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The Man in the Middle : How Will Michael Korda Edit Two Diametrically Opposed Books on the Reagans? Very, Very Carefully

February 16, 1989|JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Publishing sure makes for strange bedfellows. Strange and interesting bedfellows.

--Author Kitty Kelley

In his office on the 14th floor, Michael Korda fiddles with his pink power tie, swivels in a desk chair and stares out at the granite canyons of midtown Manhattan. The editor in chief of Simon & Schuster and best-selling author grimaces when told of Kelley's comment, but then smiles and gestures expansively with his hands.

"I wouldn't have used her exact words perhaps, but yes, I guess that's true about publishing," Korda says. "That's certainly the situation I'm looking at here."

The Situation.

It seems to dog Korda these days, even as he sets out on a national book tour to promote "The Fortune," his latest blockbuster novel. Never mind that his influence at the nation's largest publishing house continues to grow, or that his niche as New York's flashiest and most successful editor seems more secure than ever. The question that's got publishing powers wagging their tongues is: How is Korda, 55, going to edit Kelley's decidedly unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan while also editing the forthcoming memoirs of Ronald Reagan? How will he keep the peace with Kelley--whose gut-punching books about Frank Sinatra and Jackie Onassis have sparked intense controversy--and The Reagans, newly arrived in Bel-Air?

"Obviously the situation requires on my part a certain tact and decent behavior," Korda says, choosing his words carefully.

"Because clearly, whatever Kitty would tell me about what she's doing I would have to be absolutely sure not to pass it on to the Reagans. And vice versa, whatever the Reagans might tell me I'd be sure not to pass on to Kitty Kelley."

Korda shifts uncomfortably in his leather seat and shoots a glance at several fat manuscripts piled high on a table behind his desk. When the phone rings, he tells a secretary to hold all calls except for author Larry McMurtry (of "Lonesome Dove" fame) and literary agent Irving (Swifty) Lazar. Slowly, with some reluctance, he returns to The Situation.

"Look, no doubt there will be problems. No doubt there will be tension," he says. "To put the books by Ronald Reagan and Kitty Kelley in the same publishing house, and then under the same editor . . . well, no, you don't see that every day."

So far, the Reagans have declined comment on The Situation. And beyond her statement about the publishing industry, Kelley, too, refuses to discuss the matter. But her telephone answering machine provides a tantalizing clue of things to come: Before the beep, callers hear a few bars of Sinatra singing "Nancy with the laughing face."

The problem surfaced last month, when Simon & Schuster announced a publishing coup: Without fanfare, the company had purchased the rights to Reagan's memoirs and a book of collected speeches for about $5 million. The speeches are due out next year, with the memoirs to follow at some undetermined date.

Earlier, the giant publishing firm had acquired the rights to Kelley's forthcoming book on Nancy Reagan. On each occasion, Richard E. Snyder, chairman of Simon & Schuster, announced that Korda would be editing the Reagan books.

The selection of Korda, a short, nattily attired wisp of a man with curly blond hair, came as no surprise. During a 30-year career, Korda has edited some of the nation's biggest fiction best sellers and earned a reputation for spotting the Big Hit long before other publishing companies. As a rival editor put it: "When it comes to kitsch and the mass-market blockbuster, Michael is, quite simply, the best. No one is better attuned to what Americans will want to read."

Or what they will buy.

During his climb to the top at Simon & Schuster, the English-born Korda has edited books by Jackie and Joan Collins, Harold Robbins, McMurtry, Mary Higgins Clark, Ted Morgan, Shirley Conran, Clive Cussler and Peter Forbath. He has worked on books by Graham Greene and Joan Didion, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, and edited Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," which won last year's Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

At the same time, Korda has won recognition as a writer, uncorking self-help best sellers like "Power" and "Success" in the 1970s, and glossy, romantic novels like "Queenie," based loosely on the life of actress Merle Oberon, which was made into a television miniseries. Born into the Korda family--a trio of wealthy and talented Hungarian brothers who produced successful motion pictures dating from the silent era--he also wrote "Charmed Lives," a best-selling chronicle of his family's career in show business.

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