"I'll sit with my back to the wall," says novelist Gwen Davis with a grin as she slips into a seat at a corner table in the plush dining room of the Four Seasons Hotel. "That's what Mario Puzo taught me."
It's not surprising that Davis might want to watch her back in the literary world. She's had her publisher fawn over her, and she's had her publisher turn around and sue her. She's felt the power of the business' enthusiasm and the sting of its indifference.
There was a time--1969, to be exact--when she and author Puzo reigned at the top of the bestseller list, he for "The Godfather," she in second place for the sizzling sexy novel "The Pretenders." Seven years later, she was in Superior Court in Santa Monica watching her career disintegrate before her eyes.
The culprit was her 1971 novel, "Touching," which focused on a well-educated married woman who--among other things on her road to self-knowledge--goes to a nude therapy encounter session. Davis herself had been to such a nude session and observed E. Paul Bindrim, the self-styled therapist who ran it. In her book, she created a psychologist to run the nude therapy sessions.
Later, Davis would insist that her character did not resemble Bindrim. But the real-life therapist sued her for libel, and, in a landmark decision in 1976, the jury decided against Davis, making her one of the first American novelists to be found guilty of libeling someone in a work of fiction. She was ordered to pay $25,000; her publisher, $50,000.
In 1980, her publisher sued to recover the jury award to Bindrim plus interest and legal fees. (Davis settled with Doubleday out of court and declines to reveal the terms.)
In the two decades since then, she and her former agents say the publishing world has viewed her with caution because of the libel suit. However, it's difficult to measure the impact of the publishing world's timidity, because publishers had another reason to dismiss her: Some of the books she got published after "Touching" simply did not sell well. And, as she herself admits, that is the "unpardonable sin."
Her 1991 "Jade" was a commercial disappointment, and since then she has struggled to get a novel published.
"I had this libel thing, and people had never been relaxed about me since then," Davis says. "Nobody was chasing me and saying, 'What are you going to write next?' I wrote all these books on spec. And then publishing became all about computers and what was going to sell."
This year, Davis hopes to reinvent herself as a successful novelist with a tart tale of Hollywood called "West of Paradise."
"I think Gwen has had a rough go of the whole thing," says Melissa Jacobs, associate editor at St. Martin's Press, who edited Davis' new book. "She has written a terrific book. Funny as can be. I'd love to see this be her big comeback. She deserves it."
Even with 16 published novels to her name, Davis frets that she will always be best known as the novelist who got sued for libel and lost.
"It's still going to say on my obituary, no matter what I do--including if I live long enough to win the Nobel Prize--'she was the landmark libel case,' " Davis laments.
But she hopes this new book breaks that stigma.
"It's taken me all these years to get up the moxie to write a roman a clef," says Davis, who steadfastly maintains that she never libeled anyone in "Touching."
But this time she's taking no chances. She took out a $1-million libel insurance policy. And her lawyer is Gary Bostwick, a prominent 1st Amendment attorney who successfully represented author Janet Malcolm in a second trial when she was sued for libel by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson. (As much a supportive friend as an attorney, Bostwick is one of the two people to whom Davis dedicated the book. The other is actress Jamie Lee Curtis.)
Davis' book is awash in wacky characters, many of whom appear in the opening chapter at a celebrity funeral. She says nobody in the book is recognizably real--but that doesn't mean they weren't inspired by real people.
"No writer writes from whole cloth except maybe Isaac Asimov, who's dealing with other planets," says Davis. "You absorb, you take note, you experience. . . . And isn't it going to be fun to figure out who everybody really might be? But I've been very careful."
In her pale green pantsuit and silk scarf, Davis plays afternoon hostess in the nearly deserted dining room. Nibbling at a salad and sipping a glass of wine, she signs books brought by an acquaintance who has searched her out. She chats with the hotel's director of public relations--a longtime friend--about Davis' past hotel escapades. For instance, there was the time she secreted her late beloved Yorkie (the subject of her sweet 1994 picture book called "Happy at the Bel Air") in a black velvet bag to take him into the Four Seasons cocktail lounge. She had all but forgotten about the little dog until a terror-stricken bar patron suddenly cried out "What's that?" at the sight of a black bag walking across the floor.