When actor Cliff Robertson discovered that David Begelman, head of Columbia Pictures studios, had forged his name on a $10,000 check, he triggered investigations by three police departments, the FBI and Columbia's auditors. Begelman subsequently admitted to Columbia, according to David McClintick, author of "Indecent Exposure," not one but four embezzlements totaling $75,000, and admitted receiving services worth thousands more "by the more genteel method of cheating on his expense account."
While the investigation was going on, Columbia's corporate chieftains issued press releases that spoke only vaguely of "unauthorized financial transactions." They also persuaded Robertson not to go public with his grievances, according to McClintick.
About three months after he had first hollered cop, Robertson picked up The Wall Street Journal one day and read that despite Begelman's admitted crookedness -- which for the first time was being laid out in some detail by The Journal -- Columbia had reinstated him in one of the most important jobs in show business.
That cut it. Feeling betrayed, Robertson decided to spill the beans and he selected The Washington Post for the first spilling; but he kept on talking and talking to any reporter who would listen. The inevitable scramble for fresh angles resulted in some false and tawdry journalism and in what author David McClintick (the reporter on the original Journal story) calls "one of the most intense, frantic, and chaotic media pursuits of a story of less than life-and-death importance that America had seen in many years."
At that point, the big question at Columbia Pictures Industries was not "Can we live with a crook?" but rather "Can we stand the bad publicity?"
Although there is a great deal of flitting back and forth between coasts, the struggle over the answer occurs mostly in Columbia's corporate headquarters in New York City. Here Alan Hirschfield, chairman and chief executive officer, "the loose, playful Oklahoma Jew who wanted nothing more than to make a lot of money and have a roaring good time doing it," goes to war with the board of directors. He wants to fire Begelman; most of the board does not. Hirschfield's chief opponents are investment banker Herbert Allen Jr., a calculating bachelor, we are told, who would "shun a woman for such minor failings as exposing what he considered to be too much of her gums when she smiled," and Geritol magnate Matty Rosenhaus, an old man who, McClintick tells us, on learning of Begelman's conduct, began to weep. Unfortunately, for Hirschfield, Allen and Rosenhaus owned controlling interest. The board-room bickering and plotting and counter-plotting is endless, I tell you, endless! But the outcome is inevitable: Hirschfield is fired.
McClintick is admirably candid when he calls it "a story of less than life-and-death importance," although in Hollywood, which loves to read about what a mischievous town it is, the story is said to have caused some stir. He recapitulates everything -- including reports of Begelman's questionable handling of other people's money dating back to the time when he was Judy Garland's agent -- in excruciating detail, but it all adds up only to further proof of the evil of banality. Most of these people are banal. Unless you count Robertson, there are no heroes here, no pathetic victims, no grand villains.
To be sure, there is injustice. Begelman, the convicted crook, continued at the top of the heap, while Robertson the whistle-blower was blacklisted for four years. But grudge blacklisting hardly ranks in the same class as the kind of ideological blacklisting for which Hollywood is more famous; and whereas many of those blacklisted in the 1950s suffered real financial hurt, Robertson continued to live in luxury, being rich himself and married to one of the wealthiest women in America. Hirschfield, who had helped Columbia climb out of an economic grave, hardly deserved to be fired; but the millions he made by selling his Columbia stock, as McClintick puts it, "unquestionably helped assuage the psychological traumas he had suffered."
Nothing that McClintick writes about these people will shock or surprise you. After all, entertainment may be our new religion, but Americans have known for a long time that Hollywood is not Vatican City and that few moral crusades are likely to spring from the circles where Rona Barrett is taken seriously.
The atmosphere of the world in which "Indecent Exposure" takes place is so sleazy and pettifogging that it would take a Dickens, which McClintick is not, to turn it into art. Nevertheless, it holds a fascination, like eavesdropping on some stupid, terribly overwrought family quarrel in which the central issue becomes lost in the hatreds it engenders.
Some of the odds and ends are entertaining. One of my favorites is Robertson's riding to work in a chauffeured limousine, day after day, with a blanket pulled over his head. The FBI had advised him this was a good way to avoid danger. Another is the aftermath of The New York Times article about Columbia that was so full of inaccuracies it required "perhaps the most elaborate retraction, correction, and apology in the history of major American newspapers up to that time"; the editor who had presided over this garbage quit the newspaper and went on to become -- what else? -- a Hollywood producer.
McClintick is obviously a graduate of the School of Smothering Details. For no apparent reason, he insists on telling us exactly what kind of shrubs and trees grow around a particular hotel bungalow, the color of an office carpet, the weather outside and the temperatures inside, the first-floor layout of Hirschfield's home, and how Hirschfield broke his left big toe; he feels compelled to inform us that the Wells Fargo Bank in Beverly Hills is "at Little Santa Monica Boulevard and Camden Drive opposite the Mandarin Restaurant and Dick Dorso's fashion boutique"; that a New York attorney's office is "on the northwest corner of the building, facing the Plaza Hotel, the St. Moritz, and the Gulf & Western Building to the west; the Sherry Netherland and Pierre hotels to the north; and in between the expanse of Central Park"; that when entertainment executives are in New York, "they frequently can be found at the Russian Tea Room on Fifty-seventh, Orsini's on Fifty-sixth, La Cote Basque on Fifty-fifth, '21' on Fifty-second, or Lutece on Fiftieth," and that they often put up at "the Plaza or the Sherry (diagonally across from the Plaza), or the Pierre (a few steps north of the Sherry), or the Regency (two blocks over on Park)."
Just in case you wanted to know.