The story of Michael Takiff illustrates how much power Ambrose has in history publishing, and how it can hurt other writers. In The Wild Blue author's note, Ambrose mentions that Takiff had begun working with George McGovern on the book when McGovern asked his old friend Ambrose to write it instead. Ambrose told McGovern he would only do it with Takiff's permission and that "Takiff agreed."
The story Takiff tells, and McGovern confirms, is not quite so clean. (Neither Ambrose nor his son-agent Hugh Ambrose responded to an interview request about Takiff.) In 1998, Takiff approached McGovern through a mutual friend with the idea of writing a book about McGovern's experience as a World War II pilot. Takiff proposed a memoir, with McGovern and Takiff sharing authorship. Takiff, a former actor and standup comic from Manhattan, had no experience as a writer, but McGovern met with him, was persuaded by his enthusiasm, and agreed to proceed with the book. McGovern had never chronicled his war years, and had no active plan to do it till Takiff came along and prodded him. They signed no contract, but McGovern says, "I had an oral contract" with him. In summer 1999, they got started, with Takiff interviewing McGovern for a dozen hours over several days at his Montana ranch.
A few days after Takiff's visit, Ambrose invited McGovern to dinner. Ambrose asked him what he was up to, and McGovern mentioned that he had started working with someone on the book. "I said [to Ambrose], 'I wish you were doing the book.' It was a throwaway line. [Ambrose] said he would certainly love to, but if I had someone else it was probably irrelevant [i.e., if he had already agreed to work with another writer, the question was moot]. But we talked some more, and finally I said, 'Why don't you talk to Michael Takiff about it, maybe you could work out some arrangement to compensate him?' "
McGovern expresses no regret about his desire to switch authors. "I recognized the minute Steve Ambrose showed any interest the advantages of having the country's pre-eminent historian doing the story. … Michael Takiff is a pleasant person … but he is an unknown writer. The Wild Blue has been a best seller. Who knows how Michael Takiff's book would have done?"
In the few days after their dinner, first McGovern and then Ambrose called Takiff to ask him to cede the project. According to Takiff, McGovern told him he could receive one-third of Ambrose's royalties and a research credit. McGovern also said he would still do the book with Takiff if he insisted.
When Ambrose called Takiff, he said, according to Takiff, "that he was uncomfortable with the situation, but that McGovern was all hot for the idea and wanted Ambrose to do it." Ambrose said he had never heard anything about the one-third royalties proposal and offered Takiff one-quarter of the advance instead.
Takiff concluded he had to surrender. "Everyone told me I could not stand in the way of Stephen Ambrose, that he is a force of nature in the publishing business. If the subject of the book wants Stephen Ambrose, you have no choice. … I realized that McGovern would never be satisfied with what I did: He would think Stephen Ambrose could always have done it better. I realized I was out."
Eventually, Ambrose's son Hugh presented Takiff with a final offer, $30,000, to go away. Takiff accepted. "Ambrose paid me, but it was sold at gunpoint." Takiff has since contracted to write a book about fathers who served in World War II and sons who served in Vietnam. It's due out in 2003.
Ambrose certainly did not steal the book from Takiff. He paid him a hefty sum for the idea, probably more than Takiff would have made if he had written it. Nor did Takiff own the story: McGovern's life made the book. And it was McGovern, much more than Ambrose, who pushed for Ambrose to do the book. Still, there is something unseemly in the way McGovern and Ambrose bulldozed the inexperienced Takiff. He was paid off, but he lost what he most wanted, the chance to write a first book. "I wondered why Ambrose needed my book. He had shelves and shelves of best sellers," says Takiff. "I can understand his dilemma when his friend George McGovern asked him to write this book. But that's not to excuse what he did. Authors, particularly extremely successful and powerful ones, should not make off with the ideas of other authors, particularly those struggling for a leg up."