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Monkey Business

One morning last spring, I cast a vote for myself in the Hollywood hills; then I descended to the flats of Beverly Hills for a haircut at the barber shop in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where I found the Wise Hack, now half as old as time; his remaining white hairs had just been trimmed; he was being manicured, the large yellow diamond still sparkles on that finger which he refers to as a “pinkie.” The Wise Hack’s eyes have lost a bit of their sparkle but then eyes that have looked with deep suspicion into those of F. Scott Fitzgerald and of Y. Frank Freeman have earned their mica-glaze.

When I greeted him, he said, accusingly, “Why do you want to be governor of this schmatteh state?” When I said that I didn’t want to be governor, he nodded, slyly. “That’s what I told people,” he said, cryptic as always. Then: “It’s over there. In my briefcase. This Xerox copy. You can borrow it. Everybody’s in it. Not that I know a lot of these young hotshots they got nowadays with their beads and long hair. Remember when there was only the one head of the studio and he was there forever? But a lot of old-timers are in it, too. Ray’s in it. Real hatchet job like that one that—you know, what’s her name, did to Dore….” I supplied the name of Lillian Ross. He nodded, “I warned Dore at the time….”

In due course, I read the Xerox of a book—or tome as the Wise Hack would say—called Indecent Exposure by a journalist named David McClintick, who has examined at great length the David Begelman scandal of five years ago. As I read the book, the Wise Hack supplied me with a running commentary. Although the Wise Hack’s memory for names is going fast, he has perfect recall of what goes on—or went on—behind Hollywood’s closed doors. “You see, the book is told from the point of view of this one young hotshot who, when Columbia Pictures was on its ass, was made president in New York by Ray Stark and Herbert Allen, Jr., then this hotshot Alan Hirschfield…. You know him?” A sharp look, suddenly. I said as far as I know I have never met Mr. Hirschfield. But then like the Wise Hack I can’t keep straight all the young executives who come and go, talking of Coca-Cola—Columbia’s new owner.

I did know the unfortunate Begelman, who had been my agent; and I had once made a film with Ray Stark twenty years ago while…. But as the Wise Hack always says, “First you identify your characters. Then you show us your problem. Then you bring on your hero. Then you kick him in the balls. Then you show how he takes that kick. Does he feel sorry for himself? Never. Because,” and I would recite along with the Wise Hack movie-land’s inexorable law: “self-pity is not box office.”

In 1973 Columbia Pictures was close to bankruptcy. The studio’s principal supplier of films, Ray Stark, went to his old friend Charles Allen of the investment firm Allen and Company and persuaded him to buy into the studio. Stark proceeded to interest Allen’s thirty-three-year-old nephew, Herbert Allen, Jr., in Columbia’s management. Together they selected an employee of Allen and Company, one Alan Hirschfield, to be the president of Columbia Pictures, headquartered in New York. Thus has Hollywood always been governed. The power and the money are in New York; the studio and the glamour are in Hollywood. According to the Wise Hack, the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, there was not a dry eye in the commissary at MGM when L.B. Mayer exhorted each of the assembled artists and artisans “to say to himself a silent prayer—at this time of national emergency—for our great president—Nicholas M. Schenck in New York.”

David Begelman was made chief of production of Columbia Pictures in Hollywood. Begelman had been a highly successful agent and packager of films. He turned, as they say, Columbia Pictures around. After four years of Begelman’s management the studio was a great success. Begelman got most of the praise, which somewhat irritated Hirchfield. Even so, everything was going very nicely for everyone until….

In 1976 Begelman forged the actor Cliff Robertson’s name to a check for $10,000, made out to Robertson by Columbia. Robertson would never have known of the check if he had not got an IRS form in the mail. It is of some psychological interest that although Robertson had once been a client of Begelman, a froideur, as they say in Bel Air, developed between the two men when Begelman took the side of Cinerama against his client in a dispute over money. Begelman’s attempts to cover up the Robertson forgery failed, and Columbia’s board of directors suspended Begelman as president of the company; notified the SEC; and ordered an audit of Begelman’s affairs. The press reported that there had been “financial irregularities”; the word “forgery” was not mentioned.

A second forged check surfaced, made out to the director Marty Ritt, as well as a payment to an imaginary Frenchman whose name Begelman had appropriated from one of Hollywood’s leading maîtres d’hotel—Begelman’s subconscious had its witty side. After a thorough investigation, the auditors reported to the board of Columbia that Begelman had embezzled $61,008; he had also taken, in unauthorized expenses, $23,000. The board was stunned by these amounts.

Why so little?” asked the Wise Hack, not at all rhetorically. “A real thief in that job can steal millions. This was the petty cash. Let’s face it, David’s a sick man. That’s all.” Since the Wise Hack’s estimate was pretty much that of the board of directors, Begelman was reinstated on condition that he pay back what he had taken and agree to go to the village medicine man—at this time and in that place, a shrink. Plainly, they were all nuts. Now begins the agony and the ecstasy of Mr. McClintick’s tale.

In an author’s note, Mr. McClintick tells us that “everything in this book is real” (as opposed to true?) “every episode, scene, weather reference, conversation, and name (except for that of a single confidential informant).” Since Columbia’s board meetings are reported with such a wealth of “real” dialogue, it would appear that the author’s Deep Throat is Mr. Hirschfield himself. Certainly, he must have an astonishing memory. If not, how else could he have supplied the author with so many detailed conversations? After all, in Mr. McClintick’s own words, “The minutes are summaries and contain no actual dialogue.” Perhaps Mr. Hirschfield taped himself and his fellow board members.

But this is only idle supposition—one must proceed carefully with Mr. McClintick because on the page entitled “Acknowledgements” he gives “thanks also to Robert D. Sack, the finest libel lawyer in America and, not insignificantly, an astute editorial critic.” Plainly, what we are in for is hardball. Curiously enough, neither author nor libel lawyer cum editorial critic is exactly straightforward on the problem of attribution. On the next page there are two epigraphs. One is an aria by John Huston on how Hollywood is a jungle. The other is a remark by David Chasman: “The New Hollywood is very much like the old Hollywood.” To the innocent reader it looks as if both Huston and Chasman had made these statements to the author. The Huston aria is dated 1950; the Chasman 1981. I had no idea of the provenance of the Chasman quotation but surely Mr. McClintick should have given prompt credit to Lillian Ross, from whose remarkable book Picture he lifted Huston’s speech. Instead, under “Notes,” on page 524, he identifies his source.

Despite the author’s note, Indecent Exposure belongs to a relatively new genre of writing in which real people are treated as if they are characters in a fiction. Villains “smirk”; heroes “stride”; Begelman “sidled over.” Although Mr. McClintick has proudly billed his book as “A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street,” he does not hesitate to enter the minds of real people. “Caressed by Muzak, Begelman sat at his elaborate faux marbre desk and thought about the check and about Cliff Robertson… Using Robertson’s name to steal the money in the first place had been a big mistake, even though it had seemed perfectly logical at the time.” Incidentally, “the finest libel lawyer in America” and “astute editorial critic” does not have much of an eye or car for English—or even the faux anglais of Bel Air. Dangling participles adorn Mr. McClintick’s pages like hangman’s nooses. Or, later, “Sitting at home on a Sunday three months later, facing an imminent investigation, Begelman decided to proceed with his plan for concealing the Pierre Groleau embezzlement.” How does our author know that Begelman was sitting rather than standing? Or whether or not Muzak caressed or annoyed Begelman? And wouldn’t it be more dramatic to have him on the toilet instead of at his desk when he thinks about the check? Since all of this is plainly unknowable, all of this becomes untrue.

It is Mr. McClintick’s thesis that good-guy Alan Hirscfield wanted to get rid of Begelman because he was a crook but he couldn’t because the real power-brokers at columbia, Herbert Allen and Ray Stark, did not share his light moral standards. Mr. McClintick’s Hirschfield is a highly moral man—if somewhat indecisive, because he fears not only for his job but he suspects “blackmail” might be used against him because his wife Berte was employed by the research firm E.J. Wolf & Associates, who did work for Columbia.

Thus, Mr. McClintick sets up his hero: “Reporters, especially women, enjoyed interviewing him. He was an attractive man—a six-footer of medium build with an athletic bearing, hair that was expertly coiffed even though thinning and graying, and a countenance that revealed his droll, playful personality through twinkling eyes and the trace of a smile. Relaxed and informal, he laughed easily and often, and his speaking voice was the kind of soft, gentle adult voice that children find comforting.” I looked in the back of the book for affidavits from children; there were none.

Hirschfield is also from Oklahoma, which gives him a “somewhat hometown naivete that was a deeply ingrained part of Alan’s character—’the Oklahoma in him’—as Berte saw it…” Mr. McClintick is no doubt an Eastern city bumpkin, unaware that Oklahoma’s rich and marvelous corruption makes Hollywood’s wheeling and dealing seem positively innocent. In the text, Hirschfield usually “strides”; occasionally he “ambles.” Sometimes he is “discombobulated”; even “a man in agony”; once—only once—he “whined” He is a good family man, as all good men are, and “the company of his children—Laura, thirteen; Maro, eleven; and Scott, eight—always invigorated Alan, no matter what problems might be plaguing him.”

Now let us look at the villains of the book. “Although [Herbert Allen] was trim and fit, he had slightly sunken eyes which gave him a somewhat gaunt, tired look and projected coolness, cynicism, nonchalance, and even indifference, much more often than joy or sadness.” This does not sound at all like a wellcoiffed person to me. The author keeps fretting about those eyes. “While Herbert’s slightly sunken eyes appeared to reveal fatigue and worry… they were an inherited characteristic,” and his Uncle Charles has them, too. Even so…. Although Mr. Hirschfield’s sexual life is not discussed (marital strain is alluded to only toward the end), Herbert Allen’s girlfriends are noted by name and his suite on the Carlyle Hotel’s thirty-first floor is made to sound jumping: “he was a bit compulsive about the physical standards he set for his women. He would mull over fine points of physique with cronies, etc.,” but then Allen was “divorced in 1971—after nine years of marriage and four children.” What any of this has to do with the Begleman case is a question best asked of the ghost of Jacqueline Susann which hovers over these often steamy pages.

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