Connie Martinson, an insatiable reader and fan of writers who interviewed thousands of authors on her long-running cable television show, “Connie Martinson Talks Books,” died at her home in Beverly Hills.
Martinson, who died peacefully on March 9, was 90 years old.
His cable TV show began in 1979, and by the time it ended in 2015, it had been watched by millions of people nationally and in Canada. He interviewed an impressive list of writers, including a rising Barack Obama, eloquently discussing his then-new book, “Dreams From My Father,” in 1995, as well as other leading fiction and nonfiction authors such as Walter Mosley, Ray Bradbury , Maya Angelou, Studs Terkel, Norman Mailer, Carolyn See, Joyce Carol Oates, and Amos Oz.
“Connie Martinson was an essential part of the literary life of this city,” said author Janet Fitch, whose novel, “White Oleander,” was an Oprah’s Book Club bestseller, choice and film.
“She was a great interviewer and read her book very carefully. She had such clarity and insight that she could focus directly on what was most important. There was also something calming about the liveliness of his face and her eyes. You saw the spark of pleasure she had reading and talking about reading. She was the kind of person you want to sit with at a dinner party.”
Nearly 2,000 of Martinson’s interviews are now available on the Claremont Colleges Digital Library site, where she donated her tapes in 2008. As of this week, the digital library has 1,801 items now digitized in the Connie Martinson Talks book collection. .
Martinson was “incredibly curious, very smart and charming,” said Rick Wartzman, former executive director of the Drucker Institute, who in that role acquired the collection and made it available through the school’s digital library. “Eventually I got to know what broad interests he had. Take a look at the list of people Connie has landed interviews with: some of the biggest names in politics, culture and literature. In that sense alone, it’s priceless.”
He discussed anti-Semitism with A. Scott Berg and Alan Dershowitz, spoke with Carlos Fuentes about Spain’s colonization of Mexico, and asked Michael Tolkin about his book, “The Player,” and Budd Schulberg about his book, “What does What Sammy Run?” Several women named Amy can be seen not only discussing her books, but also discussing her writing process (Amy Ephron), entertaining guests (Amy Sedaris), and her mother’s reception to her book (Amy Tan).
Nonfiction writers interviewed included leading journalists and essayists such as Pete Hamill and Maureen Dowd. Novelist Sidney Sheldon did 10 interviews and Ray Bradbury, with 14, was clearly one of the favourites. But he also had first-time writers. “As long as it is a book, the author is a potential guest,” he once said.
Martinson could chat about almost anything, particularly the subject of his guest. He would arrive at the study with a worn copy of a guest book, no matter how new the book was. Key pages were marked with dozens of yellow Post-its, and she knew the books so well that she could often jump out with a reply if a guest was late.
She was also a fast reader, noted her son-in-law, Douglas Carner. “She read the books so fast you felt the breeze from the pages. And she would have read every word. “
Martinson didn’t exactly plan her career, said her daughter, Julianna Carner, who runs the family business: “In the mid-’70s, my mother worked for the Coro Foundation, which trained young people for government work. When Coro was offered a radio show and turned it down, my mom said, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting. I will do that.’ She was ready for any adventure that came her way.
“She started by interviewing celebrities and other people that she and my father knew through their work as a film and television director. Then one day in 1979, she said, “I’m bored and I’ve been through all my friends.” It was then that she came up with the idea of combining the two things she most liked to do: ask questions and read books. “
Thus began “Connie Martinson Talks Books”. Martinson started with a few writers like Bradbury, who she knew, and then moved on to people she knew. Launched in Los Angeles in 1979, her show appeared on government and other cable stations around California, then on a New York City cable access station. Her show went national in the mid-1980s and, according to her daughter, Martinson was at its peak in the early 1990s, when she had 23 million viewers.
Julianna Carner worked with her mother for about two years in the early 1980s, also interviewing authors in one of the three 10-minute blocks that then made up the show. “Afterward, I said to my mother, ‘Thank you for doing this for me.’ And she said, “If you weren’t good, I wouldn’t be doing this.” And I loved that she said that.”
Constance Frye Martinson was born in Boston on April 11, 1932, and graduated from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she received the Davenport Award for Speech and Literature. “Connie has always been active in supporting Wellesley College, her and my alma mater, and the Wellesley Club of Los Angeles,” said Lee Ramer, a lifelong friend and former member of the Los Angeles Commission on Cultural Affairs. . “It was always interesting to listen to her interviews because she asked questions that all of us could ask.”
She worked as an editor for Writer’s magazine in Boston before moving to Los Angeles with her husband Leslie Martinson, whom she married in 1955. Martinson, who died in 2016 at age 101, directed films including “PT109,” the original “Batman ” and episodic TV shows like “Maverick,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Brady Bunch.”
Martinson attributed the show’s success to its ability to get authors to open up. “I try to hold the audience’s attention by trying to get them into my seat. I also want to know what makes the author tick, so I try to think about how each author’s ideas and pacing came about,” he told Los Angeles Magazine in 2008.
“The writers would come to Los Angeles and do their show and the Johnny Carson show,” said his son-in-law. “In the house there are thousands of books and they still have Post-its. It was very common for her to know things that the author of the book would not remember writing.
Martinson’s show over the years was largely self-funded, Douglas Carner said, adding that his mother-in-law never wanted the show to be syndicated or commercial, because she didn’t want to lose control. “The mission was more important than the money,” she said. “His feeling from her was that if she could find a person who could discover the joy of holding a physical book, she would be fulfilled.”
When he finished each interview, he would almost always ask the author to autograph his book before reminding his viewers to support their local library.
His passion for books and writers was clearly noticeable. “She was the great lady of letters in Los Angeles for decades,” said Jewish Journal author, critic and book editor Jonathan Kirsch. “His interview series with him was a place for people to promote his books from all over the world. She was a local celebrity and a familiar face and name in the literary community. There was no book-related event that I attended that I didn’t see Connie.”
Martinson is survived by his daughter, son-in-law Douglas Carner, grandson Richard Carner, and grandson-in-law Michael Carner.
Isenberg is a former Times staffer and author of “Conversations With Frank Gehry” and the subject of one of Martinson’s interviews.