Reverse Gatsbys

L.A. proved too much for Blake and Spector.



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.

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