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This column by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the April 20, 2005
issue of U.S. 1
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Jamie Saxon: Patricia Cornwell
I thought my only brushes with celebrity were over after briefly
dating Chris Kennedy (one of Bobby’s sons) in college (his cousin,
Kara, was a classmate of mine at Tufts) and meeting Katherine Hepburn
at a professional theater I worked at one summer in New Hampshire.
Both experiences took place over 20 years ago.
But then in 2000 the gods were to smile upon me once more. While
working for a nonfiction book producer in Princeton I conceived an
idea for a cookbook based on the novels of New York Times bestselling
crime writer Patricia Cornwell. I was a big fan, having read all of
her books, which center on a character named Kay Scarpetta – the
blond, beautiful, brilliant chief medical examiner of Richmond who
solves heinous crimes by day and whips up outstanding Italian meals by
night for friends and family. I did a full analysis of every dish in
every novel, from veal stew to crab cakes, whipped up a proposal with
a full table of contents, and overnighted it in a basket with a tin of
my homemade biscotti to Esther Newberg, one of the most powerful
agents in New York. My boss laughed out loud when he heard Cornwell’s
agent was Newberg. "She’ll never call you back," he said. What a
killjoy, I thought.
The very next morning, my phone rang. My mouth full of bagel (as it
usually is at that hour), I answered, "Hew-o." A voice on the other
end of the line said briskly, "This is Esther Newberg. I loved your
biscotti. Let’s make a book." Well, I almost peed in my pants right
there and managed not to spit too much of my bagel out onto my desk.
"Great," I said, like I do this kind of thing every day. The ultimate
bennie? The recipe developer and I got to spend a weekend in Hilton
Head cooking with Cornwell in her home – an absolutely gorgeous little
number right on the beach with a brand new gourmet kitchen. She had
flown in the night before with various friends in her own helicopter,
which she pilots herself. While her friends lounged by the pool, we
cooked and cooked and at dinner she pulled out bottle after bottle of
wine that I know had three-digit price tags.
She turned out to be the nicest person in the world, with a heart the
size of Texas – and even gave me a copy of the manuscript of her next
Scarpetta novel, which I got to read before the rest of the world.
After learning that my father had died earlier in the year, she said,
"We’re going for a ride in my helicopter tomorrow morning. I’m going
to take you a little bit closer to your Dad." Once we were up in the
air, however, I spent the bulk of the excursion trying very, very hard
not to puke in her multi-million dollar custom-made chopper. I’m not
so good at the height thing.
The cookbook, "Food to Die For: Secrets from Kay Scarpetta’s Kitchen,"
turned out beautifully; as luck would have it, the release date was
the week after 9/11, but the book still sold well. So imagine my
surprise when I learned that a Princeton graduate had written "The
Complete Patricia Cornwell Companion." Dr. Glenn Feole, Class of 1974,
will give a talk and book signing at Princeton University Store on
Monday, April 25, at 7 p.m.
The book, published by Berkley, the trade paperback division of
Penguin Putnam, Cornwell’s publisher, is considered "official,"
meaning it has Cornwell’s blessing. I had to talk to this Feole guy. I
wanted to know, did he pee in his pants when Newberg said yes? Did he
almost puke in her helicopter? Then again, did he even meet Cornwell?
Turns out Feole (pronounced Fee-OH-lee), 53, is an unassuming
pediatrician who works in a clinic for the underserved in South
Carolina, the last person in the world you would think would be able
to pull a book like this off. But, like my experience, the reason it
worked is because he simply just did it, without looking past the
pencil on his page.
A second generation Italian, Feole was born in Hartford, Connecticut,
and raised, with his three siblings, in Westerly, Rhode Island, and
St. Louis. His father, the first in his family to go to college, was a
business manager for Monsanto, then owned his own company. His mother
was a homemaker and very creative in the arts.
Feole attributes his interest in medicine to two key people in his
life. "I have asthma, and back in the ’50s, I had this wonderful
doctor who would make house calls. When I would wheeze, he would come
over and give me a shot of adrenaline from a glass syringe. He had a
big black doctor’s bag. I thought, what a wonderful way to spend your
life, helping people."
Raised a Catholic, Feole attended a Jesuit high school in St. Louis
where, he says, he met the second most influential person in his life.
"Father O’Brien and I would talk about philosophy and religion. The
Jesuit life is a life for others. He made me aware of looking in that
At Princeton, Feole was pre-med but also studied philosophy under
Professor Walter Kaufmann, writing his thesis on Sartre’s "Being and
Nothingness." "I have a renaissance taste in life," says Feole.
"Pediatrics is my passion but I love the arts, music, and philosophy."
Even after being accepted at the University of Cincinnati College of
Medicine, he deferred his medical studies to play bass in a jazz band.
He remained an avid reader and, seeking a life in public service, he
earned his medical degree in 1982, then entered the public health
sector in St. Louis, figuring he’d be killing two birds with one stone
– helping others and paying back his formidable student loans from the
government. Drawn to Paterson, New Jersey, the hometown of William
Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, Feole spent two years there, from
1985 to 1987, also working in public health. It was there that he took
his first step towards his first brush with celebrity.
"You know that famous picture of Mother Theresa and Diana? Well, I was
there the day before that picture was taken." Feole had gone to a soup
kitchen in Newark run by the Sisters of Charity, who had been trained
by Mother Theresa. "I spent several hours in the church, which had
bare floors, praying. Then one of the sisters came to me and said,
would you be interested in meeting Mother Theresa?" He left his phone
number with the nun and almost forgot about it. Months later, Feole
moved to back to his home state of Connecticut, and after two years
working at Norwalk Hospital in neonatology and for two large pediatric
groups, opened a solo practice where he saw patients in his home – and
made house calls. "I was in heaven. My 3,000 patients were like my
One day he saw on the news that Mother Theresa was in the Bronx. Then
he got a call from the nuns who apologized and said they had lost his
phone number but then found it. Could he come to the church in the
Bronx at 5 a.m. the next morning? "When I got to the front of the
line, they said there was no more room in the church," says Feole. But
then one of the sisters brought him around the back and wedged him
into a spot. "When I looked up, I saw that I was right behind Mother
Theresa’s wheelchair. After the Mass she blessed me. I knew I wanted
to model my life on her."
The advent of managed care was the end of Feole’s solo practice, which
he had run for 11 years. He moved his wife, Tina, and their four
children to Richmond, where his sister lives. Before he left, a
patient pressed a Patricia Cornwell book into his hand. "Richmond.
That’s where my favorite author is. I’ve read all of her books."
He didn’t have a job for the first few months. "I had no control. I
just read – three to four books a week. We don’t have a TV. I just
read the classics." And after a trip to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, he
started reading mystery novels, including all of Cornwell’s novels.
Almost on a whim one day, he opened the Yellow Pages and phoned the
medical examiner’s office and asked if they needed someone to work as
a medical examiner. As luck would have it, they had a paid part-time
position. "The smartest people in medicine are pathologists," says
Feole. "Every fourth night I’d be on call, and get 10 to 15 calls a
night from all over central Virginia – any car death, suicide, or
murder." Ironically, he worked for Marcella Fierro, the medical
examiner on whom Cornwell’s main character, Kay Scarpetta, is based.
(Cornwell, who worked for a time for Fierro as a computer analyst,
pioneered the idea of crime stories based on forensic pathology –
which have led to the immense popularity of television shows like the
CSI franchise, Cold Case Files, and Crossing Jordan.)
"I loved the intellectual challenge of it," says Feole of the job.
"You go to the (crime) scene, you take pictures, and present the cases
the next morning. Dr. Fierro was like Sherlock Homes. She would teach
me and teach me and teach me. I really was taught by Kay Scarpetta."
Is Fierro tall, blond, and beautiful like Kay? Not exactly. "She’s a
grandmother, shorter, but she’s Italian," says Feole. "She smokes and
she’s a riot."
He remembers one case, which he determined to be a suicide. After all,
the victim was anxious and on antidepressants. Fierro just laughed.
That analysis wouldn’t fly. "Feole," she said, "everybody’s anxious
Feole says he looked at his one-year stint in the morgue as a test of
his faith. "I wanted to see it as a Catholic – and as a doctor, to see
how I would respond to daily death and pathos. I wanted to go there
and confront life." Ultimately, Feole says he had a hard time handling
it and would consume himself in reading mystery novels, taking copious
notes in the margins and jotting down interesting quotes. He was a
statistical freak. "I calculated that in one year, I saw 1,000 dead
bodies." In his Cornwell book, he would later dedicate a chapter to
statistics, calculating that there was an average of 6.7333 deaths in
each of her first 15 novels.
He met Cornwell just once, passing her in the hall of the morgue.
Fierro introduced them. "I just said hello," says Feole, only later
realizing that he had met the author of those bestselling novels.
His statistical mind never slept, and he cranked out a manuscript on
the mystery writer Lawrence Block. In search of three out-of-print
Block books, he went to Otto Penzler’s famed Mysterious Bookshop in
Manhattan, a tiny two-story building at 129 West 56th Street, wedged
in between two skyscrapers. He struck up a conversation with Sally
Owen, an employee, who climbed the store’s spiral staircase to the
second floor, quickly found the three books, and asked, by the way,
why are you writing this book? She insisted on seeing the manuscript.
After much resistance, Feole finally agreed to send it to her. Four
months later, Feole got a call on his answering machine – from
Lawrence Block ("Larry" to the Mysterious Bookstore clan). He said, "I
love your book."
Block’s agent, Marty Greenberg, sold it to Cumberland House. By this
time, Feole had taken a job at Pediatrics of Batesburg-Leesville, a
satellite clinic of Eau Claire Cooperative Health Clinics of Columbia,
South Carolina, which provides medical services for the underserved.
"It’s a gift to me to do this," says Feole. "Many of my patients have
never seen a doctor. I make house calls to trailer parks now, not the
mansions of Westport." He lives in an apartment during the week,
traveling each weekend back to Richmond where his wife and youngest
daughter, Molly, now 15 and in high school, live.
Then Feole got the idea to do the Cornwell book. "I dropped the
manuscript off at her headquarters in Richmond," he says. "Then her
secretary called and said, you have to come pick it up." They couldn’t
accept unsolicited manuscripts. So Feole had Greenberg submit it to
Putnam’s and Cornwell Enterprises, which bought it for a six-figure
advance. Feole says, "The vast majority (of the advance) went to
everyone else – Cornwell got half, Esther Newberg got a percentage, my
agent got a percentage."
The book was published on January 4, with an initial print run of
50,000. The publisher and Cornwell Enterprises had complete editorial
control but Feole says he can’t see that they made any significant
editorial changes – they just added true crime writer Don Lassetter as
a co-author, apparently with the hopes that his name, more
recognizable than Feole’s, would increase sales. The book includes a
brief Cornwell biography; character portraits; photos of Cornwell,
places like an autopsy room and forensics lab, and tools of the trade
like a bullet recovery tank; medical terminology including lay
explanations of terms like "algor mortis" (the cooling of a body after
death) and "dextro head" (someone who abuses over-the-counter cold
medicines containing opiates); and forensic shop talk – the low-down
on stuff like blood splatter, fingerprints, and time of death. It is
an astonishingly comprehensive amalgam of facts and minutiae, which
undoubtedly Cornwell fans will lap up like a kitten that has fallen
into a bowl of cream.
There is even a chapter on celebrities. In "Unnatural Exposure,"
Scarpetta is depressed and tries to forget her problems by watching
television. "I watched the Today show, which I ordinarily never got to
do. Martha Stewart was whipping up something with meringue while I
picked at a soft-boiled egg…I could not eat."
While Feole did not interview Cornwell for the book, he did interview
Fierro. He says: "I asked her, ‘Whatever happened to the good old days
of killing for revenge?’ The cause of most murders today are psychotic
or sexual." In her signature matter-of-fact style, Fierro simply
replied, "People are just irritable today."
"The Complete Patricia Cornwell Companion," book talk and signing with
Dr. Glenn Feole, Princeton, Class of 1974, Monday, April 25, 7 p.m.,
Princeton University Store, 36 University Place. 609-921-8500, ext.
238 or www.pustore.com.
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