Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 9, 1999; Page C1
Say what you want about Monica Lewinsky's morals or her lackadaisical laundering habits, but you've got to admit that the woman knows how to play the game of cashing in.
Cashing in is the great American alchemy, the process by which the straw of fame is spun into gold. Lewinsky is currently cashing in on her infamy as a White House strumpet with a series of book, TV and magazine deals worth an estimated $3 million, maybe more. And this week, George Stephanopoulos, who already cashed in on his Clinton connections to become a TV pundit, releases his own $2.75 million cash-in memoir, "All Too Human."
Thus, Lewinsky and Stephanopoulos join that long line of Americans who have answered the call of fame with a resounding cry of "Show me the money!" It's an old tradition that includes such luminaries as Buffalo Bill Cody, Geronimo, Timothy Leary, G. Gordon Liddy, Ronald Reagan, Judith Campbell Exner, Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno and the Mayflower Madam.
Cashing in is as American as vaudeville, the chautauqua circuit, the celebrity endorsement commercial and the quickie, ghostwritten tell-all autobiography -- all of which have been prominent means of cashing in at various times in our history.
In America, cashing in is a wonderfully democratic process. It doesn't matter if you achieved fame through good deeds or bad, heroic acts or heinous ones. If you've got the fame, we've got the money. This is, after all, the country where the man who achieved celebrity by having his penis sliced off by his angry wife managed to find a second career as a porn star. It's a country where everybody is famous for 15 minutes and that's plenty of time to hack out a celebrity autobiography. Just ask Mary Beth Whitehead or Morton Downey Jr. or Kitty Dukakis -- autobiographers one and all.
Washington is the capital of cashing in, a town where politicians cash in by becoming lobbyists, reporters cash in by becoming public relations flacks and generals cash in by going to work for defense contractors. It's also the town where the defeated presidential candidate gets a face lift and goes to work as a celebrity poster boy for erectile dysfunction.
In America, cashing in is a perk available to the president or the president's wife or the president's mistress or the president's wife's astrologer or even the president's dog. Joan Quigley, who was Nancy Reagan's astrologer, cashed in on her 15 minutes of fame with a celebrity autobiography titled "What Does Joan Say?" A few years later, Millie, who was president George Bush's dog, collaborated with first lady Barbara Bush on a celebrity autobiography that earned $889,176 in royalties. That kind of money can buy a lot of Alpo, but Millie and her co-author donated it to charity.
And Lewinsky was not the first presidential mistress to cash in on her sins. Judith Campbell Exner, who dallied with President Kennedy in the White House, also wrote an autobiography. But her timing was bad. She waited too long to grab for the brass ring and she missed the big bucks.
In other places, the wages of sin may be death, but in America the pay is considerably better, particularly if the sinner is attractive enough to pose for jeans ads or Playboy spreads. In 1987, Donna Rice, Gary Hart's sweet young paramour, was hired to appear in an ad for No Excuses jeans, sprawling languidly across a chair, purring, "I have no excuses, I just wear them." A couple years later, Marla Maples, the comely model who had just broken up Donald Trump's marriage, did her own No Excuses ad.
Meanwhile, Jessica Hahn -- the church secretary who achieved fame for her brief fling with televangelist Jim Bakker -- was earning nearly a million bucks for appearing in a 10-page Playboy pictorial.
"People criticize me for taking advantage of opportunities," she said at the time. "But I believe God is opening the door, and you have to walk through it."
That statement could serve as the official motto of cashing in. Maybe it should be translated into Latin and inscribed on our money, in place of "E Pluribus Unum."
In America, crime does pay, particularly if the criminal is savvy enough to stop committing crimes and start writing about them. You could fill a fair-size bookshelf with the memoirs of celebrity criminals like Willie Sutton, Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, and Joseph "Joe Dogs" Iannuzzi, who followed up his autobiography with a book of recipes, "The Mafia Cookbook," which sold so well that he's now writing a sequel.
And then there's the case of Sydney Biddle Barrows, who achieved fame in the '80s by getting busted for running a high-class call girl operation in New York City. Dubbed the Mayflower Madam, she cashed in with a best-selling autobiography, a made-for-TV movie and, believe it or not, a book on etiquette. Last month, hideous pictures of her face lift appeared in Harper's Bazaar magazine -- a little preview of her next book.
Like politics, cashing in makes strange bedfellows. Back in the '60s, G. Gordon Liddy, then a New York prosecutor, used to raid the home of Timothy Leary, the LSD guru. Twenty years later, after both had served prison terms, they went out on the lecture circuit together, staging a sort of intellectual mud wrestling match that was later made into a movie.
Today, cashing in is such a part of American culture that we hardly even think about it. But that wasn't always so. There was a time when some Americans were willing, even eager, to walk away from the spotlight without first pausing to fatten their bankrolls. After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was offered big money to write his memoirs. He declined. To do so would mean, he said, that "I should be trading on the blood of my men." It was a noble sentiment but not one shared by other American generals from Ulysses S. Grant to Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, all of whom cashed in on their battlefield glory with big books.
In 1871, William F. Cody, an Army scout and buffalo hunter, was offered $500 a week to play himself in the play "Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Scouts." He declined the honor and went back to Kansas to shoot more buffalo. Within a few years, he'd changed his mind and was eagerly cashing in, touring the world in his famous Wild West revue, a show he advertised as "The Most Colossal & the Strangest Entertainment Ever Organized or Dreamed of . . . "
Cody, one the great pioneers of cashing in, convinced many of the great Indian chiefs, including Sitting Bull, to cash in by playing themselves in his show.
Geronimo, the great Apache warrior, found his own way to profit from his fame. After fighting fiercely for decades to avoid becoming part of the American way of life, Geronimo reluctantly surrendered in 1886 and soon demonstrated a great natural talent for cashing in. He dictated a celebrity autobiography and traveled to fairs and exhibitions, where he sold photographs of himself. He also devised an ingenious way to pick up extra money en route to the exhibitions:
"When the train stopped at stations," wrote his biographer, Angie Debo, "he cut buttons from his shirt and sold them at 25 cents each to the eager spectators, and for $5, he would sell his hat. Between stations, he diligently sewed more buttons on his coat and equipped himself with a new hat from a supply he had thoughtfully provided."
Obviously, Geronimo was a natural. If there's ever a Cashing In Hall of Fame, he ought to be in it, along with Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum and the Mayflower Madam. Donald Trump should be in there, too, having earned the honor by cashing in with several celebrity memoirs and a Donald Trump board game. His ex-wife Ivana deserves a place, too, for cashing in on her dubious fame by marketing a ghostwritten novel, a line of cosmetics and now her own magazine, Ivana's Living in Style.
Believe it or not, some people are offended by this whole phenomenon. When Geraldine Ferraro cashed in on her fame as a vice presidential candidate by doing a Pepsi ad and Tip O'Neill cashed in on his fame as speaker of the House by doing ads for American Express and Miller Lite, columnist Ellen Goodman denounced cashing in as "the process by which America turns every achievement into a hustle and every achiever into a hustler."
Similar criticisms arose when Ronald Reagan cashed in on his presidential fame by accepting a $2 million fee and $5 million in expenses to travel to Japan to make two 20-minute speeches sponsored by a Japanese communications company.
At one point in his trip, Reagan drove past the press corps in a golf cart when a CBS reporter hollered a question: "Many people in the United States are critical of this trip and the money you're being paid. What do you say to that?"
In the gesture he'd already made famous, Reagan raised his hand to his ear, shook his head and mouthed the words "Can't hear."
At that moment, he was speaking -- or not speaking -- for most Americans. We don't pay much attention to the critics of cashing in. We believe in gettin' while the gettin's good and we only hope that someday we, too, will be in a position to take the money and run.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company