James Grant's Remarkable Path

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"The boy from Beaverton" has written his way from Hollywood to news to novels

By Nadine Fiedler

James Grant '78 & Bette Davis

The career of James Grant ’78 is the stuff of envy. A boy wonder in Hollywood, at age 27 he established the West Coast bureau of Life magazine. As a celebrity journalist he was the first writer to interview Lisa Marie Presley and the last to talk to River Phoenix. He publicized movies for Orion Pictures—because Jodie Foster loved his writing— and wrote two “Sexiest Man Alive” cover stories for People. The profiles he has written, in numerous magazines and newspapers, have skillfully uncovered the truths and revealed the inner selves of star after star.

But surrounded for almost 30 years by glamour and fame, James never succumbed to its glittering temptations. He succeeded—and persevered—because he always kept his feet on the ground in a notoriously tough and fickle business, a business that sizzled out his peers who flew too close to the flame of stardom.

“Hollywood was always in my blood, but I’m still the boy from Beaverton,” he says.

James’s fascination with old Hollywood began during his high school years at Catlin Gabel, when he fixed on his singular career choice. “No one at Catlin Gabel ever tried to dissuade me from my desire to be an entertainment journalist,” he says. “They simply accepted what I wanted to be without judgment and helped me to pursue that dream.”

When he was a senior, James wrote his first celebrity interview, a profile for a local opera program of Mary Costa, the voice of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. He chose the University of Southern California for college because of its strong journalism program and its connections with Hollywood. At USC he interviewed directors and actors who came to campus to take part in his roommates’ film series and published profiles in the student newspaper, starting with Gene Kelly and followed by the likes of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

After college those profiles landed James a job writing for People magazine, at first covering premieres and parties. With his talent and ambition, it took him only six months to be assigned major stories, and he had his first cover story a couple of months later. He scored his first major interview, with Cary Grant, and it was the first of many to come.

James Grant '78 & Jodie Foster

James’s humility and strong sense of self set him apart and gave his work integrity. “I was a good writer, but what was important was that I was able to gain access to celebrities. My best asset is my ability to make celebrities trust me. They like to be treated with respect. You can’t pal around with them and still remain objective,” he says.

James did massive amounts of research in preparation for his interviews, which sometimes lasted as long as a week. “I approached celebrity interviews in a somewhat different way from other journalists. My mandate was not to get something sensational out of celebrities but instead to understand them, to get past the image. I considered the job to be part writer and part psychologist. A writer has to be first and foremost an astute observer.”

James brought that sensibility to Life magazine when he was named Hollywood bureau chief, setting up and supervising all West Coast editorial operations. His purview expanded to include hard news as well as entertainment. James developed a network of writers throughout the West and worked on stories as diverse as airport security (long before 9/11) and homelessness in Seattle. Of all the work James has done, he says that his work for Life was the most fulfilling for him, and he’s most proud of what he achieved for them.

After a few years at the helm, Time/Life asked James to move over to Entertainment Weekly to launch the new magazine in Hollywood. During this whirlwind time for James he was also hired by Michael Russell, who was head of publicity for Orion Pictures, as West Coast publicity director. James had been brought in to rewrite production notes for Jodie Foster’s movie Little Man Tate, and his writing wowed both Foster and Russell. James also freelanced during this period for the Los Angeles Times, Cosmopolitan, and numerous other media outlets, and appeared many times on television as an entertainment commentator.

At age 35 James decided to move to New York and lead the bicoastal life. He kept working in celebrity journalism for In Style magazine, but the tinsel was fading for him. “There’s a real burn-out quotient in the business,” he says. By age 45, James decided it was a good time to exit gracefully and pursue a new challenge. He turned down job offers and began to write the novel about Hollywood he’d wanted to write for years.

One thread binds all his pursuits together, James says: “Writing has always been a starting point for me in all my work. I approach any job I do from a writer’s perspective.” And Catlin Gabel was an important part of that: “I have a strong love for Catlin Gabel, and my writing career was definitely developed there.”

Today James still lives in Manhattan, across from Lincoln Center, with writer Alan Graison, his partner of 18 years (the two have collaborated on writing a Broadway play about the life of Vivien Leigh). James recently took a job as vice president of the Michael Russell Group—the same Michael Russell who hired him at Orion—establishing and heading up the major publicity firm’s presence in New York. One of his first tasks was working on publicity for the Golden Globes, and he looks forward to the places this work “on the other side” will bring him. “Whether it’s writing strategic proposals for a film studio or corporation, or writing a press release for a nonprofit charity, it all comes down to the writing event,” he says about his new position.

For now it’s the novel writing that excites James the most. His first novel is in the hands of an agent, and he’s writing a second one (about infidelity in Manhattan), despite the demands of his work for the Michael Russell Group. Moving from the fast and extroverted world of journalism to the hushed interiority of novel-writing was a huge adjustment for him, “because it’s just you and a little room.” But he says it changed his life—one more time. “The love of writing has always fueled me,” he says. “I had lost some of it because of the deadline-driven quality of journalism. Now, I have fallen in love with writing again.

“Someone once told me that a writer is truly happy only when he is writing, and to a great extent that’s true,” he says. “Ultimately a writer’s life is about the world of creativity and ideas. That’s what makes me tick.”

Nadine Fiedler is editor of the Caller and Catlin Gabel’s publications and public relations director.