Goodbye, Dear Sally, Goodbye - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Goodbye, Dear Sally, Goodbye


It’s amazingly windy here in Beverly Hills. A dry wind, a mighty Santa Ana. Scary, and I am already in shock from the death of my dear friend, Sally Burton. Let me tell you about Sally.

I met her in 1975 when I was at a conference at the Aspen Institute about TV. At the time, I was in charge of almost all arts criticism at the Wall Street Journal, whose edit pages were much smaller than they are now. My particular forte was writing about the social and political messages of prime-time TV.

At that conference, I met an incredibly pleasant, intelligent man about twenty years or so older than I was. His name was Al Burton. He was head of production for Norman Lear’s gigantically successful sitcom works, Tandem/TAT. He showed our little group a video tape of an amazingly brilliant, original satire of TV soap operas called, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The other critics in the room disliked it, but I thought it was a work of genius.

Al and I immediately became friends. His wife was at the conference, too, and we all became friends.

I had just come off working for the greatest man of my era, Richard Nixon (I realize this is not a widely shared view). Sally, a militant leftist, HATED Mr. Nixon. Never mind. Al and Sally and I hit it off so well that political views meant little to us.

About one year later, I came out to Los Angeles to be a consultant for Norman Lear and to work on novels, diaries, and screenplays — as well as articles, of course. When I got off the plane, in a world different from our world of fear, there at the arrivals gate were four beautiful young women in tight shorts and T-shirts that read, “I’m Benjy’s.” They greeted me with hugs and cheers and I soon saw that organizing the whole shebang was Al Burton.

That was how Al welcomed me to L.A.

That night I had dinner with Al and Sally at La Scala, which at that time was a high end Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. Sally gave me a lecture about life in L.A., especially about gardeners and electricians. Her advice was superb.

From then on, Al and Sally were my best friends. In early 1977, I required an operation for an abdominal hernia. My fiancée, Alex, was busy with her legal work in D.C., so I had no one to guard me and look in on me while the operation was going on. (It was then a much bigger operation than it is now.)

Sally stepped up to the plate. “I’ll be there early in the morning when they wheel you in. And I’ll sit by the door and make sure you’re all right and be there when they take you out and wait for you in the Recovery Room until we’re sure everything is fine.”

I sobbed then and I still sob now when I think of it. Sally was a saint.

Time passed and Sally and Al were my constant hosts for Thanksgiving and Christmas and every other holiday. Their home on Coldwater Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills was a second home for us.

Meanwhile, Al and I worked on many TV and movie projects together, always under the watchful, brilliant eyes of Norman Lear. For years on end, Al and I would have lunch in his office at Metromedia Square — always the same thing: two hot dogs each.

Al and Sally and I, and soon joined by my wife, Alex, would eat at Ma Maison or La Scala or the Mandarin or Spago or THE ULTIMATE, Morton’s on Melrose, which was for about thirty years the center of the universe for us. Sally was always the live wire of the group with her lively wit, her insider news about what was what in Hollywood, and her tales about her lovely daughter, Jennie.

Time passed and Alex became an extremely successful lawyer here, very largely due to the kindness of my dear departed pal, Don Simpson, then head of production at Paramount and a fellow stock market aficionado. Sally took Alex shopping, took her to lunch, just talked to her. She was a one-woman welcoming committee for my darling and perfect wifey.

After some years, Al left Norman Lear’s entity, although Al and Norman remained close friends. Al started his own production company. Among many other entities, he made a sitcom called Charles in Charge on which I was a recurring character.

More important for me, he created and sold a novel quiz show called, Win Ben Stein’s Money. It was unique in that it basically had me, as host, having to compete with aspirants, very often “Jeopardy Grand Champions” for a $5,000 prize. If I lost, the money was deducted from my pay. As far as I know, nothing like this had ever happened before or happened since.

We were a hit from day one, very largely because of my co-host, a mega-talent named Jimmy Kimmel. We plucked him from the world of modern music, where he was a disc jockey. He was a spectacularly gifted man and very largely because of his humor, we won seven Emmys, almost immediately. Al shared in those Emmys, and so did Sally. We sold the show to Comedy Central and made over 900 episodes. I won on about 85 percent of them. But it was hard work indeed to do three or four shows a day. Sally was always there cheering me on. The show was canceled in 2001. I missed the steady work, but I also greatly missed daily work with Al and Sally.

Jimmy Kimmel’s stupendous success since the end of WBSM is well known.

Al and Sally and I had a great effect on one another. Sally had always had small dogs. The example of how much delight I got from Mary, my beloved Weimaraner, induced her to start getting larger dogs. She loved them beyond words.

In about 2008, Al and Sally decided to leave Beverly Hills and move to San Mateo, a city next to the San Francisco airport. Their goal, which they achieved immediately, was to be nearer to their daughter Jen, who was then married to a fine and wealthy man in the exclusive community of Woodside. It had once barred Jews from membership, but now “allows” Jews.

Jen was not only a beautiful woman but an actual ace at rescuing animals. Jen and her husband rescued dogs, cats, horses, chicken, everything you can think of on their immense property in Woodside and in other nearby areas.

Then, soon after they moved to San Mateo, to a gorgeous, sprawling condo, tragedy struck Al and Sally. Al went into a nearby hospital for fairly routine surgery. It went wrong and Al was left severely mentally impaired.

His usual genius mind was seriously impaired. He sat for a day at a time just watching TV. His wheelhouse, to be sure, but he watched it with a tired, emotionless face.

He had once gifted me with the wisest words on “scientific” horse manure I had ever heard: Darwinian Evolution of the universe could not be a fact because the most basic building blocks of life were laws of physics, of gravity, of thermodynamics. But they did not and could not evolve. They had to be a given, and given by whom?

That was, as I have often said, the single smartest aphorism I had ever heard.

He made his last aphorism to me shortly before he died in 2019. I asked him if he would give me any words of wisdom. He looked at me with eyes of electrical power.

“Peace is wonderful,” he said.

Sally lived alone with just her dog and her caretakers after that. She and I talked on the phone very often, usually razzing each other about politics. But she was also a marvelously encouraging dear friend. I often complained to her about my money fears, which were a bit irrational, and she was endlessly encouraging, assuring me I would not end up in a homeless shelter.

Three days ago, I got a text from her wonderful daughter, Jennifer Werbe, telling me simply that “Mom has passed.”

I have been in shock ever since. I will never have friends like Al and Sally again, and I will miss them forever. We never agreed about politics, but we agreed that we loved each other and that’s what counts. Goodbye, dear Sally. Goodbye.

Ben Stein
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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.
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