Nobody wants to talk about death and yet … there was writer Bill Zehme two weeks ago in his home awaiting words about life and death — his life and death.
The words would come from his doctor, one of the many doctors with whom Zehme, one of the most successful and influential magazine writers and biographers of his generation, has spent time with over the past two years and more as he battled against the sort of cancer that is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women in the U.S., the American Cancer Society estimating that 49,190 people will die from the disease this year. Would Zehme be among them?
"We have to just sit and wait right now," he said.
The day before, Zehme had a blood test, and the results would be known in minutes. They would go from his doctor via telephone to Zehme's sister, Betsy Archer, who has been at his side throughout this long slog — "my sunshine bomb," Zehme calls her. Betsy would then text him the news, good or bad. There was no in between.
"I can't take a phone call. This is best. But I am not allowing myself to be terrified," he said.
At 2:13 p.m. his phone buzzed. He took a deep breath. He picked it up and began to read the words on the screen. It was spring-sunny outside. I could hear birds chirp in the trees, a car honk, and, as Zehme read, it was easy to recall the time I saw him before he got sick, when he walked into Twin Anchors restaurant one October night in 2013. He was all smiles.
With his longtime friend, producer John Davies, he had just signed a deal with NBC for a miniseries about the life of Johnny Carson that would use the book he was working on as source material.
Zehme had been granted the only Carson interview after the late-night legend's 1992 retirement from the "Tonight Show." That became, a decade later, an Esquire magazine story that so pleased Carson that he wrote Zehme a note thanking him. The note hangs framed on the wall of Zehme's house.
The deal for a book came in 2005. It was the latest triumph in a remarkable career. There are few, if any, writers who understood the late-night television landscape as well as Zehme did. He had written about David Letterman, Jay Leno and Regis Philbin, collaborating on books with the latter two.
He also knew and loved the world of show business, intimately. Indeed, Frank Sinatra had not cooperated with a member of the print media for 25 years before exchanging stunningly honest and candid correspondences with Zehme in the mid-1990s. These were among the last interviews before the singer's death, and the basis of Zehme's best-selling 1997 book, "The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'."
He had written other books, the best being "Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman," and dabbled in TV as an on-camera personality. He had written many dozens of magazine stories about such figures as Tom Hanks, Hugh Hefner, Howard Stern, Woody Allen and Madonna that appeared in Playboy, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stoneand other national publications. An Esquire piece about former Tribune columnist Bob Greene won him the 2004 National Magazine Award for Profile Writing. His writing is distinctive and stylish, easy to admire and all but impossible to imitate. His insights are bold and compelling.
The Carson book was tentatively titled "Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait" and he started to work on it … and work on it and work on it.
"It was taking forever," he'd told me, more than seven years into it. "I entered 'Johnny World,' and one thing would lead to another, one person to another."
The money Zehme had received as an advance against royalties vanished, and he could not replenish his bank account because he could not accept other writing assignments in the midst of researching and interviewing for the Carson book. He scrimped. He borrowed.
When salvation came with that NBC deal, he celebrated, though he did so with "bitters and soda," his drink of choice since giving up booze more than a decade before.
"A lot of people in 'Johnny World' have been rooting for me, asking 'When? When?' " Zehme said at the time. "Now there is an answer: Very soon."
So, Zehme gathered his Carson materials — not all of them, mind you, because that would have necessitated renting a truck, but just the most pertinent files and recordings — and drove up to a cabin in Door County. That is where he planned to spend the next weeks getting back on track to finishing the damn thing.
Since he was a kid growing up here, he had lived with a troublesome stomach, a disorderly digestive system. "But things started to get really bad up there," he recalled as he waited for word from Betsy. Troublesome became painful and worrisome.
He'd driven back to Chicago. He did not have health insurance and had not seen a doctor in five years. He knew a friend whose husband was a doctor and asked if he might conduct an examination as a favor. This doctor was concerned enough after that exam that he sent Zehme to a medical colleague who conducted more thorough tests. "This looks bad," that doctor said, and after the test results were completed two days later the doctor called and said, "You have stage-four colorectal cancer and we are going to treat and cure this."
That call came Dec. 13, 2013, and on Christmas Eve Zehme received his first chemotherapy treatment at St. Joseph Hospital on the North Side. He was 55 years old.
"I refused to go online to research this," he says now. "I just knew that would open up a horrible can of worms. At the time I didn't even know how many stages there were. Five stages? Ten stages? I just decided to stay stupid, but I was never scared because I wouldn't allow myself to be. I trusted my doctors."
He first called his sister and his father. "I knew that something was wrong," said his sister, eight years younger than Bill and recently retired from the family floral business. "He had lost so much weight even before the diagnosis. We always talked a few times a week, but when my husband and I saw him we knew this was trouble and I knew that I was going to become his cheerleader."
Zehme called a few of his closest friends. He did not spread the news, and the friends he called, for the most part, respected his privacy.
"The last thing I wanted was people bopping into my hospital room to see how I was," he said. "I know that some people cried when they found out about my situation but I just didn't have the energy to be a caretaker. I apologize to those people who reached out to me. I am supremely touched that they cared but I didn't want to be in the business of having to give people updates on my condition. I had to keep my eye on the ball."
He would be in the hospital for the next five months. "I went in for the cancer and stayed for the view," he said. His hospital room 1045 overlooked Lincoln Park and the lake beyond.
His adult daughter Lucy, from a long-ago marriage, came for visits from California. His father, Bob, who will turn 90 in June, would come to his hospital room and sit quietly. He had "a lot of talks with my mom on the other side," he said about his mother, Suzanne, who died in January 2005. His sister was ever there, and her husband, Bill Archer, then a registered nurse in training, paid close medical attention throughout.
"I was scared," Betsy said. "But I did find comfort in online discussion boards. There was such hope there."
Most of Zehme's time was spent "in quiet contemplation" (he did not turn on the room's television for more than a month) and with doctors and nurses who, he said, "were wonderful at maintaining certain buoyancy." There was surgery to remove two parts of his liver. There was later surgery to remove his colon. There was chemotherapy and radiation. Other complications came, "one terrible thing after another, one terrifying thing after another," he said. "But I was, I suppose, delusionally hopeful throughout this harrowing experience. I guess I was following that Sinatra principle. He used to say, 'You gotta keep moving.'"
He would leave the hospital in August of 2014. His chemotherapy treatments continued every two weeks for almost another six months. He did not lose his hair but, though he was never heavy, he would lose some 70 pounds and all of his energy. Never wealthy, what money he had withered away. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) helped some, and without that he would be deeper in debt than he is now, which, he said, is very, very deep. Some friends and family raised a little money to help him.
"The whole time he was in the hospital he was, and I know it's a strange word to use, a joy," Betsy said. "He never lost his wit or his sense of humor. He charmed the doctors and nurses."
He made his first appearance in public in early November 2014, when he attended with his friend, the artist Richard Hull, a Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "King Lear." He had helped the play's director, Barbara Gaines, secure the rights to some Sinatra tunes, which she very effectively employed in the show. Zehme looked pale and gaunt and he walked as gingerly as a man can walk, as if his next step might send him tumbling to the ground.
By then the NBC miniseries deal had evaporated. He was about to lose the home in Roscoe Village where he had lived for 20 years. With the help of his great friend, the actress Jen Engstrom, he eventually found a new place to rent in the Avondale neighborhood.
She helped him move into this multilevel townhouse. It is cozy and warm and a marvelous mess, filled with books, papers, photos, art work, tape recordings, a carousel horse and all the other stuff accumulated (and none discarded) during his busy life at the hot center of show business. It is a treasure trove, an amazing do-it-yourself museum, a haunted house.
"It looks like the movie set made for a mad professor of popular culture," Zehme said, adding that there is more in the garage and a lot more in a nearby storage facility. Still more, some special Sinatra-related items, are in safekeeping at a local art gallery.
In this home he began to feel better, if "hugely disoriented." He started to take walks around the neighborhood without the aid of a walker or a cane. He talked to friends on the phone but he didn't want visitors. "I was still climbing out of a pit," he says. "Trying to get over the stigma that I was damaged goods."
Last New Year's Eve, he "gathered all my steam and gumption" to be a guest on a local morning television program to talk about the news that full episodes of Carson's original "Tonight Show" would begin airing on digital channel Antenna TV.
That same topic drew him a couple of weeks later to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, where he sat on a panel between comic Tom Dreesen and bandleader Doc Severinsen.
He talked on a friend's podcast and in February he sat down with a writer from Esquire for a story about some of his classic late-night TV profiles over the years. He met a friend or two for dinner at Twin Anchors.
And then Bill Zehme jumped back into print, albeit online: In the wake of the March 16 death of Frank Sinatra Jr., Zehme released a story, never before published, that he had written in 1984. It was an interview with Sinatra Jr.
In it he wrote: "Here lies a lost portrait of one wee-small Chicago saloon evening …. This was my first encounter with Frank Jr., whom I'd only get to know better across the decades thereafter, by way of working closely with the Sinatra family. … We find him at age 41, headlining at a tiny joint in a Chicago Holiday Inn."
While waiting for the phone to buzz we talked about that story. "Interesting that I started with 'here lies,' " he said. "Think there's some sinister symbolism in that?"
Zehme has always been a charming and ebullient man and none of that seems to have diminished during his ordeal. He does have trouble sleeping, but there is no woe-is-me in him as he talked about old mutual friends, past good times shared and then started plowing through a large box filled with cassette tapes. They were tapes of long-ago interviews with such stars as Cindy Crawford, Rod Stewart, Johnny Depp ("Before he turned British," Zehme said) and Sharon Stone. "This was when she forced me to get a pedicure with her," he said, laughing. "One thing I have realized through all of this is that you better laugh every day of your life."
And then the phone buzzed and he read what was on the screen: "Yay! CEA is well within normal range. A little up, but ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT!! Dr. is very happy with your progress & can't see anything to be concerned about! XOXO."
Zehme smiled. The cancer was gone. But he knows there will be more tests to come, forever. He knows he will coexist with the inconveniences of no longer having a colon. He knows he must take a dozen pills a day to manage pain and depression. He knows that as a result of his surgeries and treatments he now suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disease that, as Zehme puts it, "Makes my fingertips feel like they are on fire and my feet feel like they are filled with bees." He knows he must reconnect with friends, earn a living, write …
"I feel like only now am I rising from the nearly dead," he said.
Betsy had sent the text message. "As horrible as it was, I am grateful to have shared this journey with him," she said later. "It has changed my life. I hope he knows that."
He does know that museum curators and art dealers have expressed interest in purchasing his vast collection of stuff. He knows his New York publisher is still eager to have him finish that Carson book and he wants to do that. He knows others in the book business have been talking to him about writing a more personal story too.
He is not sure about getting personal because he is just beginning to process all that has happened to him. Physically he is mended; the cancer is gone. But psychological, intellectual and emotional roads are yet to be traveled.
"I have an aversion to recovery memoirs and I have always trained my senses on others, not myself," he said. "I didn't take notes while I was going through this. But part of my brain is coming back and I think maybe there are people who want to know about this sort of thing, about beating cancer. Still, do I want to crawl back in? It was a very dark place."
He knows he is alive and is now likely to be so for … well, one never knows. And on this sunny spring afternoon he knows that's a pretty good deal.
"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9 to 11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.
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