February 17, 2020

Documentary producer Sheila Nevins turns spotlight on herself in new book

More than 50 years ago, Sheila Nevins — who now is HBO’s esteemed president of documentary films — was nervous and thrilled when her first love invited her to meet his parents at their tony home in Connecticut.

She was a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, a secular Jew whose Russian immigrant father was a postman and whose mother was a card-carrying member of the Communist party.

Her boyfriend was a Harvard law student, descended from wealthy Christian stock. They had spent a blissful semester together. “I said to my girlfriends, ‘Do you think he wants to get engaged?’ ” Nevins recalled in a telephone interview from her home in Manhattan.

His mother was cordial until she and Nevins were washing dishes after a meal. “She asked me if I was Jewish,” Nevins said. Nevins replied that she was. “Then she said the clincher, which was, ‘Aren’t there any interesting Jewish men at the law school who would be more suitable for you?’ ”

After the visit, her boyfriend dumped her.

“I don’t know if anything had ever happened to me that was as traumatic,” Nevins said. “It took me 10 years to get over it. I hadn’t known that being Jewish could be a detriment in this country.”

From that painful experience, one of the most celebrated executive careers in modern television was born. Rather than succumb to the psychological scars left by a condescending woman or anyone of her ilk, Nevins vowed to extract revenge by succeeding beyond all expectations in her career, outmaneuvering obstacles, including sexism and ageism, to win respect for herself and, eventually, the division she now leads.

“This mother who deemed me unworthy has been by my side through accolades for accomplishment, praise for good deeds,” Nevins writes in her new book of essays, “You Don’t Look Your Age and Other Fairy Tales.” “Sometimes she is still with me as a driving force. … All I did was to prove her wrong.”

Nevins, who is 78, has produced more than 1,000 documentaries for HBO and has become widely regarded as one of the most influential executives in the world of nonfiction filmmaking. She has overseen productions that have received 32 Emmy Awards, 42 Peabody Awards and 26 Academy Awards. She has won 32 individual Primetime Emmys, more than any other person. Her celebrated films have included 2013’s “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden,” 2015’s “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” and this year’s “Cries From Syria.”

Now she is telling her own story for the first time, in a book of vignettes that serves as a kind of “sly memoir,” she said.

“You Don’t Look Your Age” does not discuss her films because “that would be boring,” she said in an interview that reflected her direct style. Nevins explores such issues as aging in Hollywood, her tendency to say exactly what she thinks (sometimes to her own detriment), sleeping with bosses early in her career to get ahead, “frenemies,” her mother’s lifelong struggle with a debilitating autoimmune illness and parenting a son with Tourette’s syndrome.

Some of the essays are written in first person, some are poems, while others are narrated by fictional characters. But, Nevins said, every piece reveals some essential truth as she perceives it.

After years of telling other people’s stories in her documentaries, why did Nevins choose to write about herself after so many years? “I wanted to come out old,” she said.

She admitted some have criticized her memoir for describing yet another life of a white woman of privilege. No matter. “I am now at the age where I feel as if I can say whatever I want,” she said.

Like any good storyteller, Nevins said she aims to lure readers by beginning her book with one of her most “outrageous secrets”: She had a facelift when she was 56. “In the mirror I saw a wrinkled, witchlike, scrunched up, squashed face,” she writes of the time. And later: “I must be young at any price. Young was in. I worked in media. Nobody wanted advice from an old broad. My bosses wanted a young audience.”

When a cabbie once mistook her for TV’s “Judge Judy” Sheindlin, she ran back to the doctor’s office for more facial work. “I would try it, no matter how much it cost, no matter how much it hurt, fooling no one,” she writes.

In another essay, Nevins reveals that she grew up “fearful of decay.” Her mother suffered from a severe case of Raynaud’s disease, which involves a lack of circulation to the extremities. Over time, her fingers were amputated, then an arm and a leg. Her mother’s suffering led Nevins, as a filmmaker, “to champion stories about those less fortunate,” she writes. “I chose to tell stories of the struggle to triumph in an uncertain and often cruel world.”

One of those documentaries, “Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags,” had a personal connection for Nevins. Her great-aunt Celia had died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, at age 17. Nevins had previously heard family lore about the tragedy, but while working on the film, she had her researchers confirm that Celia was on the official list of the women who had died, most of whom were Jewish.

“It made me feel very sad, very immigrant, very Jewish,” Nevins said.

The conversation turned to a chapter in her book titled, “From Cosmo to Ms.,” which recounts how, in the early days of her career, Nevins was a “pretty-girl provocateur” with her male bosses, “buying attention with a too-short skirt.” She adds, “Helen Gurley Brown assured me this was the way to the top,” referring to the Cosmopolitan magazine editor.

Nevins recalled fooling around with a boss at one of her early television jobs to enhance her chances of securing a raise and a plumb assignment. Even though a lower-level executive had told her she wasn’t in the running for that job, her hanky-panky with the big boss immediately earned her the gig.

Was she trying to sleep her way to the top? “Yes, of course,” she said. “And who are you kidding — it worked.”

That all stopped when Nevins was around 23 and she discovered Gloria Steinem and the feminist movement. “It made me realize that the cover wasn’t as important as the inside,” she said. “I began to feel that I was really smart, that I was as good as that guy, and somehow I had to maneuver around the fact that I was a woman.”

Yet even after Nevins joined HBO’s documentary division in 1979, she stayed home on her birthdays so colleagues wouldn’t ask her age. She never told her bosses that she had to take her son, who has Tourette’s, to the doctor, because she had to appear as committed to her job as her male co-workers. “I didn’t want to be considered a ‘woman’; I wanted to be equal,” she said.

These days, Nevins is a force to be reckoned with, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the fear of aging. “Please God, I’m an atheist who wants to look young,” she writes. “I have enough Botox in me to detonate Iran. Why can’t I go gracefully into gravity?” She adds: “The secret is I don’t want to say good-bye. I don’t think it’s fair to have worked so hard and given up so much time to not have more time. … I’m angry that it’s almost over.”

“But I’m looking forward to beating out decrepitude as long as I can, and something better than Botox — it’s sort of stopped working,” she said during the interview. “I’m looking forward to certain films and to tomorrow, I guess. I’ve had a good run, but I haven’t stopped running.”