Slowly, the room filled with my fellow classmates and all I could do was sigh when I saw the assembled group. The class was all women, the only one other man finding refuge next to me. It felt like being in a meeting at my job. I’d been asked to bring in a piece for evaluation. Seeing its prospective audience, I worried that this knitting bee of middle-aged ladies may not appreciate a story of betrayal, cocaine addiction, and a smidge of male prostitution. We’ll see next week.
You’ll recognize this old chestnut. It’s a sliver of a story; one I fear doesn’t have enough emotional resonance to be anything more than a lurid little episode from my past.
Bo Derek was at the tail-end of her corn-rowed popularity and I was twenty-four, working as the assistant to her agent, a man who’d been voted by Los Angeles Magazine for being voted the fifth worst person to work for in a business known for its histrionics and hubris. I pitied the people who worked for the first four bosses on that list. My boss, Marty, would dole out daily assaults of Dickensian abuse just for kicks, and for the amusement of anyone who happened to be listening. He’d turn remarkable shades of red, veins bulging from his freckled forehead, and he’d cuss in torrents of obscenity, spewing flecks of spittle as he spiraled into one of his tantrums.
I gradually learned to ignore him; sometimes I’d laugh, sometimes not, depending on how much cocaine I had at my disposal that day or how badly I’d bungled a particular task. There was an up side to working with Marty. He was admired for grooming some of the industry’s most successful agents, and it was a privilege to get the job after spending a year in the mailroom analyzing scripts for executives too busy or too lazy to read them. I suppose I did a good job in those early days of my career, and being a key supplier of drugs to the agents and their clients didn’t hurt, either -- not at first, at least, though my reputation sunk right after John Belushi overdosed, when cocaine was no longer considered harmless fun.
Belushi was a client of the agency, and had come in for meetings the day before he died. He was an epic wreck of a man, a pitiful lumbering grizzly bear looking like he’d just been shot with a tranquilizer dart. He hugged the walls of the hallway to steady himself as he walked; secretaries shrunk from his aimless, groping hands as he made his way from office to office until some mailroom boys were asked to escort him into his limousine. Belushi tipped them, thinking they were valet parking attendants.
I made a pathetic dealer. Most of my profits went right back up my nose. In no time, I was in debt to my supplier, completely broke, looking for a source of fast cash that didn’t involve a pawnshop or prostitution. Sometimes, I wasn’t lucky enough to find that cash fast enough and resorted to pawning my prized Cartier watch that I’d stolen through credit card fraud. Or worse, I’d call on one of a small group of generous men, who’d reward my mercenary sexuality with money that I’d snort away shortly after I’d zipped my pants back up.
In spite of her dwindling demand, Bo continued to have important directors circling her, but her husband, the faded fifties matinee idol, John Derek, would have none of that. He was thirty years Bo’s senior, wishing-upon-his-stardom on the back of his child bride. John demanded control over every aspect of her life, insisting on writing and directing her follow-up film. The resulting disaster, Tarzan, the Ape Man, was a laughable exercise in soft-core porn that had audiences giggling in all the wrong places. Marty needed to find them another project and eventually, he struck a deal with Golan/Globus, a tacky independent production company that specialized in foreign film distribution, best known as the last resort for financing.
Based on international pre-sales, Golan/Globus agreed to bankroll Bo’s next project, Bolero, an entire film John had based on the background song from his wife's only successful film. To John, whose ego was big enough to float in the Macys Day Parade, it was an inspired idea but to most who read the screenplay, it could have made eye-rolling an Olympic sport. The plot revolved around some nonsense about a young girl losing her virginity, in a period piece set in the twenties. No reputable leading man was willing to step up and take Bo's stale "virginity" on camera for any price. The task eventually fell to Andrea Occhipinti, an actor best known for being a complete unknown anywhere else outside of his native Italy, and the production began in spite of the better judgment of nearly everyone involved.
It all took a ridiculous turn one day when Bo called, in a panic, from the set in Italy. She’d heard from the on-set doctor that Occhipinti had herpes, and, given the intimate scenes they were about to film, was worried she might contract the virus. She explained the situation to Marty with a nervous giggle. I imagined her chewing her cuticle, a skittish smile creeping across her million-dollar face. When Marty finished the call, he immediately screamed for me to come into his office. As it was my habit and duty to listen in on all of Marty’s calls because he had the attention span of a young teen off his Ritalin, I would jot down deals he struck, what he said to whom, and any other information that might become important. I found myself tingly at this particular piece of gossip.
"Get me Begin," he barked, referring to Menahem Golan, whose name he’d often confuse with Israel’s Prime Minister Menahem Begin. He told Golan of Bo's concerns and Menahem assured him that nothing could be further from the truth, but with further investigation, Marty discovered the story had a few more turns than what was floating on the surface.
It seemed that Occhipinti had once dated Ursula Andress, a former wife of John Derek's, and it was Occhipinti’s claim he’d been infected by Andress. This made it possible, even probable, that Ursula had picked up her herpes from John. The tale was, in fact, far more compelling than the one filming in Italy -- it was a celebrity maypole of sexually transmitted disease.
A cub reporter from the National Enquirer had been courting me for the previous year, once taking me to a secretive lunch in hopes of a story, but I’d always rebuffed any opportunities to cash in with juicy information about our clients. Could any scoop be traced back to me? Was it worth risking my career? The promise of cash obliterated any concern, and if the gossip were front page worthy, the money would be substantial. At that time, Bo was prime tabloid fodder and this, I knew, was headline hot.
During lunch the day after Bo phoned, I dug out the number I’d kept stashed in my wallet for months and made the call, asking just how much a front page story would bring. The reporter asked for details. I wisely held back until we’d settled on a price that met my immediate financial needs. He quoted me twenty-five hundred dollars, and with that, I hesitantly told him the story, as I knew it, though there were still not enough details for him to flesh out the full picture.
"She sounded frightened, didn't she," he led, choosing his words from the well-worn lexicon of the tabloid journalist.
"Would you say scared to death?" he asked, goosing for juice.
"You think it's going to stop production?"
"Maybe," I said, trying to decide how far I should go. </i>Had I said too much? Had I blurted something that would end up pointing right back at me?</i>
"She was crying, wasn't she?"
"Well, um, I guess so," I replied, finally getting the gist of what my responses should be.
"And production will be halted, right?"
I hung up and sat there, shaking, feeling as if I betrayed everybody, everything, putting my career in danger. I was nothing but a dirty, rotten stoolie. I painted a portrait of Bo in my mind; a shamed, crying canvas on black velvet. I’d grown very fond of Bo even if she was married to a monster. How could I have sunk this low? I headed for a bathroom stall. My hands shook when I put the gold straw into the little brown bottle, stuffing it with white powder, and the bad feelings went bye-bye for about an hour.
A few weeks passed and there it was--the front page screaming "Bo Fears Herpes,” an unnamed source quoted as telling the Enquirer that production was in trouble with Bo in near-hysterics when it was discovered her co-star had a herpes flare-up, and that she’d threatened to flee Italy immediately.
"Did you see it?" Bo breathlessly asked Marty, when she called a few days later. She let out a little timid titter as she continued to talk about the story. I could hear John snatching the phone from her hand as he laid into Marty.
"Goddammit, Marty! I want this shit stopped! How can I direct this fucking film when I have all these fucking distractions all the fucking time? Do your job, Marty. Fucking do something!”
With that, John hung up.
I unsteadily walked into Marty’s office, almost by reflex, and saw him sitting there, tired but with a bemused smile, shaking his head. If he’d been paying attention to me at all, he would have seen the scared, unsteady snitch responsible for the mess.
"That putz is out of his fucking mind," he said, voicing his inner monologue. I laughed nervously and said, "Yeah, he sure is," all the while wondering which one of us was really crazy -- John, Marty, or me.