The Dan Brown Code
WITH THE TRAIL GROWING COLD AT EXETER, Storrs wondered what he could uncover from Brown’s days at Amherst College. He reached Alan Lelchuk, who taught the creative-writing seminar that Brown later credited with helping him become a novelist. Brown’s writing from the class left little impression on Lelchuk. Of course, it would have been easy for anyone to be eclipsed by the enormous talent of fellow student David Foster Wallace, the heady prose stylist now regarded as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. "With Dan, he was not the star of the class, as David was, as were one or two others who were really quite good," Lelchuk told Storrs.
"Dan was good," he finally admitted, as if for the sake of politeness. "But in a much quieter way."
Storrs placed a call to the bestselling mystery writer Harlan Coben, who was in a fraternity with Brown at Amherst and later supplied a glowing blurb for The Da Vinci Code book jacket. Coben promptly hung up on him. Storrs then e-mailed the director of the Amherst Glee Club—a group Brown had belonged to—only to get a terse reply: "Sorry, directions from Dan: No comment." It seemed that word of Storrs’s quest had gotten to Brown.
Storrs was mulling this possibility at his desk in Boston when he was handed a small cardboard package bearing the exotic postal code 61604. Peoria, Illinois. His pulse quickened. He tore open the envelope and shook out several mail-order music catalogs.
In his affidavit, Brown mentioned that readers love to learn about the "secret history" of things. Dan Brown’s own secret history involved the decade or so after college that he spent trying to make it big as a songwriter in Hollywood.
The package Storrs received had been sent by a guy named Ron Wallace who sold cassettes and CDs via mail order. He carried Brown’s first album, SynthAnimals, which was made for kids and billed as "one of those rare children’s tapes that won’t drive you crazy on car trips." That was followed by three albums geared toward adult listeners, culminating with Angels & Demons, a title Brown would later recycle for his second novel.
Storrs located an old promotional blurb about Brown’s third album. "No expense was spared in the recording of this album. The tracks were cut in some of the nation’s finest studios with some of the most accomplished musicians living today," wrote a well-connected music publicist named Blythe Newlon. "We believe Dan Brown is an artist destined to become a major talent."
She would make sure of it.
PRETTY MUCH THE FIRST THING a prep school student like Dan Brown learns in high school is the value of networking. And when he settled in Hollywood, one of the first things Brown did was join the National Academy of Songwriters, a now-defunct trade organization for composers. There, he met Blythe Newlon, who helped teach young songwriters how to promote themselves. They quickly fell for each other, but worked to keep the relationship a secret lest other struggling songwriters think Brown was getting special treatment.
Through the academy, the nervous performer got a gig at a songwriters showcase, and when Brown bombed, it was Blythe who lobbied to get him another shot (also a bomb). Ever image-conscious, Blythe taught Brown that he needed more than catchy songs to become famous, that he could enlist big names to help him manufacture a reputation. She helped recruit an all-star team of musicians who had collaborated with the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson to appear with him.
"[Blythe] was everything [Dan] wasn’t: an extrovert, a great schmoozer. She understood how the business worked," said Paul Zollo, a music journalist who worked with Blythe. "At parties, Dan would be shy and stand in a corner by himself. Blythe would be schmoozing, introducing people to him. She was great at all the things he was uncomfortable with."
The couple’s attraction seemed, at times, rooted in shared ambition. When Zollo published his second book, Songwriters on Songwriting, he heard that Rolling Stone was going to review it. "A lot of people didn’t care, but Dan seemed to come alive—it really seemed to matter to him," Zollo recalled. "It was clear with Blythe and Dan that commercial success was what they were after."