Update: On Dec. 18, 2017, the New York Times reported that Sheila Nevins is exiting HBO after 38 years. The publication of her biography was therefore well-timed, positioning her – as with many famous people and industry leaders – for a new career in literature. “HBO is in my DNA and I will always consider it to be my alma mater,” said Nevins. Earlier, on Dec. 15, 2017, HBO had confirmed that Nevins is leaving, but noted that she is not retiring. Nevins (78 years old) stated to the New York Times, “There’s something exciting about leaving a job. I can’t explain it. I have deprived my life of a life. All I did was work. […]I was, like, born at HBO and I don’t have to die there. If I stayed any longer, I probably would have died at my desk. I just regret that there’s so little time left.”
Review of You Don’t Look Your Age
(Go here to read Nevins’s comments on my review of her book.)
With reference to the title of her new biography, Sheila Nevins does not look her age, which is 78 years. When I saw her interview with Charlie Rose last Friday on PBS, I was struck by how beautiful she is, in the same class of timeless good looks as Elon Musk’s mother, Maye Musk (69), and Carmen Dell’Orefice (85) who are both (still) models. She was also funny, self-deprecating, and sharp as a blade, so I immediately ordered her new book, You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairy Tales, published two days ago. It is a very short, slight production and, contrary to Nevins’ stated intent, reveals only the well-disguised, carefully curated thoughts and back-stories that Nevins, who has spent her career behind the scenes as a producer of documentaries for HBO, wants to reveal. The chapters stop on p. 235 of 250 (e-book version) but the Acknowledgements go on for another seven pages, with names arranged alphabetically, there are that many people to thank. I read the whole thing in two hours, since many chapters are “poems” of a few pages long (the quote marks are intentional since they are in free verse or spaced prose form and so very close to prose as to be virtually indistinguishable). There is only one illustration, in a chapter about Nevins’ Great-Aunt Celia who died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. The subjects that she does introduce are what one could expect from a woman of her age and with her career. It is not a tell-all emotional outpouring or gut-spilling disclosure. It is not a complete biography or autobiography (it’s classified as “Women’s Biography” on Amazon and I’d call it a memoir) and on the Copyright page it has a Fiction Disclaimer. Yet, in the Foreword, Why She Wrote When She Wrote, Nevins states:
“Why a book of true and sad and sometimes silly essays?…All of these years, the subjects in my films have given me their stories. Now it’s my turn. I am now at that age where I feel as if I can say what I want; I have no reason to hold back. So, finally, here are my stories.”
The very next line reads “Is this what it feels like to spill it all out?”, and, contrary to her guarded assertion, the book is a contradiction of her stated intent. I came to the conclusion that the format and writing style, as well as the “Fairy Tales” in the title, are purposely used as distancing techniques and to prevent a “spilling of the guts”. Many of the chapters are written as 3rd person short anecdotes, brief and with a sharp ending, like Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults. And then there is the free verse, which I found more prosaic than poetic, even though some are about subjects that she is passionate about, like her friend Larry Kramer. And there are not many chapters where she writes as “I” and that are truly revealing, without hiding behind humour. So, “true”, mostly/probably; “sad”, sometimes; and “silly”, a bit. But “no holding back”? I don’t think so.
(Above: What bone structure – what a profile! I’d give anything to look like her when I get to my seventies! I don’t want to keep harping on her good looks, but she brings it up a few times in the book.)
Two chapters that are quite revealing and seem closer to the bone are The Giant Named Tourette’s, which is about the Tourette’s Syndrome with which her son, David, was diagnosed, and another is Mentor Not, in which she describes in free verse how her hatred of her boyfriend’s mother, who rejected her, drove her to succeed.
“Every trophy was for her.
Every yes to me was a slap in her face.
It said, “I was worthy of your son.”
I would win for her.
I received my prizes in retribution.
Die, lady, die,
Stick your finger in your eye,
Tell your son that it was I
Feast your loss in my clear brown eyes.” (p.199)
Unfortunately, the last four lines is about as good as Nevins’ use of rhyme scheme or poetical metaphor gets. The only way I knew this chapter is more significant than the others is because she and Charlie Rose discussed it. The only reason that I know the chapter about her son is significant is because she ends it with, “David let me write this. I asked him if I could. Thanks, David.” (p.63), and because it is more serious in tone than most of the other chapters – and of course, it is in the 1st person.
As a woman who has worked most of my life in male-dominated industries, Mining and IT, some of what she wrote about the role of women in the workplace, and the glass ceiling, resonated with me. Advice to Women in a Male-Dominated Workplace and From Cosmo to Ms. were witty chapters, and I suppose, true to life. Even so, this is not a light version of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – or any other handbook for professional women, current or historical. It is the well-disguised, very select, very held-in thoughts and ideas of Sheila Nevins whose particular problem in her career has been that she is very beautiful and also extremely smart, educated and accomplished.
I can think of tens of biographies and autobiographies of famous women that have given more insight into the minds of their subjects than this book. But I guess she is famous and beautiful enough, especially in the rarefied worlds of New York politics and entertainment, that any morsel of self-expression is highly valued. Or perhaps this sort of “misdirection” is a New York thing. Perhaps they call it “being discreet”. Or perhaps she intended the reader to reread it often and give it much more thought – as indicated by the broken, and hence inscrutable, mirror on the cover of the book.
A few times in the book I had to smile, but mostly I was bothered that it is just not very deep writing. This book could have been so much more, in every respect, from the bland cover design to the poetry, and the editing. The editors should have picked up on her repeated use of the word “mothy” (a surprisingly obscure word) and the typo “No matter how many dime-store pairs of glasses I’ve bought lo [sic] these many years…” (on p.223) – etc., etc. If she had been anyone else, would Macmillan US have published this? I have my doubts.
About the author
Sheila Nevins, born April 6, 1939, is the woman behind such documentaries as The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, both of which are startlingly revealing and deep – like most of the other documentaries she has produced. She is the President of HBO Documentary Films. She has produced over one thousand documentary films for HBO and is one of the most influential people in documentary filmmaking. She has worked on productions that have been recognized with over 65 Primetime Emmy Awards, 46 Peabody Awards, and 26 Academy Awards. Nevins has won 32 individual Primetime Emmy Awards, more than any other person.