Finstad, Suzanne 1955-

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FINSTAD, Suzanne 1955-


Born September 14, 1955, in Minneapolis, MN; daughter of Harold Martin (an investment counselor and business executive) and Elaine (a teacher and counselor; maiden name, Strom) Finstad. Education: Attended University of Texas—Austin, 1973-74; University of Houston, B.A., 1976, J.D., 1980; attended University of Grenoble, 1979, and London School of Economics and Political Science (London, England), 1980.


Agent—Michael Carlisle, William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.


Writer. Butler & Binion, Houston, TX, legal assistant, 1976-78, law clerk, 1978-80, trial attorney, 1980-82; writer and legal consultant, 1982—. Special counsel to attorney ad litem in the heirship determination of Howard Hughes, 1981.


Authors Guild, Texas State Bar Association, Order of the Barons.


American Jurisprudence Award, Bancroft-Whitney Co./Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Co., 1979; Frank Wardlaw Prize, Texas Monthly Press, 1984, for Heir Not Apparent.


Heir Not Apparent, Texas Monthly Press (Austin, TX), 1984.

Ulterior Motives: The Killing and Dark Legacy of Tycoon Henry Kyle, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.

Dancing near the Flame, Morrow (New York), 1990.

Sleeping with the Devil, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.

Child Bride: The Untold Story of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, Harmony Books (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor to magazines, including Cosmopolitan, European Travel and Life, Penthouse, Mademoiselle, and Good Housekeeping.


Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood has been adapted for audio cassette; Child Bride: The Untold Story of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley has been adapted as a motion picture.


As a clerk to attorney O. Theodore Dinkins, Jr., who was assigned the monumental task of verifying the true heirs of millionaire Howard Hughes, Suzanne Finstad conducted a thorough investigation of Hughes's life and confusing relationships. Her research led her into the puzzling lives of his parents and his uncle, the writer Rupert Hughes. With the aid of a professional genealogist, Finstad compiled a history of the Hughes family which left her with more questions than solutions. Heir Not Apparent is a product of the author's five-year search for the truth, a search which left Finstad with the uncomfortable, but legally unprovable, feeling that the wrong people had inherited one of the largest fortunes in U.S. history.

Ulterior Motives: The Killing and Dark Legacy of Tycoon Henry Kyle is a study of the life and death of another American millionaire, Henry Harrison Kyle. Kyle was killed and his older son was wounded in an alleged burglary attempt at their home. The son was eventually accused of the murder and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Finstad wrote a nonfiction account of the mysterious death and even more cryptic life of the self-made millionaire from Tennessee, which critic Mark Schorr of the Los Angeles Times Book Review called "fascinating and compelling reading." She concluded her book with an exhaustive study of the lengthy trial of Kyle's son. Finstad described her book as an examination of a "tragic family drama" from the perspective of "such universal themes as the father-son conflict, sibling rivalry, and loyalty."

Finstad once told CA: " Dancing near the Flame is the true story of Barbra Piotrowski, who was shot four times in the parking lot of a Houston doughnut shop by hit men believed to be hired by her estranged lover, Richard Minns, a self-made millionaire in the health club industry and self-described adventurer. I was attending law school in Houston at the time she was shot and I, like everyone else in the city, was swept up in the drama of the story as it played out in the newspapers. Shortly after my second book was released Barbra won her lawsuit against Minns, and I was drawn to tell the whole story, which had never been published.

"Piotrowski and Minns met on the ski slopes in Aspen, Colorado, in 1977—she a beautiful California pre-med student, he a forty-seven-year-old Houston quasi-celebrity on holiday with his wife of twenty-five years. Piotrowski and Minns fell wildly in love and Piotrowski moved to Houston at Minns's urging. The two lived a glamorous, jet-set existence for four years. When Minns's divorce became final he and Piotrowski developed strains in their relationship. In March of 1980 Piotrowski moved out of their townhouse. Six months later she was shot by paid assassins and left paralyzed from the chest down. Although Houston police and the district attorney's office have stated publicly that Richard Minns hired Piotrowski's assailants, he has never even been questioned. Since the shooting, he has been living in Europe and the Cayman Islands in luxurious exile. Piotrowski has been living in continuing fear that he will hire someone else to finish the job. She has changed her name several times. As a paraplegic, she has become a world-class wheelchair racing champion. She also vowed she would walk again and has been working with Dr. Terrold Petrofsky, a Nobel Prize-nominated biomedical engineer who invented a computerized walking system. As a Petrofsky test patient, Piotrowski (now known as Tanni Smith) walked 6.8 miles in the Honolulu Marathon. She and Dr. Petrofsky have been featured on 60 Minutes numerous times. They have opened a chain of rehabilitation clinics for the paralyzed. In 1987 Piotrowski/Smith was awarded a $28.6 million default judgment in a civil lawsuit for her injuries against Richard Minns."

Finstad also produced biographies of two women well known in popular culture. The first, Child Bride: The Untold Story of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, is a publication "cannily tied, time-wise, to the 20th anniversary of Elvis' death," as Entertainment Weekly columnist Lisa Schwarzbaum noted. Schwarzbaum went on to say that the author "adds to the mound of commemorative Presleyana by demonstrating, tirelessly and grimly, that Elvis' ex-wife… is far more complicated than the image of the tender lovin' widow she would like to present." According to the reviewer, Finstad takes a two-tiered approach to Presley: "at times," Schwarzbaum wrote, the author "displays compassion for her subject's flaws. At others, she seems to want to slug her in the teeth."

In 2001 Finstad published Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood. The book received wide attention, in part because of the revealing details into the personal life of the actress who gained fame as a child star, then drowned in a boating accident in 1981 at age forty-three. In Finstad's reading, Wood was a victim early on. Born Natasha Zakharenko to Russian-immigrant parents, the young girl was completely manipulated in her life and career by her mother, Maria. "The girl enjoyed few childhood pleasures," as Houston Chronicle reviewer Clifford Pugh observed. "When the 7-year-old attended a birthday party, she was so overcome she cried because she had never been to such a thing before." It was Maria, according to the book, who set up her fifteen-year-old daughter on a date with notorious womanizer Frank Sinatra, then thirty-eight. Two years later, the mother "looked the other way," as Variety reviewer Digby Diehl noted, "while Wood had an affair with 43-year-old Nicholas Ray," who would go on to direct her in the classic film Rebel without a Cause. Diehl said that Finstad "demonstrates that Wood never ceased to be haunted by the fears, obsessions and conflicts instilled in her by Maria, even though she hid them to show the world a confident, carefree movie star."

Other potential bombshells in Natasha include a 1961 incident that had Wood finding her husband, actor Robert Wagner, in a compromising position with another man. However, at least one Wood confidante from that era, playwright Mart Crowley, told Advocate that notions of Wagner's bisexuality are "Just absurd. Those kinds of accusations were hurled at R. J. well before the end of their first marriage…. I think he was just a single man to target, and that's fine. It just happens not to be true."

Alan Stanbrook of Sunday Telegraph called the "back-story" the book's strongest suit: "The career is just meat and potatoes. It's the sauce that gives it spice and there's plenty of it. Few people will know that Momma set up a bugging device when Natalie and her first beau were talking dirty in her dressing room." San Francisco Chronicle contributor Edward Guthmann found Finstad "an effective storyteller, and her love for her subject comes through."

"When I graduated from college at twenty," Finstad once told CA, "I was torn between an idealistic notion of becoming a lawyer in the noble tradition of our founding fathers or to write, which had always come as second nature to me. My path as a writer became clear, ironically, after I started law school and began clerking for a large law firm in Houston. The process was so disillusioning I decided I could contribute more by using whatever knowledge I had of the law to expose some of its inequities than to participate in them. On the whole, my books have sprung from a need or desire to establish some truth, correct a wrong, set the record straight—and, hopefully, to tell a good story. My two inspirations in true crime, the genre of my second and third books, are Tommy Thompson, whose book Blood and Money epitomizes the form, and Truman Capote, who created the so-called 'nonfiction novel' in his classic book In Cold Blood. I keep both books beside my desk."



Advocate, July 17, 2001, Michael Giltz, review of Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, p. 60.

Biography, fall, 2001, review of Natasha, p. 1009.

Booklist, May 1, 1991, review of Sleeping with the Devil, p. 1673; July, 2001, Brad Hooper, review of Natasha, p. 1948.

Boston Herald, August 26, 2001, Monica Collins, "Natalie Wood Biography Creates Idol without a Cause," p. 56.

Charlotte Observer-Charlotte News, August 24, 1984.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), July 28, 2001, J. G. Ballard, "A Doll Dressed up by Adults," review of Natasha, p. 4.

Dallas Morning News, April 24, 1988.

Economist (U.K.), December 22, 2001, review of Natasha, p. 116.

Entertainment Weekly, August 8, 1997, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Child Bride: The Untold Story of Priscilla Beaulieu Presley, p. 71.

Houston Business Journal, February 28, 1983.

Houston Chronicle, June 29, 1984, July 1, 1984, August 20, 1987, September 16, 1987; August 22, 1997, Maxine Mesinger, "Movie Rights Sold for Presley Book," p. 1; July 22, 2001, Clifford Pugh, "Big Natalie, Little Natasha," p. 17.

Houston Post, August 16, 1987, September 13, 1987.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1991, review of Sleeping with the Devil, p. 647.

Library Journal, November 15, 2001, Nann Blaine Hilyard, review of Natasha, p. 118.

Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2001, Merle Rubin, review of Natasha, p. E4.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 20, 1987, Mark Schorr, review of Ulterior Motives: The Killing and Dark Legacy of Tycoon Henry Kyle; July 7, 1991, review of Sleeping with the Devil, p. 6.

New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1991, Karen Ray, review of Sleeping with the Devil, p. 18; August 5, 2001, Tripp Whetsell, review of Natasha, p. 20; June 23, 2002, Scott Veale, review of Natasha, p. 24.

Parade, July 15, 1984.

Premiere, July, 2001, Deirdre Dolan, "Farewell, Our Lovely," review of Natasha, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, review of Sleeping with the Devil, p. 52.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 2001, Edward Guthmann, "Dark Glamour," review of Natasha, p. 62.

Spirit, May, 1985.

Sunday Telegraph (London, England), July 15, 2001, Alan Stanbrook, "Her Heart Belonged to Surrogate Daddies," review of Natasha.

Sunday Times (London, England), July 1, 2001, Christopher Bray, "She Was Easy on the Eye, But Hard on the Head," review of Natasha, p. 37.

US, June 25, 2001, Barbara Spindel, review of Natasha, p. 74.

Variety, August 6, 2001, Digby Diehl, review of Natasha, p. 24.

Washington Post, August 27, 1984; July 1, 2001, Jonathan Yardley, review of Natasha, p. T2.*