Piercing Seinfeld's secrecy

August 13, 2002|By Carole Goldberg | Carole Goldberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

He was into Scientology. He's never been true to his school. He used to spend hours preparing his face for a shave. He has control issues, is remarkably focused and has rarely made a misstep in his ascent to America's comedy pantheon.

And, says one author, Jerry Seinfeld made every effort to persuade people not to cooperate with the unauthorized biography that contains such facts.

Seinfeld: The Making of an American Icon (HarperCollins) by Jerry Oppenheimer, chronicles the childhood, early career and phenomenal rise of the man who created, in the guise of "a show about nothing," the gotta-watch-it sitcom that TV Guide called "the No. 1 comedy of all time."

"He is dedicated to being the best," Oppenheimer says, praising Seinfeld as a brilliant entertainment entrepreneur who wisely chose to collaborate with the talented Larry David and knew when to end the show.

The book offers countless interviews with neighbors, show-biz acquaintances, old classmates, former girlfriends and college pals who still - with some notable exceptions - are his friends today. (One is Mike Costanza, the inspiration for Jason Alexander's inimitable George, who saw his decades-old friendship with Seinfeld evaporate after Costanza violated his wishes by writing a book about their relationship.)

What you won't read are comments about what it was like to work on the show from Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The actors who played George, Kramer and Elaine declined to be interviewed because they were "talked out."

Or perhaps Seinfeld, master of his public relations domain, asked them not to.

Oppenheimer, author of unauthorized bios on figures as diverse as Rock Hudson, Ethel Kennedy, Barbara Walters, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart, says researching this book was like "trying to penetrate the upper echelons of Enron" because Seinfeld so closely protects his image.

Indeed, Seinfeld, through a spokeswoman, has dismissed the book as "an unauthorized biography written by a tabloid writer formerly employed by the National Enquirer."

True, Oppenheimer worked for the tab sporadically during the '70s, but he spent many years in mainstream journalism as an investigative newspaper, radio and TV reporter and editor in Philadelphia and Washington. His 1997 Martha Stewart: Just Desserts was a New York Times best seller.

Oppenheimer traces Seinfeld's progress from polite, nerdy kid in Massapequa, N.Y., through high school, which he disliked; Hebrew school, which he liked even less; and college, where he began his show-biz career. We learn he was inspired by his father, Kalmen Seinfeld, a guy who used his natural comedic talents to succeed in business, but that his was a blue-collar family life without a lot of joy.

We read about Jerry's girlfriends, from his teen crushes to his long-term lovers to his liaison with 17-year-old Shoshanna Lonstein when Seinfeld was 39. We meet his wife, Jessica, a material girl who cut short her 1998 honeymoon with her first husband to continue a relationship with Seinfeld that resulted in their marriage in 1999. We learn he enjoys close friendships with black entertainers - comic George Wallace was his best man - though black characters were a rarity on his show.

Oppenheimer says writing unauthorized bios is not easy. "I walk a very high wire because I deal with living, litigious people," he says, and it takes three or four years to produce "a fair, objective overview."

"I feel a tinge of anger at the way he tried to block [the book]," says Oppenheimer, who loves watching Seinfeld re-runs. "But at 7 p.m. I turn the TV on, and he's my buddy. I wish the show would come back."

Carole Goldberg is a reporter for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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