When It Comes to Selling Books, Author Fred Mustard Stewart Really Cuts the You-Know-What
He could be the Barry Manilow of novelists, writing not for literary glory, but, by gosh, to entertain the people. Fred Mustard Stewart is hoping that this week’s CBS-TV Ellis Island mini-series, which he wrote from his best-selling book, will catapult him—in his own words—into “the mass consciousness.” You gotta admire an author who’s up-front enough to admit “I love money” and that high ratings “will help sell a helluva lot of books.” Keep on admiring, there is more: “Ellis Island can do for me what South Pacific did for James Michener.”
The 52-year-old author with the unusual middle name calls himself a storyteller. “You either have it or you don’t,” he says. For his next two books, he was paid a $1.5 million advance from Simon and Schuster. One of them, The Titan, will be out in February. The other is still in his head. “Maybe I’ll start it this afternoon,” Stewart quips. “At least I have the first sentence: ‘She was christened Pamela, but when she was 7 years old, she chose the name she liked for herself better: Diamond.’ You gotta like this girl already.” Whether Diamond is forever will be left to posterity. But one thing can be assumed now: The plot is heady. “I get my ideas in restaurants and airplanes,” explains Stewart. “Maybe it’s the wine.”
Stewart’s palate has been serving him well since 1968. So far he has spun out 10 novels, two of which have become movies—The Mephisto Waltz, a kind of Rosemary’s Baby set in the world of classical music, and Six Weeks, about a terminally ill 12-year-old ballerina. Neither the critics nor Stewart gave them raves. Still they got his name around. So when Stewart wrote Century(an epic about an Italian immigrant family), which preceded Ellis Island, he quickly hit the best-seller lists. The Titan, about an arms dealer, is likely to ride on Ellis Island’s success. “Both Century and The Titan are made for miniseries,” Stewart says. “People love big, family sagas, in books and television.”
Being a sucker himself for sweeping drama, Stewart went to England to watch the filming of Ellis Island’s big wedding scene between Kate Burton and Greg Martyn. “There were cars, vans, tents; it was like a circus,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Gee, all this coming from my nutty head!’ “Richard Burton, who made his last acting appearance as Kate’s father in the miniseries, was there too: “When I saw him on the set, everybody was saying, ‘Doesn’t he look great!’ He was fit, off the sauce.”
The author is largely pleased with the TV adaptation. “Burton is terrific, and casting Dunaway was inspirational.” As for gripes, Stewart says, “There’s a great scene in the book where Marco [Greg Martyn] is swimming from Ellis Island to New Jersey and is nearly hit by a tugboat. They told me it was too expensive to film.” Another teensy matter: “I was really upset when the music and lyrics to four songs I wrote for the series were cut. Next time I’ll have more control.”
The idea for Ellis Island actually came from CBS. In 1980 the network asked Stewart to write an outline for a miniseries about European immigration. “After Century I was immigrated out,” he says. But a jaunt to Ellis Island in New York Harbor revived his interest. He visited the dilapidated buildings where 17 million immigrants were processed between 1892 and 1954. “I could hear the voices of people who passed through. It really turned me on.” When CBS dallied over the deal, Stewart turned his story into a novel that, he says, sold more than 1.6 million copies, grossing him $600,000. The project came full circle when CBS bought the rights to the novel and hired Stewart to write the script for the miniseries.
Stewart’s family emigrated from Ireland. In fact Mustard, he says, is an old Irish name, and Fred was teased mercilessly about it as a boy in Anderson, Ind. His mother and his father, a banker, urged Fred to focus on his studies, and he graduated from Princeton with a history degree. He also studied piano at Juilliard during his college years. “When stuck on plot, I go to my Stein-way and play Chopin or Bach,” Stewart says. “The answer always springs into my mind. It never fails.”
Stewart’s plots, hatched in the finest restaurants and musically nurtured, are written in longhand in the antique-filled Manhattan town house where he lives with his wife, Joan, a literary agent. She does not represent him professionally. “That would be incestuous,” she says.
To highbrows who scorn his writing, Stewart says, “If you’re good enough to get a lot of people to read your books, you’re doing something right. There are different kinds of writers. There are very introspective writers. Then there’s us. We ain’t so introspective. But I think writing is entertainment, and my books are entertaining.” His bigger-than-life characters, he adds, are “idealizations of myself. They’re tall and tremendously good-looking. Thin, crafty and smart. And”—unlike their creator, whose culinary-minded muse necessitates thinning out sometimes—”they don’t go to fat farms.”