Well, the clouds have cleared, at least enough for me to write a little of what I had intended to write, earlier. Mike Hamilburg’s memorial is this weekend and I thought it a good time to relate what it was that made him so amazing, at least to me, anyway.
I first met Mike in the late 1990s when my efforts to get a publisher for Lee Marvin Point Blank were beginning to become extremely frustrating. I had already gone through two other not-so-competent agents and was submitting my proposal to major publishers on my own. NOT something I would suggest to any fledgling author plying their wares. The result invariably meant unread returned submissions stamped, “We do not accept unsolicited material.” Sigh.
At the time I was working as an assistant editor at Long Beach’s Jewish Community Chronicle under the auspices of one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with, Harriette Ellis. I learned much under her tutelage but just as impressive was her surprising connections. Sensing my frustration, she decided to contact her nephew, Harold Myerson, who at the time was managing editor at The L.A. Weekly. When he and I spoke he told me the best agent he knew of was Mike Hamilburg and proceeded to put us in contact with each other. Keep in mind, this was before the days of Google searches, so I had no real way to know anything about Mike. My frustration grew but I sent him my proposal, anyway. What could I lose?
After he read it, I came to his office on Wilshire Blvd to discuss the proposal. The outer office was occupied by his secretary, Joanie, who led me into Mike’s office. There was no wood paneling or fancy furniture: just a simple work station set-up with Mike behind a series of desks to do just that, work. We exchanged pleasantries while I drank in one of the most impressive images I’ve ever seen.
Behind him, on the wall, was a massive mural-like poster of one of my favorite underrated 70s films, The Yakuza. I took great comfort in that and asked Mike if he was fan. “Fan? No, I co-produced it,” he off-handedly responded. I was now even more impressed! When I told him how much I always like the film, he jokingly muttered, “Oh, you’re the one.” By the way, over time I would ask Mike about the film, to gain some inside info on its production and he would offer such comments as, “My main responsibilty was to keep Robert Mitchum sober….and I really didn’t do a a very good job.”
We got down to business almost immediately which I found not only refreshing but quite amazing. Following a brief a discussion, he picked up the phone and right in front of me started talking to various acquistion editors to see if they’d be interested in my proposal. Then, he asked me how many copies can I get to him to send out. This guy was constantly amazing me from moment to moment. I asked him if the proposal needed any tweaking or punching up, as I had only written it based on some ‘How-to’ books I had come across. He reached in his desk drawer, rifled through some pages inside, pulled out several previous proposals from his clients and said, “Here, study these to get a sense of what works best.” I took them, shook his hand and drove home.
Those proposals? Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Team Of Rivals, which later became the basis of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012); Robert Butler’s The White Mile (1994), which Hamilburg co-produced as a TV-movie starring Alan Alda; Virginia Morell’s Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings (1995), which became a TV documentary. Pretty heady stuff!
The result, after carefully going over these wonderful examples, was a much better proposal of Lee Marvin: Point Blank. I then personally returned the samples to Mike by hand, which impressed him no end. From that moment on, we trusted and liked each other unconditionally.
Unlike my previous agents, who always seemed exasperated when I called to check in on any progress, Mike called ME on a regular basis. At one point, a young editor at Penguin named Hillery Borton was extremely enthused with the proposal and Mike put me in direct contact with her. Unfortunately, as enthusiastic as she was, when she put the idea before her editorial board, the answer was the same as previous publishers: Nobody is interested in a bio on a long dead film star. A very small publisher offered an even smaller advance and on Mike’s advice (“Might as well take it and get the damned thing published….My percentage will be a free copy of the book.”), I begrdugingly took the offer.
Time passed, my parents’ health began to deterioate and I had to deal with their mounting issues. In the interim, on my girlfriend Barbara’s very wise advice, I returned the paltry advance to the publisher in hopes of reconnecting with Hamilburg sometime in the future.
Okay, flash forward a few years. After dealing with the nightmare of my parents’ demise — my dad of Alzeheimer’s in 2005 and my mom from heart disease in 2008 — I gambled on Mike Hamilburg still being in business, or at the very least, still alive and willing to offer some help. Turns out, he was very much alive, semi-retired and most amazing of all, STILL willing to pitch my Lee Marvin bio. A lot more tweaking followed and since Mike never believed in contracts with his clients, at least not with me anyway, I asked him in an e-mail if he’d be willing to go on record as my agent……
After several months of redrafting the proposal and then several get-togethers with Mike to discuss it at Early World, his favorite old-timey restaraunt, he launched a battle plan. Several offers came in, and in 2012, I signed the contract with Tim Schaffner of Schaffner Press. It was a little bumpy at first and pretty scary but Mike kept reassuring me during the process with such pearls of wisdom as, “I fully believe that when the book comes out, Lee Marvin fans will come out from behind the curtain.”
I would like to write some more of Mike’s valuable insights but I’ve gone too long here, already. Suffice to say, as usual, Mike was right. In June of 2014 Lee Marvin: Point Blank was #4 on the e-book non-fiction New York Times Best Seller List, as well as #3 on The Wall Street Journal list and Publisher’s Weekly.
Mike Hamilburg. The rarest thing I’ve ever encountered. An honest agent. A perservering mentor. A good friend. More than just the last of his kind and the best of it. A true mensch.
– Dwayne Epstein