France had two Dumases, England three Brontës, and America has the four writing Wallaces—Irving, wife Sylvia, son David and daughter Amy. When they are all at work, they churn out an estimated 5,750 words a day, for which publishers have shown a willingness to pay exorbitant amounts.
The current Wallace best-seller is The People’s Almanac. Co-edited by Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky (who took the ancestral name), the book is an arbitrary assortment of information on such things as the world’s first crossword puzzle and the Academy Awards. It brought a $110,000 advance from Doubleday and has sold 750,000 copies. A second edition is already in the works for 1978.
This month Irving’s 10th novel, The R Document, about the FBI taking over the country, is being published by Simon and Schuster as part of a four-book, $2 million contract. The movie sale to United Artists was worth $250,000, and Paul Newman is set to star.
Sylvia Wallace’s first novel, The Fountains, describing life in a glamor spa, will come out in June. Morrow gave her a $500,000 advance, and Warner Bros. bought the rights for $250,000.
Not to be left out, 20-year-old Amy is collaborating with her father on a biography of the famed Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, who starred in the circus in the 1930s. Simon and Schuster advanced them $50,000.
The center for all this literary outpouring is a sprawling mansion in Brentwood, an elegant Los Angeles suburb. The 11-room house Wallace bought in 1958 has grown to 17 rooms, and the trappings of success are apparent everywhere. Parked alongside Irving’s 1963 Bentley is the new Rolls-Royce Sylvia bought him to celebrate the sale of her novel. David, 28, still lives at home with a friend, Flora Chavez, 29, a former stewardess. Amy, a practicing psychic healer, lives in Berkeley but brings her work-in-progress home for comment.
Life begins to stir in the Wallace household around 11 a.m. After a leisurely breakfast, the family scatters. David goes off to his workroom overlooking the manicured green lawn and swimming pool. Irving jogs. At 12:30 he checks in with his two secretaries. He starts to write at 1, stops for a lunch of cheese, toast, onion pickle and Diet Pepsi at 3:30 and then goes back to work until 6.
The sociable Wallaces party often, but afterward—in the wee hours—Irving returns to his typewriter. Sometimes the whole family toils away until 3 a.m.
The patriarch of this cottage industry was born in Kenosha, Wis. in 1916 and began writing in junior high. By high school he was a stringer for a Milwaukee newspaper. An expert horse racing handicapper, at 15 he wrote a story about winning purses and sold it to Horse and Jockey magazine. With the $5 he earned, Wallace bought a pipe. “I wanted to look like a writer,” he says.
Enticed by a scholarship and the opportunity of studying under author William Saroyan, Wallace enrolled in tiny Williams Institute in northern California. After a semester, however, he moved to Los Angeles to write a Hollywood column for several weekly papers. “I preserved the family honor and didn’t graduate,” he says. Not one Wallace so far has earned a college diploma.
Dazzled by his new beat, Wallace wrote books at night (that didn’t sell) and personality profiles for fan magazines by day. At a party given by Modern Screen, Irving met its new West Coast editor, Sylvia Kahn. “I walked in and there was this blonde stretched out on a sofa,” remembers Wallace. Sylvia was just 18. She had started as a secretary at the magazine at 16. “I was a child wonder and they decided to transfer me to California,” says Sylvia, who was raised in New York City. A yearlong courtship followed, and Sylvia and Irving were married in Santa Barbara in 1941.
After serving in an Army motion picture outfit, Wallace switched to screenwriting. His first assignment was The West Point Story, starring James Cagney and Doris Day. “I didn’t like the work. From the moment I started, I wanted out.”
In 1958 Wallace received a $25,000 advance for The Chapman Report, a novel about sex researchers. It was his first best-seller. Over the years, Wallace’s nine novels and eight nonfiction books have sold 97 million copies and been translated into 31 languages. “What I loved about it all was not the attention, not being important, or even being read,” says Irving. “I loved the independence.”
For her part, Sylvia eventually tired of being the invisible wife of a successful writer. She had stopped working when David was born in 1948. “I was having severe depressions. I did what I was supposed to do, and I have these nice children,” says Sylvia now. “But when Amy went off to boarding school three years earlier than I thought she would, I had nothing to fall back on except cracking up.” She returned to magazine work and eventually Sylvia curled up in her favorite chair in the den and scribbled out her novel in longhand on yellow legal pads. “I had always been thinking about women, about the different dramas of our lives. I began with that.”
Writing books appears to be highly contagious in the Wallace household. Now Louise Smith, the Wallaces’ housekeeper for the past 16 years, is warming up the keys. She has been keeping a journal on life with the prolific family and is turning it into a book.