Wednesday, August 3, 2011



Note:  This is a continuation of an interview I did with the Blairs at their home in February 1994 about their writing career.   
The Blairs had just completed Silent Victory: U.S. Submarine Warfare Against Japan,  some 1100 pages, when they did a quick book on MacArthur (400 pages), work that had led them to Hollywood.  After a few false leads with movie studios, they began research for Return From The River Kwai, a very fulfilling project about the incredibly unlucky River Kwai prisoners sunk by unknowing Allied submarines as they were transported below decks on Japanese cargo ships enroute to Japan. 

Return From the River Kwai was the 19th book of Clay Blair's and the tenth book done with Joan's assistance.  
- DP


Clay - About this time we got a call from our agent.  Zanuck and Brown were making a movie, called MacArthur, with Gregory Peck. 

At that time the really hot thing was a movie tie-in book.  You produce a movie, and then release a book with it. This [movie would be] selling big, and they needed a tie-in book on MacArthur, because at that time there was no objective, concise book on MacArthur, believe it or not.  So he asked, would you want to do that?  This was for MCA/Universal.   And so we jumped at this.
(To Joan:  I can’t believe we did this.) 

We jumped in the car.   They said, there will be quite a bit of research on this.  Zanuck – no, Brown – said, “Don’t worry about the research,” says David Brown, a very distinguished Hollywood producer who’s married to Helen Brown, Cosmo editor at the time.  

“All you have to do is back up a van, and we’ll give you all the research [material] you can handle.  Don’t worry about it.”

Joan – “Just get on out here.”

Clay -   So we get in our car and tore out to California, checked in with these people, and there is no research material.  It’s all bullshit, like everything in Hollywood.  They had no research at all.

Joan – What we walked out with was one piece of paper, and that was a biography of Gregory Peck! 
But no research for the MacArthur book.

Clay – That’s right! I forgot about that.  So this movie is almost finished…

Joan -  They wanted this book in 90 days.

Clay -  They wanted this book as soon as we could do it.  We wrote it in 93 days. That’s unbelievable.  I mean, we had to find a place to live.  My two teenage boys, Kemp and Bobby, they were becoming difficult.  Their mother couldn’t handle them, and so we took them on.  We took a townhouse in Malibu.  Really went Hollywood. 

And, fortunately, I was able to work out a deal with Universal Studios.  They had, actually, a terrific library, Universal did.  We found this out on our own.  And their librarian was a terrific gal, and if she didn’t have a book, she was plugged in to all of the libraries in LA, and they all knew each other.  She could get a book overnight.  Not a long library loan, but overnight!  And then we had a deal set up with either her or the studio, where if we needed a book she would get it and the studio would messenger it out to us in a car, to Malibu.  So that we had – we used a hell of a lot of books, and rapidly.  Man, we chewed through books like you wouldn’t believe.  

So, 93 days later, we produced the 400-page volume for MacArthur, to tie in with this movie on MacArthur.  It was a phenomenal thing, it really was.  Just unbelievable.

Q -  Do you ever wonder?  Were you sweating bullets about having to produce this thing?

Clay -  Nope.  Just writing like crazy.

Joan -  We just sat there and did it.

Clay -  And, very rapid-like.  Remember, I told you at the time I could write very rapidly?  And how fast I am?   Well, we wrote Survive! in four weeks.   This took longer.  93 days.  

And this was published, the way it worked out, by Pocketbooks in paperback.  Pocketbooks was a division of Simon and Schuster at that time.  And the movie came out.  It was terrible.  We saw the movie.  Terrible movie.  

But a good book.  The book was far better than the movie, and the book got a little life in its own. 
This was the first one-volume, objective biography on MacArthur.  People writing about MacArthur can’t be objective: They’re either pro-MacArthur or nay- MacArthur, and quite strongly.  We were right down the middle, and we covered all the essentials of his life. 

Joan -  And even the Military Book Club picked it up.

Clay -  Yeah, and it was a strange thing.  The Military Book Club, which is a pretty big club, they read the book and said, “We’d like to bring it out in hardback.”  So they did.  They picked up the paperback and published it in hardback for the club.  And it’s still being sold.   And that book sold abroad, as well.   England, London.  So, that’s the story of that.  There’s not much else to tell about that, but…

So, there we were, sitting in Hollywood.   This place…we won’t go into all that…we were in this deal and that deal.  Just like (in) all the movies.   A lot of these things do get into the development stage, but very few get completed.  

We got involved in this wild thing, which is too complicated to go into, but basically a convict came to Universal and claimed that he knew who D.B. Cooper was.   

Do you know who D.B. Cooper is?   OK.   

He knew, because he was in jail in Atlanta with D.B. Cooper on another charge, earlier, and they planned this thing in jail.  Or something.  So, this guy was in for murder, our “source.”  So, anyhow, Universal hired us to investigate this.  Because I guess they were leery, they didn’t know what to think.   Most people don’t know anything about “facts.”  They didn’t know anything about this.

Joan -  So, if it was true, we would write a book about it, and they would make a movie about it.  But they didn’t want to do that unless it was true, so they hired us to investigate it.  So Clay took off and went all over the country investigating this, on the trail of D.B. Cooper.  And he decided it definitely was not true.  So that killed that golden egg.

Clay -  Yeah. (laughs)  We could have made millions out of it.   

Joan - But the FBI naturally got on the scent of this, and we had the FBI in our front living room, off and on, for the next several months.   Clay found out more than the FBI knew about it.  He was telling what he found out…it was the craziest thing.

Clay – Typical Hollywood.  They had actually established a development number. That means you can charge things to that number. 

(To Joan)  Remember that fraud?   This other guy played a huge scam on Universal.  They were milking that charge number, remember that?  We played it straight, and we got paid for doing it.
Joan -  Yeah. They paid rather well.

Clay -   Basically, it was a scam being played on Universal, and we kept them from being scammed, to a huge extent.
Joan -  After about a year of doing this sort of thing, we wanted to get back into writing, to get out of there.    

Clay -  Hated it.

Joan -  Anyhow, Mark, the Random House guy, cut out the action patrols from Silent Victory, the submarine patrols, and made a paperback out of that called, “Combat Patrols.” 

Clay -  A mass paperback.  

There’s two different kinds of paperbacks, the quality paperback, which is called a “treatment,” which is like those on the shelf over there.  (points)   And then there’s the mass market paperback.    They had done a trade paperback of Silent Victory and had done a really nice job.  Now they thought it would be ideal to do a mass marketed paperback.  Just cut the hell out of it and boil it down to a bunch of action.

And we did that! 

Joan -  And we did that.  And while Clay was doing that, we ran across this story about submarines sinking the ships on which were survivors of the men who built the bridge on the River Kwai.
Clay -  That was (referenced) in Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan, but only a paragraph.
Joan -  So Clay says to himself, “I wonder if we could find those guys.” 
So that was the beginning of Return From The River Kwai.

Q -  And, 600 some interviews?

Clay – Oh, no.    I went to England.  I went to Australia.  I found all these people, which is a whole other story that I won’t get into.   But while I was in England, you (looks at Joan) interviewed people in San Diego, and out west.  

This was in 1978, about.   And when I went to these places in England, the homes were bombed out and there’s nothing there.   I developed a technique, finding these people by accident, the oldest person on the block, asking, “Do you know so-and-so?”   (“Yeah.”)   “Do you know where they are?”   (“They moved to Kent, or wherever.”)
I was chasing all over and found them, except for London – too urban, neighborhoods changed.     

But, luckily, I met this retired army major who worked at Thames at Six-TV, and that’s like “ABC News at 6.”   In England, it was Thames at Six, and he talked to his producer friend and got me on.   I was the lead thing on the news on Thames at Six.   For about a five-minute segment.   I had on a survivor from somewhere else I had found, and they started off with clips of this movie, Bridge Over The River Kwai, and it got everybody’s attention.   And I appealed to all those survivors from this ship, to please call me at the station so I can find you.

And, Holy Shit!   People got mixed up about what I was talking about.   Thousands of calls are coming in.   It kept everybody on the staff of Thames at Six busy from 6 until about 10 o’clock that night,  making these huge lists of people, and it was phenomenal.  (But) I found everybody.  It was an incredible thing!  
Meanwhile, this movie producer was watching Thames at Six.   He got very intrigued, and later on he contacted us and made a movie for us. 
Anyway, we found our interviews, and I left London and went to Australia.  And having had that experience (in England) I went right away to the newspaper in Sydney.  It turned out the editor was somehow involved with the (army) reserves, and he put a big thing in the paper:  “Blair is looking for these heroes.”   And that got immediate results, and moreover, it got me on Johnny Carson and the Merv Griffin show in Australia, and a couple other radio deals, TV.   And so the next thing you know, everybody’s calling me.   I found everybody!  In one day!

In two days I had all their names and addresses.  I interviewed these people like on an assembly line basis.  I had a room in a hotel and interviewed 9, 10  people straight through the day.

Q -  When you have a story like that so vital to each person because it meant their life, doesn’t everybody want to repeat their story,  their version?  It can become very time consuming?

Clay -  Yes.   Just like you’re doing with me, I would let them tell their own story.  Yes, it was time consuming, but those tapes were the most wonderful.

Joan – Yes they are.  Especially the British ones, because so many were from little coal mining towns, or something.   They were very repressed, sort of private people, and I don’t know how many of them broke down and they cried, probably the first time they ever talked about it.  You can hear their families, their wives, and their children who would be in the room with them, and they had never heard this.  They never heard any of this before. 

Clay -  Just remarkable.  Particularly the British.  The Australians were much more open.  

Joan -  The British.  It was just amazing to listen to those tapes.

Clay -  We came back and put together both books, rather quickly, and just as we were finishing, this movie producer showed up from London.  We were in LA, still, Malibu, and we made a deal with him, and part of the deal was we would write the screenplay, which we did while the book was being processed.  And we worked with this producer for weeks, and then we came up here.   

Q – Was this released as a British film?

Clay -  No.   This book was also a Literary Guild book, and the Military Book Club.   It sold well here.   The movie went ahead.  It took ten years to make the movie, ’88.  And we sort of gave up on the movie.   But we had all our money out of it.   He had a terrible time trying to get it financed, filmed, shooting with cast.  It just went on and on, and he lost his support from different people.  It had nothing to do with us.   But he finally made this damn movie.   And, it’s not a very good movie.
Joan -  You can’t see it in the United States.  It’s a tediously long, boring story.

Clay -  He’s enjoined in the United States.  He’s not been able to release it here.  It’s still in the court. 

Joan -  He sent us a taped video of it.  We’ve seen it, and its really a lousy movie.  
That was that.  Then what did we write?


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