She's dressed primly and conservatively -- soberly, you might say -- and she shows up in court every day. She faces the cameras patiently, and sits motionless even when the testimony is boring.
It's not the image of Carol Burnett the National Enquirer has argued she presents to the public -- the madcup comedienne known for you might say, boisterous behavior in skits and sketches on TV.
The this-is-the-Carol-Burnett-we-know-and-love argument in just one of many being offered up by the supermarket tabloid in a $10 million libel trial stemming from the following item. CAROL BURNETT AND HENRY H. IN ROW
At a Washington restaurant, a boisterous Carol Burnett had a loud argument with another diner, Henry Kissinger. Then she traipsed around the place offering everyone a bite of her dessert. But Carol really raised eyebrows when she accidentally knocked a glass of wine over one diner -- and started giggling instead of apologizing. The guy wasn't amused and "accidentally" spilled a glass of water over her dress.
The trial is being watched by just about everybody -- except the Enquirer, which isn't covering it.
Even if it did, Burnett wouldn't talk to it.
"They scare me," she said yesterday after a series of live and written testimonials from staffers of the Florida-based weekly.
The two-week trial's circus atmosphere has subsided some as testimony drones on, nibbling at such issues as baked alaska. A judge-permitted camera films all the action, and autograph-seekers line up for Burnett in the hallway outside, but she has determinedly states she will attend every day. Asked about the Enquirer calling the alleged libel "whimsical," she set her face. "I don't sue for whimsy."
It is the first time the National Enquirer has ever reached a trial in a libel case in its 28-year history. In Hollywood, celebrities hvae traditionally treated gossip about them in the Enquirer as an occupational hazard.
"There's been a lot of stuff printed about me that's not true," Burnett said, "but you ignore it. It's maddening and annoying but, you know, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Until it really hurts you badly. Then you fight back."
On March 2, 1976, the day the "boisterous" item appeared in the Enquirer, Burnett became so upset that production on a TV show she was working on had to be suspended, her attorneys say.
Though drinking was never mentioned in the item, "a sixth-grader could read it and see that's what it meant," Burnett said yesterday.
Both Burnett's parents were alcoholics; she is a teetotaler. One of her daughters has been treated for drug abuse.
"I'm totally anti-alcoholism and anti-chemical abuse of any kind," she said yesterday. "It's one of my causes in life. This [item] hit me where I live."
Her lawyer immediately fired off a letter to Florida demanding a retraction. Six weeks later, following appeared in the National Enquirer:
"An item in this column on Mar. 2 erroneously reported that Carol Burnett had an argument with Henry Kissinger at a Washington restaurant and became boisterous, disturbing other guests. We understand these events did not occur and we are sorry for any embarrassment our report may have caused Miss Burnett."
She sued anyway, asking $5 million in punitive damages -- claiming the Enquirer had been malicious -- and $5 million in general damages for "great upset, shock, mental suffering, emotional distress, shame, humiliation and embarrassment" as well as loss of revenue and legal fees.
"You know what that retraction reminds me of?" Burnett said earlier in the trial, which began Wednesday. "A hit-and-run driver who hits you, and when you're in the hospital, they send you a bouquet of crabgrass."
The Enquirer's attorney, William Masterson, a libel lawyer here who is currently representing Newsweek in its battle with Steve and Cindy Garvey, has more than just the retraction in his legal arsenal.
Masterson is expected to introduce a sheaf of "highly flattering" stories about Burnett published in the Enquirer prior to the one in question. Court documents also show the defense requesting scripts from 30 episodes of "The Carol Burnett Show" apparently with the star drunk.
Though the Burnett team must prove "reckless disregard" by the Enquirer, part of the strategy so far has beem simply to try to prove the item's inaccuracy. Yesterday, a tanned Washington couple interrupted a Utah skiing vacation by flying here to testify about the fabled night at the restaurant, the Rive Gauche.
Andre Wiessner and his wife Charlotte were at the next table, just across the banquette from Burnett, who was dining there with husband Joe Hamilton and three friends. A few tables away sat Kissinger, having dinner with the chairman of the MCA-Universal entertainment conglomerate, Lou Wasserman and his wife.
The Burnett party had Grand Marnier souffle. The Wiessners had baked alaska. Wiessner, the 35-year-old counsel for a House subcommittee, said the two tables shared desserts after Burnett, noticing the flaming dish nearby, remarked on it. The waiters effected the trade.
Other than that, both Wiessners testified, Burnett was quiet. "It's sort of a snobby place in some ways," Wiessner said, "there's not a lot of loud, obnoxious conversation going on."
Kissinger himself, who was here yesterday to address a trade organization, told reporters that Burnett acted in a "perfectly lady-like fashion" when they were briefly introduced that evening. The former secretary of state has already sworn out a deposition in the case but will not appear as a witness.
Although Burnett maintained, "I'm not carring any banners -- this is a personal thing," she is the first celebrity to challenge the Enquirer and go the way with it. Watching the trial with particular interest will be a pack of stars who followed her in filing suits, including agent Marty Ingels and his wife Shirley Jones, Ed McMahon, Phil Silvers, Raquel Welch, Rudy Vallee, Paul Lynde and Elvis Presley's dentist, Dr. Max Shapiro.