VICKI. By Joyce Milton and Ann Louise Bardach. St. Martin's. 343 pp. $16.95.
"VICKI WAS SPECIAL," the man who murdered Vicki Morgan later said. "She had this quality. You just couldn't get enough of her." Obviously he got enough of her, and we quickly do too in the hypertrophied biography by Joyce Milton and Ann Louise Bardach about the life and times of a woman who was both too beautiful and too shallow for her own good. It probably would have been better for us and for Vicki herself if Andy Warhol's celebrated formula about fame had been in effect and she had gotten her 15 minutes in the sun and then disappeared. She got more than that -- not enough to make her significant as a person or a metaphor, but enough to make her a cultural and now a literary nuisance.
Like other dreamwalkers in Southern California, Vicki Morgan discovered men and sex too early. Like most of them she would have wound up just another attractive woman with fading features and split ends hanging out at Schwab's if she hadn't been spotted by millionaire Alfred Bloomingdale when she was walking down the Sunset Strip one day. She was 17 and already unhappily married to an older man. Bloomingdale was in his late fifties, distantly related to the department store fortune, a man who had made his money by founding the Diner's Club. Over the years Bloomingdale had been remade politically and socially by his wife Betsy in much the same way that Betsy's best friend Nancy Reagan had remade her husband. ("I used to be Jewish!" Bloomingdale would exclaim happily in the middle of conversations.) His wife had persuaded him to use his money to rise in the California Republican hierarchy, and he had become one of the wealthy backers who helped elect Reagan to the governorship and hoped to push him to Washington.
The one area of Alfred's life Betsy Bloomingdale had not managed to remake had to do with his sexual proclivities. Within days after meeting Vicki Morgan he had convinced her to come with him to a hideout in the Hollywood hills to watch him play "the game" -- tying up naked prostitutes, flailing them with his belt while taking the blas,e teenager over his knee and spanking her vigorously as a prelude to swift coitus.
This was the beginning of an off-and-on affair that lasted more than a decade. As part of her later palimony suit, Vicki would claim somewhat lamely that she functioned as a sort of sex therapist for Bloomingdale, weaning him from his destructive S&M activities by making him dependent on something like regular adultery. He set her up in surroundings that were never fancy enough to satisfy her. She was hardly the monogamous mistress polishing her toenails while awaiting his arrival.
She had dozens of affairs over the years, using sex as a sort of charge card to get what she wanted. She claimed to have had brief relationships with Cary Grant, Morocco's King Hassad, and high-flying entrepreneur Bernie Cornfeld, among others, and a lesbian fling with an exiled Saudi princess. There were a couple more marriages. But the dominant fact was always Bloomingdale -- as his failing health and suspicious wife allowed. He was her sugar daddy; she was his bimbo.
Their sordid relationship went national in 1980. Betsy Bloomingdale became Nancy's "First Friend" and Alfred became part of the president's "kitchen cabinet." Vicki claimed to have been involved too, although in matters of bedcraft rather than state. She said that she had procured "entertainment" for various high government officials. But her great expectations disappeared when Bloomingdale died in 1982. She began a descent into pillhead paranoia, saying that she was under surveillance and that she had materials that could "bring down the government." Sinking ever lower, she took as a roommate one Marvin Pancoast, a disoriented gay she met during a stint as a patient in a mental hospital. Eventually her narcissism and shallowness drove him so crazy that he beat her to death with a baseball bat. Then comes the brief immortality she had come to believe was her due, as an unscrupulous lawyer named Robert Steinberg made headlines by claiming he had gotten a hold of some "sex tapes" Vicki had left behind, an act Hustler's Larry Flynt eventually got into and raised to new heights of self promotional absurdity.
CLEARLY, there are plenty of events in Vicki. The problem is there aren't any human beings. Perhaps Vicki Morgan would have attained standing as a metaphor in surer hands; it is doubtful. Milton and Bardach huff and puff, surrounding the chapters of her life with coy and profound epigrams in an attempt to swell up this sordid tale. They quote Karen Horney on "love addiction." They try to make it a cautionary tale about life in the California fast lane. ("Vicki Mogan lived in the glamour capital of America, on the fringes of a society that was not so much evil or corrupt as just puffed up with fantasies of unearned wealth and unmerited celebrity. She wanted to grab a piece of the action for herself -- she wanted to be rich and famous, but most of all to be loved unconditionally.") But despite all this hugger-mugger, what we have here amounts to lifestyles of the dumb and boring.
An indication of what this book is made of comes at the end, when the authors tantalize us with the possibility that Vicki was actually killed by government assassins who were also after the "sex tapes." After flogging this idea for a chapter, however, they then admit what they knew all along -- that it was really the gay roommate who did her in.
Most books leave the reader for a while in a matrix of interesting speculation. In the case of Vicki, however, we are left with only one question. Why was it written?