Four years ago Sam Weller, a onetime New City staff writer who'd written a guidebook, Secret Chicago, was covering the midwest for Publishers Weekly and freelancing stories to the Tribune magazine. He proposed a profile to mark the 80th birthday of Ray Bradbury, the sci-fi master who was born in Waukegan.
Weller had read his first Bradbury short stories in middle school when he pulled a worn paperback off his dad's bookshelf. In high school he'd spotted Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury's McCarthy-era parable about book censorship, on the reading list at Elgin Academy. He thought, better this than Beowulf. Weller was carried away by Bradbury, by "the musicality of the language and a certain melancholy there. I felt this kinship."
The Tribune said yes, so Weller paid his own way to California and spent the Memorial Day weekend interviewing Bradbury at his house in Cheviot Hills, a section of Los Angeles south of Beverly Hills. Bradbury not only liked the story Weller wrote, but also felt the kinship. He says, "I have four daughters. I've adopted Sam as my honorary son, I suppose because I've lacked a real one." According to Bradbury, who's now 83, he and Weller, 37, are alike right down to an expression they both use: "I can hardly wait." He says, "Sam's a wonderful person to be with, so focused and bright. His ambience is warm, enveloping, and eager. I feel the same way about him that I did when I visited Federico Fellini in Rome in 1978. At the end of a week Fellini looked to the heavens, embraced me, and said, 'My twin. My twin.'"
"We had a lot of weird things in common," says Weller, like a fancy for the Chrysler Building in New York and Picasso's Old Guitarist in the Art Institute. "Ray also thrives on acknowledgment and admiration from his fans, and I was one."
Bradbury had resisted three or four earlier proposals from would-be biographers. "They were fact collectors," says Bradbury, "and that wasn't enough. There was never any excitement there." But he sensed in Weller an ability to "capture the facts with his imagination," and in January 2001 invited him to tell his story.
"I was the guy who wrote Secret Chicago, and now I was going to do Ray Bradbury's bio," says Weller. "It was like I'd been playing for the Kane County Cougars and now I was in Wrigley."
There was a hitch. Jerry Weist, a collector of comic-book and science-fiction illustrations, had Bradbury's permission to do a coffee-table book on art associated with the author's works. Bradbury wanted Weller and Weist to do a book together. "It was like an Indian wedding," says Weist, "where dad put two young people together who didn't want to get married. Sam and I felt these were two distinct books."
Weist was preparing to withdraw when Bradbury backed off and allowed them to proceed separately. In August 2002, Weller's agent, Judith Ehrlich, sold his book to editor Jennifer Brehl at William Morrow for an advance that Weller puts in the low six figures.
Weller began traveling to California at least once a month to interview Bradbury, who was weakened by a stroke in 1999 and now gets around with the aid of a walker. They talked in Bradbury's homes in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, and while visiting his old haunts around LA. Bradbury doesn't drive, so they traveled either in his chauffeured Lincoln or Cadillac or in Weller's rental cars. "One day we had fun finding the places where I lived when I wrote Fahrenheit or The Martian Chronicles," says Bradbury. "When we knocked on the door, people went crazy."
"Fragments of information about Ray came out during our conversations," says Weller, "but so did 45 minutes of talk about the hamburgers we were eating." Weller was persistent. "He's an incredible researcher," says Bradbury. "I would mention something from the past, and it was like I was saying 'go fetch.' Sam would come back with details that I didn't know existed."
Weller chatted up Bradbury's daughters and became especially close to his wife, Maggie, an intellectual adept in four languages and given to discussing Proust and Henry James. Weller and his wife, Jan Nguyen, visited Maggie in the hospital two days before she died of lung cancer in November. "Maggie and I would sit and talk for hours, and she never flinched at anything I asked."
Bradbury has published some 500 short stories and 30 books, and in addition he's written a half dozen screenplays, nearly 100 teleplays, and dozens of stage plays. Weller says Fahrenheit 451 is his masterpiece. "It's a heavy book, about the power of the individual, with lots of social commentary and observations on things like the growing technology of television. Ray wrote it in nine days in 1953 in the typing room of the UCLA library--he had two little girls then, and he couldn't concentrate at home. He had to deposit ten cents for every half hour he used the typewriter. In all he spent $9.80 to finish the book."
Another story Weller tells is about the time Bradbury wrote a screenplay of Moby-Dick for director John Huston. "Ray suffered from an acute case of hero worship," says Weller. "He didn't realize how sadistic Huston could be, in his playing of practical jokes and his picking on Ray constantly. He was holed up in this hotel in Dublin, the weather was lousy, and here he had to adapt one of the heaviest books in literature. It was the only time in his life that Ray was suicidal."
Weller's research also brought him back to Illinois--specifically Waukegan, where Bradbury lived until he was 14, when his father lost his job with the electric company and moved the family west. By then Bradbury was already writing. "I spent days and days running around Waukegan," says Weller, "blurring my vision on the microfilm machine in the library and tracking down birth certificates of Ray's relatives." Weller climbed through the ravine that became a symbol of fear and death in Bradbury's autobiographical Dandelion Wine.
As both Bradbury's "honorary son" and his biographer, Weller's had to walk a line. "I want to be a good person," he says. "I don't want to hurt a person who is good to me. That supersedes everything. People had asked Ray for years to do his biography, and he had said no. Who the fuck am I to betray him? But my ambition is also to tell a good story, which means including things that are dark and might be hurtful."
"I hate books that go into the private lives of people," Bradbury says. "That has nothing to do with their creativity. What kind of damn fool I was at 17 has nothing to do with my books." He mentions a book on Marlene Dietrich, the lust object of his adolescence, written by her daughter. "I refused to read it. I don't care about what position Marlene Dietrich took when she went to bed with President Kennedy. I care about the woman who dominated the movies when I was young."
But Weller has delicately explored the more jagged edges of Bradbury's life. "Ray had infidelities, after 30 years of marriage to Maggie," he says. "The relationship with her had become a partnership by then, and he felt justified. Maggie knew about the affairs, but when Ray told me about them I said, 'You know, the tape recorder is running.'" Weller says he issued the reminder "as any good individual would. But as a storyteller I know this stuff makes Ray a human being. It's fascinating."
Bradbury got prickly when Weller brought up the sexuality of his Aunt Neva, a dressmaker and painter who introduced him to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Edgar Allan Poe and whose ashes he keeps in his dining room. Weller told him he intended to identify Neva as a lesbian, and Bradbury said, "I don't know why this is necessary for you to say." But Weller sees the close connection between the fantasizing boy and the gay aunt--two outcasts within the family circle--as vital to his tale.
"When I was asking Ray questions, I had this relative disconnect from him emotionally," says Weller. "I went into journalist mode. It was almost an out-of-body experience." Bradbury went along with it. "Not once did Ray say 'off the record,'" says Weller. "His generosity and openness were incredible. I think he knew he could trust me. When he took naps in the afternoon he let me forage around in his basement office, through letters and short stories. You never knew what you were going to land on." Weller discovered a diary Bradbury kept for the year 1939, correspondence from John Huston and Edgar Rice Burroughs, unpublished novels, and fan letters, including one from Weller himself.
Bradbury continues to write a short story a week. "It's my lifeblood," he says. "I've been at this since I was 12 years old. I have two rules in life--to hell with it, whatever it is, and get your work done." A new collection is scheduled for publication in July.
Fahrenheit still sells more than 200,000 copies a year, according to Weller, who teaches a course on Bradbury at Columbia College, his alma mater. Two movies based on Bradbury fiction are in production. One's a big-budget adventure taken from the short story "Sound of Thunder" that stars Ben Kingsley and is due in October, and the other's a new version of Fahrenheit 451, first filmed by Francois Truffaut in 1966. The title of Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, is an obvious homage.
Weller completed his manuscript in mid-May (as Nguyen was having a daughter, their first child). Bradbury says he won't touch it, except for those "small things that will have to be corrected." Jennifer Brehl doesn't expect problems. "Ray has authorized this," she says. "If there is something I see that has a particular difficulty I will talk to Sam about it, though I don't foresee that happening."
Brehl should know. She's Bradbury's editor too. It isn't often that an editor handles both an author and the author's biographer. But, says Brehl, "it made sense to me, since I've worked with Ray and I was enthusiastic about Sam's proposal." Weller sees "a lot of tie-in potential. Morrow owns the lion's share of Ray's catalog. This could be a marketing tool, to have stores place my book next to Ray's."
Sometime in the next several weeks, Weller intends to personally deliver a copy of the manuscript to Bradbury. "I can hardly wait," Bradbury says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane, AP--Steve Castillo--Wide World Photos.