OK, let’s continue with our story of Chet Helms’ biography, shall we?
At high noon on August 2, 2005, four days after “Chetfest,” I met Chet’s brother, John Helms, for lunch at ANZU, a restaurant located in the Hotel Nikko in downtown San Francisco. ANZU features something called “EuroJapanese cuisine,” from which I selected a slab of salmon that came with some other stuff, all of it edible.
I had never met John, whom, along with his younger brother, Jim Helms, were co-executors of Chet’s will, but I had heard him speak at Chet’s memorial service at The Columbarium a month earlier. John, like Chet, is a tall, bespectacled, soft-spoken gentleman. John, unlike Chet, sports a full head of hair, worn medium length and no facial hair. And John, unlike Chet, is, uh, more far more guarded than ebullient in conversation. He’s a quiet, self-effacing man.
John has been an independent art and antique dealer in San Francisco for decades. In the 1960’s, he operated a vintage clothing and antique store while assisting Chet at the Avalon Ballroom, mostly by distributing Family Dog posters around town before the shows. He doesn’t hide his devotion to his brother. He doesn’t hide his affection for his brother.
And now this. Now, because his younger brother, Jim, is thousands of miles away in Hawaii, he has to confront the madness and chaos Chet’s passing has engendered. He has to deal with lawyers, with licensing requests and with people coming out of the woodwork saying, “Chet promised me this,” or “Chet wanted me to have that.” One of the first things John said to me was “My cell phone never stops ringing.” He said it with a resigned sigh and a deeply furrowed brow.
I liked John Helms immediately and I also felt a little sorry for him. My initial thought, based on nothing concrete, was that he wasn’t going to have a real good time dealing with what he was going to be dealing with in the foreseeable future.
Dealing with the likes of me, for example.
My mission that day was to convince him to give me his blessing to proceed with Chet’s biography, to “authorize” me as his brother’s biographer. I knew full well that anyone on God’s green earth could try to write a biography of Chet. I also knew that Chet had told several of his friends that we were working together on his autobiography and in my view that legitimized me. The Estate’s – i.e. John’s imprimatur – would provide me with two things: easier access to various sources, including members of Chet’s family, and access to Chet’s personal archives, both of which were vital if I had any hope of producing a meaningful portrait of the man.
During our luncheon conversation, John told me he was aware that Chet had selected me as his collaborator, but he was non-committal about giving me his approval to do the book. I didn’t press the issue – well, maybe just a tiny bit – and I remember driving home from the Hotel Nikko thinking that what I had considered to be a slam dunk hadn’t been a slam dunk at all. It wasn’t exactly a rejection; it just wasn’t… an anything.
Was I disappointed? Oh yeah, I was disappointed all right. You know that episode of Seinfeld when George Costanza summons all of his courage and says to Marlee Matlin, “I love you,” and gets nothing in return? No response. It was like that.
But did I give up? Did I pack it in?
Yes, I did.
I sat on my front porch in San Mateo that afternoon and had a talk with myself, hopefully one that wasn’t audible to the neighbors. It went something like this:
“So what exactly qualifies you to spend the next few years researching and writing the life of another human being?”
“Well…in the late ’80s, when I was a tabloid reporter in L.A., I wrote a biography of Angie Dickinson.”
“Don’t make me laugh. You lashed together a shallow, pathetic ‘clip job’ about that poor woman for a cheap paperback publisher and a quick payday.”
“So it wasn’t a real biography. Doing Chet’s story will require a commitment bordering on obsession, not a week in the Beverly Hills library, lifting material from old magazine interviews.”
“Let it go. Look, you got to meet and hang out with Chet Helms for a few months and you got to hear some very cool stories. Now it’s time for you to move on. ”
A few days after that conversation with myself, I sat down late one night and wrote a very lengthy email to John Helms, detailing my history with Chet and gently pleading my case to be designated as Chet’s official biographer.
Then I waited for a response.
Oh, yes, I did. I waited for a week, then two, then three, then….
(To be continued. By the way, August 2, 2005, the day I first met with John Helms at the Hotel Nikko, was, or would have been, Chet’s 63rd birthday.)