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Studies in a Celebrity Culture

Susan B.

I once held her in my arms and there she was on the front page of The Times January 10 in an obituary for the son of a real estate mogul. Real estate moguls are celebs in New York City —the Tishmans, the Zeckendorfs, the Trumps, the Dursts... If Robert Durst hadn't come from an REM family, he would have been just another serial killer. 

Durst's first known victim was his wife, a medical student who vanished in January, 1982. According to the Times, "Ms. Berman, a journalist, acted as Mr. Durst’s media liaison during the ensuing tabloid frenzy. Prosecutors said he had confided in Ms. Berman, who helped him evade the authorities. It was Ms. Berman, prosecutors said, who made a critical phone call while posing as Mr. Durst’s wife that made it appear that she was still alive and steered detectives away from the actual crime scene."

Susan Berman

When I met her it was 1975 and she had just published an article in City Magazine called "Why Women Can't Get Laid in San Francisco." I'd written a piece for the same issue. City was then being edited by Warren Hinckle and produced in a town house on Jackson Street owned by the publisher, Francis Ford Coppola. That's where we must have met. She had a sunny apartment on Baker St., on the Southern Slope of Pacific Heights. She was smart and funny, a girlie-girl. Not many women I knew in those days wore perfume. She was seriously phobic —wouldn't drive over bridges, which made traveling options limited— and she once asked a detective agency to confirm that a gift she'd gotten by mail was not going to explode when opened.

Her father, Davey Berman, was a mobster, co-founder of the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas after World War Two. She'd been raised as a princess. We had something in common. My grandfather had been associated with that same mob in the '20s before they expanded beyond New York. He ran a "restaurant" on the Lower East Side that was a main hangout. At grampa's restaurant they only served tea, and the tables were full of men playing cards.

I wooed Susan B. with a song repurposed from one written when I was involved with a feminist. Liner note: Russ & Daughters was an appetizer shop on the Lower East Side patronized by Jews whose traditional feast was no longer the Sabbath supper but the Sunday brunch.

Susan B, just seein’ you again at last
We may not share any plans but we do share the past
You got the map of Russia all over your face
Could be that our forefathers had to leave the same place?

Oh, oh, oh… Feel the waves rollin’ in 
On that old Black Seaport again tonight 

Mama, you’re like soul food to me
Chicken soup when it’s cold out a glass tea
Brisket on rye and pickles in barrels of brine
Sweet potato pirogen, Mogen David wine

Oh, oh, oh…Halfway around the whole world
Only to find an Odessa Girl (no wonder)

You’re just down home to me
Chocolate almond eyes of a refugee
Russ & Daughters’ herring not to mention his wife
And brunch on a Sunday mornin’ in an orderly life

I’m talkin’ about brunch on a Sunday
Mornin’ in an orderly life.

My fatal flaw, from Susan B's POV, was lack of desire to get rich. (It wasn't until recently I realized what a serious drawback that really is.) After a few weeks she started urging me to the visit the clothier, Wilkes Bashford, and I called the whole thing off. She soon moved back to Los Angeles (no bridges between SF and LA) and David Fechheimer, a detective friend, would give me occasional reports about her. She was going with a man whose last name was Mister. Fech liked the sound of "Mr. Mister." He said that Robert Durst —his longtime client— was on the scene, not as a lover but as a sugar daddy. 

For sure Susan's writing couldn't keep her living in the style to which she was accustomed. I got the impression that she kept asking Durst for support and he came to fear that if he cut her off she'd peg him for the murder of his wife. He came up behind her one night with a pistol and shot her dead. I only wonder if she felt the barrel against her skull or never knew what hit her. 

Still Thinking About Lucy

Aaron Sorkin's decision to make J. Edgar Hoover the Deus ex Machina who saves the day in "Being the Ricardos" took a perverse kind of courage. The neolibs have been resurrecting the FBI's reputation for years, but none had yet tried to glorify J. Edgar himself.

Sorkin's decision involved downplaying the role of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nowadays nobody has heard of HUAC but the FBI has a higher budget than ever and a new TV show —"FBI International" to enhance its image. Sorkin's goal was political relevance and the hell with historical correctness.

HUAC was effectively led by Rep Francis Walter (R.-PA). His name and Sen Pat McCarran's were as well known to victims of the witch hunts as Joe McCarthy's. It was HUAC that made the Inquisition into a media circus in 1947 by investigating Hollywood writers and actors. It was HUAC that interrogated Lucille Ball in closed session May '52. It was HUAC member Donald L. Jackson (R.-CA) who announced to the press —after Walter Winchell and the LA Herald Express revealed that Lucy had been questioned— that the committee had cleared her of any link to Communism. Desi Arnaz's little speech to the studio audience that night —the climax of "Being the Ricardos"— was anticlimactic and did not mention J. Edgar Hoover. 

The real turning point had come when HUAC decided to hear Lucy in closed rather than open session.Why did the Inquisitors forego the publicity they always coveted? Did HUAC investigators know they didn't have any damning info on Lucille Ball? 

No, because they did have something on her! Not only had she registered Communist in '36, she had been appointed by a man named Emil Freed as a delegate to the CP nominating convention and she had allowed the Communist Party to hold at least one meeting in her house in Los Angeles! That act of support was more damning evidence than HUAC files contained on many a celeb they questioned in open session. Had they called Lucy, I can almost hear the counsel's insinuating tone: "And who attended that meeting at your house? Do you really expect us to believe you gave access to people you didn't know, Mrs. Arnaz?..." They could have questioned her about every leftwing group that Grampa Fred Hunt ever joined. "Do you expect us to believe that Mr. Hunt, the man you've refered to as 'Daddy,' never discussed with you the goals of the International Workers of the World?" And on and on with their accusatory innuendos while reporters took notes and flashbulbs flashed. Lucy in front of HUAC would have been the biggest story of the day and enhanced the fame of her interrogators. But whoever chose to hear her in secret session calculated that if Lucy was revealed as a Comsymp, millions of US Americans might stop hating Comsymps so fervently.

Whoever made the decision to hear her behind closed doors —Rep. Francis Walter or his Roy Cohn— was sacrificing personal publicity for the good of the rightwing's higher purpose (rolling back New Deal reforms). Moreover, thanks to Grampa Fred, they could define Lucy as a cooperative witness. 

By naming him as her sole influencer, she didn't have to name any more names! His final gift to his beloved granddaughter was a Stay-off-the-Blacklist-Free card.

Another historic reality I missed (because Sorkin's script minimized it) was the importance of Jess Oppenheimer, the executive producer and head writer of "I Love Lucy." Oppenheimer had produced and written the radio show "My Favorite Husband," that convinced CBS to give Lucille Ball a TV slot on Monday nights in September 1951. It was Oppenheimer who had realized that she needed more foils than her hubby and wrote in the couple who would become Fred and Ethel Mertz on TV. Oppenheimer hired the two staff writers who made the transition with him from drafting radio scripts to TV scripts, and both are made major characters in "Being the Ricardos." Sorkin portrays Oppenheimer as nebbishy and petty, refusing Desi Arnaz's seemingly justified request for a producer's credit on "I Love Lucy." 

Sometimes you don't see the key point until after the piece is filed. Jess Oppenheimer had been a writer on the Baby Snooks radio show. Are you old enough to remember Baby Snooks? She was a clever, assertive little girl played by Fanny Brice, a subtly subversive comedienne. Barbra Streisand portrays Fanny Brice as a young woman in Funny Girl. She was a mature woman when she played Snooks on the radio in the late 1940s. The character played by Lucille Ball on "I Love Lucy" was Baby Snooks as a grown-up. QED

Remembering Bob Dole

When the news came last month that Bob Dole had died, I flashed on his debate with Bill Clinton in mid-September, 1996. I was watching with Dennis Peron at the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, which was quiet but not empty. Attorney General Dan Lungren had ordered the club shut after the August 4 raid. When I dropped in Dennis had reminded me, as usual, “I’m supposed to talk to you. I'm supposed to direct you to Dave Fratello in Santa Monica.” (Fratello was working for the Soros-funded PR man, Bill Zimmerman.) 

The small portable TV in Dennis'f office was tuned to the PBS News Hour. Bob Dole came on the screen. They were replaying his recent speech at Villanova University on “the drug issue”—and several club staffers had gathered around to watch. “The simple fact is that drug abuse, especially among young people, leads to more criminal activity,” said Dole.

“Because you get arrested for smoking marijuana!” said Dennis. “Three quarters of the people in jail are in there for marijuana! Are they going to build prisons from sea to shining sea? Twenty million Americans smoke marijuana!”

Bill Clinton came on next, telling a police officers’ convention that he was second to none in his support for the war on drugs. He proudly cited his appointment of 4-Star General Barry McCaffrey as drug czar. “He kept drugs from South America out of this country,” Clinton asserted, turning on his Southern accent and with a straight face. Dennis repeated, but as a question in his Long Island accent, "He kept drugs from South America out of this country?"

Clinton then took credit for a bill that specified the death penalty for “drug kingpins.”

“Am I a drug kingpin?” asked Dennis kind of seriously.

Clinton went on: “We proposed the largest anti-drug effort in history, and I hope Congress will give us the extra $700 million we asked for...”

Dennis was disgusted. “All these politicians and members of narcotics associations should remember that their own family members may have cancer someday. And they may find that marijuana brings some relief... It’s not even about marijuana anymore. It’s about where we’re going and who we are, just like the politicians say.” He had been doodling out campaign ads, but it was all just an exercise because Bill Zimmerman didn’t want his input. “Imagine being called ‘a liability’ to your own movement,” Dennis sighed.

In my no-longer-trustworthy memory Dole had made a Viagra ad involving Britney Spears. Or was it a Pepsi ad? A check online provided clarification. I had conflated three ads made by the former Senate Majority Leader. The first was a dignified pitch for Viagra in which Dole, seated in a leather armchair incongruously placed in a marble Corridor of Power, began talking about "Courage." He pointed out that military veterans were prone to Erectile Dysfunction and seeking assistance took courage. A second ad began with Dole in a windbreaker by the seashore talking in the same serious tone about the product that had changed his life for the better... Pepsi-Cola. It was funny the first few times you saw it. 

Dole's third Mad Ave gig was a Pepsi ad featuring young Britney Spears doing her cheerleader dance moves and cutting to various people ogling their TV sets as she herky-jerked away. The final cut showed an ogling Bob Dole holding a can of Pepsi and seated next to a dog who was also watching with apparent interest. Dole says, "Down boy." FADE TO BLACK.

Smoking Isn't 'Sexy.'

A quick-hitting letter by Steve Heilig —director of the San Francisco Medical Society and frequent AVA contributor —ran in the NY Times January 15. He was responding to an article about cigarette smoking regaining acceptance in the presumably hip borough of Brooklyn. "It's so dismaying to see young people falling for the old cliché that smoking is somehow cool," Heilig wrote. "In reality this is exactly what the tobacco industry wants them to believe. Smoking doesn't make anybody sexy but it certainly does make them a sucker."

One Comment

  1. Douglas Coulter January 22, 2022

    When famous people die the media celebrates. Can’t go through the check out stand without headlines from every tabloid.
    How many local murders haunt the cold case files?
    Nobody died so nobody investigated. Native American’s got a boost when Donald Trump signed a bill to push for closure on this invisible epidemic of missing and murdered, “nobodies”
    Biden just re-upped that motion.
    OJ Simpson and the Lindbergh case were media carnival affairs

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