Larry Collins

by Doron Geller

(The Jerusalem Post
March 22, 2001)

Larry Collins is frequently in Jerusalem these days. The co-author, with Dominique Lapierre, of O Jerusalem!, the best-seller about Israel's War of Independence, is hard at work on what will be his 11th book - one on the peace process in the Middle East.

Collins was expecting to write about the peace process with historical perspective on its completion. The sudden outbreak of the Palestinian violence in late September changed that.

In a recent interview, he is at a loss to explain what went wrong with the peace process. But one can be sure he is trying to understand in a way that he can convey the complexity and the humanity of it to his readers.

Collins, an American expatriate since the 1950s, is 70 years old. At well over six feet tall with a full head of white hair, he cuts quite an impressive figure - and is as active now as he was as a young and budding journalist decades ago. He divides his time between London and Saint-Tropez - where he is practically next-door neighbors with his former writing partner, Lapierre.

Although Collins and Lapierre haven't worked together since 1980, they remain good friends.

For the interview at Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel, he is dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt; his strong face and confident demeanor give one the impression of a retired army general rather than a best-selling author. In fact, he did spend some time in the navy and was almost sent to Korea in the early 1950s. But he became a journalist instead.

O Jerusalem! is one of Collins's most successful books to date - and many visitors to Israel consider it a must. Its fast-paced and exciting style might lead one to think the book was a fictionalized account of the 1948 war or, at the least, thatsome dramatic elements were added in for effect. But that's not the case. The book was written after five years of intensive research and thousands of interviews conducted by Collins and Lapierre.

It is not, however, Collins's best-selling work. Of his 10 books (five of which he co-authored with Lapierre) The Fifth Horseman, a novel about Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi stealing a nuclear device and planting it in New York, has sold the best to date, six million copies since its publication in 1980. O Jerusalem! is his second best-selling book, at three million copies.

"Any time you write a novel, you have a better chance of selling more books than [when you write] nonfiction," he says. Four of his 10 books are novels. Just about all of his writings, however, whether fiction or nonfiction, have sold well, several having been translated into 15 languages, including Hebrew, Turkish and Arabic.

Collins was born in 1930 in Hartford, Connecticut. He grew up there as "a strict Irish Catholic" but got to know many Jews in his community. He had no strong feelings towards Jews. In fact, he says, "When the parish priests said 'these aren't our people' - they were talking about the Italians, and not the Jews."

More than that, in the Waspy country club nearby, "Jews couldn't get in, but neither could I, because I was Irish Catholic."

He went to Loomis, one of the country's finest prep schools, in the 1940s. "I met a lot of Jews there." The captain of the football team, Larry Eisenberg, was one of them. Eisenberg recently retired after a long and distinguished career as a psychiatrist, during which he served as the dean of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Eisenberg recalls the two of them pelting each other with fruit on summer afternoons.

When O Jerusalem! came out almost 30 years later, Collins inscribed a copy to Eisenberg with: "This portrait of the holy city - for all the apples we threw in the lost summer of our youth."

Collins attended Yale from 1947 to 1951, graduating with an economics degree. After that, he did a stint in the naval reserves ("I think I looked pretty good in my naval uniform," he recalls). After he hurt his back, the army sent him to Paris - "pure heaven," he recalls - to write puff pieces "on how well everyone got along in NATO. I got to know the bigwigs in the army there, and I decided that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent when I was released in early 1955."

He got a job at $65 a week in the Paris bureau of United Press, was sent to Rome in March 1957 ("not as much fun as Paris because no one cared about the Italian political situation"), and then was sent to Beirut at the end of 1957.

As UP's Middle East correspondent, Collins was responsible for covering Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. "There was always something interesting going on," he says, "and they sent me by plane all over the Middle East."

When American marines landed in Beirut in 1958, Collins was assigned to cover it. "This was the high point of my journalistic career."

After he had begun to make a name for himself, Newsweek offered him a job. He accepted and became a one-man Middle East bureau. In addition to the countries he was already covering, he was responsible for Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan and later India.

Collins became a very close friend of Jordan's King Hussein while covering the Middle East. They went on hunting trips together all over the Hashemite kingdom and Hussein would visit the Beduin tribes under his rule on these trips. Collins recalls one of their outings during which they passed through Wadi Rum, on the border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan. "It was through this pass that Lawrence of Arabia went and took Akaba from the Turks in World War I. At the time of our trip, it was an Arab Legion outpost, and it probably still is."

At night, camped out in tents, they used to talk about Egypt's president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Middle East. "Then the Beduin came and danced the debka; Hussein joined in and did it too, as they fired their weapons off into the air. He liked it. They knew that, and that's why he was able to rule so successfully for so long."

Kim Philby, a British citizen who was later exposed as a major Soviet spy, was part of Collins's and Hussein's inner circle, though neither of them suspected a thing. "The CIA whispered about Kim Philby, but I thought it was all b.s., McCarthyism. He was a really cool guy and he drank like a bloody fish. I thought that anyone who drank like that couldn't keep a secret. But it turned out he could do both."

Collins first visited east Jerusalem in 1959 when it was under Jordanian control. A visit to west Jerusalem would not come until 1962, just before he returned to Paris as correspondent for Newsweek.

It was in the French capital that he renewed an old friendship with Dominique Lapierre, who had been a young boy during the German occupation of France. The two decided it would be a great idea to collaborate on a French-American project, which evolved into Is Paris Burning? in 1964. A huge success, the book was made into a very popular movie.

Less than a year later, Collins devoted himself to writing books full time. In that context, on another visit to Israel, in 1966, the writing duo saw the burned-out trucks on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, got very excited about it, and decided to explore the story behind them. Their curiosity and excitement led to the writing of O Jerusalem!. Israel's victory in 1967 led to free access to both sides of the city, which made their research a lot easier. But their efforts extended far beyond Jerusalem. They went all over the Middle East, interviewing and gathering information on the 1948 war.

Collins recalls that "the Jordanians and Lebanese were very cooperative back then, [and] even Egypt - and they all knew we were talking to the Israelis. In fact, they all talked, except [for] the Syrians." The pair hired two locals to help out with finding people, setting up interviews, and typing up and translating reams of documents. On the Israeli side, they hired Lily Rivlin, an Israeli who now lives in New York. In the east of the city, they were put in touch with a young Christian Arab woman. She spoke Arabic and French while Rivlin spoke Hebrew and English. "They were terrific," Collins says.

Rivlin is now a writer, filmmaker and prominent feminist in New York. She recalls working with Collins and Lapierre as "the best job I ever had, and I've done a lot of good things. It was a peak experience, really the height of everything. It was the perfect match. I was in my 20s at the time, I was doing some writing, I had a political-science background, and I had worked as a freelancer for Time magazine. I was a trained researcher, too, as I was studying for my doctorate at Berkeley."

Collins's and Lapierre's Christian Arab researcher (who, although interviewed in her east Jerusalem home, prefers to remain anonymous) recalls that she and the Collins-Lapierre team had "an excellent relationship. It wasn't a relationship of employer and employee. I felt like they were my friends and we were collaborating together."

Interestingly, neither woman knew the other was working for the authors. Told about her fellow researcher in east Jerusalem three decades later, Rivlin responded, "I never knew her name. I'd like to meet her. It never occurred to me that she lived in Jerusalem."

The contacts the two women provided led to meetings with fascinating figures in the history of the state. Collins recalls interviewing the 80-something-year-old David Ben-Gurion at his home in Sde Boker. "He agreed to meet us couple of goys. At first he was very reserved. But when he saw how much work we had already done, he really opened up and became very cooperative. Altogether, we went to see him six times.

"I was really impressed that he was milking the cows, tending the goats - and this man was the father of his country! He was really committed to his people, his country and his ideals. I liked him enormously."

One of the people Ben-Gurion put them in touch with was Gita Sherover, whose family built the Sherover Center for the Performing Arts in Jerusalem's Talbieh neighborhood, as well as the capital's Sherover Promenade. Born in Germany, Sherover immigrated to Palestine in her teens and fought in the Hagana. Later she became a close friend of David Shaltiel, commander of Jerusalem during the War of Independence.

As Collins recalls, when wealthy "American Jewish businessman Miles Sherover came to Israel for a visit, Gita was his guide, and they fell in love and got married. We would go over to their house three or four times a week. Everybody who was anybody would come in."

They met Yigael Yadin, IDF chief of operations in 1948 and a world-famous archaeologist by the 1960s. Collins met Golda Meir and describes her as "a real Jewish mama. She served coffee in the kitchen, just as everyone said." He also met David Elazar, who became chief of General Staff prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He describes Elazar as "a big, tough guy, really good-looking, and a legend in his time. Women swooned over him. [Sophia Loren] just flipped out over him." In 1948, Elazar "had led the third and final IDF assault on Zion Gate. He walked us through there."

Collins interviewed the former Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini in Beirut. He also interviewed John Glubb in England. Glubb was commander of the Jordanian Arab Legion from 1939 to 1956, and thus led King Abdullah's troops in the 1948 war. Collins recalls him as "fascinating. Here was a guy who spent his entire life with the Beduin in the desert, but the amazing thing for a guy so integrated into the Arab lifestyle and mentality was that in his home he had nothing to remind you of his former life or his past with them. It was as if he had dropped a curtain on his life there when Hussein kicked him out in 1956."

Rivlin did much of the interviewing for their chapter on Deir Yassin, where, in 1948, members of IZL and Lehi carried out seven hours of house-to-house fighting against armed Arab irregulars holed up in the village. By the end of the fighting, the number of Arab dead was close to 200, many of them noncombatants being used as civilian shields by the irregulars. It was perceived by many as the deliberate slaughter of civilians by Jewish extremists and the Jewish Agency disassociated itself from it. In the book, the authors write: "The dark pillar of smoke rising from the rock quarry of Deir Yassin would become a stain on the conscience of a new state".

"[Menachem] Begin was furious at how we described Deir Yassin. We, in fact, didn't interview him much when working on O Jerusalem!," recalls Rivlin. "We did interview Yitzhak Rabin in Washington. He had a big map of Israel in his office - he was the Israeli ambassador to Washington back then. He sat me down and talked for over half an hour. It was the most brilliant tactical exposé of the battle for the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. I suspect that when he was organizing a military operation, he did it with a remarkable degree of precision. No one else could explain battles in such concise and precise terms."

Rivlin, who after interviewing 230 people and compiling thousands of pages of written material for Collins and Lapierre, says working with them "was the most exciting thing I've ever done. I kept going day and night. I could barely sleep, the material was just so amazing to me. I was wired, constantly wired, because of the material and because I was working with them. They had enormous energy. We all did.

"I've had no experiences of that caliber since. People wanted to tell their stories in the aftermath of the Six Day War - it was as if a closed part of their lives was suddenly opened up, and I was eager to hear all about it. It was like putting a puzzle together. I actually get chills remembering it now."

In many ways, researching for O Jerusalem! was a life-changing experience for Rivlin. "Many years have gone by, but very rarely have I come across people I respected as much as I did them. They were actively involved, as good journalists should be, in pursuing a story till its end. They were a unique duo."

Two of Collins's books, Is Paris Burning? and Fall From Grace, have been made into movies. O Jerusalem! has been on the brink of being made into a film for three decades now - but never seems to make it.

Movies, however, are merely icing on the cake. Writing, he says, is what keeps him going, as hard as it can be. "The writing in your room is never very much fun. What sticks out in my mind are the people and experiences I had. In every project, I've formed four or five life-long friendships. Friends from O Jerusalem! include Gita Sherover, Lily Rivlin, Abu-Rish, a Palestinian fighter from the Arab riots of 1936, Yigael Yadin, and Yekutiel (Xiel) Federmann [the owner of the King David Hotel and Dan Hotels in Israel]."

While working on his present book, Collins has kept in close contact with the friends he made more than three decades ago. One of Federmann's sons - now in the family hotel business - served in the same unit as outgoing prime minister Ehud Barak. Barak and Federmann remain quite close - a fact which did not hurt Collins's access to Barak as the country's leader. "That's the fun part about writing," he says. "You get to meet all kinds of interesting people who you would otherwise never have met." The actual writing process is "when you pay the piper for the dance. I'm not a solitary, shy guy by nature, but you have to be pretty isolated." On the other hand, "It's like giving birth when the book comes out. Then there's a letdown after it is completed."

After 10 successful books, Collins retains his modesty. When asked if he considers himself a gifted writer, he says, "No, I think I'm an okay writer." How does he turn out the books he does? "Work. The art of writing is rewriting."

Does he have any tips for young writers? "First of all, write. Read - read extensively."

If Collins hadn't been a successful writer and journalist, what would he have done? Laughing, he says, "Win Wimbledon."

And though Collins isn't saying when his next book is coming out, sources close to him say it may be published within six months.

Many Collins fans are waiting for it. If the pace and narrative style of O Jerusalem! are matched by his newest endeavor, it's sure to be a blockbuster.

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