[Photo courtesy of the Maas family]
Curious for life
By MARGO HAMMOND
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000
NEW YORK -- When journalist Peter Maas took his son Terrence out biking in Bridgehampton last summer, he was proud that he could keep up with his energetic son.
Maas is 71. His son is 8.
How did he do it? "I had gears," he confesses with a laugh. "That's the only thing that saved me. He wears me out."
Wearing out Maas, one of the most prolific journalists working today, is a tall order. The native New Yorker still lives in a midtown Manhattan apartment and follows the same frenetic pace that has characterized his entire journalistic career. Perhaps best known for his best-selling gangster books (The Valachi Papers and Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia), Maas has written on an astounding variety of subjects, from police corruption in New York City (Serpico) to the opening of the croquet season for the New York Times (where he had a sports column for a time) to the world of gypsies (a magazine piece that he turned into a bestseller, King of the Gypsies, in 1975). All told, Maas has knocked out three novels, 10 nonfiction books, and dozens of headline-grabbing magazine exposes.
And he shows no signs of slowing down. Maas' latest non-fiction book, The Terrible Hours: The Man Behind the Greatest Submarine Rescue in History, is currently on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. He still writes regularly for Parade magazine and pops up in other publications from Mighty Words on the Internet to George magazine.
In the November Gourmet he writes about a harrowing fishing trip he took in the Pacific with Terrence. Facing 8-foot swells when their engine conked out, they took 11 hours to make their way back to Cabo San Lucas. But Terrence did catch a 65-pound wahoo (12 pounds under the world record for a kid 10 years or younger), and Maas got a great story. "I do say how the chef prepared the fish Terrence caught," he adds.
A future piece for the food magazine, called "Meals with the Mob," will describe repasts Maas has had with such gangsters as Frank Costello, Joseph Valachi and Sammy Gravano. "No one's been gunned down in front of me while I was having pasta," he reports.
Why does he continue to work so hard? "To pay the school bills," he says, not entirely joking. But clearly he also thrives on digging out a story. Like many investigative reporters, Maas has remained a kid at heart, the kind of curious one who loves to poke around and ask endless questions.
Maas' biography in Gale Research's Major 20th Century Writers says he began as a writer for the New York Herald Tribune in Paris in the '50s and then went on to become a staff writer for such prestigious magazines as Collier's, Look and the Saturday Evening Post. But his first journalistic coup actually came while he was a student at Duke University in the 1940s. Maas was working for the Duke Chronicle when an editor named Clay Felker (who went on to New York magazine fame) assigned him to do an interview with Walter Reuther.
The assignment was hardly a walk in the park. The labor leader was in town, but he was under tight security at Duke University Hospital, recovering from an assassination attempt. Maas, however, persuaded a student nurse he knew to give him Reuther's room number, passed a burly guy standing guard at the end of the corridor, waltzed into the room and began explaining to the startled Reuther that he had an assignment to interview him. By the time two "enormous guys burst into the room," Reuther was waving them away. Maas got his scoop for the college paper.
Maas later sold the piece to the Associated Press for $100. It was his first payment as a journalist.
Maas tells me that story with great glee over lunch at Michael's, a fashionable midtown Manhattan restaurant that is popular with the publishing crowd. This is a place where lunch for two costs well over Maas' first paycheck. Maas is obviously a regular here but charmingly gives the impression that he, too, is an interloper among the famous around us. He seems genuinely excited when we spot Helen Gurley Brown and Caroline Kennedy at nearby tables.
Perhaps raising a child has kept Maas from turning into the proverbial jaded journalist. He has done it twice, after all -- bringing up two boys two generations apart. Maas for years was the single parent of his first born, John Michael. Maas' first wife, Audrey Gellen (she produced Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) died in 1975 of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Suddenly at 46, Maas had to be both mom and dad to his son. John Michael was 7 when his mother died.
During John Michael's early years, Maas was gone a lot. "I was still establishing myself when John Michael was born. I was a working reporter," he explains.
Now he is an active participant in Terrence's life, with the aid of his wife, Texas-born Suzanne, who is in her early fifties. Working out of an office in his Manhattan apartment, Maas considers himself a hands-on father -- although he admits his wife, a stay-at-home mom, does most of the scheduling and transportation duties.
"I lay down the rules," he says. Recently, for example, he gave his son limits on the time he could watch television and play Nintendo. At first, Terrence objected.
"I have my rights," he told his father. "Do you know what a dictatorship is?" Maas countered. "Well, you're living in one."
Terrence understands the art of negotiation, though. The other night his alloted television time was up, but he persuaded his father to let him watch a program on the Discovery channel, pointing out that it would be educational. "He'll take any edge he can," his father chuckles.
Despite the difference in their ages -- John Michael is now an executive at Paramount -- Maas' sons are pals, says Maas happily. Just ask Terrence what he wants to do when he grows up, says Maas, and he'll tell you, "I'm going to Hollywood and make movies with my brother."
The elder Maas isn't so lured by Hollywood glamour -- though two of his books became popular movies (Serpico, starring Al Pacino, and Marie: A True Story with Sissy Spacek). Too much celebrity attitude has seeped into his own profession, he laments.
"There's a new generation of journalists, celebrity journalists, who don't have the same standards as before," he complains. "The competition has changed. Everyone is desperate to be first. Most of my big stories took weeks to develop."
The story Maas currently is digging out, for example, has been consuming him for days. Involving a sex scandal in the Catholic church, a subject that clearly pains him, it's a story he hopes to sell to Vanity Fair. But he's more concerned about getting the story right than fast.
What has been the secret of Maas' success? Perseverance, he says. "A couple of editors told me I'd never be a writer, but I just never gave up."
Times festival of reading
The two-day St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, which is in its eighth year and is free to the public, is Nov. 11 and 12 on the Eckerd College campus in St. Petersburg. This year's lineup includes some 50 authors and an assortment of activities for adults and children.
Author Peter Maas is scheduled to speak at the reading fair at noon on Sunday, Nov. 12, in Dendy-McNair Auditorium.
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