Years ago, when Mike Wallace was still in his eighties, an editor friend asked if I might help the 60 Minutes legend with a memoir he was crafting. (I was supplementing the income from my own books with work as a ghostwriter and co-author.) The project was behind schedule and the editor thought a fresh eye might help break the logjam.
Mike and I met first for an afternoon in his office on West 57th Street, where he set me at ease with a little joke he told at the expense of all the elderly founders who still haunted the place. "If you want to know about what's going on here," he said, "Just listen at the men's room door. We're all in there a lot and none of us can hear, so we all talk loud enough to be heard in the hallway."
After telling me one great journalistic war story after another, Mike began to talk about growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, and attending the University of Michigan. We discussed his parents and his Jewish roots and he confessed to emotional neediness that underpinned his ambition. He spoke readily of his personal problems and crises, including his recurring depression, and the death of his son Peter. His voice and mind were so strong that I forgot that he was an old man. He reminded me by grabbing my arm to steady himself when we went outside together to find a couple of taxis.
For about a month I visited Mike and his assistant, rummaged through his files and spoke with him by phone. We put together a workable outline for his book and agreed that he would finally reveal the more personal elements of his remarkable life, sharing how he felt about the people and issues he had revealed and what he had learned about himself along the way.
When Mike became less available, I figured he was busy with his work for 60 Minutes. One December Sunday he called from home -- the Giants game played in the background, volume up -- to tell me he was going on vacation, and needed to think more deeply about the book. A few days later he rang again from Mexico, where he has gone to escape the cold. In a voice that was surprisingly soft, and shook a bit, Mike asked me if I would mind if he backed away from the project.
"I don't want it to affect our friendship," he said. "But I'm just not that comfortable writing so much about myself," he said. "I mean, I met all these important people and did all these stories, but I always had such excellent producers and assistants. I could show up to interview a world leader or a criminal and they would have things so well prepared anyone could have done it. It wasn't about 'me,' it was about 'us.' Besides, I never was the story. The story was the story. Period."
The respect Mike Wallace reserved for 'the story' showed he was too devoted to traditional journalism to put himself at the center of any report -- even his own memoir -- and the genuine concerned he expressed about how his decision might affect me, made it impossible for me to argue with him. We wished each other well for the holidays and promised to talk again.
Mike Wallace eventually published a book about his life that received mixed reviews in part because he couldn't bring himself to offer a more personal tale. In this confessional age, readers feel cheated if they don't find juicier bits in an autobiography. However the book was true to the spirit of man who was, despite his brash and aggressive television persona, genuinely humble when it came to the story, even if it was the tale of his own life.
Michael D'Antonio his an author and occasional ghost writer. His next book, about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, will be published by St. Martin's Press.