A guide to the great achievers: author Chandler

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

''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.

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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.

One of her biggest challenges, for instance, was landing an interview with Argentine ruler Juan Peron during his exile in Spain. Peron felt the American press had been unfair to him, Miss Chandler says, and refused to speak with English-language journalists. Deciding to try anyway, she wrote him a letter and hand-delivered it to his residence. ''As my taxi drove up,'' she recalls, ''there he was at the gate, playing with his poodles and chatting with the sentry!''

Happy at this coincidence, Miss Chandler now brought her skills into play. ''I spoke Spanish,'' she says, ''and I had been in Argentina, so I spoke to him using the Argentinian pronunciation. That pleased him. He said he didn't give interviews, because it was a condition of his exile, but he invited me in for tea. I asked the cab to wait, but he said that was a waste of money and paid the driver himself. He said he'd bring me home when he and his wife went to dinner. That turned out to be 11 at night!

''So we had a long meeting. He kept telling me none of it was to be published , and I kept my word. But later I had the feeling he really wanted me to write it anyway.''

Groucho Marx was another of Miss Chandler's more difficult conquests. ''He hated the phone,'' she recalls, ''and hadn't answered it himself in years. He'd let it ring for hours. I just happened to call when he was alone, and on an impulse he picked it up.''

That was only the beginning, though. ''I told him I wanted to interview him . . . and he wasn't interested. He said Life had offered him $10,000 for an interview, and he wouldn't do it for 20 (thousand) - and with me he wouldn't do it for 30! When I mentioned I was calling from just a few blocks away, he said to come over and he'd say no in person.''

It might have been a joke, but Miss Chandler jumped at it. ''I went straight there,'' she says. ''He let me in and started showing me his Marxibilia. I saw how sentimental he was, how he saved every memento from his fans. Later we had dinner. Then that night, as we sat and talked, he asked me a little sharply, 'Why aren't you writing this down?' That's when I knew I had the interview!''

And no ordinary interview, at that: Miss Chandler became a house guest of Marx, and later recalled their friendship in her hefty Doubleday book ''Hello, I Must Be Going.''

Some of Miss Chandler's experiences have been curious. On meeting Mae West, for example, she noticed a distracting sound in the apartment, like the fluttering of little bird wings. Only later did she realize it was the sound of Miss West's heavily made-up, multilayered false eyelashes brushing her cheeks when she blinked.

Yet many of her acquaintances turned out to be surprisingly modest. Henry Fonda apologized in advance for not being an interesting person, and poked fun at his screen image by adding, ''I ain't really Henry Fonda! Nobody could be.'' In a similar vein, when Miss Chandler jokingly asked the great painter if he was reallyPicasso, he answered, ''I'm almost Picasso.''

Others showed a touching self-awareness or even insecurity. Miss Chandler considers this a lesson that ''even qualities which seem negative can be turned to advantage. Alfred Hitchcock spoke of being a lonely, funny-looking child, which he made up for by building a world of imagination. Golda Meir said she was lucky not to be beautiful - because she might have coasted on it!''

Although she usually avoids generalizing about the achievers she has met, Miss Chandler does think ''they tend to be more playful than others.'' Why? ''A sense of humor is part of what they do. And older people, especially, develop a special confidence that they can get away with things a younger person couldn't.

''They're pretty sure they won't get rejected, and if they do, at least they had fun. Groucho always said the most important thing is entertaining yourself, and the rest will follow.''

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