Six years ago, when sculptor Alex Thorleifson put aside her clay for a word processor, she didn't anticipate becoming an instant supermarket sensation. Last month, however, the Irvine writer's biographies of John Wayne and Liberace hit the pages of the National Enquirer and the Star.
Thorleifson found herself the toast of the checkout counter because of serializations of her two collaborative works: "John Wayne--My Life With the Duke," written with Pilar Wayne, and the yet-to-be-released "Behind The Candelabra--My Life With Liberace."
"As far as I know, it has never happened that one celebrity author has been competing against herself in the two top tabloids," says Thorleifson, 52.
"It was a very funny moment when I came home with both issues and looked at them. I started out to write the great American novel and wound up being the queen of the tabloids."
The hardcover Wayne biography, released in October by McGraw Hill, appeared in the Enquirer as a three-week condensation. The book is being considered for a miniseries by Warner Brothers and is a main January selection of the Literary Guild. Serialized in the Star, the Liberace book, written with Liberace's former lover, Scott Thorson, is scheduled for release in April by EP Dutton.
Thorleifson's "overnight" success is unusual in a profession in which writers usually come from a related field, such as public relations or screenwriting, according to her agent, Richard Curtis of New York City.
"I've never heard of anyone making the transition so suddenly from an unrelated field," he says. "However, Alex is one of the most professional authors I've worked with. She's a superb researcher and extremely precise, which is very important in this type of writing."
An Arizonan for 20 years, Thorleifson moved to Southern California five years ago, after her husband accepted a job in Orange County. Staying behind for a year to sell their Tempe home, Thorleifson began writing to fight boredom.
Her first effort, "Graven Images," was soon sidetracked. A classmate in a writing course at Orange Coast College told her that Pilar Wayne wanted to write a book and was looking for a writer. After sending a writing sample to Wayne, Thorleifson met with her. "We clicked, so I put the novel aside," she says.
The biography took a year to write, Thorleifson says. "Since Pilar and the Duke didn't meet until he was 45, there was a lot of research that had to be done. When you're trying to get together with people . . . it isn't every day that they're feeling physically up to seeing you."
Like shaping an anonymous clump of clay, Thorleifson found celebrity collaboration meant molding a cohesive portrayal from a mass of facts, recollections and experiences. She says she went from "knowing virtually nothing about his private life" to being immersed in intimate details of the Duke, both public and private.
"I knew John Wayne from his movies, but I had been brainwashed like most of America to seeing him as a knee-jerk conservative," she says.
"The public had been led by the press to believe he was an ignoramous and a conservative's conservative, when he was a very intelligent man with a tremendous amount of integrity who judged individual issues. That floored me. And that really interested me as I started to get into it.
"I began to get angry," she says. "I began to feel a lot of what he must have felt. Imagine, this man went through his whole career dealing with people who had no idea of what he was all about. For me, it was a great lesson in the power of the media. They can make you seem to be anything."
Controversy has arisen from both ends of the political spectrum since the book's publication, Thorleifson says.
"It's been crazy. On the one hand, the liberals are saying, 'You whitewashed him. You made him too heroic.' And then the conservatives are saying, 'Why did you tell those things that aren't flattering?' "
After finishing the Wayne book, Curtis suggested that she collaborate with Thorson on Liberace.
Moving from the macho hero of "True Grit" to the Las Vegas flamboyance of the King of Glitz was an abrupt switch, and having to work her way into her "subject's mind" was another hurdle: "With Pilar, we're close in age; we have children the same age. But I must admit that with Scott's book, to find my way into the mind of a 28-year-old homosexual was a very interesting experience.
"This is probably the most candid book of its type that has ever been written," she says. "Scott just opens up and lets you inside. Pilar was a much more private person."
Motivation for writing the biographies also varied with her co-authors, Thorleifson says. "Pilar wanted to give a very honest portrayal of the Duke for her children and his fans. She wanted his fans to get to know him as a real man. She felt that if people got to know him, they would see that he really had great heroic qualities in his private life, not just on the screen."