Remembering Tommy Thompson, the Good Buddy Who Wrote and Lived Celebrity
"You want to be good or famous?" the cynical editor asks his young reporter in the miniseries Celebrity. "When you decide, let me know." Tommy Thompson never had to decide. As journalist and author, he was both—just how good is being demonstrated this week, I think, by the faithful and fast-paced TV rendition of Celebrity, Tommy's last book and only novel.
Just how famous? Well, bylines come and go in the business, yet I suspect his books, especially Blood and Money, will be read for years to come. But another measure of fame is, or maybe should be, the impact a human being makes not on the universe at large but on his own little world of family and friends. By that standard, Tommy was a justly famous man.
He died Oct. 29, 1982, at the age of 49, only a few weeks after learning he had cancer of the liver. I talked with him for the last time on Oct. 3 that year. It was his birthday and mine. If we were in the same city, we sometimes shared our birthday at lunch or dinner. One year when we were both working for LIFE in Los Angeles, we had a joint party at the Beverly Hilton, graced by the presence of Natalie Wood, who became one of Tommy's close friends. Another year we were stationed in Paris together, and we celebrated with a big costume party at my house.
If we could not get together, one of us often telephoned the other. On that last birthday Tommy told me the chilling news about his cancer. I had seen him in New York in late August, and I remember that he picked at his lunch. Now he was about to leave for Texas for medical tests that would show his condition to be hopeless.
He was clearly worried, but not despairing. As a reporter he had seen too much misery and death around the globe to be totally selfish about his own mortality. He was in a gentle, reflective mood. "Dick," he said, "you and I have already lived better, more exciting lives than most of the rest of the world." It was surely true of Tommy. He lived with a breadth that ordinary people never achieve.
It showed in his writing; he had a real sense of place and of people's lives. Celebrity is about three boys who grow up in Fort Worth (as Tommy did), share a dark secret, achieve fame in different ways, then come together again 25 years after high school in an astonishing denouement. The boys call themselves the Three Princes. The Prince of Power is Klebler Cantrell, who becomes a world-renowned journalist. The Prince of Charms is Mack Crawford, a handsome, golden athlete turned actor whose realization that he is homosexual blights his life. The Prince of Temptation is T.J. Luther, a hard-luck kid who discovers God in a jail cell and turns himself into an electronic evangelist of great notoriety. Luther says, "We're all just fulfilling the needs of the needy...and we done got rich and powerful doing it."
Tommy Thompson told me just before the best-selling Celebrity was published in 1982 that I would find myself in it. I did not, but Tommy's friends found him everywhere. The Three Princes are composites of Tommy—mixed, of course, with all the fascinating people he came across in a lifetime of reporting. (He was putting out a neighborhood newspaper at the age of 8; at 23, he was city editor of the Houston Press, the youngest on any major daily in the U.S.)
Kleber Cantrell's life most closely parallels Tommy's. The actor who portrays Cantrell, Ben Masters, begins to look somewhat like Tommy at the end, but crucial elements are missing: the deep lines in Tommy's face that spoke of both character and hours of tennis in the California sun; the disappearing hair that he vainly swooped from one side of his skull to the other; the sudden smile; the quick wit; the Texas courtliness. Above all, Masters has not captured Tommy's energy.
An incredible energy was behind Tommy's reporting and writing skills. You saw it when he moved; he had a way of walking on his toes, as if he could barely contain all the power inside. Tommy took that energy into every area of his life—into his friendships, onto the tennis court (though tall and lean, he was not a natural athlete, but developed into a savagely competitive tennis player), into the classroom (he taught without compensation at several universities) and into his profession. "Tommy worked like a ditch-digger," columnist Liz Smith, his good friend and fellow Texan, once wrote. I consider him the best reporter I've ever known. He would ask anybody anything, operating on the principle that there's no such thing as an indiscreet question, only an indiscreet answer. Sometimes Tommy and I doubled up on legally sensitive interviews, and on such occasions I was often cringing more than the subject. Tommy was all Texas charm or brutality—whatever the situation called for—and, more often than not, the interviewee chatted away.
Because he had been trained on newspapers, Tommy was sometimes impatient with the more leisurely pace of magazines. The only useful piece of advice I ever remember giving Tommy was to slow down, take a little more time interviewing and writing. LIFE magazine did not have a bulldog edition. On his next story, a shoot-out between two lawmen in Arizona, he did so. The story was richer, better—a harbinger of the superb magazine journalism Tommy would produce. He whirled through my office, shouted, "Thank you, good buddy" and was gone.
Tommy was a disciplined writer. Even when he turned his hand to books, he got up every morning, changed from bathrobe into clothes—"very important," he said—and typed 20 to 30 pages by noon. Yet even Tommy was fallible. In the fall of 1980 he took me to the office in his house overlooking Los Angeles and showed me a foot-high stack of paper. It was Celebrity; some of it, anyway. Tommy was suffering from an ailment that had never afflicted him before: writer's block. He suspected it was because the material was so personal, so intimate; he had always written about other people; this time, whether the subject was Kleber or Mack or T.J., he was in a large way writing about himself. It was an uncomfortable experience. Somewhat sheepishly Tommy revealed that he had found a therapist who specialized in treating blocked writers. Once cured, Tommy finished Celebrity and later wrote about overcoming his problem in PEOPLE (June 7, 1982).
The TV version of Celebrity skips over an important part of the book—the assassination of President Kennedy. Late in the morning of Nov. 22, 1963 Tommy was watching the Associated Press ticker in the Time-Life bureau in Beverly Hills. His sudden shout brought all of us tumbling out of our offices: "My God, Kennedy's been shot in Dallas." He and I left immediately for the Los Angeles airport. Just outside it we heard on the car radio that Kennedy was dead. I will never forget Tommy's groan.
Dallas was one of Tommy's finest hours as a journalist. He found Lee Harvey Oswald's wife and mother before any other reporter did and came away with a stunning portrait of the suspected assassin and his pitiable family. He managed to prolong his exclusive by hiding them in our hotel—until Oswald himself was shot the next morning and the Secret Service spirited them away. All of this is told through Kleber Cantrell in the novel.
What is not is our strange experience that Saturday night, the night between the murders. Dallas was a ghost town, a city in shame and shock. Because many restaurants were closed, someone arranged for several of us to have dinner in a private club. At the next table sat a couple in their 30s, and we all began talking. We were, I suppose, as one of the characters in Celebrity puts it, "scared and lonely...like the 200 million other Americans tonight." The couple invited us home with them, a lavish house in the suburbs. Everybody was drinking too much, talking too much. The woman tearfully disclosed that a teenage son by a previous marriage had committed suicide only a few months earlier; she and his stepfather had driven home, opened the garage door and found the boy hanging from the rafters.
Tommy was angry that night; he felt betrayed by his native state. He began questioning our host, then baiting him. The man's plump geniality gave way to irritation, irritation to fury, and finally, as Tommy was suggesting that the man's gun collection, which he had lovingly shown us, was still more evidence of a collective Texas sickness, the man exploded. He lurched from his chair, shook his fist at Tommy, shrieked, "I'm gonna get one of my guns and kill you," and headed for the rifles on the wall. As we leapt to restrain this out-of-control man, Tommy smiled dangerously and said, "See, that's exactly what I mean."
Over the years, Tommy did many stories on celebrities, became friends with some of them and in the end had to come to terms with the benefits and penalties of celebrityhood himself. He once told the New York Times, "I am appalled as to why anyone would want to be an instantly recognizable face, voice or name, since privacy is what makes life worth living." In Celebrity a prosecutor quotes a poem (a paraphrase of Lord Rochester) found in Kleber Cantrell's files: "There is nothing I can name/So foolish or so false as common fame."
Some of Tommy's other friends may disagree, but I think he found being a celebrity pretty attractive. Unlike so many of the fragile egos in show business, he was strong and smart enough to recognize its pitfalls and avoid them—but not always, and usually by choice. Tommy liked being fussed over by Elaine, the celebrity-stroking New York café owner, and being led to his table trailed by whispers of acknowledgment. (And I enjoyed being with him on such occasions.) He got a kick out of having the book jacket of Celebrity on one of those huge billboards over Sunset Boulevard. He loved telling the story of the Hollywood producer who recommended that he try out as Sean Connery's replacement in the James Bond films. "If you lost 10 pounds and got a toupee," the producer said, "it just might work, kid." When Tommy was invited to the Reagans' for dinner as the extra man, he described the evenings to me with a mixture of liberal embarrassment and Fort Worth pride.
Tommy had been an amateur actor in Texas, and he never quite lost his affection for stage center. A few years ago he wrote a TV movie titled Callie & Son, about a Texas female newspaper publisher. He gave a party at his home the night it aired; he installed an Advent TV screen in the living room and smaller sets around the house. The crowd was big and stellar; I remember Lindsay Wagner, Richard Gere and Dabney Coleman, among others. Tommy prowled from room to room to make sure we had food and drink and, I suspect, to make sure we were enjoying the show, or at least watching it. To tell the truth, the movie dragged a trifle, and I was tempted to strike up a conversation with my neighbor. But then I would look up, and there would be Tommy, staring down at me. My eyes stayed glued to the TV. It wasn't really difficult: Tommy was so pleased to have the movie on, and all of us together to watch it, that I rejoiced with him. People liked being happy when Tommy was; his was a contagious joy.
But it was not mindless; Tommy had shadows in his life. His divorce troubled him, although he stayed on good terms with his ex-wife and dearly loved his two sons. One of Tommy's close friends, a female TV star, recently told me, "I think Tommy was the most gregarious and the loneliest man I've ever known." He kept his personal life scrupulously private, and his friends in journalism abetted him.
Once when we were both stationed in California, we happened to visit New York at the same time, got trapped by a snowstorm and spent hours with a bottle of Scotch exchanging details of our lives, past and present. I was surprised at his revelations and at my own candor, but people confessed things to Tommy, partly because he was such a good reporter and mostly because they loved and trusted him.
In Tommy's house, along with affectionately autographed portraits of many stars, was a photograph of Tommy and me at our 1968 birthday party in Paris. The picture was snapped just as we blew out the candles on our cakes. We look astonishingly young. I asked for the picture after his death, and now it hangs on my wall—a reminder of how bright Tommy Thompson's candles flared, and how often we feel like cursing the darkness that he left.
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