No one can capture the insanity of Hollywood like Peter Bart, the editor-in-chief of the showbiz bible Variety. Bart has presided over the follies and iniquities of the business for many years, observing the ups and downs of the players with detached, knowing amusement. Now he explores the turbulent lives of the celebrities and studio executives in the fictitious Dangerous Company." Here's an excerpt:
The way I see it, I invented Starlight Terrace. Historians may not consider that a contribution to humanity, but it contributed a lot to “moi.” Sure, there was something bogus about its origins, but this is Hollywood, after all; everything’s a little on the bogus side. When I first happened on Starlight Terrace, I was just resigning myself to the fact that I wouldn’t step into the shoes of my role model, Zsa Zsa Gabor. So what was a middle-aged Hungarian yenta actress going to do? Take out a real estate license and hit the streets, that’s what. One of those streets was a gorgeous little enclave nestled high in the Hollywood Hills that time had somehow passed by. There were a few neglected houses shrouded by a eucalyptus grove, but the neighborhood was virtually impossible to find and the street consisted of a maze of potholes. It was called Rattery Lane, which didn’t exactly convey glitz and glamour.
So I decided that Rattery Lane had a future. I envisioned a secluded hideaway for stars and celebrities — a gated community with an aura of exclusivity. And it would be all mine — that is, I would lock up its business. Or at least try to. All this was pretty ambitious given that I’d only just received my real estate license, becoming Eva Vaine & Associates (my real name was Eva Vajna, but Hungarian names don’t look good on real estate signs). Changing my name was easier than changing the name of the street. After fruitless visits to the city council, I simply tore down the Rattery Lane signs and installed new ones saying Starlight Terrace, and I dropped a thousand bucks on the post office to pay attention. Bang — I had my Hollywood foothold!
Of course, there were some practical issues to deal with, like the existing residents. One was a plumber who dropped acid, had a jungle for a lawn and kept a decrepit camper in front of his house. I finally persuaded him to sell by telling him the city was installing a new sewer system through his front yard. I even hired a work crew for a day to start digging.
I placed ads in Daily Variety and got lucky when a talent manager named Marty Gellis decided to buy the plumber’s place. Gellis was an old queen who had the kind of contacts that perfectly .t my plans. He basically tore down the house, creating a big white faux Tudor. Sure enough, Denise Turley, one of Marty’s big-time clients, saw his house and I sold her a sprawling neo-Italianate place down the street on which she lavished well north of $500,000 for renovations. I sold another place to Eric Hoffman, a major macha at Warner Brothers, which was good because I wanted Starlight Terrace to attract the “suits” as well as the talent. Then came Elizabeth Donahue, who’s in charge of daytime programming at the ABC network, and finally, I made my big score — Tom Patch.
He was becoming one of the hottest young stars in town, and he put down $3 million for what was basically a tear-down. Starlight Terrace was suddenly a hot address. I persuaded the residents to contribute to the installation of gates at the top and bottom of the winding street. Now the big realtors like Coldwell Banker — the guys who wouldn’t even give an interview to a failed Hungarian actress — were knocking at my door, wanting to buy my company. “You’re just the sort of visionary we need in our company,” one guy tells me. He even offered me a scroll extolling my “leadership in real estate,” but
I told him where to put his scroll and that he was lucky it wasn’t a plaque. I needed Coldwell Banker before, but I didn’t need them now.
Besides, a company like that doesn’t know how to do business with celebrities. When you’re dealing with stars like Tom Patch or Denise Turley, you have to follow certain rules. First, you pacify their managers, their accountants and all their other functionaries so they don’t get paranoid. You even hint they’ll get a taste of the action. You deliberately place an absurdly high price on the property, knowing that each of these mavens will try negotiating you down. When the star finally shows up in person, you play it totally cool and you never, never “sell.” If anything, you might even cite a few problems with the place — leaky faucets and an old furnace, that sort of stuff. When the
talk gets to price, you go right back to the original number because you know that a star has no sense of money and will pay anything if he really wants the place.
Of course, none of this worked on my biggest deal on Starlight Terrace. The property in question — it was really a sort of mini-compound — sat at the top of the street and had a great view of Century City and the ocean. It was a fine old Spanish revival, maybe 9,000 square feet, and it was owned by a snooty couple named Penrose who had downtown banking connections — the sort of people who spent most of their time at their Newport Beach estate. I had tried to phone them several times but never got through, and my letters weren’t answered either. I never understood what they were doing there to begin with; they belonged in Bel Air or in a fine old Hancock Park mansion.
Then one day I was showing a house down the street when I saw an ambulance heading to the Penrose house. I did the old realtor trick, racing to the house and pretending to be part of the medical team. Anyway, Mr. Penrose had died of a heart attack, and within forty-eight hours I was showing the place to Barry Gal, and I was already nervous.
Gal was a good-looking guy who wore a black leather jacket and black jeans and had a vaguely Lebanese or Moroccan accent — he was from some place that was dangerous.
When I told him the widow wanted $3 million, he immediately gave me six reasons why $2 million was the right number and that he would write a check immediately but would not negotiate. When I balked, he said something nice about my jewelry and pointed out that since he wasn’t using a realtor, I might make a much bigger commission if I played ball. I got back to him the next morning, cutting the selling price from $3 million to $2.6 million, warning it would not go lower. Barry Gal responded by playing dirty: He sent two other realtors to visit the widow to cut me out. At the same time he sent me two dozen roses with a note saying, “Sorry about this, Zsa Zsa.” We finally closed the deal at $2.7 million and Barry promptly made a $10,000 contribution to repainting the community gates. All right, I thought, maybe he wouldn’t be so bad for Starlight Terrace after all.
Well, I was wrong. As things turned out, Barry Gal was to become the biggest pain in the ass Starlight Terrace had ever encountered. And I was blamed by the residents for bringing him in — a sort of “there goes the neighborhood” kind of thing. The whole experience made me realize that I had created something of a nightmare for myself in giving birth to Starlight Terrace. Sure, I’d made a lot of money by selling most of the homes, but when anything went bad, I got the phone calls. Why couldn’t I get the city to put the streets in better shape? Why couldn’t I improve garbage collection?
Most important, why couldn’t I get rid of Barry Gal? Hell, I wasn’t the mayor of Starlight Terrace. I’d dreamed it up, but that didn’t mean its problems were my responsibility.
But then, Hollywood types are all spoiled. Since everyone always tells them they’re perfect, they need someone to blame for their occasional imperfections. Even if that someone is merely a Hungarian yenta.
Excerpted from “Dangerous Company" by Peter Bart. Copyright © 2004 by Peter Bart. Published by Hyperion Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excrept can be used without permission of the publisher.