E. Duke Vincent is a consummate storyteller.
The Emmy Award-winner and co-creator of 43 television series — including Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Dynasty and 7th Heaven — multiple miniseries and TV movies, the author’s first three novels focused on fictionalized accounts from his own life.
“Remember the old adage that you write what you know?” asked Vincent, speaking from his home at Birnam Wood Golf Club in Montecito. “That’s what I was doing in the past.
“But for the fourth novel — I had absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens in this book. The characters I created were all fictional. Many of them based on reality and people who were around at the time.”
Meticulously researched, the book seamlessly meshes more than 80 historical figures with 50 fictional characters, including a charismatic World War II hero-turned-mobster Dante Amato, whose brother just happens to be a CIA agent.
Despite the larger than life nature of the story, involving layer upon layer of power struggles and broken promises between government agencies, mob bosses, Cuban exiles and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s inner circle, Vincent says he believes the historical facts of his novel ring true.
“(For the historical figures) everything that they said, did at the time and the events that were surrounding them when I depicted them are all historically accurate,” he explained. “I inserted a bunch of fictional characters to tell the story of what I thought really happened and how it happened.”
A Navy aviator who flew a two-year tour with the famed Blue Angels flying aerobatic squadron in the early 1960s, Vincent voraciously followed the Kennedy assassination story through the years and says he eventually “decided to use what I suspected was the truth as the background for a historical novel.”
As a partner of the late producer Aaron Spelling for almost 30 years, Vincent had plenty of contact with glamorous Hollywood types, but he says Kennedy was the most charismatic person he’s ever met.
Vincent’s close friend, Sammy Davis Jr., introduced the two men at a party in 1963, at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel, the same hotel where Marilyn Monroe was famously sneaked in through the service entrance after singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to Kennedy in 1962.
“We went and there were all the normal people that you would expect from Kennedy’s entourage ... plus a bunch of reporters from New York, New York society types, and about 20 or 30 of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Vincent recalled. “I mean it was just amazing.
“And the president, he was late, obviously, walked in a with a couple of Secret Service guys, and the room just stopped. I mean it stopped cold.
“... You would have thought that Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Elvis Presley and the Beatles walked in at the same time. The smile, the charisma, he was just incredible. He was a superstar. He then walked around and shook hands with everybody and said hello, and I said to myself, it’s no wonder, forgetting policies or Democrat, Republican or whatever, it didn’t matter, if you met this guy you would fall in love with him because he had that much going for him. I had no question in my mind as to why everybody who knew him loved him,” Vincent said.
“To this day I can remember what it was like to be there.”
Vincent’s fascination with Kennedy informed his latest work, but it was a respected Santa Barbara figure, the late Bob Smith — local civic leader and former owner of KEYT-TV and Santa Barbara Magazine — who inspired Vincent to write his first novel, Mafia Summer.
“Bob had heard a lot of stories about my youth in Hell’s Kitchen and a kid by the name of Sidney Butcher who changed my life,” Vincent said. “So I used to tell Bob these stories and Bob said, ‘You ought to write a novel,’ and I said ‘No, Bob I don’t want to do that. I don’t write novels, I’m a television writer.’
“One day he came to me and he said, ‘I got good news and bad news. The good news is that you’ve got to do something for me; the bad news is that I have cancer. ... Let me tell you something, I want to read that book before I die.’
“Talk about pressure. So I sat down and in eight months I wrote Mafia Summer, which is the story he wanted me to write. And that got me started writing novels.
“I loved this guy (Bob Smith),” said Vincent, clearly choked up. “He was really terrific. And ... it was really due to Bob’s insistence that I sat down and wrote the novel.”
That first novel led to a second, Black Widow, which used Vincent’s years as a naval aviator for background, and a third novel, The $trip, which is loosely based on the years Vincent spent in Las Vegas doing the TV series Vega$, starring Robert Urich and Tony Curtis.
While Vincent says that naming a favorite TV show would be impossible, like choosing a favorite child, he does admit that working on Vega$ was the show he enjoyed doing the most.
“Las Vegas in those days was a real kick,” he said. “It was the last days of the mob in Las Vegas ... Howard Hughes had bought three or four hotels, one of which was the Desert Inn and that was the hotel that we were based out of. But all of the other hotels were owned by the mob, and of course they were really interesting people.”
It was in las Vegas that Vincent met Johnny Roselli from the Chicago mob, a man who figures prominently in The Camelot Conspiracy.
“I think it was the beginning of the end of the glitz and glamor of Vegas,” said Vincent, sounding a bit wistful.
These days, when Vincent is not working on his next novel he says he “plays at golf. ... When I break 100 they have a downtown parade on State Street.”
Philanthropically, the Vincents are involved with Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and Unity Shoppe. When they’re not riding dirt bikes, flying small planes or fly-fishing, Vincent and his wife enjoy Montecito restaurants such as Lucky’s and Tre Lune.
“We stay close to home because as Pam says, ‘We’re living in paradise. Why would you want to leave?’” Vincent said. “I can’t argue that point. This is paradise.”