My recent book Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation has a foreword written by Jay Leno. Jay is a well known "car guy" and it seems quite fitting that he would contribute to a book written about such an iconic car. I am from Detroit. While many of Jay's cars were built near where I grew up, he and I existed in different worlds up until a few years ago. How did he wind up writing the foreword to my book?
In 2006 I wrote a book about the Italian Hall disaster of Calumet, Michigan. There, more than six dozen people died in a stampede when someone falsely yelled "Fire!" in a crowded theater during a Christmas party. The book was called, Death's Door: The Truth Behind Michigan's Largest Mass Murder, and the cover was befitting such a somber event: It was a stark, sepia-toned image of the staircase where the victims were trapped, with a ghostlike outline of a tombstone cast upon the stairs.
An advertisement in a small newspaper called the book "A great holiday gift!" Someone cut the ad out and mailed it to the Tonight Show, for Jay Leno's "Headlines" segment. ("Headlines" features submissions by viewers of unintentionally funny, often small-town newspaper headlines. "Texans support death penalty, but only for the guilty." "Cops to get hard on sex shop rip-offs.") One morning -- around the holidays -- my phone began ringing. "You were on the Tonight Show last night!" Of course, I wasn't anywhere near the Tonight Show the night before but I soon figured it out.
Jay had held up the ad for my book with the prominent dark cover and said, "Death's Door. What a great holiday gift idea. Let's get this for grandma!"
What's the saying about lemons and lemonade? I took a copy of the book and gift-wrapped it with the gaudiest holiday wrapping I could find and stuck a huge bow on it. I put a tag on the front: "Merry Christmas Jay!"
I had previously written a manuscript about the Chrysler turbine car but had run into nothing but resistance from the publishing world with it. "It's a car book," I heard over and over again as agents and publishers repeatedly told me, "Car books don't sell." I had shelved the project and gone on to write Death's Door. Knowing that Jay is a car guy, I included a copy of the manuscript with a note that said, "I think you'll enjoy this one a little more than Death's Door." I bundled it up and shipped it off.
A few weeks later, my secretary buzzed me. "There's a guy on the phone who says he's Jay Leno." I have friends who routinely claim to be famous people but I knew this was real: I hadn't told anyone about my Christmas package to Jay.
I got on the phone and sure enough, it was him. He thanked me for the book and the manuscript and told me I ought to get the turbine car book published. When I told him about the resistance to the idea I'd gotten so far, he sounded disappointed. Still, I got to tell all my friends I'd spoken with Jay Leno. How cool is that?
A year or so later, Jay acquired a Chrysler turbine car. There are only nine of them left in the world and even fewer mechanics around who know how to work on them. I had interviewed one of them in depth for my book. Jay called and asked me if I could get him in touch with the man, named Bill Carry. I got the two of them together and later Jay called me to thank me for the help. "If you're ever in California, stop by my garage and I'll let you drive the car."
Although I had gone and looked at a couple of the turbine cars, I had never driven one. I made arrangements to be in California as soon as I could get there and one Saturday morning a few weeks later, Jay Leno and I were zipping around the streets of Burbank in his turbine car. He even let me drive it. After we got back to his garage, he again commented on how I ought to get the turbine car book published. This time he added, "If it would help, I'd be happy to write a foreword for you." Jay has written forewords for a few other car books and I knew something like that might help. When I got back to Detroit I started contacting agents and I very quickly had one who thought he could sell the book -- with the foreword by Jay Leno.
The book came out in October 2010; that's Bill Carry on the cover. The book has gone into a second printing. Jay did a feature for his website's "Book Club."
It also did particularly well around the holidays. Turns out it makes a great holiday gift.
Follow Steve Lehto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stevelehto