been very good actually, as Lawrence. So, I donít doubt it would have been an interesting movie.

RC: Youíve just finished the book on Lawrence?

MK: I finished writing it. Iím now involved in the details: permissions, artwork, fact checking, and copy editing. But it is written, yes.

RC: How long were you working on it?

MK: About three years.

RC: The other day you said that it was the most difficult book youíve worked on, in part because he was such an unsympathetic character.

MK: No, I never said he was unsympathetic. I said ďdifficult to work onĒ because heís like an oyster. There are lots of things going on in Lawrenceís life, but he had a great capacity for hiding what he thought and what he was really doing. Sometimes, even from himself. So, with Lawrence, you have to probe constantly beneath the surface and try and figure out what it is thatís really going on there. Which is not the case for example with Eisenhower or Ulysses S. Grant.

RC: What drew you to doing this book on him? Was it the similarities you felt you shared with him?

MK: No, I donít think so. Lawrence is just a wonderful story. And one that interests me a lot and that I know quite a bit about. So, when Iíd done the Battle of Britain book, it was fairly natural, in looking for a new subject, to think about Lawrence.

There was a suggestion that I should do a book about the marriage of Winston Churchill and Clementine Churchill, and that interested me. But thereís so much about Churchill, and even about their marriage, that I had a degree of doubt about it, which nobody else seemed to share. And then, all of a sudden, when somebody mentioned Lawrence, I said, ďOf course thatís what I should do.Ē [Laughs] And I think itís worked out. I think Lawrence was in need of a contemporary clearing away of some of the cobwebs that had gathered around him. And thatís a valuable thing to do.

RC: How would you rate Seven Pillars of Wisdom?

MK: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is one of those strange books. Itís not an easy book to read, in part because Lawrence tried so hard to make it a great work of literature. You can kind of feel, throughout the book, Lawrence doing what amounts to weightlifting in the mind to create a great work of literature. I think it can be argued that he succeeded. But itís one of those books that are not by any stretch of the imagination an easy read. There are great scenes in it that are absolutely spectacular. But itís a little in the category of reading James Joyceís Ulysses. Which is that, you know, it is admittedly a great work of literature, there are great scenes in it, you can recognize it as a masterpiece and a classic, but itís not an easy read. And I certainly feel that about Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Revolt in the Desert, which is the condensation of it, is in fact much more readable. But for all that, Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a more interesting book. Certainly, the fact that itís still in print after all these years, and in two versions, and continues to sell, is some indication of the fact that Lawrence succeeded.

RC: Was it his greatest literary work? When I say literary, that could include letters, nonfiction, whatever. Was it his greatest piece of writing?

MK: Lawrenceís best writing, and most interesting writing, was as a letter writer. He was a prodigious letter writer. 

RC: I had a feeling you were going to say that.

MK: And his letters are amazing. And quite extraordinary. And represent one of the great bodies of letters of any English figure at any time.

RC: Would it be fair to say, then, that Seven Pillars is a bit strained in its style, whereas the letters Ö

MK: No. I think it tries too hard to become a great work, and you can feel that constantly in reading the book, but there are whole scenes that are among some of the most striking in English writing. And certainly, itís one of the great nonfiction books about war that Iíve ever read. Or that anyoneís ever read.

RC: In your work, do you focus more on the historical aspect of his life or the literary, or both?

MK: Everything. You canít separate the one from the other.

RC: Getting back for a moment to Charmed Lives. You call your Uncle Alex ďa man who at heart disliked intimacy, and could never share the innermost part of his life with anyone, except his brothers.Ē You also say ďthere was a ruthless streak in his natureĒ and that ďwhen ego or self-interest were involved Alex could be harsh, authoritarian and vengeful.Ē ďHe did not take kindly to disagreement, and disliked being thwarted or contradicted.Ē Much of this could serve as a classic, textbook definition of narcissism. If you were to agree with that, how much of this was a destructive narcissism and how much what psychologists would term a healthy or character-building narcissism? Did he have a real empathy for others or only a need to assert dominance over them by forcing his ďassistanceĒ on them?

MK: I think the book makes it obvious that Alex had enormous charm and that I was very fond of him. That he was a narcissist is probably true enough. Thereís a streak of narcissism in anybody, I suppose, as successful as Alex was.  But I donít think I could analyze it beyond what Iíve done in the book.

RC: By the way, I thought the ending of Charmed Lives was really touching.

MK: I like the ending of the book. I think it is very touching. It really was the best way to end it. I have no regrets about having ended it that way.

RC: Especially since your father was normally so reticent. I believe that was the last meeting you had with him.

MK: Yes Ö

RC: And then, itís so poetic, he says, ďItís not been such a bad life, my boy, has it? We had some good times, no?Ē

MK: Itís wonderful. That was exactly what Ö he did say that. So, it rounds itself off very well.

RC: In terms of the three brothers, you devote the most time to describing Alex. Then, secondly, your father. And the middle brother, ZoltŠn, the least of all. This creates a kind of mystery around ZoltŠn.

MK: He lived in California whereas we lived in London. I saw much less of Zoli than I saw of Alex. And, obviously, much less of Zoli than I saw of my father. And I simply know less about his life. So, I donít think thereís anything deliberate about that. If I knew more about Zoli, I would have put more in.

RC: He possessed a sort of amalgam of traits of the older brother and the younger brother. On the one hand, Zoli had much of the artistic integrity that your father refused to give up, yet, on the other hand, he was able to successfully work within the movie-industry system. This is an interesting part of his character.

MK: A lot of people felt that Zoli was by far the most talented of the three, although an equal number have felt that my father was the most talented. For what itís worth, Iím inclined to say that all three were very talented in their own special ways, but their particular abilities were different. My father had a much broader range of talent in some ways than the other two. Obviously, Alex had an ability as a producer and as a businessman, as a showman, on top of being a movie producer and a movie director. He was a very special figure. Zoli I simply know less about. He was a brilliant movie director and, you know, what else filled his life, apart from collecting gold coins, I donít really know.

RC: You said your father was a gifted raconteur.

MK: Yes, very. In his own strange English; yes, he was.

RC: Was he the most gifted storyteller of the three brothers?

MK: No, all three were wonderful storytellers. Iím not sure that isnít just a Hungarian characteristic. But they were all wonderful at that.

RC: One of the most amusing portraits in Another Life is the one you paint of President Nixon. You describe his odd behavior as a tragic inability to communicate on an interpersonal level. But I was wondering if you felt there was a deeper pathology there.

MK: He was a very strange personality; thereís no question about that. I donít claim to have known him any better than I described in the book. So, thereís a limit to my ability to parse him. But even Henry Kissinger would always agree that the president was a very odd personality.

On the other hand, heís in that curious range of people who set out to become something totally unlikely, which is the president of the United States. And prepares himself for that role in his own way. And then succeeds in doing it. And also succeeds in being an extraordinary and revolutionary president for a Republican. For all Nixonís faults Ė and I would be the last to deny that there were many Ė his grasp of foreign policy and his strategy for getting what he wanted out of foreign policy was altogether extraordinary. Henry Kissinger, whom I also have edited for many years, is the first to agree that even though Nixonís genius in choosing Henry Kissinger Ė not an obvious first choice at all for somebody like Nixon Ė to be his foreign policy advisor and then secretary of state is a curious but very powerful stroke of genius, none of Henry Kissingerís achievements in foreign policy could have been made without the president first accepting or agreeing to them. And, in many cases, without the president first coming to that knowledge.

The opening of the China policy is not something Henry Kissinger brought to Richard Nixon on a plate and said, ďWhy donít we do this?Ē Itís something that Nixon, in that lonely and sometimes embittered but very determined isolation of his, thought out. Now, thatís a very unusual thing for a West-Coast Republican, when every other Republican was in favor of Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan and against any agreement with the Communist Chinese. For Nixon to sit there in the dark and come up with the brilliant notion of recognizing China and using China as a third party in negotiating with the Soviet Union so that, in effect, the United States would become the dominating power by being able to manipulate the two Communist powers against each other Ö This is something that Nixon thought up. Once Nixon had introduced it, then, certainly, Henry was probably the only person in the world with the patience, the charm, and the ability to make this happen in the way that Nixon wanted it to happen. But it should never be forgotten that this was Nixonís policy, not Kissingerís.

RC: Why do you consider Ulysses S. Grantís memoir to be the Moby Dick of American nonfiction?

MK: Well, it just is. [Laughs]

RC: I know you believe that; Iím just wondering if you could elaborate on it.

MK: There are two great American classics. In fiction, itís Moby Dick. In nonfiction, itís Grantís memoirs. You could make an argument for Huckleberry Finn instead of Moby Dick. And that argument has been made by several people. And it may be true. But if you look at nonfiction, I donít think thereís another book in the American literary universe that is as powerful and as much of a classic as Grantís memoirs.

RC: Iíd like to quote an excerpt from the memoir and have you react to it. This is from chapter eight, volume one: ďEvery Sunday there was a bullfight for the amusement of those who could pay their fifty cents. I attended one of them Ė not wishing to leave the country without having witnessed the national sport. The sight to me was sickening. I could not see how human beings could enjoy the sufferings of beasts, and often of men, as they seemed to on these occasions.Ē Then he goes on to characterize the matadors as ďmurderersĒ!

MK: Where are you quoting from?

RC: Itís from Grantís memoir. I thought it was fascinating because weíd probably be hard-pressed to find such a sympathetic general in the United States military today saying something like that.

MK: Although Grant was a West Pointer, remember that he resigned from the army as a captain because of his drinking problem and only came back in the Civil War because of special circumstances. You canít think of him as a normal general. And Grantís fondness for animals and his dislike of the sight of blood is a very deep characteristic of Grant. Itís not just that he didnít like bullfighting; he didnít like to be anywhere on the battlefield near where the wounded were being taken care of and operated on. Thatís why he was out in the rain at the end of the first day of Shiloh. It was the only place where he could have sheltered from the rain.* They were operating, in the manner of the day, by cutting off limbs. And Grant had a very low tolerance for that. Which, by the way, does him credit. He was not afraid of effusion of blood, as he would have put it. He was a very tough general and understood exactly how best to win on the battlefield. And he was certainly not afraid of casualties. But he was the last person in the world to have enjoyed cruelty for its own sake. Or to have condoned it. Thatís a genuine aspect of Grant to be taken into consideration.

RC: My fatherís from roughly the same generation as you are; he was born in 1929, and heís fascinated with the whole World War II period. So I bought him a copy of your Ike biography, and I asked what he would have liked to ask you, regarding the book. He said, ďIíd like to know his opinion as to why the right constantly refer to Ronald Reagan as their paragon of past greatness but never refer to Ike in that mode.Ē

MK: Ike was never a natural Republican. You know, probing Ikeís deeper opinions is something I am reluctant to do, because I canít ďchannelĒ him, as it were. But he never had a natural taste for the Republican right wing. After all Ė talk about bullfights Ė he had to fight Robert Taft almost to the death to get the Republican nomination. The Republican right wing was always much more sympathetic to and determined to have as a presidential candidate Robert Taft than Ike.

When Ike ran for the presidency in í52, the Republican Party and those who supported Taft were against NATO; wanted to get American troops out of Europe; talked about preventative war against the Soviet Union; or wanted the United States either to resume the war in Korea or felt that the war in Korea should never have been ended, except for the victory. None of these were things that Ike believed at all. Ike was an internationalist; his strength was that he got along well, in general, with the British and the French and even with the Russians. He enjoyed Stalinís company when he was in Moscow. He is virtually the creator of NATO. The last thing he would have wanted was to draw American troops out of Europe.

In social terms, itís difficult to know what Ike was interested in or what he was for, if only because Ike was too clever to be pinned down by it. He was certainly, in modern terms, slow to move on civil rights, although very firm when he finally did move. But then, for a mid-Westerner of Ikeís generation, thatís just par for the course. J.F.K. was not in any way fiercely committed toward civil rights.

RC: Thatís right. Until push came to shove, he wanted to avoid it as long as possible.

MK: He wanted them to stop demonstrating. And so did Bobby Kennedy.

RC: Actually, Truman was far ahead of his time in that regard.

MK: Very far. Although whether he was far ahead of his time in terms of his personal feeling about blacks is a separate matter altogether. Once again, he was born in the nineteenth century, in Missouri.

RC: We have to judge these things in their context, obviously.

MK: Yes. But Ike was an atypical Republican. And by the way, no sooner had Ike left the presidency than the Republican Party moved a huge step rightwards. Where it has remained ever since. And rejected Nelson Rockefeller, and Ö

RC: Itís certainly moved several steps to the right in the last five to ten years! I mean, itís quite unimaginable where things have ended up.

MK: Exactly. Yeah, that would have infuriated Ike, actually.

RC: Perhaps one of the reasons he hasnít been characterized as a paragon of the right is that when he brought Federal troops to enforce integration in that Arkansas high school, a lot of the right wing Ė with their Stateís Rights concerns Ė must have been furious about it, and this probably still resonates.

MK: Yes, probably so. It is going back in time, but I think it took a good deal of pushing to get Ike to where he wanted to do it. But once he did it, he did it in a very forthright and strong way. And instead of using marshals and FBI agents, he used the 101st Airborne. There you have to give Ike credit. He figured a segregationist mob might not be stopped by FBI agents, but they sure would be stopped by the 101st Airborne! [Laughs] He didnít have any doubts about that.

RC: Perhaps we can briefly touch on some of the ideas you spoke about the other day, on the future of publishing and the form of the book. You were saying the form itself is not so important; itís the book thatís important. And we have to compare the book in its present form not just to an electronic book, like the Kindle, but we have to apply our imagination to it much further, in that it might become something thatís beyond anything we could imagine today.

MK: Well, I think that thatís true. You know, youíre looking at the Model-T Ford and trying to look ahead to what road transportation will be like in 2010. I mean, ultimately, itíll still have four wheels, and some form of propulsion, and a steering wheel. But beyond that, youíre trying to imagine something that is beyond imagination, if you see what I mean.

Now, there are two important differences. One is that the speed of progress is now so rapid, and transition is so quick, that the next step in reading-technology will come very rapidly, rather than very slowly. Thereís not going to be a long lag between its inception and its development and any changes that take place. Already, the iPad is a huge step ahead of the Kindle. Although whether itís a useful step ahead for readers remains to be seen. I donít have a comment about that, and Iím not equipped to; I donít have an iPad. But clearly, itís a big step ahead.

On the other hand, also clearly, itís a rather large, cumbersome device, which needs to be replaced by something altogether different. But that is going to happen with such incredible rapidity that we really canít forecast what it will look like.

Ultimately, my guess is that all the worldís literature and knowledge will be contained in something the size of a refrigerator. And youíll be able to pick it up with your computer, or with a handheld or pocket computer of some kind, with some system of payment, with no problem at all. I canít see how, exactly, that will take place. But my guess is that, in ten years time, it will be in place and nobody will have a problem with it. Itís just amazing the degree to which things are changing rapidly.

RC: There are many who say, ďWell, I would miss the feel of the book.Ē But if you unleash your imagination, itís easy to imagine that, at some point in the future, a book could be what appears to be a single piece of paper, which is not actually a piece of paper, and the text is appearing on that pseudo paper, which looks just like text on a normal piece of paper. And you could hold it and feel it, but every time you want to get to the next page you touch something, and thereís the next page. It could even be something like that, to appeal to the tactile sense. It doesnít have to be just a visual innovation; it could also be something that involves more than one sense.

MK: Yeah, no doubt. But you know, I donít have a clue. The person to talk to about that is Steve Jobs. [Laughs] Because unless he dies first, heíll probably be the one who will invent it. But itíll be something quite different. In any case, I donít think that thatís something that one should be afraid of. People react the same way about a whole variety of things, ranging from smoking cigarettes to using typewriters or fountain pens. But nevertheless the technology simply leaps ahead, and people simply adapt to it.

RC: You mentioned this about ten years ago in your memoir. In Another Life, you spoke about the sudden appearance of computers and word processors, and how a lot of people at Simon & Schuster were terrified that this would be like movies being replaced by videocassettes, and everyone was going to go out of business.

MK: Yes, exactly. And some people will go out of business. [Laughs]

RC: But other things, other businesses, will be created.

MK: Right. If you had said to somebody ten years ago, what do you think the music business will look like, nobody would have guessed that people would be downloading individual songs into their computers and that the record stores would have gone. A very similar thing is going to happen to reading.

Itís not going to take place in a huge, explosive way. The book will continue to be a major factor, certainly for as long as I live, and maybe for as long as you live. But, eventually, itís going, in the form of something else.

RC: What about the future of publishing?

MK: It will have to be reinvented with that in mind. Already, itís evident that the major publishers are looking to find a partner in Steve Jobs. So that Apple will become, in effect, a kind of publishing house. How that will work remains to be seen. There isnít anyone in the book publishing business who can tell you, because nobody knows at this point in time. But thatís what everybody is clearly attempting to move toward.

RC: What about the role of small press publishers?

MK: They can only be improved by this, because they will have access to a media thatís open to everybody. How theyíll make money, I donít know. But then, how do they make money now? I mean, thatís enough of a mystery right there.

RC: So that part might not change very much.

MK: That part will be better. They may come out ahead. I mean, Iím not sure I wouldnít rather be a small publisher than, say, Random House.

RC: Right now?

MK: Not right now, but five years from now.

RC: And why is that?

MK: Because how are you going to keep a large organization like Random House Ė with a lot of editors and a headquarters in New York Ė functioning if books are going to be sold from scratch for between ten and fifteen dollars, by downloading them into some device that hasnít yet been invented? And will not the publisher then, in effect, become Apple or whoever makes the device?

But a small press could be placed in New Paltz and issue a book on the Internet, and it could either be read on the device or printed off the device without any particular problem. All of that is surely coming in the future. And given that, the small press should do better, if anything.

I mean, thereíll be no difficulty in finding a way of doing small books. Itís whether the big publishers will in fact have a place at all, which remains to be seen.


* This interview originally appeared in a slightly altered, abridged form in Rain Taxi Review of Books (online), August 2010.

* The battle of Shiloh (1862) was extraordinarily bloody, shocking the public in both the North and the South. There were about 20,000 total causalities, mostly in one day, and more fell in the battle than the entire number of dead and wounded in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. During the conflict, Grant converted his field headquarters into a hospital, and he spent the night under a tree in a driving rainstorm. Greater horrors were yet to come in the wholesale slaughters of Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg etc.


 fine art

Updated: 9 September 2011 | All text Copyright © 2011 | Rob Couteau | key words: Michael Korda Charmed Lives Another Life and Horse People biography Ike and American civial war between the states Ulysses S. Grant Vincent Korda ZoltŠn Korda and Sir Alexander Korda the future of books and book publishing interviews with literature book reviews of novels and literary by Rob Couteau expatriate writers in Paris