THE ORDEAL OF MICHAEL KORDA

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This was about two years ago at the Four Seasons and there was Michael Korda of Simon & Schuster coming across the room looking, I suppose, for his lunch date. But to my casual, "How's it going?" instead of his accustomed jaunty response and elegantly raised eyebrow, I got an anything but casual, "I've had better days."

It was then that Korda told me he had prostate cancer and was going in for an operation.

In January I got a letter from Michael accompanied by a typescript of his new book, "Man to Man," a highly personal and emotional account of his cancer to be published this spring by Random House. The letter asked if I'd read the manuscript and write something about it. Since I like Korda very much and he edited one of my novels, I said sure.

Then about a month later he sent me a copy of a three-page letter to the editor of Vanity Fair, grousing out very loud indeed, about a piece in the March issue written by Michael Schnayerson which Michael found offensive. I'd not yet read the VF piece which Korda's letter to the editor called, among other things: "biased....sloppy... hostile... ugly personal innuendo...character assassination...craven...a fabrication ....a hatchet job."

Now you must understand that Michael Korda is a complex and fascinating character. Of Hungarian stock, he was born and raised in Britain, attended Oxford, went into the RAF and hung out with movie stars (his father was in the biz; his more famous uncle, Sir Alexander Korda, made "Wuthering Heights" and married Merle Oberon). He's edited scores of best sellers and written a few himself. And until his prostate started acting up he was a motorcycle enthusiast, a sometime rodeo rider and is still a member of the National Rifle Association.

On one of his birthdays his then-boss at S&S, Dick Snyder, presented Michael with a huge Harley-Davidson at a private lunch in the Four Seasons. When I ran into his wife Margaret sometime later I asked how Michael was doing on the Harley.

Well, she said, he practices with it on the gravel driveway and when he skids and the bike falls on him, you know how small he is, we have to go out and lift it off.

Which sounded to me then and still does now, like true love.

And it's apparently what has Korda so incensed at Vanity Fair. He claims "Schnayerson made explicit promises to me, as well as to Random House, that the article would be limited to my experience with cancer and to `Man to Man."' Instead, when you read the Schnayerson piece, you get a lot of stuff about Margaret Korda, much of it anything but flattering, a gossipy little tale about a supposed affair Michael had with a young S&S editor (".... sorority girl in cashmere and spiked heels"), and allegations of snobbery (he snubs the Kissingers!).

Some of the irony here derives from the fact Random House, which bought Michael's book and will presumably plug hell out of it, is owned by the same company which publishes Vanity Fair, which is raising hell with the Kordas and their lifestyle.

The book is both fine and terrible, a marvelously wrought and honest (achingly so) account of illness and fear and pain, a confrontation with death and, almost as awful, loss of control and the end of sexuality. And Schnayerson says so.

"A poison pen for hire," dismissively sneers Korda. Was Michael wise to hit back? Doth he protest too much? Nothing, says Korda, is as bad "as attacking a man by writing unpleasantly about his wife." You can question Korda's judgment; you cannot deny his spunk.

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