Early on in my life I decided that I wanted to experience as many kinds of lives as I could. I went to Antioch College, which had a work-study plan. I worked in several places including the What Cheer, Iowa Patriot-Chronicle, a factory in France, and educational television in Boston. After graduating, I joined the Peace Corps and was one of the earliest volunteers to Nepal where I had a remote placement two days walk from a road.
After two years in the mountain kingdom, I was awarded a Ford Fellow in International Development that I used at the University of Oregon. I started writing magazine articles with enough success that it led me to an International Fellowship at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Upon graduation I spent an immeasurably unhappy year as an associate editor at Newsweek. That convinced me that I didn’t want a boss, and bosses didn’t want me. That period was the end of the golden age of literary journalism and I began writing magazine articles for many publications including Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, New York, Playboy and the Washingtonian. I worked incognito in a West Virginia coal mine where I broke my finger and wrote a piece that my agent sold to Harper’s. That led to an assignment covering the war in Bangladesh for Harper's. That article won a citation from the Overseas Press Club for "Best Magazine Reporting."
I couldn’t write quickly enough to make a living in the declining world of general interest magazines, and I turned to books. My study of the power players in the capital, Playing for Keeps in Washington, was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times. In 1979 I moved to Peru where I got to know one of the biggest drug dealers and wrote a novel, Assignment, about the cocaine traffic. Back in the United States I wrote Ascent: The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Willi Unsoeld, a biography of the man who climbed Everest in 1963 and had been the director of Peace Corps Nepal when I was there. Robert Redford and Columbia purchased the book for a movie that was never made. Ascent was reissued in paperback a few years ago.
I have many talented friends who can barely make livings writing books. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had a number of bestsellers starting with my book on the Reagans, Make-Believe: The Life of Nancy and Ronald Reagan. My bestseller, King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson, is generally considered the definitive portrait of the late star and has been reissued in mass paperback. I suppose I’m best known for my trilogy on the Kennedys, The Kennedy Women, The Kennedy Men and Sons of Camelot. My biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fantastic, led me to living in LA for a while. My book on Palm Beach, Madness Under the Royal Palms, was another New York Times bestseller and a highly controversial book.
My recent book, The Price of Justice, was published to some of the best reviews of my career in 2013. It is the story of two lawyers' struggle against Don Blankenship, the most powerful coal baron in American history. I have been traveling around the country talking to lawyers, law students and general audiences about the book.
Whatever I am writing I always feel is the most exciting project of my career, but this time I feel it's really the truth. I'm writing a book about three Southern men--Governor George Wallace, Klan leader Robert Shelton, and civil rights leader Morris Dees--and their interwoven lives. The book culminates in the 1981 lynching of nineteen-year-old Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama.
I am very fortunate to be writing about such important subjects, and I wake up every day excited to get to work. I am blessed in having such a great wife, Vesna Obradovic Leamer, who takes care of everything else in our complicated lives. I'm fortunate as well in having a terrific daughter, Daniela Mantilla, and two dynamite grandkids, Alejandro and Emilia.