05/08/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Word Man who Won Oscars

David Brown book covers
In the spring of 2002 I found myself sailing solo on the Queen Elizabeth 2 from Southampton, England, to New York City, having invited Levenger customers on an author's cruise. The host of the dining room assigned me to a five-person table in the corner--a table that would be my life for six days, and also, as it turned out, change my life.

A mother and daughter were already at the table when I walked up. The unassuming older woman introduced herself as Phyllis. Trying to be polite, I asked, "Oh, are you one of the authors?"

"Yes, I write under the name P.D. James."

My embarrassment at not recognizing the famous author didn't have a chance to linger because right then a couple arrived tableside. It was Helen Gurley Brown and her husband.

Of course everyone knew Helen Gurley Brown, the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, and the author of Sex and the Single Girl, but who was her husband--this man with the ordinary name--David Brown?

That week, having all our dinners and most of our lunches together was one of the most exhilarating weeks I've had. I did have enough sense to keep my mouth shut for the most part, while soaking in the banter between the worldly Browns and P.D. James.

It didn't take long for me to repair my ignorance about this debonair man with the common name who always wore a tie: David Brown produced some of the most notable movies to come out of Hollywood.

By the time we arrived with the sunrise in New York harbor six days later, the Browns and I were promising to stay in touch, which we did over occasional meals in New York. Happily, my family got to meet them.

Steve_webAfter one particular lunch, the Browns graciously invited us to their Central Park penthouse, where David regaled our sons with stories of his youth, including his trip by banana boat through the Panama Canal on his way to begin college at Stanford.

As David talked, I looked around the elegant space, replete with memorabilia. I was proud to see an old Levenger paperweight with a Wilson Mizner quote engraved in it: "If you steal from one author it's plagiarism; if you steal from many it's research." On top of the mantle stood an Oscar.

From New York stories to Hollywood blockbusters

David's first jobs were in magazine writing and editing, until he was lured from New York to Hollywood to head the story department at Twentieth Century Fox.

Even though his friend, the writer John O'Hara, told him "you are not enough of a son of a bitch" to head a Hollywood studio, this didn't stop David from producing The Sting, Driving Miss Daisy, Chocolat, MacArthur, Cocoon and A Few Good Men, among many other films.

In the 1970s David had the good sixth sense to take a chance on a young, relatively unknown director to film a script about a shark attack. The director's name was Steven Spielberg. The movie was Jaws.

The most important job of a movie producer, David said, is to pick the director, to whom he surrenders utterly. After that, it's to provide lunch.

David had his share of failures in Hollywood, too. He told how he lost so much money for Fox on Cleopatra that "never was so much money given to so few for so little," and how, to cover the loss, Twentieth Century Fox had to sell its entire 262-acre studio lot-- "one of the richest parcels of urban real estate in the world, for a piddling fifty-five million dollars."

The poet at the producer's table

David once joked that he and Helen had had their chance to retire but missed it. In his Brown's Guide to the Good Life, one of three memoirs, he wrote: "I'll keep working if they let me. Retirement is a drag. Work is the best preventative against Alzheimer's disease and premature death. (All death is premature in my opinion.)"

David did work until the very end, at the ripe young age of 93. The last time I spoke to him, his office suggested I call him at home. He was gracious, letting me know he wasn't taking on too many new projects. He died a few months later.

David was first and always a man who loved words. One evening during our trip on the QE2, he reminisced about a forgotten book of poetry that had been assigned to him back in the 1930s at Stanford. Of course, I hadn't heard of it, but I wrote it down. It was Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing by Samuel Hoffenstein.

After the crossing, I found a copy online--a 1928 book, published by Liveright. Long out of print, the old copy that arrived in the mail had been discarded from the Greenburgh Public Library in Elmsford, New York.
Click to see inside photos.

The last poem in the book is called "Epilogue":

And will you say the moon has not her eyes?
And will you say the trees have not their speech?
And will you call the sterile difference wise?
And will you, then, the dead subtraction teach,
And say to youth and those remembering youth,
These ashes are the one and only truth?

I dedicate these words to a forever young and gracious man, my friend David Brown (1916 - 2010).

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