She is famous for being outspoken, and in conversation, Sheila Nevins doesn’t disappoint. In a recent two-hour phone chat, Nevins, 78, the venerated president of HBO Documentary Films and author of the recently published memoir-cum-satire-cum-tell-all “You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairytales” is, at turns, self-deprecating, other-deprecating, biting, blunt, wistful, and funny — always funny. Even when she’s being poignant. Especially when she’s being poignant.
In her book, Nevins tackles, in no particular order, adultery, aging, mammography, plastic surgery, sex with her boss(es), Tourette’s Syndrome, from which her son, David Koch, suffers, and, of course, death. The piece “Mentor Not” is a screed against the anti-Semitic mother of her college boyfriend, who sweetly asked a young Nevins, “Aren’t there any interesting Jewish men at Yale who would be more suitable for you?”
“Sometimes she is still with me as a driving force,” writes Nevins. “She is my revenge. All I did was to prove her wrong. Her condemning spirit often lets me edit late night without fatigue. I dress in clothes she would not approve of. But I approve.”
Abby Ellin: You identify as a Jew, but you didn’t really have a very Jewish upbringing.
Sheila Nevins: The whole family was born in Russia except for my mother. My grandfather was hit on the head during the pogroms, so he never made any sense at all. Nobody spoke anything but Yiddish. My grandmother took me to Yiddish theater on Second Avenue. She used to read me the horror stories from the Yiddish Daily Forward. So if someone fell down the stairs and cracked his head open I’d know about it.
I have a huge Jewish identity, but being a communist, my mother wouldn’t allow me to go to Sunday school. She remained a communist her whole life. I didn’t know the difference between the [Jewish] holidays.
But I identify very strongly with being Jewish — almost tearfully, because I felt so deprived of my friends because I couldn’t go to shul with them. My mother told me from the time I was six that religion was the opiate of the people. I thought she meant opium. For years I misquoted that. I thought it made people high.
Your mom was friendly with the Rosenbergs?
My mother knew her [Ethel]. I remember going to Union Square Park with a sign about not killing them. I had to hold it and it was very heavy. I was about 13 when they were killed.
All my mother’s friends disappeared.
It was terrifying for a little girl. My friend Billy Miller’s father was the editor of the Daily Worker. Billy and I used to do homework together. He was about three years younger than I. One day he was gone. I think they had to get out of town. I think they were under threat. It was the Red Scare.
So when was the moment that you really felt like a Jew?
When I got my Aunt’s death certificate. My publisher wouldn’t let me write the story unless I had proof of her death. My Aunt Celia jumped out the window [at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory] and cracked her head and died at St. Vincent’s Hospital. I remember my grandmother crying. But she was always crying about something that happened to somebody — probably from the Jewish Daily Forward.
You’ve produced acclaimed films like “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden” and “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” Under your leadership, HBO Documentaries has won 32 Primetime Emmy Awards, 34 News and Documentary Emmys, 42 Peabody Awards. and 26 Academy Awards. Yet you say you’re not confident. What’s up with that?
I went to Yale as a director. I’m thinking, why didn’t I have the confidence to do something earlier? Why didn’t I, say, write a script? So in that sense I’m not confident.
But yet, you don’t mind aging.
Being old is such a relief! I’m so enjoying being old, I cannot tell you. I’ve so enjoyed embracing it. But I feel that life passed me by.
What about those 32 Emmys? And prospering in a male-dominated industry?
I started as an anomaly. I’m an old woman. There were no women in the business except on camera. But I didn’t grow up with a movement. It’s harder for a woman now because it’s a movement, and it’s scary, because it’s got leaders. It’s got women who talk back. I didn’t lean in — I leaned all the way back.
I’m successful, but I’ve been in the same fucking job for 35 years. Honey, if you cook the same dish for 35 years, eventually you get it right.
What would you have done differently?
I would have written scripts. I think I write good dialogue. But I was so kicked in the teeth after Yale drama, I tried so hard to get a job in theater, but they weren’t interested. I was also cursed because I was very pretty — and everyone thought I was an actress.
So what are you proud of?
I am very proud that I did this book. I had two jobs — the book and HBO.
How did you do it?
I would dream it and write it in the morning.
OK. Let’s get to revenge. Your WASP-y ex boyfriend’s mother gave you a nice introduction to anti-Semitism.
People hate Jews. It’s very deep. I hear people say, “Jew ‘em down!” And they hate us. When I wrote the story it came back, and when I talked to my old boyfriend it came back. When I hung up, I cried. But he said it was true—meaning, that I remembered it correctly. He said, “It’s true, and I was a coward.”
It meant there was something of value in his cowardice. I wasn’t in love with a scoundrel. He was a coward.
Did you ever confront his mother?
I’m vindictive. I think the best way to be vindictive is not to let them notice. Fuck them. Sometimes the best revenge is putting them into nothing land.
Abby Ellin, the author of “Teenage Waistland,” contributes to The New York Times, Psychology Today and Marie Claire, among other publications. She is currently working on a book about deception for Public Affairs.