Monica Lewinsky, Child of 90210
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 23, 1998; Page D01
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.Is there something in the bottled water here, in the slightly decadent air of wealth and privilege, that gave a young intern the moxie to flirt with the leader of the Free World by giving him a peek at her underwear?
Meaning: If a place can be indicted for bad behavior, is Beverly Hills 90210 a co-conspirator in the White House crisis?
Forget for a minute that no one is scrutinizing Arkansas to understand how the Bible-belted, gun-toting Bubba culture turned Clinton into a poster boy for men who do not get it.
Monica Lewinsky is viewed as the product not only of her divorced parents, but of the infamous Zip code where she was raised, a place where it is less important for a teenager to learn to parallel-park than to remember to tip the valet.
The question of Beverly Hills' role in the current scandal is not without some social significance, and the parents and children, the counselors and documentarians of this town and the adjoining enclaves admit that they do see something close to home in the tale of Monica Lewinsky.
"We're sorry she came from Beverly Hills," says Janet Salter, whose husband is the former mayor. For years, Salter has put her observations about Beverly Hills' foibles in cartoons that run in weekly newspapers serving the area. Her most recent one depicts two young women in skimpy clothing, standing beneath a big sun, saying, "Gosh it's hot out. Why don't we slip into something more comfortable?"
Are we exaggerating? Consider the facts, as provided by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. It is not just the steamy bits in his report that give pause, but the way Lewinsky, pushing hard for a job after her banishment from the White House, said, "I don't want to have to work for this position. . . . I just want it to be given to me."
It is something about the way that Lewinsky is at once so girlish and so brazen that she "playfully" grabs the president's crotch while he is working a rope line, according to the report, but is also so unsure of herself, so filled with need, that she is capable of going "ballistic" when she is ignored.
"I'm an insecure person," Lewinsky is reported to have said; she also reportedly showed up for one tryst at the White House without underwear. She's a person who boasted to her friends of her sexual appetite -- "I was soooo naughty," she writes in an e-mail about a new escapade, not with the president -- and in one note even invited Clinton to a tryst with a reminder of FDR's liaison's with mistress Lucy Mercer.
Said the president, according to her: "If I had known what kind of person you really were, I wouldn't have gotten involved with you."
Terry Smooke, a Beverly Hills mother of two twentysomething daughters, says: "This is a place of plenty, where kids assume this is the way it is, the way it's supposed to be. My kids know a lot of kids who wore Prada to high school, wore Dolce & Gabbana, and think they're supposed to. Parents are screwing up their kids. There is this sense of entitlement." (Not Smooke's daughters, however; both are doing postgraduate studies, one in law, the other in medicine.)
Beverly Hills and the surrounding neighborhoods are like mega-affluent enclaves elsewhere, but more so. In this culture young women get the message that their self-worth is defined by their appearance, their belongings and, often, their sexual conquests.
Here, the idea of actually engaging in "intense flirting" with the president of the United States, as Lewinsky did, might not be such a leap.
"She is completely responding to her upbringing," says Arva Holt Rose, a Bel-Air psychotherapist who counsels families and many young women who struggle with their identity and values on Los Angeles's affluent West Side. "She's a manipulative little girl. He is not taking advantage of her. She's the one who flashed her underpants. She was the one who said, 'I want to talk about a job.' She's the one who suggested, 'I will expose us.' "
When parents in Beverly Hills fail to instill solid values, Rose says, the result can be disastrous. "If the parents can hold the center, if they treat each other and their friends in a healthy, normal, 'old school' way -- even if they want to drive the right cars, have the right clothes, join the right clubs -- the kids do not have to be damaged. But if the parents themselves are second-generation Beverly Hills . . . it's doom. By that time, whatever religious, cultural, spiritual mores they had have been eclipsed and replaced by peer pressure."
In Lewinsky's case, Rose continues, parenting was the most important determinant. "Monica Lewinsky's mother is just like Monica Lewinsky, that's the problem," she says. The two are said to be best friends, shopping buddies. "The likelihood that there would be some standard imposed that is higher than the current standard -- the materialism of how much do you have and who do you know -- is nil," Rose says.
Of course, no one here is suggesting that the West Side of Los Angeles -- which includes not only Beverly Hills but Brentwood, Malibu, Bel-Air, the Pacific Palisades and parcels of Santa Monica -- serves as some kind of assembly line for the mass production of Tori Spelling clones.
But there is the very real fear that the confluence of money and Hollywood is capable of producing children who grow up way too fast, who are raised as much by the hired help as their busy parents.
A place without a core.
Smooke does not think that Lewinsky is typical. "I don't believe Monica Lewinsky is a product of Beverly Hills," she says. But when asked why, she answers: "Because her dress came from the Gap. And her little beret? DKNY, not Donna Karan. I'm serious. I don't think this is a Beverly Hills thing."
When Lauren Greenfield's book of photojournalism, "Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood," was published last year, a lot of Los Angeles parents felt a pang of guilt at the images she had captured. Her photographs document children getting their first plastic surgeries, working out with their personal trainers (when they are not using the services of their nutritionists, counselors, singing coaches or drivers), partying with go-go dancers at bar mitzvah celebrations.
In her introduction to Greenfield's book, the actress and writer Carrie Fisher, daughter of Hollywood royalty Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, writes, "Appearance is still everything in Beverly Hills." She adds, "Too many childhoods are missed, too many drugs ingested, too much time is spent in a quest to find your place in a firmament that is already overcrowded."
Greenfield says that one thing that L.A. kids have in common is an intense desire to make a name for themselves. And Monica Lewinsky certainly did that.
For some local educators, this is a disturbing statement about the attitude and aims of some young women. "Did she think this was the only avenue open to her? It's so distorted," says Andrea Vaucher, the head of a mentoring program at the Archer School for Girls, a school on the West Side founded four years ago by concerned parents. "This is a person who thinks nothing of herself. She is grandiose and at the same time insecure. What a strange place to be."
The president's relationship with the intern raised in Beverly Hills and later of Brentwood was as much dominated by a few brief utilitarian sexual encounters in a windowless alcove off the Oval Office as by excessive gift-giving, hysterical arguments, warnings by Lewinsky of mental breakdown, anxiety and stress, threats to tell "my parents," and finally, the job search that employed the attentions of Washington power broker Vernon Jordan, U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson and White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.
No, Monica Lewinsky did not want to work for the United Nations. That was at the bottom of her "wish list." The young woman with a psychology degree wanted to work in strategic planning at the White House or -- failing that -- for Revlon.
If there is one thing that drives Los Angeles, it is the endless patter of indiscreet gossip, and Lewinsky was giving her friends and mother -- the author of a heavy-breather about operatic tenors -- day-by-day updates of her relationship with the president via e-mail. At least 11 people -- family, friends, therapists -- were told by Lewinsky of the affair. If the president truly believed that young Monica would not tell her friends, it is Clinton, people out here say, who was clueless.
"My generation had much more values," says Salter. "We felt we had to earn our living. Our kids, we didn't want them to suffer." Her grandson was given a car, a previously owned one, on his 16th birthday, like most teens here. His reaction? "He couldn't believe he was going to have to shift gears."
In such a culture, it may not be surprising that therapists thrive in Beverly Hills. Lewinsky herself saw Irene Kassorla, a sought-after Los Angeles psychiatrist ("with more money than God," according to a competitor) who testified before the Starr grand jury. Lewinsky saw Kassorla in person in 1992 and 1993, and thereafter was counseled by, naturally, telephone. According to Lewinsky's therapists (there were two), she was suffering from depression and low self-esteem.
"One of the things that affects girls profoundly is the materialism of the culture that tells females that you're not all right the way you are," says Diana Meehan, a co-founder of the Archer School for Girls. "Buy this product. Change this leg, this body. For girls, it's devastating at this age." Archer, where Tom Hanks and other Hollywood actors send their daughters, instituted uniforms.
"L.A. is on the vanguard of the extreme effects of popular culture," says Greenfield, the photojournalist. "The cult of materialism, of image. And one of the things about this place is that contacts are very important in L.A. Who you know. That's the easy way to get a job. That's a very Hollywood thing."
Lewinsky got her White House internship through the efforts of wealthy Democratic donor Walter Kaye, a friend of the family.
Finally, there is this: Several Beverly Hillers mentioned that when the affair was at its most public, when the world wanted to know who was Monica S. Lewinsky and what was she doing, she appeared in the pages of Vanity Fair, tricked up a la Marilyn Monroe in the glossy bible of celebrity. Her former lawyer and family friend William Ginsburg brokered the deal, saying it would make Monica feel better about herself.
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