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Thomas Mallon on his new novel 'Up With The Sun'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let's put it this way. Dick Kallman was no Laurence Olivier or Elvis or even Tab Hunter, a name you might have to look up. Dick Kallman was an actor and singer in the 1950s and '60s who had a few star turns on stage and in sitcoms and recorded a few songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO BE LOVED")

DICK KALLMAN: (Singing) You, you were born to be loved.

SIMON: The Dick Kallman star never quite rose. He left showbiz, sold high-ticket antiques. And then, his life took a most tragic turn. He was murdered together with Stephen Szladek, his business and life partner, in their Manhattan apartment in 1980. Thomas Mallon, who's been praised for his historical novels, including "Henry And Clara," "Watergate" and "Fellow Travelers," has a new novel that centers on that relatively unremembered life. It's called "Up With The Sun." Tom Mallon joins us now from Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS MALLON: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You've written these acclaimed novels that draw from the lives of people caught up in great events from presidential assassination to McCarthyism. What drew you to write about Dick Kallman?

MALLON: Well, I remembered the sitcom he had for one year in the 1960s. It was called "Hank," and it was pretty preposterous. He played a college drop-in. He was raising his little kid sister. He had no money. And he would disguise himself each week as a student he knew was going to be absent from class so that (laughter) the professor teaching the class would think that he was that student.

But I remembered it because I was so desperate to go to college. And I probably thought, some awakening part of me - I would have been 13. I thought Kallman was this appealing, attractive guy. And the murder, when it occurred all those years later, resonated in a strange way with me because Kallman was actually killed on the day that my father was buried. And I was sort of passing through New York while the murder was being planned for that evening. They didn't plan it as a murder. They planned it as a robbery. But it turned into a murder.

SIMON: Yeah. I wrote down a phrase you have at one point.

(Reading) The past, it offered him no protection against a loud, last, fatal knock on the door.

Makes you think about his murder, but also a concealed life that he led?

MALLON: He was closeted to many people including his family. But in that era of the late '70s, very early '80s, he was rather flamboyant. You know, he would show up at Broadway openings in his full-length fur coat. And in that sense, he was - like many people of that time, he was sort of half in, half out.

SIMON: Narrator for much of the book is a fictional character - Matt Liannetto, a pianist. And how does he come to play a role in telling Dick Kallman's story?

MALLON: Matt is Kallman's complete opposite. Kallman was brassy, pushy, difficult, alienated all kinds of people. And Matt is this sweet-natured, shy fellow who meets Kallman when he's the pianist for "Seventeen," a musical adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel that Kallman was in, in 1951. And Matt is probably sick with HIV and AIDS, which is beginning its ravaging of New York. And there's a kind of yin-yang quality to it. Matt is trying to understand this man he's known for so long, who was so difficult and whose way of life, just in terms of brashness, was so different from his own.

SIMON: Very upsetting scene where - you had Dick Kallman playing the lead in the touring company of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." Dyan Cannon, as in real life, was in the production. She obviously became very well known. And Dick Kallman does something terrible to her.

MALLON: He smashes her finger. And I don't know exactly how it happened, but it was a story that was first told to me quite a number of years ago by Robert Osborne of TCM fame, who was also part of Lucille Ball's Desilu Workshop with Kallman in the late '50s. And this was the period just before Dyan Cannon married Cary Grant, and there was talk that Cary Grant wanted Kallman to be killed over this.

SIMON: Over smashing her finger.

MALLON: Over smashing the finger. And much of this is fictionalized, but there is a basis for it in reality. And it says something that when I first heard that story about Dick Kallman, I didn't really have trouble believing it. One quickly hears enough stories about a kind of nastiness and fraudulence to him. And yet, like any character in fiction, writing novels is always an exercise in empathy. You have to try to understand them. You have to get into their heads. You have to see things from their - literally from their point of view.

SIMON: I want to read something very carefully with you that I've heard over the years from show business figures who happen to be gay, particularly of a generation where this wasn't the way many of them lived openly. I've had more than one say to me, well, you know, we're used to acting. That's why we're in show business.

MALLON: Mmm-hmm. I think that in some ways, it made the masquerade perhaps easier. But I think if they were serious performers in show business, it made life more difficult for them in that, you know, a really serious actor, you're trying to do something authentic. And if you know that you're going against authenticity in your own behavior, it's got to sap something from you. It's got to take something out of you.

SIMON: Tom, you are suddenly the advocate for a marginal show business figure.

MALLON: Maybe not the advocate, maybe the press agent (laughter). But yes, I'm sort of trying to, you know, put him a bit into the limelight after all of these years. I don't know what he would think of that. You know, because he came from this pushy, struggling show business background, where all you want is for them to spell your name right in the papers, I think he might have viewed this, despite the unappetizing aspects of the portrayal, as a kind of afterlife success. But there's no real way that I can know that.

SIMON: Tom Mallon's new novel, "Up With The Sun." Thank you so much for being with us.

MALLON: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.