CHATHAM–The eye of the world is on writer Peter Biskind, in the wake of his latest book, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (Simon & Schuster, 2010), an excerpt of which was published this month in Vanity Fair, where Biskind is a contributing editor. He was grinning in a shaft of winter sunlight this week, over a scone and a cup of coffee, a few days after his book signing at The Chatham Bookstore on Main Street. Peter Biskind is not a smiley guy, but when he does crack up, you see a window into a clear, frank, sunny disposition, right down to the gap between his teeth.
Author of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, and several other books that investigate the nitty-gritty of Hollywood’s impact on American culture, Mr. Biskind is a full-time resident of Columbia County, who first came hunting for a country place for summers and weekends. “But the more I came up here,” he said, “the more I liked it.” When he left the masthead of Premiere magazine, where he was managing editor, and realized there was no longer a necessity to be in the city full time, he moved his family to a big house in East Chatham. Now he and his wife, Elizabeth Hess, also an author, live and work in Spencertown, typing away in his and hers offices.
Mr. Biskind didn’t start out to be a writer, but a professor, and he could easily pass for a professor today. Raised in New York City, he studied at Swarthmore and Yale, and taught for a year at the University of Hartford, when he thought he was going to be drafted into the Vietnam War. He would drive into the city to see films like “8 ½,” and found himself teaching Antonioni’s Blow Up in his class on the novel. “Everybody was so excited about film–it pervaded the culture,” he says. He arrived in California in the late ’60s to teach English Lit at UC Santa Barbara, where the anti-war movement was raging. When his students set fire to a nearby Bank of America, Mr. Biskind was there with a camera, creating a documentary, “Don’t Bank on America.” He gave three hundred “A”s to his freshman English students, and received his walking papers in return.
Devoting himself to making left-wing documentaries, Mr. Biskind commuted to film labs in LA. ”I was so political, and I had such contempt for Hollywood movies, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to get into Hollywood or write scripts,” he says. After the draft ended and the anti-war movement died down, and he was unable to raise money to finance his career as a filmmaker, he started to write about film. An article on protest documentaries for The New York Times, and several more in-depth pieces for Rolling Stone, led to work on a string of left-wing and film magazines, crowned with his position at Premiere. “My love of politics certainly contributed to the fact that I was always anti-establishment, that I was interested in independent filmmakers, in the auteurs who fought the studio system,” he says. He wrote many articles about, and ultimately became friends with, Beatty, whose politics and political involvement he admired.
“Warren Beatty is a very interesting person,” Mr. Biskind concludes. “Warren says with movies, it’s 90% casting. I think with nonfiction books, the choice of the subject is 90% of the book.” Even in books, in which the author has much more freedom to dig out the real story compared to celebrity magazine journalism, Mr. Biskind says “There is that: You’ll never have lunch in this town again! factor… so you always feel like you only get the tip of the iceberg.”
Already famous for “the number,” Mr. Biskind’s estimate of Beatty’s notoriously prolific romantic conquests, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America is as compulsively edible as a box of Valentine chocolates. Peter Biskind grins. “That famous Woody Allen line about wanting to be reborn as Warren Beatty’s finger tips? That about sums it up.”