The most important fact to remember about Joseph Gamsky, other than his conviction for murder in the first degree and subsequent sentence to life imprisonment in the California penal system, is that during the mid-1970s he was a high school debater. Gamsky, in fact, was so confident of his ferocious forensic skills that, according to Randall Sullivan’s account in The Price of Experience, he was thrown off the debating squad after challenging his coach for not appointing him to the team captaincy he regarded as his by merit; the coach’s decision, he argued, was a deliberately ignominious slight that could not be countenanced.
This dust-up occurred at the Harvard School in the San Fernando Valley, at that time the best known of the private preparatory schools catering to the male children of well-to-do Los Angeles families. An Episcopalian military institution when it was founded near the turn of the century, Harvard for years had an implicit quota system that effectively limited the number of Jewish admissions. Then deep into the l960s, the military affiliation was eliminated, secularism encouraged, and quiet signals of acceptability were sent to the largely Jewish show-business community on the West Side of Los Angeles. Harvard remained the sort of school, however, where the apocryphal was accepted as fact; students were said to light their cigarettes with hundred-dollar bills, and it was claimed that a mother once drove her Rolls-Royce onto the football field to remove her injured son.
Joseph Gamsky was a scholarship student of ambiguous sexuality and a family background he preferred to keep mysterious. He took the bus to school, unlike most of his classmates, who arrived in their own cars, not a few of which were top of the line foreign models. After the failure of his debating team putsch, Gamsky maintained that he could no longer apply to Yale or Stanford, his early choices, because he did not wish to matriculate with the kind of people he had met at the Harvard School. When he graduated in 1977, he went to the University of Southern California, a school better known for its football team and Heisman Trophy winners (O.J. Simpson being the most prominent) than for academic excellence. One semester into his sophomore year, Gamsky dropped out of USC, never to return.
Then, in the spring of 1980, he ran into two Harvard School acquaintances, Dean Karny and Arben (“Ben”) Dosti, both of whom were studying at UCLA. Gamsky, now a six-foot-five-inch beanpole, had not lost the gift of gab that had served him so well as a school debater, or his flair for inventive personal aggrandizement. He told Karny and Dosti he had graduated from USC in three semesters, had been the youngest person ever to pass the CPA exam, was working in an accountancy firm in downtown Los Angeles, and had uncovered in his spare time the key to mastering the commodities market. If Gamsky was not exactly truthful, neither were his fabrications the kind Karny and Dosti, partners in gullibility, were apt to check, since his distortions appeared to open a door into a high-stakes world of easy money that they themselves might enter. The wait-your-turn habits of business were not for him, Gamsky told his friends, because senior executives were “threatened by an intelligent presence in the corporate structure.” Youth was not wasted on the young, Gamsky seemed to be saying, youth was risk, and risk was where the money was.
It was a debater’s rap, and what made it interesting was the way it enticed not just Gamsky’s contemporaries but also their parents, who saw him as an invigorating influence on their sons. He did not do drugs or booze nor did he seem particularly interested in getting laid; his eye was just fixed on the main chance. He had an investment theory, and if no one quite understood it, no matter; his chat suggested so much candlepower that those who heard him harbored no doubts that he could pull off what he said he would pull off, whatever it was. Putting their capital to work was how he phrased it, with yield curves and overlapping spreads and cross-indexed market plays permitting him to adjust loss to the point of non-existence.
The parents of his friends swallowed this patter and pressed money on him, fifty thousand dollars into his trading account here, one hundred and fifty there, another hundred and a half from that bunch in Ohio somebody knew. With a nest egg of over $700,000, Joe Gamsky was able to lease a seat to trade on Chicago’s Mercantile Exchange. Like Minnesota’s Jimmy Gatz, who reinvented himself as Jay Gatsby, Joe Gamsky decided to class up his name, and re-emerged legally as Joseph Hunt. The reason he gave for this cosmetic name surgery was that his father, Larry Gamsky, a small-time New Age confidence man turned shill and servitor for Joe, had decided to become Ryan Hunt, and it was useful for a son to share the same name as his father. Joe Hunt was twenty years old.
In The Price of Experience: Power, Money, Image, and Murder in Los Angeles, Randall Sullivan tries not just to show the reasons for the downward trajectory of Joe Hunt’s subsequent life, but also to find in that life a parable about the go-go years of the Reagan kakistocracy, as if Ronald Reagan, the Harvard School, and some louche quality in Los Angeles itself bore a measure of responsibility for the wreckage Hunt left in his wake. In truth, Joe Hunt appears to have been an arrogantly stupid young man whose true talent was for video board games, a discipline he called, with his gift for rhetorical flourish, “mental calisthenics.” Hunt’s putative braininess was essentially a misreading of his debating skills. A debater scores points, and in Hunt’s case, this ability has been taken not just by Sullivan but by most commentators on the case as a sign of his superior intelligence. But while Hunt could talk the talk, he never learned to walk the walk. In the 1980s, when it was virtually impossible to lose money in the markets, Hunt went bust in every single venture, even when he was propping himself up by lying, extorting, and stealing. And when he twice resorted to homicide in an effort to bail himself out of financial ruin, he screwed murder up as well.
Chicago set the pattern, but the first communiqués of his progress could have been construed as promising. If Joe Hunt did not actually encourage the notion that he was related to Herbert and Nelson Bunker Hunt, the Texans who had nearly cornered the silver market earlier that year, neither did he actively discourage it. He reported back home that he was earning 40 percent on the money entrusted to his care and that he was regarded as the new trading genius of the Mercantile Exchange. His assets, in his telling, grew to fourteen million dollars, with the sky the limit.
Eight months after his arrival in Chicago, however, Joe Hunt called Dean Karny and reported that he was tapped out, and that the $14 million was down the drain. His version was that he had been a victim of Mercantile Exchange politics, that his youth and disdain for his elders were red flags to other traders. He claimed to have been set up by “strong and malicious forces”; his trading theories, however, had been validated and his legend on the floor remained intact. Left out of this fanciful soliloquy was the fact that the Merc was investigating him both for shady trading practices and for trying to cover his tracks by counterfeiting fraudulent statements. Pressed by investigators, he lied not for advantage, it seemed to them, but for the sheer exhilaration of lying. The investigation led first to Hunt’s suspension and then to his expulsion from the Mercantile Exchange.
Back in Los Angeles, and unapologetic for his misadventures at the Merc, Joe Hunt could still bend ears, and he found willing listeners in Dosti and Karny and a circle of their affluent friends who regarded nine-to-five employment as a kind of death. The Chicago catastrophe, Hunt said, was just a pit stop on the road to riches. The old could not be trusted, forget them, fear was too significant a component in their makeup. Hunt’s ideal situation was a trading group of like-minded young men, preferably with rich parents, men who took to the idea of risk with reward. He would call his group the BBC, after a singles hangout in Chicago, the Bombay Bicycle Club, but in keeping with the grandiosity of the Eighties, its callow twenty-something membership began referring to the BBC as the Billionaire Boys Club, and the name stuck.
Hunt also had a philosophy; he called it the Paradox Philosophy, and stripped to its essentials, it was “Black is white, white is black, and all is shades of gray between.” Traditional values were dangerous, and Hunt called those who believed in them “Normies.” The Normies’ agenda was life within limitations, a circumscribed existence that sucked “pure consciousness” out of those around them, especially their young. Failure was never your fault, it was always the fault of someone else. Emotions were irrational; better to look at something, study it, then decide how to feel. “Never feel sorry for anything you do” was one of Joe Hunt’s liberating aphorisms, and “It’s alright to lie if you know the truth.”
“Paradox” was a kind of bush-league Nietzsche calculated to appeal to rich, feckless kids who wanted big returns for little work. The May twins, connected to the May Company department store chain, joined the BBC, as did the son of Donald Bren, the billionaire Orange County real estate developer. These were names that attracted investors not overly concerned with the IQs of the youthful BBC members (one of the Mays described himself in a letter as “a student in the patroliam energnearing school at USC”), and the money began to roll in. In reality, BBC was a giant Ponzi scheme, with Hunt robbing Peter to pay Paul. He would acquire a company, strip it of its assets, load it with debt, then move on. Several potential suckers were as legally compromised as Hunt himself, and deluded enough to believe that they, in fact, were fleecing the fleecer.
Trading only one dollar in three, Hunt used the rest to finance the spending habits of his BBC associates, who liked fast cars, fast women, and fast money. He gave new members copies of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Machiavelli’s The Prince, but his primary teaching aid was a video of Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood, the original Rambo film. Hunt would regularly screen First Blood in the BBC conference room and then ask his confederates where Rambo first lost his advantage; according to Hunt, it was when Rambo did not kill a child Hunt himself said he would have killed to escape capture. “If I wanted to reduce the motives of the BBC to a single sentence,” one penitent member would observe later, “I’d say, ‘Being able to get into the Hard Rock Cafe without waiting in line.”‘
It is poetic justice that Joe Hunt was brought down not by financial watchdogs put on his trail by angry investors, but by an even more consummate con artist than he, a former funeral parlor embalmer and dance instructor named Ron Levin. Born Ron Glick in Cleveland, Levin was variously known around Beverly Hills, where he cultivated show business contacts, as Presley Reed, M.D., R. Michael Wetherbee, Esq., Dr. Robert Levin, and Ronnie Rothschild, a renegade scion of the banking family. Ostentatiously gay, Ron Levin lived in a Beverly Hills apartment that resembled a seraglio, with Chinese rugs, Persian carpets, raw silk couches, and Fabergé eggs. Levin liked to regale would-be marks with stories of macho studs he knew in the entertainment industry who were actually in the closet, and about famous women who had had nose jobs, tummy tucks, and breast implants. He claimed an IQ of 186, a figure that particularly impressed Joe Hunt because it was higher than he said his own was. When Ron Levin proposed putting five million dollars into the BBC commodities account, Hunt jumped at the opportunity. But Levin’s five million dollars was actually a bogus account, an incidental fact that Hunt neglected to verify. What Levin really wanted was to use the names of BBC’s rich boys to push along a shopping center scam he was running in Chicago.
When Hunt realized he had been hustled, the Paradox Philosophy kicked in, with the timely idea that even murder might be justified if it served a higher need. The higher need in this instance was the money Hunt proposed to extort from Levin under threat of death. How much Levin was actually worth was another thing Hunt forgot to verify, but Hunt’s plan, once he forced Levin to sign his assets over to the BBC, was to kill him and then dump his body in a pre-dug pit in the desert. Hunt meticulously inscribed his plan on a legal pad under the heading, “At Levin’s, To Do,” after which he had jotted down fourteen points, the first three of which were: “1) Tape Mouth, 2) Close blinds, 3) Handcuff—put gloves on.” It turned out that Hunt had purchased the handcuffs at a Hollywood sex shop called the International Love Boutique. The list continued through “10) Kill dog” (the cur, named Kosher, was dear to Levin, and his death was meant to soften his master’s bravado in the event he was recalcitrant), finishing with “13) Have Levin sign agreements” and “14) Xerox everything so he has a copy.”
The operation was a disaster. In the first place, Hunt was accompanied on his murderous errand to Levin’s apartment by his bodyguard and BBC’s security chief, a black muscleman named Jim Graham whom Hunt had supplied with a new identity as a onetime member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ backfield. Graham’s real name was James Pittman, and he had a rap sheet in Virginia for receiving stolen property and flight to avoid arrest; he also had an itchy trigger finger. In another manic touch, Hunt persuaded Levin that Graham was a Mafia hit man; under this duress, Levin signed a million-and-a-half-dollar cashier’s check on a Swiss bank, after which Graham got nervous and shot him in the head. Hunt and Graham then took Levin’s corpse to the desert body dump, where Graham shotgunned his face off so he could not be identified. But even in the moments before he died, Levin had run one last hustle on Hunt, deliberately signing the check in such a way that it could not be cashed. In keeping with the Keystone Killers aspect of the crime, Hunt had also left his handwritten fourteen-point “To Do” list behind in Levin’s apartment, where it was discovered and given to the police.
Hoping to con the authorities into believing that the missing Levin had actually gone on a long-planned trip east, Hunt sent Graham to the Plaza Hotel in New York, where he used a Levin credit card to register as “Ronald George Levin.” Graham’s appearance gave pause to the assistant manager, who said later, “Levin to me is a Jewish name.” Graham was arrested after running up two thousand dollars’ worth of limousine bills on his hotel account. Neglecting Graham’s warning that “someone always talks,” Hunt convened an emergency meeting of the BBC at which he announced, “Jim and I knocked off Ron Levin.” The murder, he said, was an “act of self-preservation” in keeping with Paradox. Hunt’s assertion seems to have been viewed by his BBC cohorts as a continuing cost of doing business. “Someone suggested ordering pizza,” Sullivan writes. “The motion was seconded and passed unanimously.”
Seven weeks later, Hunt struck again, with equally bizarre results. His victim this time was an Iranian émigré named Hedayat Eslaminia, the father of a recent inductee in the BBC, Reza Eslaminia. Unknown to his new friends, Reza, who was estranged from his father, was a drug snitch in a witness protection program. Reza said that his father was a former high official in SAVAK, the Shah of Iran’s secret police, and had come out of Iran with thirty million dollars that he supplemented with opium smuggling. Hunt’s plan, code-named “Project Sam,” called for Hedayat to be kidnapped, tortured, and forced to turn over his estate to the BBC. Hedayat, in fact, was broke, reduced to shoplifting Scotch and frozen chicken dinners from a Safeway market. No matter. Hunt and his confederates, wearing United Parcel Service uniforms purchased from a costume supply store, snatched him from his condominium near San Francisco. Gagging him with a dildo bought in another Los Angeles porn shop, called The Pleasure Chest, they stuffed him in a trunk deposited in the rear of a U-Haul truck, where he suffocated to death. Eslaminia’s corpse was also dumped in the desert. In the San Francisco newspapers, the abduction was blamed on the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Hunt was ultimately arrested for the murder of Ron Levin, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison, even though Levin’s body has never been found. His trial for the murder of Hedayat Eslaminia ended in a hung jury, although Reza Eslaminia and a BBC colleague were convicted of killing Reza’s father and sent up for life. In this public, legal phase of the BBC’s history, its members began to rat on each other, as Jim Graham had warned they would, in violation of all the strictures of the Paradox Philosophy; one member disappeared into witness protection and others sold their stories to whatever publisher or television producer waved a checkbook at them.
Randall Sullivan buys into this story pretty much at face value, finding in it a perfect cautionary tale of money, greed, sex, and blood. In his urge to inflate the importance of Joe Hunt, however, Sullivan tries to make cosmic what is essentially, even with two murders, only gruesomely comic. Hunt has entertainment value as the subject of a short true-crime book, but he does not work as a bloated metaphor of the 1980s, no matter how hard Sullivan tries to pump up everything in The Price of Experience with superlatives. He treats the Harvard School as if it were Eton, or at least a West Coast version of Groton or Exeter, when it is just a so-so country day school. Sullivan’s geography of the West Side of Los Angeles is shaky (north of Sunset is fashionable, not north of Wilshire), and socially he is out of his element. One of the May twins, he says, was a member of USC’s “most elite fraternity, the Tri Delts,” which would have been a real trick, since Tri Delt, or Delta Delta Delta, is a sorority (my wife is a former Tri Delt, as is Elizabeth Dole). And his description of the charitable organization SHARE (for “Share Happily and Reap Endlessly”) as the “most exclusive women’s club in California” is seriously undercut by a list of some members: Mrs. Johnny Carson, Mrs. Sammy Davis, Jr., Mrs. Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Liza Minnelli. This is show-business exclusive, and not so exclusive at that; California and even Los Angeles exclusivity are something else altogether.
In 706 mind-numbing pages, Sullivan tries to make a case for Hunt’s presumptive brilliance both as a financial architect and as a dark intellectual presence. After working on the book for ten years, he has become a Joe Hunt groupie, in the process indulging a particularly tendentious version of the anti-Los Angeles malarkey that has come to infect much of the reporting about California life. “To live in Los Angeles for any length of time,” he writes, “was to understand” that its plague of social and natural disasters “served the function of religious rites, being all that kept the city’s inhabitants even slightly honest.” To bulwark his argument, Sullivan has tricked out his narrative with censorious allusions to the presidency of Ronald Reagan; the press kit for the book comes with a chronology of “The Reagan Era,” which is seen, in this document, as beginning in June 1976, when Reagan gave the commencement address at the Harvard School, and ending on January 25, 1995, with “Defense opening statement in O.J. Simpson trial”—six years after Reagan left office. The alleged parallels are at best a stretch and at worst offensive. On top of this, Sullivan has padded the book with breezy, irrelevant history: “It was the year California surpassed New York as the nation’s most populous state. The Beach Boys produced their first hit record that summer, ‘Surfin’ Safari.’ Diet Rite and Tab came on the market…. Valium was about to become available….”
Sullivan’s inflation of The Price of Experience is in keeping with most true-crime literature set in the West Side of Los Angeles (that part of the basin running from the Sunset Strip through Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Brentwood, and out to the Pacific Ocean). This stretch of land exerts a hold on the national imagination that is difficult to overemphasize. It is generally regarded as the temple of conspicuous consumption, an American Gomorrah whose history is writ in the television show Beverly Hills 90210. Unlike New York, where the twelve-million-dollar apartment is unseen, the West Side specializes in ostentation that is both visible and flaunted. It is a country of brand names—Testarossa, Armani, Bijan, G-5. While I was still living in Los Angeles, there was a vintage Rolls-Royce tooling around town with the license plate “2d Car”; in Holmby Hills, the châteaux can be examined from the street, even The Manor, Aaron Spelling’s $45 million, 56,500-square-foot job on South Mapleton Drive.
In a community where popular fantasy feeds into reality and vice versa, the end product, the bottom feeder in the food chain, is the what-does-it-all-mean study of one or another excess or folly. The Price of Experience is just more inflated in its pretensions than the rest of this genre, a literature that seems concocted with an eye to the inevitable miniseries or Movie of the Week (“MOW” in the local terminology). Even the most tangential witnesses retain lawyers and agents to peddle firsthand accounts to the networks and cable companies about the victims, families, servants, perversions, life styles, and alibis of the principals and hangers-on in the latest upmarket homicide. These are crimes that writers see as career-makers. In opulence, the premise seems to be, criminality must flourish, and murder is regarded as a logical byproduct of vulgarity; pull up beside the Porsche Targa at the Copa de Oro spotlight, and get the autograph of the natural born killer behind the wheel.
It is a literature with little tolerance for equivocation. Joe Hunt has to be brilliant, however great his epidemic of failure; the Simpson case has to be “the crime of the century,” replacing the previous champion, the two-night Tate-LaBianca slaughter by the Manson family in 1969; the Menendez brothers, who shotgunned their parents, Jose and Kitty, to death, had to be “Hollywood royalty,” in spite of all social and economic evidence to the contrary. Some semblance of virtue is always useful in the West Side murder métier; in death, therefore, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman had to be accorded a stature and dignity unearned, and perhaps undeserved, in life.
The Simpson case, in fact, has become the profit gusher of the genre, not least for Dove Books, a heretofore undistinguished Beverly Hills house that has become the publisher of choice for fast-buck Simpson quickies. In two volumes, Dove has even succeeded in marketing the ineffable Faye Resnick, Nicole Simpson’s self-proclaimed best friend, as someone to be admired, presumably because her cocaine habit is only thirty dollars a day, or just the occasional toot. Dove also specializes in the sexual subsection of West Side crime literature. Its latest best-seller is You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again (a title lifted from Julia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, which in turn was a play on the familiar Hollywood threat about never working in “this town” again). Love was ghosted for four West Side prostitutes named “Robin,” “Liza,” “Linda,” and “Tiffany.” Robin et al retail the bedroom idiosyncrasies and aberrations of their famous show-business johns, with coprophilia a particular favorite. Unlike Robin-Liza-Linda-and-Tiffany the tricks tend to come, as it were, with real names attached. “The Book Hollywood Will Never Forget—or Forgive,” the jacket proclaims, but what it neglects to claim is how funny it is, even if unwittingly so. “I have been told I give some of the best oral sex in Beverly Hills,” Liza reflects with matter-of-fact candor. “Technique separates the wheat from the chaff.”
On the “Acknowledgments” page that concludes The Price of Experience, Randall Sullivan reports his indebtedness to a number of sources, three of which are magazine articles, one of which is Kevin Starr’s Inventing the Dream, another of which is William Shawcross’s The Shah’s Last Ride (“Of all those books I read on the rise and fall of the Pahlevi regime in Iran, both most informative and most engaging”). Although Joe Hunt and many of the BBC principals refused his request for interviews, Sullivan reports that “Joe Hunt and I had a number of short conversations, but these were more in the nature of repartee than interrogation.”
Repartee about what? The Reagan Era?
June 20, 1996