The Bequest

A small-town newspaper editor goes searching for his biological mother, a search complicated by a gift he receives from another writer: a Russian mindreader character, a character he has no interest in, who nonetheless begins having mental arguments with him, dictates chapters of his own story and eventually shows up on the street, demanding a job and an advance on salary because ‘I’m your character, you owe me.’ At the same time, he meets a woman on the Internet who is deeply attracted to aspects of his personality he’s desperately trying to suppress, and his business is threatened by the thing he hoped would save it-the memoirs of a famous Senator who might be slightly (or maybe not so slightly) demented.

For an excerpt, click here.

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What follows is a true story, notwithstanding the fact that it’s caused every woman I’ve shared it with to back away from me like I had plague:

I always knew I was adopted; my parents told me from the earliest age. But they always said they knew nothing about my parents and I decided it didn’t matter anyway; my parents were the ones who raised me.

And then I was staying at my mother’s house for a few days after moving out of my marriage and, while watching television one night, she said, “It’s so funny, you being a writer. Did I ever tell you your mother was a writer? I remember watching a TV show in the Fifties and it said ‘Screenplay by Betty Ulius’ and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s Ted’s mother.'”

And I said, “Can you just hold that thought a minute” and went into the bathroom, wrote the name down on a piece of paper (I still have it) and couldn’t talk to her about it for a year and a half. It was like I’d been struck by lightning.

As a result, I started writing a book about a writer who receives a similar revelation and goes searching for his mother-this is how I process things. That book would go pretty well for a few days and then fizzle out. Around the same time, my son asked me to make up a superhero for him. I made up a Soviet mind control artist, a vestige of the Cold War, Max Renn, and after he’d gone home to his mother, I started playing around with the character, writing some vignettes in his voice and generally trying to figure out what to do with him. Those stories would go well and fizzle out after a while as well.

And then, one morning I woke up and they were the same story. What joined them was a third story: Living in Los Angeles in 1979, I was trying to break into the movies as a writer, to no avail. I was invited to a party at a friend’s house, a woman whose father had been a director in the days of live television drama. At the party, I met an experienced writer-I call him Tom Roberts in the book. I was introduced as someone trying to break into film. He introduced himself by telling me the films he was most known for-at which point, I decided he was a total hack. And then proceeded to have a fascinating two-hour conversation with the guy, who had twenty good ideas and energy to burn. No one wants my good ideas, he complained, only the crap.

At the end of the evening, I was left with two thoughts: One, I’d learned a lesson about not judging people too quickly and two, I was totally confused as to why he’d shared all his ideas with me. In LA, then and now, that’s poison-if I’d had a producer friend, I could have had his ideas in production three days later and he’d have had no recourse. So I went home from the party that night determined to forget everything he’d told me.

Two days later, my friend came to work upset. What’s wrong? A friend of my parents left the party the other night and killed himself. Who? Who else? Tom Roberts. The guy backed up the truck and fed me his inventory, all his ideas and characters and went to the hotel and offed himself. And all I could remember of it even two days later was ‘Nijinski in Hollywood’ which was not the best idea by any stretch.

I’d felt guilty about this for twenty years by this stage and I thought: Okay, I don’t remember his characters but at least I can use his story in my own. So, in ‘The Bequest’, my lead character goes to a party in the second chapter and meets Tom Roberts, who bequeaths him Max Renn, the Soviet mindreader character. Who proceeds to take over his life but good-and for the good, in the end.

So I’d put together three elements that had nothing to do with each other: a writer searching for his biological mother, receiving an unwanted character from a writer who then committed suicide, and the character then gradually coming to life on him.

A year later, I’ve finished the first draft and finally go back to my mother to say ‘Tell me about my biological mother.’ She doesn’t know much, really but she gives me the right spelling of the last name-I’d tried everything but the obvious. And I quickly find 27 scripts in the Yale University library and a listing on another page that went something like this: ‘The Star and the Story, 1955; Edmond O’Brien, Joanne Woodward: A writer’s character comes alive and takes over his life.’ And I thought, Jesus, she wrote the same story I just did, 40-some years earlier.

I contacted the family eventually through the Writer’s Guild-my mother had passed away a few years earlier. And, a few months later, received three boxes of my mother’s effects, jewelry, papers and scripts from them, cherished possessions for me.

The first script I pulled from the box was a US Steel Hour, Trap for a Stranger, February 25,1959, George C. Scott, Teresa Wright and Dick Van Dyke, directed by Alex Segal-and I lost my breath. Alex Segal’s house was where I met Tom Roberts. Cindy Segal, his daughter, invited me to the party that night.

At this point, the Twilight Zone music began in my head. It got worse a few days later when I was telling this story to a friend of mine in LA. ‘You’re missing a piece,’ he said. My mother collaborated (with Jack Nicholson under a pseudonym) on one feature film, a psychedelic film called ‘Psych-Out’ in 1967 for American International Pictures. My friend pointed out that Tom Roberts’ biggest (box-office) film was produced by American International Pictures in 1967-he and my mother probably knew each other. Surely, at very least, they went to the same cocktail parties.

Which led to one last crazy moment. Going through her pictures, I came upon a few of her in the late Seventies and froze. At that same party, I’d met one other person after Tom and I had finished our chat-a very short older woman writer who walked up to me apropos of nothing and whom I felt very comfortable with. I got no one’s name that night-this was before I understood networking for business purposes. But God, the woman in the picture looked familiar. So I might have actually met my mother that evening for a little while. After all, she knew Alex Segal and Tom Roberts-she was part of the clique. I remember at the time feeling a little funny about how the older woman had come right up to me-it made me suspicious at first, though that dropped away once we started talking.

So that’s the story and I’ll never have to tell it again-I can just refer people to this page. It’s all true and I haven’t the slightest belief that anyone will ever believe it. But Cindy Segal, if you’re out there somewhere-contact me. I’d love to know if you remember Betty-and if she might have been at that party.

One Response to The Bequest

  1. Rebecca says:

    What an amazing story! Well told Ted. Thank you for sharing it. You truly are an amazing writer. I guess this means I have to get an e-reader…

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