"We're like the Mafia."
--Jared Paul Stern
I DON'T KNOW JARED PAUL STERN, the New York Post gossip writer accused of blackmailing a billionaire, but over the years I've learned a little about the gamier side of gossip-columning. Stern's self-dealing, unsubtle as it was, is no big surprise.
When I was 21 years old, and new to Los Angeles, I worked for Louella Parsons, creator of the first movie gossip column and one of the most powerful and influential of William Randolph Hearst's syndicated writers. At its peak, her column was carried by more than 1,000 newspapers. She was heard by millions of Americans on her weekly radio show, "Hollywood Hotel." She had serious chops in the world of gossip.
Aside from Miss Parsons' office in her home on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, where I labored on Mondays and Tuesdays, I worked two mornings a week for an arm of United Press International called the "UPI Foreign Film Bureau" located in the Times Mirror building in downtown Los Angeles. (My third job was about 20 feet down the hall, in the L.A. Times newsroom where, from 3 to 11 p.m. five days a week, I was a copyboy for the Times's night city editor, Glen Binford. I had ravenous appetites at the time, and becoming a full-time reporter was one of them.)
At the UPI office, three writers, a part-time assistant (me), and our boss, a one-armed Latvian émigré named Henry Gris, produced 20 or more gossipy stories a week about Hollywood and movie stars: the Brads and Angelinas of the day, folks like Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen, Tuesday Weld, Doris Day, Natalie Wood, and Frank Sinatra.
Our copy made up all or most of half a hundred fan magazines in Asia, Europe, and Latin America, first translated in New York into a couple of dozen languages before it was wired or mailed out. Henry had a name for our work: He called them "coulda' been stories," meaning, as he explained to me on my first day, they could have been true even if they weren't. The fact that they were to be printed abroad, often in foreign languages, meant we could get away with considerable deceit in their preparation. The world was a big place. UPI wouldn't mind.
Henry said all this while explaining that I would do a couple of interviews a week with top stars. But I wouldn't actually need to talk to them in person. "That would be a waste of time," he said. "We write about them from clips," meaning stories and items cut from other publications and kept in voluminous files stacked against the walls of our large, one-room office. "We call movie stars on the phone only if absolutely necessary." For a fee, an outfit called Celebrity Service supplied home numbers and addresses of actors, but Henry was adamant about keeping costs down and using them sparingly.
"We make our stories colorful, we make them entertaining, we spray them with adverbs and adjectives until they are soaked, and most important, since they are not true but very well could be true, we keep them free from libel," said Henry, who could type faster with one hand while he talked than anyone in the room. He emphasized points by flapping the end of his missing wing inside the short-sleeve white Dacron shirt he wore every day.
As a group we cobbled together two full gossip columns weekly. A few items came from Henry, who was chummy with many stars, like Audrey Hepburn, I was impressed to learn. But mostly it was stuff we cribbed and rewrote from columns by Army Archerd of Daily Variety, Cholly Knickerbocker, Dorothy Kilgallen, Earl Wilson ("Midnight Earl, the Broadway Columnist") and Walter Winchell in New York, "Suzy" (then called Suzy Knickerbocker), Florabelle Muir, Hedda Hopper, Harrison Carroll, Jimmy Fidler, Sheila Graham, and my other employer, Miss Parsons--"global cross-pollination," Henry called it, as we rejiggered the work of others and sent it on to magazines in Stockholm and Tokyo. Henry did once make the point that "all columnists steal from each other, or at least from somebody."
The five of us signed our bylines to a couple of pieces a week, but we produced so much we also employed a list of 20 pseudonyms. One was that of a writer who had died in a car wreck years before. ("Terry lives in the minds of fans in Oslo and Jakarta," said Henry.) Our stories were often written to promote new movies, a form of pimping still in style--just read Time and Newsweek or Star and People--and the magazines required a lot of "art," that is, still pictures to accompany them. Henry had a personal relationship with every movie studio publicity chief and press agent in town, which is how he really made his dough.
Every week I drove out on my motorcycle to Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, 20th Century Fox in Beverly Hills, or to Paramount, Desilu Productions, or Warner Bros. and picked up packages of glossy black-and-white photos and color transparencies and stacks of press releases we could rewrite.
The photos came from the studios for free but Henry sold them to the foreign magazines. I don't recall what he got for the black-and-whites, I think around $10 each, but I remember him saying the color transparencies were worth $50. They were generally used as a cover photo to accompany the lead story, as the mags were too cheap to run more than one color shot per issue.
Small potatoes, those hundreds of photographs every month, that is until you figure that Henry was servicing 60 or more magazines. He claimed he split the proceeds with UPI. I don't know if that was true. I know I was paid $25 a day, and I was happy to get it.
Henry Gris was no fringe player in Hollywood gossip journalism. He was the president of the Foreign Press Association, awarder of the Golden Globe. (Henry was of sufficient prominence that for a time the award was named for him. It was called the "Henrietta.")
Henry is now dead. The three writers I worked with, all of them then in their mid-twenties, went on to success. One became famous as the executive producer of one of the network morning shows, another is a well-reviewed book author on show business subjects, and the third, a Brit, runs a large PR firm in London.
CORRUPTION, BY PRESENT-DAY STANDARDS, took a different form at Louella Parsons' house. But Jared Stern's refrain about gossip writers operating like the Mafia is timeless and true. You are nice to your friends and you screw your enemies, which is, after all, life in the chicken yard.
Not surprisingly--perhaps like Stern or his "Page Six" boss Richard Johnson--some people in the public eye didn't care for Miss Parsons. They didn't like her one whit; they resented her power and the arrogance that travels with it. But to her face few ever had the guts to let her know about it. Marlon Brando was an exception. Choosing words whose irony he may have later regretted, he publicly called her "The Fat One."
Well, Miss Parsons was nice to the people who worked for her, and it is not surprising that she was plump because she ate well, often, and for free. I had dinner with Miss Parsons and her boyfriend, songwriter Jimmy McHugh ("I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "On the Sunny Side of the Street"), more than 20 times that year, sometimes sitting at the bar at her home at 619 Maple Drive but more often at very expensive places like the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel, or Ciro's or Scandia on Sunset Strip; at Chasen's or the Brown Derby at Hollywood and Vine, or the Crescendo, also in Hollywood; at Trader Vic's or at the Luau in Beverly Hills, where Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner's 18-year-old daughter, newly released from custody for the murder of her mother's lover, mobster Johnny Stompanato, was the hostess. And though it is possible that a bill was sometimes put on a house-charge, I never saw a bill presented, so it is doubtful.
The occasions I had dinner with Miss Parsons at her house were always on Monday or Tuesday nights when the cook Lucille and the butler Collins were off. Miss Parsons would call the Brown Derby's owner Bob Cobb and order from the Derby menu she kept behind her bar. She invariably started with Cobb salads, usually picked the lamb chops or the braised lamb shanks and mashed potatoes, and ended with Sanka and grapefruit cake with cream cheese frosting. She had a Brown Derby wine list as well and would order a couple of bottles to suit the meal. Within the hour, two waiters would show up at the side-door with a ramp and roll in a large heated dinner cart. Sometimes the waiters were accompanied by Mr. Cobb, who would help serve, usually by chopping the salad.
Louella Parsons was an indefatigable plugger of the Brown Derby and did as much as anyone to make it world famous--and to help Mr. Cobb become rich. (It was at Miss Parsons' bar in 1963 that I ate my first Cobb salad and I have been chopping crisp iceberg lettuce for salads in the same way ever since I watched Mr. Cobb do it--lettuce, scallions, tomatoes, avocados, bacon, and breast of turkey, all chopped into small pieces and tossed with oil and vinegar, black pepper, and crumbled blue cheese.)
Dave Chasen, sometimes with his wife Maude, also brought meals to Miss Parsons' house from their restaurant on Beverly Boulevard. Chasen's was then the most popular--and the fanciest--rib and chili joint in Los Angeles. It was also one of the most publicized. Miss Parsons mentioned it in her column about once a week, sometimes more than once.
Like Mr. Cobb, the Chasens were a good source of benign items for the daily column--of the "who-was-seen-with-whom" variety. I often sat scribbling notes at Miss Parsons' bar as Mr. Chasen rattled off his gossip pickings from a sheet in his pocket and Miss Parsons enthusiastically ladled guacamole, crumbled cheese, and raw chopped onions into a bowl of Mr. Chasen's pinto bean chili. She would end this ritual by crushing a handful of water crackers into powder and tiny bits, which she would drop on top, guaranteeing herself a faint powder mustache as soon as the first spoon of chili left her lips. No wonder she was pudgy.
Miss Parsons was famous for the presents she received from stars, press agents, and studios. One story that circulated for years was that her car had once been stolen, packed with birthday or Christmas presents from producers and studios. Miss Parsons then supposedly telephoned all the gift-givers and asked each of them to replace their gift.
"Do you know why that story is false?" she once asked the office staff after it had been printed again in an article about her. "Because anyone who knows me knows that the studios deliver my presents. It is ridiculous to say that I picked them up myself. I would never do that."
And that was true. But she got them in huge volume, for sure. Later that summer, I was hired by UPI as a general assignment news reporter at their bureau in San Francisco and gave my notice to Henry Gris and Louella Parsons. Miss Parsons' birthday was on August 10, and that was my last day at North Maple Drive before I moved north to my new job.
I spent it in the living room opening and then cataloging over one hundred birthday gifts from movie makers and stars, many of them valuable: a painting from Orry Kelly, the Oscar-winning costume designer; a sterling silver ice bucket engraved with LOP (Louella Oettinger Parsons) from Frank Sinatra; an antique quilt from Ray Stark, producer of Funny Girl; a case of champagne from Charles Lederer, screenwriter of Mutiny on the Bounty (and nephew of Miss Parsons' close friend Marion Davies, W.R. Hearst's girlfriend); hand-painted high-ball glasses from Burt Lancaster; three bottles of Aquavit, the powerful Scandinavian booze, from Rosalind Russell Brisson and her husband Freddie, a Broadway producer who was then president of Columbia Pictures. It was Mrs. Brisson who had first recommended me for the job with Miss Parsons, and in whose nearby guesthouse I sometimes lived.
I wrote out a list of them all for Miss Parsons' review later, and for her files, surely for thank-you notes, but perhaps also just to keep score.
Jimmy McHugh came over for a birthday party in the late afternoon. We sat among the wrappings with Miss Parsons as he played the piano and sang a song he had written for her when he was at MGM. It was called "Louella." It was pretty sappy ("Louella, Louella can I be your fella"), but it was a nice moment anyway.
In spite of the persistence of that story about Miss Parsons picking up gifts herself, I can attest that every one of the presents that day had been delivered by messengers, studio press agents, and even a few stars. Chuck Connors, The Rifleman, was one of them.
The most flamboyant of the gifts was a three-foot-long Conestoga wagon filled with silver dollars. It had been carried into the house by Elvis Presley, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and a couple of Elvis's cousins. I opened the door and let them in myself.
BITTER RIVALRY is the other constant of the gossip trade. The nasty circulation war between the New York Post and the New York Daily News, which figures prominently in the takedown of Jared Paul Stern at the Post's "Page Six," is pretty darned heartening to this newspaperman. Okay, it is not as direct as clubbing rival newsboys on city street corners or torching newspaper trucks--as used to happen--but it is an upbeat indicator that all is not completely dead in below-the-belt newspaper competition. Could we really bear all papers reading like the New York Times?
Let me tell you about a real war between two gossip columnists. Jimmie Tarantino was the editor and publisher of a scandal sheet in L.A. not unlike Radar, the gossipy magazine for which Jared Paul Stern also worked before it folded last year. Jimmie's rag was called Hollywood Nite Life, and it was critical of people Jimmie didn't like in the movie business. "Critical" may not be the right word. Here is an example of what I mean. Louella Parsons was sometimes known as "Miss P" at the studios and to people who worked for her. Whenever Nite Life mentioned her, they spelled it "Miss Pee"--and then referenced a story claiming she had wet her pants while bombed at a Hearst social function.
But it wasn't Miss Parsons who snapped back at Tarantino; it was a popular and talented Hearst gossip columnist in San Francisco named Freddie Francisco. Francisco had been a screenwriter in Los Angeles and was a friend of Louis B. Mayer, the studio chief whom Tarantino also regularly savaged. Francisco had been personally hired for his column by Hearst, and Hearst liked Miss Parsons. Freddie lived the grand life in San Francisco, operating from a fancy apartment at 850 Powell Street on the top of Nob Hill, where his live-in butler greeted his many guests.
Then Freddie began sniping at Jimmie in his syndicated column. He called Jimmie a "blowhard," he said he was nasty, he said he was "gimlet-eyed," and he described Hollywood Nite Life as both sleazy and vindictive.
He had the vindictive part right. Tarantino came back at him with a poleaxe, laying-out Freddie Francisco as a man with a colorful, life-long criminal record in a "special issue" of Hollywood Nite Life. Freddie, the Hearst star--Jimmie called him "W.R. Hearst's pet"--turned out to have been still on parole from a federal prison in Atlanta. He had been a stick-up man, embezzler, bad-check artist, prison escapee, and jewel thief under a dozen aliases.
Freddie had been arrested for bad checks in Tucson as M.H. Carlton; in Omaha for forgery as Michael O'Connor; in Chicago and New York, both for robbery, as Robert Preston. He had been arrested in San Diego for bad checks as Robert Lennon; in San Rafael as Robert Kendrick Lee for more bad checks and auto theft; and arrested as Nils Larsen in Sacramento for burglary and grand theft.
Nite Life said Freddie had served time in Elmira prison, in Sing Sing, in the federal prison in McNeil Island, Washington, from which he had escaped, and jails in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Shanghai, China. He had been arrested for attempted murder for shooting a fellow in New Orleans, and he was suspected of owning brothels.
"Does William Randolph Hearst Know About This Multi-Count Criminal?" read one of the many banners in Nite Life.
If that weren't loaded on high enough, Jimmie also accused Freddie of using his column to extort a well-known San Francisco gambler and whorehouse owner named "Bones" Remer by threatening him with further exposure unless he paid off. (Freddie had been beating up on Bones regularly in his column.) To make sure the blade cut deep enough, Jimmie Tarantino shipped 10,000 copies of Hollywood Nite Life with its attack on Freddie to San Francisco for free distribution in saloons and stores.
W.R Hearst, who liked Freddie, held on for a week and then fired him. Freddie packed up, left town, and disappeared into California's maw. A few years later, Jimmie Tarantino was himself caught in an extortion sting. He was using a new gossip magazine for shakedowns. He was sent to San Quentin.
In 1965, Freddie Francisco, fresh from another prison stretch, moved quietly back to San Francisco. He was rehired at the Examiner by one of W.R. Hearst's five sons, Randy (Patty Hearst's father), who was then publisher. He began to work city-side writing about crime under the name of "Bob Patterson."
I was a young reporter then and I came to know Bob well. (His real name was Robert Lawson Preston; in all his arrests in all those years, he had only used that name once.) I was introduced to him by my friend Tom Fitzpatrick, head of the San Francisco Police Intelligence Unit, who explained the background of the Freddie/Jimmie feud to me in great detail.
We met Bob Patterson at the bar of a tough Tenderloin saloon called "The Square Chair." Fitzpatrick, who once headed the "Red Squad" when police departments had such outfits--he'd been a detective since 1935--said about Bob as we walked through the door, "You're going to like this guy. He was the best informant I ever had."
Bob wrote colorful and entertaining stories for the Examiner and the Hearst papers. Few San Franciscans knew that he had been the famous Freddie Francisco, or anything else about his background. In 1972, after Nixon and Kissinger went to China, that changed.
Bob Patterson had spent time in China years before Mao seized power. He convinced the Hearst editors to send him back. (He didn't tell them he had been arrested and jailed for embezzlement in Shanghai in 1936.) His five-part series of life "behind the bamboo curtain" of the PRC ran in all the Hearst papers in the summer of 1972. Like Bob, it was colorful and it was detailed. It was a hit.
Soon, the San Francisco Chronicle, the morning rival to the afternoon Examiner, accused Bob of creating the entire series from his remarkable imagination while holed up somewhere in a stateside hotel room. They offered considerable proof he had never been in China at all. Bob countered that he had avoided regular port entry and had sneaked in from Macao.
The front-page attack by reporter Paul Avery got Bob fired again. He was over 65. It was the end of a remarkable career. It was a classic "coulda' been" story.
Richard W. Carlson is the host of "Danger Zone" on WMAL radio in Washington. He wrote a political gossip column called "The Shadow" with former Washington magazine publisher Bill Regardie.