For 13 years Britain's David Frost has been an intercontinental commuter, impervious to time zones, immune to jet lag, traveling light—the only overweight to declare was his ambition. A moving target to most Americans, the best previous fix on him was that he combined the interlocutor-producer skills of a David Susskind with the preacher's-son womanizing of a Marjoe. A former boss described him as "relentlessly switched on." His energy was brutal, his use of adjectives ("fantastic," "super," "terrific") annoyingly ingratiating, his attention span fleeting.
So when Frost cornered the TV rights to Richard Nixon for an estimated $600,000 and 20 percent of the profits, there was some professional revulsion. The U.S. networks bristled about "checkbook journalism" (though NBC stayed in the bidding up to the $400,000 level). The New York Times
huffily tagged David a "news entertainer." In Britain one of the most vitriolic of Frostophobes, Sunday Times
TV critic Dennis Potter, let fire: "I had a heartening dream in which the program could not get started because both of the protagonists were unable to unstick their sweaty palms from the handshake that presumably began it all."
But even the most poisonous of David's detractors, while plumbing the shallows of his mind, did not minimize his doggedness. Thus for 10 straight weeks—his longest continuous stretch in one spot since the early 1960s—Frost bunkered down in an $180-a-day suite at the Beverly (Hills) Hilton. First he boned up, then sparred in mock sessions with his research task force (with Bob Zelnick playing Nixon). It was the monastic regimen of a boxer training for the title—except for the presence of David's current lady, Caroline Cushing (who has herself, after three years, broken the romantic longevity record with bachelor Frost. It was previously held by ex-fiancée Diahann Carroll).
The result of those preparations confounded most ill-wishers. Even U.S. network news executives conceded that Frost's interrogator-confessor style was possibly as effective as (and probably more acceptable than) the hectoring of a Yank like Mike Wallace. Cabled Barbara Walters after the Watergate premiere: "I burst with pride for you last night. You were superb. Bravo!"
His risk of reputation and resources (up-front costs, including transmission, ran to $2.5 million) was instantly vindicated. With an estimated first-night draw of 57 million Americans (thanks in part to precision publicity leaks), advertising revenues zoomed, and Frost was adding maybe $2 million more to his personal fortune, which is already put, cautiously, at $5 million.
But what of the human ledger? He never travels without a prescription drug to fend off sledgehammer migraines that can give him double vision but, boasts Frost, have sidelined him for only one work day in 16 years. Then there are the questions about where have all his fingernails gone or what about those darkly pouched eyes and sunken cheeks. Chirps Frost withal: "It has not taken a physical or mental toll but rather a visible toll." He is 38.
If the effects of his driven life are only skin deep, a modern doctor might next ask delicately, how's his love life? Volunteers Caroline Cushing: "Sensational." David agrees: "I never believed that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder." But then what about Frost's rather frenetic turnover of women? Carol Lynley, Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, among others, not to mention Diahann and model Karen Graham, both of whom virtually left him at the altar to marry others within days. Responds David, who should, if anyone, be able to field interviewers: "I wouldn't swap my private life with anybody's in the world. All the ladies, known and unknown, that I've had a friendship with have enriched my life."
Of her predecessors, the incumbent Cushing laughs: "I guess those girls couldn't take it." Twice divorced and a mother of two (by Austrian Prince Veriand Windisch-Graetz), Caroline notes one of the prerequisites of being Frost's lady: "I can pack in two seconds too." Another is giving up a permanent job of her own. As her second marriage, to New York socialite Howard Cushing Jr., foundered, she took up flacking for the Loew's Hotel in Monaco and Cartier. "Nothing," she says, "gets in the way of David's positive goals. He will never stop. He always has to have a million balls in the air."
As for marriage, she reports, "Neither of us wants to rush into anything. I love him, and we're very happy together," she says, "but I don't think marriage is the ultimate thing." What is? "To find a relationship that's perfect, and this one suits us."
The altar of success holds Frost's gaze as fast today as ever. At Cambridge the Methodist evangelist's son from Suffolk overcame the wrong accent to join the predominantly upper-crust theatrical and literary clubs. Mates remember him as pushy beyond his talent. Part of that, no doubt, is sour grapes. As a new graduate picked in 1962 to anchor the satiric series That Was the Week That Was
, Frost and no one else parlayed the job into "straight" talk shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus began his fevered transatlantic commute, now down to about 30 crossings a year from a high of 52.
Some said his journalistic grope for the jugular loosened as his entrepreneurial interests splayed into finance and production. At the same time "he really toadied up to the Nixon administration," said former staffer Bob Benard, echoing widespread similar views. Frost himself says he just learned that "a warm sun is more likely to get someone to shed his overcoat than a howling wind." "David has a way of dragging people out and making them feel wonderful," says Caroline, herself an English country girl from Ascot, a Swiss-educated daughter of a petroleum executive. "He will do it to my mother the same way he did it to Nixon." Still, insists Frost, it's not a stratagem: "What works on television and with people is what works in real life, which is to be yourself. So by watching me on television, you get a fairly good clue about the real David Frost."
That Frost remains so unflappable offstage astounds even his acolytes. "I kept thinking he can't be this nice all the time," says his "dogsbody" (English for Girl Friday) of three years, Libby Purdie, "and that when he did explode it would be ghastly. But it still hasn't happened. You're never actually aware that he's under great pressure. He's the same all the time." Says Frost, one of TV's few nonscreamers and model bosses: "I think you can be hard with your own standards without being hard on people."
For a man who credits that equilibrium to a "simple happy childhood" in a home of strict, puritan values, Frost enjoys his this-worldly rewards with an almost unseemly relish. They include a $25,000 Bentley limo, a posh townhouse with 10-button phone in London's pricey Knightsbridge section, the best French wines. His loafers are Gucci, his shirts Turnbull & Asser, his suits by Doug Hayward, tailor to the trendy. "He likes to live well," says Caroline. "He'll find the best restaurants wherever he is." Once he flew 60 friends to Bermuda just for lunch, and it delighted him the time he beat out a Rothschild for a chartered jet to take a girlfriend to dinner in Vienna.
After Nixon Redux, what triumphs are left? "I don't think politics," he says, though skeptics insist he envisions his only appropriate, final residence as No. 10 Downing Street. Frost replies: "After all, I might have to submit myself to 28¾ hours of interviewing at the end of it." The momentum of other enterprises (including an $8 million film on the Loch Ness monster, a 13-part series with his ex-PM crony, Sir Harold Wilson) should keep his schedule steadyingly full—and if his Nixon summit represents his peak, he clearly doesn't know it. "We are like two English children exploring the world," says Caroline. "We both grew up in small villages and feel we can conquer the world if we set out to do it." "There must be new frontiers in television to find and to cross," proclaims Frost. "I'm not sure where they are, but that's where I want to be."