Sunday, June 24, 2012

Living in the Shadow of the Rich and Famous

Race-car driver Peter Revson photographed at Laguna Seca in the 1970s by Phillip Finch.

Working journalists have access to some of the most interesting, most powerful, most famous, and most glamorous people in the world. It can sometimes turn a reporter's head. 

I've thought a lot about this as I've pondered the career of my former husband, Phillip Finch, who died in February at the age of 63.

He was a newspaper reporter for a very short time--not more than five years. During that time he first covered college sports for the old Washington Daily News and then followed the Giants and auto racing for the San Francisco Examiner. Covering one of the top media market's top sports heroes turned out to be heady stuff for a young man from a working class family in Hyattsville, Maryland.

A few years after he came to San Francisco, he sold his first book to Doubleday and gave up his career as a sports writer and turned to free lance writing full time. He never made a lot of money--I supported us when we were married--but he always looked, especially when he was young, as if he was on the cusp of big things. 

Going through the photographs I had put away after our marriage ended, I came across a photo he took in the years before I knew him, at Laguna Seca Raceway of Peter Revson. Phil had it framed and always kept it on the wall of his office.

Revson was the kind of man Phil really wanted to be. He looked like he was born on a yacht, which was pretty close to the truth. He was born Peter Jeffrey Revlon Revson, the nephew of cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and heir to his father Martin's billion-dollar fortune.

Rather than go into the family's cosmetics business, Revson pursued the sport of auto racing--which was even tougher and more dangerous four decades ago than it is now. 

On his own merit, he became one of the best drivers in the world. Add to that the fact that he was handsome and very, very rich and you wouldn't be surprised to learn that he also dated some of the world's most beautiful women. That included Miss World herself, Marjorie Wallace--whom sportswriters nicknamed the "Golden Retriever." And I don't think it was because she fetched Revson's newspaper for him.

He chose to live this life on the edge and he paid the price for it. In 1974, during time trials for the South African Grand Prix, Peter Revson died in a terrible crash. He was 35 years old.

Phil talked about Revson with great awe. "He wore Gucci loafers without socks," he told me. 

Phil was extremely intelligent and a talented writer. But I often wondered if he liked the idea of being a writer better than being one in reality. He went for months at a time and never wrote a word.

Then, he would sign a year-long book contract that paid him in the usual three installments. He would wait until a month before each of those deadlines and write around the clock to meet them. 

It left him no time for real revisions and the result was that all his books were written during three caffeine fueled sleepless blasts and were consequently very uneven.  I think he might even agree with that assessment. There was no time for them to be otherwise.

Looking back, I wonder if covering a guy like Revson didn't distort reality for Phil when he was so young and awestruck and Revson was ten years older and at the peak of being glamorous and gleaming. Phil knew he was smarter than most of the people he covered. Perhaps he began to believe he deserved to live the life they did as well. (In Washington D.C. they call this "catching Potomac Fever.") 

Superstar writers do exist in our world: unfortunately, like billionaire race car drivers, there are very, very few of them. 

Phil did manage to avoid having to get a job after he left the Examiner and for most of the rest of his life, and that's something. And his family can proudly claim he wrote fourteen books in his lifetime and that is a genuine achievement. 

But, with none of them did he leave behind a literary legacy--something I was always convinced that he would do. Or even a commercially viable genre series that reflected his wide range of interests and his unforgettable sense of humor. And in the end, financial success was for him, as it is for all but Stephen King and about ten other writers--elusive. 

He might have done it still.  But then, he died too young. That was the one sad thing he did have in common with his idol, Peter Revson.

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Don Meuler said...

Even my early, brief brush with celebrity was enough to influence so many decisions later in life, and usually not for the better. I want it all, too!

Robin Chapman said...

Wait a second ... I thought meeting that celebrity (me) helped to ground you in life and value all the really important things!

Don Meuler said...

You were not what I would call a calming influence. But you did stir the pot on my way to bigger and greener pastures! :o)

Robin Chapman said...

Since I am not quite sure how to take that, I will assume it means I was a catalyst for positive growth ...

Don Meuler said...

You were all that, for sure!