March 2008 | Issue 45
Return to the South Pacific
An Interview with Diane Sawyer
Diane Sawyer recalls the trip she made for 60 Minutes in 1986 with James Michener to cover his return-his first since World War II-to the island of Espíritu Santo, which inspired Tales of the South Pacific.
Editor: Did you have to convince Michener to do the interview?
Diane Sawyer: No. And I was surprised that nobody else had done it. He thought about it for a while-age was a consideration. But I think he was excited, and I think his wife was also looking forward to it. As a barely adolescent girl, I had been stunned by South Pacific. Then, one day at 60 Minutes, the executive producer, Don Hewitt, and I discovered we both knew the words to every song. We started talking about the way the book tackled race, and what happened when Americans encountered the world. That's when we said let's find Michener and take him back.
ED: What was his emotional state?
DS: Well, it was very interesting. One of the things I loved about him was that he was very unsentimental. I think he got there and surprised himself. He was in tears at one point. I think it just overwhelmed him.
ED: Was he ever in harm's way?
DS: No, he wasn't in harm's way. He did a lot of typing, he said, as he helped pro-cess these half million kids streaming through and summoning their courage. He watched farm boys from Iowa in the strangest of strange lands flying off into terrifying danger every day. And, as he said, he used to go sit with them and listen to their stories every night and then write them up. You could not have had a stronger, finer witness of American innocence transformed into American bravery.
ED: Had he ever been to that island that became Bali Ha'i?
DS: No, he just dreamed of it. There were two things that he didn't want to know the answers to: he didn't want to go there and actually see the island, of so much mystery, and when we went up into the hills looking for Madame Gardell [one of the people who inspired the character of Bloody Mary] he said that he had always wondered why she had come there. There was a secret, and he had never had the nerve to ask her, because there was a rumor that she had killed someone.
ED: In France, like Emile de Becque?
DS: Exactly. I said, "Want me to ask her how she got here? See if we can research it, and see if there's anything in France from this?" He said, "No, let's leave that one in the South Pacific."
ED: Did Madame Gardell remember him?
DS: I think he was an exceptionally good customer of hers. And, planted on those little islands, he had time. I had pushed so hard to find her. So many people from the war had long since left, and we thought, We're not going to find her, she won't be there. But we tracked her up into the hills, a French woman living in a pretty primitive village. She was ninety-five, but she absol-utely remembered Michener and they started singing the songs they used to sing around the piano in her house.
ED: Was it a whorehouse?
DS: Well, it seemed ambiguous to me.
ED: But she could always find girls to bring in.
DS: Yes, and maybe they were just nice girls who could cheer you up, chastely. Everybody can use their own intuition on that one.
ED: The old plantation, which was the model for Emile de Becque's home, wasn't very glamorous.
DS: No, but I think it had been beautiful. The ruins suggested something lyrical.
ED: Did Michener stay friends with any of his cohorts on the island?
DS: I didn't get that sense. That's one of the things I liked so much about him. He seemed introverted, an observer. I think he was a real writer in the sense that he would write his characters and move on. He had to keep living where he was writing. The stories, Tales of the South Pacific, are fantastic, and so different from everything that followed. In each of the stories, he just drops right into the beating heart of a situation and then leaves. He talked a lot about "The Remittance Man." It's really Joe Cable. I think, for him, that was the central story. That some kid would go up there being ninety percent sure he was going to die. And do it anyway.
ED: Did the people you saw on the island have any idea who he was?
DS: No. Some of them had heard that somebody had written about the island, but not beyond that. Oh, and the other thing that was amazing is that when the Americans vanished, virtually all traces of that once huge presence vanished. We found a coke bottle from the 1940s. A few Quonset hunts remained. But I can't tell you how primitive it was where Madame Gardell was living up on the hill. So remote. All she had left from those days were two forks and a plate.
ED: Were there still plantations after the war?
DS: I think they also disintegrated. It was a huge economic accident for this island to have all that income from the Allied staging area. It was a pretty desolate place when we went back. But again, it all may have changed by now.
ED: How did you say goodbye to each other?
DS: We exchanged some letters. But mostly, it happened and he moved on-I loved that. He told me his wife felt we had used too much of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical in the piece. (Laughs) Because, of course, the heart of South Pacific is first the power of his story, not the musical. But he wrote me beautiful things about it. And then we let it go.