Bill Zehme, Author With a Knack for Humanizing the Famous, Dies at 64

Bill Zehme, whose biographies and magazine profiles humanized the celebrities he described as “intimate strangers” — the “shy, succinct” Johnny Carson; the “blank” Warren Beatty; Frank Sinatra, whose “battle cry” was “fun with everything, and I mean fun!” — died on Sunday in Chicago. He was 64.

His partner, Jennifer Engstrom, said the cause was colorectal cancer.

Mr. Zehme’s biography of Mr. Sinatra, “The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’” (1997), was a best seller. He also shared the author credit on best-selling memoirs by Regis Philbin (“I’m Only One Man!” in 1995 and “Who Wants to Be Me?” in 2000) and Jay Leno (“Leading With My Chin” in 1996).

His other books included “Intimate Strangers: Comic Profiles and Indiscretions of the Very Famous” (2002), “Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman” (1999) and “Hef’s Little Black Book” (2004), a stream-of-consciousness collaboration with Hugh M. Hefner, the founder and publisher of Playboy magazine.

Mr. Zehme’s biography of Frank Sinatra, published in 1997, was a best seller, and he and Mr. Sinatra remained close.

Mr. Zehme (pronounced ZAY-mee) conducted what is widely believed to have been the last major interview with Johnny Carson, whom he called “the great American Sphinx” and whom the CBS anchor Walter Cronkite called “the most durable performer in the whole history of television” when Mr. Carson retired in 1992 after some 4,500 episodes of “The Tonight Show.”

Mr. Zehme’s “Carson the Magnificent: An Intimate Portrait” was published in 2007, but he never completed the full-fledged biography he had planned.

The Chicago-born Mr. Zehme was often said to have cultivated recalcitrant sources with his Midwestern charm. His portraits were not hagiography, but neither were they tell-alls, and he remained close to some of the subjects he interviewed, including Mr. Sinatra and Mr. Hefner.

“Bill didn’t dig around for dirt or comb through the proverbial closet hunting for skeletons,” David Hirshey, a former deputy editor of Esquire magazine, said by email. “What interested him was more subtle than that. Zehme looked for the quirks in behavior and speech that revealed a person’s character, and he had an uncanny ability to put his subjects at ease with a mixture of gentle playfulness and genuine empathy.

”That’s why,” Mr. Hirshey continued, “Sharon Stone covered by nothing but a sheet allowed Bill to interview her while lying side by side as they enjoyed a couples massage.”

Mr. Carson, Mr. Zehme wrote in an essay for PBS in conjunction with an “American Masters” documentary on him, “rose to reign iconic as the smooth midnight sentinel king whose political japes and cultural enthusiasms mightily swayed popular taste at whim or wink.” That wink, Mr. Zehme noted, transmitted “surefire stardom to aspiring personalities, especially comedians, and privileged co-conspiracy to regular viewers who became his spontaneous partners in sly mockery.”

Andy Kaufman, Mr. Zehme wrote, was “a pioneering practitioner of various cultural trends long before they ever became trends.”Credit…Delacorte Press

Of Mr. Beatty, Mr. Zehme wrote: “He speaks slowly, fearfully, cautiously, editing every syllable, slicing off personal color and spontaneous wit, steering away from opinion, introspection, humanness. He is mostly evasive. His pauses are elephantine. Broadway musicals could be mounted during his pauses. He works at this. Ultimately, he renders himself blank.

“In ‘Dick Tracy,’ he battles a mysterious foe called the Blank. In life, he is the Blank doing battle with himself. It is a fascinating showdown, exhilarating to behold. To interview Warren Beatty is to want to kill him.”

Mr. Zehme provided tips from Mr. Sinatra about what men should never do in the presence of a woman (yawn) and about the finer points of his haberdashery: “He wore only snap-brim Cavanaughs — fine felts and porous palmettos — and these were his crowns, cocked askew, as defiant as he was.”

“Mr. Sinatra’s gauge for when a hat looked just right,” Mr. Zehme wrote, was “when no one laughs.”

He described the unorthodox and at times controversial comedian Andy Kaufman as “the pre-eminent put-on artist of his generation” and “a pioneering practitioner of various cultural trends long before they ever became trends.”

William Christian Zehme was born on Oct. 28, 1958, the grandson of a Danish immigrant. His parents, Robert and Suzanne (Clemensen) Zehme, owned a flower shop in Flossmoor, a village south of Chicago and not far from South Holland, where Bill was raised.

Mr. Zehme in 2017. “Bill didn’t dig around for dirt or comb through the proverbial closet hunting for skeletons,” a colleague said. “What interested him was more subtle than that.”Credit…Loyola University Chicago School of Communication

He graduated from Loyola University in Chicago in 1980 with a degree in journalism.

His first book was “The Rolling Stone Book of Comedy” (1991). In 2004, he won a National Magazine Award for his profile of the newspaper columnist Bob Greene.

In addition to Ms. Engstrom, Mr. Zehme is survived by Lucy Reeves, a daughter from his marriage to Tina Zimmel, which ended in divorce; and a sister, Betsy Archer.

Mr. Zehme bridled at being identified as a celebrity biographer, although most of the people he profiled had been famous long before he wrote about them. They had not, however, seemed as familiar as next-door neighbors until Mr. Zehme wrote about them.

“The celebrity profile is the bastard stepchild of journalism, and I’m embarrassed sometimes to be associated with it,” he told Chicago magazine in 1996.

“The truth is, I have never written about a celebrity,” Mr. Zehme wrote in “Intimate Strangers.” “I have always written about humans, replete with human traits and foibles and issues, who also happen to be famous.”

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