Two very strange courtroom spectacles are about to unfold in Los Angeles: first, the murder trial of Robert Blake, starting this month, and then the murder trial of Phil Spector, most likely starting in spring of 2005. I've been covering these cases for a while now, and as I've become more familiar with each story, I've realized that Blake and Spector are similar characters, reverse Gatsbys whose east-to-west family journeys spelled their doom. To paraphrase Gladys Knight and the Pips, L.A. proved too much for the men.
This translates into high, weird, and welcome drama involving A- to E-level Hollywood players, with possibly even Kato Kaelin sitting courtside. (He evidently accompanied Spector to a recording session a while ago.) Blake and Spector are far more interesting than two of the three other prominent West Coast defendants in the news lately. I refer to the banal and recently condemned Scott Peterson (whose face has no expression, looks almost fetal, and yet, oddly, is attached to a grown-up body) and Kobe Bryant (as a firm believer in nomenclatural destiny, I am convinced that Kobe lived up to his given name, becoming nothing more than a cut of foreign beef).
Dominick Dunne, the yenta in the Brooks Brothers suit, recently came to the same conclusion, sticking his finger in the smog and telling the San Francisco Chronicle that Blake and Spector are now the cases to follow. It was clear all along that while the Peterson episode signified nothing more or less than itself, when it comes to the human condition--and specifically the American subcondition -- the Blake and Spector cases, frighteningly, are where it's at.
Both Blake and Spector come from scrappy New York-area families -- Blake (né Gubitosi) from New Jersey, Spector from Brooklyn. Both men experienced major acts of violence as children. Both are short, are said to wear lifts, and have explosive tempers. And it would seem that their major left or right turns were predestined. The most crucial decision in their lives, to move west, was made by their parents. Blake, now 70, was 5 or 6 when his father decided to take advantage of the Depression mania for child stars and move his family to Los Angeles so his talented kids could sing for their supper. Blake joined the Little Rascals, then appeared in the Red Ryder cowboys-and-Indians series, and then as the beggar boy with Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As he tells it, his abusive father used to lock him in a closet with a dog collar, then let him out and make him beg for food. That's when he learned an important lesson: Acting like a junkyard dog would bring what passed for love.
Over time, Blake perfected this talent, playing the beloved Baretta on the cop show of the same name, having delivered the flip side of this character with his chilling portrayal of the notorious killer Perry Smith in the 1967 film version of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. (And Smith's favorite movie was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre -- yet more evidence that Hollywood runs through every vein of the Robert Blake story.) For years, Blake was a regular on Johnny Carson, uttering Baretta catch phrases such as "Dat's da name of dat tune," a perpetual prisoner of his tough-guy persona. By the time Bonny Bakley, the wretched and sad woman he is accused of killing, crossed the velvet rope and began her fatal affair with Blake, he was an American institution with legions of fans.
The collision was bound to happen. Also from a poor and violent New Jersey family, Bakley was suckled on fame, groomed to commit suicide by a backstage pass. Raised by a grandmother who loved Robert Blake, she vowed that she would be famous someday. When I met with Bakley's sister Margerry in a New Jersey diner, she told me that one of Bakley's last acts was to watch her favorite movie, Sunset Boulevard. At the end, she turned to Margerry and said, "I wonder what it feels like to get shot in the head." Blake is now accused of answering the question, and Bakley is famous, buried near celebrities at Forest Lawn. And Blake, a vastly underrated actor who is often taken for his screen persona, may not be able to win an acquittal; everyone thinks he's either Baretta or Perry Smith -- both of whom used guns, one of whom swung from the gallows.
Spector, too, is a prisoner of his persona, the monster that Tom Wolfe created in 1965 in a giddy profile in the New York Herald Tribune called "The First Tycoon of Teen," which inexplicably remains the go-to piece on Spector. "Every baroque period has a flowering genius who rises up as the most glorious expression of its style of life," Wolfe wrote of the rock mogul who had by then produced dozens of hits. "He is the first boy to become a millionaire within America's teenage netherworld." But Wolfe never made a connection between Spector's past and current behavior, already vicious and out of control. In 1949, when Spector was 8, his father killed himself in broad daylight by sitting in a parked car in front of the family house and filling it with carbon monoxide from the gas pipe as people apparently walked right by.
Spector's mother moved the family to Los Angeles. As a teenager at Fairfax High, Spector turned his life over to music. In 1958, he wrote and recorded the first in a string of huge hits, "To Know Him Is To Love Him" (his father's epitaph). He is most celebrated for conjuring the "wall of sound," a greasy and wet rock style with lots of instruments and overdub. But behind the wall of sound, Spector had a nasty tic: To blot out echoes of his father's abandonment, he tried to prevent people -- especially women -- from leaving, even if it meant holding them at gunpoint as they tried to walk out the door. This fact is so rarely mentioned in the gallons of ink spilled over Spector that I've wondered if the fame-seeking Lana Clarkson would have gone to his house on the night she died had she known it. "Phil couldn't stand being alone," his idol, Ahmet Ertegun, told me some time ago.
His collision with Clarkson also seemed inevitable. The ultimate California girl, Clarkson was a big blonde with a modicum of talent.
Born around the time Marilyn Monroe died, she identified with Marilyn so much that I've fancied that she inhaled Marilyn's soul as she took her first breath and thus sealed her fate. A starlet in her 20s, by 45 Clarkson was hostessing at the House of Blues. Still, she had aspirations. Imagine, in Marilyn's voice of quiet desperation, Clarkson meeting Spector as her shift ends and thinking: "Maybe he can help me."
Like Bakley, she died of a gunshot wound to the head. Days before her death, she was fired from a play called Brentwood Blondes, about famous dead women. She was set to play Marilyn. Now she has been written back in as herself. And Spector, once again, is alone, taken down, like Blake, by the American dream's new L.A. twist. •
Deanne Stillman's new book, Horse Latitudes, will be published by Houghton Mifflin.
D orothy Osradker went to work for the city of Memphis in 1945, as World War II was winding down. She was in her early 20s, had a law degree and four years of work experience, and no plans to make a career of public service.
But in 2005, Osradker, an assistant city attorney, will celebrate a milestone reached by few public employees anywhere: 60 years with city government.
In addition to being a capable attorney, the woman known to her colleagues as "Miss Dorothy" is a good storyteller with sharp opinions, a fine sense of humor, and an amazing work ethic. Her boss, city attorney Sara Hall, says Osradker had taken exactly one sick day in 59 years before suffering a serious illness this year.
"I calculated once that she has accumulated seven years of sick days," says Hall.
Osradker, who grew up an only child in Missouri during the Depression, completed her education and went to work at a time when women were second-class citizens in the workforce. She earned a law degree from Southern College of Law in Memphis in 1941 -- one of four women in the class of 39 students -- and hoped to be a legal secretary because women were simply not accepted as attorneys.
Her career was interrupted by the war. She worked for four years as secretary and office manager at the Memphis airport for a company that trained pilots for the Air Force, sometimes accompanying the pilots on their flights. As the war wound down and veterans started coming home, her boss told her, "The first one that comes by and wants your job, I'm going to give it to him."
So Osradker answered a two-line newspaper ad for a job keeping the minutes of the City Commission, the forerunner of the Memphis City Council. "They offered me a job," she said. "I thought it would just be a place I would pass through."
She saw Memphis fall behind Atlanta in the 1950s and 1960s and lose its Ford Motor Company plant, partly due to a disagreement with local environmentalists over cutting down some trees in a park. Then she watched a similar scenario play out a few years later when environmentalists blocked the federal government from running Interstate 40 through Overton Park. This gave her a somewhat dim view of "tree lovers," although she lives only a couple of blocks from the abandoned Midtown interstate corridor.
She was on the job on the April afternoon in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated but, ironically, was unaware of it for several hours because she was in her office typing up the minutes of a City Council meeting that lasted until 6 o'clock.
After 25 years, she changed jobs and moved over to the city attorney's office, drafting or researching countless ordinances and becoming the resident expert on everything from consolidation to the legality of killing pigeons in a park. "She is just an incredible source of knowledge," says Hall. Osradker can keep working as long as she is able. In 1986, Congress and President Ronald Reagan did away with the mandatory retirement age.
"Now I'm too stubborn to retire," she says. "Retire is not a word I like to hear."
A single woman, Osradker has travelled to nearly every continent, learned to fix her vintage 1950s car with the aid of a subscription to Popular Mechanics, and once wrote a sitcom about office life that almost became a network pilot. Hall says she is usually one of the first people to arrive at work at 7:15 a.m. with a copy of the newspaper and a boiled egg. On her work desk is a thick stack of files ("That's to impress you," she tells a visitor) and a big-screen computer. She has little use for the Internet or modern jargon.
"Use plain one-syllable words with me," she insists. "Do not use initials. You have to have it in simple form for someone to understand how something works." Or as she says by way of summarizing her job, "I like my ordinances to be legal." •
Memphis is no stranger to civil rights struggles. In 1968, city sanitation workers went on strike after two workers were killed on a city garbage truck. The strike lasted more than two months and eventually brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to town to help elevate the voices of workers, whose protests were being ignored by Mayor Henry Loeb. It was during King's visit to lead a peaceful march that he was shot at the Lorraine Motel.
So it makes sense that the Mississippi Worker's Center for Human Rights has chosen Memphis to host its fifth biannual Southern Human Rights Organizers' Conference (SHROC), a three-day event aimed at organizing activists around a number of human rights issues, from the disenfranchisement of African-American voters and the global lock-out of the working poor to hate crimes against the gay community and concerns about police brutality. The conference will be held at the Holiday Inn Select from December 10th through the 12th.
"We'll be addressing worker's rights, criminal justice, policies about immigrant workers, racial profiling, as well as children in public schools and the difference in treatment in terms of discipline," said Jeribu Hill, founder of the conference and director of the Mississippi Worker's Center for Human Rights.
Hill said the conference goal is to solidify the Southern Human Rights Organizers' Network, a coalition of activists that grows with each conference. The network develops methods of organizing protests and demonstrations across the Deep South.
This year's theme, "Building Links Across the Global South," compares issues in the South to civil rights struggles worldwide. Some of the conference speakers will address problems they've faced in their home countries of Brazil, Nigeria, Colombia, and Canada.
"Whether you're in Colombia, Latin America, or Columbia, Mississippi, the problem with human rights abuses and oppression is a part of everyday existence for people who are marginalized or victims of economic oppression," said Hill. "We want to highlight and pinpoint the commonality between abuses suffered in the Deep South and around the globe."
The conference will offer panel discussions on obstacles faced by victims of civil rights struggles, on grassroots organization, and on fund-raising. Workshops will cover environmental justice, workers' rights, the permanent disenfranchisement of felons, the war on terror, the war on drugs, how to use the media, and how to use legal advocacies to advance human rights.
On opening night, SHROC will host a "Cultural Explosion" ceremony honoring leaders from the 1968 sanitation workers' strike, other Memphis labor leaders, and various Southern activists. Brotha's Keepa, a local spoken-word ensemble, will perform, and there will be a showing of At the River I Stand, a documentary on the sanitation strike. The event, at the National Civil Rights Museum, is free and open to the public.
Also on opening night, the conference will host a Youth Summit, in which young activists will discuss issues such as education, juvenile justice, and unemployment.
Hill said they're expecting a broad audience for the conference, including human rights activists, legal advocates, religious leaders, and union officials.
The first Southern Human Rights Organizers' Conference was held in 1996 in Oxford, Mississippi. Other conferences have been held in Jackson, Mississippi, Atlanta, and Miami. Hill was working in Oxford on a public-law fellowship when she conceived the idea for the conference.
"When I started doing work in Mississippi as an advocate and volunteer, it became painfully obvious to me that basic human rights were still being denied in the state," she said. "People were woefully under-represented and unsupported in their efforts to change that. There had never been a conference like this in the Deep South, and I decided that it was time to call activists together.
"SHROC's really taken on a life of its own because people see the need to dialogue on a regular basis. We've built an institution out of that dialogue," said Hill. "It's really grown by leaps and bounds, and this year, we've reached a record number of registrants." •
The Southern Human Rights Organizers' Conference will be held at the Holiday Inn Select (2240 Democrat Road) from December 10th to 12th. For more information, visit Shroc.org.
The school is East High School, and the twin driving forces behind a new push to improve it are Principal Barbara King and Class of 1961 alumnus Charles McVean, a commodities trader who's as colorful as he is wealthy. This week, they launched the Greater East High Foundation with a pep rally. Their hope is that a $14 million renovation of the school funded by the Memphis Board of Education combined with an eventual $3 million in pledges from graduates and businesses will turn East around.
This is one of those fire-and-ice pairings that should be interesting to watch. King grew up in Memphis and attended city elementary schools before moving to Illinois for high school and college. She was lured back to Memphis from Texas in 2003 by new superintendent Carol Johnson to bring some stability to East, which had run through five principals in six years. King radiates clear-eyed calmness and toughness and won't let McVean or anyone else take up all the oxygen in a room.
McVean, known as "Chas" to his classmates, is a gambler/philosopher/economist/trader who made news in the 1980s when he nearly brought legalized horseracing with parimutuel betting to Memphis. During a visit to his high school alma mater last week, he readily admitted that he spent more than his share of time in the principal's office for being a bad boy. When he's determined to do something, watch out.
"Chas is on a tear," says Gene Carlisle, East High Class of 1960, who will lend his own considerable wealth and know-how as CEO of a company that owns more than 100 Wendy's franchises in the South.
"Barbara and I are 50-50 partners," says McVean. "My part of the deal is I'm always adamant but never dogmatic."
Replies King, "I think I've met my match."
He hopes the foundation will "shame Central High School into following suit." She wants to "move White Station down to second place."
That could be even harder than building FedExForum or AutoZone Park. East boasts a central location between Poplar and Walnut Grove just east of the Central Library, strong boys and girls athletic teams, an award-winning vocational-technical program, and a smattering of excellent students who earn full scholarships to four-year colleges. Overall, however, only about 25 percent of East graduates go to either a two-year or four-year college, and 80 percent of the student body is on free or reduced-price lunch. The optional program for college-bound kids has taken a hit, and the main building has fallen into such disrepair that the auditorium has been unusable for three years.
That would have been unthinkable back in McVean's day. As an all-white school drawing students from nearby Chickasaw Gardens and East Memphis, East routinely sent as many or more grads to Vanderbilt and Ivy League colleges as any school in Memphis. By 1970, East was often the focus of the busing-for-integration debate, and its student population rapidly changed over the next decade. The bottom fell out in the mid-1990s with a rash of shootings and principal turnovers.
There has been talk for years among alumni such as McVean and Spence Wilson, CEO of Kemmons Wilson Companies, about doing something, but it took the arrival of Johnson and King to get it going. The big picture includes new housing and retail along the north flank on Walnut Grove, a new feeder elementary school near Sam Cooper Boulevard, a refurbished building, and a unique operating agreement with the school board that will allow King and the foundation to cut red tape to fix the auditorium, wire the library for computers, and install a security system in the parking lot.
In addition to underwriting spirit-building dinners for students and teachers, McVean will pay student tutors $10 an hour and up to $400 a month to work with younger and underperforming students. He said the foundation will target median-level students and prepare them for jobs in, say, health care, distribution, or food service.
"Our target is to make the median graduate a person who, with one or two additional years of training, St. Jude and FedEx will fight to get their hands on," McVean says.
Carlisle, who grew up poor in Mississippi and Memphis, said annual turnover in the fast-food industry is nearly 100 percent. On the bright side, though, most of his managers are promoted from within and wind up running a $1.5 million-a-year store.
"I hire 4,000 people a year in my company," he says. "Over the 28 years I have been in business, I have watched the quality of education of these kids drop like a rock. The only way to make a difference is to put your arms around them and show them somebody cares enough to keep them in school."