It was a Sunday afternoon and I was on the phone to East Hampton, chatting with James Brady about his new novel, "Gin Lane." It's set in the Hamptons, a place he certainly knows something about, and is filled with all sorts of glamorous, real-life characters. But what I really wanted to know was Jim's secret for compressing celebrity lives into 550-word profiles in Parade magazine. The 12-year-old weekly column is called "In Step With." How does he do it?
"I try to focus on the single one or two things that I hadn't known before," said Jim, 69. "And I try to get that up very close to the top of the story. For example, when I went to interview [CBS football analyst] Phil Simms, I had poison ivy on both my hands and arms. Here's this big, husky, good-looking, athletic man, coming across the room to shake hands. I held up my hands and said, 'Don't shake!' [Simms] jumped back six feet and said, 'I have the worst poison ivy allergy!' I used that right away in the story: 'If you have poison ivy, don't try to shake hands with Phil Simms!' "
Jim is also a speedy worker, which, no doubt, explains how he manages to write four columns (two for Advertising Age, one for Crain's New York Business and one for Parade) and tape a celebrity interview for CNBC each week. Does he write books (he's penned 10 of them) just as quickly?
"I wrote 'Gin Lane' in 77 days," said Jim, whose deep voice had a giddy lilt over the phone on this Sunday afternoon. "The reason I know it was 77 days is because I put the date on top of page one, and 77 days later I was finished."
What he'd produced was a "comedy of manners" starring the same protagonist as last summer's "Further Lane": fictional Parade correspondent Beecher Stowe, "who is like me, only 30 years younger and considerably more attractive." In "Further Lane," Stowe is looking for the killer of a Martha Stewart-like lifestyle maven. "Gin Lane's" high jinks revolve around the question of who is trying to kill Cowboy Dils, a Don Imus-like radio personality. Has Imus read the book?
"The first interview I did [for the book] was on the Don Imus show," Jim chuckled. "He gave me 25 minutes, and we talked about the book. He said, 'Of course I haven't read this hideous book, and I'm in there.' "
It was art imitating life, all right, and that's how Jim likes it. "Further Lane" and "Gin Lane" are full of references to the rich and famous, including John Fairchild, Giorgio Armani, Billy Joel, Alec Baldwin and even Brady's own boss, Parade editor Walter Anderson. And what did Anderson think?
"Two years ago I went to him and said, 'Now, Walter, you're in here, and Parade is in here, by name, but I can change Anderson to Henderson and change Parade to Promenade. And he said, 'It will be Anderson and it will be Parade and let's have nothing more said about it.' "
In fact, when "Gin Lane" opens, narrator/Parade journalist Beecher Stowe has just returned from Hollywood, where a famous actress has backed out of an interview. I asked Jim if the same thing has ever happened to him.
"I find that some people are not as cooperative as others, but 90 percent of them are just fine," Jim said. "I think it was Emilio Estevez [who] halfway through the interview said, 'I'm not sure I want to do this.' I already had enough notes. 'Well, you can't write that,' [Estevez said]. 'I sure can,' I said. ... But I play fair with these people. I'm very deferential, because, after all, they're giving me their time."
Does he ever lose his patience? "When Paul Simon did [the Broadway musical 'The] Capeman,' I went down and interviewed Paul. I turned the story in, and then he broke a number of dates to have the photo taken. In fact he was rather rude to our photographers. [So] I went to Walter Anderson and said I wasn't happy about the way Paul Simon treated someone I work with. I had my interview in the can, and I killed it."
Knowing Jim, though, that story could end up in fiction any day now.
The secret to the "In Step With" feature is this skinny biographical column that runs down the side of the page, next to the main story. That way, James Brady doesn't have to worry about including too much cumbersome background information on the person he is profiling.
Born Nov. 15, 1928. Splits time between an apartment in Manhattan and a house on Further Lane in East Hampton, N.Y. Separated from his wife, Florence Kelly, and has two grown daughters.
Former TV, radio and newspaper reporter. Former publisher of Women's Wear Daily, former editor and publisher of Harper's Bazaar, former editor of Star magazine, former editor of New York magazine and former associate publisher of the New York Post, where he created the "Page Six" feature.
Along with "Further Lane" and "Gin Lane," James Brady has written eight other books, including "The Coldest War," a memoir pTC his experiences as a Marine in the Korean War.