This week I met Donald Zec, the man in the picture above. He’s 94 in two weeks time and must be one of the last remaining journalistic links with the golden age of Hollywood. Beginning as a crime reporter in the London of the 1940s, Zec went on to become a royal correspondent before being despatched to Hollywood by the Daily Mirror, then the UK’s top selling paper. He hadn’t been there more than a couple of days when Humphrey Bogart dropped by the hotel with an invitation to go out sailing on his yacht. Zec went on to befriend Marilyn Monroe and Ingrid Bergman, spend time with Marlon Brando and James Dean, and seriously piss off both Frank Sinatra and Mario Lanza – the latter sent him a tea chest filled with toilets rolls and the message, ‘Donald, these foolish things remind me of you’.
I spent 90 minutes with him in his west London flat for a story that will run in the next issue of PrivatAir. One of the things we talked about – other than Bogart, Monroe, Brando, Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, the Beatles… – was how to get a good interview, because if anybody knows, it has to be Donald Zec. Here’s how he won over Marilyn.
1) Don’t concentrate solely on what people say at the risk of missing what they’re really like. When you buy a secondhand car, the novice opens the door and looks inside; the car dealer looks at the door because that’s where the rust shows.
2) Do your homework. If you’re talking to someone who can make ten thousand dollars in an hour, you owe it to them not to waste their time. Don’t ask questions to which you should already know the answer.
3) Make yourself liked, or at least presentable. Your subject has to feel it’s worth giving you half an hour of their time. Ideally, you’re the kind of person they’d like to have on their boat for the weekend.
4) Be completely prepared to throw all your questions out the window. Pay attention to what the person is saying because you might hear something that completely changes the track of the conversation. You’ve got to be able to seize on the moment that the interviewee says, ‘Of course, that was the moment I got so angry that I strangled my wife’.
5) Go the extra mile. There was a journalist called John Dean Potter, who was a reporter on the Daily Express. He’d interviewed a maharaja in India and had written up the story and gone to the cable office to file it. The Indian who was sending the telegram said, ‘Oh you met the maharaja? Did you know he drinks a glass of monkey’s blood every morning before breakfast?’ Potter didn’t. So he travelled all the way back to the maharaja’s palace. ‘I thought we covered everything,’ said the maharaja. ‘Yes, but just one small thing. Somebody back at the cable office told me you drink a glass of monkey’s blood every morning for breakfast?’ said Potter. ‘Yes, that’s right, didn’t you know?’ replied the maharaja. The story was taken off page 12 and moved to page one.
(Posted by AndrewH)