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Millionaire Record Producer Phil Spector and the Violent Death Of Lana Clarkson
By Carlton Smith
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Carlton Smith
All rights reserved.
There was only one word for the house at the top of the hill, the one surrounded by all the trees and the electrified fence: spooky. What else could it be, with its dark shadows, its gothic turrets, its forbidding forest, its warning signs to "KEEP OUT"? The only things missing were the moans, the rattle of chains, and the sepulchral laughter of an Igor.
The cops drove up the hill and came to a stop in front of the heavy iron gate, the one with all the spikes on top. There they stopped, unsure of what to do next. The sign on the gate warned of a high voltage greeting to the uninvited. They decided to call for reinforcements. Six minutes later they were joined by paramedics, and ten minutes after that it was decided to storm the house. One team went up the long series of steps that led up the hill to the front door, while another forced the gate and drove farther up the ascending blacktop to the vehicular circle at the top, the place with the fountain that couldn't be seen from the street down below. They parked their cruiser and prepared to go in. On a lawn nearby, hidden from the prying eyes of the world, were seven small shapes — statues, the cops realized in the pre-dawn darkness. It was only later that someone identified them — Dopey, Sneezy, Sleepy, Bashful, Happy, Doc and Grumpy — Walt Disney's seven dwarfs, each of them frozen in rigidity, as if embarrassed at being caught at the scene of a crime. The reporting person, cell phone in hand, was waiting near the black luxury Mercedes parked not far from the back door of the gloomy mansion. It was in the house, he told the cops — the gunshots.
The cops approached the mansion's rear doorway, a bit uncertain. They had their guns drawn. Who knew what was going down? Knock and announce? No way, the cops decided. The estate was huge — three acres, heavily treed, and the house itself had thirty-three rooms. Who could say for sure what might be inside — a multiple murderer maybe, some crazed Manson-style maniac? The cops had already decided to go through low and fast, ready to shoot first and ask questions only after the smoke had cleared.
Just after 5:20 A.M. on February 3, 2003, they crashed through the door, ready for the worst. There, sprawled in a chair near the stone entryway, the police saw the body of a woman who had obviously been shot in the face. Across the foyer they saw a short, disheveled man clad in what looked like a white nightshirt. His eyes beneath his long, thin gray hair looked wild. The cops told the man to put up his hands — right now! — but the man started to argue with them. That was when one of the cops zapped the man with 50,000 volts from a Taser gun. Down went the man in the nightshirt.
Phil Spector, the one-time legendary rock-and-roll music producer, had finally done it. The proof was right there in the chair, breathing her very last. After decades of bizarre behavior, he had finally, really killed someone.
Or so the cops believed. As the dawn arrived, and with it more and more cops, it seemed like an open-and-shut case: there in the chair was one dead woman, along with a handgun that seemed to belong to Spector, and Spector himself, in a highly agitated state. There was no one else in the entire mansion. Who else could the killer be?
Spector refused to say what had happened. The cops put their cuffs on him and tried to sort things out. The paramedics came and went. One thing was for sure, and if they hadn't known it when they went through the door, the cops knew it now: Phil Spector was a big wheel, and a squeaky one at that. Whatever had happened inside the hidden mansion atop the small hill in suburban Alhambra, California, it was about to become big news: another celebrity murder case for the Los Angeles area, which seems to have them with some regularity.
The Alhambra police had a reputation for being a competent, professional department. But this thing had all the earmarks of something that promised to mushroom out of control. For one thing, there was Spector himself, still handcuffed, with a reputation for suing when he thought he was being wronged, and who now had been Tasered and arrested. After a few minutes' discussion among the Alhambra department's higher-ups, it was decided to toss the case over to the far-larger Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. If this thing grew, no one wanted it said that the Alhambra police had decided Spector was the culprit simply because he might otherwise have grounds to accuse them of incompetence. Besides, it looked like this might take more resources than the Alhambra department had at its disposal.
At 6:25 A.M., the woman was officially pronounced dead, just as the first of three teams of investigators from the Sheriff's Department arrived at the scene to spread through the sprawling house on a search for evidence. One half-hour later, Phil Spector, the producer behind some of rock-and-roll's biggest hits of the early 1960s, was placed under formal arrest on suspicion of having committed homicide. Within an hour after that, Spector was on his way to the Alhambra City Jail.
In a way, despite Spector's reputation for bizarre behavior in the past, the entire scene was incongruous, not least the house itself. Nestled amidst a tract of middle-class homes just east of the Long Beach Freeway, the Spector house stuck out like the oddity it was — a huge mansion, almost a castle, surrounded by and towering over the ordinary dwellings of middle-class wage earners that lapped all around the edges of the wooded hill. It was not for nothing that one of the nearby residents, when later asked about their reclusive celebrity neighbor, said she rarely saw him — except when he was driven by, "waving, like the feudal lord to the serfs."
But even more disconcerting was the question of why? Why was a woman dead in Spector's sprawling castle-like house, and in Alhambra, of all places? Why was a man who, by all accounts, had everything but peace of mind, now in jail on suspicion of murder, and in a place so far removed from the tony locales of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where he had once been famous? What had happened in that house, with its gates and turrets and statues of cartoon dwarfs, that seemed so far removed from ordinary reality? It was, some thought, a case of fame, or rather notoriety, relentlessly pursuing a man who had tried with all his might for years to get it, and at the same time, to leave it far behind.CHAPTER 2
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
As one of the world's mega-centers for the manufacture and distribution of popular culture, Los Angeles and its environs has long been an epicenter for high-profile criminal cases involving celebrities. As far back as the 1920s and 1930s, the fatal follies of the famous provided regular grist for the nation's newspapers and airwaves, a sort of fun-house mirror to the more prosaic felonies and misdemeanors of the rest of the country. Over the years, people like silent actress Mabel Normand and director William Desmond Taylor, theater owner Alexander Pantages, bandleader Spade Cooley, actress Lana Turner, show biz mobster Johnny Stompanato his boss, gambler Mickey Cohen, and his rival, Bugsy Siegel, had all at one time or another provided the nation with a peep show into the lives of the rich and famous, and their crimes, deaths or accusations. It was something of a tradition. More recently the trials of O. J. Simpson, Winona Ryder and Robert Downey all became grist for the popular media, elevating them into a new category of defendant: the star as the accused, manifesting the fundamental truth that a culture driven by celebrity creates its own gods, and as quickly devours them. Or, as accused wife-killer Robert Blake might have put it: that's the name of that tune.
It wasn't even necessary for a body to be involved: fifty years earlier, when actor Robert Mitchum was arrested for smoking marijuana, it was national news, so that Robert Downey's own battle with drugs two generations later had a sort of derivative quality to it, an echo, or more accurately, a burp, from the culture-making machinery. Even when a star couldn't be the protagonist, an ordinary person could be made to serve as a stand-in, because the armies of cameras and microphone holders could transmute even the baser element into something akin to stardom. Long ago, for instance, the efforts of the state of California to execute the so-called "Red Light Bandit," Caryl Chessman, made Chessman himself into a sort of celebrity, as did the later effort to convict John DeLorean on drug charges. The Menendez brothers, Lyle and Erik, tried for the murders of their parents, were just another chapter in the book of alchemy that made ordinary criminals into public figures, staples of the celebrity-creating culture.
Thus the arrest of Phil Spector, the one-time "tycoon of teen," the legendary progenitor of the "Wall of Sound" that had revolutionized rock-and-roll music in the early 1960s, was the opening act of yet another media-driven criminal case, another wild ride toward the crossroads of fate and fame. But to borrow the words of later rock-and-roll icons, what a long, strange trip it had been — getting there, at least, if not the final, fatal destination.
The news of the arrest of Phil Spector seeped into the public awareness slowly at first, then with stunning rapidity. Just after 7 A.M. that gray Monday morning, over the very radio waves that had once made Phil rich and famous, the word went out: Phil Spector, the legendary record producer, now a supposed recluse in suburban Alhambra — Alhambra? — was in jail in connection with the shooting death of a woman at his sprawling castle-like mansion. The news readers told what little they knew, and by eight that morning, a substantial portion of the Los Angeles–area drive-time population, who had once drummed their teenaged fingers on steering wheels to the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," or the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," now found themselves musing that somehow, somewhere, perhaps, Phil Spector had lost that lovin' feelin'.
Soon that morning, helicopters were circling Spector's castle, reporters gave their stand-up reports in the driveway in front of the large iron gates, while their camerapersons shot close-ups of signs warning trespassers to keep out, or the fearsome-looking bits of jagged metal set along the tops of the estate's walls. A gaggle of grim-visaged, silent men, some in uniforms, made their way in and out of the gate, followed by the departure of the ominous gray van. A television reporter for the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles interviewed one of the neighbors, Terri Arias: "I heard the boom, boom boom," Arias told the television station. "It was about three or four shots."
Later in the morning, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department confirmed the news that Spector had been arrested, while declining to say who had been killed.
"Shortly after five o'clock this morning, officers responded to a shooting call and discovered a female shot inside the location [sic]," said Faye Bugarin of the sheriff's department. "She was pronounced dead at the scene and suspect Phillip Spector was taken into custody and is currently being detained."
Eight time zones away, in London, England, a reporter for the United Kingdom Daily Telegraph newspaper, was just about to leave the newsroom for the day. An editor asked writer Mick Brown, the paper's cultural affairs expert, just what he had done to set Phil Spector off.
"What?" Brown asked. The editor told Brown that Spector had just been arrested in connection with the shooting death of a woman at his mansion near Los Angeles. Because Brown had written a lengthy profile on Spector that had run only two days before the shooting — in fact, Brown had obtained the first face-to-face interview that Spector had given in decades — the editor kidded Brown that his just-published profile had made Spector mad enough to murder.
Brown was flabbergasted, especially to hear the news that the dead person was a woman. He tried to imagine who had been killed, and could only think of two names: Phil's personal assistant, Michelle Blaine, the daughter of storied drummer Hal Blaine, and also the young woman who had helped him secure the prized interview; or — and here Brown gave himself a mental double-take — the woman Phil had been seeing socially in recent months: Nancy Sinatra.
Brown turned around, went back to his desk, and started making telephone calls.
But it wasn't Nancy Sinatra, and it wasn't Michelle Blaine. Late that day, while Brown and other newspeople on two continents tried to figure out who Phil Spector was supposed to have killed, a man named Rick Partlow received a telephone call of his own. A friend had just heard the news: the woman shot dead at Phil Spector's house was none other than their mutual good friend, the actress Lana Clarkson.
Partlow, a veteran actor and Foley artist — an expert in sound effects for movies and television — couldn't believe it. In fact, he refused to believe it. He had known Lana Clarkson for more than twenty years, ever since she had first become involved in show business in her late teens. He was very good friends with Lana, her mother Donna, and her brother and sister. He was, in fact, very nearly a member of the family. His mind racing, Partlow dialed Donna Clarkson, who lived not far away.
It was true, Lana's mother told Partlow; Lana was dead. Donna had just been notified by the authorities. It had been Lana who was shot down in Phil Spector's house.
Partlow's mind kept slipping gears, even as Donna's pain came over the line. It didn't seem possible: Lana, so bright, so upbeat, so personable, so close a friend ... how could she be dead? Partlow's mind refused to accept it. It was as if some new, alien reality had taken over, some force that had wrenched the entire universe into an inconceivable new channel. Numbly, Partlow went through the particulars of getting the information necessary to deal with what had happened; he would help Donna make all the funeral arrangements.
Replacing the telephone, Partlow struggled to make sense of everything; it was as if all that he had known, everything that he had accepted as a given, had been thrown into confusion.
His mind filled itself with images: Lana during all the years he had known her, in all the various incarnations he had seen her go through as an actress: ingenue, action heroine, star of television commercials, and most recently, a promising stand-up comedienne. And beneath those images: all the times that Lana had flopped on his couch, hair in curlers, watching the old movies they both loved so much, and the actresses Lana adored: Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Marilyn Monroe, and others, all of them light, comedic geniuses who had delighted millions over the years, just as Lana herself had yearned to do. It seemed impossible that she could be dead.
But by that evening, the news was out, which somehow seemed to make it more real: the dead woman on Phil Spector's floor was Lana Jean Clarkson, a 40-year-old actress most famous for her role as the prototype for Xena, Warrior Princess, as the female lead in producer Roger Corman's 1985 cult classic film, Barbarian Queen. By that evening, in fact, Lana's life had been weighed and assayed against the balance of Spector's own: B movie actress found slain at Phil Spector's house was the story line that led the evening news. The unstated subtext was that somehow, desperate for success, Lanan Clarkson had put the moves on Spector, and had been killed for her trouble. Fatal Attraction, the New York Post headlined. Why else would she have been at his house all night?
Inside, Partlow seethed: that was just like the media, he thought, just like Hollywood, to sum up an entire life with a simplistic tag line. "B movie actress," indeed, as if the woman he had come to love over so many years was nothing more than a Hollywood wannabe, a second-rate player of no significant value, and to use it to cast an implied sneer at her virtue. The more he thought about it, the angrier he got. It was as if the television was in effect saying, B movie actress, big deal; as if it somehow made it more acceptable that she was dead, since she wasn't a big star. Partlow knew that wasn't true, that they weren't actually saying anything like that, but the feeling was hard to get rid of. And when he thought about Spector — rich, famous, successful beyond anyone's dreams — he got even madder.
Just who the hell does he think he is? Partlow thought. Does he think he can just shoot somebody down in his house and get away with it? Does he think he can murder my friend and walk away from what he did, just because he's rich and famous?
But there it was, also on the news that night: Phil Spector, the famous rock-and-roll producer, had been released from jail on $1 million bail. Phil, a police officer just behind him, was shown making his way out of the Alhambra police station. He was still in his nightshirt, his eyes unfocused, his thinning hair waving wildly and his ferret-like face looking pinched, an aging legend, now caught in the strobe lights.
Excerpted from Reckless by Carlton Smith. Copyright © 2004 Carlton Smith. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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