James Spada is a prolific author, photographer and publisher whose career has taken some amazing turns over the past thirty-five years. In 1979, after writing about Barbra Streisand (1974) and Robert Redford (1977), Spada published “The Spada Report, the Newest Survey of Gay Male Sexuality” (1979).
“My interests are quite varied,” says Spada, “so I was looking for a different kind of subject as my next book. I met an agent at a party in Manhattan and she said she was looking for a gay version of ‘The Hite Report.’ I submitted a proposal to her and she was able to get a publishing deal for it.”
For “The Spada Report,” over 1000 gay men between the ages of 16 and 77 responded to a questionnaire Spada created that examined all aspects of the “gay life-style,” including relationships, early sexual experiences, the baths, police, public restrooms, sex toys, and much more.
Looking back more than 30 years later, Spada sees many changes taking place in gay men’s sex lives, AIDS being just one: “If ‘The Spada Report’ was written today, there would be far more expressions of loss (due to AIDS), and fewer instances of casual and anonymous sex.
“The biggest difference, I think, would be more men proud of their gayness and fewer stories about parents and friends deserting them when they came out. Despite the spate of gay bashings recently, gay people have made enormous strides toward acceptance since 1979.”
During the two decades since “The Spada Report,” James Spada has made a name for himself as an acclaimed and prolific celebrity biographer.
Spada followed his Streisand and Redford books with biographies of Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, John and Caroline Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Peter Lawford, Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty, Bette Midler, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, Julia Roberts, the Bush Family and, once again, Barbra Streisand.
Some of those books are straight-on biographies while others are coffee table photo books. “After ‘The Spada Report’ I tried my hand at fiction and began a novel about a presidential candidate being blackmailed over a gay encounter in college. Several editors brought the proposal to their publication boards but I was never able to sell it. At that point a friend suggested I do a ‘real’ book on Streisand, not just a ‘Films of Barbra Streisand’ career study.
“That resulted in ‘Streisand: The Woman and the Legend’ and began the second phase of my career. I was now with a major house (Doubleday), appearing on The Today Show, all the things authors dream about! I produced seven heavily illustrated coffee table books on most of the gay show business icons.”
Of all the people Spada has written about, his favorites are Streisand and Marilyn Monroe, “She was my first dream girl, and I was thrilled to do a book about her.”
It should be noted that Spada is only one of many gay men who have made successful careers as celebrity biographers. He explains that “gay men are attracted to glamorous, larger-than-life people and if you are a writer it is very satisfying to write about those you admire.”
Needless to say, Spada does not agree with critics who do not take “celebrity biographers” seriously, or who, like ForeWord Magazine, separate ‘the literary biographer and the celebrity biographer.’ “I will grant that a biography of Bette Davis is not as serious a book as one on Franklin Roosevelt, but I think you can be a serious biographer and write about popular culture.
“Critics have called my books well-written and meticulously researched. I have gotten a number of thoughtful, positive reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and other prestigious publications. So I think it’s how well you research a subject, how well you write, and whether you yourself treat the subject seriously that should determine whether you are a ‘serious’ biographer, not the subject alone.”
Since the turn of the millennium, James Spada has emerged as a distinguished photographer of male nudes. His collected photos appeared in “Black & White Men” (2000) and “Edwardian Men” (2004). Spada’s third photo collection, “Eye Candy: New Images,” was just published by Spada’s own Pond Street Press.
But Spada’s photographic career goes back a long way: “I bought my first SLR camera when I was 14. I often used it to photograph my good-looking high school classmates. One boy was particularly beautiful and we became friends. I shot him incessantly, and one day I persuaded him to pose nude for me. So those were my first male nudes!
“But it was not until I moved to Boston from L.A. that I became serious about photography. I studied at the New England School of Photography and took studio and nude figure classes. At that point I decided to combine my interest in photography and my interest in beautiful men, and embarked on my photography career.” Spada’s influences are George Platt Lynes, Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber.
Each one of Spada’s photo books has a different theme. For “Edwardian Men” and the Spada-edited “Romantic Male Nude” he came up with the theme first and used photos that would fit the theme. For “Eye Candy,” Spada wanted to bring together his color digital work. “Before 2007, I shot only on black and white film, but once I got a digital SLR I fell back in love with color. I always felt that only black and white nudes could be ‘art,’ but I have changed my mind and I have tried to make all my photos as much about the lighting and ambience as the model.”
To find his models, Spada searched mostly on Craig’s List, ModelMayhem.com, his website Spadaphoto.com and through referrals from models and others. “If a shoot is successful I’m eager to do one or several more shoots with the model.”
Not satisfied with his successes as a male photographer and celebrity biographer, Spada has just published is first novel: “Days When My Heart Was Volcanic: A Novel of Edgar Allan Poe.” Why Poe? “Like most teenage boys I loved Poe’s stories. I was reading ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ on a train from New York City to Boston and loved the idea of putting a fictional person into a famous character’s life and telling the story from their perspective.
“I tried to think of who I could do that kind of treatment with, and came up with Poe, I had enough knowledge of his troubled private life to suspect that there was enough drama there to work with. Once I began reading Poe biographies I really got excited.”
Spada calls Edgar Allan Poe “a 19th century celebrity.” How does Poe compare to the celebrities whose lives Spada has written, or to today’s celebrities? “Poe is a lot like most of my subject’s charismatic, enormously talented, physically attractive, and as with a few of my subjects, prone to substance abuse and untimely death. He is most different in that, although he was famous, he rarely made enough money to live on. He was often on the very brink of destitution and died in poverty.”
James Spada, now 60 years old, lives in Boston with his husband and two cats. He is very passionate about what he does, is “a sucker for the days of yore,” and loves “dry wit and English detective television series.”
After a “near-fatal bout with pancreatitis,” Spada’s vision became impaired so it is very difficult to do the kind of in depth research needed for a biography. “I definitely want to do another novel, perhaps again with an actual person at its center. And I certainly intend to keep photographing beautiful men, and as soon as I have enough great shots for another book, I will put one out!”
“Days When My Heart Was Volcanic” can be purchased at Amazon.com, and “Eye Candy” can be purchased at Spadaphoto.com.