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A leap of faith

As he awaits publication of his book, Steve Oney takes an unwavering look at why writing it took him 17 years.

September 28, 2003|Steve Oney | Special to The Times

I finished my book. For any writer, that statement carries tremendous weight. For me, the words are particularly profound, as it took me 17 years to earn the right to say them.

When I began work, Ronald Reagan was president, and I was a cocksure 32-year-old with thick brown hair and a couple dozen recently published articles in Esquire, GQ and the magazine that brought me to Los Angeles -- California. Today, I am a sobered and shockingly gray 49-year-old whose journalistic past lies buried under untold strata of masthead changes and evolutions in reportorial style. In fact, the book took so long that old colleagues who've lost track of me could be forgiven if their first thought upon hearing the title, "And the Dead Shall Rise," is that I've produced not a work of nonfiction about the infamous Leo Frank case, but a memoir.

As I await the book's October publication, I find myself both filled with a sense of accomplishment and beset by unnerving questions. Many of the questions center on what I will do with the rest of my life following a nearly two-decade hiatus from my chosen profession. Can I reenter a business that runs on young legs? Do I want to? But first, I must answer another, even harder question: Why did the book take so long to write?

Extraordinary material

Going in, I knew I faced a difficult task. The 1915 lynching of Frank, a Cornell-educated Jewish factory superintendent, is not only one of the 20th century's most shocking crimes but one of its most significant, in that it both sparked the creation of the modern Ku Klux Klan and gave purpose to what was then a new organization, the Anti-Defamation League. The lynching, which took place just outside of Atlanta, was the culmination of a series of events that had begun two years earlier with the slaying of a pretty, 13-year-old child laborer named Mary Phagan. Frank's conviction for the murder -- largely on the testimony of a black, self-confessed accomplice -- set off a battle between Jews and Gentiles, North and South. By the time the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it was a nationwide cause celebre. Such is its import that in the mid-1980s, when an elderly man who as a boy had been a witness at Frank's trial came forth with new evidence, the controversy resumed.

It was my 1985 article for Esquire on the revived interest in the Frank case that led to a contract with a publisher. At the outset, I thought the book -- which I conceived of as a double murder mystery and a social history -- would take five or six years. With that lengthy but still manageable time frame in mind, I began making research forays to Atlanta, where I was raised and where before moving to Los Angeles I'd worked for the Sunday magazine of the city's newspaper, the Journal-Constitution. Because the Frank trial transcript had long ago mysteriously disappeared, I spent months in Georgia's capital poring over blurry microfilm accounts of the proceedings. When not so engaged, I traveled to other cities -- Boston, Cincinnati and New York -- where either descendants lived or key archives were located. Following these trips, I holed up in my office. There, I organized my notes and -- because I didn't yet appreciate the full measure of devotion the book would require -- wrote articles for what was then a new movie magazine, Premiere. Just that quickly, five years and most of the advance money were gone.

Running out of cash midway into a project is a common occurrence for writers of nonfiction books. To carry on, one needs either a very uncommon spouse or an unshakable determination -- preferably both.

Luckily, my wife, Madeline Stuart, believed in me and my book. And because she runs a successful business, she agreed to pick up the slack financially. We would approach the next years, she said, as if I were in graduate school; she would pay the bills, I would pursue the dream. (There was a codicil to the deal: When the book was done, we would reverse roles.)

As for my sense of resolve, it was strong, primarily because I realized that my material was extraordinary.

For one thing, I had unearthed a character whose pivotal role in the Frank case had been ignored in every previous recounting of the story. The Georgia-born lawyer William Smith initially had been aligned with the prosecution, but after the trial he switched loyalties to the defense. Not only did his character give me a dramatic pivot for the book, but it offered the chance to avoid what I termed the "Good Jew/Bad Yahoo" thesis that has informed most writers' views of the case. In short, Smith was a sympathetic Southerner through whose eyes I could present a fresh and nuanced account.

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