Ben Stein's Diary

Death of a Goddess

RIP DeAnne Barkley, who came to me over the waves.

By 4.3.13

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Tuesday
A devastating, searing day. I got up, swam, went to my 12-step meeting in Palm Desert, ate sushi, went to the Westfield Mall to get newspapers, then headed for CVS at Rancho Las Palmas to buy fiber. As I stood in the cashier’s line, I opened my e-mails and there it was: a letter from Sandy Harmon telling me that my heart’s companion, my dear patroness and pal, one of the great women of television, often written up many years ago as “the most powerful woman in Hollywood,” had died this morning, peacefully in her sleep near her home in Kona, Hawaii.

I felt as if someone had hit me on the back of my head as hard as he could with a two-by-four. So, to ease the pain, let me tell you about DeAnne.

When I came to Hollywood in June of 1976, I came to be a screenwriter and novelist. I did fairly well at it right away, thanks to my powerful agents, first George Diskant, and then Michael Ovitz. They sent me out with my story ideas and my novel, On The Brink, and I pitched movie ideas to executives and producers. They either bought them or didn’t, and I then wrote the scripts.

By far the kindest, most compelling, most intelligent executive I met in those early days in Hollywood was DeAnne Barkley. She was, as of roughly 1977 when I met her, in charge of Made for TV Movies for NBC. No other woman in Hollywood at a network or studio had a job that powerful. The movies were usually 2 or 3 hour movies, usually with strong female appeal, made on a fairly modest budget for one of the three big networks, which usually had one or two nights a week reserved for made for TV movies.

DeAnne, along with a man who became fabulously important in Hollywood, Barry Diller, had invented the idea of the made for TV movie. She had done that after stints in movies and TV in New York, and especially after a long time working for Dick Cavett. For that work, she had become, again, the high pooh-bah of TV movies at NBC in Burbank.

She had a large office on the ground floor with a patio and a palm tree, and inside, with a piano. Above the piano on the wall was a painting of Jesus floating in the sky. She was hospitable, cheery, beautiful, with enchanting blue eyes, and something one rarely encounters in Hollywood -- a Southern accent.

DeAnne at that time was about 46 years old, had been married four or five times, had six children, and was exploding with intelligence and creativity. I told her my idea for the TV movie, which I called simply, “A Flimsy Cotton Dress.” It was about a woman who is the child of Okies from the Dustbowl who have settled near Bakersfield. She wants a big life. She’s beautiful. She ambitious. She puts on a flimsy cotton dress and hitchhikes from Bakersfield to Hollywood. There she achieves success, romance, heartbreak… the usual. Maybe she goes back to Oklahoma or Bakersfield. I no longer recall.

DeAnne was enthusiastic. “I just love the title,” she said. “We can do anything with that title, ‘A Flimsy Cotton Dress.’”

So, the deal was done and thus began DeAnne and my relationship. She met my wife (like her, a Southerner), loved my wife, and we all loved to hang around and eat sushi. We learned that DeAnne, unlike anyone else I had ever met in Hollywood, had come from a high end Southern family.

Her family on one side were part owners of McIlhenny & Levy, who made Tabasco Sauce. On the other side, parts of the family owned the Marero Land Company, with lots of land and oil and gas in Louisiana. DeAnne had been a debutante in New Orleans in the late 1940s, had gotten married as a teenager, quickly had children, and then had started her wild ride of a career. “By the time I was 18,” she told me just a few months ago, “my parents knew they had a maniac on their hands and they should get me married right away.”

DeAnne told me the story of her marriages many times but I don’t remember them. There had been lawyers and executives and show biz types, and steadily more children. She told the stories with such a winning, optimistic, upbeat manner that it was as if a Broadway musical were playing before my eyes as I listened to her. She laughed along with virtually every word she said. She was laughing at herself and with herself all the time.

DeAnne bought other scripts from me over the years, but it’s been a long time now and right this instant I cannot recall what they were. The only one I do remember was called “Diary of a Stewardess.” It was based on many conversations with a simply staggeringly beautiful flight attendant for United I used to know long ago by the name of Susan Marie Rizza, an Italian-Polish beauty of the first degree.

All I remember of the script was the title character saying to someone, “You may think I’m just a flying waitress but there are men in this country who still cannot sleep thinking about their first nights with me.…” I have not seen Susan-Marie in decades. If anyone knows her, please contact me. Anyway, when I turned that script in, DeAnne said, “This is the best script I have ever read.”

It didn’t get made, of course. Only a couple of my TV movie ideas ever got made. None with DeAnne. But her checks helped keep me alive. She was a literal life saver.

DeAnne left NBC eventually and became an independent producer. I was partnered up with her. I would think of stories and DeAnne and I would drive over to CBS or ABC or NBC to try to sell them. At the time, DeAnne had a lovely white Porsche 911 and I had a spectacular wine red metallic Porsche 928, the V-12. Yet we were beggars once we got inside the network gates. “Beggars in Porsches,” as we used to call ourselves.

The great majority of the time, we were politely turned down. But DeAnne was always cheerful, always ready for the next go around, never downcast. She used to have stories about her father. He had been a captain or maybe a major in the Marines in the Pacific in World War II. His main job, as DeAnne told it, was to finagle liquor for outposts that were not supposed to have it on remote South Pacific islands. DeAnne was as proud as can be of her Marine father.

We often had lunch at a Hollywood spot called JoAllen’s, on Third Street near Cedars-Sinai. I recall one day we were eating and a dazzlingly beautiful young girl in jeans came into the room. I was about to make a comment on her when she beckoned to DeAnne. She was DeAnne’s daughter, Shannon, who became (if memory serves) a highly regarded runner and all around athlete.

All of DeAnne’s kids were successful. Lawyer. Thoroughbred horse breeder. I cannot recall the others this evening, in my state of shock. They all had her spirit.

DeAnne loved sushi. She and Alex and I often ate at a huge Japanese restaurant on Sunset that is now The Pink Taco. That was in the days when I smoked and drank. Wow, did we laugh a lot.

I remember in maybe 1984, when Bob Bartley, then editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, came out to Hollywood and wanted to meet some Hollywood hot shots. I arranged for a dinner at the old La Scala on Santa Monica with Bob, DeAnne, Michael Eisner, then head of Disney, and my wife and me. We just talked about movies and movie stars, not about anything deep. “We’re talking like Americans,” DeAnne said gleefully at the end of the meal.

In about 1987 or ’88, one of DeAnne’s relatives died, leaving her what seemed at the time like a lavish income. DeAnne took the money and retired to a compound on the Big Island of Hawaii, where she kept her children and grandchildren close to her. I only visited her once, maybe fifteen years ago and she still looked great and was as lively as a teenager.

I brought Tommy with me, and he became close pals with DeAnne’s grandson.

Now, I am a night owl and I also love to talk on the phone. And, I drive at night frequently from Malibu to Beverly Hills. Plus, I have a great hands-free feature on my Cadillac phone. So, for years, decades, I talked to DeAnne on the phone as I drove along the ocean in Malibu. She would always begin every conversation by asking, “Where are you?”

“I’m driving by the waves of the Pacific,” I would say. We would talk about old pals in Hollywood, especially Paul Klein, formerly head of NBC, possibly as smart as anyone I ever met in my life, long departed. She would rave about what a genius Barry Diller was and how good he was to her. We would talk about DeAnne’s dear and loyal pal, Sandy Harmon. We talked about Tommy and about the saint of saints, Alex, and about how much we both loved to swim.

Time passed. Time, time, time, see what’s become of me.…

DeAnne had always been a heavy smoker. She developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. She had to use oxygen and eventually, with deep reluctance, gave up her swimming and then her bridge.

In the Fall, she told me her condition was much worse and she would be dead by Christmas, so her doctor said. “Then I’ll come see you tomorrow,” I said.

“Please don’t,” she said. “I don’t want to be remembered as I am now.” So, I didn’t. But we continued to talk and in her illness, still was interested, interesting, concerned about everything that mattered to me. The woman with the painting of Jesus floating in the sky was a Christian among Philistines.

About a week ago, maybe ten days ago, I learned that DeAnne was in hospice care and was medicated for extreme pain. I did not hear from her again.

Today, she died.

There really are only a few of the great ones left. Al and Sally Burton. Norman Lear. Michael Chinich. Joan Didion. Great to me because they were great friends to me when I started here. Great in all ways. Now, DeAnne is gone, that great spirit who came to me over the waves as I drove along Pacific Coast Highway for decades. The shadows are getting long. I have Alex. She is the world to me.

There will never be another DeAnne Barkley. Her parents thought they had a maniac on their hands. They didn’t. They had a goddess. The most powerful woman in Hollywood, the trades used to say, and yet she was never aggressive, never mean-spirited, never anything but kind. A sister to Alex, who also was a big wheel in Hollywood but never mean-spirited, never mean.

DeAnne, this isn’t funny. Come back and let’s all be young again. I still have some great movie ideas and Alex and I are up for sushi.

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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.