When you don’tknow the whole truth,the worst you can imagine is probablyclose. -Condon’s Law
“As you get older, you tend to paddle toward the things you know,” says Richard Condon, thoughtfully puffing on one
of his ubiquitous Don Diego cigars. “I paddle toward peace. It’s like a musical note. As I’ve gotten older, that
musical note has expanded.”
It’s hard to reconcile the muckraking suspi-ciousness of Condon’s Law, which hangs embroidered and framed in his
University Park home, with the heartfelt desire for serenity that has been Richard Condon’s goal for the past 25
years. Explain how this plump, apparently harmless grandfather infuses his creations with paranoia, egomania, lust
and greed, and you explain Richard Condon.
Condon wants peace so that he can write, and he’s made the most of the quarter- century since he quit the movie
business at age 42 to become a novelist. His first book, The Oldest Confession, (1958), was a solid hit. So
was his second, The Manchurian Candidate (1959). Since then, the years have brought a steady stream of novels
from Condon’s prolific mind, among them An Infinity of Mirrors (1964), The Ecstasy Business (1967),
Mile High (1969), Winter Kills (1974), Death of a Politician (1978) and last year’s offering,
Prizzi’s Honor. His books have been translated into 21 languages. Condon’s 21st novel, A Trembling Upon
Rome, was published in September.
Condon is a satirist, a writer who delights in tossing poison darts at the pompous zeppelins of American society. He
knows the textbook definition of satire as writing that attempts to reform through laughter, gentle or bitter, but
Condon knows just what fuels his fire.
“Malice,” he says. “You can’t do any of the things that satire is supposed to do unless you feel malice. I have a
lot of malice in me, especially against institutions and against authority. In order to express that malice in an
acceptable way, I have to make it humorous while shoving the knife in.”
Laughing all the way, Condon, 68, has shoved and twisted that satirical knife into almost every American
institution, from politics and women’s liberation to big business, the media and the Mafia. Seven of his novels have
climbed the best-seller lists. Academic purists and highbrow literati might scoff at such accolades, but Condon is
“I’m an entertainer, pure and simple,” he says. “I believe that the novel was intended to entertain. Maybe three
times in a century-and then the writer can’t help it- a novel comes out as high art. But art is something that
cannot be judged until at least three generations after the book was written.”
So Richard Condon is not holding his breath for literary immortality. He’s shrewd, practical and totally undeceived
about himself, his work and his values. If history adds him to the roster of literary saints, fine; in the meantime,
the question of whether he belongs in Henry James’ company (or James in his) can be left to the future. Richard
Condon has work to do.
Right now, Condon has finished a brief spell of basking in the afterglow of Prizzi ’s Honor, which was
well-received by critics and the reading public. He’s waiting for director John Huston to finish work on Malcolm
Lowry’s Under the Volcano; then Huston and Condon will collaborate on a screenplay for Prizzi’s Honor,
a novel that should translate beautifully to the screen. His 1984 book, How to Fly With One Feather, is
being auctioned to publishers, and he’s already three chapters into what may be a 1985 or ’86 novel. (He likes to
stay two books ahead.) If he can find the time, he’d like to greet his 71st birthday with an autobiography. It’s
obvious that for Condon, peace does not mean inactivity.
PRIVATELY, CONDON measures his success by this yardstick: How different is his life now from his life as a Hollywood
press agent and publicist? But Condon won’t say that nothing was good about the years 1937 through 1957, during
which he helped trumpet to the world the latest creations of Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille, Darryl Zanuck, Samuel
Goldwyn and Howard Hughes-men who define the term “movie mogul.” In fact, in a backhanded way, Condon credits
Hollywood with amusing, shocking and disgusting him into becoming a writer.
“I was a motion-picture press agent, and there’s nothing that produces cynics so rapidly,” says Condon, dressed in a
faded Army shirt, khaki pants and sandals. “You’re producing fame for people making $14,000 a week, and you know
that if they hadn’t stumbled onto this job, they couldn’t pump gas! And you have this vast audience of people who
couldn’t find their noses with both hands, adoring these stars. You put them all together, and they deserve each
Condon has had a stuttering problem all his life, but nothing stops him when he’s on a roll like this. Lambasting
Hollywood idols, sybaritic producers and the ignorant masses of ticket buyers, his voice mounts through a splutter
of outrage to a squeaking crescendo.
“After 22 years of lifting actors and producers off bored whores at Polly Adler’s, bribing the press and doing the
50 other useless things that are a part of that work, you do tend to get a little anti-authoritarian. You lose
respect for public judgment because you know you can sell them anything. An-y-thing!”
In a more generous mood, however, Condon says that show people are “very kind and humorous. Most of them have been
through adversity, so they’re sympathetic to others.” But he has never understood the public view of actors and
actresses as “glamorous.”
“They’re just hard-working people,” Condon says. “The glamour is applied like peanut butter to a slice of bread.
It’s all part of the carpentry of their careers.” In this same spirit, Condon reveals a workmanlike pride in his
movie labors. He was often called upon to beat the drums for films he didn’t like (“I didn’t like eight out of 10 of
them”), but he understood the system and believes that during Hollywood’s golden age, moviegoers usually got good
weight for their money. “It was the most successful form of mass entertainment in history until television
superseded it,” he says.
It was Hollywood that gave Condon his first tight close-up of “classical monsters” like Cecil B. DeMille and Howard
Hughes-men who combined vast wealth and power with unstable minds and dubious morals. Such men captured Condon’s
imagination; he was both repelled and fascinated by them. For him, men like Hughes were symptomatic of the American
condition-worshiping sheer bigness, determined to rule all they surveyed.
“DeMille wanted to own the world but to organize it so he wouldn’t have to pay any taxes,” Condon says. “Goldwyn
wanted to show the world in pictures and expected everyone else in the world to pay to see it. Hughes actually
did own the world and expected everyone else to get off it.”
Condon and his wife, Evelyn (then a model with John Robert Powers), met Hughes at a cocktail party in 1936. Hughes
did not yet own a controlling interest in RKO Radio Pictures, which released the first King Kong and Orson
Welles’ Citizen Kane, but he was already becoming one of the world’s most famous recluses.
“We saw this forlorn, shaggy guy off in a corner by himself,” Condon says. “We thought he might like some company,
but when we got within three feet of him, he shrieked, in a high Truman Capote voice, ’Get the hell out of here! Get
Condon never again saw Hughes, not even years later when Condon worked for RKO, by then a minor star in the Hughes
galaxy. When Condon had been with the company for several months, a co-worker called him at home and whispered,
“Stop calling Hughes an idiot on the telephone. Don’t you know every phone in the building is tapped?” Condon
couldn’t believe that anyone, even Hughes, would want to eavesdrop on the hundreds of RKO employees, but he reported
the story the next day to Arnold Brandon, the company’s chairman.
“Sure, they’re tapped,” Brandon said. “Want to see the machine?” And he took the astonished Condon to the roof.
There, sure enough, was the device that allowed Howard Hughes to listen in on 180 telephones.
Condon’s fondest Hollywood memories are of Walt Disney, a consummate gentleman and a witness to what may have been
Condon’s biggest mistake as a publicist. Condon joined Disney at the height of the studio’s fame, just after Snow
White had been released in 1937. One of Condon’s first projects was directing publicity for The Practical
Pig, a sequel to the wildly popular Three Little Pigs. As it happened, the film was scheduled to debut
during National Pork Week, so Condon arranged a tie-in with some 24,000 butcher shops and grocery stores around the
country. In each store’s window, along with signs advertising pork products, appeared placards for The Practical
At Condon’s first meeting with his new boss, he told Walt Disney about his coup. Disney was not amused. “He looked
at me like Mrs. Roosevelt would have looked at Heinrich Him-mler,” Condon recalls. “Pork?” Disney gasped.
“National Pork Week? What kind of showman are you? Those little pigs are our actors! It’s like you were
working with Warner’s and you tied three of their biggest stars up with National Embalming week!
The enormity of Condon’s blunder (which, incidentally, was a great help to the movie’s gross) then dawned on him.
“The measure of Disney, the man, is that he did not fire me then,” Condon says. “1 would have fired me. I couldn’t
eat roast pork for 20 years. It was like trying to eat roast actor.”
But Disney forgave Condon, who stayed on to promote Bambi, Fantasia and other Disney blockbusters, including
Pinocchio, for which Condon landed 77 magazine covers and 117 feature stories.
Condon wrote his first “novel” while working with Columbia Pictures as publicity coordinator of a Rita Hayworth film
called The Loves of Carmen, loosely based on a novel by Prosper Mérinée. Condon wanted the Newspaper
Enterprise Association to serialize the Merinee novel in its 460 newspapers, but the syndicate didn’t think the
movie was tied closely enough to the book. They countered: If Condon could get a well-known women’s magazine writer
to “novelize” the screenplay, the syndicate would run 1,500 words a day for a month in all of its papers, and the
excerpts would run under a giant eight-column banner headline.
Condon jumped at the offer. He found the lady novelist, who agreed-he thought-to do the job for $1,000 in advance.
Sixty days later, Condon phoned her to ask for the manuscript. “Baby,” she told him, “I said I’d sign the goddamned
thing for $1,000. There’s not enough money in the world to get me to write it.”
So Condon brought the bad news to his superior at Columbia, a man who stayed heavily tranquilized so he could
survive the stress of just such incidents. “Well, baby,” Condon’s boss cooed from a cloud of Valium, “I don’t have
time to write it, and Rita Hayworth certainly doesn’t have time to write it. So I guess you’ll have to write it.”
Condon didn’t have time, either, but he wrote the book. He was given a board room and three stenographers on a
Friday afternoon. Two days later, he turned in a 45,000-word novel. “The syndicate loved it, nobody read it and I
considered it all part of a day’s work,” Condon says.
After living abroad for five years, Condon returned to the United States in 1957 to find that Hollywood had changed
its system. Before, Condon had enjoyed a measure of independence; his mistakes and successes had been his own. Now,
each department was organized vertically. An executive committee spoke ex cathedra for the studio. Individual
mistakes were buried in paper work, while the head of the department took credit for all good ideas. Condon soon
found himself with two painful duodenal ulcers and a burning conviction that it was time to change careers.
“The only thing I could do was spell, so I went into writing novels,” Condon says. Perhaps the cynicism produced by
23 years in the film business combined with the “novel” he had cranked out that weekend made Condon feel that
anything was possible, even life as a writer. “Life’s slow stain strips away the ability to idealize, but it also
provides you with a hand, realistic base,” Condon says. “You say, ’Well, hell. If that guy can do it, I can do it.’
So Condon began a new life. He had prospered in Hollywood, but his savings would not withstand a period of prolonged
unemployment, much less the bleakly unrewarding years that await most fledgling novelists. “Writing has never been
anything to me but a profession,” he says. “I think that if you want to approach writing by diving off the rock of
the ages into immortality, that’s fine, but it just didn’t happen that way for me. My writing had to pay off from
the first paragraph on.”
Thanks again to Hollywood, the Condons and their two young daughters, Wendy and Deborah, never had to squeeze into a
garret. Back in the mid-Fifties, the Condons had lived in Madrid, where The Pride and the Passion was being
filmed. At El Escorial, a monastery and library, Condon was witness to a remark-able discovery. Bright arc lights
were brought into the building’s dark, cavernous vestry for a love scene between Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. When
the lights were turned on, Condon and the others gasped to see several paintings hanging above the sight line on the
wall-works by Giotto, Velasquez, Raphael and other religious painters of the early Renaissance. Their value was
inestimable. After the film crews left, the paintings vanished and were never seen again.
This happy accident gave Condon the idea for his first novel, The Oldest Confession, in which master criminal
James Bourne, his wife and a French art forger devote several years to stealing three works by Renaissance masters
from a wealthy duchess. Condon wrote The Oldest Confession in 11 months and sold it to Appleton-Century.
Since the company had an unexpected “hole” in its schedule, the book was published in just four months. Condon’s
luck continued when the Book of the Month Club offered his novel to its millions of readers. The paperback and film
rights sold quickly. “I never had to look back,” Condon says, “and I haven’t had a duodenal ulcer since.”
Facing the second novel (the writer’s equivalent of sophomore jinx), Condon was determined not to choke. He didn’t.
The Man-churian Candidate entered the public mind as few novels do these days, becoming one of those books
that most people have heard about, haven’t read, but sincerely wish they had. In this novel, Condon spun what may be
the classic tale of mind manipulation. His story focused on a U.S. Army officer who is brainwashed and becomes a
Pavlovian puppet of the Communists. Returning to the United States from the Korean War, he is acclaimed as a hero
(based on the testimony of patrol members who were also brainwashed) and begins a career as a journalist. On the
surface he is normal enough, but he is really an automaton ready to murder on command. The book crystallized the
fears and paranoia of America during the McCarthy era.
The Manchurian Candidate didn’t sell as well in hardback as had The Oldest Confession, but the book’s
paperback sales were given a healthy boost by the success of the movie, which starred Frank Sinatra. The
Manchurian Candidate marked the first time (but perhaps not the last) that Condon crossed paths with America’s
royal family, the Kennedys.
Sinatra read the book, liked it and wanted the role. The snag came in 1961, when the film’s producer, John
Frankenheimer, sought financing to begin shooting. He approached Arthur Krim, then president of United Artists and,
as it happened, finance chairman of the national Democratic forty. Krim did not want to finance the film; in fact,
he informed Frankenheimer that he would see to it that no film company made the movie. The Manchurian Candidate
featured an obnoxious character modeled on Joe McCarthy, the witch-hunting father of the Red Scare of the
Fifties. It is not a well- known part of the Kennedy legend that both John F. Kennedy (as a senator) and his father,
Joseph Kennedy, had been supporters of McCarthy. In the case of the elder Kennedy, that patronage continued even
after McCarthy was censured by the Senate. Krim was certain that the movie would embarrass President Kennedy, and he
wanted no part of the operation.
Luckily for Condon’s growing reputation. Sinatra refused to take ’”no” for an answer. He called the president at
home and explained the problem, only to learn that Kennedy had read and enjoyed the book and had no objection to the
film. At Sinatra’s request, the president called United Artists and relayed the message.
While The Manchurian Candidate did much for Condon’s stature as a writer, he never saw any of the 10 percent
of its profits that he had been promised. He later learned that United Artists’ Krim, no doubt miffed over Sinatra’s
power play, had told his comptroller that he hoped the film would never show a profit. It never did.
CONDON HAS been living by Condon’s Law for most of his life. Satire is the natural genre for the outsider, and
Condon is the first to admit that his need for social contact is minima), to say the least. He has more than a touch
of the misanthrope in him. After the hectic years in Hollywood, Condon paddled toward peace; for him, peace requires
solitude. That’s part of what he loves about writing.
“I don’t know of any other job where you’re completely your own boss,” he says. “You fall on your own sword. You
make your own mistakes and have your own victories.”
By nature a loner, Condon tolerates few distractions from his daily routine. He rises early, then writes or
researches from 8:30 until 1 p.m. He breaks for lunch and a brief nap, then returns to his book-lined workroom and
his word processor until 5:30. The Condons have little social life, which suits them fine.
Condon’s wish to be alone might stem in part from his stuttering problem, a condition he says has improved markedly
in the years since he left the film business. But he doesn’t believe that his speech handicap has ever held him
back. As a publicist, Condon would barnstorm through as many as 40 cities to tout a movie like The Pride and the
Passion or Samson and Delilah. He has made hundreds of radio and television appearances. To promote
Prizzi’s Honor last year, he was featured on the Today show and Larry King’s marathon radio talk
Surprisingly, Condon believes that his stuttering helped him to become a writer. All stutterers become painfully
aware of their problem words, those likely to require several quavering attempts to produce. As a child, Condon made
it a habit to learn numerous synonyms for his problem words, thus enriching his vocabulary. Today, his books are
studded with esoteric mouthfuls like hemiated, zibeline and hypcorism.
Living abroad for 20 years in Mexico, Paris, Geneva, Locarno and Ireland also pulled Condon farther into himself. As
a stutterer, he was unable to learn any foreign languages. “Why go out if you can’t speak to the people?” he asks.
“I was kept in a cocoon.” But Condon believes that the expatriate experience-especially the years in Geneva, with
Copenhagen, Athens and London just hours away-was invaluable for him and his family. “We wanted to show our
daughters that people were the same all over,” Condon says. “The language and the food may be different, but
basically, emotionally, we’re all the same. The years abroad gave me a confidence that some other writers don’t
have. I don’t feel that I’m over my head as soon as I leave my block.”
As Condon’s skill and reputation have grown, so has his confidence in his abilities. He no longer pays much
attention to the praise or damnation of book reviewers, as he did while living in New York when his second and third
books appeared (The Manchurian Candidate and Some Angry Angel, a satire on the news media). Back then,
Condon would visit newsstands three times a day to see how a certain newspaper or magazine critic had treated his
new brainchild. Today, Condon claims to ignore most reviewers, but his remarks show that he has felt their sting.
“It would help me in my goal of greater comfort for the Condons if all critics decided that my books were
magnificent,” Condon says. “But I really don’t care what they say anymore. They have to pay the rent or the bookie
or the abortionist. Some guy can get $25 for reviewing a book. He’s distraught. He goes home and transposes the
blurb. He hands in his copy, gets his money and has four seconds of relief.”
IN 1973, WHILE living in a Georgian villa in Ireland, Condon wrote a memoir called And Then We Moved to
Rossenarra. Among almost everything else (Condon’s books are always fat with detail), Rossenarra
contained some gloomy reflections on the author’s native land:
America died in the corner saloon in 1921, slumped behind the last free lunch of a culture that had expanded into
Prohibition, which shortened the glory of the nation by three hundred years. The cities of America, their
governments and their cultures are the hell that followed that death.
In essence, this is the motivating idea behind one of Condon’s most successful novels. Mile High. Following
Condon’s Law, he tends toward a mildly paranoid view of many large historical events. (“When two people talk, it’s a
conversation. When three people talk, it’s a conspiracy.”) According to Condon, Prohibition was no Bible Belt
uprising, no last-ditch revolt of rural America against the Sodom and Gomorrah of the East. It was a plot. Mile
High gives fictional life to Condon’s belief that organized crime engineered the Prohibition movement, then got
rich from bootlegging. Condon sees Warren G. Harding (then a senator), the Baptist church, the Women’s Christian
Temperance Unions and all the rest as unwitting dupes. Condon admits that E.C. West, the wealthy tyrant who looms
over Mile High, is modeled closely after Howard Hughes.
“These were crooks on the scale of the Rockefeller family and the Morgan family,” Condon says, his voice rising
again. “Keep in mind that Prohibition did not become a law until January 1920. By 1918, these people had their stock
in place all over the U.S. And with the help of that boob Harding, they built loopholes into the law that made
possible the day-to-day operation of breweries all over the country.”
Condon enjoys peering into smoke-filled rooms, watching the inner meshings of groups pursuing their own
self-interests. In his view, the person who can delude enough of these groups into helping him while seeming
to help themselves comes out the winner. That’s the evil genius of E.C. West in Mile High. It’s also the
chief talent of Joe Kegan in Winter Kills, one of Condon’s best-known novels.
Written in 1974, Winter Kills is a wincingly funny satire in which some characters sprung from Condon’s
imagination and some were lifted from real life. Certain overly libidinous politicians and eccentric oilmen will
seem especially familiar to Texas readers.
In Winter Kills, the Kegan family is really the Kennedy family, seen through Condon’s jaundiced eye. (“The
Kennedys were trash to begin with,” he says.) The novel opens 14 years after the assassination of President Tim
Kegan, a shallow womanizer propelled into power by his fantastically wealthy father. The late president’s half
brother, Nick Thirkield, picks up the trail of the conspiracy that took Kegan’s life, following it “through mazes of
American myth and nightmare,” Condon says. Suffice it to say that Thirkield finds conspiracy, indeed, and at the
heart of the cabal is someone very close to the president.
Condon’s book tracks the assassination closely, with some important exceptions. The president is shot from a
building overlooking a grassy knoll, but the murder takes place in Hunt Plaza in Philadelphia, not Dealey Plaza in
Dallas. One of the assassins, while in police custody, is later murdered by a man named Joe Diamond. The murder is
planned in Dallas, but Condon changed the scene to Philadelphia.
“I was tired of seeing Dallas blackened as the city of hate,” says Condon, who had no connection with Dallas at the
time. “They were talking as if the whole city had conspired to hit this guy.”
Condon is a firm believer in the “two-gun” theory when it comes to the real assassination. “I repeat again and again
what seems to have been lost in history,” he says. “At Parkland, they announced that he had been hit by two bullets
from two different directions. The New York Times ran that story in at least two editions. Later, of course,
they sealed the autopsy report for 75 years.”
Condon also believes that an inside man in the Dallas Police Department allowed Jack Ruby to get close enough to
silence Lee Harvey Oswald. “a patsy” according to Condon. “Can you believe that 197 million people bought Ruby’s
story? He did it for the wife? He did it for the country? A hoodlum with a record that long? And he just happened to
kill Oswald before they had him make a statement. Of course, they’d had him [Oswald] in there for 15 hours.”
The making of Winter Kills, the movie, illustrates again the bizarre happenings that have swirled about
Richard Condon as he has sat at his word processor, calmly imagining the worst. The movie should have been a smash
success, with a cast including John Huston, Jeff Bridges, Anthony Perkins, Richard Boone and Eli Wallach, and with a
cameo appearance by Elizabeth Taylor, who demanded and got $100,000 in advance before heaving her expensive bulk
toward the cameras.
The film’s producers, two virtual unknowns, were somehow able to start production of the movie without sufficient
funding. Condon was paid $75,000 for the screen rights to his novel and was promised 5 percent of producers’ profits
and 10 percent of the royalties on video cassette sales. Later, money ran out; many of the movie’s stars were never
paid for their work. The producers had to scramble for additional dollars after creditors agreed to a bailout
Somehow, despite money problems, union problems and problems with Elizabeth Taylor’s fur coat (an extra perk),
Winter Kills opened in 1979 in a dozen showcase theaters throughout the country. Reviews ranged from great to
ecstatic. All seemed set for the movie to play as many as 14,000 projected engagements in the United States and
Canada before moving on to the European film capitals. And then came what Condon calls the Great and Mysterious
The film did not go from the showcase houses to the big-city movie circuits. Home Box Office showed it briefly
around the country, then it vanished. Condon has nothing but a host of theories to explain the disappearance of what
by all rights should have been a successful motion picture. “Mysteries are never mysterious if one has the right
seat at the proceedings, but we don’t,” he says.
Obviously fearing libel charges, Condon soft-pedals any talk that the Kennedy family might have pulled strings to
squelch the movie. But the year was 1979; a presidential election was coming up, and Sen. Edward Kennedy was
expected to challenge Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. Condon can’t resist the pull of Condon’s Law:
When you don’t know the whole truth, the worst you can imagine is probably pretty close.
“The film company which distributed the picture had no financial investment in the picture,” he says. “But they were
doing an $864 million business with the government. All a senator has to do is have a staffer call in a lobbyist and
say, “Bob. we’re very upset. Do you realize that your little company is distributing a film that vilifies the memory
of the senator’s brother?’ He would never have to mention the contracts. The lobbyist would take the hint. You can’t
imagine the power of a senator.”
Richard Condon is a paradox. He’s happy with his life. He’s well-paid for doing work he loves. He writes for 10
weeks, then travels with his wife for 10 days. But he draws his subject matter and his creative strength from his
dark view of modern America as a vast asylum run by the inmates. He has some of Twain’s contempt for “the damned
human race,” and he admits to “a general disillusionment with the species.”
No mendacity on the part of any public official can shock Condon, and he views “with utter serenity” the prospect of
America as a falling paradise, a nation sliding down the slopes of history to decline. “The process is millenia
old,” he says. “You had Genghis Khan and you had Tamurlane. You had Rome rising and falling, and, in modern times,
the British Empire diminishing. Now Japan is rising and we’re going down. It’s the historical rhythm.”
And yet, at the center of the storm, Condon is happy. “I’m an entertainer,” he says again. “I’m doing this [he
gestures toward a copy of Prizzi ’s Honor] to get this.” In widening circles, his arms take in the paintings,
the understated, expensive furniture and the world clock showing the time in the many cities where he has lived.
“My whole life’s satisfaction is writing,” he says. “But when I’m not writing, I’d rather travel and enjoy. It’s
been a great life, man.”
When you don’tknow the whole truth,the worst you can imagine is probablyclose. -Condon’s Law