Jay Anson, author of The Amityville Horror, died on this day in 1980. Read the full Writer's Digest profile of the author from March 1979.
By William J. Slattery
Controversy rages around Jay Anson and his book The Amityville Horror. Some people say Anson is a liar, a sloppy researcher, that he participates knowingly in a circus-like conspiracy to promote his book, that his prose is as sprightly as glue and that the people he wrote his ghost story about lied to him.
William G. Roll, head of the Psychical Research Foundation, calls the book a work of fiction. Head of the Foundation’s New York office, Rick Moran, says the book is sloppily researched, riddled with errors of fact, broadly hints that the people in the book were coached in their story by a third party (unnamed) who plans a book of his own. Moran knows Anson, has appeared on television and done radio shows with him. “He’s done a helluva book and it’s making lots of money. You certainly can’t fault him for that. I have no quarrel with Jay. He’s a nice man and we like each other. My only quarrel is with the labeling of his book. It’s called nonfiction and it shouldn’t be.”
On the positive side, many people think that Anson is a gifted author who knows exactly how to tell a story and who has told one very well indeed in The Amityville Horror.
Briefly, the book is a short work—65,000 words or so—with a story told in short chapters and flat prose almost entirely devoid of adjectives and adverbs. It tells of a young couple—Georges and Kathie Lutze, plus children and dog—who bought a large Dutch colonial house in Amityville, Long Island. During the 28 days they claim to have stayed there, they say that possibly 120 inexplicable events occurred to them, including infestation by flies in December; a 250-pound door being twice ripped silently off its hinges; the appearance, twice, of green slime flowing down the stairs; a pig named Jodie with flaming red eyes, visible only to the couple’s little girl, but which nevertheless left footprints in the snow and howled when hit with a piece of furniture. A marching band moved furniture and played loudly in the middle of the night only to disappear and fall silent when George tried to investigate. Windows in the house flew open when no one touched them, a priest who had come to bless the dwelling was told by a disembodied voice to get out, Kathie was hugged and caressed by both benign and evil arms, George and Kathie were levitated in their sleep, the rotting face of a hooded devil etched itself into the fireplace, and later the demon of the fireplace appeared in person, threatening the children.
Touches of Evil
Events surrounding people connected with the book are mysterious, too. The priest who bessed the house was almost killed on the trip home when the hood flew up on his car and steering control was lost. Two reporters from People magazine were unable to interview Anson because when they had finished photographing the house and were going to drive over to interview him, their car caught on fire as it sat empty in front of the house and emitted quantities of orange smoke. A reporter from Newsday who was to appear on television and debunk the book phoned in sick on the way to the studio, a man from the Chicago Tribune, also a debunker, also got sick and did not appear on another TV program. A woman Jay Anson gave some early chapters to took the manuscript home and she and two of her children were suffocated in a fire that night. The only item in the apartment that was not damaged by the fire was the manuscript. Another man put the manuscript in the trunk of his car and attempted to drive home. He drove through what he thought was a mud puddle; it turned out to be a 12-foot deep hole into which his car slid and was completed immersed. When the car was fished out the next day, the only dry object in it was the manuscript. When Anson’s editor picked up the completed manuscript at Anson’s office to drive it to Prentice-Hall, his car caught fire and he discovered that all the bots on his engine had been loosened.
Other instances of the house “reaching out,” as author Anson puts it, abound. During the time the Lutzes stayed in the house, the priest who blessed it was continuously ill. His hands were afflicted with blisters, he suffered high fevers, deep black circles appeared under his eyes. On one occasion his rectory was inexplicably filled with the smell of human excrement.
When Anson heard the Lutzes’ story, he was, understandably, incredulous. But why would they lie, he wondered, and were they clever enough to dream up a story as bizarre and lurid as this one? They had no reason to lie, he decided, and they were distinctly not clever enough to spin a yarn of demons and stinks and things that played music in the night. (A number of people interviewed for this story compared George and Kathie Lutze to Archie and Edith Bunker.) So he decided to write their story exactly as they told it to him. And having made that decision, he suffered a heart attack. He wrote the book during his three months’ recovery period.
Some Like It Hot
The Amityville Horror was published in hardback by Prentice-Hall in September of 1977. So far 155,000 copies of the book have sold. Book club and other sales raise that total to about 400,000. It is now in its 13th hardcover printing, and some two million copies of the paperback have sold as well; and American International Pictures is shooting a motion picture based on a screenplay Anson wrote.
Jay Anson is suddenly rich. He’s made about $400,000 so far and the way the paperback is selling, that’s just for starters. Also to come in are monies from the film’s box office receipts.
At 56, Anson can retire on The Amityville Horror. But of course he won’t. Writers never retire. He is hard at work on another book, and he has contracted to do another book after that, and negotiations are now under way for still another. “When you’re hot, you’re hot,” he says with a grin. What are these books about, I ask. “Are you crazy?” he asks in mock alarm. “You think I’m going to tell thousands of other writers what I’ve got up my sleeve. Why the day the magazine hits the stands is the day fifty other guys start working on my books.”
Anson is exhausted. He agreed to meet me at the downstairs bar at Sardi’s, the posh celebrity hangout in New York. But it is summertime and half of New York, including celebrities, are on vacation. So the little bar downstairs is closed. The upstairs bar, of course, is booming. But Anson is too tired to go up. He sits, half leaning, half slumping at the bar, all by himself waiting for me to show up.
Believe It or Not
We shake hands. His grip is dry and faint. He is a largish man, close to six feet, broad shouldered, muscularly thick in the middle, almost ramrod straight. When he sits and puts his napkin in his lap, his hands spring instantly to notice. They are the hands of a much smaller man, professionally manicured and delicate, plainly not the hands of an outdoorsy type. And indeed he is not outdoorsy. He walks forty blocks a day on doctor’s orders but he makes it plain that the weather has to be pretty nearly perfect if he’s going to take a trek like that. His idea of fun is going to the movies and the theatre and the concerts and to the exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art across the street from where he lives. He likes quiet evenings at home with his sculptress wife Lesia, going to the apartments of friends for more quiet evenings, and on Fridays he goes out to play poker. “Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano are both in the game. They play lousy. Don’t print that. They’ll send the Mafia after me. Say they play good if you have to say anything at all.”
The waiter comes over and takes the drink order. Anson orders ice coffee with cream, sugar, and fresh lemon. “Remember, waiter, I said fresh lemon.” The waiter says the mako shark is very good today. “The mako is better than swordfish?” Anson wonders aloud. “Is it the best thing on the menu?” he asks. The waiter assures him that it is. “Good,” he says, “I’ll have bacon and scrambled eggs.” The waiter laughs heartily at the mild joke and scurries off to take care of the order.
Lunch is longish and leisurely. It is not a working lunch in the sense that I ask questions and Jay Anson parries them. I have interviewed Anson a number of times by phone for periods totaling several hours. The important questions have been asked already and readily answered. It is a lunch between two people who do the same thing for a living, two men who spend their lives sitting in front of typewriters wondering what they are going to say next. It is a relaxed, easygoing lunch punctuated by comfortable silences. We talk about people we know in Hollywood, illiterate editors, greedy publishers, double digit-IQ talk show hosts, the voraciousness of the IRS, and the surprising lack of resistance to The Amityville Horror. “It’s funny,” he says. “Almost nobody ever says to me, ‘Hey that book of yours is a bunch of bull. I didn’t believe a word of it.’ Instead they ask if I think what the Lutzes told me is true. And I answer them the same way I answered you when you asked the question. I tell them that I have no idea whether the book is true or not. But I’m sure that the Lutzes believe what they told me to be true.”
The best interview is the non-interview. No tape recorder, no notebooks, no formal question-and-answer format. Just two people chatting aimlessly. In a few minutes guards that were up come down, face down cards turn over, the need to be clever and make good copy disappears.
Potnuhs and Poltergeists
Anson, expecting an interview, is dressed for it. He’s wearing a snappy two-piece denim suit with an apparently casual foulard insouciantly draped around his neck. He is wearing clothes that look good on camera, clothes that attract attention because of their nattiness, clothes that help sell books. What does he dress like in real life? “I love cashmere sweaters. I wear a cashmere over a shirt with no tie, slacks, loafers. Like that.” In other words, he’s a very low-key guy with a lot on his mind who really doesn’t care about clothes at all. He dresses like his prose: functional and no-nonsense.
Jay Anson talks like a cheerful Abe Vigoda. When asked about his private life he throws up his hands, palms outward, and proclaims, “A swinguh I ain’t!” When he asked what it’s like getting rich, he moans, elbows tucked in, palms up in supplication, “Who’s gettin’ rich? I got potnuhs. Uncle’s gotta get his.”
Speaking of partners, “Are the Lutzes in partnership with you?”
“What’s their cut?”
“Can’t tell you. Publishers won’t let me.”
Anson picks at his food. Eating, for him, consists largely in pushing his good from one place to on his plate to another. He eats his bread and butter but little else. He’s too tired to eat.
“According to Rick Moran, of the Psychical Research Foundation, it is entirely possible that none of the events the Lutzes related to you actually happened,” I say.
“That’s possible,” Anson says. “Sure. But my point remains unchanged. I wrote down what they told me happened. And I believe that they believe what they told me. Do I believe my own book? I neither believe it nor disbelieve it. I’m just a reporter reporting as accurately as I can what some people told me happened to them. There is no way I can check what they told me. When what happened happened, nobody was around with a camera and tape recorder.”
True or untrue, the fact remains that the book is one of the most popular of recent memory. And the reason for this, according to Anson’s editor at Prentice-Hall, Tam Mossman, is that “Jay writes directly for the reader. A lot of writers write what they thing will please their editors or agents. But Jay knows that if you want your material to sell, you have to write it for the people who buy it. Agents and editors don’t buy stories; people do. Also Jay can pace a story better than anyone I know. He knows when to begin a chapter and when to end it and what to put in it and what to leave out. As a writer he goes straight to the heart of writing; he puts in what is of interest and leaves everything else out. Also he makes my job easy. When I point out a problem to him, he doesn’t wait for me to come up with a solution. He comes up with his own solutions and they are invariably better than anything I might have had in mind. Jay is a very visual writer. When he writes he makes you see what he is writing about.”
It is no accident that Jay Anson writes visually. Since the end of World War II, he has been one way or another associated with the movie industry. Before the war he worked as a newspaperman for the New York Herald Tribune. After the war he got a job as a publicity man for a movie studio and for the last 15 years he has worked at a firm that produces featurettes. (A featurette is a movie about a movie. Quite often when a movie on TV is over, a brief ten- or 12-minute film follows that takes you behind the scenes and shows you some of the highlights of the making of the picture. Jay is a partner in a company that produces such films. He has written some 500 of them.)
In addition to writing featurettes, Jay has written a feature film, The Great Adventure, that stared Jack Palance and Joan Collins. He has written a number of other feature films for which he did not receive credit and he makes a fair amount of money as a film doctor (that is, he will rewrite or “doctor” another writer’s script for a fee). The most recent of these was a TV version of the 1940 Hitchcock film, Rebecca. “The producers were assigned an Englishwoman to write the script. By trade she writes gothic novels. She had never written a script before so her work needed work. I did a complete rewrite in two weeks right in the office. They paid me $7,500 for it. People in TV never have any money. Sometimes I get as little as $2,500 for a rewrite.”
The Reader Is Boss
“My doing The Amityville Horror was a fluke. George Lutze has a friend who lives in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, the town where Prentice-Hall is located. The friend walked into the publishing house and asked how one goes about getting a book published. What kind of book, they asked. When he said it was a ghost story, he was sent to Tam Mossman, who specialized in the occult. Tam listened to the story, called me on the phone (we’ve been friends for several years) and said he wanted me to meet the Lutzes. I listened to their story. I thought it was a hell of a ghost story.
“George on his own had told his story on 35 hours of tape. He gave me those tapes. I interviewed him for an additional five hours to get the chronology of what he told me straight into my head. I spent another several hours interviewing some cops in Amityville, the priest who blessed the house (whose name I falsified at his request, by the way), some of the Amityville Historical Society people. Then, on a couple of sheets of yellow paper, I wrote down a few words to remind me what they had done and said and experienced on each of the days they lived in the house.
“Yeah, I know the psychical research people say I have made mistakes. They say that on such and such a day when I said it rained, and it didn’t rain. So what? I’m a perfectly normal human being and sometimes I make mistakes.
“I recovered from my heart attack at my sister’s house. I wrote as much as I could every day, four or five hours, giving Tam two chapters a week. When I got well enough I moved back to my office and finished the last five chapters there. My office, by the way, is a mad house. Five Moviolas all running at once, people editing film, talking, the phones ringing, but my newspaper experience lets me work under these conditions with no difficulty. I finished the last of the book very very quickly because I had my strength back.
“It was no big deal writing a book after a heart attack. I wrote till I got tired and when I got tired I stopped. In the beginning I didn’t write much and toward the end I was going like a house afire.”
“Advice for beginning writers? Sure. I got advice for them. The Amityville book is a good book because when I didn’t write it well I listened to Tammy Mossman. When Tammy said something needed to be fixed I didn’t argue. I fixed it. So my advice to beginners is to listen to your editors. Your words are not golden.
“The book hasn’t changed my life at all. I haven’t bought any fancy clothes. I still rent my cars from Hertz, I may buy some more cashmere sweaters. I love cashmere. And, well, I’m building a small place in Majorca and my wife and I went to Italy on a short vacation. Oh, boy, where has Italy been all my life? I just lay beside a pool and guys with trays waited on me all day long. That’s the life!
“Writer’s should remember that if they’re doing fiction, they’re in the entertainment business. If you write something and it doesn’t entertain, throw it out and write something that does entertain. If you’re writing fact, you are writing to inform. So inform. Be clear. Be short. If you write something that isn’t interesting, leave it out.
“And always remember the reader. Always level with him and never talk down to him. You may think you’re some kind of smart guy because you’re the great writer. Well, if you’re such a smart guy, how come the reader is paying you? Remember the reader’s the boss. He’s hired you to do a job. So do it.”
Anson and I step out of the crisp coolness of Sardi’s into the sodden Manhattan summertime air. Two drops of rain fall. I suggest a walk. “It’s raining,” Anson says and hails a cab.
William J. Slattery, a Jamestown, Rhode Island, freelancer, has been published in numerous publications including TV Guide, Esquire, Penthouse, and the New York Times.