LG: I didn’t even know that she was alive at the time when they asked me to do it. I found her and then she saw me and I realised Newsday was respected so people would talk to me. What the Mae West interview did was make me realise that the editor loved the picture of Mae West the photographer took. Here I did this interview and he told me, ‘You got to use this photographer next time you do an interview, he’s a great photographer and it’s a great photograph.’ I said, yeah but Stan what about what I did? What about my interview? He said, ‘Yeah that was good but the photograph! Oh the photograph!’ That opened my eyes to something I had never thought about before, the visual part of it. Even the Playboy Interview which is not a visual, it’s a total printed thing but they still… if you can get the cover, like get Barbra Streisand on the cover which they did, or Joan Collins, Goldie Hawn, Sally Field, Steve Martin – I did all those and they were on the cover of Playboy. Before I started doing interviews for Playboy they never had a celebrity on the cover, that was new for them. You realise the importance of, bottom line, everyone is selling magazines. The more you sell the more money you make, it’s all about money. If you get a big name star and put them in a compromising position or you can put them on the cover in a certain way you’ll sell more issues. That’s what they are interested in. Hopefully you’ll also do a good job.
I was lucky because my interviews were also often controversial so they got a lot of publicity, like with the Governor Jesse Ventura or Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight or with Brando or Streisand. I ended up getting on the cover of a magazine – Writer’s Digest – when I did the Streisand interview. I was on television for the other ones, they got a lot of publicity. Other interviews turned into books. Somehow I became part of the story with some of those interviews I did. It wasn’t intentional it was that I had the amount of time to talk to these people in-depth and that’s what happened.
I found it interesting that in a previous interview you were talking about the fact that today there is less access to people for interviews. You commented that the publicist really hurts the business for interviewers like you and I.
LG: Yeah well that’s just the nature of it. Years ago when Tom Cruise was really big Rolling Stone wanted to do an interview with Tom Cruise (they didn’t ask me I wasn’t involved) but his publicist turned down fourteen writers that were suggested I heard until he said, ‘ok I’ll talk to that one.’ I get angry when I hear that. To me an editor should assign a writer to the story and they shouldn’t take the assignment away. You should be able to say to the publicist, you want your client in Playboy or Esquire or the New Yorker? This is the writer we want to go with and if you don’t want them then we won’t do the story. That’s the way it used to be, editors always stuck by their writers and they either got their story or they passed. Now they don’t pass, they don’t want to lose Tom Cruise or whoever is really hot now days. If they say they only want to work with ‘x’ writer then that’s who they go with. The stars and the publicists manipulate the story because they want to go with a writer they feel comfortable with who will not attack them or write negative about them because they’ve been asked by this person to do the story. It’s the same with the photographer. A lot of time the stars give approval about these things. That’s not where I come from. I don’t feel comfortable agreeing to show my copy to anybody, I won’t do it other than to my editor.
A lot of times I have felt, in the last ten to fifteen years that editors have not had my back. You get the assignment but as soon as somebody baulks or makes a complaint they take the side of the star and will take something out because the star was worried about it – that to me is not real journalism anymore, it’s a collaboration between the subject and the journalist. It’s like the journalist becomes a publicist for the star and that’s demeaning. That’s a reality though in many cases. It is the way it is for a lot of start-ups, magazines that don’t have as much money and that worry about lawsuits. There are a lot of lawsuits that are frivolous but they can become costly so if you don’t have the money and finances to support a lawsuit you’re going to take out anything that is controversial. That happened to me with my Truman Capote interview. When Gore Vidal’s agent called my publisher saying, ‘I don’t know what Truman has said about Gore Vidal but you’re publishing this book and if he says anything negative about Gore Vidal we’re going to sue you.’ So they threatened without even seeing anything because they just assumed Capote is going to say negative things about Gore Vidal, the publisher took it really seriously. They said, ‘Let’s tone down these things or take out these things.’ I was appalled by that and that was in 1985. What do I do? I can’t say I’ll pay for the lawsuit. I can’t afford to do that. It’s just sad when people can threaten and the threat alone will determine the outcome of something.
I’ve been told my interviews are ‘too deep’ for publication!
LG: There is no such thing as too deep. I just had the same experience to tell you the truth with this magazine. Too deep and too long are two different things. If they’re saying too deep and meaning too long well ok that’s understandable they have a certain word length. If they are saying too deep as in too revealing then well I actually understand that comment but it’s ridiculous. I just did this thing with Sharon Stone as I said and the editor said, ‘This is not for our audience. Our audience does not want to know the behind the scenes stuff of Hollywood, they want to know how they can relate to her.’ The stories that I was telling, which to me were great stories and funny stories, they didn’t want to use any of that. They wanted a whole thing of how she grew up, her mother and father – something that was more on the surface, something that everyone can relate to. Ok well they know their audience, or at least they think they know their audience. I didn’t agree but it had to be changed. They wouldn’t publish what I had given them because it wasn’t what they wanted. They have the right to do that though, you just have to know the magazines that you’re working for or your own audience.
No one ever complained about me going too deep with anyone but I see now that publicists have said… I’ve been told by publicists when I ask to do an interview a lot of times they tell their client if you talk to Larry he’s going to know everything about you, he’s going to go in-depth as much as he can, are you ready and prepared for it? If they say, ‘I don’t want to talk that deeply’ then they move on. That happened with Alfred Hitchcock and it happened with Fred Astaire with me. Both of them backed out when they saw the kind of questions that I asked. They were like, ‘I don’t want to go that deep’ and I was like, well I do! It’s as simple as that. I want to go as far as I can go.
I encourage students when I teach… I say, take the deepest thing that the person has said that you can read about and ask the next question, there’s always another question. Take it deeper. You don’t want to have them just reiterate something that has already been in print, you’re not getting anything new.
You’ve never been particularly fond of the phone interview?
LG: No, like what we’re doing no. I can’t see your eyes and you can’t see mine. I’m an easy interview because I’ll talk, so I don’t think it’s a problem. You know why I’m fond of the phone interview now? Because I don’t have to go out, I can stay in my sweat pants, I don’t have to wash my hair, I don’t have to think about what I’m going to wear, I don’t have to drive to the subjects place, I don’t have to get nervous in the certain way that I do if I was going to do a one-on-one interview—it’s easier. Would we get a better interview if you were here and I say, why don’t we go out for a walk and we take a walk. I ask you about your life a little bit because you know you’ve spent the time to come here so I’ll give you more time. You start telling me about some personal aspect of your life and it touches me and I might say, well that happened to me. Those things happen when you’re one-on-one with somebody. It doesn’t necessarily happen on the phone, I don’t know what you look like, I don’t know where your eyes are and we aren’t flirting, which to me is always a healthy part of an interview. If I’m with Streisand and she says something sexual to me and she asks for my pen and I give it to her and she doesn’t give it back but I need my pen and I say, Barbra I need my pen and she gives it to me but she holds my fingers when I take it and she looks me in the eye and I’m saying what the hell is going on here? There’s that moment. That moment where you say, well let’s stay professional but we’ve just shared something and you could say that we have a fondness for each other and she says, ‘Come back.’ In that case I came back for nine months I kept seeing her. The phone interview is helpful sometimes. What we are doing is fine but in general if you have the option of seeing someone verses talking on the phone I always say see them.
I was with Christopher Walken and I could not imagine doing an interview with him via phone because when I was with him he was an obsessive compulsive person. When he would offer me some tea, I’d have a cup and every time I picked it up off the counter he would come along with a towel and wipe off the counter. There was no stain on the counter but I watched him do that. I moved over to another counter placed the cup down then picked it up and took a sip and he came over and wiped it. He didn’t know he was doing it but he did it. Now I see it as amusing to me so instead of saying anything to him I just kept putting the cup up and down and he kept wiping it [laughs] and that was great I could write about that, I could describe that. That wouldn’t happen if I was on the phone. It helps set the scene. When I come into somebody’s room I’m asking them the questions but I’ve also got my pad and I’m writing down what I see. I’m writing down what they look like, I’m writing down what’s on the walls or what’s on the bookshelf, it all becomes part of what I am doing there. That’s why I feel you get a little more colour and can make it richer if you can be with the person.
Playboy has called you ‘the interviewer’s interviewer’ and other people have called you the ‘Mozart of interviewers’ and ‘the most intelligent interviewer in the United States’ how do you feel about all those comments?
LG: Ah it doesn’t mean anything really. It’s nice when people say that but am I a more intelligent interviewer than you? Am I the Mozart of Interviewers? It’s like well then, who is the Beethoven? Anybody who does interviews are going to say, what makes his interviews better than mine? It doesn’t really mean very much. I don’t take it seriously. I don’t think I’m better than anybody. My interviews are memorable and have lasted and I am proud of them. Some of them I was the right person to do it and some of them I wasn’t and they could have been done by someone else better. It’s just a matter of how you click with somebody and the chemistry that either works or doesn’t work.
You once commented that you’re best known for your interview with Marlon Brando and that you’ve gotten a lot of publicity from your Jesse Ventura and Bob Knight interviews; is there an interview that you’ve done that you wish you were more known for?
LG: The book I did on James Michener was something that I was very proud of. My book on Capote to me is not a complete book because he died and I was still talking to him.. the book has had a great shelf life it’s been available for twenty-five years and everyone loves that book because he’s so outrageous and he makes a lot of comments about people but I never got to talk to Capote as in-depth as I would have liked to about literature. That was to come we were going to get into Proust and Joyce. I couldn’t wait to do all that stuff. With James Michener over a period seventeen years I would see him and we kept talking. I was able to put out this book Talking with Michener. It was published by the University of Mississippi Press and it was very much like a Tuesdays with Morrie type book. It was about this older guy that didn’t become a writer until he was forty years old and everything he had to say is still relevant. He died in 1997-98 (I can’t remember exactly) and the book came out a little bit after that and things that he said about China or the Middle East are happening today; terrorism, it was before 9/11 happened. I look back on it and I think that book did not get the attention it should have gotten and he deserved more. It exists, it’s a book but it’s a shame that that one didn’t get to see the light of day in a sense.
I’ve read you were sorry you never got to do a book with Miles Davis?
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