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Last Page of Love Story: Widow to Edit Final Irving Stone Book : Jean Stone Takes On the Biggest Challenge of Her Career

April 01, 1993|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BENEDICT CANYON — It was a great love story. She was almost 18, he not quite 30. The setting: New York, 1932.

She asked him about an obscure play he was directing and he was impressed with her questions. He told her about a book he had written about a Dutch artist named van Gogh. He gave her the manuscript and asked her to tell him why it had been rejected by 17 publishers.

The book was "Lust For Life." The author was Irving Stone. The young woman's critique of the book helped create two careers--his as a phenomenally successful author and hers as a world-class editor. Now, 3 1/2 years after his death at age 86, she is embarking on the biggest challenge of her career. She is editing the book he left behind.

The first time Jean Stone touched the 700-page manuscript (she would not reveal the title or the subject), she could not bear the weight--not from the size but from the emotional connection she still felt for the man who was her husband, friend, lover, mentor and collaborator for more than half a century. She had to put it aside.

"The day after Irving died, I felt as if the tent pole which held up the canvas had collapsed and I was spread over the ground," she recalled in an interview at her home in the hills near Benedict Canyon.

Two weeks later, Armand Hammer called and asked her to edit the update of his autobiography, and she said yes. Then she said yes to six other projects.

Now, finally, she says, she is whole again, and can tackle Irving Stone's final biographical novel.

"Whole," to Stone, is what she was before her husband died. "He brought out my talent," she said. "He demanded it. When he handed me 'Lust For Life,' I hadn't even finished high school. But I had a mother who OKd me to take off from school two afternoons a week to go to the theater. She said I would learn more about life from the theater than in school. So when Irving asked me to read the book and tell him why, after three years, publishers keep it so long and then send it back, I had no hesitations. And he listened to me.

"He had the same problem then with his work as throughout his career. He was an academic. He repeated himself a lot as if he did not trust his readers to understand what he was writing. My actual words to him were, 'To my taste it is a little dry--it has no real human approach, warmth. You don't trust your readers.'

"Later on, working on other projects, he'd say, 'I've said this three times--pick the best one.' He was making things too clear. It was a teacher's clarity with too much detail, minutiae," she said.

Irving Stone's reaction to criticism was, according to Jean, magnificent. He never rewrote "Lust For Life." He asked Jean to retype it leaving out the sections she recommended. It sold the next time it was submitted. He got a $250 advance, and with that money they decided to get married.

"My mother was not thrilled with the idea of me marrying an artist," Stone said. "She asked me why I thought it was a good idea. I told her that the best of a man is in his work, and the closer I get to it the better my life. As for Irving, there was no talk of love or affectionate words. He simply promised me that after a number of years I'd have very few areas of ignorance left."

Irving Stone's books were vivid in part because of his thorough research, and his belief that a writer had to immerse himself in the environment of his subject. When "The Agony and the Ecstasy" was in the works, Jean Stone went to UCLA to study Italian.

"Irving would simply announce that he was writing a book about Michelangelo and that we'd have to spend over two years in Italy and I would have to know Italian. By that time we had two children and we packed up and left. There was no vote, no groaning. Everyone benefited. He believed that the environment helped to create you."

One way Stone has managed to cope with her husband's death by "finding blessings to count."

One of the blessings is the Madera Method, a project she and her husband participated in with elementary schoolchildren in Madera, Calif. The project provides the students, most of them Latino and Asian, the opportunity to conduct their own original historical investigations and then publish their discoveries. According to the project originator, teacher Bill Coate, the students involved in the project are not just studying history, they are writing history. Stone is taking six students to China to investigate findings about a Chinese worker uncovered by the students.

Jean Stone's name has never appeared on the cover of an Irving Stone book. But every book he wrote while they were together is dedicated to her.

"I have never . . . had to face the blank page," she said. "That is the author. I'm not convinced there would be anything for you to read if I faced the blank page."

As for the 700 pages that await her touch, she says she is clearing the decks so she can find the best 400 pages to tell the story as Irving Stone wanted it to be told.

"He dedicated every book to me. I'm going to dedicate this book to him--back to his work--and his gift for finding the universal qualities in people. People who are turned on by the same thing. People who changed the world in a small way."

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