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Never Published, but $750,000 Richer : First-Time Author Turns His Speculations About John F. Kennedy Into Gold, in Black and White

November 18, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

What if John F. Kennedy had survived that bullet on Nov. 22, 1963?

Every baby boomer worth his Moby Grape albums has pondered that question.

But 42-year-old George Bernau of Solana Beach had the foresight to put his reveries on that quintessential "what if?" down on paper, and his efforts have proved so successful that aspiring novelists with a low envy threshold are advised to stop reading right now.

Although it hasn't received much publicity except in the trade press, last July Bernau's New York agent sent the unpublished author's manuscript to a dozen or so publishing houses, and within a few days Warner Books had agreed to fork over a $750,000 advance.

That's "by far the most money for anyone's entry into the publishing world," said Russell Galen, Bernau's agent at the Scott Meredith Agency.

Even as Bernau revises the 1,400-page manuscript of "Promises to Keep" for an October, 1988, publication date--timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination--the book has been optioned for a miniseries.

Left the Law Behind

And--further salt in the wounds of the jealous--Bernau is not an alcoholic artiste holed up in some Venice Beach flophouse, a literature professor living in borderline poverty, or an ink-stained journalist with a manuscript hidden between news clips. He's an attorney, with a rambling redwood and stained-glass home across a eucalyptus-lined street from the ocean.

The money "hasn't made any change in my life style," he said with unaffected modesty.

Which is not to say Bernau hasn't suffered since he abandoned his law career six years ago to write full time.

"I'm a fairly tired guy," the 6-foot-6-inch man said, his emotions stirring easily after six years of self-imposed solitary confinement interrupted only by a surge of unexpected personal glory.

How It Began for Him

Bernau traces his success to an evening in 1977. He and some friends were returning from a football game between USC (his alma mater) and Stanford, when an apparently drunk driver pulled out of a side street and broadsided their car.

"I was in the back seat and I went halfway through the driver's side window--no easy task for me," Bernau said in a quavering voice. "They took me to the emergency room . . . and the doctor came in and said that I wasn't going to live."

The "very young, very inexperienced" emergency room doctor's hasty prognosis provided Bernau with a few dramatic hours in which to re-evaluate his existence. Bernau realized that as much as he enjoyed law, it wasn't what he was meant to do with his life.

"It took me a year or two to come around to understanding that being a novelist is what I had to do," he said.

"I had to reach a point in my life where I had something to say." By the time he did, his wife, Laurie, was "doing great" as a psychotherapist. So, after scaling back his own practice, in 1981 Bernau--who had taken "lots of English classes," but never studied writing formally--abandoned the legal profession.

"I left on a Friday, with no idea what I was going to write. But I bought a pad of paper and started writing."

Bernau co-wrote a screenplay about a unicorn, and a novel tentatively titled "High Wire Act" in which a character dedicates her life to perfecting a single artwork. ("It's not something I'm going to release until I'm dead or maybe an old guy or something," he says of that first novelistic effort.)

'A Party Game'

Then, in the spring of 1983 while he and a friend were in Palm Desert "drinking and talking politics," Bernau raised the hypothetical question of how their lives--and how the world--would be different if President Kennedy hadn't been killed.

"It was a party game for us; we kicked it around for a half-hour."

Over the next couple months, he started making notes, then began working full time on "Promises to Keep."

"I knew the opening sequence. Five years and 1,500 pages later, I knew the closing sequence," he said.

That pivotal night Bernau spent facing his mortality provided inspiration for the opening scene, in which "a young president named John Trelawny Cassidy fights for his life on an operating table."

"The character in the novel is shot in a motorcade in Dallas and makes it through a difficult night, 'Because he's alive, the whole world begins to change a little.'

as I did," Bernau said. "I was given a second chance, and in the book I give this very young president of the United States a second chance to keep the promises he made as a person and a candidate."

Bernau is clearly itching to spill his guts about the "very complex but very accessible" work that has consumed the past few years of his life. On the advice of "just about everybody," however, he will not reveal much about the plot of his novel, and the phalanx of editors, agents and publicists that have clustered around him is guarding the manuscript as if it were one of the Bard's original folios.

'A Writer's Dream'

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