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Hailey's comet of best-sellers

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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region July 13, 1997

Hailey's comet of best-sellers

By William A. Davis Globe Staff, 12/13/82

NASSAU, the Bahamas - A talk with Arthur Hailey is a friendly, relaxed experience, but no casual matter.

Two armed guards in a radio cruiser lead the way to his pleasant, unpretentious, canalside home in Layford Cay. While one guard keeps an unwinking watch, the other rings the doorbell and personally ascertains that, yes indeed, Mr. Hailey is expecting company.

A tanned and tieless Hailey awaits: "Layford Cay is really a casual, informal sort of place - but a very private one." It is an unexpected understatement from an author whose best-selling novels are characterized by overstatement, full-blooded prose and one-dimensional characters.

A pink-walled compound on the outskirts of Nassau, Layford Cay is a retreat for the rich, famous and powerful, where movie stars can take off toupees and unwind, heads of government put down portfolios and the cares of state. There are about 170 houses in Layford Cay; only 20 belong to more-or- less-permanent residents. Hailey and second wife, Sheila - to whom he has been married 32 years - are among them.

Hailey, who estimates that nearly 110 million copies of his nine published novels have been sold worldwide, is reluctant to discuss personal finances other than make another obvious understatement: "I have made rather a lot of money."

And that is what brought the Haileys to the Bahamas in the first place: "We came 13 years ago on the advice of our tax lawyer, planning to stay for just two years but found we loved it here. The people are warm and friendly and the government is stable."

Both the Haileys were born in Britain but are Canadian citizens. (They met and married in Toronto.) Unlike US citizens, who must pay American income taxes regardless of where they live, they can take full advantage of Bahamian tax laws, or rather the lack of them: There are no sales, income or inheritance taxes.

At 62, Hailey is silver-haired but trim and vigorous. He appears at ease and very much at home among the reclusive nabobs of Layford Cay. But while seeming to the manor born, he freely admits it was far from a manor in which he grew up. Born into a working-class family in Luton, a drab hat- manufacturing city in the English Midlands, Hailey was forced to drop out of school when he was 14, a fact of Depression life about which he has no regrets. "I've never really missed the lack of a high school education."

He credits his mother with keeping him out of the Luton mills, the almost inevitable fate of his peers. She saw that he took a commercial course that enabled him to get an office job. Alas, he was fired for sloppy typing. "I typed a letter about a real estate deal and left a nought (zero) off the price . . . The party who got the letter accepted the written figure; it took rather a long while to sort out."

Not a man to repeat mistakes, Hailey quickly turned himself into a letter- perfect touch-typist who today works on an IBM electronic memory typewriter (he owns two) and is about to move on to a word processor.

At the start of World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a private, finishing the war as a pilot with the rank of flight lieutenant. In 1947, he immigrated to Canada, mainly for political reasons: "I didn't like the way things were going in England under socialism." He remains an avowed conservative and ardent believer in unfettered free enterprise. "Most people think I'm an American, but I'll always keep my Canadian citizenship - the most important things in my life happened in Canada."

After a lot of door pounding, Hailey, then 27, found a job as an editor with a Toronto trade journal. A few years later, he launched his own advertising and public relations company.

While flying back to Toronto after a business trip to western Canada, Hailey had the daydream that transformed his life: What would happen, he imagined, if tainted airline food put the pilot and copilot out of commission? The plane would be bound to crash unless, by a lucky chance, one of the passengers was - like him - a rusty but still serviceable former Air Force pilot.

He turned the daydream into a 1957 television play, "Zero Hour," one of the most-watched TV dramas in Canadian television history, and eventually into his first best-selling novel: "Flight into Danger" (released in the United States as "Runway Zero Eight").

Although his advertising business was doing well, Hailey abandoned it after the success of his first book to concentrate exclusively on writing. Even now, he continues the regimen he began then: He rises early, works for about an hour before breakfast and then, after eating, does a set of Royal Canadian Air Force exercises and returns to his typewriter. He added the exercises to his routine about 20 years ago in a typically disciplined response to an interviewer's description of him as "portly," an adjective no one has been able to use since.

The result of Hailey's professional industry has been a clutch of screenplays ("a film takes a year of your life and a year out of your life") and a steady steam of best-selling novels: "The Final Diagnosis" (1959), "In High Places" (1962), "Hotel" (1965), "Airport" (1968), "Wheels" (1971), "Promises to Pay" (1974), "The Moneychangers (1975) and "Overload" (1979). Almost all have been international best-sellers, and Hailey has been translated into more than 30 languages.

He is a meticulous researcher who usually spends about a year boning up on his subject, several weeks preparing "a plan" for the book, and another year or more writing and rewriting. "I bleed when I write, I always have."

Although the reading public has been enthusiastic, critics have often been less than kind to Hailey.

"His characters swarm through the book like bores at a cocktail party," said the New York Times of "The Money Lenders." Hailey, who says his personal literary heroes are Somerset Maugham and Herman Wouk, shrugs off such criticism. "All I want them to write on my tombstone is: He Was A Good Storyteller.' "

After the publication of "Overload," Hailey announced his retirement, saying he planned to devote his time to fishing - a power cruiser is parked in the canal beside his house - and his family. He has six children, three by each marriage, and two grandchildren. It is, he says, a close family.

What brought him out of retirement was, of all things, heart surgery. In 1980, when a routine checkup revealed a clogged artery, he had a quadruple bypass at a Houston hospital. "After the operation I felt so much more energetic, I decided to go back to work." His current project is now in the writing stage, the complex and character-studded plan for it covering 54 typewritten pages. It is an in-depth industrial expose of the kind Hailey now has a virtual patent on; this time the target is the pharmaceutical industry.

Hailey works in a remarkably uncluttered, six-sided study adjacent to, but set apart from, the rest of the house. Aside from encyclopedias and a few reference works, the walls are lined from floor to ceiling with various editions of his books. "We are running out of shelf space," he notes with satisfaction. On his desk is a carving of a kiwi, New Zealand's nonflying national bird. "The kiwi eats 600 worms a day," he said, "and I write 600 words a day."

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