Woody Allen pitched a memoir, publishers weren’t interested

Alexandra Alter and Cara Buckley, The New York Times

Posted at May 03 2019 09:11 AM | Updated as of May 03 2019 11:43 AM

Woody Allen has been largely shunned by Hollywood. Celebrities who once vied for roles in his films now say they regret working with him. Amazon has backed out of a multimovie distribution deal with him.

Now, Allen appears to be losing stature in another quarter of the entertainment industry: publishing.

In the last year, Allen quietly tried to sell a memoir, according to executives at 4 major publishing houses, only to be met with indifference or hard passes. Before the #MeToo movement roared to life, Allen’s memoir would probably have set off a bidding war and commanded 6 or 7 figures, given his cultural status. But with his career all but derailed by resurfaced allegations that he molested his daughter Dylan Farrow nearly three decades ago — allegations that Allen denies and that have left Americans unsure whom to believe — the prospect of publishing his memoir seems to hold little appeal.

Executives at multiple publishing houses said that an agent representing Allen approached their companies about the memoir late last year, but that they made no offers, largely because of the negative publicity that working with Allen may have generated. Some publishers declined to even read the material, which apparently consisted of a full manuscript. The executives said they knew of no other publishers who offered Allen a book deal; if one has, it has been kept tightly under wraps, and the manuscript does not seem to have been widely pitched. Some publishing executives used the word “toxic” when describing the challenges of working with Allen in the current environment, noting that while he remains a significant cultural figure, the commercial risks of releasing a memoir by him were too daunting.

Each of the executives declined to speak on the record, citing an understanding of confidentiality between agents and publishers regarding nascent or unsigned projects.

The writer Daphne Merkin, who has known Allen for a long time, said he had referred to his memoir as a project that he had been working on for a while, and she noted that she had mentioned the book to some editors she knows. Merkin said she hadn’t read the manuscript and wasn’t sure what aspects of his life the book covers or whether he addresses the accusations and the subsequent fallout.

“He’s not one to set the record straight, but presumably, the memoir is his side of things,” she said. “He’s the kind of person who soldiers on, and someone whose work is his nutrient. Whatever vicissitudes he’s been exposed to, I think he keeps his own counsel about how all this affects and doesn’t affect him.”

Queries to Allen’s production company and publicist went unanswered; his producer and sister, Letty Aronson, and filmmaker Robert Weide, who has defended Allen, said they were unaware that Allen had written a memoir.

Allen’s longtime agent, John Burnham of ICM Partners, declined to comment beyond saying, “For the 30 years that I’ve worked with Woody, the standard mantra on anything is, ‘I can’t discuss his business,’” Burnham said.

The tepid response from some publishers marks another blow to Allen’s career and legacy. Allen is locked in a court battle with Amazon. The streaming giant scotched their four-movie deal, which included the now-shelved film “A Rainy Day in New York,” and in response, Allen sued the company for at least $68 million. In a court filing, Amazon cited tone-deaf remarks Allen made about the #MeToo movement, along with public statements from several actors who said they regretted working with him as evidence that it would be impossible to profit from Allen’s work.

The break with Amazon and the lack of interest in his memoir from several major publishers highlight how tenuous his once hallowed position has become. “Personally, I don’t foresee any work in his future,” said Tim Gray, senior vice president and the awards editor at Variety, the entertainment industry trade publication. “However, it’s possible that history will be kinder to Woody Allen than the current moment seems to be.” He added that “Hollywood loves comeback stories; Ingrid Bergman, Charlie Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor were each denounced on the floor of Congress for their private lives, but were eventually welcomed with open arms by Hollywood and the public.”

Allen is known for work inflected with literary and philosophical references, and he has a long track record in publishing. He began his career as a comedy writer. As a teenager, he got a job writing jokes for an advertising agency in New York, and, in the 1960s, he began publishing satirical pieces in The New Yorker. He contributed 44 pieces to the magazine over the decades, and last wrote for them in 2013.

His first book, the humor anthology “Getting Even,” was released in 1971 by Random House, and the publisher put out several more of his books, including “Without Feathers” and “Side Effects.” Even when much of the material was recycled, his books often found an eager, if not enormous, audience. (His 2007 humor collection, “Mere Anarchy,” sold more than 40,000 copies in print, according to NPD BookScan.)

Critics were not always kind. Reviewing “Mere Anarchy,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that “he has sustained a writing style that remains impervious to the changing world around him” and added that “the best of Allen’s old pieces outshine the new work.” A reviewer for The Guardian groused that “even in the smallest doses, these lazy riffs and lame parodies do more to annoy than entertain.”

Although several biographers have tackled Allen as a subject, he has never published a straightforward memoir. In 2003, Allen was close to a deal to sell a memoir to Penguin for about $3 million, but Allen held out for more money. “For this I want a lot of money. The ball is in your court,” Allen wrote in a letter to his agent that was sent around as a proposal.

But these days, publishers are skittish about working with authors accused of sexual misconduct — for pragmatic reasons as much as ethical ones. Authors facing harassment allegations have been dropped by their agents, their finished books pulped, literary awards revoked and their books pulled from store shelves. Boycotts by readers and booksellers often snowball to envelop publishers as well.

Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Allen and his former girlfriend, Mia Farrow, accused Allen of inappropriately touching her in 1992, when she was 7. Investigators found no evidence of sexual abuse. But Dylan Farrow has stood firm by her allegations, and her family remains divided, with her mother and her brother Ronan Farrow supporting her, and her brother Moses Farrow defending his father.

She reiterated them in opinion pieces in 2014 and 2017 and in a televised interview in 2018 that unleashed fresh waves of outrage against Allen. Theater adaptations of Allen’s film “Bullets Over Broadway” were canceled, and actors, including Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Michael Caine and Colin Firth, expressed remorse at having worked with him. Several stars of the now-shelved “A Rainy Day in New York,” including Timothée Chalamet, said they would donate their proceeds from the film to charity.

Allen is still celebrated in some corners. Actress Anjelica Huston, who has appeared in two of his films, told Vulture she would work with him again “in a second.” Similarly, Spanish actor Javier Bardem lamented the “public lynching” of the filmmaker and said he would work with him “tomorrow morning” if asked. The Spanish production company MediaPro continues to collaborate with Allen on his newest film. A MediaPro spokeswoman said that the untitled project is scheduled to start shooting in July in northern Basque Country, and that the cast was being assembled. She had no further details.

Allen, an accomplished clarinetist, also still has music fans. In June, he has an eight-city tour planned for Europe with the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band, after their weekly residency this spring in New York at the Carlyle Hotel. Those performances, which cost $165 per person, with a $75 prix fixe menu, were nearly sold out.

2019 New York Times News Service