When I was a newspaper journalist, my editor once assigned me to do a feature story on some fitness fanatic who formed a business of training others to get the kind of buff body that he had. I was swamped with other duties, and had to put it aside; it wasn’t anything urgent. Months later, I found the time to tackle it, and interviewed the body builder. I wrote the story and turned it in.
The editor looked at me in amazement. “What the … I’d forgotten all about that story,” he sputtered.
Same thing happened to me in my ambition to one day play the clarinet. The only exposure I’d had to jazz was an occasional television program, and I decided I wanted to play that skinny black stick with the chrome keys like Benny Goodman or Pete Fountain. The idea kept playing, as it were (preferable to TV commentators’ incessant appendage of “if you will”), in my head. When I turned 38 a few years ago (ahem; I seem to have something caught in my throat, or is it my cheek – that’s it, my tongue), I saw three Dixieland concerts a week apart, each boasting a stellar clarinetist. I was hooked. The day after the third performance, I went to the nearest music store and enrolled in lessons. I never learned to play jazz, but enjoyed many years performing countless concerts as part of a large symphonic band before leaving to devote more time to writing.
Where am I going with this?
Six months or so ago, I was signing copies of MURDER IN PALM BEACH: The Homicide That Never Died at an artisanal market when a woman named Christine struck up a conversation with me. She was aware of the sensational news generated by the event that the novel is based on, and bought a copy. She loved the writing, and asked if I’d be interested in writing the life story of a lady friend who had graduated from a miserable childhood into an incredible life of crime. The lady had married a guy on death row in a Florida prison, and he’d been beaten to death by guards a few years later, in 1999. Christine told me the inmate’s name, and I recognized it immediately, having read news accounts that continued for years as attempts to convict the guards of the crime progressed.
I took the two women to dinner at an alleged restaurant (we dined on shoe leather), and Wendy, as we’ll call her, related how a movie producer had planned to make a film 10 years before, and she’d given up. I agreed to embark on the book after I cleared a number of pressing matters, most of them involved in finishing a new novel, BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS, and promoting MURDER IN PALM BEACH (the book, I mean). Weeks later, I was ready, and phoned Wendy. She was growing old, she told me, and had just moved to Georgia to live near her grown children. But she still wanted to do the book; we could do interviews on the phone. I debated what to do, and decided to make the trip to her new home in Dublin, southeast of Macon. A buddy, Joe, was in the mood for a get-away, and said he’d drive.
I phoned to let her know we’d be coming in two weeks. She agreed to that. A week later, I called to remind her, and she said she’d be ready for me. Less than two days before leaving, I told her we’d be there shortly. She asked that I call her en route, and I said I’d buzz her upon arrival. She was fine with that.
Twelve or so hours after I spoke with her, the son from Georgia called and asked me not to come, because she didn’t want to cooperate in the authorship of a book about her life. Both I and Christine strongly suspected it was the family who opposed the book, and they had influenced their mother. Understandable. Wendy’s life, until her redemption in recent decades, had reflected badly on the family.
Joe and I conferred, and decided to go there, anyway. If we struck out, we’d take a leisurely drive back and see historic Savannah.
We arrived late that Sunday, and, with mild apprehension, drove out to Wendy’s domicile the next morning. It was a small, plain, wood-frame structure in a wooded area on the outskirts of Dublin, a modest-sized community sprawled all over creation. Large dogs barked from fence-enclosed properties, but none were on Wendy’s. I walked hesitantly to the door, and was almost startled by the handwritten note: “I called you four times to tell you I don’t want to do the book. I won’t change my mind. 10 years is long enough. I’m going to start a new life.”
Tomorrow Is Another Day
Joe and I drove back to our motel. He suggested we stay another night and try again the next day. We spent the day touring Dublin, mainly looking for a bar. Businesses were shuttered at every turn, and there was one open bar in the entire vicinity. It was part of a restaurant, and we were the only patrons. Not to provoke a religious controversy, but the establishment most intact was the ubiquitous Baptist church.
Next day, we returned to the scene of the … uh, criminal. The note was still on the door. I prepared to take a photo of it when a pudgy little guy came strolling up from the adjacent property. I extended my hand, and asked if he were Wendy’s son. He was, and was amicable. We chatted for several minutes, and he said he’d ask his mother if she would change her mind. I needed to call him at 8 that evening, which I did. She had not changed her mind. After a two-hour stop in Savannah – a half-hour of it spent exiting a parking garage – we continued to our Palm Beach County homes.
Getting to Work
The film producer called the other day, and he’s intent on doing a movie based on past conversations with Wendy and voluminous records he has. We agreed to collaborate, and Christine is proving helpful. The son said what I suspected to be true: Wendy has a penchant for exaggeration, if not outright fabrication. (For example, she never phoned me to call off the visit.) I need to dig up records to verify her claims. I believe, from news accounts and appraisals of her tales that seem credible, that at least parts are true – such as her theft of a cigarette lighter from Mar-a-Lago well before Donald Trump became president. But the research is going to take a lot of work.
Geez, maybe I should have stuck with the clarinet.