northwestern.gif FALL IMAGE MAP

Sidney Sheldon
The Other Side of Sheldon

Sidney Sheldon (WCAS38) spent only six months at Northwestern, but that brief experience in the mid-1930s made an impact.

"I remember looking across the campus one day and watching all those hundreds of students go by," he says from Los Angeles, where he lives part of each year. "I thought, you know, they're all anonymous; no one's going to know they were ever on earth. I don't want that to happen to me. I want people to know I'd been here."

His wish came true beyond his wildest dreams.

Sheldon has sold, by his own estimate, 270 million books, and he's considered the bestselling writer in the world. The Other Side of Midnight (Morrow, 1974) spent 52 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a movie. Several of his other 15 megahit novels have been films, and Rage of Angels (Warner paperback, 1981) became an NBC miniseries, with Sheldon as executive producer.

Ironically, the Chicago native didn't even start authoring books until he was in his 50s. Before that, he wrote six Broadway plays and some 250 television scripts and series. He created The Patty Duke Show, Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie, also producing the latter and writing most of the scripts.

What is Sheldon's secret for succeeding as a Hollywood writer when so many other people fail? "I love what I do," he says simply. "Most writers hate writing and love having written. I love writing."

He's also not afraid of hard work, if his hectic schedule at Northwestern is any indication. Although Sheldon had a B'nai B'rith scholarship and took the maximum number of courses allowed, he worked nights as a "hangboy, " i.e., hat checker, in the checkrooms of several Chicago hotels. He was also on Northwestern's varsity debating team and interviewed celebrities in Chicago for the Daily Northwestern, a job he created himself.

"It was quite a load," he remembers. But it was the Great Depression, not his workload, that caused him to drop out of college. "We needed money," he says. "I had to work to help support my family."

Dreaming of being a songwriter, Sheldon talked his parents into letting him go to New York City -- he took a bus from Chicago -- and was an usher at a movie theater on 14th Street. After a year of watching films on the job, he decided to move to Hollywood, where he started out as a reader at Universal Studios for $17 a week. But Sheldon rose early to work on his own scripts and started collaborating with a friend. They wrote five stories together before their first sale. Then the four previous ones sold, becoming "the little 'B' movies" that set his career in motion.

Today, more than half a century later, Sheldon is still writing and has no plans to quit. ("I'm only 82, and I have to do it while I'm young," he jokes.) His most recent novel, Tell Me Your Dreams (Warner paperback, 1999), was published in hardcover last year, and he's working on another one, plus his autobiography, which he plans to call The Other Side of Me. He dictates to a secretary, who types it all up and returns it to him to revise. Sheldon may go through a dozen complete drafts of a book.

When he starts a novel, Sheldon likes to be in Palm Springs, where it's quiet. He has a home there, as well as in Los Angeles and London. He's married to Alexandra Kostoff, his second wife (his first wife died in 1985), and has a married daughter who also writes.

Did he ever imagine, back in those early days at Northwestern, that he would be so rich and famous?

"Never, never, never," says Sheldon, sounding like a character in one of his own potboilers. "It's all been magic." -- E.B.