Bill Zehme is no stranger to Hollywood. He has spent a weekend hanging out with Jimmy Kimmel. He drove Madonna around in his car. He has visited Hugh Hefner at the Playboy mansion more than once. And Johnny Carson granted him his last in-depth media interview 10 years after being out of the public eye.
It’s just part of the job for the 1980 graduate of Loyola University Chicago.
“I call myself a late night-ologist. Sometimes I call myself a Hefner-ologist,” said Zehme, who has made a name for himself as a top high-profile biographer.
Zehme, 54, (although he says he is “eternally youthful” and only feels like he is 38,) has had his work published in an impressive array of publications, including Esquire, Rolling Stone and Playboy. Additionally, he has authored a handful of biographical books. While he has written on celebrities in a variety of forms of entertainment, his strongest interest lies in late night personalities, particularly Johnny Carson.
Growing up on the South Shore and South Holland neighborhoods of Chicago, Zehme said he was first drawn to the mysticism and candor of Carson.
“Carson became a surrogate parent to me, in a way. I quietly was more interested in this magical world where this all powerful guy would sit at a desk and he’d have an announcer and a bandleader both sort of sucking up to him, and everybody’s sort of slightly fearing him and loving him at the same time,” said Zehme. “He radiated a power, and also a sense of charm, whimsy, politeness. He was a great male role model.”
Even after arriving at Loyola’s campus, Zehme, along with his roommates, religiously watched Carson.
“Across the street there was a terrible flame grilled burger place called Papa D’s. We always called it Papa Disease. The ritual was always to run over there at 10:30 so that we’d have our late night cheeseburger and watch our Carson monologue. He’d study some more and I’d just study Carson,” Zehme said.
Zehme’s first notable profile on Carson appeared in the May 2002 issue of Esquire magazine. Currently, Zehme is working on an in-depth biography of Carson, a project he started about eight years ago. Zehme was also the production consultant on the PBS American Masters documentary “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night” which aired in May 2012 and received the highest ratings in the show’s 27-year history.
While Zehme has rubbed elbows with some of Hollywood’s top names, he said he rarely gets star struck. All that changed when he met Frank Sinatra.
“You can’t really be in awe, but in some cases you have to be. With Sinatra, I was in awe.” Zehme said. “He had a radiance, something that just elevated the electrodes in your presence.”
Zehme met Sinatra at the Waldorf Astoria in New York around the time of the singer’s 80th birthday. At that time, Zehme was in the middle of working on a piece about Sinatra.
“I knew he loved the color orange. He always said it was the happiest color,” Zehme said, so he went to British tailors Turnbull and Asser in Manhattan and bought the most elegant orange tie he could find.
“I shook his hand and I reached for my tie. ‘What do you think? Too orange?’ And he said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘The tie. Is it too orange?’ He said, “No, it’s orange! It’s maaah-velous!’ That’s my special moment with Frank,” Zehme recalled.
Sinatra granted Zehme his last interview ever before he died, and his research on Sinatra culminated into a book called “The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’” which became a New York Times bestseller. The piece, a handbook of sorts for men that is infused with elements of biographical information about Sinatra, has been praised by the likes of P. Diddy, Seth McFarlane, and Jon Bon Jovi. One of Sinatra’s daughters, Tina, also acknowledged the book as one of the two best books ever written about her father.
That single tie led Zehme to meeting one of the most famous and acclaimed singers in America.
“I still wear it to this day,” Zehme said. “I love this tie.”
By Akanksha Jayanthi