Ben Stein's Diary

So Much Sadness

Love among the ruins -- from Ben's monthly print edition Diary.

By From the October 2012 issue

Now for a second sad story.

My beautiful wifey is not just another pretty face. No, she was also a star attorney. She attended George Washington University Law Center, same as J. Edgar Hoover. She worked for a major Wall Street firm in its Washington, D.C., office, on immense trade regulation matters and antitrust.

When she came out to Hollywood to marry me for the second time, she worked for a long time in the motion picture legal department at Paramount where a dear pal named Don Simpson, R.I.P., a really inspiring man, got her the job. She did well there and was well liked in the world of legal matters and business affairs.

In Hollywood, as you may or may not know, there are many prima donnas, screaming, cursing, controlling, manipulating, lying skunks. You can see them in movies about Hollywood, or, if you are toiling in the Hollywood Vineyard, as Alex and I have done, you see them up close and personal.

They live to project their pain and self-loathing onto others around them.

What is less known is that there are many extremely wonderful, kind, good-natured men and women in the business. I think of my dear pal Al Burton; my war hero pal, Norman Lear, probably the biggest factor in TV comedy production there has ever been; my pal Deanne Barkley, the co-inventor of the made-for-TV movie; my super-capable super agent, Marcia Hurwitz, and many others.

Of all the men, though, the standout gentleman, the suavest, most cool, most unflappably calm and confident and cinematic was Richard Fowkes. He was, if you can imagine this, Fred Astaire or Ronald Colman as head of the part of Paramount that negotiates the big parts of the puzzle of movie deals.

He was my wife’s colleague, and in some ways her superior officer, in most of her years on the lot at Paramount. (In an amazing coincidence, both Richard and his wife, Flo, attended law school with my wife, although my wife did not know him there at all.) He was always soft-spoken, never in a hurry, never throwing a fit, always aware of what needed to be in a deal and what did not need to be in a deal.

A more elegant gentleman (that word again, which so rarely applies in Hollywood) has never walked through the Melrose gate of Paramount. He often hosted my wife and me at his manse in Hancock Park, a great area in L.A., and I felt as if I were in the presence of a nobleman.

To make a long, cruelly horrible story short, about a year and a half ago, Richard Fowkes, imperially slim, tap-dancing, piano-playing, Sondheimloving, cashmere-wearing lawyer and man of the arts, was diagnosed with cancer of the brain. Flo and his gloriously devoted daughters, Jillian and Sloane, both grown by now, also attended him and cheered him up, although one of them was in school in Australia.

Cancer is called cancer for a reason, though, and despite a heroic struggle, Richard declined and died of it in mid-August. We learned about it when we were in Sandpoint. My wife cried real tears.

Today, we attended the memorial service for Richard in a large theater—totally packed—on the Paramount lot. It was a deeply sobering event. The most moving parts were 1) when a producer famed for her eloquence, Lindsay Doran, said that if we really wished to honor Richard, we should strive to be more like him…more generous, more kindhearted, more forgiving, more encouraging—which was eloquence indeed, and I have much to learn from Lindsay Doran; and 2) when Richard and Flo’s daughters stood next to one another at the podium and tearfully shared stories of his life and forbearance.

Alex and I sat next to each other holding hands. I kept thinking what I always think: What would I do if I did not have Big Wifey to sit next to? I would just be an atom in a far-off galaxy, all cold and alone.

Yet there are so many men and women who lose the loves of their lives and have to be alone. Sad, sad, sad. Punishingly sad. Cruelly sad.

On the way back to Beverly Hills, we gave a ride to Edith Tolkin, who lives in Century City and is too old to drive now. She is 89 and worked until fairly recently as a lawyer at Paramount. When my wife started there in 1977 or so, Edith was her mentor and showed Alex how to draw a contract and guided her steps as a motion picture lawyer. Edith is the widow of the legendary TV comedy writer Mel Tolkin. Mel was chief writer for Your Show of Shows, the funniest TV show of all time, starring Sid Caesar back in the ’50s.

When I first got to Hollywood in 1976 and worked in a lowly capacity as the staff conservative (“resident fascist,” as some of the producers called me) at Norman Lear’s shop, Mel was a writer there, still very tall and very funny.

Both Mel and Edith had been born in Montreal and had endless stories to tell about anti-Semitism in Canada in the 1930s. It is so interesting how racism and ant semitism were just a given, just a part of the landscape then. Small wonder no one wanted to take in the Jews of Europe before and during the Holocaust. Jews were dirty and not nice to be around. It was that simple.

Anyway, Edith talked nonstop about her anti- Semitic victimization experiences until we got her home, and she is a thorough delight, although the stories are depressing.

But Richard Fowkes…we will never see another gentleman like him on a studio lot. And how Flo and his daughters must be suffering and how bravely Richard fought his fight.

A true sweetheart of the industry.


HERE I AM IN A TV STUDIO on a street I have never heard of in Hollywood. Cosmo Street. Like Cosmo Topper. I am here because this is where Larry King does his new talk show. It was a big mistake for CNN to let Larry go, and they are paying for it now. He is the best talk show host ever. Mistake there at CNN.

But Larry has a huge show now on the Internet, in both Spanish and English. I am here with Larry, Tanya Acker, Howard Bragman, and a comedian whose name, I think, is Dave Rubin, to do a show about the GOP convention. We watched some heart-rending thing by Clint Eastwood and then we watched Senator Rubio speak— he was great. Then Governor Romney took the stage.

He did a good job, and of course I will vote for him. But I have a few questions: Where are the Republicans coming up with that number of 20 million or 22 million unemployed? The right number is about 10 million less than that. Where did that number come from?

I noticed that both Rep. Ryan, whom I really, really like, and Gov. Romney talk about a plan to create 12 million jobs in four years. I would like to hear and read more specifics. As it is, their “plan” sounds like Mr. Nixon’s plan to end the war in Vietnam. That was a plan, but it was not a particularly great plan. It would have worked, though, except for the media’s atomic attacks on Nixon.

I like all the references to family hardship in the GOP speeches. I like hearing about families. But some specifics about how to address the economy and the total falling apart of the educational system— plus the catastrophic disintegration of family in certain demographic strata.…Where are they? We need specifics and we need some hard punches.

And then we have to add in this truth: Mr. Romney is a doer. He can get things done that Mr. Obama can only talk about. But in a campaign, talking counts as much as doing. And Mr. Obama is a killer talker. I read that Mr. Obama wants a second term so he can do things differently. I hope Mr. Romney can call him on that. If Mr. Obama could not figure out what to do right in four years, he’s not going to be able to figure it out in the next four years.

Mr. Romney is a super polite man. So is Mr. Ryan. But it might be time to take the gloves off and point out that if Mr. Obama is still blaming the GOP in Congress this far in—when Mr. Obama has NEVER submitted a detailed budget, something has to change.

I keep getting e-mails from pals saying that they think Mr. Obama must be really smart because he was president of the Harvard Law Review. Yes, but he was elected president and never submitted original scholarship as an article. That shows he was a fine politician. But not that he was smart or a scholar.

Somehow, the truth that Mr. Obama has never submitted a budget is of a piece with the truth that he never wrote a scholarly article in law school—or anywhere else—yet claimed to be a scholar.

This president is a nice guy. But as a leader, as a scholar, as a president, he just never had the goods— and he won’t. Let’s make that clear.

Now, on a different matter…we all know that Dr. Ben Bernanke has had his pedal to the metal, money- creation wise, for about five years. The problem has not been solved. The banks are stuffed with money. Corporations are stuffed with money. Rich people are stuffed with money.

But they are not spending it. Velocity is lacking, as we economists say.

Now, suppose the economy recovers, as we all hope it will. Suppose velocity gets up off the mat. Suppose the Fed stops buying bonds by the freight carload. Then what happens? We have the biggest bubble in the history of any investment good and it’s in bonds. What happens when that bubble bursts and when interest rates rise to normal levels—say inflation plus 3 percentage points? How does the economy cope with it?

I am sure that we will find a way, but what will it be? That is, there is plenty more trouble ahead even when we have a recovery. The recovery is still a ways off—with Europe tanking, China slowing down, the commodities super cycle coming to an end, unemployment high here at home. But unless history gives us another Great Depression, we will have a recovery eventually. Then what?

What happens when the biggest bubble in all economic history, the government-manufactured bonds bubble, bursts? Stay tuned.


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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.