Sheila Nevins, executive producer, author and former president of HBO Documentary Films, held court Friday night at a Women in the World/AARP dinner at Bar Boulud, where the topic was “Disrupting Aging.”
Nevins, author of The New York Times best-selling novel, “You Don’t Look Your Age and Other Fairy Tales,” was interviewed by Joan Ruff, chairman of the board of AARP, on topics including her recent departure from HBO after 38 years; what’s next in her career; why she wrote her book; what she would have done differently if she was starting her career, and her most recent pet peeve, elder abuse.
Nevis has produced over 1,200 documentaries for HBO. Ruff noted that there’s a room at HBO headquarters called “The Holy Shrine of Sheila,” which houses all the Emmys, Oscars and Peabody Awards won on Nevins’ watch. But rather than say Emmys, Ruff mistakenly said, “Enemies,” to which Nevins quipped, “Enemies is probably a more accurate word,” which sent the room into laughter.
When she officially left HBO last month, Nevins, who has won 32 individual Primetime Emmy Awards, more than any person, took the “shrine” sign home.
Ruff asked her what’s next.
“I don’t know. It’s tough. I spent 38 years doing one thing. There’s a certain excitement at looking at the world. But as much as you want to not use this word [pointing to the sign that said “aging”], I’m not a kid. But I have a lot of dreams and I have a lot of contacts, and I have a lot of people offering me things. It’s just a question of selecting something I want to spend the last years of my life doing,” said the 79-year-old Nevins.
She said she has finally grown to accept her age.
“I woke up one day, and I thought, ‘S–t, I’m in my late 70s, and I’ve been working like I’m 40 years old, and I’m tired. You go to bed you’re 40 and you wake up you’re 80, and it’s the same day, and it’s kind of the way I think I got old. I don’t find ‘old’ a particularly negative word. I’m trying to use it.”
Nevins explained that she wrote the book because she had written some stories for the web site, wowowow.com — which is now purewow.com — started by such women as Liz Smith, Whoopi Goldberg, Candice Bergen and Joni Evans. They encouraged her to write, and she wrote a story about her son’s then-girlfriend’s mother “who is the most obnoxious woman in the world.”
“It was better than I thought. It took longer than I cared to take, but I thought, S–t, I’m sorry, I’m from HBO. I thought, ‘This is funny.’ I called up Joni and read it to her and she said, ‘It’s funny. Write more.’”
Nevins realized she couldn’t work forever, and the book was a project that separated her from HBO and gave her her own identity.
“I think I could have worked forever, but I’m not sure they wanted me forever as I realized there was less time to do things. I don’t want to smell roses. I hate roses. I don’t garden. I’m not crazy about people. But I know what longevity is, and I know what life is, and when my parents and grandparents died and my friends disappeared, I thought maybe I should take these things I’ve written for Wow, and I should try to keep writing. So I wrote a book. I got a publisher, and I got almost no money. But I had fun writing it. I had a lot of stories. I spent most of my life presenting other people’s stories and I was really good at that and supporting other people and telling their stories.”
Throughout her career, Nevins not only produced documentaries but also late-night sex shows such as “G String Divas,” as well as children’s shows. Some of her friends at other networks questioned why she would do those sex shows, “But I did do them, and I also did important shows, and I won awards. But the book was a way of separating myself from HBO. You get very identified with a job. I was HBO, HBO was me.”
Using made-up characters, as well as herself, she writes stories in her book about topics such as adultery, long marriages and separate bedrooms, “a lot of things I had thought about but hadn’t put into films,” she said.
“You don’t really make money selling books. I guess you do if you’re [James] Comey. Oh, he’ll make money, all right. It wasn’t the reason. I think it was a long extended therapy session with an invisible doctor,” she said.
Ruff then asked Nevins what she would have done differently if she were starting out all over again.
“I think I would have liked myself a little more. I would have thought I was pretty. I would have thought that I was smart and I would have thought I could do it. I think it took me a long time. I took a lot of crap. It was tough. I’m 79 years old. Don’t worry, I’ll be dead in 10 years. I’m a realist about it. I don’t think I talked back or said what I thought until I was in my middle to late 40s. I don’t think I did anything but obey, and work harder than anybody else and produced. I produced, I was a bargain and I hung around until I thought I don’t want to be a bargain and I wanted more. I think the women’s movement had a lot to do with it, and I think also the sheer ripening of myself.” She said whenever there was a new boss who came in, she would tell him that she was leaving. “And they’d said, ‘You can’t leave.’ Needless to say, when I recently said I was leaving, there was no such reaction,” Nevins said.
“I actually began to think I was worth a good salary, that I had done my job as well as the next person, man or woman, and that I deserved to be well paid. After all, I was in media and they [HBO] were making a lot of money,” she said.
Asked if there was a particular event that gave her the impetus to ask for more money, she said, “I knew that the man across the hall was earning more money. I knew what his condo cost. I knew I couldn’t have that.” One day she received his check by mistake and it was triple her salary. “I went to HR, who was completely unhelpful, and then I went to the big boss and said I’m doing what he’s doing. [The boss] was scared I would leave, I had no place to go. They gave me a lot more. And the lawyer I had at the time said, ‘That’s an awful lot of money for a woman.’ The truth? I thought he was right. It was in the late Seventies. I did think for a woman I was making a lot of money. I was running a major part of this network that was growing in leaps and bounds. I’m tough. I gave blood but I punched back,” Nevins said.
Finally, Nevins turned to a topic that really gets on her nerves — elder abuse. She described a recent incident where she was at a hotel and tripped on a rug that was being installed, and it was excruciatingly painful. She went to a doctor in New York and the nurse said to her, “Did you trip or did you fall?” The nurse had Nevins’ birthdate in front of her. “I said I fell because I tripped. ‘No, that’s not what I mean, darling.’ She said, ‘Did you just fall down or did you trip?’ I said I tripped over a rug and then I fell. And she said, ‘That’s not what I’m asking you. Did you know you were falling?’ I said I knew when I fell that I was falling. I realized she’s looking at my birthdate and she thinks I passed out.” They sent her for an MRI, and they put her in a tube. “You know it’s practice for death. They’re banging and clanging and they can send people to the moon, but they can’t make it quieter,” she said.
But when she went to the front desk the nurse asked for her Medicare card. She said she didn’t have a Medicare card because she was still working at HBO at the time and was covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield. “She said, ‘No sweetheart, you do have a Medicare card.’ I said I don’t have a Medicare number, and she said ‘We need a Medicare number and I know you are covered by Medicare.’ They called in another woman like I’m this unruly woman, and she puts her arm around me and said, ‘Honey, why don’t we look in your wallet together?’
“These were experiences that make you feel, that whatever I looked like, and I looked like hell that day, whatever I felt like, and I was hobbling around, whatever it was, I had entered a new door. In that new door, I was to be pitied and condescended to and I survived womanhood, and now I was going to have to survive elderhood.
“I’m not senile yet, I’m not ugly yet, and I’m not limping yet, and even if I was, I deserve a certain kind of respect,” Nevins said.