Saturday night at dinner at a venerable restaurant in the east valley, the kind where prices are north of middling and the Patriots/Giants game played discreetly on a small TV behind the bar, my wife and I supped with old friends from out of town. One is the district attorney of a county in another state; his wife is a renaissance type: politically involved, a writer, a sometimes public radio host.
As we cleaned our plates and headed toward dessert and coffee, the DA put the question to me: “So, who are you going to vote for in the primary?”
I would have liked to have had an immediate answer, but lo after all this time I didn’t. I paused. The tension rose. It seemed for a moment as if the room volume lowered and, as in those old E.F. Hutton commercials, everyone – no doubt searching for their own answer – cocked an ear toward our table.
Slowly my shoulders began to rise, my elbows pulled in to my sides, my palms turned skyward, and my mouth opened as if silently pronouncing the first syllable of pomegranate in my sense memory’s best approximation of Captain James T. Kirk.
“I . . . justdon’tknow...Spock.
Everyone went back to their dinner. No help from me.
“You know,” I said, “my problem is that I don’t believe any of the theories or analyses that the media proffers about the candidates.” I confess I’m talking about the Democrats because – not to violate the no-rant rule here – I’m not about to vote for more of the same as the last eight years – or worse. The media are not dispassionate observers. They want ratings. They have corporate points of view. They’ll seize on any quirk if it gets viewers. If they could have Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton. Britney and Jamie Lynn Spears and any other gossip and paparazzi-worthy household names behind those podiums, they'd sell their parents into slavery. Of course, I'd vote for Lohan. Sorry, it's personal.
"Maybe it’s an illusion that the media was at one time more responsible and serious-minded," I continued, "but I still can’t shake the feeling that they’re now just playing those guys on TV.”
Now my dinner companions did the Kirk shrug. I took a deep breath.
“If that’s not bad enough, I don’t believe what the candidates themselves say. They’re auditioning for a part. They’ll say anything. You know: ‘Of course I can ride a horse. And really well!’”
I thought about mentioning the TRILATERAL Commission, the One World Fascists, the secret police and the energy oligarches who really rule the world, but dessert came.
“So what are you going to do?” the DA asked.
“I think it all comes down to body language, to physique, to their faces. Whose eyes blink? Who stutters? Who can’t keep their stories straight? Who looks left or right and not into the camera? Who could lose a few pounds, or dress better? Who actually sounds like they know what they’re talking about? Whose body odor do you imagine you can smell through the screen. Who doesn’t overuse the phrase ‘The American People...’. Who’s got the hottest spouse? Who would you be embarrassed to date? Who looks like one of the cool kids? Whose eyes/face/smirk spell trouble?
“In other words, it’s just like high school. Just like life.
“It’s either that or put them all into a Jack LaLanne juicer, filter out the political seeds, triangulating stems, flat out lying skin, and hyperbolic pulp, and come up with a super candidate who has the best nutritional elements of each.
“But whatever we do,” I said, “we need a change to have a chance. And then we have to give that change a chance.”
And then I dug into the Tiramisu and chewed over our choices some more.
Celebrate. Love your loved ones. Happy New Year.
How sweet it is as
Gleason once said, shebang-wise.
Baked proof in Bev Hills.
Now that the governor and legislature have at last cobbled together their “historic” and "courageous" health care proposal, let me say again that this plan promises to be groundbreaking only to the degree that it models how not to address the health care crisis.
The plan leaves in place—or even strengthens—two of the most fundamental causes of the crisis:
1. It actually strengthens the link to employment—an accidental artifact of the post-World-War-II economy, that now restricts career choices, restrains business (small business especially), and strips people of coverage at exactly the moment when we become too sick to work.
2. The plan leaves huge decisions about health care in the hands of private companies that can profit only when they do not provide health care--and proposes no effective regulation of premiums or extent of coverage. (It does require insurers to spend 85% of premiums on health care—but someone is going to have to explain to me why that’s not an incentive to insurers to raise premiums.)
I posted a more fully argued, less weary version of my disappointment with this state’s leaders in the fall—right here. At this point, I’m just fighting off the desire to flee to France, or England, or Germany, or any of several dozen other countries—since on this issue at least, every other “developed” country seems to have its priorities straight, and has managed somehow, miraculously, to surmount all the alleged obstacles to provide real universal health coverage.
The holiday parties are the worst, when that question comes from strangers and the spouses of friends. "So," they ask, "what do you do?"
I can't be the only writer who dreads it, and not for the reasons some might expect.
This weekend's engagements will be particularly difficult. I've been absent for months, haven't written a word for newspapers or magazines since spring, haven't posted on this blog, or any other, since early October, and, save for an appearance at an SPJ panel on freelancing last month, I've rarely departed from my hiding places on the Westside.
For most of 2007 I've been a recluse by choice, holed up in my home office, or at the only local cafÃ© kind enough not to slop a bleach-sodden mop under my table when I sit for six hours sipping the same cup of coffee, staring at a screen and repeatedly whispering something like "The night was ..."
I used to be able to attend these happy, year-end gatherings and quietly ride the good reputation of whatever publication was kind enough to take my work, but not this year. This year I've focused almost exclusively on writing, rewriting and editing the book I began more than 18 months ago. It's my second novel, soon to be followed by a third, but I can't say THAT when someone asks what I do. They expect an answer that's resulted in a paycheck. They want a few words, not a testimony. But, as I've learned in the 3+ years since I quit my day job to write fiction full-time, there's nothing simple about the book publishing industry.
Even when the most sincere people ask "what do you do?" their expectation is a reply like "accountant" or "lawyer," something solid that politely points the conversation toward other matters, like the mortgage crisis, or Paris Hilton's jail term. If the planets are in the right alignment, the answer is "firefighter" and an insider tale about the LA fires, or "concert promoter" and an offer of free tickets to Hannah Montana. But say "I write," and suddenly eyes sparkle with the great expectation that you personally have accomplished something of major importance, and this is a conversation that goes nowhere good.
When I say "I write" it leads to "what," which leads to "books," which raises eyebrows and questions like "what books" and "can I get it at Borders?" The talk doesn't turn to authors in general, but rather bears down on me like a Mack truck in the I-5 tunnel. Suddenly this polite conversation becomes a conflagration that consumes whatever ego is left. No matter how I spin it, I seem to end up cast as a slouch who pecks out drivel on a laptop. "So what do you do?" leads to the rephrasing of the question. "Wait ... so what do you do for ... like ... um ... a living?"
There is great value in defending the writer's life, but only in that the writer soon becomes an expert in the symptomatology of panic attacks. Most any writer can explain how the book publishing industry works, but halfway into the explanation I always start to wonder what I'm saying. I mean, if I really knew what I was talking about, would we be having this conversation? And then comes the feeling of weightlessness, the accelerated heartbeats ... Would someone please forward me Dr. Jennifer Melfi's phone number?
I need a new approach and the best solution I can think of is full disclosure.
When faced this weekend with "what do you do?" I will reply with four words: "I write unpublished books." No sparks, no anticipation, and certainly no excitement. It's just me, coffee breath and a keyboard with half the letters worn away. From there I'll be happy to go into more detail, but I'll hardly be offended if the conversation segues to the woes of another writer of unpublished books, maybe Lynne Spears, whose tome on parenting was delayed indefinitely following the revelation that her daughter, Britney's 16-year-old sister, was ... um ... pregnant.
I already feel better.
In the meantime, I'll continue to do what writers do. I'll write another unpublished book and, with any luck, come next December, I'll have a new reply to that same old question.
In 2003, after my book, The Mailroom, was published, Bernie Brillstein, whose memoir (Where Did I Go Right?) I helped write in 1999, was lunching with his friend Freddie Fields, Hollywood’s first superagent. Fields was toying with the idea of doing a book–finally–after years of saying no. Bernie recommended me.
I met with Freddie and we hit it off. We started working in March and talked for five months, maybe a day or two a week.
The very first thing Freddie told me was this: "I’d like to do the kind of book I like to read. Generally they’re historical books. Books that tell where he came from and how he was, and what the problems were growing up and how he came into it, and then what he did."
Freddie was on the mend from a recent hospitalization for cancer. We’d sit in his den, surrounded by books and classic photos and sometimes a dish of candy on the glass coffee table. I think it was full of bite-sized Tootsie Rolls. I ate more than a few while Freddie told me his life story, and of his A-list clients, the formation and selling of CMA, the town’s personality, movie deals he’d made, and much much more. Sometimes we'd start our sessions with a light lunch on the outdoor patio by the swimming pool of his Beverly Hills estancia.
For some reason I love the originals, the men and women who created the business, and love catching them at a time when they are willing to talk because, face it, they have been there, done that, for the most part have their safety nets, and nothing left to lose. There's more truth to be told.
Maybe Freddie’s health also played a part in his desire to talk, but if so, he never directly let on.
Come September I started working on the book proposal. We called it POSTCARDS FROM HOLLYWOOD: Things I Did and Things I Think I Did. The idea was that instead of a laborious show business bio chock full of the usual self-aggrandizement, or something so shallow it never rose above your ankles, we’d do the book as a series of separate but obviously interlocking stories. From his youth to his retirement, these "lengthy postcards" would tell you all you needed to know.
This is how the proposal began:
Freddie Fields was Hollywood’s most powerful and magnetic behind-the-scenes player, agenting cinema’s A-list when “star power” really meant something. Recognizing Fields’ influence, acumen and reputation, one top show biz insider sought to pay him the ultimate compliment: “Freddie,” he said, “you were Mike Ovitz before Mike Ovitz.”
Field’s retort: “No. Mike Ovitz is Freddie Fields after Freddie Fields.”
(Please visit Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily to read her affectionate take on Freddie Fields, and summation of his career. I got the picture from there. Thanks.)
Unfortunately the project never came to fruition. I blame myself, at least in part. I told Freddie at the outset that I had been given the go-ahead to pursue my dream book on the late surfer king of Malibu, Miki Dora, a charming and enigmatic character. Freddie thought it a great idea, also for a movie, and in fact selflessly advised me often on how to approach the book and deal with the difficult personalities and treacherous negotiations involved; it mostly amounted to, "Fuck 'em. He's dead. Just do what you want." So I kept working on that project, and with Freddie, too. His stories were great. He was wise and welcoming and easy to get along with. And, to fill out his adventures, he had Jeff Berg and Paul Masursky and Alan Ladd Jr, and others drop by to chat with us.
Bottom line: I never asked for or took money. We never talked deal, except when Freddie joked, "You can have it all. Ha, ha." That could wait, should the book sell. If not, it was still worth it. The pleasure was in working with Freddie, in coaxing out of him stories even he didn't know he was prepared to tell, in learning how the business and the people in it really worked.
In the end, the surfer book sold quickly. But I kept working with Freddie--as did Sara Rimensnyder, who sat with Freddie to edit the proposal (he rewrote constantly, just like in the movie business)--until I could no longer divide my attention. Finally I had to tell him I had to move on. I hated doing it, but he was wiser than I was anxious. He understood, encouraged me, wished me good luck.
He also “loaned” me a crystal decanter from his bar, half filled with the remnants of a magnum of 1966 Chateau Margaux. I returned it empty, as promised. I can still taste it.
For the next few years, even though I was involved in the Dora book, All For a Few Perfect Waves (April 2008), not only did I miss Freddie, but I couldn’t shake my frustration that, when I spoke about our project to my agent and a few others, they thought that selling his book would have been tough or impossible; that the publishing deck was already stacked against it. Sure, Freddie could have gotten a deal; he had friends in high places and they would have made sure he wasn't embarrassed, even if the money, as I been told, might not have been great. It wasn't all about the money, anyway, but still, the general consensus then, and moreso every day, was that if you’re not an instantly marketable commodity, a household name, have a crash and burn or recovery story, can offer diet and health secrets ("Eat all you want and still lose weight!"), will write a political expose or polemic, know God personally, have a hit TV show or movie career, then the publisher has to work extra hard to market it. (And forget about fiction!) I know it's tough out there, but even though every author thinks their book is worth the effort, some actually are. I know bookstores have to be motivated to take a title. The easier to pigeonhole, the easier to get (buy?) shelf space. So if you already have a "platform..."
Sigh. What is, is -- but I don't always have to like it. Or accept it. I don't buy that we're moving too fast in life to care about the past. I don't believe the person in the spotlight is always the best one to bring it to life. I know, I know: it's commerce.
I also admit I have a particular pet peeve about Hollywood books, which publishers seem to want -- if only to know what's going on in the power enclaves of the more chic arm of their conglomeratized business -- but then hardly promote because "the audience is limited to LA and NY." Wait: you mean people in the flyover states don't watch tv and movies or know box office and ratings because they're not reported in every newspaper entertainment section, show business magazine, tabloid and gossip rag, and online? All that excitement and no followup?
Still, I figured all you had to do was list Freddie's clients (and the clients of his agency, CMA ... forerunner of ICM), on the cover and edit his stories into a compelling narrative. People who want to read about Newman, Redford, McQueen, Garland, Streisand, Minelli, Lucas, Poitier, Hoffman, Mel Brooks, Coppola, Sydney Pollack, Spielberg, Hackman, Caine, Woody Allen .... well, I don't think they're dead yet. Lots of interest and disposable income.
It’s really depressing. So much wisdom lost. So little value placed on experience. So much focus on marketing and demographics and trend, instead of the words on the page and the stories they bring to life. Let the reading about the life bring recognition to the name instead of the other way around, for once.
Of course, I can't say it's always that way. My Miki Dora book is an example of a smart editor and publisher taking a risk on a biography of someone influential beyond his subculture and known worldwide -- but still unknown, at least to the mainstream media, which is often the first step these days in getting some deserved attention. But in Freddie's case, it's a tragedy. Freddie lived a slice of history and helped make that history happen. His generation is going fast. All the more reason I was interested in the stories that would fascinate anyone who loved Hollywood, the movies, the machers, and life in and behind the footlights.
Perhaps in the years between then and today’s sad news of Freddie’s passing, he regrouped and continued with the project. I don’t know. I hope so.
Meanwhile, here’s a fantastic story he told me, a postcard from a Hollywood only those who make it all happen could have written.
THE WHOLE HOLE-IN-THE-WALL GANG
(copyright Fields/Rensin. You can link, but otherwise, please no reuse of the following without proper credit.)
Screenwriter William Goldman was not a CMA client, but we were good friends. After working on the script for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” for six years, he gave it to John Foreman, one of our top agents who’d been with the company since it started. That wasn’t unusual: Foreman handled Paul Newman, and Goldman had wanted Paul since the project’s inception.
Foreman and I read the script and said, “This is a winner.”
At the time the idea was for the film to star Paul Newman as Sundance and Jack Lemmon as Butch. The producer, Paul Monash at 20th Century-Fox, had paid $400,000 for the rights—a lot of money in those days.
We sent it to Newman and he loved it. We knew that Richard Zanuck, the head of Fox, did not want Lemmon. The more Foreman thought it over, the more he sensed an opportunity. He and I had a long talk and agreed that it would better fulfill his creative desires to leave CMA and form his own company: the Newman-Foreman Co., to package vehicles for Paul Newman and have an opportunity to produce them. I signed the new company and John as my clients. The first producing credit for John was going to be on “Butch Cassidy.”
Next, we sent the script to our client George Roy Hill. George called 48 hours later: “Great. I have some changes I want to make, but it’s great.” We could have expected that George would have his own strong opinions. He was as great a director as he was contrary.
I said, “You know Goldman controls the script, right? But we’ll sit down with him see about changes.”
“Alright, no problem. I can do it. I know him. He’s a good writer.”
We wanted Steve McQueen in the movie, which Newman was happy with, but Hill didn’t want him in either role.
When Newman met with Hill to talk about his character’s issues, the director suddenly said, “Why are we talking about Sundance? You’re playing Butch.”
Newman said, “No. I’m Sundance.”
“No,” said Hill. “You’re Butch.
Newman said, “George, I was here first. I’m Sundance.”
Newman, who was smart, re-read the script that night and figured both parts were great – and equal. The next day he agreed to play Butch.
Now all they needed was someone to play the Sundance Kid.
Warren Beatty, as always, already had the news about the movie. He talked to everybody in town all the time, and always knew what was happening. He knew about weddings before people got married, and about divorces before couples broke up. He knew who’d get a picture before they knew. He knew release dates and grosses. He’d talk to Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, to studio heads, and the guys running distribution. He was on the phone all day. Part of what drove him is paranoia. He needed information like he needed sex.
When he and I spoke, he’d stop the world to get answers to his questions. He’d invent a story, be persuasive and charming. “You gotta tell me now. I need to know.” It used to drive me nuts, but eventually I’d get tired and give him what he wanted – knowing I’d get nothing back, at least in the way of information.
I’d met Warren in 1960. As is my habit, I never pursued him as a client; we just talked at parties and joked around. We hit it off and became friends. Sometimes Warren would visit me at my beach house.
Warren was with William Morris then and pretty quickly word got back to Abe Lastfogel, the head of the agency, that we were growing close. Abe always went crazy when he heard that about me and one of his clients. He considered us adversaries – not that there weren’t other agencies in town – and maybe worried about me a bit more because CMA had grown strong and world-powerful so quickly.
Warren knew this and decided to be a naughty boy.
“Let’s make Abe crazy,” he told me. “We’ll spread the story about you and me.” He didn’t want to hurt Abe, he just enjoyed the game, but it ended up backfiring because Abe made a point of spending much more time with his game-playing client, which was not what Warren intended.
Warren wanted to be part of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” but he had in mind the wrong role: Butch. He knew it was Newman’s but Warren was feisty and competitive; it was his way of being adversarial, of trying to do battle with the king. He kept saying, “I want that role.”
Warren also wanted to know how much Newman was getting for the role. I wouldn’t tell him, but I said, “You’re not going to get the same amount.” Then he tried to knock Newman out by bringing in Brando as Sundance. But it didn’t work because no one wanted Brando. George Hill was very concerned that Brando, who was mercurial and unpredictable, might negatively affect the shooting schedule. And in any event, Newman was perfect for Butch.
Eventually, Brando himself called: “I heard about the script and I’d like to play Butch Cassidy. I’ve read about him.” It only took a few days for him to accept that the studio wouldn’t agree to his financial demands—and that Newman was already set to play Butch. Besides, hadn’t Beatty wanted to play Butch?
I think Warren’s real agenda was to hear someone say, “Are you crazy? You can’t play Butch. You’ve got to play the other guy. The other guy is great.” I did – but I was the only one.
Eventually, Beatty worked himself out of the picture.
Personally, I saw Steve McQueen as Sundance, and the pairing with Newman ideal. They were big, big stars who’d never done a picture together before. It was a dream. What more would you want than Newman and McQueen?
I didn’t represent McQueen yet, but because we were friends, I sent him the script directly. McQueen wanted the part, but there was a billing problem. Newman deserved top billing and William Morris had also advised McQueen to hold out for the first position. Steve was shooting “The Sand Pebbles” over at the Fox lot, and he invited me to his trailer to talk.
It ended with him saying, “I know you mean well, but I can’t do it.”
I was stunned. “Why? It’s the perfect role. It’s a dream. You’re gonna make a lot of money. It’s gonna be the hottest picture of the year.”
“Yeah, but I can’t take second billing to Newman.”
“You’ve got to be reasonable, Steve. Newman’s older than you. He’s been around longer. He’s made more pictures. He’s not as beautiful as you, but you have to give him what he’s been getting, and that’s first billing. Big deal.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“You mean you’ll let it go down the tubes on billing?”
“Well, if I can’t get first billing . . . “
”Steve, it’s a mistake,” I said. “They’re both great roles. I mean, Newman and McQueen, together. Wow!”
He wouldn’t budge.
I wasn’t about to give up.
I talked to Newman and said, “We’re going to lose McQueen on billing.”
“What do you mean?” he said. “I don’t lose pictures on billing.”
“He wants first star billing,” I said. “What do you want to do?
“I don’t think that’s nice,” Newman said. “No.”
I said, “Okay. You’re right. But let me fool around with some ideas and see what I can come up with.”
The next night I sat up for a long time, trying to figure out a solution. I came up with this: first billing for one and top billing for the other. Top billing, on the right side of the credits, is a little higher than first billing, which is on the left. You see it all the time now, but then it didn’t exist. I went to a printer who made me two signs, one with Newman’s name top-billed on the right, and one with McQueen’s top-billed on the right.
[note: no periods in the orginal sign. can't make it move right here otherwise!]
Newman thought it was a good idea; he’d take either.
Then I went to McQueen.
He said, “What does Newman say?”
“Newman says he’ll give you your choice.”
McQueen got very paranoid. “What does that mean?”
“It means that you can have first billing or top billing.”
“But what does that mean?” He seemed to be struggling with the idea, trying to pin down something beyond the obvious when there was nothing more to it. “What’s the difference?”
I showed him the two signs again. I said, “This is you with first billing. It’s the first name they see. You’re before Newman. This is you with top billing. You’re above Newman.”
“Which is better?”
“Which do you like better?”
“Which one does he want?”
“He said you take whatever you want.”
“He’ll take the other one?”
“Yeah. Top, first – it doesn’t matter to him.”
McQueen screwed up his face. “I gotta think about it,” he said.
He called me the next day. “I can’t do it,” he said. “It’s too confusing. There’s something wrong with it. Something tricky.” He tried to explain, but let it drop.
“Steve, there’s nothing tricky about it,” I said. But I thought I knew what he was really thinking: I can’t do it because Newman is a bigger name than me. Newman is a bigger star.
In a funny way McQueen’s instincts were right. No matter where you put McQueen’s name, Newman was going to be the star.
“I’m gonna pass,” said McQueen.
Stevie Phillips, the first successful female agent at CMA, called and said, “Freddie, you gotta come to New York and see this guy.”
She had read “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and thought she’d found the perfect actor to play opposite Newman. “He is the Sundance Kid. I’m telling you, he’s the Kid. But you’ve got to see him in this Broadway show to understand why.”
I went to New York, saw the show, and knew Stevie was right. I had already seen him in a few things, and my first impression had been that this kid would be a big star. Although I had never met him, I went backstage to his dressing room to say hello. He looked even better up close. His eyes twinkled and even his moles were perfectly placed. He had connected on stage, but in person it was like he carried his own set of lights. Occasionally I’d say that about an actress, but it was also true about Robert Redford. Not since Newman had I seen anyone with the same level of charisma. McQueen’s was rough-edged and unpolished; he caught you with his anger, while Redford was almost a step back to the time of Gable.
Plus he was very smart, very aware.
Calling him Redford or Bob, I said, “I think you’re great in the play. You’re going to be a giant star.”
I pulled the “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” script from my bag and said, “When you have something precious, you want to take care of it, and right now I’ve got something very precious. George Roy Hill is directing, with Paul Newman playing one role and, I hope, with you playing the equal other role. It’s written by the best, William Goldman.”
Redford didn’t look at the script. He just fixed me with those eyes and a bit of a smile. Waiting. Who knew what he was thinking.
“But if I give you the script,” I continued, “and you want to do it, I have to extract one promise from you. I want you to sign with CMA. But I don’t want to hurt anybody else—if you have an agent already. If we can work that out, then I want you to become our client.”
Redford said, “I have no problem with that.”
I gave Redford the script. He called the next day and said, “Wow, what a script! When can I meet with Paul Newman and George Hill? How fast can we go on this?”
I called Newman and said, “Paul, I think we’ve got the guy for Sundance.”
“Who?” he said.
Newman said, “Hey, he’s fabulous. I saw him in a play a few weeks ago.”
Things moved ahead quickly. And there was no problem with billing either.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Redford had once considered signing with us. Alan Ladd Jr., a young CMA agent, had gone to high school with Redford in Los Angeles.
“I went to a ‘Dr. Kildare’ filming,” says Laddie, “and gave him the whole pitch. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go with you,’ but when I came to Dick Shepard,”—a senior CMA agent—“he said, ‘Nah, he’s television. We don’t want to sign anybody in television.’”
After “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” came out, McQueen called me and said, “I made a big mistake, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” I said, “and you’re going to continue to make them if you don’t have all the feedback you need.”
“Sure,” he said. “We’ll talk.”
I had to wait until he did “Le Mans” for him to become my client.
A couple years later, a picture came along called “The Towering Inferno.” McQueen was cast first and he said, “I gotta get a big co-star.”
“What about Newman?” I suggested.
“Sure,” he said, “Newman would be great for the character.”
“Okay,” I said, “But let’s not jerk him around on the billing again. Which do you want, top billing or first billing?”
“Well, what did they do on “‘Butch Cassidy’?” he asked.
“That turned out to be totally different,” I explained. “Paul felt that a new guy like Redford should not share billing with him, so we came up with something totally original:
PAUL NEWMAN IS
AND THE SUNDANCE KID
IS ROBERT REDFORD.”
“You call that billing!?” McQueen snorted.
“Not exactly,” I said. “It’s a sentence.”
McQueen smiled. “Can we do that here? That’s great.”
“Not really. The second guy really got bottom billing. It’s below the title.”
“All this stuff gets me really crazy,” he said. “Okay. First billing or top billing. Which one should I do?”
“I think you should take top billing.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that on the other picture?” he said.
“Why? Because we didn’t have the same relationship and I knew you wouldn’t trust me. If I said top billing you’d say, ‘Okay, give me first.’”
He laughed. I was right – and he knew it.
Rest in peace Freddie. You deserve it.
What do serial killers Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez and Austrian Euro-ghoul Jack Unterweger have in common, besides the obvious? Both lived at the Cecil Hotel on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles while raping and murdering their way through the Southland.
I wrote last week about how Unterweger killed several prostitutes he picked up on Seventh Street while staying at the seedy SRO hotel in 1991. Six years earlier, in 1985, when rates were as low as $14 a night, Richard Ramirez lived in a 14th floor room of the Cecil while killing 14 people. (Occult numerology, anyone?)
Shortly after Ramirez was run aground by a group of heroic East L.A. residents, the Los Angeles Times interviewed Cecil employees who said he smoked marijuana, played loud music and holed up for days at a time in his tiny room.
New owners, who today are renovating and repositioning the 1927 historic site as a boutique hotel for budget travelers, probably aren't eager to draw attention their two most infamous guests.
But they have a macabre legacy to contend with.
Esotouric Bus Adventures, which leads offbeat tours into the hidden history of Los Angeles, regularly pulls up to the Cecil to discuss Richard Ramirezï¿½s summer of ï¿½85 stay as well as other lurid stories associated with the hotel.
The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, is alleged in at least one book to have hung out at the Cecil and drank at the bar next door before she disappeared in 1947, though cultural historians Kim Cooper and Richard Schave of Esotouric say thatï¿½s just rumor.
Schave does believe The Cecil inspired the shabby hotel in the 1935 Raymond Chandler short story ï¿½Nevada Gas.ï¿½ ï¿½It goes by the name ï¿½Metropole", but by its location and description, itï¿½s clearly the Cecil,ï¿½ Shave said.
What is also beyond doubt: Pauline Otten, 27, committed suicide by jumping out of a window of the Cecil Hotel in 1962, also killing an unlucky pedestrian when she landed on top of him. Retired telephone operator Goldie Osgood, known as the Pershing Square Pigeon Lady, was raped and strangled at the Cecil in 1964. Her tiny room was ransacked; the killer was never found. In 1995, an escapee from the Peter Pitchess Honor Rancho was cornered and recaptured there.
Is the Cecil the victim of dire coincidence because it was cheap and so close to Skid Row? My fanciful novelistï¿½s mind imagines ground plagued by an ancient curse. Or maybe sitting atop a portal to the Underworld? Do bricks and mortar retain memories of crimes committed in airless rooms? Can violence sear a pattern into walls that no layers of paint can ever erase?
ï¿½I could tell you horrible stories about a lot of hotels downtown,ï¿½ says Kim Cooper, who says there are so many sinister tales that Esotouric devotes an entire L.A. tour to ï¿½Hotel Horrors.ï¿½ ï¿½But I do think itï¿½s intriguing that two serial killers stayed there.ï¿½
Did Unterweger choose the Cecil because Ramirez had stayed there, or was it merely sordid and cheap enough to appeal to him? John Leake, whose biography of Unterweger came out last month, didnï¿½t find any mention of the Night Stalker in the Austrianï¿½s diaries. Instead, Unterweger kept a Charles Bukowski novel propped on the windowsill during his 1991 visit.
By comparison to his Viennese admirer, the hard-drinking, brawling, womanizing Bukowski was a demure angel. But maybe the Cecilï¿½s new owners should put a copy of ï¿½Barflyï¿½ in every room, next to the Gideon Bible, so visitors can see what L.A. was like before all the dive bars and serial killer hangouts got renovated as hip, trendy boites. The Cecil is almost ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.
This afternoon, after watching a matinee of “Margot at the Wedding” at the Encino Laemmle, my wife and I eased our car out of the underground parking lot and cruised slowly toward the stop sign, to make a right turn on to Encino Ave. Suddenly, from our left, barreling around the corner from behind a tall hedge, a woman in a mini-van turned right on to our street. Well, not quite right. She made a right turn into the left lane; our lane. We managed to get a gander at her jabbering on her cell phone, like she didn’t have a care in the world, before we swerved. Unless she's hit someone in the interim, she still doesn’t have a care because we sidestepped fate and got out of her way.
"Please don’t hit me!" I yelled, while thinking something altogether more abusive.
Hadn't she heard of hands-free? Bluetooth ear pieces? Speakerphones? These are not new items; the technology's been around for years. There's been plenty of time to adjust -- if you care.
Of course this behavior is not the exclusive province of women, it's just that for some reason I see mostly women behind the wheels of Explorers, Navigators, Expeditions, Escalades, Hummers, and the rest, yakking while making one-handed left turns – usually with school kids in the back. Guys? Probably making turns with their knees so one hand can hold the phone and the other can gesticulate wildy to make a point.
Please don’t hit anyone!
My wife and I shook off the near collision (not the "near miss" the tv talking heads use to describe airplane disasters that almost happen -- which, when you think about it, actually means collision), and drove west on Ventura Blvd. In the distance we saw a tow truck and police car lights. An ambulance, too. A couple blocks later we discovered why. Someone in a Volvo SUV had made a right turn off Ventura on to Etiwanda, and swung wide, smashing into a car waiting at the light. A cell phone lay on the ground.
Please don’t hit us!
When does that hands-free cell phone law go into effect?
Not a moment too soon. But why is it only for teenagers?
Your car is not your f*$%ing living room or bedroom or kitchen or den, and if you insist on treating it as such, at least keep both hands on the wheel. No. Stay at home and talk. What's so earth-shattering that it can't wait until everyone around you will be safe?
I’m tired of watching you slow down in traffic because you’re dialing, or talking, or – GOD FORBID! – texting, and not paying attention. I’m scared when you swerve into my lane, or straddle two, or as my friend Nancy notes, miss the light turning any available color. There's no excuse. You're not drunk. And there's this: I’m petrified at the example you’re setting for your children.
Please. Please. Please. I really want to live long enough to use all those retirement savings. I’d like you to live long, too.
The Malibu City Council's vote this week to ban camping on many public lands is unlikely to prevent any future fires. It is, as far as I know, the first official measure (since the fires, of course) that the city has taken to prevent future fires. It is as predictable as it is...well, choose your own adjective here.
The L.A. Times reported last week that 3% of all wildfires in all of California are caused by campfires. Lightning has ignited more fires than camping. As Malibu councilmember and former mayor Ken Kearsley said, "There is not one scintilla of evidence...that camping is going to start more fires....Legal campsites, supervised, it doesn't happen"--and then he voted for the ban. The leading cause of fires, rather, is the use of power tools and equipment. The second is vehicles. The primary causes of fires, in other words, are the activities associated with people's normal and everyday use of these canyons.
The camping ban calls to mind two recent confrontations I have had about Malibu--the first on Broad Beach in August, when the L.A. Urban Rangers led our "safaris" to the Malibu public beaches, and the second when I was in North Carolina just after the October fires.
In North Carolina, my east-coast friends demanded to know why we in southern California allow the "rich people in Malibu" to continue to live in places where fires are inevitable. Never mind that more than a dozen other fires blazed across the region: I replied to my friends that perhaps they were reading a tad too much Mike Davis, and that a fire in Malibu is not necessarily a morality play about the foibles of rich people. Fires will happen in these canyons. People will live in the canyons. (And as the L.A. Times also just reported, not everyone in Malibu is all that rich--which is true, even if the accompanying photo of the woman with the Range Rover didn't really make the case.)
The question is less whether we should live in the canyons but how. And as Davis has indeed taught us, an important allied question is who benefits from living there and who then pays for the predictable fires. If we as the public give the thumbs up to development in these canyons, and that development requires a measure of wealth to enjoy, and the larger public pays the bulk of the costs to protect these homes from fires... Well, it would be nice at least if these lucky homeowners didn't proceed to restrict access to the adjacent public lands--and to use the fires we pay for as an excuse to do so. It would be wonderful if, instead of rushing to ban camping, the Malibu City Council would seriously tackle the extent of development, as well as the regulation of safer ways to build and to landscape, in these places where fires are going to happen.
In the first confrontation, in August in Malibu, a Broad Beach homeowner--who turned out to be a long-time and deservedly well-respected advocate for coastal protection--drove her Range Rover (I think it was) down to the L.A. Urban Rangers registration table to lecture us on the environmental dangers of public access to the beaches. I have received e-mails to the same effect, and have heard many other beachfront homeowners make that same argument.
Now clearly, public visitation is hardly zero-impact...but neither is the dense coastal development on Broad Beach. The greatest source of environmental change and damage to the Malibu coast is clearly the close proximity of development. I don't think people shouldn't live right on the beaches--just as I don't think people shouldn't be allowed to live in the canyons--though it should be done as sustainably as possible, ideally without endless challenges to Coastal Commission regulations. But when owners of sizable houses 100 feet from the tide line warn that allowing beachcombers other than themselves on the public beaches will destroy the environment...and they do it on on a beach where the notorious efforts just a few summers ago to re-engineer the tide line created extensive environmental damage...and they live in a city that is notorious for its stormwater runoff, and has been found to have hundreds and hundreds of illegal drainage pipes, and that not coincidentally has some of the state's dirtiest beaches.... Well, that is a bit myopic. And it reminds me of how the new camping ban in Malibu places the blame on public access to public lands, rather than concentrates on making one's own efforts to live in one's own city more sustainable.
The problem isn't that people live 100 feet from the tide line--or in canyons that will burn. The problem is that you have to do it as wisely as possible. And if you blame outsiders for the environmental problems for which you are in large part responsible, and you then use that as an excuse to restrict public access to the gorgeous public lands you are fortunate and affluent enough to live next to....
And if you then also treat these public lands as if they are yours alone to use and regulate.... Well, in that case, the dirty beaches and the fires in Malibu can become a morality play about the foibles of.... Well, you know.
The developer who recently bought the Cecil Hotel on Main Street and announced a $7 million facelift of the 1927 landmark probably won'tt be drawing attention to the fact that Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger stayed there while murdering L.A. streetwalkers in 1991.
But then again, such a factoid might appeal to those who embrace the macabre. If people pay good money for clown paintings by boy killer John Wayne Gacy, can the Jack Unterweger Suite be far behind?
The single room occupancy hotel between 6th and 7th streets has long been plagued by crime and drug-dealing but it also offers dirt-cheap rates for hardy travelers and affordable rents for downtown's poor. For several years, it's been in transition, caught in downtown's gentrifying wave. Now Central City mover and shaker Fred Cordova has embarked on a five-year-plan to renovate much of the premises into a boutique hotel for budget travelers, complete with flat-screen TVs.
But back in 1991, the Cecil Hotel was just the type of Dante-esque place that would have drawn the charismatic, sinister Unterweger, a writer whose murder spree took him from Austria to Prague and Los Angeles at the same time that he reported on those crimes for the Austrian media. At $25 a night, its faded glamour and decay was irresistible.
ï¿½The hotelï¿½embodied a motif that ran through all Jackï¿½s magazine articles about L.A ï¿½ the existence of extreme destitution in the heart of a city known for its wealth. In the low-rent districts of Viennaï¿½it was impossible to find such seediness,ï¿½ writes John Leake, whose fascinating biography of Unterweger, ï¿½Entering Hades, the Double Life of a Serial Killer,ï¿½ was published last month.
Unterweger landed at LAX in July of 1991, wearing a white suit, white snakeskin cowboy boots, gold chains, a white hat, a Navajo vest and a white coat emblazoned with a bright hibiscus print. Looking, in other words, like a pimp beamed straight out of a 1974 B movie.
By day he hung out at Parker Center and used his Austrian press credentials to finagle a ride-along with the LAPD. At night, Unterweger welcomed the hookers who climbed up the Cecilï¿½s fire escape to his room to earn $30.
He also picked up streetwalkers on Seventh Avenue, (then a hub for prostitution) strangled them with their own bra-straps, then dumped their bodies nearby, naked and posed obscenely. Police suspect Unterweger scoped out the sites ahead of time. One dump site behind a grove of eucalyptus trees across the L.A. River in Boyle Heights wasnï¿½t even visible from the street.
Unterweger also started a relationship with one of the Cecil Hotel receptionists and invited her to live with him in Vienna, where they were briefly engaged. (She flew home after he tried to drown her in the bathtub but claimed he was just horsing around.)
During his five-week sojourn in L.A., this ï¿½malignant narcissistï¿½ also visited Malibu (where he dumped another body), ate at Hugoï¿½s on Santa Monica Boulevard, hunted in vain for Bukowski at Hollywood Park, strolled around Silverlake, went to a festival at Echo Park Lake and attended a Gay Pride Parade in Hollywood (where he disapproved of the simulated sex acts with serpents and masochists piercing themselves with needles).
Plenty of neighborhoods in LA still retain the sleaze factor that Unterweger both craved and deplored in his dispatches home. But the 16 years since his visit have seen an explosion of restaurants, loft dwellers, art galleries and businesses to L.A.ï¿½s historic core. Itï¿½s still got problems, but itï¿½s a safer, less desolate place.
Cordova hopes his renovation will bring in European budget tourists. Jack Unterweger wonï¿½t be among them. He hung himself in his jail cell in 1994, the day he was found guilty of nine murders, including the three L.A. women who were desperate and drug-sick enough to get into the rented car of a killer who fooled people about his true nature for so long.