Entertainer Carol Burnett yesterday told jurors in her $10 million libel trial against the National Enquirer that she was "absolutely . . . stunned" when she first learned of the tabloid's gossip item about her five years ago.
"I got very, very angry," the straight-faced comedienne told the hushed courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter S. Smith. "I started to cry. I started to shake. Then I calmed down and I called my lawyer and I said, 'I am going to sue'."
The item, which appeared in 1976, said that Burnett was loud and boisterous when she dined at Washington's Rive Gauche restaurant, that she argued with former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, that she spilled wine on a diner and giggled rather than apologized, and that she had water spilled on her.
Questioned by her attorney, Barry B. Langberg, Burnett explained that the article was particularly harmful to her because it insinuated she was drunk. Her parents, she said, had died of alcoholism.
"It portrays me as being drunk," she said of the item. "It portrays me as being rude. It portrays me as being uncaring. It portrays me as being physically abusive. It is disgusting and it is a pack of lies."
Burnett said she learned of the item in New York where she was rehearsing with Beverly Sills for their program, "Sills and Burnett at the Met."
As she walked to rehearsal, she said, a cab driver yelled out, "Hey, Carol, I didn't know you liked to get in fights." She said she started crying and spent the entire day explaining that the story was wrong.
One of her first thoughts, she said, was that she would never be able to talk meaningfully about alcohol abuse again. "They [alcohoics] are going to say, 'Who does she think she is to tell me there is a cure?'"
Burnett testified she had "two, possibly three" glasses of wine during the dinner at the Rive Gauche. Normally, she said, she drinks only wine or an occasional Bloody Mary. She said she had been intoxicated once, during college.
The National Enquirer contends that the item did not make Burnett appear drunk, that a subsequent retraction corrected any possible wrong, and that Burnett has suffered no damages.
Burnett drew rapt attention when she described her childhood memories of her parents.
"He was always a very gentle soul, even when he drank," she said of her father. "I remember asking him if he loved me, would he stop [drinking]?
. . . Then when he did start again I thought he didn't love me . . ."
"My mother didn't start drinking until her 30s," she said. "She was a hostile drunk, a total 180 [degrees] from my father."
William A. Masterson, the Enquirer's attorney, remained confident despite Burnett's testimony.
"The First Amendment doesn't read 'except for the National Enquirer,' or except for The Washington Post,'" he told reporters outside court.
In his cross-examination of Burnett, Masterson won her agreement that her career and income had suffered no damage and "might have been better." The defense attorney made the point that Burnett was able to complete taping of the Sills and Burnett show, described by critics as "one of the legendary Burnett specials."
Under Masterson's questioning, Burnett admitted she never sought medical or psychiatric treatment for the emotional distress and mental anguish she claims is worth $5 million of her $10 million libel suit.
In her account of the evening, Burnett said she and diners near her had a good time but did nothing unusual or loud. She said she was never intoxicated and never left her table except perhaps to go to the ladies' room.
She did share her dessert -- a chocolate souffle, she thought, rather than the Grand Marnier souffle others have described -- with nearby diners.
"There was banter," she said. "It was nice, a wonderful evening."
Burnett recalled meeting Kissinger as her party left. Kissinger said something, she thought, about seeing her the next evening at the White House where she was to perform at a dinner for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel.