THR Web Features   /   August 22, 2023

Last Tango

An unexpected journey through the demi-monde of writing

James Conaway

( THR illustration.)

My biography of arch segregationist Leander Perez, the infamous Louisiana party boss, has failed to earn back even its small advance. What my growing family needs is a bag of money big enough to put down on something that might be a little more secure than our usual transient dwellings.  Then one day in 1972 I get a call from our old friend from Rome, Bob Silverstein. He and his wife have split up and he is living on the rough western edge of Greenwich Village, having given up his job as an editor at Bantam Books in New York to become a “guerrilla” publisher. He wants me to write a novelization for him.

“What’s that?”

“A novel based on a screenplay. I’m using my behind-the-scenes knowledge of pulp fiction and movie-making to score in those overlapping worlds. I’ll explain when I get there—I’m about to board the train for Bucks. You’ve written a novel, Jim, a good one. You can do this.”

Bob arrives looking very much like a guerrilla somethingscuffed leather jacket, Levis, boots, and on his arm a voluble, attractive woman in hippy regalia he ran into in Penn Station. Penny and I have rented out half of the old fieldstone family home to schoolteachers because we are soon going to be turning it over to developers. So we have a very full house.

Bob explains that he borrowed money from his mother to buy the novelization rights to Last Tango in Paris after reading an early rave review of the movie in New York Magazine by their film critic, Pauline Kael. It stars Marlon Brandon and a relatively unknown young woman named Maria Schneider and is directed by the well-known Bernardo Bertolucci. Bob rushed right down to the basement of United Artists in New York and bought the novelization rights to Last Tango before it occurred to anyone else how valuable they might be. The next day he got a call from the head of United Artists, David Picker, who was in the Caribbean.

“Picker told me there’d been a mistake, that he already had big plans for publishing the novelization of Tango. But don’t worry, he said. ‘We’ll make it well worth giving us the rights back. Meet me in my office Monday morning.’”

Bob found a tough lawyer and together they went to UA’s corporate boardroom, Bob sporting his scruffy leather jacket amid the usual assembly of suits. Picker offered Bob a thousand more dollars than Bob had paid for the rights to Last Tango, an offer he would have accepted if his lawyer hadn’t stood up and said, “We have a contract,” and walked out of the room.

Bob soon had a new arrangement with UA and Bantam Books and many thousands of dollars in the bank. This is the novelization he wanted me to fashion out of Bertolucci’s script.

“I don’t think so,” I say. “It would ruin my reputation as a serious novelist”—I add, even though I know I don’t have one.

He ignores this. “It has to be finished before the movie’s release so it can be on the shelves in bookstores. You have maybe three weeks.”

“You want me to write a novel in three weeks?”

“It’s a short novel Jim, You’ve spent time in Paris, you know it. Come up to New York and we’ll watch the rushes together. And I’ve brought the script so you can read it tonight.”

It is obvious Penny and I need the money, and Bob also offers to find me an agent. Now I am listening. He hands me the screenplay, takes his companion upstairs, and the house rocks with their getting to know each other while I look at the screenplay. It is in French.

Next morning Bob explains that there is a translation, though it is mostly a palimpsest of Bertolucci’s fantasies. But if this job brings me and Penny a few thousand dollars and an agent, it is worth holding my nose and doing it. I will just use a pseudonym.

I go to New York, and Bob and I watch the rushes together. Seedy street scenes in a rainy Paris and a depressed protagonist in a series of encounters that do not add up to much. But Brando’s despair is powerful, and the tough, beguilingly innocent Schneider makes for some very sexy acquiescence. But before I write, I need a contract and an advance.

Bob sends me to Knox Burger, a name he says is synonymous with toughness and devotion to writers. Knox’s office is in the basement of a building just off Washington SquareI meet a stocky, grinning man in a tweed jacket and heavy brogans, leaning on a cane because of a hereditary hip problem. As a young editor Knox helped establish the highly successful Pocketbook paperback line and as an agent once represented the young Kurt Vonnegut and John D. MacDonald. I learn that he can pick up a check in the nearby Lion’s Head saloon faster than anyone else, even if you want to pick it up.

Knox and his wife Kitty have parties in their apartment upstairs and make sure that nobody’s glass is ever less than half-full. “Writers need whiskey,” he likes to say, and young ones need money even more. He agrees to represent me and promptly doubles the figure Bob has offered for the Tango novelization to $5,000, a gift. He also has the sagacity to insist that I get a two percent royalty on possible sales, unheard of in this newborn field. Now I have less than three weeks to write an ersatz novel from a bad movie script in which the star makes up the character as he goes along.

I take my meager source materials back to Bucks and get to work, soon learning that decent writers cannot easily write bad books. A bad potboiler is not made better by stylish writing; it is made worse. Tango requires an imaginative plunge beyond the rake’s grunts and the sybil’s orgasms. Bob has a lot riding on this, and my early Tango doesn’t cut it. So I scrap what I’ve done and turn to my own experiences in Paris: Dazzling winter sunlight played among the fluted arches of the ornate railway bridge, casting a latticework shadow over the dark waters of the Seine. Below the elevated Metro, along a walkway resembling the interior of some vast and sumptuous hall, pedestrians passed in silence, locked in a compelling ritual…

Not great but serviceable. Bob likes it and encourages me daily by phone from Manhattan. My writing is continuous—ten hours, twelve hours, fourteen hours, sixteen hours. Sometimes my little daughter Jess crawls around on the big desk that belonged to Penny’s grandfather while I also field calls from editors about possible magazine pieces. Once Jess screams so loudly when I take a pencil away from her that an editor asks, “Was that a horse?”

The Watergate hearings are underway, and Nixon is on his way to being unseated. Knox calls to urge me to take time off to watch John Dean describe to Congress how a cancer is eating the presidency, but I am too busy describing how Brando smears butter over a naked Maria Schneider. Bob accepts the finished product, and I get the balance of the money.

Tango is immediately kicked into production. I decline to put my name on it, despite pressure from Bob’s lawyer. So we come up with a pseudonym: Bob’s first name and my grandfather’s last name, a New York Jew and a Memphis political cartoonist who won a Pulitzer for anti-Klan drawings back in the twenties.

Almost instantly, Last Tango in Paris by Robert Alley becomes the first novelization ever to top the New York Times paperback bestseller list. It also quickly earns me $40,000 in royalties, back when that was real money. start getting paperback copies of Tango in Japanese, Finnish, Swedish, French, and Italian, which I autograph in pretend versions of those languages and send off to friends. All of it—this unexpected journey through the demi-monde of writing—is unlikely, silly, and quite wonderful.