It was the usual bustling Wednesday scene at Michael’s this week with a room full of suits and social types ratcheting up the decibel level in the dining room, so I was glad my lunch date, the fabulous and prolific Sheila Weller arrived early enough for us to chat before things got too loud because I didn’t want to miss a single word of our conversation about her latest book, Carrie Fisher A Life on the Edge (Sarah Crichton Books) which came out earlier this month. Once our mutual friend, PR maven extraordinaire, Judy Twersky, arrived and we got right down to business.
Long before I met Sheila, I knew of her work. She wrote a fascinating book on Nicole Brown Simpson’s tragic relationship with OJ Simpson, Raging Heart (the gripping best-seller became part of the murder trial!), and I’d read plenty of her interviews in Vanity Fair and Glamour. We first ‘met’ on Facebook when she was working on “The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour – and the Triumph of Women in TV News” and had our first Michael’s lunch when the tantalizing tome that took on the professional lives of the three women who ruled broadcast television at that time when published in 2014.
Sheila also wrote the best-seller, Girls Like Us (See, I told you she was prolific!) where she profiled three more female powerhouses – this time from the music industry –Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. It’s a testament to Sheila that another icon, Judy Collins, who declined to be interviewed for Girls, read the book and loved it. Sheila and Judy have been friends ever since. The singer even hosted Sheila’s book party for A Life on the Edge. “She’s been absolutely terrific,” said Sheila. “She is truly a terrific woman.”
In the new book about the “beloved” actress, writer, and as Sheila calls her “badass feminist icon,” Fisher is celebrated for both her strength and vulnerability in one of the most compelling and comprehensive biographies on a Hollywood legend in recent years. Carrie Fisher A Life on the Edge has garnered rave reviews from The Washington Post, USA Today (calling it a “not to miss” book), Publisher’s Weekly, Refinery29, and Kirkus praised the book exclaiming readers will “fall in love with Carrie Fisher.” When I asked Sheila why she’d chosen to devote an entire book to one star rather than follow up her successful formula of examining a trio of talents, she said, “Carrie was so iconic and interesting, she was impossible to ignore. She was the Dorothy Parker of her time.”
When Fisher died suddenly in December 2016 – with her mother, the brilliant Debbie Reynolds, passing away from a stroke the very next day – there was an outpouring of affection for both women. Sheila covers all the highs and lows of Fisher’s complicated life – her overnight megastar status at 19 years old when cast as Princess Leia in Star Wars, her codependent relationship with her superstar mother, marriages to Paul Simon and Bryan Lourd as well as her very public battles with drug addiction and bipolar disorder.
Drawn from 120 interviews with people who knew Fisher as a close friend, costar or merely had a memorable encounter with her as well as experts in bipolar disorder, Sheila has constructed a fascinating and deeply compassionate portrait of a woman who was sassy, smart and straight-talking and meant so much to so many. While Sheila learned much for many of Fisher’s famous friends like Richard Dreyfuss and Salman Rushdie, she noted that “Sometimes the best insights and information come from people who don’t know the subject well but can shed light on their personality through a single encounter.” In Fisher’s case, Sheila found that she was open and honest with everyone she met. “I talked to people who met her once at an event or a meeting, and instead of talking about herself, she wanted to ask questions about them. That was who Carrie was.”
What I found utterly fascinating were the crazy parallels between Sheila and Fisher’s lives. The same height (5’1 ½”) and both grew up in Beverly Hills. Carrie’s mother was a movie star, and Sheila’s mother was a movie magazine editor who wrote about stars. “Carrie was magnetic, and I write about magnetic people,” said Sheila. Perhaps the most striking similarity is the one I found while reading the book’s acknowledgments. “My family – at the same time as the Debbie-Eddie-and-Liz [Taylor] drama was going on – had its version of a beautiful diva breaking up a marriage, in a violent, similarly near incestuous, and not unpublic way.” Sheila goes on to write that like Fisher, the devastating events led to an “uncomfortably bonded” relationship with a “plucky, ever-working, husband-dumped” mother. If you’re as fascinated by Sheila’s own story as I am, you can read more about it in her page-turning memoir, Dancing at Ciro’s: A Family’s Love, Loss, and Scandal on the Sunset Strip.
Mid-interview, when our mutual friend Susan Silver stopped by our table to say hello, she was effusive in her praise of Sheila’s book. “I read it in one night!” she told us. Sheila laughed, turned to me, and said, “I hope [people] are not just saying that to me.”
Sheila describes her portrayal of Fisher as “sympathetic”, but she doesn’t “sugarcoat” the darker times in the troubled star’s life, adding, “She had a lot of challenges. Addiction is a disease; bipolar disorder is an illness. I always try to approach my work with empathy and no judgment.” She told me she believed Fisher gave a lot of people hope because she showed the world that “despite whatever challenges you face, you can be honest about them and keep working.”
Fisher, who Sheila said was “weight-shamed an age-shamed” in a business obsessed with unattainable perfection, contributed a great deal to shift the cultural conversation about addiction and bipolar disorder that is the cause of devastating isolation for so many people today. “When a celebrity talks about these things, it helps people feel that they are not alone. One of the most significant legacies of her life is that she destigmatized bipolar disorder in a very powerful way.”
If you’d like to meet Sheila and hear more about her take on Carrie Fisher, she’ll be at the Jefferson Market Library on Saturday at 3 pm in conversation with Amy Ferris. Next month, she’s got two great events planned. On December 5th, she’ll be at the hotter than hot community workspace for women, The Wing, right here in town for a conversation with fellow scribe Alexandra Jacobs. Then on the 9th, she’s headed out to California for a talk at The Women’s City Club of Pasadena. As you can see, Sheila has plenty to talk about.
Seen & Heard Around the Room
We heard we missed Jodie Foster by a day. Oh well, next time … Sole man Steve Madden on Table Two … Paul and Ed McDonald on Table Three … Former Sony/ATV Music CEO Martin Bandier on Four … Allen & Company’s Stan Shuman at his regular perch, Table Five … Andy Stein on Six … Jason Oliver on Seven … New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia on Eight … Author (Hot Pants in Hollywood) Susan Silver and WOR’s Mark Simone on Nine … Peter Griffin on Ten … Jane Hartley on Eleven … Steve Cohen on Twelve … Tom Rogers on Fifteen … Producer Steven Haft on Sixteen… Ann Tisch on Seventeen …Producer Orin Wolf on Twenty-one … Beet. TV’s Andy Plesser on Twenty-two … Former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes with Peter Kreisky on Twenty-five … The ‘Bar-ettes’ Vi Huse and Kira Semler enjoying their monthly champagne lunch at the bar. Cheers!