All Columns in Alphabetical Order

Monday, August 3, 2009

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Peter Morton Coan, Author

Peter Morton Coan is the author of three successful nonfiction books.

The author’s last book, Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words (Facts On File, 1997-2003 and Barnes & Noble, 2004-2009), which offers the firsthand accounts of the last surviving original immigrants to come to America, has become the definitive work on Ellis Island and the immigrants who passed through it. It was published in hardcover and trade paperback in multiple editions and was a Main Selection of several book clubs, including History Book Club, Book-of-the-Month Club, Jewish Book Club and Quality Paperback Book Club (QPB). The book was critically acclaimed by The New York Times and Publishers Weekly, and praised by, among others, then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; former New York City Mayor Abraham Beame; Lee Iacocca; and literary critic Leslie Fiedler, all of whom provided quotes for the book jacket.

The author’s home state of Ohio and then-Governor Bob Taft awarded Ellis Island Interviews “Ohioana Nonfiction Book of the Year” in 1999 (Toni Morrison accepted the award for fiction that year). The book is currently on the reading list of many schools and colleges across the United States and has since been reprinted annually since 2004 by Barnes & Noble, and is currently published under its imprint Fall River Press.

Editorial material from the book has also been quoted extensively in academic publications, including the textbook/CD-ROM for World History – The Human Journey (2005), published by Holt, Rinehart Winston (2005), 1013 pages; as well as the textbook/CD-ROM for American Nation (2006). In addition, the author was the featured interviewee as part of a two-hour radio program on BBC Scotland in 2007 (later sold as a CD) called Reflections: Ellis Island & the Scottish Experience (2008). During the 2008 presidential conventions, the book was featured at convention kiosks for the Fox News program Real American Stories.

The author also wrote the biography Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story (Kensington 2001, Carol Publishing Group, 1991), which is the definitive (and only) work on Mr. Chapin. When he was 18 years old, the author befriended the late singer-songwriter, humanitarian and hunger activist, who was appearing on Broadway in 1975 in a revue of his music. The author wrote a letter to the theatre offering to write Chapin’s life story.

Soon after, the author began working on Chapin’s biography and became his Boswell, a close friend and confidant recording the live history of a live man. Chapin’s only request was that Coan not do a puff piece, but “a serious writing job,” and for this he gave the author complete access to his life. Over the course of seven years, the author researched and wrote the book traveling around the country with Chapin and his band—all something reminiscent of the movie Almost Famous. The author attended college during these years, so he’d ask friends to cover his classes and off he went touring with Mr. Chapin.

The author did hundreds of interviews, from friends and family, lovers and enemies (usually the rock critics) to musicians like Bob Dylan, Oscar Brand, Gordon Lightfoot, Waylon Jennings and Kenny Rogers, to people from the side of his life steeped in social causes and the fight against world hunger: actor Robert Redford, singers Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Bob Dole, Senator Hubert Humphrey, Senator Howard Metzenbaum and President Jimmy Carter.

The author, then 25 years old, was working on the final chapter with Mr. Chapin when the musician died in a tragic car accident on July 16, 1981. Almost immediately upon his death, the widow tried to block publication of the book so that she could put out one of her own. The author sued her, but soon found himself in a David versus Goliath-like struggle against the widow’s well-financed and rather prodigious team of attorneys whose goal was to delete, or at the very least delay, publication of Mr. Coan’s book, all of which resulted in nine years of litigation in New York Supreme Court. But it also resulted in wide publicity as a result of the author’s perseverance to tell his story, and the estate finally settled out of court prior to trial. The author received a large cash settlement and his book was finally published in 1990 to excellent reviews.

An accomplished journalist, Mr. Coan was editor of several magazines including World Tennis magazine and wrote World Tennis Magazine’s Guide to the Best Tennis Resorts (Citadel Press, 1992), and has had articles published in numerous publications including The New York Times, Food & Wine, Newsday, Tennis, Boating and Travel & Leisure.

Mr. Coan has also enjoyed success in the business world having held senior marketing and communications positions at Fortune 500 companies: JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, TD Waterhouse and TD Ameritrade.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, the author was adopted and raised by an affluent Jewish family in Manhattan, and he recently discovered his southern Christian roots. He attended Connecticut boarding schools Cheshire Academy and The Loomis School, and graduated from the University at Buffalo, majoring in English (Honors) and Psychology. He received his MS from Boston University in Print and Broadcast Journalism. He lives in Manhattan and is a principal of Coan Books, an online bookseller. Whom You Know is pleased to present him as our latest Mover and Shaker.

Peachy Deegan interviewed Peter Morton Coan for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What inspired you to write about Ellis Island?
Peter Morton Coan: There was a small article in Newsday about Ellis Island and how many of the original immigrants who came through were getting on in years and I wondered if anyone had bothered to sit down and get their stories on record. I
am also adopted so I suppose I was seeking to discover my own identity.

Have you been up to the Crown since the re-opening at the Statue of Liberty?
No. But I went up there once when I was ten years old as part of a school trip.

What do you think most people do not understand about the immigrant experience?
The large number of people who suffered; we tend to romanticize Ellis Island and the immigration experience, but more often than not it was anything but romantic.

What is the most uplifting immigrant story you have been told?
The story in my book from Emmanuel "Manny" Steen; a Jewish immigrant from Dublin (rare in itself). It is a classic underdog tale. Absolutely inspiring, uplifting.

What is the most depressing immigrant story you have been told?
Any of the stories involving the Nazi concentration camps. The mark left is indellible. Not one of humanity's shining hours.

What have you enjoyed interviewing the most and why?
My interview with Dr. James Baker was quite remarkable, chilling actually. He ran the Ellis Island hospital (all 23 buildings on the south side). He lived on the island (the only one who did) and ran the hospital like a MASH unit. He told me the truth about the experiments that were done. The electroschock therapy given to immigrants - all in the name of advancing psychiatric medicine which was still in its infancy in the 1930s and 40s. He told me how he would spend his day using a portable generator he had to run the electroschock machine, and then at the end of the day, take the generator upstairs so he could watch television.

What interview questions that you have posed to others have evoked the most interesting responses?
Any questions that pertained to families that were separated or broken because of their immigration.

What qualities make a great writer?
Great pain.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?
My home.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
Schaller & Weber, the butcher, Agata Valentina, and Kamman on Canal Street.

What is your favorite drink?
Starbucks Espresso or Italian roast. Black. Strong.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
P.J. Bernstein's deli. But also...Vincent's in Little Italy for frutti di mare. Lombardi's for pizza. Tony's Di Napoli for veal parm. Papaya King on East 86 Street for a hot dog "complete" with a medium mango. And Pasteur on Baxter Street for the best Vietnamese spring rolls.

What is your favorite Manhattan book?
I don't have one.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
Playing softball in Central Park in late afternoon on a cool summer's day.

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
Simply walk about the city and soak it all in.

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
Traveling with Harry Chapin and his band; going backstage, meeting amazing people, going to concerts - Westbury Music Fair, Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and those great once-upon-a-time Dr. Pepper and Schaeffer Music Festivals in Central Park.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
Underrated: The remarkable history that is here in New York such as the Mount Vernon Hotel on East 60th once the home of Abigail Adams, the daughter of second president John Adams.
Overrated: Broadway shows.

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
I think we're good.

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?

Back to TOP