''Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein'' -- Steven Gaines and Sharon Churcher's controversial coverage of the fashion designer almost prevents its publication

By Dana Kennedy
Updated May 20, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Shortly after the unauthorized biography Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein was finally published, author Steven Gaines was making an unscheduled stop in a gay bookstore in West Hollywood to sign copies when he felt someone’s gaze. He looked up and locked eyes with Klein’s longtime friend, media mogul David Geffen, whom Gaines and coauthor Sharon Churcher believe tried to kill their book. ”It was so startling,” says Gaines. ”It must have been startling for him, too. All my life I’ve heard the expression ‘My blood ran cold,’ but never until that morning did I know what that meant.”

Gaines says Geffen quickly left the store after their silent ”three-second stare” on April 30. But it was a fitting footnote to one of the more chilling tales in recent publishing history-and we’re referring not to the dishy and salacious book itself, but rather to the story behind the book. Mysteriously dropped by its original publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons-which still paid the authors the $400,000 advance promised them-then rejected by several other major houses, the book was eventually published by Steven Schragis’ privately owned Carol Publishing. This time, the authors got only $20,000.

Obsession refers to both Calvin Klein’s best-selling perfume and his ferocious ambition. The book is an entertaining, if formulaic, biography of one of the world’s most famous fashion designers. It’s also an exhaustively researched chronicle of the ascent of a man whose life mirrors America’s post- Vietnam War roller coaster of sex, drugs, rock, and redemption. The book tracks Klein from his Bronx childhood to the drug-infested citadels of ’70s gay promiscuity such as Studio 54, ending with a sober Klein married to his second wife, Kelly Rector. Surprisingly, the book does not portray Klein as a closeted homosexual in a sham marriage; rather, it says he is a conflicted bisexual who occasionally falls for women.

Obsession with Klein’s story also drove the two authors to overcome what they say was the biggest obstacle in getting the book out: the increasing difficulty of publishing controversial books about powerful people at a time when so many major publishers are owned by multimedia companies.

At present, MCA owns Putnam, Paramount owns Simon & Schuster, Twentieth Century Fox owns HarperCollins, and Time Warner owns Warner Books and Little, Brown (as well as Entertainment Weekly). ”Because the entertainment companies own the book companies, you have censorship about people in entertainment,” says Martin Garbus, a lawyer who has represented Gaines and Churcher as well as several other authors whose books were dropped prior to publication. In recent months, biographies of Walt Disney by Marc Eliot and Garbus client Robert Sam Anson were dropped by Bantam and Simon & Schuster, respectively; S& S also struck the memoirs of Paramount producer Bob Evans from its list. Both publishers deny they canceled the books because of internal pressure. (All three books have since been picked up by smaller publishers.)

Don’t expect to see much about Obsession on network TV, either. Gaines says he has not been booked on any of the morning shows or nightly newsmagazines. ”Calvin Klein means advertising dollars they don’t want to lose,” he claims.

Behind the scenes, the story of Obsession contains a subplot that involves openly gay men (Gaines and two editors) effectively outing a man (Klein) who is friends with equally steely and even more powerful men who don’t care to publicize their sexual preferences. Although the book includes graphic details about Klein’s gay life, Gaines, the best-selling author of biographies of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Halston, dismisses those revelations as long being an open secret. ”We think calling this an outing is ridiculous,” he says. ”Does Calvin need to be outed?”

While Gaines and Churcher are naturally voluble on the subject, given its publicity value, few others are talking. Putnam will respond only with a terse, nine-month-old statement saying, ”Given the authors’ eagerness to have the book out as soon as possible, we gave them permission to seek other prospective publishers who would release it on a faster schedule.” (Neither Putnam CEO and chairman Phyllis Grann nor George Coleman, the openly gay editor of the Putnam manuscript, returned phone calls.)

Gaines and Churcher believe that Putnam, which is owned by MCA, was pressured to kill the book by Geffen-a major MCA shareholder-and his friends in the corporation. According to the authors, they signed their contract with Putnam in March 1990, two days after MCA bought Geffen’s record company for about $550 million worth of MCA stock. The book points out that Geffen’s bond with Klein is so strong that in 1992 he bailed out the then-ailing Calvin Klein Ltd. by buying all outstanding debt securities for about $45 million.

Nevertheless, Gaines has no hard evidence connecting Geffen to Putnam’s decision to drop the book. Geffen, through spokesman Roy Hamm, denies all allegations that he tried to stop the book. He also denies he was in the West Hollywood bookstore, A Different Light, when Gaines was there, even though the store owner says that three clerks saw him. An executive close to both Geffen and Klein is willing to go on the record. Howard Rosenman, president of the motion picture department at the Hollywood management firm Brillstein-Grey, labeled Gaines ”an ambulance chaser who speaks to the lowest elements of society.” Rosenman calls Klein a ”great designer and a great person. Of course he’ll survive this. Gaines will continue on the outside of society like the bottom-feeder he is.”

Klein’s office says the designer will not comment on the book. During a recent appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live talk show, Klein claimed he had no interest in reading Obsession and that no one close to him had spoken to the authors. So far, only two of the hundreds of people quoted in the book have said publicly they never spoke to the authors. One who did, designer Zack Carr, had already quit working for Klein when he was interviewed in 1987 by Gaines and Churcher. In 1990, Carr rejoined Klein’s company and is still there. ”A lot of people stuck their necks out to help us,” says Churcher. ”Now we don’t know what’s happening to them.”

Gaines says the real drama behind Obsession began to unfold in March 1993, when he got a phone call from Coleman, his editor at Putnam. Coleman, says Gaines, warned him that he was about to hear a ”phenomenal rumor” that Gaines and Churcher would be paid $5 million not to publish the biography. Gaines says he also began getting calls from people connected with Hollywood’s gay elite mentioning Geffen’s displeasure with the book.

After the false $5 million rumor, Gaines says he began hearing more troubling news from Coleman. ”I got monthly reports,” claims Gaines. ”At one point George said, ‘Can you take Geffen out of the book?’ Another message was, ‘David doesn’t care what you write about Calvin, he just doesn’t want to be embarrassed.’ Then I was told they wanted to wait to publish the book until after Calvin was dead. I was, like, ‘What do you mean? He’s not even sick!”’

In June 1993, after New York Daily News gossip columnist Linda Stasi reported the book was canceled, Gaines’ agent, John Hawkins, met with Coleman and Grann, who made the amazing offer to pay the authors the full amount of their contract while also giving them ”permission” to seek other publishers. Normally, if a book lands with another publisher, the authors must return any money they’ve been advanced. ”Extraordinary pressure must have been put on them from somewhere,” says Gaines. ”It’s wacky. I’m not angry with them, even if they didn’t publish the book.”

For a while, though, Gaines and Churcher were worried no one else would take Obsession. According to Gaines, who won’t name names, six major publishers turned it down. Then Bruce Shostak, a gay editor at Carol, brought the manuscript to his boss, Schragis, who has a history of picking up sensational, orphaned tomes (A Woman Named Jackie). ”I used to come into the office joking about whether Geffen or Calvin had called,” says Schragis. ”But they never did. I admit I’d be in awe of meeting Geffen, but he’s in no position to tell us what to do.”

As Obsession does a brisk business in bookstores (the first printing of 75,000 is sold out), Gaines and Churcher can now afford to be charitable. ”This kind of thing toughens you up in the end,” says Churcher. ”But Calvin’s been quite a gentleman. He hasn’t expressed any desire except to go on with his life. I think he’s extraordinarily brave.”