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Getting celebrities to talk

The life of a stringer

Created date

April 6th, 2016

After 40 years writing for over half a dozen major newspapers and magazines, journalist Tom Nugent has met just about every namable celebrity. From Frank Sinatra and Evel Knievel to G. Gordon Liddy and Gerald Ford, Nugent has managed to track down and interview some of the most elusive characters.

The more difficult an interview is to get, the more he wants to get it. That’s Tom Nugent in a nutshell: an intrepid reporter with a gift for humor and storytelling—traits that readers will find in abundance in his novel The Stringer (Elysian Detroit, 2012).

As the title suggests, the book follows the escapades of a lowly stringer for People magazine, who, in the midst of covering the mysterious death of a former Maryland congressman, winds up caught in a deadly game of espionage. Despite the plot’s menacing tone, the story is brilliantly funny, based largely on Nugent’s own experiences as a journalist, which are actually much better than fiction.

Art imitates life

The narrative opens in the middle of stringer Tommy Moon’s futile, if noble, effort to get some usable quotes from Frank Sinatra, whose disdain for reporters was as renowned as his music. 

“That scene is very closely based on my encounter with Sinatra at the Long Island Coliseum in 1984,” says Nugent. “I was trying to interview him for a story I was writing for the Washington Times.”

Finding the crooner near his dressing room only minutes before he was to go on stage, Nugent sidled up to Ol’ Blue Eyes and asked him about his relationship with then President Ronald Reagan.

“He just glared at me and began shouting, ‘Hey, who is this guy?! Who is this guy?!,” Nugent recalls. “That’s when the massive, gun-toting bodyguards materialized, using their shoulders to push me out a backstage door and into a pouring rain.”

Nugent had traveled from Baltimore to New York in monsoon-like weather and left with three measly quotes: “Hey, who is this guy?!”; “Who is this guy?!”; and “I didn’t come here to talk politics with you!” What seemed like a failure was, in reality, a triumph, for he had accomplished what few journalists had done in years: He got Frank Sinatra to go on the record.

Using this sort of lively, autobiographical material in The Stringer, Nugent shows readers the lengths to which journalists are willing to go to get a story.

“In this business, you never know where your job will take you,” he says. “This was especially true when I was writing for People.”

From 1988 to 1996, Nugent worked as a stringer in the magazine’s Washington bureau, covering high-profile, celebrity-driven stories that were as spontaneous as they were captivating. At any given moment, his phone could ring with an assignment anywhere in the country.

One such call came in 1993, after the father of NBA superstar Michael Jordan was murdered in South Carolina. 

“My phone rang at 3 p.m.,” Nugent remembers. “I was on a plane by 5:30 and, that night, I was in the swamps of South Carolina, dodging water moccasins while a Lumbee Indian led me to the spot where he’d discovered the body.”

Dying breed

In many respects, this breed of hands-on journalism has become a lost art—a casualty of the Internet. Once rooted in exhaustive and, occasionally, dangerous legwork, news reporting in the twenty-first century is a sterile blend of phone calls, emails, and Google searches.

To hear this veteran journalist reminisce about his adventures is to relive the romance and excitement that characterized the profession when it was in its prime, that is, when newspapers and magazines were still fun to read, as Nugent likes to say. 

Semi-retired and in his early 70s, his days of chasing Sinatra and braving snake-infested swamps are behind him. But looking back at these experiences, he realized that his lifelong pursuit of stories is itself a good story.

“I thought to myself, my career is a wealth of material, a lot of it funny,” Nugent explains. “So I sat down and started writing a novel about the life of a reporter, couched in a fictional tale of Cold War politics and espionage.” 

As characters, Nugent used many of the colorful celebrities he’d interviewed over the years, including Sinatra, Henry Kissinger, G. Gordon Liddy, and Donald Trump. The result is a hilarious, albeit authentic, literary portrait of both the news business and the rich and powerful personalities on whom it feeds.

“I spent years amassing these stories, and I certainly didn’t get rich doing it,” he confesses. “A stringer’s salary is plain wretched.”

But when asked if he regrets his chosen profession, he quickly replies, “If I had the chance, I’d do it all over again.”