Whipping boy to the stars

Celebrity biographer Frank Sanello suffers the wrath of Sharon Stone, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy and -- worst of all -- their lawyers.


Catherine Seipp
November 4, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

| Uh-oh. I see that my old pal, celebrity biographer Frank Sanello, is in trouble again -- this time not with the celebrity in question, Sharon Stone, but with Sharon Stone's lawyer. "I didn't think you could defame a lawyer ... that's like a Hun suing for invasion of privacy," Frank says in a press release he wrote a couple of weeks ago (and faxed to me for my opinion) but later thought better about actually releasing.

I liked its lead, though: "Luckless celebrity biographer Frank Sanello can't get a break ..." And I'll tell you, I've always liked Frank. When he sees me searching the locker coin return slots for forgotten quarters at the Academy library of motion picture history, he rarely says a word. He's a good kick-boxer and has offered to teach me handy shortcuts to killing someone with just one kick. In his spare time he teaches tae kwon do to AIDS patients fearful of gay-bashers. He constantly buys presents for neighborhood children and tries to find homes for abandoned pets (he has three dogs and three cats).

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Anyway, according to his book, "Naked Instinct: The Unauthorized Biography of Sharon Stone" (published last summer by Carol Publishing Group's Birch Lane imprint), on New Year's Eve, 1996, Frank was with 10 people having dinner at a restaurant on the West Side. At the table was William Skrzyniarz, of Rosenfeld, Meyer, Susman -- the Beverly Hills entertainment law firm that represents the actress. Frank introduced himself as a writer working on Stone's biography.

Then, as he recounts the event in his book, "Skrzyniarz told me after two bottles of Merlot ... 'When Sharon wants someone, she rents a hotel room and tells him exactly when and where to show up. She makes it clear it's a one-time opportunity, take it or leave it. She's made the move on some major names.' Skrzyniarz became circumspect when I asked him to name names."

Why would any attorney be so loose-lipped about a client? According to one litigator familiar with this case, lawyers can be terrible gossips. In fact, this attorney said, during the O.J. Simpson trial, the defense team was constantly having to tell their people to stop leaking things to the press.

I often happen upon Frank when I'm doing research at the Academy library near Beverly Hills. He's a familiar figure there in his tank top and pumped-up, suitable-for-gay-bar-hopping physique, surrounded by piles of yellowing newspaper clips, tapping away at his laptop. There's a story behind the stereotype, though. One night a few years ago I ran into Frank after a screening of some gangster film, which had put him in a reminiscent mood.

He remembered how, when he was a boy growing up just outside of Chicago, a pathetic-looking, out-of-work hit man approached his father in a restaurant, hat in hand.

"Mr. Sanello," the man asked, "you got any work for me?"

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"Sorry," said Sanello pere. "Times are tough."

"Frank," I said, "why was that man talking to your father?"

"Oh, I thought I told you. My father was a prizefighter during the Depression. But he wasn't able to make a living at that, so he became the chief bodyguard for the head of the Irish mafia in Joliet, a suburb of Chicago. He was also the bagman." So Frank has many happy memories of being out with his father and seeing every policeman they passed greet them with a big wave and a smile: "Hi, Mr. Sanello! How are you?" It was kind of a Pavlovian response, because they were so used to associating the elder Sanello with money.

"My father was the sweetest guy," Frank continued. "And the most masculine man I ever knew. He was so secure that he never minded I didn't like sports."

Frank writes about silly things but he has a solid education. He was an English major at the University of Chicago and holds an MFA in film from UCLA. After writing seven unproduced screenplays, he turned to entertainment journalism, working for the Los Angeles Daily News (where we met in the early '80s) and UPI before becoming a celebrity chronicler. "My publisher says Jimmy Stewart's looking bad," he told me busily when I ran into him at the library a few months before the actor's death. "So they've assigned me a new book: 'It Was a Wonderful Life.'"

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The Stewart biography, a $5.99 Pinnacle paperback from Kensington Publishing, was of course a valentine. (Disappointingly, its title ended up simply, "Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life.") But luckless celebrity biographer that he is, even that job got Frank in hot water. He had faxed a series of questions about her father to Stewart's daughter, anthropology professor Kelly Stewart Harcourt, and was so impressed with her eloquent answers that he decided to lump them together as an afterword -- which the publisher prominently promoted on the cover.

Because of the ensuing letter of complaint from Stewart's estate, Frank promised to ask his publisher to remove the afterword from all subsequent printings of the book. (An easy promise to make, since the first printing was a rather ambitious 200,000 copies, and there probably won't be any subsequent printings.) "I feel terrible that I've offended Dr. Harcourt," Frank says. "She was kindness itself."

The unauthorized celebrity biographer's road is not an easy one. Frank has published half-a-dozen of these books in three years, and they typically involve some sort of scrape with publicists and/or lawyers. His 1994 biography of Tom Cruise concluded that, contrary to urban legend, Cruise is not gay -- gay fans just like to imagine that the actor is. But even before he'd begun asking around about this taboo topic, Frank and his then-publisher, HarperCollins, got a stern letter from Cruise's lawyer, Bert Fields. Within days, HarperCollins canceled Frank's contract.

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The Cruise bio was later published by Taylor Publishing of Dallas, best known for its high school yearbooks. "So you can see how far I'd fallen," Frank notes ruefully.

That was a hard blow because about a year earlier, Geena Davis had filed a $2 million lawsuit against Frank as a result of a Woman's World magazine profile he'd written about the actress. Frank remembers this as "My Nightmare, Part One." The case was eventually settled out of court, but he lost six months of work. The Woman's World piece was highly complimentary, but the magazine had decided to make one of the story's quotes -- "I want to have a baby" -- into a big, screaming headline.

"She claimed she never said it," Frank says. "But why would I make up something as lame as that?" He thinks the problem was that Woman's World had held the article for months, and by the time it appeared, Davis had moved on from the boyfriend she allegedly was thinking of having a baby with to a new one. "I think she had to sue to prove her true love to him," Frank theorizes.

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Things started looking up when Eddie Murphy picked up that transvestite streetwalker last May. It was great advance publicity for Frank's next unauthorized bio, "Eddie Murphy: The Life and Times of a Comic on the Edge," due out in December from Birch Lane. The publisher balked at using one of Frank's best anecdotes, in which a transvestite porn star named Geoff Gann (aka "Karen Dior") recounts how he and Murphy had sex several years ago in Murphy's limousine. Fortunately, Frank was able to produce a polygraph test that indicated that Gann (whom Frank has known for about 10 years) was telling the truth, so the episode is included.

So why does someone become a celebrity biographer? (Other than the simple factor of money, of course.) "Well, writing about superstars is a dirty job," Frank says, paraphrasing an old Burt Reynolds line, "but somebody's got to do it."


Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Catherine Seipp

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