One September day in 1984, Jay McInerney flew from his $250-a-month student apartment in Syracuse to a $250-a-night hotel bungalow in Hollywood.
He traveled first-class, of course; Columbia Pictures was picking up the tab and putting him up at the Chateau Marmont to write the first draft of a screenplay of Bright Lights, Big City. At the airport to greet him was a beautiful white stretch limousine.
"I'd never been to Los Angeles," he said. "It really blew my mind. And then I wrote the first draft and they said, 'Great, but we have to punch up the third act.' So I came to town for another meeting, and I was greeted by a Lincoln Town Car. And then the second draft went in and it needed one more rewrite, so I got to the airport, L.A.X., and there was no car waiting for me.
"So I called up the studio and they said, 'Why don't you take a cab in from the airport, Jay, and we'll reimburse you.' Then I wrote the third draft and never heard from anybody again."
The irony is that several directors and screenplays later, the final version of Bright Lights, Big City is a lot like that first draft he pounded out in six days at the Chateau Marmont—enough for the Writers Guild to award McInerney sole writing credit, even though director James Bridges claimed considerable input and fought for co-writing credit.
McInerney will not publicly criticize the Michael J. Fox movie—which puts him in a minority among critics and moviegoers—but after listening to him talk about it at length, it's clear that what he likes about the movie is that it made his book look better by comparison.
"As the author of a book," he asked one evening, after describing at length the ups and downs of his involvement in the movie's development, "would you be really sorry if they started every review saying it's not as good as the book? Do you know the name of the guy who wrote [the original novel] The Graduate? I rest my case."
THE SECRET OF HIS SUCCESS: "I'm trying to work out a personal equilibrium between the life and the work," he says. "I'm too young to be a one-note kind of guy. I have a more symphonic mind."
One more thing about Jay McInerney and the movie business: What he'd really like to do is direct.
As much as he fights the image of a literary celebrity, Jay McInerney cannot seem to help being one.
These days he lives in a West 11th Street apartment that once belonged to the novelist Robert Stone and before that to Dennis Hopper. He has an unlisted telephone number that he frequently changes and zealously guards, although his answering machine does provide up-to-the-minute information on his whereabouts: "I'm still somewhere in the 212 area code," it reports one day. At 12:45 P.M. the next day, it says, "I've gone to get a bite to eat and I'll be back by one." At this moment, it says that he is in Europe until the end of the month, which he is—promoting the publication of Story of My Life in England.
He is, at this writing, still married to his second wife, Merry, to whom he dedicated his first two novels; she lives in Ann Arbor, and he lives here. The Daily News's Billy Norwich recently wrote that McInerney's wife had started a divorce action—"That's news to me," McInerney says. At various times during the past year, he has been seen with Marla Hanson. He has been a regular at the Canal Bar, the Union Square Café, and M.K.—and not a regular at the Lion's Head or Ye Waverly Inn or the White Horse Tavern, among the places he suggested as an interview location. He dresses in the standard New York version of casual hip—a stylish sport jacket and T-shirt. (On his way to see M. Butterfly one night recently, in the middle of the scorching August heat wave, he wore a glen-plaid suit and black T-shirt.)
He owns a shotgun, which he uses for hunting grouse, and gets angry at "precious urbanites" who oppose using guns for sport. He also likes to drink, and it would appear that his current favorite beverage is Absolut on the rocks with a twist of lime. ("I used to drink Stolichnaya," he says, "until I was with some Russian writers and they said they preferred Swedish vodka.")
What seems to irk McInerney the most about celebrity are the pictures and gossip items and captions: From People to Women's Wear Daily, McInerney has become a fixture on the paparazzi circuit in the past four years. Still, until recently, he has not hesitated to go where he knows photographers will follow—nightclubs, parties, movie openings, and benefit dinners. "I'm actually starting to not go to places where I know I'll get spotted," he says. "I'm tired of it all." He is also bitter about incorrect items on the gossip pages; one item in particular, a tabloid story that had Gary Fisketjon asking him for a rewrite of his novel, caused him anguish. "It was completely false," he says.