Friday, April 2, 2010

A Spring Lunch With A Legend--Reminding me of that first lucky break

Yesterday,on one of the first sunny and warm days of spring, I had lunch with one of my all-time favorite people, the incomparable OWEN LASTER, a great friend and my former literary agent at the William Morris Agency. Owen, who retired in 2006 after an illustrious 45-year career, came down to Battery Park City to enjoy the 70 degree temperatures and an afternoon lunch at Southwest, a Mexican restaurant located on the Marina.
    With cherry blossoms in bloom and sailboats passing us by, Owen and I caught up on any and everything. I used to always joke to him (and it wasn't really a joke!) that I was his most unimportant client. Indeed, Owen, who was head of international literary operations at William Morris and a key player in numerous Hollywood deals, has worked with countless legends, including such heavy hitters as James Michener, Gore Vidal, Dominick Dunne, Susan Isaacs, Judy Blume, William Diehl, Robert Penn Warren, and the estate of Margaret Mitchell – to name just a few.
      Most recently, Owen was kind enough to read the finished manuscript of my upcoming book, Katie Up and Down the Hall, and I was touched by his kind words and positive reaction to it and by his kindly introducing me to  Lynn Goldberg, the premier book publicist in New York, fantastic in her strategic devotion to KATIE.
       As Owen and I joked, who ever thought I'd be writing about a dog?! Indeed, our association began thirty one years ago on quite a different note, so to speak. Back then, I had been an aspiring concert pianist and had just moved to New York after graduate work at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. After a combined eighteen years of study (including nine years of college) I had finally QUIT the piano for good--tired of it all and convinced I wasn't good enough.
       What was I going to do? My parents were appalled that I was quitting with no other prospects in hand. But I hatched the idea of writing the first biography of the legendary Vladimir Horowitz--a crazy notion since I had never written anything, much less had something published--not even a poem.
      Nevertheless, I started calling publishers on my own, fourteen of them in all, including Jacqueline Onassis at Doubleday, essentially lying to them (or you might say, trying a fantasy on for size), by telling them definitively  that I WAS writing a biography of Horowitz, who was, of course, the most famous pianist of his time, appearing in l979 live at the White House and in concerts all over the world. To my amazement, nearly every editor I approached was interested. Knowing I needed an agent, I somehow got the name of Owen Laster--and gave him a call. I never thought he'd agree to meet me, but he did.
    "Here was this rather pushy young man with no experience with an idea for a book," Owen later said jokingly, "and I thought to myself: Who knows? Maybe he can do it." At our first meeting I gave Owen all NO's to his questions: Had I ever written anything? Did I have Horowitz's cooperation? Did I have a proposal ready?
     That didn't stop me. I went to the Lincoln Center Library, took out the "clip file" on Horowitz, and scoured it until I found something in it I could use for a sample chapter. A few weeks later, I returned to Owen's office with a complete proposal in hand. To this day, I'll never know how I did it. And cementing my reputation as being too pushy, I told Owen that I wanted no less than a $50,000 advance for the book. Back in l979, this was probably equivalent to about $150,000 in today's currency. "Oh, I don't know about that," he told me. "You have no experience and Horowitz isn't cooperating."
     But Owen did it!! On my birthday, May 15th, l979, Owen sold the book to William Morrow for exaclty $50,000 (and to my disappointment Jacqueline Onassis didn't bid on the book, as she felt I didn't have enough experience to write it.) Even better, Owen also sold the book to an English publisher. Wow! From January when I was a penniless piano student to May, I had come a long way--all thanks to Owen.
    It took me three years to write the book, but when HOROWITZ was published, my author photo to the right here, it received more attention than I ever expected.  Afterward, Owen also did a wonderful thing--encouraging me to do interviews for magazines, introducing me to Playboy (my first interview was with Calvin Klein) and to Family Circle, all of which led to my specialty, interviewing celebrities.
    I can never forget Owen's open heart in meeting a 24-year-old with absolutely no credentials, armed with only the dream of starting something new. And I always tell young writers that if I could do what I did with absolutely no experience--anybody can. 
     As an aside, when I came back from my book tour in March l983, sitting on my desk was a pale blue envelope. I opened it up and found this:  "Dear Mr. Plaskin, Your copy of Horowitz just arrived. I know you devoted so much of your time and effort to this project and I trust that seeing the finished book has given you a great sense of accomplishment. I am sure it will be as successful as your expectations. Thank you so much for thinking of me. I would very much like to talk with you about any future ideas you may have. Sincerely, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis."
     None of this would have happened without Owen. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"KATIE THE WONDER DOG"--Makes Its Debut On YouTube Today!

Ever had a long conversation with your dog? Better than any therapist, and often more sympathetic than a mate, KATIE, the star of my upcoming book, was always ready to listen, her huge brown eyes flecked with gold, focused and alert. Over a period of fifteen years, I confided pretty much all my feelings to her, all the ups and downs of life.

     But our communication wasn't only in one direction, for Katie was an empathetic, curious dog, socially outgoing and astutely intelligent.
     Right from the start, I got into the habit of having conversations with her, eye to eye, and I could tell that she clearly understood the gist of what I said:
     "Now, listen up, child," I told her when she was young. "You're a good little dog, you are, but you have to learn your manners. No biting, no scratching your nails on the furniture, no getting up on the white couch, and no accidents. And if you're good, you'll get a cookie or a nice piece of chicken." Her ears immediately pricked up at these key words.
   No, she didn't understand every word, but she did intuit the meaning of them from my tone, inflection, volume, and repetition of key phrases. Her vocabulary of more than sixty words included good, bad, no, eat, hungry, go out, go ahead (meaning to do her business), stay, sit, come, down, and beat it.
    If I asked:"What are you doing?" her head anxiously cocked right up, as she stopped the offense. She also was well-acquainted with cookie, spaghetti, toast, corn, cracker, treat, cake, coat, ball, keys, sock, and bone, to mention just a few of her favorite things to munch or chew on.
    And when she heard the phrase "get in your house," she always hightailed it back into her crate, happy to recline on her blue blanket while keeping a watchful eye on the action.
    With a large arsensal of words at her command, and her ability to comprehend my meaning, Katie was fully communicative and bossy too, quite definite about what she wanted and when.
     For example, when I was trapped in bed during a two-week period with a back injury, she'd retrieve a sock and jump up onto the bed and throw it at me, ready for tug of war. "You hit me in the face with it!" I objected. She just stared at me obstinately, determined to play.
      You either complied or she would rip the sock to shreds on her own.

      One day, she grabbed the TV's remote control and started playfully pushing her paw down on the buttons, watching the screen as the channels changed. It wasn't long before she understood the connection between her action and the picture and she often grabbed the remote away from me, turning it into a game, pushing down on it to change channels until she found one she liked, usually cartoons. The red chair she's sitting in above was her favorite TV-watching perch.

       One day she observed me typing at my desk, and later on, she jumped up onto the desk chair, planted her paws on the keyboard, and mimicked me, "typing" away as she watched the characters on the monitor change. This she began to do all the time--and we called her the typing dog.

     In wintertime, after she came in from a walk, she liked having her paws washed off with warm paper toweling, something I'd done since she was a puppy to get rid of the street salt. She'd either trot into the bathroom and sit there, waiting, or grab a roll of toweling from the bathroom with her mouth and bring it to me, dropping it for me on the bed.
     Talk about smart.

      What can your dog do? Write me an E Mail and tell me, and we'll include it on the Community page of my upcoming new web site, But for now, please visit my main web site, AND watch the Katie Book Trailer, which makes its debut on YouTube today. Please send the link to your friends and family and all the dog lovers you know. It's a really emotional, touching video that captures the essence of Katie's personality and of our story. And in the video, you'll see what fashionable dogs are wearing this season--and much more.

      Hope some of the pictures of Katie gave you a laugh. After all, it's April Fool's Day. But: I didn't fool you with any of this, for everything I've told you about Katie is quite true. And much more of it's in the book.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Queen Of Dog Rescue--The Indomitable Wendy Diamond

     At lunch yesterday at Manhattan's Bricco on West 56th Street, I was lucky enough to meet the ebullient WENDY DIAMOND, the founder and editorial director of Animal Fair, the lifestyle magazine passionately devoted to saving animal lives by focusing on animal rescue. Wendy is also the author of many fantastic books, currently the indispensable It's a Dog's World: The Savvy Guide to Four-Legged Living, which will head up the bestseller list during Wendy's upcoming 15-city book tour.

      The latest issue of Animal Fair has Charlize Theron on its cover, pictured on the beach with her soulful rescue dog, Tucker. Previous cover interviews at Animal Fair include everyone from Beyonce and Halle Berry to Serena Williams and Kim Cattrall, all of whom support Wendy's lifelong mission to save the lives of animals.

     Wendy's determination is fueled by shocking statistics: 6-8 million cats and dogs enter shelters each year, while only 3-4 million of them are adopted, many of the rest euthanized. This is tragic beyond words and each of us must step up and help these incredible animals in whatever way we can.

    Over lunch, the first thing you notice about Wendy is her down to earth warmth, boundless energy, and those hugely expressive blue eyes. A native of Cleveland (she laughs about this almost apologetically), her rise to becoming one of the most influential media personalities in New York was a quick one. Her philanthropic calling began with her work for the Coalition for the Homeless, during which time she realized how profoundly important homeless animals were as confidants to homeless people. She sprang into action, writing two cookbooks which raised over two hundred thousand dollars for homeless charities. It wasn't long before she adopted her Russian Blue cat Pasha from The Animal Care and Control facility in New York, and later her Maltese Lucky. Soon after that, she conceived Animal Fair.

       Wendy is a great example of turning a passion into a mission, and her driving force is pure contribution--helping people and animals to live a happier life.  Isn't that what it's all about?

      And if you want to help or contribute, just find the nearest animal shelter. There's nothing more poignantly disturbing than visiting one of these overcrowded shelters and seeing dogs and cats in "jail," staring at you through kennels, pleading with their eyes to be adopted.

         I can tell you that the star of my upcoming book, KATIE, was unwanted and left behind by her more attractive litter mates. With long skinny legs and huge ears, her body proportions were all off--and she'd been nicknamed "Twiggy" due to her scroungy appearance. I was told that she would never be a show dog. But who cares?! Take a look at her now! (She always dressed up for birthdays. is that a face you could love?)

      That first day when "Twiggy," aka "Katie," curled into my arms and looked up at me with those big brown eyes, that was pretty much it. After she licked me on the face, it was love at first sight. If only human love worked so easily and quickly, right?!  Katie was so warm, trusting, and sweet. I had found my dog, the one I'd been waiting for, and I felt it with total conviction.

There's a dog or cat out there, right now, just waiting for you.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Verdict On Judge Judy: Funny & Fierce, She Reigns Supreme

Even in the company of the great Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Reagan, and Carol Burnett, one of my favorite interview subjects of all time is the incomparable JUDGE JUDY,the charismatic powerhouse who reigns over the highest-rated court session on TV, with more than ten million viewers tuning in daily.

Amazingly, she's been #1 for the last 700 weeks! Beyond ratings, nobody can surpass Judy’s astute judgments, spicy humor, supersonic mind, and no-nonsense attitude.

And best of all, fear is not in her vocabulary—as she says the things we all want to.

“LOOK at me, Madam!” shouts the Queen of small-screen Justice to an evasive witness.

“Does it say ‘stupid,’ here?” she inquires, pointing briskly to her forehead.

“They don’t pay me because I’m beautiful,” she mugs sweetly to the cameras. “I’m real SMART, so watch it!”

You said it. When I first met Judy years ago for breakfast at her favorite bagel shop in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she directed me to get her a sesame bagel with cream cheese before our interview began. You can be sure I did it.

Regularly beating Oprah in the afternoon ratings, I asked her about the secret to her phenomenal popularity. “I cut through the bull, I go behind the veil, and get to what’s REAL,” exclaims the mother of five and grandmother of eleven.

Recently when a witness interrupted her, she boomed: "Do you see my mouth moving? You're irritating me," she snapped. "I'm the boss, applesauce."

To a woman bringing a lawsuit over a crushed hat, she advises: "You'd better get a life, Madam."

The petite star, who wears a size 2, $400 silk robe on the Bench, is charming and warm in person, suntanned and relaxed after a recent vacation in Florida with her husband Jerry. Much of the summer this year will be spent at Judy's stupendous new 24,000-square foot home in Connecticut, the multi-million dollar family compound she rightfully earned as the nation’s top TV judge.

I was thinking today that a decade before Judy hit the national stage, we had our own judge and jury in Battery Park City and her name was PEARL, the octogenarian heroine of my new book, Katie Up and Down the Hall. Like the best of matriarchs, Pearl, like Judy, also had strong opinions and high ethics on any and all issues, and wasn't shy about expressing them.

“Why do all these girls walk around naked in the middle of the fall?” was one of her frequent questions, referring to the army of joggers outside on the Esplanade. “In my day, even hookers had more clothes on. What happened to good manners?”

“Beats me,” I laughed.

"Oprah gets it right every time," she pronounced, "but Geraldo should retire!"

“The President,” she observed one day, “is suddenly a hero—but I still think he’s a zero,” and that was just before breakfrast.

Like Judy, Pearl could be feisty one moment, and girlish the next.

She gave the thumbs up or down on my friends and dates; she refused to be taken advantage of, had a wry sense of irony, and could see the ridiculous in things. She could also be tough and abrupt. In fact, I loved in Pearl what I love in Judy. She wasn’t a phony. What you saw was what you got.

Although modern in her thinking, she wasn’t necessarily interested in adopting technology foreign to her, so she had no cell phone and drew the line on computers as well.

“What do I need it for? I keep all my recipes in this index box, and when I want to talk to somebody I use the phone or write a letter.” Case closed.

She was, however, much more interested in a before-dinner drink: “I love beer,” she told us, swigging one back, “which is why I bought lots of Anheuser-Busch stock. It’s always a good bet and I’m never going to lose on it.”

The true make of confidence, Pearl could even make fun of herself.

One night I pulled out a Donald Duck hat I’d purchased for her at Disney and she happily put on the hat, looking absolutely ridiculous in it as she nonchalantly chatted away with a group of friends before breaking into giggles. My dog Katie looked up quizzically, wondering about that odd thing on Granny’s head.

“I’ve seen worse hats, though I’ve looked better in them,” Pearl said, mugging for the camera as I snapped away.

Even into her 90’s, she never lost her game spirit or her wit. On her worst day she was more fun than many people were on their best.

One evening, she was visiting with a friend of mine who had a constant battle with the bulge: “You look thinner,” she told him.

When I came into the room, he joyfully turned to me, and said: “Pearl says I look thin.”

Pearl shot him a look, and retorted: “I didn’t say that. I said you look thinner.”

That was Pearl!

Like Pearl, Judy is a great dog lover--and adores her adorable Shitzu, Lulu. I hope both of them will come to our launch party in September, which will be hosted by the incomparable Joan Rivers and"The Prince of Chintz," interior designer Mario Buatta.

Monday, March 29, 2010


     Just a few weeks ago, at the celebrity Manhattan hot spot Michael’s, there she was, the unstoppable LIZ SMITH, ebullient as ever as she hosted a reception for her championed charity, Literary Partners. This is a fantastic not-for-profit devoted to bringing the gift of reading to thousands of adults who need a helping hand. Also there was the great novelist, Barbara Taylor Bradford, one of the charity’s most devoted supporters, a 'woman of substance' with a generous giving spirit.

That night, as I observed Liz Smith,  I couldn’t help but notice how absolutely young she is--in her thinking, appearance, and energy level. While she jokingly refers to herself as “the 2000-year-old gossip columnist,” she's a mere 87, though she looks decades younger.

And while many her age are physically ailing, marooned in retirement homes, or at best golfing or playing cards, this peripatetic wonder remains fully engaged, not missing a cultural event or party in NY while reigning over her syndicated newspaper column and penning her daily column too.

    Watching her in action that night led me to think about the heroine of my upcoming book, my dear friend, Pearl, the octogenarian down the hall who became a lifelong friend and companion to me and my dog, Katie. I wrote all about Pearl's profound influence on my life in Family Circle's Granny Down The Hall, which described the journey from friendship to family. 

Pearl, of course, never achieved the glamorous and accomplished life of Liz Smith—though I realized that they both had a few things in common: Physical vitality, a caring heart, tons of friends, curiosity, humor, mental acuity, a modern no-nonsense attitude,  and more than anything, great interest in life, refusing to yield to our culture’s ideal that retirement from work and life is something to be desired.  

    “I would never retire,” Liz told me a few years ago when I interviewed her for a magazine piece titled “Young At Heart—The Secrets of a Happy Life,” which also featured Sophia Loren and Betty White. “Retirement is ridiculous. I’d have to be too sick not to work. I hope I just keep working until the day I die.”

As she observed, age has its advantages: “Being older means knowing who you are; having the confidence to say what you think. It’s a big relief not to have so many ambitions and yearnings. I've been lucky, very healthy. My mother lived to be 95. I honestly don’t dwell on death. If there’s an afterlife, O.K.; if not, O.K. I think the way to stay young is to  stay interested and to keep working. I'm essentially a pretty disciplined person. My deadlines are what keep my going. You must feel as if you have your whole future ahead of you--I do!"

Hearing her say this reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago titled The Secrets Of The Centenarians, which described the keys to living to 100, a mindset that combines positive thinking and a fighting spirit. That's Liz!

"I try not to get into a rut, or think in a rut. I can't imagine being bored when there are all those books out there and movies and TV.  If an older person is depressed, rescue a pet, help your local charity, work at your church or a soup kitchen."

And in parting, "I’m sure Mother Teresa never had any qualms about her self-worth—she was too busy!”