Bill Zehme, master of the celebrity profile, journalism’s ‘bastard stepchild,’ dies at 64

Chicago author Bill Zehme had a genius for writing celebrity profiles and making friends. He wrote biographies of Frank Sinatra, Andy Kaufman and Jay Leno.

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Sun-Times file

Bill Zehme was a master of the celebrity profile, capturing the flesh-and-blood person behind the persona.

Sun-Times file

Bill Zehme was your pal, and Frank Sinatra’s.

Whether you were an unknown Chicago writer just starting out, or a king of late-night television, Zehme would turn his full attention and his Midwestern charm in your direction and make you feel as cool as a Bombay Sapphire martini, straight up, with a twist, at Jilly’s.

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Bill Zehme wrote “Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’ ” in 1997. “It took me a long, long time to learn what I now know. I’d like to pass that on to younger people,” the crooner said.

A writer for Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Playboy and other top-shelf magazines back when magazines really mattered, Zehme pierced the shiny veneer of celebrity to capture the flesh-and-blood person within, writing best-selling books on Jay Leno, Andy Kaufman and his idol, Sinatra.

Zehme, 64, died Sunday at Weiss Memorial Hospital after a long battle with cancer.

“Bill was first and foremost an incredibly talented writer who had this rare ability to get inside the head and heart of famous people, everyone from Andy Kaufman and Frank Sinatra, very much with my dad,” said Christie Hefner, the daughter of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and former chairwoman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises. “He was a personal friend, one of the loveliest and funniest men I ever knew.”

Zehme was a master of the celebrity profile, a form he looked askance at.

“I’m really not interested in most people,” he confessed to Ted Allen in Chicago magazine in 1996. “The celebrity profile is the bastard stepchild of journalism, and I’m embarrassed sometimes to be associated with it.”

He shouldn’t have been.

“Bill got people to talk to him who wouldn’t talk to anyone else, even members of their own families,” said Bob Kurson, former Sun-Times writer and best-selling author of “Shadow Divers.” “And you only had to join him for a single dinner in a darkened corner of a good steakhouse to understand how that happened — he was genuinely interested in people, even if there was nothing in it for him, especially if there was nothing in it for him.”

“He was able to remind me of things I’d almost forgotten and then shape and structure them,” Leno said in “Leading with My Chin,” the autobiography Zehme co-wrote with the comedian and late-night star. Zehme wrote not one but two memoirs for Regis Philbin.

“He is, of course, the King of the First Sentence,” screenwriter Cameron Crowe wrote in his introduction to Zehme’s 2002 collection, “Intimate Strangers,” profiling stars from Tom Hanks to Johnny Depp, Woody Allen to Madonna, who Zehme gave a lift to in his car. “Like a great tour guide, he beckons you into the inner sanctum, whispering in your ear with a comic and sometimes poignant voice that says this is just between us.”

Zehme got naked with Sharon Stone and was the last person to interview Johnny Carson. He spent years meticulously researching Carson’s life, only to abandon the long-delayed project due to illness, one of the great might-have-beens of the biographer’s art.

“Bill completed the first half of his Johnny Carson book, his magnum opus, and it was a masterpiece,” said Kurson. “And he might have finished but always felt compelled to interview a third cousin he’d just discovered, or a friend of a friend of a friend who’d emerged from his research and had a wonderful anecdote to add.”

The son of Suzanne and Robert Zehme, who owned a florist shop in Flossmoor, Bill grew up in South Holland. He graduated from Loyola University in 1980.

“Chicago will be lonely without him, and so will I,” said Nancy Sinatra, Frank’s daughter.

“He was a true Chicagoan through and through,” said WGN radio host Bob Sirott. “He never got jaded. He never lost that, ‘Can you believe that I had lunch with Johnny Carson!?’ excitement. Maybe part of that is the kid from Chicago, who grew up around here. He was just as excited to meet Jack Brickhouse as he was to meet all of these huge stars.”

“It was so much fun for us to know Bill,” said Sirott. “He was our link to an era of show business that had passed. “

Zehme’s marriage ended in divorce after four years.

Survivors include his daughter, Lucy Reeves, and sister, Janet “Betsy” Archer. When he died, he was holding the hand of his sister and his girlfriend, Jenny Engstrom. “He waited for us to get there today to say goodbye,” Engstrom said. “A gentleman to the very last.”

He was very helpful to writers starting out.

“I met Bill when I was a data-entry clerk for the Sun-Times and cold-called him at the height of his powers, after he’d written several classic books and had already established himself on the Mount Rushmore of magazine writers,” Kurson said. “And he spent a couple hours on the phone with me, all while telling me it was his honor to help me.”

“He was also incredibly kind,” said Hefner. “He literally skipped a chemotherapy session to speak at my dad’s memorial. He’s been battling cancer for years, heroically. This is one of those moments where you feel grateful someone you care about is at peace. There are people who know a lot of people, and are known by a lot of people, and then there are people who are cared for by a lot of people. Bill was a tried-and-true friend who is going to leave behind an army of very sad friends.”

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