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.
On the other hand, the relationship between Allen and Hirschfield is interesting. The latter was an employee of Allen and Company, a powerful investment firm run by Herbert’s uncle, Charles Allen. “Hirschfield considered himself superior in intellect and business acumen to Herbert Allen, Jr., the firm’s scion… who was four and half years younger than Hirschfield and, unlike Hirschfield, born to great wealth.” This has the ring of truth. “He, not Herbert, had saved Columbia. He, not Herbert, was one of the brightest young show-business executives in the nation.” Worse, the little that Herbert knew about movies he had learned from old-fashioned oldsters like Ray Stark. Fortunately, “none of Hirschfield’s feelings was stated or even hinted in Herbert’s presence, however. While never best friends, Alan and Herbert always had had a close, comfortable relationship which continued in the summer of 1977.” Summertime for Iago.
It is odd how widely Mr. McClintick misses the point to the relationship between Allen and Hirschfield. He writes as if they were equals. They are not. Allen is, as the author puts it, a “scion”; Hirschfield is a hired hand. From Mr. McClintick’s account it would appear that in the course of the drama Hirschfield may have had occasional delusions of equality—if he did, he destroyed himself because, as every scion knows from the moment he first teethes on that silver spoon, the one with the money wins because that is the American way. Since workers in the Hollywoods often make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, there is a tendency to think of them as rich. They are not or, as John O’Hara once said of the best-selling writer, “He has the income of a millionaire without the million dollars.” David Begelman was also a hired hand. But he had developed an expertise: he could put together successful films. That is a gift so rare—and often so temporary, fashions change rapidly in movie-land—that the board of Columbia forgave him his trespasses by invoking mental illness; and let him go on as before. With perfect hindsight, this was a stupid thing to do; but it was done and Hirschfield made no demur.
Mr. McClintick describes Ray Stark at considerable length. “As long as anyone in Hollywood could remember, Ray Stark had been known to friend and foe alike as ‘The Rabbit.”‘ The Wise Hack shook his head and wheezed, “News to me. And I go back to the first rewrite on that Hong Kong thing—The World of Herman Orient”—he meant The World of Susie Wong: the Wise Hack tends to mix up movie titles but he is precise when it comes to movie deals. “Although many people assumed that the tag originated as a sexual reference,” Mr. McClintick delicately sows a seed, “it was a physical description coined by Fanny Brice, who was to become Stark’s mother-in-law in the 1940s…. Although he was far from being what Herbert Allen called him—’the most important producer in Hollywood post-1948′ (he had produced little of artistic distinction, and his films had won very few Academy Awards, none as best picture)—Ray Stark had accomplished something that the entertainment industry admires more than anything else because it is so elusive—commercial consistency.” He means Stark’s pictures made money.
In thirty years Stark had gone from hired hand (he was a writer’s agent and then a movie producer) to movie mogul. When Columbia started to come apart in 1973, Stark could deal as an equal with the Allen family. Together Stark and the scion hired both Hirschfield and Begelman. Stark himself continued to make his own pictures; sometimes at Columbia and sometimes not. Mr. McClintick discusses at length the relationship between the sixty-two-year-old Stark and the thirty-three-year-old Herbert Allen: never at a loss for a Freudian cliché, he speculates that Stark is in need of a surrogate son, following “the death, apparently by suicide, of Ray’s son, Peter.”
“Cheap shot,” muttered the Wise Hack. “Anyway, Ray knew Herbert before the kid died.” We were seated in the study of the Wise Hack’s house. “I got the letters, too,” he added, with a McClintickesque tight smile. “What letters?” The Wise Hack’s style is often Delphic. “Here,” he handed me two badly Xeroxed letters. “These have been going around the town. Just like the book.” One of the letters was from our author Mr. David McClintick to Ray Stark. The other was Stark’s answer.
On September 5, 1980, Mr. McClintick wrote Stark a magisterial letter. He was, he said, disappointed that the had not been able to “break through the stiffness, awkwardness and discomfort that have always characterized our relationship (if it can be called a relationship).
“When Herbert and I first discussed my book nearly two years ago, he said that he would give me full cooperation and that he would do everything he could to encourage you and David Begelman to cooperate as well.” Apparently, Herbert Allen and David Begelman each gave fifteen hours of time to the author—“these sessions were painful,” McClintick concedes; doubtless the principals must find the resulting use of their time even more painful. “By contrast,” Mr. McClintick chides, “you have granted me precisely one hour in connection with my book, (A previous hour in your office in December, 1977, concerned an article for the Wall Street Journal.) Not only was the time far too short, but the atmosphere was hardly conducive to a relaxed and candid conversation. Furthermore, you saw fit to bring a witness—a gesture to which frightened people some times resort, but which I found odd in these circumstances, and even a little rude.”
Unlike Allen and Begelman and the novel’s hero Hirschfield, Stark was not about to help Mr. McClintick turn him into a fictional character. But Stark had no choice; Mr. McClintick is an auteur, a creator of true fictions or fictive truths in the great line of those çidevant novelists Capote and Mailer. He can invent Ray Stark. After all, look what Mailer did to Monroe.
Mr. McClintick mounts his high horse. “Ray, I’m sure that you feel that the one hour you gave me fulfills your commitment.” The word commitment is the giveaway—the auteur knows that he—and he alone—is the creator of this particular universe and none of his characters is going to be autonomous. “You have told me repeatedly how you rarely give any time to journalists, implying that I should be deeply honored to receive even one hour. All I can say is that I am not just another Hollywood gossip monger. I am one of the top investigative reporters in this country (Pulitzer Prize nominee) and am writing a serious book about events in which you played a major role…, the book will include the deepest and most detailed portrait of you that has ever been written or ever will be written until someone does your biography or you do your autobiography….”* At this moment any semi-autonomous character in a true fiction would have taken to his heels.
Stark’s response is benign: “I respect you as a Pulitzer Prize nominee and, therefore, I must respect your power of observation and presume by this time you should know that I am a very private person. I doubt whether you can find a dozen quotes or two interviews given by me in the last ten years…. You and I have talked congenially, I believe, several times, Once at a premiere in New York and at length, I though, in my office in California. It may have only been for an hour according to your time, but since my interest span is short, it seemed like several hours to me.” Stark notes that one of his associates joined them for lunch not “as a witness because long ago I found it very difficult to refute what a writer may interpret or write regardless of there being a witness. She was along to refresh my memory.
“That misinterpretation on your part only strengthens my reluctance to break what has been my lifelong policy against interviews and personal publicity…. The fact that you want to give ‘the deepest and most detailed portrait of me that has ever been written’ certainly motivates me not to talk to you.” Thus one of Pirandello’s characters tries to leave the stage. Stark notes that “it is difficult for me to express to you that I have nothing to hide. It is merely that I have no desire to have my privacy invaded.” He ends, cheerfully, “I wish that all of your efforts are fruitful for you. At least now you are in possession of one of the longest and most revealing letters that I have ever written to a member of the press.”
Mr. McClintick’s revenge is outright. He accuses Stark of various crimes and then says that these accusations are either untrue or unverifiable. He quotes one of Hirschfield’s tirades: “Ray is in no position to threaten or blackmail. I assure every one of you that with two phone calls—to the SEC and IRS—Ray will be busy for the rest of his life. I will not hesitate to make those calls.” If that is not an accusation of corporate and personal crookedness, it is hard to know what is. But our auteur has put an asterisk beside this “quotation.” At the bottom of the page, there is a footnote in the smallest type that my eye can read: “This was a threat, made in the passion of a heated meeting, which turned out to be empty. Hirschfield had no evidence of any wrongdoing by Stark that would have been of interest to the SEC or IRS.” This is good to know but why quote a libel that one knows to be untrue?
Later, our auteur goes even further. Somehow, Mr. McClintick obtained a copy of a letter that the columnist Liz Smith wrote to Ray Stark. “I was trying,” she writes, “to explain why I had to come down harder on the Begelman affair than you might want me to, considering your friendship. All these items on my desk saying he owes you $600,000 and you had a deal with him to take all your worthless as well as good projects for Columbia, and on and on. All that has been kept out of my column. I consider that friendship, Ray….”
Now for the pussy-footnote: “Of course the ‘items’ about a $600,000 debt and Begelman’s buying Stark’s ‘worthless’ projects for Columbia were omitted from Smith’s column not because of friendship but because she could not verify them as anything more than unfounded rumors.” So our auteur prints slanders based on “unfounded rumors” that Liz Smith did not see fit to print, in order to make us think that Stark and Begelman were defrauding Columbia. There is no experience quite like being caught in an American journalist’s true fiction where the laws of libel—not to mention grammar—often seem not to obtain.
The Begelman affaire is of more interest as a study in contemporary journalistic practices than it is of skulduggery in the movie business. After Begelman’s reinstatement, the press found out what happened. As the storm of publicity broke over Columbia (Mr. McClintick’s style is contagious) Stark and Allen remained Begelman’s allies. Hirschfield waffled. Since every bad novel must have a good-guy hero, Mr. McClintick would have us believe that, from the beginning of the scandal, Hirschfield had been morally outraged and sickened by Begelman’s crimes. If he had been, then he was very much out of character—or at least out of that character which our auteur has invented for him. Apparently after Hirschfield became president of Columbia, he hired a man who had been fired “from CBS Records for misappropriation of funds and was under federal indictment for income tax evasion….”
“‘What if Clive goes to jail?’ Herbert Allen asked Hirschfield.”
“‘Then he’ll run it from Danbury [a federal prison in Connecticut],’ Hirschfield replied, only half in jest.” Later, at another studio, Hirschfield kept in office a man caught with his hand in the till. As our auteur puts it: “Hollywood is a town that takes delight in spitting in the face of irony.”
The press did a good bit of spitting, too, and Hollywood was subjected to creative as well as investigative reporting. Characteristically, The New York Times took the low road. They assigned that excellent young novelist and West Point graduate Lucian K. Truscott IV to thread the Hollywood maze. He did his best—but West Point and the army are not much use when it comes to reading audits. Truscott heard all the old rumors, including the perennial one that organized crime and the movie business have often had carnal, as it were, knowledge of one another. Although there is probably a good deal of truth in this, one must first discover an authentic smoking gun. Truscott’s piece, according to Mr. McClintick, “was strewn with falsehoods, large and small.” Old Charles Allen was labeled “The Godfather of the. New Hollywood”; a photograph of crime lord Meyer Lansky was published—and, of course, there was Begelman.
“Word on the article was beginning to circulate, the price of Columbia’s stock was plummeting, and at noon Friday, the New York Stock Exchange stopped trading the stock because an influx of sell orders had made orderly trading impossible.” When it comes to mischief, never underestimate the power of The New York Times. But, for once, the Times had met its match. “That afternoon, Allen & Company announced publicly that it would sue The New York Times for $150 million for publishing false and defamatory statements…. Three months later, after elaborate negotiations between lawyers for the two sides, The New York Times found it necessary to publish perhaps the most elaborate retraction, correction, and apology in the history of major American newspapers up to that time.” There is an obscure footnote to the effect that a Mr. Abe Rosenthal identified as the executive editor of the paper, was away at the time that the piece was published. Social notes from all over.
In due course, Begelman left Columbia. Then Hirschfield departed after he was caught trying secretly to get Sir James Goldsmith to buy Columbia away from the Allens—the sort of behavior that is bound to make irritable your average sunken-eyed employer. Although Hirschfield had always denied that the wanted to leave New York for Hollywood, he indeed went to Hollywood, in a big way; currently, he is head of production at Twentieth Century Fox. Meanwhile, Columbia, Stark, Allen and Company continue to prosper; and so it goes…. Hollywood is what it is.
Traditionally, bad writers like to take fierce Moral Stands. They depict their characters in the blackest of black and the whitest of white. Ostensibly, Mr. McClintick is cleaning out the Augean Stables of the Republic. He will give us the low-down about Hollywood (all that money, all those movie stars!), a glittering cancer that is munching away at the very heart of what is, after all—in the immortal phrase of a writer very much like Mr. McClintick, Spiro Agnew—the greatest nation in the country. But, surely, the author knows that Hollywood is no more corrupt than Detroit or Washington. This is a nation of hustlers and although it is always salutary to blow the whistle on the crooks, it is hard to see, in this particular case, just what all the fuss is about. Begelman’s forgeries are psychologically interesting—but hardly worth a book when we still know so little about the man. The loyalty of the board of directors to Begelman could be interpreted as just that; hence, something rather rare in Hollywood. In any case, it was the board that notified the SEC; called in the auditors; let Begelman, finally and messily, go. Hirschfield’s problems with Herbert Allen, Jr., belong to the realm not of morality but of the higher hustlerdom and we know, at a glance, what makes him run.
The implicit moral of Indecent Exposure (thus, irony spits back) is not the story that the book tells but the book itself as artifact, the work of a writer who believes that he can take real people and events and remake them, as it were, in his own image. Worse, he is so filled with an odd animus toward most of his characters that he repeats accusations that he knows to be untrue so that he can then recant them, slyly, in footnotes to the text. If the “finest libel lawyer in America” told the writer that he could get away with this sort of hit-and-run tactic, I can only defer to what is, after all, a superior knowledge of our republic’s greasy laws; but as “an astute editorial critic” he should have advised the creator to forget all about instructing us in what Mr. McClintick refers to “as the lessons of power and arrogance” (which he is in no position either to learn or to apply), and simply tell the truth as far as the truth can ever be determined. This is what used to be known as journalism, an honorable trade, as demonstrated thirty years ago by Lillian Ross in her book Picture where she recorded, in deadly detail, only what she herself had seen and heard at MGM during the making of The Red Badge of Courage. The result was definitive; and the really “real” thing.
September 23, 1982