King of the Q & A
What Do Clint Eastwood, Jack Kemp, Richard Nixon and the Beatles have in common? they were all interviewed by David Frost.
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"Heath's tone of voice indicated that the subject was closed. So I paused. And then I said, 'But do you like Harold Wilson?' And he said, 'Well, we'll have to see about that, won't we?' And he laughed awkwardly. That last remark said it all. It was quite clear what he really felt. It's only occasionally that you can repeat a question--and to be effective, it has to be precisely the same words."
Frost pauses for another puff and looks expectantly at his visitor--there's that eye contact, no matter which chair he occupies; eyes that are actively engaged, eyes that probe and smile simultaneously. The next question?
What was his most difficult interview? Was it the now-legendary marathon talk with Richard Nixon, when he got the former president to admit that he had "let down the country"? Or was it a less-famous one, one that perhaps only he remembers?
He thinks. "Nixon was a great challenge," he says. "And when people said it was impossible to do, that made it irresistible. It was difficult in that he was in so many ways a fascinating enigma. Here was a man who had no small talk at all. For more than 30 years he was at the center of American political life but he had no small talk. But with Nixon it was just a question of making sure one got to everything in the 24 hours we had. And of course, we ended up asking for four and a half hours more. It was very challenging because it demanded a year of research before the interview. But the most difficult? No."
He pauses and thinks again. "I'm sorry I don't have a ready answer," he says. But then he smiles. "Perhaps it was the time I interviewed what was supposed to be the world's greatest talking bird," he says. "It turned out to be the Marcel Marceau of talking birds. It wouldn't utter a single peep, or whatever. Then I had to ad-lib. But of course it was funny, too."
Or perhaps, he says, getting serious again, it was Baldur von Schirach, the former head of the Hitler Youth organization. "It was that he seemed to have no conception of the size, the scale of the horror they had inflicted," Frost says. "For instance, when you say to anyone, as I said to him, 'If there's one thing future generations in Germany should remember about Adolf Hitler, what should it be?' Well, there's only one answer to that question, obviously: the genocide of 6 million people. And he said, as he did"--and suddenly Frost breaks into a letter-perfect British music-hall version of a German accent--" 'Ze vonderful vay he dealt vith unemployment in ze '30s.' Well, it makes its own point, doesn't it?
"Then, later in the interview, he said, 'You know, Mr. Frost, at Spandau ve grew tomatoes und ve vere not allowed to give ze tomatoes to ze old people of Spandau because zay had been grown by ze var criminals. Zo zey vere taken out und burnt. Mr. Frost--do you realize vat it can do to a man to haff his tomatoes burnt?' It was unbelievable.
"Then, finally, he said, 'I haff been reading about you, Mr. Frost, und did you know I became ze head of ze Hitler Youth at ze same age you did 'Zat Vas Ze Veek Zat Vas'? So ve haff a great deal in common, Mr. Frost.' I was appalled. As quickly as I could I said, 'No, we haven't.' "
It seems appropriate at this point to change the subject, and Frost is asked about his favorite, or his most memorable, interviews. There have been many, of course, but he immediately remembers one: "It was when I interviewed Robert Kennedy in 1968 at the Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon, in what, alas, turned out to be the last long personal interview he ever gave."
Kennedy had the reputation of being a cold-blooded politician, but "he had mellowed a lot at the end of his life," Frost recalls. "I wanted to talk to him about his boating down the rapids, and the quote of Edith Hamilton's he often used about how 'men are not born for safe havens,' and I said, 'Some people have described you as reckless.' And he looked at me and smiled and said, 'No, no. Ruthless.' Which was so sweet. He was helping me out with the insult. It was a very attractive quality. All the people who criticized him at that time said he was ruthless. I said, 'Some people have said that your reputation for ruthlessness dates back to when you had to do the difficult dirty things behind the scenes in the 1960 election as campaign manager for your brother.' And he said, 'No, no, that's just my friends making excuses for me.' "
Kennedy, Frost says, "had an incredible charisma. I've always said that I don't know how you define charisma except as Robert Kennedy on that particular day."
Frost himself certainly has at least a touch of that charisma, a touch that traces its way back to his childhood in the small town of Tanterden in the countryside of Kent, where he was born on April 7, 1939, the son of a Methodist preacher.
"I had an incredibly happy childhood," Frost says. "I think the reason I've been able to cope with love and enjoy such a mad and hectic existence is because my childhood was so happy. My parents were very happily married. It was small-town English life. I was really unaware there was anything else you did on a Sunday other than go to church three times. I never really rebelled from that. I didn't have an atheistic period."
He attended local schools. "I did not go to boarding schools or public school, as the fee-paying schools are called here," he says. "I had two sisters who were much older than me, so I suppose I was something of an only son. And I was the first member of my family to get to Cambridge."
Frost excelled in academics and sports, and just before accepting a scholarship to Cambridge in 1957, he turned down an offer to play professional soccer with the Nottingham club.
"It was mind-boggling to get the soccer offer," he says. "But there were two reasons I said no. One was that I wanted to go to Cambridge. The other was--and it seems unbelievable these days when athletes are so highly paid--but back then soccer in England had a maximum wage of only 15 pounds a week."
He had already written reviews for Methodist youth-club publications, and he knew he "wanted to be involved in writing and performing and producing and all that." At Cambridge, he joined Footlights, the renowned revue and cabaret society. "Then I started doing some television for the regional station, which was in Norwich. There was a program called 'Town and Gown' that the station did about Cambridge. And for the Christmas edition in December 1959 they decided they wanted a spoof of television, and they came to Footlights and asked me and Peter Cook"--who would later co-found the Beyond the Fringe comedy troupe--"to write it. We went to the station to do it, and I walked into this rather odd environment of a television studio and I thought, 'This is home. This is for me.' It was an instant feeling, and from that moment on, for me the decision was made. It was a very memorable day."
After graduating, Frost worked at a London commercial network, ITV, spending his evenings doing a comedy act at local clubs. Then, in 1962, came "That Was the Week That Was," and the television career he had sought began to take off.
A few years later, in 1968, Frost smoked his first cigar. "It was when I wanted to go on a diet for a short while," he says. "My first courtship with cigars was as a dessert substitute."
He eventually went back to desserts, but he had fallen in love with cigars. "I just got the taste for cigars," he says, "and I have enjoyed them ever since. It's always been Havanas. Finding substitutes for Havanas is not easy. I smoke at least half a dozen a day. I used to love the torpedoes, but these days I find they're slightly more difficult to get in really good condition. I like the slightly chunky cigars, like Epicure No. 2. Upmann and Partagas have both got chunky cigars. And the Romeo y Julietas are perfect for travel."
Generally, he says, he prefers a social smoke. "It's quite a brotherhood, isn't it, the brotherhood of cigar smokers? It's so civilized. I tend to smoke at business meetings. But then again, I enjoy a solitary smoke, too. I'm often in the country on Saturdays, and I prepare for a show I do in London every Sunday morning called 'Breakfast With Frost,' and I like to smoke while I'm working. I just like the feeling of smoking. It's relaxing. And it helps me concentrate and clear my mind."
He also appreciates a good bottle of wine. "Oh, almost anything in the way of reds from 1961, obviously," he says. "And Penfolds Grange from Australia. I'm also very much into Château Gruaud-Larose '85, which is a fantastic year. And I love American Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. I think I've tried almost every Chardonnay. I enjoy the Jordan Cabernet and the Grgich Hills Chardonnay. And for a real treat, for dinner for two, when there's something to celebrate, my wife and I usually turn to a Corton-Charlemagne. That's luxury."
Over the years, Frost has written more than 17 books, produced many movies, won two Emmys and started two television networks--London Weekend Television and TV-am. In 1983, he married Lady Carina Fitzalan Howard, the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. They have three sons--Miles, 12, Wilfred, 11, and George, 9--and Frost spends much of his limited spare time on the soccer and cricket fields with them.
On Dec. 31, 1992, David Frost became Sir David Frost.
It would seem that he has accomplished everything he could have possibly imagined. And yet, he says, there is more. There are still interviews to do, subjects to pursue. "I would like to interview the Pope," he says. "Provided my Latin is up to it, or my Polish. It's one of those situations where they say, 'Not at the moment.' You could argue that 'not at the moment' is a euphemism for 'never.' But for some years, I remember, Rose Kennedy was a 'not at the moment' situation, and then she did the interview. Sooner or later, 'not at the moment' turns into 'yes.' "
There may still be other fields to conquer. "Yes, there are things I have not done that I would like to do," says Frost. "But it's probably something that is not yet around. One always wants to be where the new frontiers are and try and find them and seize the opportunities. But one can really only guess what they are until they come along."
He has spent so much of his career, as he has said, trying to find out what makes other people tick. Has he learned in those years what makes him tick?
He thinks he has. "There's a lot of my father's and mother's philosophy in me," he says, "in that I hate wasting time. I don't like wasting money, either, but I really hate wasting time. There's the sense of having a duty to use what time you may be given to the fullest. I guess it's a very Methodist, a very Puritan idea. And there's also something else. My father often used to quote an obscure Turkish proverb, which was that 'Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.' I love it, because it underlines the fact that everybody, a taxi driver or a monarch, has something to teach you, and it's up to you to find it."
Frost is fond of asking his subjects how they would like to be remembered after they are gone, so it seems only fair to pose that question. For such a public figure, his reply is surprising.
"When I asked Moshe Dayan what he would like people to say about him after he was dead, he looked at me and said, 'Say about me after I'm dead? But that's what I'm dead for: not to care what people say about me.' There's a lot of wisdom in that. People worry so much about what their contemporaries say about them.If you worry about what posterity will think, you'll never do anything risky."
He pauses--that moment of silence. It is a good silence. "I think," he says, "that if I turn out to be half as good a father to our three boys as my father was to me, then I'll be very happy indeed."
Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.
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