have just finished what is undoubtedly the most juicy, romantic, funny, suspenseful, intimate, inspiring, celebrity-packed autobiography of a travel agent that has ever been written. Granted, the category of travel-agent autobiography takes up only a modest share of shelf space at your neighborhood bookstore, but this volume could raise the level of interest in the genre considerably.

Consider this prose, reminiscent of Raymond Chandler in style and Graham Greene in content: "... the phone rang. David answered it. It was Pedro Astrada, head of Venezuela's secret police -- an elegant, handsome, soft-spoken man with a notorious reputation for cruelty to prisoners."

Or the revelatory pathos in a conversation the agent had with her client, Joan Crawford, who, the day after her husband died, said, "I learned a long time ago to cry alone."

This is an agent who danced with the head of the KGB at a ball in Moscow (at an ASTA function, no less). She's been invited to state dinners at the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt and Jawaharlal Nehru were among the guests on her local television travel show.

But for all the glamour and drama in her life, the best parts of the book are when she describes her day-in-the-life-of-a-travel-agent activities for her anything-but-everyday client list.

She lost Bert Parks as a client when the private plane she had chartered to take him from New York to Atlantic City got lost over Philadelphia, and he arrived at the Miss America Pageant with just five minutes to spare. She in turn dropped Michael Todd because he paid his bills late. And you think you've got a demanding client? After you've read what it's like to arrange travel for Joan Crawford, you'll be sending "Client Dearest" love letters to your entire database.

The author of this book, "Saying Yes to Life," is Evelyn Echols. When Echols opened a corporate agency back in 1954, eyebrows were raised. Women didn't do that sort of thing. The airlines were reluctant to give her ticket stock, and her landlord only offered a six-month lease.

For quite some time, she only had one client, a relatively small public relations firm. But the PR firm itself had a very important client: Pepsi-Cola. When Pepsi chairman Al Steele got engaged to Joan Crawford, Echols' client asked if she could book a honeymoon for them in one of the four top suites on the luxury liner United States -- for a sailing three weeks away. Pepsi's travel department had tried and failed, as had Crawford's studio, Columbia.

Echols went to the U.S. Line's office and found that the couple was 25th on the waiting list. Her argument that having Crawford aboard would be great publicity moved the couple up to the first position. But nobody was canceling. Ten days out, a lesser suite opened, and she asked the line to hold it. They said they would, but doubted the celebrity couple would want it.

Unbeknownst to the line, Echols had written down the names and phone numbers of the four suite holders. She phoned one and offered to pay for the lesser suite if the passenger would downgrade.

The man said he'd do it on one condition -- he wanted to meet Crawford.

Steele was so impressed that he moved all of Pepsi's business to her agency. He, Crawford and Echols became friends, and between his business connections and Crawford's social circle, Echols built the foundation for a large and successful business. A second business came along when she moved to Chicago in the early '60s and started one of the first travel schools (more than 12,000 students have graduated).

I had dinner with Echols recently, and she is a fabulous raconteur. At 88, she still writes, speaks and travels. But she has made a few concessions to time -- for now, she implied, the Venezuelan secret police and KGB are out of her life.

"Saying Yes to Life" is available on line from Amazon.com, Borders and Barnes & Noble.


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