The next time you’re up at Gaelic Park in the Bronx watching young lads aim for glory on the pitch, think of the happy fate of Michael Ledwidge.
Now 39 and living outside Hartford in Connecticut, Ledwidge used to play there with his brother back in the eighties. But since those days he’s come as far from his origins as it’s possible to get.
Nowadays Ledwidge works alongside the most successful author in the world, thriller writer James Patterson, a one-man publishing industry who has roped in untold millions courtesy of his legions of fans.
As the co-author of a series of some of Patterson’s most profitable books to date, Ledwidge has risen from an admired but, it’s fair to say, mostly unread author, to co-writing some of the most widely read books in the world. He’s made real money doing it too, enough to change his life completely.
But before we get to how he made his fortune, there’s his background in the Bronx and his days at Gaelic Park.
“My dad, who was from Ireland, loved Gaelic football and so my brother and I played it there,” Ledwidge tells the Irish Voice, enjoying the memory.
“We were in the Rangers team from the age of 10 till about 16. The scene up there was great fun at the time. Sometimes they’d have dances and we’d go.
“My mom and dad would bring us there for the annual dance at the park, too. I was always pretty well behaved. I was a good boy -- write that down!”
Before his life was transformed by good fortune equal to a once in a lifetime lottery win, Ledwidge had a very typical Irish American upbringing, which included a mandatory summer spent in Ireland.
“I traveled there when I was 14 and I stayed in Leitrim for most of summer. I thought it was going to be a vacation, but I ended up working on my relative’s cattle farm. There was a lot of waking up at 5 a.m.
“That summer I drove around the place with these two older guys named Seamus and Michael who were cattle inspectors. We spent the summer driving around the whole county playing the ‘Fields of Athenry’ over and over on a tape deck everywhere we went.”
Ledwidge then moved on to Cavan to stay with his cousins who were also farmers but who lived closer to the town.
“All the kids wanted to meet the Yank. They didn’t seem too impressed. But there was a whole gang of them and we hung around. It was a lot of fun,” he recalls.
“One of the things I really liked was that people would come by and ring the doorbell of my Aunt Josephine’s house. It would be nine o’clock at night and someone would pop in and say, ‘How is everybody, let’s play cards.’ And they’d play till 11 at night. If someone rang your doorbell in the Bronx you wouldn’t be invited to stay, that’s for sure.”
Ledwidge’s father (who sadly passed away two weeks ago) hailed from Kilnaleck in Co. Cavan, and his mother came from near Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim.
They came separately to the U.S. in the sixties and arrived in New Haven, where there was a big Irish immigrant contingent at the time. The couple actually met in Queens a few years later.
“My dad came here and he stayed with his uncle, who was also an Irish immigrant. That uncle was the captain of Paul Rockefeller’s private yacht, believe it or not,” Ledwidge says.
“He was the Rockefeller who built the Twin Towers. He lived in Tarrytown and he would take his yacht into Manhattan every day. That’s actually how he commuted to his office in the Rockefeller Center. My dad’s uncle would drop him back and forth.”
The relationship between the Irishman and the mogul was friendly enough because when Ledwidge’s father was looking for a job Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York at the time, helped him get it.
“My dad worked for the New York State Thruway and he got his job through the Rockefellers. Nelson Rockefeller was governor and there was some sort of deal there,” Ledwidge says.
“I remember my dad saying that when he first went to work it was a hard job to land and he was asked, ‘Do you know Nelson Rockefeller or something?’”
Ledwidge grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx, not too far from the last stop on the Number 1 train in Van Cortland Park. His block was pretty Irish.
“It was a very typical Bronx childhood. I played stickball, and there was a whole bunch of neighborhood kids around. I remember going out alone and running around all day long and it was safe to do that.”
Like other boys from the neighborhood Ledwidge went to the all-boys school Mount St. Michael Academy in the Bronx. But it was, he says, pretty grim.
“It was run by the Marist Brothers and it wasn’t that much fun. They believed in discipline and I was happy when it was over. Puff Daddy (now known as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs) was a year ahead of me in that school, believe it or not.”
Ledwidge knew that he wanted to go to college and his girlfriend -- who became his wife -- was going to Manhattan College. He decided to do the same.
“I took a history major and a philosophy major and I eventually decided to major in English because the thing I’ve loved to do my whole life is read,” he says.
Ledwidge’s mother is also a voracious reader and is now an English teacher. “There was always books in the house because she’s such a big reader. She actually got her PhD recently,” Ledwidge says.
“My dad was a bridge painter -- he painted the Tappan Zee Bridge -- so he was a hard worker all his life and he actually just passed away. He was a stoic Irish guy. He used to love to walk everywhere and he loved Gaelic football. He was the one who encouraged us to play.”
After college Ledwidge worked as a doorman on 50th Street and Park Avenue. He wanted to become police officer but was frustrated when it became clear that he would have to wait years to realize his ambition.
“I got 105% on the test, but there was some kind of lottery system and it looked like it would take years to work out. Working as a doorman was losing its charm, so I said to myself, you know what, if you want to be a writer now’s the time,” he recalls.
So Ledwidge began his first novel, even writing while on the job.
“If you’re the freight elevator operator you have a lot of free time. That was the best. I could just sit there and write. It was a great job for me,” Ledwidge says.
“I called the book The Narrowback, after a phrase my dad would use to describe Irish Americans, including my bother and I when he was angry.”
Having written the book Ledwidge was stumped as to where to send it. An attorney in the building whom Ledwidge was friendly with passed it on to a successful Irish thriller writer, who was impressed.
Inspired by the ringing endorsement from a professional, Ledwidge returned to his college and asked his old English professor at Manhattan College for her help getting it seen by agents.
In discussion Ledwidge learned that the world’s most famous thriller writer, James Patterson, was a very active alumni of the school, and the professor suggested that he write him a letter of introduction.
Ledwidge sent Patterson a copy of his manuscript. “I’d only written half of the book but I sent it on. A few days later the phone rang and I jokingly said to my wife, ‘I bet this is James Patterson,’” Ledwidge remembers.
It was James Patterson. The mega-successful author called to say he had enjoyed what he had read so far, and agreed to send it to his agent when Ledwidge finished it.
It had taken Ledwidge a year and a half to write the book, but he finished it three weeks after the phone call.
“I thought with my luck Patterson would be hit by a bus before I could finish it. I raced to finish that book and it came out in 1999,” Ledwidge says.
“The Atlantic Monthly Press picked it up. The book got great critical praise but the sales just weren’t there, you know? It’s a hard market.”
Ledwidge wrote two more books in quick succession and the same principle applied – critics loved him, but few people were buying.
All the while he kept in touch with Patterson, who asked him straight out one day -- why don’t you write one with me?
“Since he’s one of the top selling authors in the world it sounded like a good career move. I said I’ll think about it and the answer’s going to be yes,” says Ledwidge laughing.
In 2005 Step On a Crack came out, co-authored by Patterson and Ledwidge, the first in Patterson’s hugely popular Michael Bennett series (featuring an Irish American father of 10) and it was an instant hit.
To give an idea of the level of success that Patterson enjoys -- last year an estimated 14 million copies of his books in 38 different languages were sold around the world. He published nine original hardcover books in 2009 and he will publish at least nine more in 2010.
The word success seems anemic when it comes to describing his achievements. In fact Patterson has reportedly made over $500 million for his publisher Hachette over the last two years alone.
After Patterson and Ledwidge cracked their first book together in 2005, they’ve worked more or less the same way since.
“Usually one of us more than the other will have the original idea. Michael Bennett the character was Jim’s idea. Originally he wrote a 30-page outline,” says Bennett.
“The way he conceptualized it was Die Hard meets Cheaper By the Dozen. Michael Bennett, the hero, is an Irish American NYPD detective with 10 adopted kids. He has a wife who’s dying of cancer in the first book, and this is all happening against the background of a developing terrorist situation.
“It’s over the top, entertainment popcorn stuff. One of the best English critics said the book was like a Bruce Willis movie between two covers. So when the former first lady dies her celebrity filled funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is taken over by terrorists. Patterson likes daring, large scale stuff.”
The working relationship the two men have developed is fascinating. “The deal is that either one of us, usually Jim, will get the outline, do a first draft -- I’m in contact with him every couple of weeks. Or towards the end I’ll have the first draft and he’ll take it, shine it up and then we’ll do the finished project together.
“He’s sort of like that old eighties cartoon and he’s Godzilla and I’m Godzuki, you know?”
How many books has Ledwidge co-authored with Patterson this year?
“It’s like planes landing at JFK. There’s always a new one hovering around. The next one I co-wrote will be published in January.”
When the writing is good and it’s going well Ledwidge takes the same pride in his workmanship that any writer does, critics be dammed.
He worked hard for many years and he remembers the tough times in the past. “The good thing about my new job is that I’m not a doorman any more and I don’t work for the telephone company either. I really don’t miss popping manholes in the summer heat,” he laughs.
And even though he’s making much more now as a co-author with Patterson, the enjoyment is exactly the same, he says.
“Every time the phone rings and James Patterson’s name comes up on caller I.D. I still think, man this is wild. I think, who’s going to call me next? Stephen King?”