Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER ONEBut the true measure of your character is not in your thoughts but in your behavior, especially when you’re provoked. Ultimately, you are what you choose to do.
—DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER
APRIL 13, 1997
From the instant Laura C. Schlessinger, Ph.D., stepped out the door of the Dallas—Fort Worth International Airport in Texas, she should have felt the heat.It was the third of March, 1997, and a sunny 73 degrees. The temperature, it seemed, was every bit as warm as her welcome.In town to speak at two different charitable events, “Dr. Laura,” as she bills herself, left her husband, Lew Bishop, and their eleven-year-old son, Deryk, at home, in the family’s sprawling house in Hidden Hills, just across the freeway from Calabasas, California. That, in itself, was rare for Dr. Laura, who prided herself on being, first and foremost, “my kid’s mom”—the kind of mom, she told her millions of listeners nearly every weekday, who put family first and career somewhere further down the line. And the kind of talk-radio host who expected the same moral stance from her fans. Without qualification.“Welcome to the program,” Dr. Laura would say at the start of each call to her three-hour, five-day-a-week, interactive, moral advice show. Then, the caller would launch into his or her “moral dilemma.”On a typical day, Dr. Laura would hear from around six to eight fans an hour, most of whom would start out by saying how much they adored Dr. Laura, her show, her morals or all three. But even a warm welcome from Dr. Laura or adoration from the fans could not save some callers from verbal lickings if they were not living up to Dr. Laura’s tough moral code of family values, which excludes, among other things, sex out of wedlock, divorce if kids are involved, and leaving children in child care.If she had ever listened to Dr. Laura, a caller like Jennifer, the unwed mother of a three-year-old, really should have known better. Jennifer had called in to confess a second pregnancy by another live-in boyfriend.“So he’s not anxious to get married, is that right?” queried the good doctor.“No, he is actually,” claimed Jennifer. “We know we’re going to be together—”“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” broke in Dr. Laura, who has heard this all before. “Is he the father of the other kid?”“That was another infidelity,” explained Jennifer, adding, “We are in the nineties and things just happen.”“I see—you woke up in the middle of the night pregnant, not ever having had intercourse with the man you aren’t married to,” answered Dr. Laura, sarcastically. “I knew that in the 1990s something had to be different. What kind of crap are you handing me, woman? People got pregnant by intercourse since the beginning of humankind. There is nothing new in the 1990s.”“I’m animal [sic] enough to admit how I got pregnant,” explained Jennifer. “As things go, people are a lot more liberal now—”“I’m not,” chimed in Dr. Laura. “You’re pregnant out of wedlock? Liberal is good? Is that in the best interest of the kid?”“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” said Jennifer, who then confessed that her moral dilemma was whether or not she should have an abortion.“This is the nineties, just suck it out into a sink. Kill it. Terminate it. Get on with your life,” said Dr. Laura, again sarcastically.“Jennifer, you came to the wrong house to get this handout … . This is a life … . That’s it,” she added, forgoing her usual tendency to use one of her preferred terms, “slut,” or her favorite comebacks, “How stupid can you be and still be able to chew your food?”But this was Dallas, not the airwaves, and although Dr. Laura’s radio time was over, her work was not done.Laura was on her own in Dallas. And, even though she was getting paid $30,000 a pop for two speeches, plus squeezing in a promotional event with the local AM talk-radio station that hosted her show, she did not appear particularly gleeful.When several women from one of the organizations she was addressing met her plane, she was brusque with them, and in a hurry to be off. At the hotel where she was to address a function that evening, Dr. Laura surveyed the first suite reserved for her and reportedly said the “smell” was not right. Hotel management quickly maneuvered her to a second suite, which she also found unsuitable, as she did a third and a fourth. Finally, at the suggestion of one of the women in attendance that they could find another hotel, Dr. Laura moved to an even more expensive place, ranked among the top ten in America: The Mansion on Turtle Creek. The expenses, per prior arrangement, were being picked up by her hosts.“One usually goes to the Mansion for the food,” explained D. J. Kassanoff, an English teacher at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, who attended Dr. Laura’s speech the following evening and was familiar with the arrangements. “But, since Dr. Laura keeps kosher, they had arranged with a local kosher catering concern in Plano to bring in food for their guest.”Laura’s first event was a speech and dessert, sponsored by the Assistance League of Dallas at the Grand Kempinski Hotel. Made up of 120 women who “do good works for charity,” the League signed Laura first to keynote their biggest fund-raiser of the year. Tickets were from $50 to $100, and the proceeds from the event were slated to benefit several local educational and medical charities for children.Between 2,000 and 2,300 people filed into the Crystal Ballroom at the Grand Kempinski at 7:30 that evening, anxious to see Dr. Laura in action.Phyllis Davis, a friend of several League officers, remembered being surprised by Laura almost from the moment she walked onstage. Instead of immediately addressing the crowd after what Davis recalled as a “marvelous introduction” by Deborah Duncan, then a Dallas television personality, Laura stepped forward and said she needed the stage setup changed.“She’s short, and I’m short, so I understand those kind of things, but she moved the whole stage around. She had someone come on and move everything [the furniture] over … and all of this while we are all sitting there, waiting. Then she ended up kind of walking around with the mike so she could be seen in total.“She was kind of cutesy,” Davis continued. “This was a psychologist supposedly there to answer questions, but at the same time, she is a show person, getting paid to do a job. She talked mainly about herself and how she converted [to Judaism] and how she handled her little boy. Then she opened it up for questions. People raised their hands from the audience, and then someone would take them the microphone.“There was not one person who asked a question who wasn’t put down in the most rude fashion I have ever seen,” recalled Davis.“They were questions somebody my age would never ask. They had to do with marital problems and how to handle things with a husband. These people had paid money to come see this woman, and she absolutely put each one of them down. She said, ‘I do things differently, and if you listen to my program, you know those are the kind of things I’m not even going to address: They are too frivolous.’ She was not good.“I was expecting a more sophisticated attitude towards people who had come. I was surprised that a psychologist would come forth with the kind of answers and treat people the way she did,” said Davis.Even though Davis did not remember anyone saying, “Wasn’t that just great?” Laura’s appearance on March 3 was received less poorly than her performance the next evening.The following morning, Laura was guest of honor at a breakfast for advertisers sponsored by KRLD, the radio station in Dallas that hosted her show. Rose Saginaw, a Dallas marketing executive and confessed Dr. Laura fan, attended with around 100 others.“It was at a lovely restaurant at the Quadrangle, which is normally not open in the morning, but they opened up the whole place. My impression of her, as a person, was that she was even wittier, more caring, and more sensitive than I had even imagined. She was very human. On the other hand, she really said some dumb things.“She said, ‘I’m so glad to be in Dallas. You look so good. I expected to find a bunch of overweight people.’ There had been a story in the paper about overweight people in Texas, but, number one, that was about San Antonio. Dallas is a fashion center and we are not overweight. Those people who filter for her didn’t background her. It was kind of an insulting thing. Those were her opening remarks,” said Saginaw.Still Saginaw believed Laura was a caring person. “I just thought her ears weren’t hearing what her mouth was saying. I just think you pick up the patter and the tongue goes and the ears are slower. I mean, light travels faster than sound. I just don’t think she heard herself. It didn’t sit well. The reason I’m mentioning it is because it helped me understand why they were so upset in the evening. I think she listens carefully when she does her work. On the other hand, when she is not listening to an individual, she just didn’t pick up the vibes within the group. I think that’s what happened that evening.”“That evening” was the second speech Dr. Laura was paid to give, this time for the women’s division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. Three women from the federation picked Laura up in a private car at The Mansion on Turtle Creek and chauffeured her to the federation’s fund-raiser at the Sheradon Hotel.“They had worked very hard on this fund-raiser, and this was their reward,” said a woman from the federation who was privy to the planning.“Laura was in [the car] for no more than three minutes. [She] said, ‘This car smells. Someone has had on perfume. I cannot ride in it.’ Then she got out of the car,” remembered the woman. “Then she insisted they get her a cab.”Laura reportedly went through three different cabs before she found one that passed her smell test.Part of her contract with the federation, which served a kosher meal, was that Laura appear at a reception for large donors prior to the dinner and speech for 1,300 ticket holders. At the reception, Laura was described as “hostile” and answered questions from partygoers “only in monosyllables.”D. J. Kassanoff sat at a front table when Dr. Laura was introduced and remembered her as “thin … much thinner than I would have ever expected a nonanorectic person to be.“Before she even spoke they had a little film interviewing rabbis from all different congregations and people who belonged to the congregations like Mort Myerson. The symphony hall [in Dallas] is named after him. These were big givers to the federation. They talked about what the Jewish Welfare Federation meant to them, and it showed children and the like. It was really a nice presentation.“They gave [Dr. Laura] a nice introduction, and then one of her first comments was that there was no mention of God in this first presentation, and she said, ‘The foundation of Judaism, of course, is God.’ She is a recent convert. The reality is, there was no need to mention God; that was a given. This [presentation] was to raise money to support organizations,” pointed out Kassanoff.“I don’t know what her message was supposed to be. I assume it was ‘Why I am a Jew,’ or ‘Why all of you who are not Orthodox Jews are not particularly good Jews.’“She made fun of a Reform female rabbi she went to. She said when she first wanted to convert she went to a Reform congregation to be converted. She said she walked in and told the female rabbi, who said, ‘Cool. Sign here.’ It took a male rabbi in a Conservative synagogue to lead her in the right path, she said. In one breath … through innuendo … she had put down both professional women and Reform Judaism. She didn’t have the slightest knowledge of her audience.”And things went downhill from there.“At first I was smiling and thinking it’s okay, she can be cutesy,” said Kassanoff. “I’m sitting in front. She is making eye contact with me and I will smile. Then I decided, I am not going to do this because I don’t like what she’s doing up there. She thinks she is being very clever and cute and she’s being very offensive.“One young woman stood up and said, ‘I teach school. I teach a minority group and only thirty percent of my parents are involved and I find it very difficult. How could I get those other parents involved? I know they work and they’re tired, but I need that involvement.’“Dr. Laura’s answer was ‘Thirty percent are involved? Well, you’re very lucky. That’s more than have ever been involved in the places where I’ve lived,’ and then she said, ‘We should all live in a minority neighborhood.’ She just flippantly tossed aside the question.“And, I can’t remember exactly what she said, but she talked incessantly about her son, about how proud he is to be Jewish, about how much he agrees with what she says, about how she doesn’t leave him, although she left him this time.“She talked about intimacies that, if I would have done that with my own children, they would have been angry. And if they weren’t angry, I would have been angry with myself. She talked about going to [the] mikva and both of them getting undressed to be converted. She talked about her relationship with him. It was practically incestuous in my opinion, her constant reliance on her son, her constant mentioning of her son, not so much as a son figure but as an equal, like one would mention one’s husband or one’s significant other.“She talked very little about her husband, although she mentioned her husband was in the process of converting, and very much about her son,” said Kassanoff.Adele Hurst, Ph.D., a Dallas psychologist who also attended the presentation that night—not as a psychologist, but to support the Jewish Federation—remembered thinking “how staged and glib she was at presenting.“She had instant remarks and a way of deflecting, so if she didn’t want to answer something, she put it back on the person. She is an entertainer,” said Hurst, who believed that, judging from the applause, the audience was “half and half” with respect to Laura’s presentation up until a point when she was “very rude” to a questioner. “The applause seemed to die down after that.”“I heard people were leaving in the back,” added Kassanoff. “We would have gone, too, but we were in the front row.“She didn’t ask for questions and answers until the end,” said Kassanoff, who remembered the last question asked.“This woman said, ‘I’m a grandmother of intermarried children. What would you say to a grandmother of intermarried children?’ [Dr. Laura] responded, ‘My grandmother’s dead. I wouldn’t say anything because my grandmother’s dead.’“And the woman said, ‘No, you don’t know what I am trying to say. I’m the grandmother. How do you handle—’ and [Laura] interrupted and said, ‘My grandmother’s dead. I don’t know how you’d handle it. I have no answer to you. My grandmother’s dead.’ That was the last question. Now that’s somebody who is cracking,” believed Kassanoff.“When she cut off the final lady, and she cut her off so rudely, then she said, ‘I’ve got to go.’ And she left. They [the federation women] gave her these presents for her son as she was walking off. The person who introduced her was off the stage, standing to one side. She said, ‘Oh, by the way, we have presents from Texas for your son.’ Laura was no longer on the stage when they handed them to her. [Laura] left them. I don’t know if she set them aside right then and there, but she didn’t even take the presents they had made for her son.“She had two men on either side of her,” recalled Kassanoff, “and she whisked by my table and she left. She must have sensed she was persona non grata at the end of the talk. She was no longer smiling. She was rushing. I would say she wasn’t embarrassed, but she realized she had been rejected. She sensed that rejection and was eager to get away.”Afterward, Kassanoff was “so angry” that she went home and wrote three letters that night, even though she had never before written a letter to the editor.“Her tales of her dysfunctional childhood, her fixation on her son, and her recent conversion to Judaism came across as narcissistic musings instead of the informative anecdotes of a professional,” wrote Kassanoff to The Dallas Morning News. “Many of us believe that she has unfortunately adopted Judaism as one would embrace a cult, not only revealing her problematic and fragile emotional state but also overlooking the obvious—that the inherent beauty of our religion lies precisely in its variety.”“She came with a chip on her shoulder,” said Kassanoff. “She is a woman in the middle of finding out something about herself and not liking what she is finding. I got that definite opinion. She seemed to be in self-analysis. And anybody who talks the way she talked to others, especially her fellow women, I think that means there is something inside of her. She is not liking women.“This woman needs help,” concluded Kassanoff. “She probably needs therapy more than anybody I ever listened to.”While the buzz in Dallas was that everyone was “consistently miffed” at Laura’s performance, Rose Saginaw did not find the sentiment to be universally true.“Interestingly,” revealed Saginaw, “a crowd has a mentality; if you weren’t miffed, you shut up. At a dinner party the next night [March 5], of course that was the buzz. Everybody was asking, ‘Were you there or were you not?’ I said to a person next to me that I wasn’t there, so therefore I’m not offended. I said, ‘I understand how she riled so many people, but I’m not understanding why it has taken on such a life.” This woman said, ‘Well, I was there and I didn’t think she did anything that bad.’“It was politically incorrect to not be offended,” concluded Saginaw, who even after Laura’s faux pas at the KRLD breakfast still remained a fan.“I just loved her. She’s very human. She was adorable just before she left [the breakfast]. She said, ‘Okay … my time’s up … I’m going shopping!’ I identified with her. I can see where she is out of touch sometimes, but I was not irritated at all. I felt for her, because I think she is so smart.“There’s an old expression: ‘Smart, smart, smart, smart, dumb.’ All of us are smart, smart, smart, smart, dumb. And yet, when you see a celebrity, especially someone who has done what she has done, you expect only smart, smart, smart, smart, smart.”And perhaps, “smartly,” the incident in Dallas would have died if it were not for another move, perceived by many as “dumb.” On March 12, 1997, on her national radio program, Dr. Laura regaled her audience with what had happened to her in Dallas.She talked about the “bad experience with the audience at the women’s division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas,” and “the unbelievable mean lies that Marlyn Schwartz wrote in The Dallas Morning News.”In tears, Laura related how Schwartz’s column had “gossiped” about how difficult she had been, changing hotel rooms and cars because of the odors. She justified her behavior by saying she has allergies and sinus problems.Saying she was in a “personal and spiritual crisis” over what had happened, Laura revealed she had spent two hours on the phone with her rabbi. She said the criticism was particularly hard to take as it came from one of her “own people.” (Schwartz is also Jewish.)Then she said that in order to take away “the pain and ugliness of the experience,” she was sending her $30,000 fee to charities, with the direction that it be earmarked for homes for unwed mothers.A second Marlyn Schwartz column on the subject ran the following day. Schwartz noted that her first piece made clear that Laura was bothered by the smells. “But the point was her ungracious attitude in dealing with people about this. She was not being maligned for having allergies.“I told one reporter,” recalled Schwartz, “that if [Laura] had a spiritual crisis over sinus, she has more of a problem than I thought.“I was not trying to make this a controversy,” reiterated Schwartz.Schwartz said she was particularly surprised when Lew Bishop, Laura’s husband and manager, called her that same day and “told me everything was false in my story.”At first, Lew told her that Dr. Laura was not paid for the federation speech, though the federation verified that the fee was $30,000. Finally Lew told her that Laura had not been paid yet, and that the fee was actually $25,000, with $5,000 for the agent who booked it.“I said, ‘Why are you calling me and not your wife?’” recalled Schwartz about that call. “He put her on the phone and she started screaming at me. She yelled, ‘Why are you calling me?’ And I said, ‘I didn’t call you; your husband called me.’ And she said, ‘That was a mistake,’ and slammed down the phone.”Thanks to Laura’s on-air meltdown, the story of what happened in Dallas became fodder for the national media. Reporters by the dozens called Schwartz for her reaction.“CNN called me at the end of [Laura‘s] show,” recalled Schwartz, “and said, ‘Are you sorry you did this?’ I said, ‘I don’t have anything to be sorry about. I reported her behavior; I didn’t commit it.’ But I will tell you this, I was so mad that she was pitting a Jewish woman against a Jewish woman, I said, ‘There is nothing in the Old Testament that says, Thou shalt be obnoxious.’”The episode had other repercussions.“Later in 1997, when her new book [Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives] came out, our department [at The Dallas Morning News] was going to do a piece about it. They called the publisher and they set up an interview with one of our writers. Then the publisher had to call back and apologize because Dr. Laura refused to speak to anyone from our newspaper. And not only did she refuse to speak to the paper, but she had been setting up these satellite things with bookstores all over the country. She canceled the satellite in Dallas … . I think she was afraid someone there would confront her,” revealed Schwartz.“So in this case,” wrote Schwartz on March 13, 1997, in the last column she did on the subject, “the only thing I can say to Dr. Laura is what I’ve learned from listening to Dr. Laura:“If you are going to dish it out, you’d better learn to take it.”It was, as Mirian Longino of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution dubbed it, Dr. Laura’s “Publicity Week From Hell.”In retrospect, the events of that fateful week in March 1997 and the attendant national publicity only served to spawn even deeper curiosity about the woman who is Laura Schlessinger.This book attempts to answer that question. This is the story of the evolution of Dr. Laura.DR. LAURA: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY. Copyright © 1999 by Vickie L. Bane. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.