Peter Beagle, Author of ‘The Last Unicorn,’ Is Back In Control
Peter Beagle started writing “The Last Unicorn” in a cabin in Cheshire, Mass. when he was 22 years old. Published in 1968, the book remains a strong seller, a classic in the fantasy genre.
The author’s journey has not been as smooth.
After a lifetime writing whimsical stories and struggling to cover his bills, Beagle lost control of his intellectual property to his manager, Connor Freff Cochran, who also controlled his finances, and later claimed to friends and family that Beagle had dementia.
Now, after a lengthy court battle in which he accused Cochran of financial elder abuse, Beagle has the rights to his work back, and is making the most of it: A new edition of “The Last Unicorn” came out in July, a sequel called “The Way Home” is scheduled for publication next year, and he has another novel out on submission to his publisher.
“A line I wrote in ‘The Last Unicorn’ when I was in my early twenties,” Beagle said, turned out to be as prescient, for better and worse, as anything he’s written since. “‘Mortals, as you may have noticed, take what they can get.’”
Beagle, 83, has a mischievous sense of humor, and when he speaks, it sounds like he’s reading a play on a 1940s radio program, his full, rumbling voice spooling his stories and delivering the punchline just so.
“I know I’m a good story teller,” he said, “which makes my life sound more interesting than it actually is.”
His agent, Howard Morhaim, said the first time they met years ago, Beagle crashed a black-tie dinner Morhaim was hosting for his clients — Beagle was not yet one of them — wearing a black leather jacket.
“He took up residence at the far end of the table and held that entire end of the table spellbound for two and a half hours,” Morhaim said. “I was deeply jealous.”
When Beagle writes, the approach is similar, he said. He just tells the story.
This is how Beagle has made his living, writing books, magazine articles, screenplays — including animated versions of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Last Unicorn” and an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — along with dozens of short stories. He briefly taught a college course in Seattle and spent a dozen years singing in a French restaurant in Santa Cruz on weekends.
“My only other job was borrowing from people,” he said. “What mattered was survival.”
Beagle has been married three times, but he has had the same best friend since he was five years old, a painter named Phil Sigunick. One of his first books, “I See By My Outfit,” was about a cross country motor scooter trip the two friends took in the 1960s. Beagle recalled that over the years, Sigunick liked to say, the things “you’ll do for a buck and a half always amazes me.” (But with a salty curse word thrown in.)
When Beagle met Cochran in 2001, he was in the middle of a divorce and mired in debt. The two men began working together, and eventually, Cochran started managing Beagle’s finances, paying Beagle’s bills and rationing money to him as “though it were a parent administering an allowance for a child,” court documents say.
Cochran, who is also a writer, created a company called Avicenna Development Corporation to house both his intellectual property and Beagle’s. The two men would split ownership 50-50, but, according to court documents, it was structured in such a way that Cochran controlled the business. Beagle said in court that he never even knew about some of the money that was earned on the basis of his creations, including a $100,000 payment over a rights dispute involving “The Last Unicorn.”
“I trusted Connor,” Beagle said. “Which was a mistake.”
In 2015, Beagle sued Cochran in California Superior — a difficult trial during which two of Beagle’s children testified against him, he said. At the end of his daughter’s testimony, Beagle said, he looked down and realized that his lawyer, Kathleen Hunt, had been holding his hand.
Cochran was found liable for financial elder abuse, fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. He was also found liable of defamation for telling Beagle’s friends, family members and business associates that the writer had dementia.
“The evidence reflects that Cochran allowed his role as the trusted adviser to get the better of him,” the decision said. “He crossed the line from business manager to over-paternalistic friend, exercising a surprising degree of control over Beagle’s finances and, in effect, Beagle’s life.”
Cochran’s own testimony, the decision said, revealed that he was convinced that “only he could rescue Beagle and transform Beagle’s works into an intellectual property mega-estate. And, Cochran convinced himself, he should benefit accordingly.”
Cochran said in an interview that he believed he was operating in Beagle’s best interest. He argued that Beagle had terrible financial instincts and that more money flowed in when he managed the author’s work.
“I set out to help him,” Cochran said. “I loved the man. I loved the man’s writing.”
He denied the story that was told about him in the lawsuit and said he plans to continue fighting the claims against him in court.
“I hope that people who actually look at the documents, the documentary history, will see that it’s just it’s just not true,” he said.
Right before the trial was set to begin, Cochran put himself and their company, Avicenna, into bankruptcy, which shielded it from litigation. Last year, Beagle bought his intellectual property out of bankruptcy for $600,000, a pot of money that was contributed and raised by longtime business partners and friends.
“At my age, I appreciate what I can get, and what I’ve been given. Both,” Beagle said.Credit…Gage Skidmore
And with that, after many years, Beagle had regained control of his own legacy, including his most famous novel, “The Last Unicorn.”
The book follows a unicorn who believes she is the last of her kind, and goes on a journey to find out what happened to the rest of them. It was made into an animated movie in 1982, with Mia Farrow as the voice of the unicorn. It has become, along with the book, a cult classic.
Ben Lee, an associate publisher for paperbacks and backlist at Berkley, said the book consistently sells 15,000 to 20,000 a year — sales that would be a strong showing for a new book, one that debuted with a marketing budget behind it. In 50 years, “The Last Unicorn” has never been out of print.
“Young people have discovered it and find, for one reason or another, that they’re not alone, that the unicorn searching for her own people gives them courage,” he said. “I’ve always been alone, it’s just that I have a few weird friends. And if you have a few weird friends, you can manage.”
Beagle said he is now finally able to relax, without worrying how he’ll pay for this bill or that one. And he’s still writing.
“As long as I’m working, I’m OK,” he said. He said he expects his last words to be, “I wasn’t finished!” (With another salty curse word thrown in.) “I can live with that.”
Alain Delaqueriere contributed research.