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From Fantasy to Harsh Reality

Books: Michael Korda's latest work is a witty and frank account of his life with prostate cancer.

June 04, 1996|DAN COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Michael Korda, writer, mega-editor and all-around star of the American publishing scene, has found a new calling as a cancer survivor.

Korda seems intent on giving his latest persona all the fabled energy he has lavished on his previous incarnations. But the glitzy lifestyle that always served as his career backdrop has changed. The Ferraris and the Porsches are memories. Gone too is bird hunting and horseback riding on his 200-acre farm in the Hudson Valley. The man who once donned custom-made black leather gloves and leggings for jaunts on his motorcycle now packs a Maxipad in his pocket and talks of learning to cook and garden.

Readers who pick up Korda's latest book will not walk in the land of trash-novel fantasies. There's nary a gay movie star, secret bride, Kennedy, gangster or billionaire in sight. Instead, readers meet the likes of Emory, the "chunky, cheerful" nurse's aide and Dr. Josephy, the jovial Poughkeepsie urologist.

And forget about money, power, greed, envy and lust. Prepare yourself instead to follow the hero into John's Apothecary, where he stocks up on Depends.

"Cancer has made me come to grips rapidly and aggressively with the notion of becoming older," said the 62-year-old editor in chief of Simon & Schuster. "I am now at the age where I get half-price on movie tickets. And since the cancer, I have no hesitation about walking up to the window and saying. 'One adult and one senior, please.' I never would have done that before."

It's been about 18 months since the celebrity book editor, celebrity novelist, celebrity workaholic and celebrity profiler of other famous people learned that he had prostate cancer. One result of that dreadful discovery was "Man to Man" (Random House, 1996), a gutsy little book that tells the story of Korda's surgery, recuperation and recovery from a disease expected to kill more than 40,000 American men this year.

It is a story he tells with wit, good humor and not a trace of self-pity. The frequent companions of prostate surgery--incontinence and that deepest of male terrors, impotence--are treated by Korda with a candor likely to make grown men faint and women weep.

"I didn't start to think about writing a book until I'd been home a month or so. It suddenly occurred to me that the only way I could make sense out of this experience was to put it into words," he said. "So I started tiptoeing toward it, more for my own sake than anybody else's. I found that unless I tried to be absolutely truthful and realistic, it became meaningless. You have to say exactly what happened. Otherwise, I don't see what good the book could possibly do."

Writing "Man to Man" became part of the recovery process. His cancer was diagnosed in October 1994. After reading everything he could get his hands on about the disease, he opted for surgery at Johns Hopkins, then returned to his country home for several painful months of recuperation.

Consider Korda's first night at home following the operation. Lying in bed with his wife, Margaret, Korda can't help but recall their previous night together: "Then, we had slept in each other's arms after making love. Now, we were on separate sides of the bed, with me stretched out uneasily on and under layers of leakproof mats, my catheter tube connecting me to a large plastic urine bag on the floor beside my slippers."

Sweaty and uncomfortable, Korda manages to doze off. He dreams of standing in front of a urinal in a restaurant men's room, unable to pee. Men and women who surround him offer suggestions on how to get the flow started.

"I could feel the urine backing up in me, as if my bladder were full to bursting, as if it were about to explode!

"I woke with a start, and realized that the physical discomfort wasn't just a dream, it was painfully real. I reached down and felt the catheter bag on the floor. It was full, bulging at the seams with real urine."

*

The world of "Man to Man" is several galaxies removed from the glamour and theatricality of Korda's life. His mother was Gertrude Musgrove, a British actress. His father, Vincent Korda, was the art director of "The Thief of Baghdad" and other British films produced by his more famous brother, Alexander Korda. Michael was educated at private schools in Europe and the U.S. He served a stint in the Royal Air Force and briefly joined in the Hungarian revolution of 1956.

He joined Simon & Schuster in 1958, and has headed it since 1968. Over the years, Korda has edited the books of powerful and famous people ranging from Kirk Douglas to Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He's best known for a succession of commercial authors that has included Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, Mary Higgins Clark and Joan Collins. But he has also published Pulitzer Prize winners and some remarkable little gems like "The Forest People" by Colin Turnbull.

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