WITH THE EXCEPTION of the McCarthy witch hunt, the public face of Hollywood had never before seemed as Republican as it did on the night of January 19, 1981. The scene was the ball celebrating the next day’s inauguration of America’s first “Hollywood” president, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Reagan had been California’s first Hollywood governor. His way had been paved by the state’s first Hollywood senator, song-and-dance man (and, incongruously, Yale man) George Murphy. Reagan in turn would pave the way for California’s second Hollywood governor, strong-and-death man Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both Murphy and Schwarzenegger were, coincidentally, also Republicans.
But that was California, which was on the cutting edge, and this was America, which for all its fascination with the silver screen was always wary of liberal, Jewish, bleeding-heart, foreign-seeming, and overwhelmingly Democratic Hollywood. Ronald Reagan had overcome the country’s prejudices by repackaging himself as the nativist, conservative, Knute Rockne, All American version of the Hollywood dream. He was the pioneer, and the master, of channeling celebrity for right-wing political purposes, just as John F. Kennedy had done it for liberal ones, albeit without having been a member of the Screen Actors Guild, of which both Reagan and Murphy had been president.
A major sign of the new times was that Reagan’s inaugural gala was being staged by the same man who had staged JFK’s glamorous kickoff exactly twenty years before, none other than Frank Sinatra. In 1961, Ol’ Blue Eyes, who at forty-five wasn’t all that old at the time, assembled a dream team of superstars to create the very first Hollywood inaugural. He had everyone from Sir Laurence Olivier to Louis Prima, Bette Davis to Keely Smith, Fredric March to Milton Berle, not to mention a phalanx of black talent that included Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier. The most conspicuously absent black superstar was Sinatra’s fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr., who had been barred from the event by Big Daddy Joe Kennedy for marrying the Aryan Swedish goddess May Britt. Even Democrats had their limits. Now Ol’ Blue had become Ol’ Red, a Republican converso. With his new affiliation came a new appellation, Chairman of the Board, more appropriate to his new political party and to his seniority of sixty-five years. To Kennedy he brought Mahalia Jackson; to Reagan he brought Mister T.
Bloated and crowned with one of the worst toupees in a lifetime of cover-ups, the superstar introduced the television star of The A-Team, who looked like a psychedelic version of a sommelier in Brazzaville. In a foreshadowing of Reaganomics, Sinatra quipped that “if he decides to melt down all his gold chains, he could wipe out the national deficit.” Mister T bowed to Mister S and recalled that he had last been to the White House to play Santa Claus for Jimmy Carter, and now he was back. “Where else but in America,” he exulted, “can a black man from the ghetto play a white man from the North Pole?” He brought down the house of millionaires.
The big evening, held in a basketball arena in Landover, Maryland, home of the Washington Bullets, was like an extended television special, a middling night on Ed Sullivan. Johnny Carson co-emceed with Sinatra, but he wasn’t swinging for the fences. There was Rich Little, a Republican favorite for his impressions of Richard Nixon, who was surely having the last laugh tonight, though not here. There were Donny and Marie Osmond and Debby Boone and Mel Tillis, the stuttering country singer who had turned his impediment into stardom.
In addition to Mister T, there were numerous other awkward nods to black power, Republican style: Donny Osmond tried, in vain, to channel Chuck Berry by not quite duckwalking the stage and singing “Ronnie B. Goode.” Charley Pride channeled Hank Williams, after expressing his deep gratitude to “Miz Nancy” for inviting a poor Delta boy to this Holy Land. Ben Vereen, channeling Stepin Fetchit, put on a kind of minstrel show, covering his visage with a seemingly superfluous layer of blackface while singing (cringe) “Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee.”
The only duplication from the Kennedy gala was Ethel Merman, unsinkable at seventy-three and way above and beyond party, belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Old Hollywood was represented, sparsely, by Charlton Heston, channeling Moses; by Bob Hope, still game at seventy-eight; and by James Stewart, then seventy-three, who had become a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Stewart stood proudly beside a real supergeneral, Omar Bradley, at eighty-seven the last of the five-star commanders. Dean Martin was in the front row, drunk. The press was not kind. One critic compared the show to Hee Haw (meow).
Here, in all its Republican lack of glory, was Hollywood taking over Washington. But whose Hollywood was it, anyway? Not the New Hollywood of Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola, whose blockbusters were the only hope of rescuing a moribund feature film industry. Those auteurs were all Democrats, as were the so-called baby moguls, a bunch of ex–student radicals turned studio executives who were green-lighting offbeat fare like Animal House and Airplane!
No, the Hollywood that conquered Washington was the Hollywood of the second chance, the Hollywood of television, which was the new cash cow of entertainment. Look at Reagan himself. A basic B-actor turned TV presence was now commander in chief. It was big-time for Bonzo. The same thing was happening in the entertainment business: TV was taking over. B-actors and -actresses, finding themselves irrelevant on the big screen—which was itself in danger of becoming irrelevant unless it became even bigger—were getting remarkable resurrections on the small. Television was the reanimator. What F. Scott Fitzgerald had written about there being no second acts in American life was totally wrong. TV was the miracle. Ronald Reagan was Exhibit A.
The hunky heartland sportscaster had beaten long odds once to get a Warner Brothers contract, but then, despite entering the movie lexicon as “the Gipper,” he never became the Gable-level star he wanted to be, ending up on the tube in Death Valley Days. Furthermore, he was eclipsed, if not emasculated, by his first wife, Jane Wyman, who had won an Oscar for Johnny Belinda in 1948 at a time when Ronnie could barely get a role and ended up co-starring with a monkey. They divorced that year. Wyman, like her ex, would wind up on television on her own show, Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre, and ultimately on Falcon Crest, where she, too, was resurrected and won a Golden Globe.
Not even television could salvage the career of Nancy Reagan, who had re-created herself as a Republican social lioness. Quickly rebounding from Wyman, Reagan had remarried, in 1952, Nancy Davis, a Chicago society girl and a Smith College Seven Sister who had her own insuperable struggles in the thespian game. Before marrying security and class in her stepfather, a prominent if fanatic right-wing neurosurgeon, Nancy’s mother, Edith, was a struggling actress herself, who had abandoned Nancy to her sister so she could go on the road and chase her dream, which Nancy also inherited.
Using her mother’s showbiz connections, Nancy was able to get a screen test through Benny Thau, MGM’s resident casting gatekeeper and master of the quid pro quo. How much quid Nancy had to surrender for Benny’s quo cannot be known, but they did go out a lot. In the end, it came to naught but a few minor roles. Nancy was coming into the business in the early 1950s, a time when gentlemen preferred blond bombshells like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. No match for Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint in the social ice goddess department, Nancy was dismissed as a poor man’s Dina Merrill. Ironically, the best Dina Merrill, the genuine Post Toasties heiress, could do was marry Cliff Robertson, the man who played JFK (in PT 109), while Nancy’s husband would succeed JFK and make Nancy, the lost lady of Hollywood, the First Lady of America. The country liked comebacks and they liked winners, and the Reagans were providing it in spades.
Frank Sinatra had long ago made his comeback, from washed-up singer of novelty ditties with dogs (“Mama Will Bark”) to 1954 Oscar winner in From Here to Eternity. Now he was making his turnaround. No one could have ever been a bigger and better Democrat than the underdog, up from nothing Italian Hoboken crooner and civil rights champion whose mother, Dolly, had been a ward heeler. Sinatra liked to take credit, among his friends, for having done more to get his buddy John F. Kennedy elected (as well as laid) than anyone except maybe Sam Giancana, who was said to have “fixed Chicago” for JFK. Ah, that toddlin’ town.
But what one Kennedy giveth, another taketh away. Bluestocking Bobby, as much as he might have liked Marilyn Monroe, whom he had met through Sinatra, couldn’t stand the stain of Ol’ Blue’s gangland ties, particularly with Giancana. Although Sinatra had redecorated his Palm Springs estate to turn it into JFK’s informal western White House, Bobby put the nix on his brother’s travel plans and arranged for John to stay instead chez Bing Crosby. Crosby was Sinatra’s idol as well as his rival, and the unkindest cut of all was that he was also a Republican. Then again, so were a lot of stars, and not just John Wayne. Many of the giants were Republicans—Gable, Grant, Stewart, Mitchum, Holden, Hudson, plus Crosby’s Road partner, Hope, and Lucy and Desi, and even Elvis the King.
The great moguls who built the studios, Warner, Mayer, Goldwyn, despite their immigrant roots, had all eventually become Republicans. Ronald Reagan himself had been a Democrat until 1962. Then he switched, and he quickly rose to governor. Sinatra had always looked down on Reagan as tedious, boring, and second-rate, a classic “B.” This was no star; there was no shine. Nor did Sinatra have lust in his heart for Nancy, which was rare for the serial Lothario. He had made fun of her fat ankles, which were no match for the magnificent gams of his almost wife, South African dancer Juliet Prowse. Now Nancy was the First Lady of California, and where was Juliet Prowse? Ronnie had begun a trajectory that would make him the biggest star in the world. The list of Republicans, and the success of Reagan, was enough to get Sinatra thinking.
Sinatra thought even harder in the aftermath of his humiliating 1968 breakup with hippie Mia Farrow, who was rumored by gossip queen Rona Barrett to have cuckolded the master by having an affair with his long-term black servant, George Jacobs. Sinatra equated hippies—who were not buying his records, like “Something Stupid”—with Democrats, and as for Black Power, he fired Jacobs for seeming to have taken it a step too far. Jacobs denied the whole non-affair.
The Farrow divorce sent Sinatra careening to the opposite end of the romantic spectrum. He began to pursue the recently widowed Edie Goetz, as daughter of Louis B. Mayer the most eligible woman in Hollywood and acknowledged by all to be the film industry’s hostess with the mostest, the preeminent party giver for celebrity Democrats (despite the fact that Daddy was a Republican). Wags in show business immortalized her by paraphrasing the showstopper from Damn Yankees: Whatever Edie wants, Edie Goetz. No matter that Goetz was a good decade older than her pursuer, a man who was three decades older than Farrow. She had class, and she was the ultimate in the Establishment that Sinatra had longed to belong to all his life. Alas, Goetz mocked his courtship. “I don’t date the help,” she declared, deflating the famous heartthrob.
It wasn’t long after this rejection that the man who was supposed to be able to get any woman on earth found himself in the less vaunted arms of the ex-showgirl ex of Zeppo Marx, the Marx Brothers’ straight man who later became a talent agent. Sinatra also found himself arm in arm with his new best friend in politics, Vice President Spiro Agnew. Having fled the Farrovian love children and longhairs of the Sunset Strip for the Lacosted golfers of Palm Springs, Sinatra became part of a billionaire party circuit dominated by Walter Annenberg (heir to the Daily Racing Form) and Armand Deutsch (heir to Sears, Roebuck), who would both become key members of Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet.” President Eisenhower’s obsession with golf had put Palm Springs on the Republican map. This was Valhalla for rich conservatives, and some of its political stardust must have rubbed off on its still preeminent celebrity, Mister S, the one even the billionaires were in awe of, Edie Goetz notwithstanding.
That billionaires would envy (indeed, covet) show business stars was a sign of the times. With the launch of People magazine in the mid-seventies, and CNN in 1980, America was entering its never-ending age of celebrity, with television serving as both the cause and the effect. Although there were far fewer, and far worse, movies than ever before, there were more celebrities than ever. The bar for a star had been lowered but the audience vastly expanded. It was hard to compare Erik Estrada with Cary Grant, or Farrah Fawcett-Majors with Katharine Hepburn, but the legions of TV fans in the seventies dwarfed the number of movie fans in the forties, and they loved their idols just as ardently, and even more profitably for the advertisers of their shows.
It was also the dawning of the age of money. In 1980, the Whitney Museum bought Jasper Johns’s Three Flags for $1 million, the first time a living artist had hit seven figures. The commerce of art, whether that art be painting or music or film, became more interesting to the public than the art itself. The 1958 hit and classic of the year Bridge on the River Kwai had a then whopping annual domestic gross of $18 million. Two decades later, Star Wars grossed more than $200 million in America alone, not to mention the vast foreign market. The numbers became the news, and the public began following the business of culture as much as if not more than the reviews.
Aside from the blockbuster “event” movies like Jaws, what the fans of the era seemed to like most of all were soap operas, particularly the nighttime ones. Dallas, which was a monster hit, was replicated by Dynasty and Falcon Crest and Knots Landing. Dynasty had its debut just following the Reagan inaugural. Its creator, Aaron Spelling, became the Cecil B. DeMille of the small screen simply by giving a huge and vicarious public an à clef and only slightly racier and more florid (though in some cases much tamer) version of the lives of the Reagan kitchen cabinet who were Spelling’s real-life neighbors in Holmby Hills and other Southfork-like estates throughout Greater Los Angeles. Low art was imitating high life, with spectacular ratings, both for the low artists and the high livers.
No viewer of Dallas, even in Dallas, could have been more obsessed with the real-life soap opera that was Hollywood than the tycoons and trophy wives of Reagan’s kitchen cabinet. For all their social triumphs and business successes and political clout, an inordinate number of the group had been, earlier in their lives when failures become indelible, failed producers or failed starlets, like Nancy Reagan herself, as well as Nancy’s mother. Ronnie’s daughter by Jane Wyman, Maureen, had sought the screen, too, acting with Elvis in Kissin’ Cousins. And now Nancy’s daughter, Patti, was trying to become an actress. And son Ron wanted to be a ballet dancer. The beat went on and on, the endless wail of the show business siren.
Because of the way one’s ego is put on the line, Hollywood dreams seem to die hardest of all. The “kitchen” group, who would be running interference for the Gipper in running the country, had a huge amount of unfinished business in Hollywood. They simply couldn’t get over the place, and their deep-seated, unspoken obsession with the world of entertainment would, in the decade ahead, become a communicable virus that would infect the entire nation, and the world, in a way that showbiz, for all its magic, had never done before. How different these people were from their predecessors, the peanut farmers from Georgia. And how the public was delighting in living through the glamorous lives of this new First Family and their First Friends. After Jimmy Carter, the country was being born again, in the most secular way.
Take Alfred Bloomingdale, husband of Betsy B, Nancy Reagan’s best friend and style icon. Despite his family’s fame in retailing in their eponymous New York emporium, and despite his having made his own name as chairman of the Diners Club credit card colossus, what Alfred Bloomingdale really wanted to do was be a producer, which is exactly what he set out to do after flunking out of Brown in 1938. He had all the obvious qualifications: he was rich, connected, grandiose, extravagant, tall, dapper, and obsessed with beautiful women. He was made for the movie business, but Broadway got its hooks into him first. Holding court at the Stork Club, which he used as his preliminary casting couch, Alfred began producing flops. His first, Your Loving Son, closed after three performances; his fourth, Sweet Charity (no relation to the later Bob Fosse hit), closed after eight. A witty script doctor of the time, called in to rescue another of Alfred’s efforts, suggested that Alfred close the show and keep the store (Bloomie’s) open nights.
But Alfred’s pockets were too deep and his libido too stoked to let him give up. He decided to cut to the chase, which was his main motivation in any event, and focus on musical revues, where he could cast the most leggy chorines. He did High Kickers with George Jessel, where he met his first wife, a chorus girl named Barbara Brewster; then Early to Bed, which actually had a good score by Fats Waller; and finally, in 1943, a minor hit revival of the Ziegfield Follies. But Alfred’s glory was short-lived. His next extravaganza, Allah Be Praised, set in a Persian harem, was such a total disaster that it drove Alfred, whose flop marriage had lasted barely longer than his flop shows, completely out of town, to Hollywood and the waiting arms of ogre mogul Harry Cohn. Cohn, one of the seminal figures in sexual harassment, saw a kindred spirit in Alfred and offered the heir an office on Cohn’s Columbia lot.
Hollywood proved to be an even tougher nut to crack than Broadway. Alfred couldn’t get a single movie off the ground. He did, however, find a wife, another tall chorine type and wannabe actress (who in L.A. was not?) named Betty Lee Newling. Exactly Alfred’s type, Betty Lee, who was the daughter of an Australian-born, Harvard-trained orthodontist to the stars, had expectedly great teeth as well as great legs. She had been living the fast life on the Hollywood circuit, having been one of Gloria Vanderbilt’s bridesmaids at her eyebrow-raising wedding to Hollywood agent-stud Pat DiCicco, who had a second, darker life as the right hand/black hand of supermobster Lucky Luciano. DiCicco was also the first cousin of producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who would later bring the world the James Bond series. The Hollywood world was small and infinitely surprising, and Betty Lee wanted in desperately. She got her big break when she was introduced to Alfred by Freddy De Cordova, who would go on to great fame as Johnny Carson’s producer on The Tonight Show. But when he befriended Alfred, Freddy was a director of B pictures, most notable of which was Bedtime for Bonzo, starring Ronald Reagan and the chimp.
Betty Lee’s parents had done their best to take their daughter out of the loop of Hollywood temptation. They had sent her to the most exclusive finishing school in town, the no-Jews, no-stars Marlborough. From there they sent her east to horsey Bennett Junior College up the Hudson in Millbrook, New York, where proper young ladies were prepared less for careers than for their debuts. Nonetheless, Betty Lee remained hell-bent on getting into pictures, but, alas, even with those legs and those teeth, and all her dad’s connections, she still couldn’t get a studio contract. There was no other option but to marry a millionaire, and fortunately, Freddy De Cordova, who couldn’t get her a part even in his lowest B pic, put her in romantic harm’s way. Alfred fell hard and fast for Betty Lee and quickly proposed. In a trade-off, he converted from his neglected Judaism to his new bride’s Catholicism, while Betty changed her name to Betsy, which Alfred found to be less rustic and plus chic. The new Mrs. B also gave up her thespian ambitions. The would-be Hollywood star would have to be content to be a Hollywood wife. Arguably she would become the Hollywood wife of her generation.
Jackie Collins would have been hard-pressed to conjure up the tribulations Alfred put Betsy through. Once a player, always a player, Alfred was a mainstay of the many madams who thrived in the film capital. Even before the expression “MAW” (model actress whatever) was coined, everyone knew that the oldest profession was actually the only profession, or means of support, for the countless homecoming queens and beauty pageant winners who came west only to have their celluloid dreams dashed on the cold, closed gates of Fox and Paramount and Universal. One of these MAWs, Vicki Morgan, a towering blond inferno who for a while had been in the globe-trotting harem of rogue financier Bernie Cornfeld, so entranced Alfred in submitting to his ever-escalating Felliniesque S&M orgies that she became his main mistress for over a decade, the very decade where Alfred’s support was key in putting Ronald Reagan in the Governor’s Mansion and then the White House.
Vicki was tall and leggy, just like Alfred’s two wives. Alfred looked for the same qualities in his mistresses that he did in his wives, minus the inhibitions that come with being a permanent trophy like Betsy. Alfred paid Vicki over $20,000 a year, which was a major payday in the 1970s, though he always held out the vastly bigger payday of his leaving Betsy and making an honest woman out of Vicki. Then, in his mid-sixties, Alfred, a heavy drinker and smoker, got esophageal cancer and died, leaving Betsy to fight off one of the most embarrassing palimony suits Hollywood’s top divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson ever filed.
Betsy had thought the height of embarrassment came in 1976, when she was arrested and convicted of a felony for deceiving customs officials by seriously undervaluing two Christian Dior dresses at Los Angeles International Airport en route from Paris, all to save about $600. The rich are indeed different. That contretemps was nothing compared with the Vicki Morgan scandal-fest. In the midst of Mitchelson’s suit, seeking $5 million in lifetime payments to Vicki from Betsy herself, word began circulating that Vicki had a cache of sex tapes that featured not only Alfred but other august fellow Reagan right-wingers participating in S&M orgies with other nubile MAWs—ménages à droit, so to speak—that could bring down any house, including the White House. While Nancy and her court of rich, perfect, but aging blond socialites were at the Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills having lunch, Alfred and his multimillionaire golf buddies were allegedly somewhere very, very far off the course. This was the real Hollywood, the Hollywood Babylon of Confidential magazine, trying to smash through the Reagans’ very un-Hollywood prim façade.
With all this getting too close for Republican comfort, Vicki discovered that Mitchelson was invited for dinner at said White House. Suddenly, Vicki had to get herself another lawyer, Beverly Hills barrister Robert Steinberg, who was nowhere in Mitchelson’s big league. Still, Steinberg insisted he had the tapes, evidence that would incriminate a nation. Hustler’s Larry Flynt was offering millions for them. The gossip mills were in an overdrive that made the future Clinton-Lewinsky scandal seem like something from behind the gym at a high school prom.
The next twist in the very twisted tale found Vicki, having sold the Mercedes and baubles Alfred had bought her, taking in a roommate to pay for her downwardly mobile Studio City address Alfred was no longer alive to foot, a gay man named Marvin Pancoast who had met Vicki years before when both were at the same mental hospital being treated for depression. Three weeks after moving in together, Pancoast, with no prior criminal record, took a Louisville slugger and batted Vicki to death.
The tapes suddenly disappeared. Pancoast quickly confessed, was quickly convicted, and died of AIDS in prison a few years later. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, asserting that Pancoast had as much motive to kill Vicki as Jack Ruby had to kill Lee Harvey Oswald and was silenced in the clink the same way Ruby was, so that the awful political truth would never emerge. This, they screamed, was a major kitchen cabinet cover-up. The only slight justice here was a posthumous jury award of $200,000 to Vicki’s estate for money Alfred promised and never paid. The unsinkable Betsy Bloomingdale returned to the best-dressed list and a seat of honor at White House functions, and the “bad” Hollywood was successfully swept back into the celluloid closet.
The grandest of the Reagan kitchenites were the Baron and Baroness of Palm Springs, Walter and Lee Annenberg, who had one of the great French Impressionist collections in America and whose parties were considered the most lavish in the country. Spending a lot of time in L.A. for his magazine Screen Guide, the precursor of cash cow TV Guide, Walter Annenberg had also been something of a player as a young man on the make in Hollywood, but compared with Alfred Bloomingdale he was a Franciscan monk. However, Walter had his own share of scandals, especially the high-profile fall from grace of his father, Moe, who died shortly after he was released from two years in prison on tax evasion charges, and the suicide of his son, who overdosed on sleeping pills while a student at Harvard.
Moe Annenberg’s past was tainted well before his incarceration. As Chicago circulation manager for William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press, Moe was a master of using violence to outsell the competition, from beating up newsboys to burning newsstands. He later joined forces with Lucky Luciano in New York to build circulation, physically, with Mob muscle, for Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror. Eventually Moe made his own fortune with the bookie bible, the Daily Racing Form, then went legit by buying the Philadelphia Inquirer and turning it into a publishing empire. In 1939, young Walter was indicted with his father, but Moe cut a deal to plead guilty if his son was spared. Walter redeemed the family by rising from Moe’s ashes, first in the 1940s by launching Seventeen magazine, then in the 1950s with TV Guide and a chain of TV stations.
Like his dear friend Alfred Bloomingdale, Walter was an Ivy League dropout (Penn ’29). In his Hollywood-Broadway wild oats period, he romanced Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman (which, given their enduring friendship, might explain Merman’s performance at the Reagan inaugural). When Moe died, Walter settled down, wedding a retail heiress from Toronto. By 1950 that union was asunder, and Walter got back deep into the Hollywood swing by marrying showbiz royalty, Leonore “Lee” Cohn, the niece of Harry. Lee’s father, Maxwell, had been a producer at Columbia Pictures, which his brother had founded and ruled like a dictator. When Lee’s mother died young, Harry took her in and had her raised by his servants. Spoiled but not rotten, Lee studied hard and graduated from Stanford, then made a series of big-buck unions, first to Belden Katleman, the son of a parking lot king, then to Lewis Rosenstiel of the Schenley liquor dynasty, and finally to Walter.
The Annenbergs grandly divided their time between a Main Line estate in Philadelphia, a palatial ski lodge in Sun Valley, and Sunnylands, the barony in Rancho Mirage rivaled in Palm Springs lore only by the nearby Sinatra compound. This was where Richard Nixon retreated after Watergate, where Sinatra married Barbara Marx, where Prince Charles liked to spend his American weekends, and where Ronnie and Nancy would celebrate New Year’s. Nixon had appointed Walter to the plum post of ambassador to Great Britain, over the catcalls of the British press, who mocked Walter as a Jewish philistine arriviste. Walter had the senatorial look—Republican senatorial, that is—that huge money could buy. But the snooty Brits saw through the laundered façade. They looked at Walter and they saw Papa Moe. However, when Reagan appointed Lee Annenberg his first chief of protocol, no one said a word about the bona fides of this genuine Jewish American princess, who became Nancy’s role model for style and class. The English tended to revere Hollywood as they did their own royalty.
That Lee Annenberg style, that class, became one of the signatures of the Reagan era. One way to describe it would be Bistro Garden Stepford Wife. So many of the wives of Reagan’s kitchen cabinet looked so much alike—bleached blond, dieted thin, coiffed by the same hairdressers, and coutured by the same designers—that the maître d’ at the Maison Blanche in Washington, the power restaurant of the administration, kept a photographic cheat sheet at his dais so he could tell who was who. And even then he had trouble.
The style of “les girls” was an iteration of the Holiday Inn ad campaign of the period: “The Best Surprise Is No Surprise.” The Reagan look was classic country club, be it Hillcrest or LACC. They had their privileged Cal-chic Bev Hills look, their formal state dinner Washington look, their ranchy Palm Springs look. Reagan red was the color of the party, and the parties. Tinier than Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan was five four and a perpetual size 2, and her female friends toed the same thin line.
The women had all been shoppers in their youth at the Beverly Hills temple of conservative chic, Amelia Gray, a dress shop that was showcasing the work of a young Philadelphia-born, Jersey-bred, but Paris-trained Greek American designer named James Galanos. Galanos would become the Reagan world’s designer-in-residence, the “count of chiffon,” his signature fabric. While Betsy B and Lee A couldn’t live completely without their Diors and Chanels, by and large the Reagan girls anointed the L.A.-based American Republican Galanos as their main man, turning couture into an act of patriotism. They might also turn to the all-American Bill Blass, to Adolfo, who may have been Cuban born but was a U.S. citizen and a navy man to boot, or to the naturalized Oscar de la Renta. Shopping with Givenchy, Jackie Kennedy’s go-to, seemed practically un-American.
The one accessory Nancy and her clique could not do without was the “walker” Jerry Zipkin, who became both grand vizier and court jester of the First Lady and her ladies-in-waiting. Dubbed “the Social Moth” by Women’s Wear Daily, the flamboyant, effeminate Zipkin, basically John Wayne turned inside out, may not have fit the staid Republican image but was pure Hollywood, albeit of the Fred and Ginger Gay Divorcee era, not the current one of Raging Bull. Introduced to Nancy by Betsy Bloomingdale, Jerome Robert Zipkin, as a rich and privileged New Yorker, had a lot in common with Alfred Bloomingdale, except the latter’s rampant heterosexuality, though it could also be said that Jerry was infinitely more interested in women than Alfred ever was.
Jerry, who lived with his mother until she died in 1974 (he was sixty-four) in the Park Avenue apartment house built by his real estate developer father, was also an Ivy League dropout (Princeton ’36). After leaving Princeton in a cloud for shoplifting an art tome from its bookstore, Jerry finished his education at gentleman-C Rollins College in Florida, where he liked to joke that he majored in canoeing. He returned to New York, where he continued to joke that he spent the war years doing intelligence for the OSS “at the Stork Club.”
After the war, Zipkin’s father died and he began accompanying his mother on clothes- and antiques-buying sprees to Europe, where he developed the keen and ruthless eye for fashion and décor that would endear him to Nancy and company, who were nowhere as sure of their style as he was. Zipkin, as hard-core Republican as Walter Annenberg, adored Hollywood, where he became the intimate of decorator to the stars Billy Haines and the over-the-top high-camp Ross Hunter, the big producer (Imitation of Life, Pillow Talk), as well as the canasta partner of such stars as Joan Bennett, Claudette Colbert, and ZaSu Pitts, who was also a close friend of Nancy Reagan’s mother. It was just a matter of time until Jerry met Nancy, and once they did, nothing could tear them asunder.
Another of the look-alike Stepford Reagan wives and a Zipkin fan was Lee Annenberg’s best friend and fellow Jewish dream girl, Harriet Deutsch, wife of Sears heir Armand “Ardie” Deutsch. Lee owed Harriet big-time, for Harriet was the one who introduced her to Walter. Again, it was all the Hollywood six degrees of separation game. Another thwarted actress and actual fashion model, New Yorker Harriet Berk had become film-adjacent by marrying prolific B-director S. Sylvan Simon, whose biggest credits were Abbott and Costello in Hollywood and The Fuller Brush Man, starring Red Skelton. But things were looking up for Simon when Harriet befriended Lee Cohn, who introduced her to Uncle Harry. Harry took to Simon and made him producer, though not director, of the Judy Holliday comedy hit Born Yesterday. Simon might have become a major Columbia producer had he not succumbed to an untimely coronary at forty-one in 1951, which put widow Harriet back on the market.
Harriet’s own Dolly Levi was Fran Stark, wife of super-A-producer Ray Stark and daughter of comedienne Fanny Brice, whom Ray would immortalize with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. The Starks introduced Harriet to Deutsch, a playboy producer who had recently divorced his Broadway actress-dancer wife, Benay Venuta. Demonstrating comme le monde est petit, Venuta was the best friend of Walter Annenberg flame Ethel Merman, whom she had understudied as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and then co-starred with in Annie Get Your Gun. Ardie Deutsch was himself a B-producer of such forgettable A-talent fare as Ambush with Robert Taylor and Carbine Williams with James Stewart. Still, he met the stars, and he was so rich and charming that the stars were happy to come out to play with him.
Deutsch’s main claim to fame was that he was supposedly the original target of the kidnap killers Leopold and Loeb. He was spared only when his chauffeur picked him up from school for a dental appointment, forcing the plotters to kidnap and murder schoolmate Bobby Franks in his place. Deutsch never ceased to dine out on the tale. Still another Ivy League dropout (Dartmouth ’35), like Bloomingdale, Annenberg, and Zipkin, he became great friends with everyone from Bogart and Bacall to Burns and Allen, from William Holden to Jack Benny. Deutsch knew Nancy Reagan from her days as a role-seeking MGM starlet, though she and Ronnie were able to join the Deutsch A-party list only after Ronnie’s emergence as a political star.
As good as Harriet’s parties were, though, they were never considered as good as those of Edie Goetz, such as her World Series party with a television set at every table while a French chef–prepared gourmet dinner was served, or the memorable occasion when she introduced Mae West to Greta Garbo. Harriet and Edie were superficially effusive but fierce rivals, even if their husbands were best friends and business partners in financial ventures. Unlike the rest of the Reagan entourage, the Deutsches, like the Goetzes, were staunch Democrats. Eventually, Ronnie got so successful that it would have been unseemly, if not un-American, for the Deutsches not to switch parties.
Lest one think that for a Jew to be in Reagan’s inner circle, he had to be a major heir, like Bloomingdale, Annenberg, or Deutsch, look at Charles Z. Wick. Wick was totally self-made, including having Scrabbled the letters of his original name Zwick, changing the Z to a middle initial to make himself seem more WASPy. Wick, who held degrees in both music and law, had begun his career doing band contracts for Tommy Dorsey. He worked in New York as a William Morris agent, representing Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee, then moved to California, where he made his first serious money in a field diametrically opposite show business—nursing homes.
Flush with that elder care money, Wick tried his hand at producing. His singular film credit was the 1961 Snow White and the Three Stooges, which even the dour Reagan got a huge laugh making fun of. In fact, the tiny Wick was considered the jester of the Reagan court, entertaining the men the way Jerry Zipkin entertained the women. Wick played piano, told jokes, and flaunted his gorgeous, rangy WASP wife, Mary Jane Woods, who had come west from Minnesota to become a Goldwyn Girl but, like the rest of the Reagan wives, got no further, at least on-screen. Mrs. Wick was the actual flypaper that got her husband into the august Reagan circle.
Nancy had met Mary Jane manning a hot dog booth at a carnival for the John Thomas Dye School, a junior Eton for the Bel-Air set, where both the Wick and Reagan children were enrolled. Nancy was so captivated by Mary Jane’s charm and their shared actress roots that it was the beginning of an unlikely friendship that would see Ronald Reagan appoint Wick to the directorship of the U.S. Information Agency, making the world safe for Republicanism. The bottom line was that Ronnie was more comfortable around Wick than he was around the heirs and the tycoons. Two midwestern boys who tried to make it in pictures but made it even bigger in something else, they spoke the same language, Hollywoodese.
Ethel Barrymore had once joked that the definition of Los Angeles society was “anyone who had finished high school.” Nonetheless, Los Angeles had an impermeable WASP elite and a sharp line of demarcation drawn between show business, which was seen as “Jewish” (in the most pejorative sense), and big business, which was not. The social high temple of Hollywood society was the Hillcrest Country Club, on Pico Boulevard right behind the Fox lot, which had, as its symbol of wealth, its own working oil well. Its fifties clubhouse looked like something out of the Sinatra compound in Palm Springs. On the other side of the Fox lot was the Los Angeles Country Club, which was the big business redoubt. They didn’t need an oil well to show off. Their members, the Dohenys, the Sinclairs, and the like, had endless oil wells of their own. The clubhouse at LACC looked like Tara in Gone with the Wind, though that was about as close to showbiz as the LACC was going to get. The genius of Ronald Reagan was that in his inner circle he was able to blend the two constituencies and make them peacefully coexist. As in most things Republican, the common denominator was money, but even for the WASPs, there was also at play here an atavistic call of the Hollywood wild.
Of all the kitchen cabinet, only über–Ford dealer Holmes Tuttle and über–corporate lawyer William French Smith were defiantly untouched by the entertainment business. Tuttle, a part-Chickasaw Oklahoman farmboy, had ridden a boxcar to California in the 1920s and married a plain schoolteacher. His big Hollywood moment was having sold Ronald Reagan a car right after the war. But Tuttle never saw Reagan again until the ex-Democrat reimagined himself as a golden-tongued savior of the Right. Unlike the pure heartland Tuttles, the Smiths were American aristocrats. William French Smith was a proper Bostonian Yankee, a Mayflower descendant, and a very square Harvard man. His wife, whose family owned the city’s first lumber mill, was a third-generation Los Angelino, which is Mayflower-like in these climes.
Like Tuttle and Smith, no Reaganite could have seemed as un-Jewish and unshowbiz as the “top chef” of Reagan’s kitchen cabinet, Earle Jorgensen, except for the fact that his life was the stuff of films. The son of a Danish ship captain, Jorgensen as an eight-year-old had fled the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the safety of his father’s schooner, from where he watched the city burn. By sixteen he had sailed the South Seas and begun a scrap metal business, armed with no education but with a scrap of a magazine in his wallet with three words that would become his motto: “Hustle, that’s all.” Hustle, he did, until he became the Steel King of the West, the chief supplier of the explosive postwar Southern California aerospace business that made him a billionaire.
No vulture capitalist, Jorgensen believed in giving back. Inspired by his Danish mother’s volunteer work making bandages for the wounded in World War I, Jorgensen became a chief benefactor of the Red Cross, creating one of the world’s biggest blood banks during World War II. That charity brought him into the arms of another of its benefactors as well as the founder of “Bundles for Britain,” the ultraglamorous Marion Bren, and, indirectly, into the arms of Hollywood.
Marion Newbert herself was a Chicago industrial heiress; her Irish immigrant grandfather produced the wheels for America’s freight trains, and her own family fittingly traveled in its private railway car. Marion’s parents had moved to Los Angeles, where she attended Marlborough some classes ahead of the future Betsy Bloomingdale. She got her pilot’s license at seventeen, which shocked her family, but not as much as when she eloped with a young man who had crashed her 1930 debutante party at the Ambassador Hotel (where Bobby Kennedy was later shot by Sirhan Sirhan). The man, Milton Harold Bren, had the double whammy curse of being both Jewish and a film producer, which was terra incognita for Marlborough girls.
The son of a St. Louis dry goods salesman and grandson of a Confederate infantry captain, Bren had come to Los Angeles to star on the University of Southern California track team and then to be in the movie business. He had begun his career as Irving Thalberg’s office boy. Eventually he would produce ten undistinguished films, the best known of which was Topper Takes a Trip, a sequel to the original ghost comedy but minus its star Cary Grant. More a social lion than a mogul, Bren, an accomplished yachtsman and sailboat racer, made his big money in real estate, developing office towers. He did direct one film, the 1952 Pullman farce Three for Bedroom C, starring Gloria Swanson past her expiration date. By then Bren and Marion had divorced, and Bren had remarried actress Claire Trevor, who had won an Oscar as Edward G. Robinson’s moll in Key Largo. Trevor would share mothering duties with Marion for Marion’s two sons with Bren, the oldest of whom, Donald, had his dad’s knack for property and would become, pre-dot-com, the richest man in California, owning much of the prime real estate in booming Orange County.
After the split with Bren, Marion went on to marry insurance heir Tom Call, whose father, Asa, had teamed up with L.A. Times publisher Norman Chandler to propel Richard Nixon’s political career. When that Republican union didn’t work, Marion was game to try another, to Jorgensen, which did. They became one of the premier power couples in Southern California, as well as perhaps the most generous, to a long list of causes, from the Boy Scouts to Caltech, from gardens to hospitals. The closest Marion came to entertainment after the Bren divorce was her trusteeship of the Los Angeles Music Center and Washington’s Kennedy Center. Still, through politics, she became a key mentor to Nancy Reagan, in blondness and in chic, just as her husband was bankrolling Nancy’s husband’s run for the governorship.
The most successful actress in the Reagan political elite was Bunny Wrather, wife of real estate and TV syndication tycoon Jack Wrather. As Bonita Granville, she had been the star of the Nancy Drew girl detective series and was the only kitchen cabinet wife to get that holy of holies, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was also in a Milton Bren–produced comedy, Merrily We Live, with Constance Bennett, and she co-starred with Ronald Reagan in the 1939 Dead End Kids comedy The Angels Wash Their Faces. Such are the roots of Republicanism. Bunny was nearly the same age as Nancy and also from Chicago. Thus she was a major inspiration for the future First Lady, particularly when at thirteen she got an Oscar nomination for her role as the evil child in These Three, based on Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.
It was hard, however, for Bunny to make the transition from child star to adult one. Fortunately, her child stardom still was an aphrodisiac to Jack Wrather, a handsome oil-rich Texan marine commander who had come to play in Hollywood and produced some of her later, lesser films. He would soon make two fortunes, one in syndicating old TV shows like The Lone Ranger and Lassie and another in real estate, owning such iconic properties as the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim and the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. The Wrathers lived down the block from the Bloomingdales in Holmby Hills. It was all so cozy and clubby.
Oil exploration magnate Henry Salvatori, one of the most right-wing of the Reagan circle, also had a would-be actress wife, Grace. A young beauty from Oklahoma, Grace had won a contract with MGM that provided the sizzle that got her married. That union took her more places in her husband’s global empire than any starring screen role. Still, there was that “what if” fairy tale that haunted her, just as it haunted Nancy.
Jane Dart, wife of drugstore colossus Justin Dart, actually had a real acting career that she gave up to marry her millionaire. Warner Bros. had discovered the beauteous Jane O’Brien, an L.A. lawyer’s daughter, and took out the O, renaming her Jane Bryan when they put her under contract in 1936. She had made twenty films by the time Dart swept her off the screen in 1939, getting rave reviews opposite Bette Davis in We Are Not Alone and making new friends with her co-stars Ronald Reagan and his then wife, Jane Wyman, in the hit military school comedy Brother Rat and its sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby. Keeping the show business connection going, the Darts’ son Stephen married Linda Gosden, daughter of Freeman Gosden, the co-creator and classic voice of both Amos and Kingfish on the long-run smash radio and TV hit Amos ’n Andy, which was indirectly part of the homage to Hollywood’s golden age of racism that Ben Vereen was criticized for paying on inauguration eve.
While Sinatra was the symbol behind the big show, the actual producer of the spectacle was Charles Z. Wick, who hadn’t had so much fun, and so much publicity, since he teamed up Snow White with the Three Stooges. What Wick lacked in subtlety, he more than made up in heavy-handedness, saturating the American television audience with every second of what he viewed (as did the country) as the glory and glamour of it all. For all his days of wandering in the Hollywood wilderness, Wick had finally come up with the blockbuster that dominates every producer’s fantasies. Here was a real-life soap opera of the American Dream, about an actor who couldn’t rule Hollywood, so he comes to rule the world. Call it Mr. Reagan Goes to Washington or simply Hollywood President. Think of the trailer. It was all about comebacks, and winning, and romance, and big money and power, and rich twisted friends, and rebellious children, and the most conspicuous consumption since Marie Antoinette. Plus, and the biggest plus of all, patriotism.
It was way beyond Frank Capra and way beyond Dallas. It was also higher concept than the soon-to-come Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and other blockbuster franchises that would create a new generation of brash, hustling, shameless moguls who would make the Goldwyns and the Mayers spin in their marble mausoleums. Just as television gave new life, and endless power, to Ronald Reagan, these bad-boy wild-men impresarios, aided by a Reagan-spawned, movie-mad, and equally shameless Wall Street, would supercharge a crumbling feature film business to an undreamed-of bottom line. Hollywood would become Moneywood, but at a cost of its art and soul.
Copyright © 2012 by William Stadiem