"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The minute Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he was running for California governor Aug. 6, all of Hollywood knew that tales of his womanizing would make headlines again. The prospect of news cameras zooming in on Schwarzenegger’s private life was supposedly the big reason his wife, Maria Shriver, had reservations about his running. There had been plenty of stories about the actor’s high jinks even before he’d officially become a politician: In March 2001 Premiere magazine printed a now-notorious article by writer John Connolly that featured named and unnamed sources detailing instances in which the actor groped women’s breasts, bullied and humiliated assistants and crew members on movie sets, and cheated on Shriver.
Years earlier Connolly had revealed, in an October 1993 US magazine, that several women who worked for famed Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss had auditioned for Schwarzenegger’s unsuccessful movie “The Last Action Hero.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Columbia Pictures’ parent company Sony was investigating whether these women were hired as “extras” on the overbudget movie. Around the same time, a French women’s magazine reported that one of Heidi’s women claimed the muscleman himself was a client while on the set of “Last Action Hero.” Schwarzenegger sued and won under France’s stringent libel laws, but with the actor’s sudden entry into the recall race, all the old stories were being chased again.
The whole month of August, I watched the recall story swirl around me, as a spectator, not a reporter. While many of my colleagues were covering Arnold, I was putting the finishing touches on my book, “Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire” (Carroll & Graf). It turned out that my seat on the sidelines gave me a remarkable view of one of the more riveting stories in town: how the media chased the women whom Schwarzenegger allegedly chased (or groped, fondled or harassed, depending on the source), and how a platoon of Hollywood women labored to bring forth their stories.
And once my book shipped to the printer, I got bit by the competitive bug and started chasing the story myself for a while, believing I had a line on one particular “action hero” tale (I didn’t). In no time, I was swept into a web of media plotting and intrigue. Connolly himself was back, peddling another Schwarzenegger scoop that could supposedly blow his past stories about the actor out of the water. The Los Angeles Times had a team of reporters talking to women with awful Arnold tales, but as the weeks passed, insiders fretted that the paper would never pull the trigger. Everyone from the New York Times to the supermarket tabloids had reporters chasing Schwarzenegger’s women. And suddenly, there I was, placing and taking calls from veteran actresses, Hollywood wives and Rodeo Drive hostesses, who began feeding me telephone numbers of Heidi’s girls and other women, as well as some men — big-time producers and writers and entertainment attorneys — who would supposedly tell me tales of Schwarzenegger’s misbehavior.
“I’m stuck in traffic here on Wilshire, calling you from a digital phone,” said one such cadet. She gives me a lead, just as another Hollywood helper checks in. “A lot of people want to see this news come out,” she tells me, while driving to her Chinese herbalist. Unfortunately, she adds, these people don’t want to be quoted. “There is a lot of fear and intimidation out there,” she explained. Some wives tried to persuade their husbands to go on the record with their eyewitness accounts of Arnold’s bad behavior. “I can’t do it,” one Emmy Award-winning producer told me, who said he’d been sworn to secrecy about a Schwarzenegger incident people were gossiping about. There were tense domestic dramas being played out behind green hedges above Rodeo Drive and Ventura Boulevard. But as the election approached, an uneasy détente descended on these streets. At least one actor’s-wife-turned-activist badgered her entertainment attorney friends to speak to the press, but evidently there was no percentage in their stepping forward. In Hollywood, you don’t tell secrets out of school. Many men closed ranks around the popular actor-entertainer, even as their women seethed.
Although some people, such as L.A. Weekly columnist Nikki Finke, criticized Hollywood women for remaining silent about Arnold’s notorious behavior on studio sets, many of them were in fact working behind the scenes to bring the stories to light. And of course some women, such as Candace Bergen, Cybill Shepherd and Barbra Streisand, were neither silent nor anonymous. They either spoke publicly about Schwarzenegger’s misbehavior or joined a group of celebrities in a Variety advertisement, in which they urged a “No” vote on the recall.
Despite the claims by Schwarzenegger supporters that the campaign was being orchestrated by Gov. Gray Davis, it had the feel of a grass-roots rebellion to me: women mad as hell at the way they’re treated in Hollywood — as symbolized by Schwarzenegger’s shameless groping and harassment — who weren’t going to take it anymore. Not all of the women working the cellphones were Democrats, either, although I admit I didn’t ask every person I talked to about their political persuasion.
One woman who made it her business to speak out was Heidi Fleiss herself. She was still promoting her 2002 self-published book “Pandering,” in which she spells out everything but the names in her little red Gucci address book. In 1993, Fleiss was taken in by an undercover policeman in a sting operation and charged with pandering and possession of cocaine. At the time of her arrest, Columbia Pictures was about to release the Schwarzenegger film “The Last Action Hero.” Newspapers printed the names of several men tied to that film, claiming they were clients of the madam and had allegedly hired Heidi’s “girls” as extras. The women also allegedly provided entertainment for some of the men, but if this executive perk was meant to boost the film’s box-office performance, it failed miserably. When the $80 million film was released that summer, it barely made $50 million in domestic rentals.
“She had a lot of important clients in politics, movies and government,” Fleiss’ father told me when I tracked him down. “She’s very open about it.” Indeed, Fleiss offers sexual advice on her radio show, transmitted live on KFSD in San Diego, and appears on TV shows, such as MSNBC News, to discuss America’s sexual hypocrisy. “The laws in this country are set up for men. They are patted, coddled and protected. But the women are humiliated, degraded and abused,” she told me when I found her. Fleiss also said she had a video of yet another woman — but not an ex-employee — complaining about Schwarzenegger’s bad behavior. But when I asked her to identify the woman, or provide any other details to verify the story, she was less than forthcoming. And when I asked her to confirm the stories about her girls working for “The Last Action Hero” and Schwarzenegger, she clammed up.
“I’m not going to talk about that,” she said. “To me, that’s in the past.”
The story of Fleiss girls on the payroll of “Last Action Hero” was so well known at the time that Sony, the corporate parent of Columbia Pictures, investigated it, as reported by several papers, and as recounted in the book “Hit and Run,” by Kim Masters and Nancy Griffin. Sony Corp. auditors reviewed the financial records of five films, including “Last Action Hero,” but never disclosed what, if anything, they found. Around the same time, the French magazine Voici printed an interview with one of Fleiss’ hookers, who claimed that the muscleman was indeed a customer. Schwarzenegger promptly sued the weekly women’s magazine. In 1995, a French court found that the popular magazine had violated France’s stringent libel laws, according to an item in the New York Daily News. As a result, the two parties settled. No one has ever proved that Schwarzenegger was a Fleiss client, though many have tried. Such a feat would require documentation, and as one former public prosecutor told me: “We only got those guys who were reckless or thoughtless enough to pay for services with a check or credit card.”
Although it’s illegal in California for both men and women to solicit or sell sex, few if any men have ever been convicted under state law. Indeed, the film industry is rife with rich men who misbehave, and hookers are simply an efficient way to transact business without having to engage in the niceties of social intercourse. “You pay a hooker $100 to have sex and $2,400 to leave you alone,” one man explained. But despite claims that prostitution is common in Hollywood, several executives embroiled in the “Last Action Hero” controversy were in fact tainted by the publicity about Fleiss girls auditioning as extras; at least one producer hasn’t worked much since then. But none of them returned my telephone calls about Schwarzenegger.
Meanwhile, the hunt for on-the-record sources grew more fierce inside many newsrooms. On Sept. 29, just eight days before the election, I stopped at a swank hotel in Westwood, where the Los Angeles Press Club was feting author Virginia Postrel. Amid striped cabanas and chaise longues, screenwriters, bloggers and print reporters mingled, including folks from Business Week, Playboy and Reason magazines. People are ordering martinis — “Let the vermouth blow a kiss to the gin,” one patron tells the barkeep — and everyone is discussing the recall, and the rumors of Schwarzenegger and women.
Lots of reporters here are trying to track down similar stories. Racing in the pack are ABC News, CNN and the Los Angeles Times, which a friend says is trying “to find one remaining piece to a story.” A young man from the TV show “Celebrity Justice” calls me to check out a false rumor. A few book deals are supposedly in the works, including one by John Connolly. He has uncovered something from Schwarzenegger’s past that is supposed to be so amazing that his agents at William Morris may auction the book the day of the election. A version of this tale will land on a gossipy Internet site, lukeford.net, and the Tuesday item will be repeated by several papers by week’s end — a rumor reported as news. (But in fact, Connolly’s agents would drop him a few days later, for political reasons, the writer says.)
Here, just eight days before the election, few of the dozens of reporters chasing the story had found sources who would both talk and let their name be used. By now, the terrain feels like a fox ranch at the height of pelting season. “It’s appalling to watch it unfold,” one friend confides. The story of the story has become the story. I made a few other calls and visits, including one to a movie agent on Sunset Boulevard. The agent all but tells me to throw in the towel. “A lot of young men don’t care about Arnold’s past, no matter how shocking. They just want change.” That pretty much sums up the attitude of all the men I interviewed for this piece. Not surprisingly, the Hollywood male assessment is diametrically opposed to that of the women, and the two conflicting currents will grow stronger in the days to come.
In desperation I returned to Heidi Fleiss who, once again, deflected questions about the actor being a client. When pressed, she sounds frightened. “Look. Warren Buffett is the second-richest man in the world and he’s working on Schwarzenegger’s campaign,” she said. “That’s a lot of power and money coming down on me. I don’t need that.” Instead, she directs me to the videotape that she’s been telling me about for days. It will soon be available for sale on her Web site. “Then, you’ll have a story,” she says. (When Salon finally sees the video, it turns out to feature an aspiring actress who claims to have dallied with an actor she jokingly refers to as “I’ll be back,” mocking Schwarzenegger’s accent, but there’s nothing in the video to link him to Fleiss’ women, or to anything other than consensual sex — and maybe not even that.)
On Thursday, Oct. 2, a scant five days before the election, the Los Angeles Times runs its long-awaited front-page story. A team of reporters have been researching the piece for seven weeks and their piece is based on six unnamed sources and one named figure, E. Laine Stockton, who used to be married to bodybuilder Robby Robinson, who has feuded with Schwarzenegger for years. Although the actor’s camp will characterize it as “puke politics,” the story is actually narrowly crafted — to the disappointment of many of the Times’ sources and the network of women trying to bring the stories forward. It centers not on the wild array of rumors reporters have been chasing down for weeks, but on specific incidents that could be classified as sexual harassment.
When the story comes out, a group of younger Hollywood women consider publicly condemning such behavior, but they balk at doing so. And who can blame them? Only 14 percent of the films released in 2000 were written by women and only 6 percent of those films were directed by females. “Hollywood has always been sexist,” the screenwriter William Goldman tells me. What else is new?
Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, doesn’t deny the Times’ report of his sexual harassment. Rather he offers a general apology for “behaving badly” in the past, saying, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” He then goes on to deny that several of the specific incidents took place. He also attacks the messenger for reporting on his notorious bad behavior, calling the Times piece “trash news.”
By Friday, there’s a sense of unexpended trouble in the air. My network of Hollywood helpers has expanded in the past week to include women in Nashville, Tenn., New York and Vancouver, British Columbia. After weeks of trying to bring forth the allegations, several grande dames of Hollywood band together to denounce Schwarzenegger’s treatment of women. Peg Yorkin of the Feminist Majority, actress Polly Bergen of the National Organization for Women, and Karen Pomer of Code Pink join religious groups in a press conference Friday criticizing the gubernatorial candidate.
The New York Times winds up printing not its own sexual rumors piece, but a story about the story in the Los Angeles Times. But the Times has its own mini-scoop, taken from a book proposal by a director, this one called “The Master Plan.” It alleges that Schwarzenegger admired Adolf Hitler and incites another flurry of press conferences, allegations and denials. And on Saturday, the Los Angeles Times runs another story about Schwarzenegger’s sexual behavior, bringing forth another five women who — on the record — repeat allegations of harassement.
By Sunday, four more women have come forward in the Times to accuse the Republican candidate of groping, fondling and sexually harassing them, bringing the total to 15 females. In retaliation, about 1,000 people cancel their subscriptions to the Los Angeles Times, the paper reports. Many of those interviewed about the cancellations are men, who claim that the Times’ story was politically motivated, and that the women were cowardly to wait until now, a few days before the election, to speak out.
Far from being cowardly, though, I thought the women who told their stories were brave, given the sexism rampant in Hollywood. And in the end, I wound up admiring the network of Hollywood women who managed to wrestle the story of Schwarzenegger’s dark side into the light. It’s clear they managed to convince the last-minute tale-tellers to come forward, and to let their names be used. It’s probably not over yet — my would-be helpers were still phoning Sunday, on their way to dinner and meetings and Yom Kippur events as night fell — to talk of more news about to break.
It’s up to voters to determine if these stories of bullying and humiliation should disqualify the actor from becoming governor. I think about the agent who told me “young men don’t care” about the allegations against Schwarzenegger. But it’s clear many women do. In a normal election campaign cycle, there would be many more weeks for the story to unfold — for more women to come forward, for the actor to shoot down the stories, for the electorate to weigh the evidence and decide what to make of it. The truncated recall campaign means it all has to happen by Tuesday. But some Democrats are promising another recall if Schwarzenegger is elected. It’s hard not to believe that the stories of his “behaving badly” with women will keep unfolding in the weeks and months to come.
Kathleen Sharp reports on business and entertainment from Southern California.More Kathleen Sharp.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)