Steal This Story or How to Be Petty

By Larry Teren

abbie_hoffmanBaby boomers remember that in 1970 Abbie Hoffman wrote a book entitled “Steal This Book”. Despite his tongue-in-each dare to readers, the book sold very well. Abbie was a self-styled subversive who gave advice on how to “cheat the man” (my words, not his- but you get the idea). Human nature is such that we try to be honest as well as sometimes stretch the truth and reality when it seems the only way to survive. And then some of us are real stinkers. The following few examples are a matter of whom you want to believe:

Let’s start with yours truly. I asked a client if he could refer me to anyone for more business. He said that his nephew was a possibility. He would pass my phone number to him. His nephew called me several weeks after I was assured by my client that he was indeed going to contact me in short order.

When he called, he mentioned that he had an idea for a special computerized system and said that it would be a good idea if we (being the plural form, I took it to mean that the two of us) would sign confidentiality agreements. I told him that I’ve never run with someone else’s idea but that if I was definitely going to be involved and compensated, I would have no problem.

He volunteered a brief but vague description of the project. I didn’t hear back for about ten days. At that point I presumed that he was going in a different direction. That was not unusual. All of a sudden, though, I got an email from him containing a very detailed one-sided contract in which it was made very clear that I could not put in writing or discuss anything about this project with anyone else unless I got his permission in writing for every aspect of it.

I wrote back to him indicating that this was not only one-sided but impractical. For one, it would make it almost impossible to do project management. I would need to get him to sign off in writing his approval for any interaction I would have with programmers and equipment suppliers.

He emailed back calling me every name in the book as I had promised to sign a confidentiality agreement. I told him that I would if he was going to hire me. No where in writing did he mention that he was going to hire me and at what of type of compensation and when it would begin.

Our final phone conversation would be hysterical to listen in on if were only taped. Regardless, I don’t steal other people’s ideas. I still don’t think his idea was so unique and even something that could be successful but even now I wish him luck if it ever pans out. It is the only time in thirty years of doing business deals that my integrity has been called into question.

There are three incidents of pettiness and/or questions of integrity that I recently came across from reading show business autobiographies.

henny_youngmanal_jolsonIn one, Henny Youngman, the quintessential stand-up comedian, alleged that Al Jolson was known to go to a comic’s afternoon matinee performance and scribble down any of the good jokes he heard. That evening he would try it out in his own act and if it got a good reaction, he’d have his lawyer send a note to the comic to cease and desist under threat of suit from using the great Al Jolson’s material.

dorothy_lamourIn another, Dorothy Lamour, the sarong clad actress in many films wrote how she starred in several ‘Road To’ movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. After the first couple were highly profitable for Paramount Pictures, the studio cut a deal with the two men in a three-way production and distribution deal. They intentionally left Dottie out of the profits. She felt that she was just as much a reason for the series success. Not only that, but the boys treated her like a paid employee on the rest of those films and chided her whenever she tried to do the same ad-libbing and kidding around they did.

She did maintain a good relationship with Bob but Bing was an enigmatic soul. On the very last picture they did as a trio, The Road to Hong Kong (1961), Bing insisted that Lamour was too old to play their mutual love interest and hired a much younger Joan Collins who ended up sparking no chemistry with the pair.

Ironically, they threw a dog bone to her to make a short cameo appearance in which she sang a song. She was, of course, highly insulted but accepted after they added, as she put it, a lot of zeroes to the initial offer. As it turned out, Paramount highly promoted the film as if she was the third leg of the romantic threesome. Bob Hope invited her on his television show to help promote the movie and she accepted. Bing resisted offering the quid pro on his own tv special claiming that all the guests had been already booked. She was shocked when she watched the special and saw that he talked about the movie and used a life size cardboard cutout of her while sidestepping why she wasn’t present.

Dottie had been very good friends with Bing’s first wife, Dixie. After Dixie died in 1952, Bing married a much younger woman, Kathryn, a few years later and sired a whole new family later in life. There had been a certain level of estrangement with his boys from the first marriage. Apparently, Kathryn didn’t want anyone associated with the first family at the funeral. Dorothy wrote that she was told by Bing’s secretary that she was persona non grata and would be turned away if she showed up. However, the press made a big deal about the fact that Dorothy did attend the funeral and there were pictures of her in newspapers. However, it wasn’t Dorothy. She stayed away as ordered. It was a double hired by publicity agents.

The final story of pettiness is about everyone’s favorite redhead, Lucille Ball. During the 1950’s, she was the toast of the television world with her I Love Lucy show co-starring her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. When their marriage broke up, she was back to figuring out how to stay in the public eye. As part of their divorce settlement, she got custody of Desilu Enterprises which owned several shows as well as rented its space to other productions. (How many of you know that Lucy owned Star Trek and The Untouchables?). However, she retained Desi to run it for her.lucille_ball

Around this time in the early 1960’s Irene Kampen published a somewhat popular book based on her travails as a suddenly divorced woman with children while also trying to maintain the house in Connecticut she won in the divorce settlement. The book, “Life Without George” got the attention of people in Ball’s camp and decided it would make a great starting point for a sitcom vehicle for Lucy. Just as in the book, she has a friend (again played by Vivian Vance) move in with Lucy to help defray the costs of maintaining the household budget. However, in the early 1960’s it was still considered taboo to be divorced, so they changed the storyline that Lucy was widowed. However, it was still okay for Vivian to be divorced.

Vivian did not accept the role so quickly. She had been somewhat retired and willing to live a happy life with her husband back on the East Coast. She also did not want to abide by the rules that were in place on the I Love Lucy show. In the earlier show, it was written into her contract that she had to be heavier than Lucy and wear frumpy clothing and not sing better than her. Vivian had been a noted chanteuse in an earlier portion of her showbiz career.

Desperate to get back into a profitable series, Desi brokered a deal that made Vivian happy. Well, at least for a couple of years and then she had enough. The series stayed on the air in various guises with an ever-changing cast for several years.

Ironically, Irene Kampen moved to California and tried to meet the lady who bought her book and made it into The Lucy Show. Incredibly, Lucy never had the time to see her face to face. Irene wrote about it in an essay entitled “How Not to Meet Lucille Ball” in a volume of essays she published.

And now you know the rest of the story…

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