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A guide to the great achievers: author Chandler

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 1984

New York

Charlotte Chandler has a gift for listening. She also has a gift for finding great talkers - artists, authors, and other ''people of outstanding achievement,'' as she calls them.

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''They were the ones who put on the ruby slippers, followed the yellow brick road, and found Oz,'' she writes in ''The Ultimate Seduction,'' her new book, due on Valentine's Day from Doubleday & Co. It chronicles her encounters with Henry Moore and Henry Fonda, with Mae West and Marc Chagall, with an astronaut, an inventor, a ruler, a philosopher, and many others. But the book's concern is not with their personal lives. It centers upon their feelings about their work - the contributions they have made by realizing ''a dream, a vision that they felt compelled to share with the world.'' Its title comes from a remark Picasso made to her: ''It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction.''

In pursuing her own work, Miss Chandler tries to avoid stiff interview sessions, preferring ''a conversation, some kind of shared experience.'' She considers food an excellent tool for breaking the ice, and may bring cakes or cookies to an appointment.

Or she will meet her subject for a leisurely talk in a restaurant - the setting she chose when I turned the tables on her and interviewed the interviewer. Discussing her new book, she speaks with the same quiet concentration she brings to her listening. One senses quickly the calm intelligence that has fostered her reputation as a serious and resourceful magazine writer. One senses, too, the wry wit that marked her previous volume, about her friendship with Groucho Marx.

One also notes the refreshing modesty that allows her to put her subjects, not herself, in the limelight. Both her books feature sketches of Miss Chandler on the front of the jacket - but seen from behind, reminding us that she's a guide, not a protagonist.

''I didn't want to shape the book,'' she told me, explaining how ''The Ultimate Seduction'' came about. ''I wanted it to grow from the thinking of these people. So I went as far as possible not asking questions, just having a conversation.

''I took Sartre's advice not to have expectations, not to mold people in my mind. He said that's the trouble with most interviewers - they want you to say things they already expect.''

So her sessions ranged widely, touching on everything her subjects chose to mention, from current events to childhood memories and digressions into sex. (The book contains occasional vulgar language.) But she soon found a theme was emerging.

''Everyone talked about work being the big passion in their lives,'' Miss Chandler recalls. The only variation was in the way men and women discussed it. ''Men brought it up strongly and immediately, saying their special work - work they would pay to do! - was the most important thing for them. Women always brought up personal satisfaction, too, saying both are needed for a good life.''

Another theme was the relation of success to happiness. ''Everyone had been certain that if they achieved success, it would equal happiness,'' Miss Chandler notes. ''But it didn't turn out the way they expected, for the most part.''

Picasso, for example, once thought that ''everything would be better when he was successful - even food would taste better! If anything, though, success tended to work the other way. He found his house was like a fortress, holding the world at bay.

''The success he enjoyed most was very early in his career, he said, when he would tell his friends about it and share it with them. Then his success got so big he couldn't feel it any more. There's no way to feel more millions, more shows, more museums, more things being written about you.''

Since celebrated people often isolate themselves to some degree - ''Chagall said being famous brought him back to the ghetto,'' she recalls - an interviewer needs a special skill at breaching the barricades. How does Miss Chandler manage this? ''Each case is different,'' she says, adding that it doesn't hurt to be prepared for action whenever an opportunity strikes.