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With a Bullet
After four years of hiding behind thick walls, Phil Spector goes on trial this month for the alleged murder of actress Lana Clarkson. The route from hit-making pop producer to suspect was a long one. The night Clarkson died, perhaps, was even longer
In Phil Spector’s bloodstained right hand is a steel blue, snub-nosed revolver. Through the open door his chauffeur glances around a bewildered Spector and into a marble-floored rear foyer, where a tall blond lies slumped in a white antique chair, her arms dangling over the armrests, her long legs stretched out in front of her, as blood cascades out of her nostrils, mouth, and right ear.
“What happened, sir?” asks the chauffeur. When Spector shrugs, rolls his eyes, and mumbles, “I don’t know,” the driver, so frightened he’s unable to dial his cell phone, hops into a nearby black Mercedes, zooms down the hill, frantically searches for the street address, and calls 911.
“Just ask me and I’ll tell you! I’m not Robert Blake!”
Spector shouts out on a February morning in 2003, just minutes after his chauffeur places the 911 call, as the cops arrive in full force at his castle at about 5:15. But the blue-uniformed officer whose knee is inserted hard in his back ignores the demand as Spector lies prone and handcuffed on the floor of his home.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you?”
It’s a wonder Spector can speak at all, having been zapped twice with a 50,000-volt Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, better known as a Taser or stun gun, and then bum-rushed and knocked to the side of a red-carpeted oak staircase and then to the floor by four irate cops, at least one wielding a three-and-a-half-foot-high, two-foot-wide bulletproof shield.
Spector should have been screaming and writhing on the floor when those darts hit, but he just stood there, oblivious. Which means that the Taser had malfunctioned. Because not even the prescription cocktail of Prozac, Neurontin, Topamax, Loxitane, Klonopin, Prevacid, and tetracycline that he swallowed for his bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other maladies—or the four daiquiris, one Barcardi 151, and two navy grogs containing three shots each of rum that he downed afterward—could have numbed the effects of a properly functioning stun gun.
“Oh, Jesus Christ!…Why are you standing on my head, asshole?”
It’s a wonder, in fact, that the five-foot-five, 130-pound Spector was alive at all. When 8 to 15 Alhambra officers had arrived at the castle’s rear parking area, he had strolled out the door with his hands in his pockets—always a terrible idea when approaching cops whose adrenaline is pumping after responding to a 911 call of a shot fired and a woman down. They’d arrived with MP5 submachine guns, stun guns, shotguns, and sidearms and had no intention of being toyed with.
“Take your hands out of your pockets,” they repeatedly ordered. Spector failed to respond—except just once. He raised them quickly and then, as quickly, shoved them back into his pants, turned, said, “You got to see this,” and walked into his castle. That’s when they hit him with the Tasers, piled on his back, and noticed Lana Clarkson in a chair, blood pouring out of her mouth and down her neck and chest.
“Jesus fuckin’ Christ! I’m not drunk, I’m not stupid, I can tell you what happened…”
His “castle”—it sounded like a joke, some piece of grandiose egomania Spector had dreamed up while traversing his 8,500-square-foot hilltop home. But the ten-bedroom, eight-and-a-half-bath house had been called not just “the castle” but “the Pyrenees Castle” ever since it was built as an archetypal Southern California hallucination back in 1926. White with red trim, the 18th-century-style French château sat perched on three pine-studded acres, looming over the strip malls and modest suburban homes in the valley below like some kind of Xanadu. Its long, terraced front entrance was lined with 88 granite steps broken up by a series of landings leading to the front foyer; the castle featured red-tiled guard turrets and gabled windows and a massive wine cellar, all surrounded by three-foot-thick white walls.
Even before Spector bought the mansion in 1998 for a bargain $1.1 million, it was one of the sights the small city’s newly hired police officers were shown on their maiden patrol. Now, however, the cops weren’t just looking, they had stormed the place.
“Jesus, you know, you’re acting stupid. I’m sorry there’s a dead woman here. I’m sorry that this happened…”
As Spector lay kissing the cold tile floor, hands cuffed behind his back, police officers fanned out, guns drawn, to conduct a search and clear the house of other suspects. In a small upstairs powder room they discovered a moist white cotton diaper smeared with Clarkson’s blood, and on the floor, the white jacket Spector had been wearing earlier in the evening, its left sleeve also covered in a mist of her blood.
“I didn’t mean to shoot her, it was an accident!”
“Cut the [Taser] wires,” the supervising officer ordered. “Cut the wires [still stuck in Spector] and get ’em out of here—take ’em to the car…”
“Are you arresting me?”
Phil Spector’s arrest came at the end of a long, traumatic night. It began when his backup chauffeur, Adriano DeSouza, drove his red Ford Crown Victoria up the castle’s steep, winding quarter-mile-long asphalt driveway and parked adjacent to the two-story, six-car garage and motor court. A Brazilian army veteran working illegally in L.A. while on a student visa, DeSouza—who was formally dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform of black suit and tie and white dress shirt—locked his car, walked past Spector’s 1964 white Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to a shiny new black Mercedes-Benz S430. He got behind the wheel and waited until Spector stepped out of the rear door at about 7 p.m.
He was wearing a white linen sport jacket with a diamond lapel pin that formed the initials p.s. and a black shirt, pants, and boots with three-inch Cuban heels. His Jheri-curled black wig dangled to his shoulders, framing his pale, dissipated face.
It was notable that he was going out without a bodyguard—or that he was going out at all. His third ex-wife, Janice Spector—who, following their divorce, spent a decade working for him as a business and personal assistant—had left his employment, as had his regular bodyguard, former LAPD robbery-homicide detective Frank “Jay” Romaine. Both had served as his keepers, and their leaving, said friends, was a sign of a newfound emotional stability and sobriety after a decade of self-imposed seclusion, punctuated by bizarre, drunken nights out, packing a gun. For years he was surrounded by rented muscle or increasingly worried friends who’d watch him drink until a chip appeared on his shoulder, then walk up to the biggest guy in a bar, call him a faggot, and start a fight. Sometimes he’d just make an embarrassing spectacle of himself, as he did at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1989. He received his award onstage flanked by three goons who let everyone know they were packin’ by tucking their hands in their jackets rib cage high, like some cheap-suit OGs.
Just a month before this night on the town, he was still on the wagon and had done his first official interview in 13 years. Spector told the British rock critic Mick Brown how he’d always hated being seen in public, and how for decades, he could not bear being looked at, talked about, or photographed. Those were the days, as Spector put it, when despite years of expensive therapy going back to at least 1965, he was unable to function as “a regular part of society,” suffered from chronic insomnia, and from “devils inside that fight me.” Those were the years when he locked up his then wife, Ronettes lead singer Ronnie Spector, in their Beverly Hills mansion; insisted when she was on the road that she place her hotel room phone receiver on her pillow at night, so that he could hear her breathing; drove her to flee in 1972 convinced that she’d die if she stayed in his house any longer. He took to getting drunk while hiding out at home, changing his clothes four times a day and choosing a different gun to match each outfit.
But Spector had been sober, at least in public, for about a year now. He had a strange word to describe his recovery goal and approach to life: to become “reasonable.” His prescription medications had helped still the devils, he said, and now he wanted to live “a reasonable life,” free of the tumultuous mood swings and mania that had compelled him over the years to allegedly pull guns in the recording studio on, among others, Stevie Wonder, Dee Dee Ramone, and Leonard Cohen, to fire a round into the air while producing John Lennon.
He had an 18-year-old daughter, he’d told Brown—a girl named Nicole whom he loved with that special protective tenderness older fathers have for late-in-life daughters. He feared that “even if she was genetically well” (Spector’s parents were first cousins), “she would become unwell herself, and be attracted to men like me—manic-depressive, psychotic, or cuckoo.” He wanted, he added, for her “to look up to me and say, ‘This is what a reasonable man is like.’ ”
Of course, there had been luminous times as well. Once, when rock was king, he’d stood at the apex of American culture, a superstar songwriter-record producer with a singular transformative vision that combined the raw power of juke joint blues with the energy of teenybopper pop and took youth culture into the realm of the operatic. In the process he produced 17 hit records by the time he was 25. The first of those came when he was 17, straight out of Fairfax High School—“To Know Him Is to Love Him”—a 1.4-million-selling lament whose title was lifted off the inscription on the pale blue tombstone of his steelworker father. Benjamin Spector committed suicide when his son was only eight, running a hose attached to the tailpipe into his car, closing the windows, and inhaling the fumes.
Spector had grown up in the Bronx, a poor, asthmatic, elfin misfit. Following his father’s suicide, he moved to a two-story wood-frame West Hollywood fourplex in 1953 with his domineering sweatshop-seamstress mother and his New York-pushy older sister. They smothered him with love, treating him like a pet poodle to be kept on a short leash. Spector’s mother and sister “watched over his every move,” his high school girlfriend, Donna Kass, told Spector biographer Mark Ribowsky. “If he [came] to my house, they would call 15 times: ‘Come home, come home.’ He was very, very angry about it. He was an angry person. He was [also] very jealous.… I once went to a friend’s house and didn’t tell him, and somehow he tracked me down…and he called over and over, had me on the phone for hours, jealous of why I didn’t call and tell him who I was with.”
Fairfax was a great place to go to high school if you were an aspiring pop musician in the late 1950s. Small recording studios and record labels were springing up in West Hollywood and over on Vine Street in Hollywood. Friends in the neighborhood or kids Spector jammed with at Fairfax High—which was filled with similar big-dreaming Jewish kids such as the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller—had access to the owners. Through one of them, Spector and his group, the Teddy Bears, got the contract for “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”
He was an instinctive producer in the studio—he knew what he wanted, heard it in his head, and quickly learned how to get that sound using the relatively primitive tracking and overdubbing techniques of the day. He could play guitar, piano, drums, bass, and French horn and before he was 21 had formed his own label—Philles Records. He was producing his historic recordings in a small, low-ceilinged echo chamber on Vine Street in Hollywood called Gold Star Sound Studios. He packed guitarists, percussionists, bassists, piano players, and drummers into one room, where they jammed and vibrated together, a core group of studio musicians who would become known as the Wrecking Crew—Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack among them. He was good to the Crew, generous and protective of them and their interests, because they gave him what he wanted, and what he wanted in the studio was all he really wanted. But in his treatment of his girl groups he was a Svengali, contemptuously treating the women whose voices were turning the sounds in his head into million-selling recordings as interchangeable cattle.
In the studio Spector’s mania—his perfectionism, his unyielding demand for control—was that of the mad genius. But in the process Spector became something previously unheard of: the record producer as pop superstar. “He was brash, cocky and talented,” famed record producer Jerry Wexler wrote in Rolling Stone. “[In a Spector production] every instrument had its role to play, and it was all prefigured.… There were [great] songwriter-producers before him, but no one did the whole thing like Phil.”
His canon speaks for itself and stands alone in any history of rock. He invented the careers of the Righteous Brothers and beehive girls like the Ronettes and the Crystals. He set the bar for the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, who was striving to go where Spector had already been. The Stones, Ike and Tina, the Ramones, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, and George Harrison all loved that sound and formed a line to work with him. He’d spend months on songs like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Unchained Melody” until they had an almost Wagnerian force. “UpTown,” “Walkin’ in the Rain,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Be My Baby,” “Let It Be,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Imagine”—they were all his concepts, his productions. That dense, dramatic layer upon layer of keyboards, percussion, and overdubbed guitars on Springsteen’s masterwork, “Born to Run,” was inspired by Phil Spector’s sound. His music’s gone on to influence modern acts like Nine Inch Nails, the Killers, and the Shins.
Those were the days when he’d made a commitment to his art, “had no bad shit on my mind,” as he once said, and wanted to be remembered as a great American alongside Thomas Jefferson and George Gershwin. Back then he actually gave a fuck, and the records he was making with those new 16-track recorders “were the greatest love of my life.” Back then his two great friends, Lenny Bruce and John Lennon, were still alive, and he hadn’t yet started wondering why the records that had once been his reason for being had come to have “so little significance” for him.
Sometime around 1966, Spector’s star began to fade. That year he produced Tina Turner wailing over 20 background singers during the earsplitting, wall-of-sound production of “River Deep, Mountain High.” It was a hit in England but got little airplay in the States and flopped. Perhaps, as rock critics have speculated, he was wounded by the rejection. Perhaps he was exhausted by turning himself inside out every time he entered the studio. Perhaps, as Bob Dylan says happened to him, the young man’s muse deserted him. Whatever the reason, the music, for Phil Spector, suddenly died, and he retreated into seclusion and alcohol. But in recent years, as his friends told it, he’d begun to reemerge, on the wagon and in the guise of a “reasonable man,” sitting courtside at Laker games, throwing bowling gatherings and parties following the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards, and announcing album projects with stars like Céline Dion and the British rock group Starsailor that never materialized.
But tonight, 30 years after his generation had lost its lust for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, he was out on the town—drinking again, an old man still on the young man’s hunt for new pussy and cheap thrills.
In the Mercedes, Spector ordered DeSouza to pick up Rommie Davis—a friend who’d been catering his bowling parties—in Studio City. The trio arrived for dinner at the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills at about 8:15. Two hours later they took Davis home and returned to the restaurant. Talking to the valet parking manager was Kathy Sullivan, a strawberry blond Grill waitress who’d just gotten off work. She climbed into the Mercedes, and they headed to some of Spector’s old haunts.
Their first stop was Trader Vic’s, the Beverly Hills landmark restaurant with a Polynesian beach-shack motif. Spector and Sullivan emerged from the bar about 1 a.m.
Their next destination was Dan Tana’s, a small, dark Italian restaurant set in a yellow cottage just minutes away in West Hollywood. Dan Tana’s had been a rocker-actor haven for hipsters in the ’60s. Now Dan Tana’s was still a place where all heads turned when you walked in, but you’d better be somebody if you expected to drink dry martinis at the cramped bar or chomp on thick steaks and lasagna next to Larry King, Bob Dylan, George Clooney, or Phil Spector in his favorite red leather booth.
When Spector ordered a second drink for himself, it was unusual enough, given his sobriety over the past year, that the bartender personally went to his booth and double-checked the order. About a half hour later Spector left a $500 tip for a $55 prime rib dinner and took off. Outside, Sullivan had to pry Spector away from a confrontation with two guys standing on the sidewalk having a smoke. DeSouza, who was holding the Mercedes’ rear door open, could see that Spector was “upset” and “watching the guys with a strange face.” He’d seen that face before. Once they’d been on their way to the castle at about five in the morning in the Rolls-Royce when Spector started shouting, as DeSouza put it, “that he wanted to make pee.” When DeSouza pulled over to a gas station near USC, Spector jumped out of the Rolls, grabbed him by the neck, and asked him three times: “Are you fucking with me?” When DeSouza assured him that he was not, his boss cooled down. This time it was Sullivan’s turn to tell him to cool down. Relax, she told him. Don’t pay any attention, they’re only kids.
Settling into the Mercedes, Spector ordered DeSouza to take them to the House of Blues. Sullivan wanted to go home, but Spector ignored her. DeSouza noticed that Spector was slurring his words, seemed unable to finish his sentences, and was falling into a state that he would later describe as “completely” drunk—fueled by those 11 shots of rum and that cabinet of prescription drugs.
Still, he wasn’t ready to go home, even though it was the shank of the weekend—Monday morning at 1:45—and the streets were deserted as DeSouza turned off Santa Monica Boulevard and drove up to the Strip.
Co-owned by actor and former Saturday Night Live star Dan Aykroyd, the House of Blues is a large, well-established rock club with a capacity of 1,000. By the time Spector entered the club, former Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford had long since completed his act on the main stage. Not that it mattered. Spector was headed up several flights of stairs leading directly to the restaurant-lounge known as the Foundation Room. At a desk by a door stood Lana Clarkson—dressed down for the evening but still stunning at 40 in a club security uniform of black nylon jacket, skirt, top, and stockings, with a wide smile, high cheekbones, and the long, slim legs that made her six feet tall in heels. Newly hired as a VIP-room hostess, she was unaware of who Spector was and blocked his entrance because he lacked the proper wristband for admittance.
He began shouting, and a supervisor sidled up to Clarkson and clued her in. “This is Phil Spector,” he told her. “Treat him exactly like you’d treat Dan. Treat him like gold.” An apologetic Clarkson introduced herself as “Lana” and led Spector and Sullivan past the bar, large gas fireplace, and dark velvet sofas, and into the Buddha Room, a curtained-off area decorated with Indian tapestries and carved wood walls.
Clarkson’s boss, Nigel Shanley, had had his own run-in with Spector about a dozen years earlier, when he caught him urinating on the Foundation Room floor. Shanley asked him what the fuck he thought he was doing; Spector replied that he was a black belt, was carrying a gun, and challenged him to go outside and fight.
Working at the House of Blues for the past several weeks had been a godsend for Clarkson. She’d been borrowing from friends just to pay for the tiny, run-down bungalow she rented on one of the canals in Venice. She adored her job, she told everybody—even if it was little more than checking the wristbands of entering VIPs and paid only nine bucks an hour. It provided her with time to work during the day on her new career as a comedian and, above all, connect with important players. “The job was perfect for her,” says Shanley. “People instantly liked her. Lana was one of those girls who didn’t sleep around but loved to run around and have a good time. She was bright, charismatic, fast, clever, and very humorous.”
“Lana had mixed feelings about the job because she felt she was an established actress, and it was a bit of a comedown to have a job like that,” recalls Susan Michelson, a close friend for more than 20 years. “But she was also excited because she thought, ‘I’m going to meet a lot of people, and it might get me a job.’ That was very important to her.”
About 36 hours before she met Spector, Clarkson hosted a mock Academy Awards ceremony and presented an employee-of-the-year award while decked out in long black gloves, a short black dress, and a tiara. “She played the part perfectly,” Frank Sestito, the controller of the House of Blues, would later say. “She was very glamorous-looking and exuberant.”
Born in Long Beach in 1962, Clarkson moved with her family to San Francisco when she was five and then, in the early ’70s, to Cloverdale, the first stoplight north of San Francisco on Highway 128 to Mendocino. An ethereal-looking flower child, Clarkson grew up among hippies. Several miles from her home was a 350-acre commune in the Redwood Mountains called Longreach. The commune was bought in an IRS sale of confiscated land previously owned by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. The property occupied part of the peak of a spectacular green and wooded mountain with a panorama stretching all the way to San Francisco. A slice of the Russian River ran through the rear of what had once been sheep pastures and vineyards, and giant stands of fir and old-growth redwoods were scattered throughout.
The Dead, Carlos Santana, the wild flamenco dancers from another commune down the road, and scores of day-trippers would stop by and ignite spontaneous parties. The area was then the world capital of LSD, and there was a lot of acid tripping going on. Hidden at the back of a kitchen shelf was a black jar holding a hockey-puck-size mass of the now-mythical concoction of LSD known as “Orange Sunshine”—all of which was eventually consumed.
Lana was raised by Donna Clarkson, a single mother and registered nurse. Together with Lana’s younger sister, Fawn, they lived in a rented house and took part in the commune’s social life. Donna had dark hair and eyes and the long legs Lana had inherited. “She was kind of a flaky hippie, like the rest of us,” says one of the commune’s mainstays, Julie Beardsley. “But she took being a mother very seriously. She came to a lot of our parties but didn’t get wild and pick up men—especially in front of Lana.”
Family and friends describe Lana as a happy child who was reciting nursery rhymes when she was just a year old and loved telling stories and dressing up. On Lana’s tenth birthday Donna gave her a roan mare, and over the next four years she learned to ride both western and English style. W hen she turned 14, they mated her horse, Breeze, with one of the commune’s horses—a large, papered white Arabian stallion named Kief. Lana and the other local girls hung around the corral, looking on with fascination as the horses coupled. Not long after its birth the foal stepped into a posthole, snapped its leg, and had to be put down. Some of the commune members decided to freeze the meat and serve it at a party at a nearby ranch, where Lana accidentally ate her own horse.
“Lana,” says Beardsley, “was a sweet girl who really loved that little foal, and she was totally devastated after it happened. Donna was so furious she refused to speak to the people who were responsible. She got a job at a winery in Napa after that.”
Lana had played basketball on her Cloverdale High School team, and when she was 16, after her family had moved to Napa Valley, she grew five inches. Later in 1978, they moved again, this time to Los Angeles, where Lana could pursue her acting and modeling dreams.
She became close friends with Pam Krause, the daughter of Hollywood Reporter columnist Dianne Bennett. “Lana,” says Bennett, “was essentially fresh off the boat—the definitive beautiful small-town girl who comes to Hollywood penniless with stars in her eyes—a real cheerleader type. She was gorgeous, funny, outgoing, a good-time girl who developed longtime friends, was given keys to people’s houses. People really, really liked Lana.”
Krause and Clarkson began working as extras and living and auditioning together. “I never took the business seriously,” says Krause. “I was just trying to pick up some extra money, but Lana was drawn to it. She knew from the time she was eight or nine what she wanted to do—come to Hollywood, like in all those old movies, and become a star.”
Clarkson began modeling, landing fashion photo shoots in Italy, Japan, and Mexico, as well as walk-ons and parts as an extra on TV shows such as CHiPs, Happy Days, The A-Team, and Three’s Company. She also appeared with Krause on Fantasy Island, where they were two of “the girls that placed leis over the heads of each show’s featured guests,” says Krause. “When guys would ask what we did, we’d tell them, ‘We lei people.’ ”
At 18, she got her SAG card with a speaking role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, playing the beautiful dumb-blond wife of the school’s nerdy science teacher, and uttering just one word: “Hi.” She auditioned for a part in the nostalgic comedy My Favorite Year and wound up onscreen dancing for mere seconds, wearing an Old Gold cigarette box that covered her head and torso, with only her legs and high heels showing.
In the mid-’80s, Clarkson was hired by producer Roger Corman, the legendary “King of the B Movies,” and played principal roles in five of his naked-from-the-waist-up teenage-boy fantasies. She starred as Amathea, an Amazonian goddess leading a slave uprising in the 1986 Barbarian Queen, which was followed by Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back and later by Wizards of the Last Kingdom, Deathstalker, and Vice Girls.
If Conan the Barbarian is a great camp movie, Barbarian Queen, Clarkson’s first starring role, is so awful that it’s not even amusing. The editing is disorienting, the continuity nonexistent; the sound and dialogue—although spoken in English by American actors—has the stilted tone of the worst of the dubbed Hercules epics of the ’50s. Clarkson looks like she should be nowhere in time other than mid-1980s Hermosa Beach and runs around—like her other slave girl-warrior friends—in a perfectly coiffed bouffant, a workout headband, and strategically placed animal skins.
About a week before Clarkson met Spector, the veteran actress Sally Kirkland attended a benefit for the I Have a Dream Foundation at the House of Blues. Suddenly she heard someone shouting her name. “I looked around,” says Kirkland, who had worked with Clarkson in a play, “and there was Lana wearing flat shoes, a conservative black suit, and her hair in a bun—not the big fluffy thing she usually did. I was blown away! It was like she was playing a role. She told me she was meeting all these interesting people there and was absolutely elated.”
In fact, Clarkson had reached a nadir. She’d broken both wrists in 26 places performing Riverdance with five-year-olds at a children’s charity Christmas party in 2001, when she slipped on a throw rug. She spent most of 2002 recuperating. In December, desperate for money after having worked little during her convalescence, she had dinner with David Schapiro, a friend and writer who’d been helping her develop some comedy skits. She told Schapiro she was having trouble paying the rent, and that her phone was about to be cut off, and asked him for a $600 loan. Schapiro told her he could only afford a $200 loan, and later backed out of that. Clarkson replied in an e-mail that she was “truly at the end of this whole deal. I am going to tidy up my affairs and chuck it, ’cuz it’s really all too much for one girl to bear anymore.”
It was a bad place to be at 40. Particularly because she had worked hard, had done everything right, and was a smart, strong-willed, focused woman, raised to be independent. “Donna had always been very structured in raising her,” says Julie Beardsley, “and I think that set the groundwork for her to be able to follow through, go after what she wanted, and not be dependent on a man to fill up her life.”
She pursued her career thoughtfully, maximizing every opportunity, relentlessly networking, sending out endless cards and signed photos, and leaving cutesy messages on answering machines. Her body was her fortune, and she worked it hard with personal trainers and masseuses. She worshiped Marilyn Monroe, collected Monroe memorabilia; she plastered pictures of her on her walls and loved to do Monroe impersonations with Kirkland backstage when they worked together in an equity waiver play. She delighted in making an entrance at parties, premieres, and other events, immaculately decked out. “She’d act like she was a starlet or a famous person,” says Krause. “She was a real drama queen in that sense. And they would part like the Red Sea when she walked in.”
But always—always—Clarkson considered herself a serious actress, one who, as she saw it, had “not even begun to reach [her] full potential.” “When she auditioned for a play we worked on together,” says Kirkland, “I thought because of her looks that she’d be very egotistical. But she was just the opposite—she was at once funny, touching, and very self-deprecating. I found her to be so much more interesting than my first take—or anybody’s first take—when she walked into a room.”
The B movies, the modeling, the walk-ons on Three’s Company and The A-Team; the part-time jobs as a travel agent and an “image enhancement” teacher; the road shows promoting Kmart clothing—all were meant to be way stations on the road to stardom. But big-hair blonds striving for success have always been a dime a dozen in a perpetual buyer’s market. On her Web site Clarkson told a fan how she’d “been pounding my head against a Plexiglas ceiling trying to break through to a completely different level.” It never happened. By the time her fate became ensnared with Phil Spector’s, she’d become a cult film cliché, autographing her photos at comic book and fantasy film conventions.
Simultaneously with her hiring at the House of Blues, Clarkson decided to break away from the movies and emphasize situation and stand-up comedy. “She wanted to be Ellen DeGeneres,” says her former publicist Edward Lozzi, “and had a drop-dead sense of humor”—an assessment shared by her friends.
Using the editing equipment at Roger Corman’s offices, she assembled a showcase reel called “Lana Unleashed” and was sending it out to producers and directors. It included lesbian cop and baby-doll routines as well as an imitation of Little Richard—in blackface and prosthetic makeup—selling black female beauty products on an infomercial.
Clarkson also concluded that something had to change in her personal life. Dianne Bennett, who was now running a dating service called Beautiful Girls, Successful Men, was shopping at the cosmetics counter in the Nordstrom at the Grove when she spotted Clarkson in the shoe department. “I’m working as a hostess at the House of Blues, and my feet are killing me,” Clarkson told her with a laugh. “I’ve been wearing these really high heels, and I’m looking for a pair of ugly flat shoes.” They talked for a while, and then Clarkson added, “You’ve got to promise to call me. I’ve decided I want to get married.”
Bennett was surprised. She knew how dedicated to her work Clarkson had always been, and that getting married and having kids could be a real career killer for an actress. But Clarkson, who like seemingly every starlet in Hollywood had had a fling with Jack Nicholson and had dated Erik Estrada and producer Robert Evans, was serious.
“Lana really wanted children,” says her friend Susan Michelson. “One of the things we used to joke about was how she was beautiful, and all these guys were always hitting on her. ‘I’m tired of that. I’m not doing that,’ she said. ‘I’m saving this for babies.’ ”
Bennett told Clarkson that she had just the guy for her: handsome, well-off, in his early forties, and living in Malibu. They agreed to speak about the matchup the following week. “Be sure to give me a call,” Clarkson told Bennett as they parted. She’d made her decision, says Bennett, and “was just really bubbly, wanting to get married, decorate her rental cottage in Venice, and have me come over and visit.”
Once in the Foundation Room, Spector ordered a straight-up Bacardi 151 and Sullivan a glass of water. A glass of water? “Get a fucking drink,” he told her. Refusing a sexual overture from Spector, or a stay-over at the castle, or even a drink, could suddenly open a deep, emotional wound—a rage at being rejected that was startling.
“That’s it,” he told Sullivan, “you’re going home.” “Lana,” he shouted to Clarkson. “Take her outside to my driver, and have him take her home.” A few minutes later he growled a one-sentence demand to the waiter who had brought the drinks: “Take the fucking water away.”
Sullivan was lucky that all Spector wanted was to get rid of her. Other women had received far more frightening reactions when Spector acted out.
In 1993, for example, Dorothy Melvin, then the personal assistant to Joan Rivers, flew to Los Angeles to spend the July 4 weekend with Spector at his Pasadena home. Late on Friday evening she fell asleep on the living room couch. When she awoke and looked out the window, she saw Spector in the driveway pointing a gun at her car. When she asked what he was doing, he smacked her in the head with the gun; then he told her to “get the fuck back in the house” and once there to “take your fucking clothes off.” When she begged him to stop, he struck her again, rifled through her purse, threw her jacket and car keys at her, and ordered her out of the house. She ran to her car with Spector chasing after her, pumping a shotgun.
In 1995, he terrified New York photographer Stephanie Jennings after inviting her to a party following induction ceremonies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The two had been dating and that night were staying in separate rooms at the Carlyle Hotel when Spector sent his bodyguard to ask her to come to his room. Jennings was already asleep and refused. Spector then showed up, and they got into an argument. He barred her door with a chair and pointed a gun at her. Jennings managed to call 911, but Spector left before they arrived and she declined to press charges.
In 1999, a woman named Deborah Strand walked out of a bathroom at a Bel-Air Christmas party and noticed Spector, who looked like “a drunken Dudley Moore” and was flicking cigar ash on her boyfriend’s golden retriever. When she told him to stop, he whipped a gun out of his jacket, placed the muzzle on her cheek, and asked, “How does this make you feel, bitch?” Spector’s bodyguard hustled him away.
None of these women pressed charges. Dorothy Melvin didn’t want the bad publicity that filing charges might bring to her employer, Joan Rivers, or to have to face the tabloids. Stephanie Jennings apparently liked the access to celebrity that Spector provided; even before he threatened her at the Carlyle, Spector had locked her in his mansion for several hours. The year after the Carlyle incident, she again attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies with him. Only after she turned down Spector’s invitation to his black-tie birthday party, followed by two answering machine messages threatening to destroy her career, did she stop seeing him for good. And Deborah Strand did not even call the police, because friends at the party told her that Spector “was very powerful in the music industry.”
After escorting Sullivan to the Mercedes and turning her over to DeSouza, Clarkson returned to the Foundation Room. Spector invited her for a drink, which she declined. But she sat and talked for several minutes, and around 2:30, Spector put a $450 tip on a $13.50 bill, and they left together—Clarkson holding Spector up to prevent him from stumbling down the club’s steps in his Cuban heels. In the parking lot, Clarkson accepted a ride to her Cougar, which was in an employee parking structure on La Cienega Boulevard. After repeated invitations from Spector for a castle tour, followed by her repeated refusals, Clarkson accepted. She moved her car to the street, and Spector took a leak on a wall behind a nearby stairwell. Then they headed to Alhambra.
Networking and being seen by the powerful and famous had become ingrained in Lana Clarkson. So why not a quick drink with a man like Spector? Wasn’t that why she was working at the House of Blues? Leaning forward in the Mercedes, Clarkson told DeSouza, “This will be quick, only one drink.”
“Don’t talk to the driver,” Spector slurred as DeSouza stepped on the gas.
Clarkson and Spector laughed while watching a DVD as DeSouza hit the Santa Monica, Pomona, and Long Beach freeways before arriving at the six-foot-high white stucco walls surrounding the castle. “Go straight to the front gate, straight to the front gate,” Spector kept repeating. He wanted to trudge up the scores of steep steps leading into the glass-doored, wood-paneled foyer—rather than enter through the more convenient rear, ground-level carport—presumably so Clarkson would experience the castle’s full grandeur.
At 3 a.m. DeSouza opened the white, wrought-iron security gate with a remote control, pulled up to the entrance, opened the back door, and watched Clarkson grab Spector’s arm and shoulder, steadying him as they started up the steps. Then he steered the Mercedes to the motor court in the back and waited to take Clarkson home.
About 15 minutes later, Spector walked out the rear door, alone. He was wearing that face again, that same pissed-off, put-upon expression he’d displayed after encountering the two guys outside Dan Tana’s, and on that night at the gas station. DeSouza asked Spector if he wanted the brown leather briefcase he’d left in the car, or his small silver DVD player. Spector appeared annoyed by the questions, started to go back to the house, and then turned, grabbed the DVD player, entered the castle, and closed the door.
At about 5 a.m. DeSouza heard a soft pow and saw Spector standing in the doorway with a gun in his hand.
Blood was flowing from Clarkson’s nose and mouth when fire department paramedics arrived. Lit candles stood atop a fireplace mantel, and a partly filled brandy glass, an empty bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila, and a can of Canada Dry soda sat on the living room coffee table.
Amid the gilded mirrors, medieval tapestries, marble pedestals, and archways, a firefighter leaned over and checked Clarkson’s vital signs, attaching a monitor to her chest. It wasn’t long before he removed it. A single gunshot wound, caused by a handgun’s muzzle placed in her mouth, had lacerated Clarkson’s tongue, traveled through her throat, and severed her upper spinal cord before lodging in her skull, killing her instantly.
The blue steel Colt Cobra revolver, with traces of blood on it, lay on the red carpet, slightly under her left leg. Next to it were her teeth and front caps, which had been propelled forward by the gun’s recoil. The gun was loaded with five live rounds and had a spent cartridge under its hammer. An empty leather holster fitting the revolver lay in an open top drawer of a bureau next to her.
By the time the Alhambra PD led a handcuffed Spector to a waiting patrol car, yellow crime-scene tape was blocking off the street for about 200 feet. Cops had been posted all over the area, photographers were snapping their pictures, and TV reporters and camera crews were crawling around.
Inside, the murder scene was lit up like a movie set, as L.A. Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives Richard Tomlin and Paul Fournier huddled with five or six of their colleagues. Two were dispatched to document the crime scene and collect potential evidence. They would find 13 other guns, including a fully loaded .357 Magnum revolver, a Star .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol, and a High Standard 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.
When Clarkson’s corpse was finally removed later that morning, she was still wearing her slip, fishnet stockings, black jacket, and high heels. But her black skirt was rolled up in her leopard-print, hobo-style purse, its black strap hanging over her right shoulder, as if she had been poised to leave.
Several hours after his arrest, a still-drunk Spector tried to explain to a cop at the Alhambra jail how Clarkson had died. She’d been dancing around his mammoth living room with her skirt off, Spector told him, when she began singing his songs “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and waving around a revolver like a cowboy about to lasso a steer. Then, as officer Derek Gilliam later recounted it, he’d suddenly become “extremely animated.” Looking down at the ground, Spector extended his right hand, folded his lower three fingers into a fist, pointed his index finger straight out, wiggled his thumb back and forth like the hammer of a gun, and fired his make-believe pistol into his temple—shouting “Bang!” and snapping his neck back in simulation of Clarkson’s when she’d suddenly blasted a bullet into her skull.
Spector then raised his head, giggled, and with a smirk on his face calmly said, “You don’t pull a gun on me.”
It was Spector’s first attempt at a station-house story, and not a good one. Clarkson’s single wound had not been to her forehead. Then again, he was still so drunk, according to Gilliam, that he was slurring his words, teetering over, and emitting “this horrible odor.” He was also hysterical, traumatized, and exhausted after going without sleep for 30 hours, and may have been delusional and suffering withdrawal symptoms from the seven prescription drugs he was taking.
From the moment he’d set foot in the jail, his behavior had been bizarre. In a rage he described Clarkson as “a piece of shit” and warned the Alhambra officers not to cross him because “the mayor of Alhambra wants me to have Bono come and sing at the anniversary.” At other times his eyes would go blank and he’d stare into space before snapping back and expressing his frustration that neither his “fat ass” jailer nor Gilliam appeared eager to give him what he wanted, what he needed, after almost 13 hours in custody: a lawyer. He wanted his friend Robert Shapiro, the $600-an-hour Century City attorney and original member of O.J.’s Dream Team to, as he put it, help him “get the fuck out of here.”
Spector called Michelle Blaine. She’d been working as a combination money manager and girl Friday for Spector since 2001. She was also the daughter of his old studio drummer, Hal Blaine. She phoned Shapiro, Spector’s civil attorney, who said he’d take the case for a $1.5 million retainer. When Blaine balked, Shapiro said he’d settle for $1 million.
Shapiro, in turn, called Bill Pavelic. Then in his midfifties, with traces of his native Croatia in his speech, Pavelic was a retired LAPD detective who had become an “investigative consultant”—a private eye who works with defense attorneys, investigating and structuring a client’s defense. Over the years he’s worked on the Robert Blake, Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson, Andrew Luster, and O.J. Simpson cases.
Together they hired two of the biggest names in forensic pathology: doctors Henry Lee and Michael Baden. The former chief medical examiner of New York City, Baden had been a key expert in the Simpson, Blake, John Belushi, and Kobe Bryant cases. Lee had also worked on the Simpson defense and investigated the deaths of Jon Benet Ramsey and Vincent Foster. After being contacted, Lee and Baden flew to L.A. and examined the crime scene; Baden attended Clarkson’s autopsy at the L.A. County Coroner’s Office.
They’d been hired at a fee of about $100,000 each to do what they do: raise doubts about the competency or veracity of the cops, prosecutors, and forensic experts, and about the validity of the evidence, just as they had with such spectacular success with O.J. “Cops will always make mistakes,” says Pavelic. “A sharp, imaginative defense lawyer and a good consultant can tear a case apart. And when you have nothing, you attack the cops. If you throw enough crap, something will stick.”
In April 2003, Pavelic boarded a chartered Gulfstream jet to New York. With him were Spector, who’d been released on $1 million bond, Scott Raab, a writer from Esquire magazine, and Blaine. Pavelic viewed Spector’s insistence on going to New York as a “fucking dumb” idea. “He’s flying to New York in a private jet,” says Pavelic, “when he should be home, out of the spotlight, and he’s got a fucking reporter with him—after he’s already been told not to talk with anyone.”
During the flight Spector used his interview with Raab to construct the groundwork for his defense—which was to blame Clarkson for her own death, painting her by inference as some debauched snuff-film whore who sought him out and asked for a tour of the castle, where she danced around and “kissed the gun”—old hipster slang for giving a blow job—before triggering the fatal climax.
The case against him, he told Raab, was nothing less than “an anatomy of a frame-up,” adding that prosecutors had “no case,” that it was he who called the police, that Clarkson had been “loud and drunk even before [they’d] left the House of Blues,” and that he had “not drunk at all.”
After they landed in Manhattan, as Pavelic tells it, Spector was a defense team’s nightmare. “The guy’s out on bail,” says Pavelic, “and the last thing you want when you’re out on bail is to fuck up and get arrested. But Spector didn’t care. He was out drinking and drugging, asking for my credit card to pay for an escort-service girl, causing a commotion at the Plaza Hotel, and behaving so obnoxiously in the limo that the driver threatened to throw him out.” Spector, according to reports, was also snorting so much cocaine that weekend that he was bleeding from the nose.
As part of his public relations campaign to blame Clarkson, Spector had Blaine send out an e-mail announcing that “law enforcement sources” were about to declare Clarkson’s death “an accidental suicide.” He added, “I hate to say I told you so, but…I did tell you so.” It was a stupid move. The worst thing you can do is challenge the professional vanity of a homicide detective by declaring, in effect, that you’re smarter than he is. For them, the game is everything. Here Spector was, publicly declaring that he expected them to be intimidated into accepting his conclusion, as if influencing seasoned law enforcement professionals was no different from getting some buzz going on a new single.
The Sheriff’s Department denied the rumor, declaring that the only cause of death it had ruled out was suicide, and then took seven months to put together its case.
Meanwhile, Blaine was attending music industry parties in Los Angeles and New York, where she worked the crowd circulating flyers heralding Spector’s innocence. Spector, as Blaine later put it, was eager to put a positive spin on his image and enlisted Blaine to develop and produce a TV reality series about music producers, a biopic about Spector, and “a noble and heartfelt [feature film] about a teacher’s efforts to reach out to underprivileged kids.”
In September 2003, the L.A. County coroner’s report came out. Even though it determined that Clarkson had been “shot by another,” Spector’s defense team adopted the findings as proof that Clarkson was high and committed suicide, and they played it big to the media, selectively pointing to toxicological evidence that Clarkson had been drinking and had taken Vicodin the night of her death, and claiming that her injuries were consistent with that of a self-inflicted wound.
The D.A.’s office then began playing its own brand of hardball. After the embarrassing losses in the O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake trials, it was not about to allow Spector and his defense team to try the case in a scandal-hungry media through leaks and grandstanding at evidentiary hearings. Instead, District Attorney Steve Cooley decided on a quiet end run, impaneling a grand jury, before whom his office could methodically gather additional evidence. In September 2004, the grand jury handed down an indictment for murder, carrying a 15-to-life sentence, and a second with a possible 10-year sentence for using a gun in the commission of a crime.
On the steps of the downtown criminal courthouse not long after, Spector indignantly hinted that “secret” grand juries were somehow unusual in America, and referred to Cooley and his prosecutors as “Hitler and his henchmen.” That attack, too, backfired.
“The trip to New York, his partying at well-known places, his leaking information through Michelle Blaine—it was all designed as part of his campaign to put his story out there,” says Pavelic. “But he was basically spitting in the eye of the Sheriff’s Department and the D.A., and there was nothing Shapiro could do. The guy was out of control.”
Over the next few years Spector’s legal troubles went from bad to worse. In January 2004, Shapiro—a smooth deal maker who had been stung by criticism of his role in the O.J. defense—quit the case, unable or unwilling to deliver the kind of slashing defense that his client was demanding. Spector reacted by suing Shapiro for $500,000 plus damages before deciding to drop the suit and not add to his problems.
He then hired Leslie Abramson, best known for her defense of Lyle and Erik Menendez, which saved them from the death penalty for the murder of their parents. Abramson told CNN she was giving up her retirement plans to defend Spector, whom she idolized and thought “the very definition of cool.” True to script, Abramson started attacking the cops and the evidence, promoting the “accidental suicide” defense, and trying to discredit Clarkson. Abramson “personally called me trying to dig up dirt,” says Clarkson’s former publicist Edward Lozzi, asking “if Lana had been a call girl and had any associations with madams.”
But ultimately Spector was looking for a thug, a masterful jury manipulator for a courtroom showdown. He was looking for a Bruce Cutler. In August 2004, he dumped Abramson and hired Cutler, a beefy, gravel-voiced, bullet-headed New York mob lawyer, who federal prosecutors once dubbed the “house counsel” to New York’s Gambino crime family. The characterization was both true and sour grapes, considering that Cutler had won acquittals for John Gotti in three jury trials and might have kept on winning had the feds not gotten him thrown off the defense team for having improper conversations with Gotti about other defendants.
Ten months later Spector walked into superior court with Cutler. He was dressed all in black, wearing a Marge Simpson fright wig and a brass-buttoned shirt, and buttressed on one arm by a rotund bodyguard as wide as he was tall. On the other was his then-24-year-old fiancée and now wife Rachelle Marie Short, a model and would-be actress whom Spector had hired as Blaine’s assistant but who’d quickly become his lover. The marriage might have been true love, but it was also courtroom strategy. Having a wife sitting in the front row casting Nancy Reagan glances of adoration at her husband is the kind of humanizing element that Spector needs.
In the courtroom, Judge Larry Fidler ruled that four of the ten women who’d told the grand jury that Spector had threatened them with guns would be permitted to testify about their experiences. In October 2005, Fidler delivered another blow to Spector’s defense, ruling that remarks Spector made to the police, such as “I didn’t mean to shoot her, it was an accident,” could be admitted because the statements were voluntary and hadn’t been made during an interrogation.
Fidler also ruled that weapons found in Spector’s home could be admitted as evidence if they contained the kind of bullet that killed Clarkson. A Ziploc bag filled with the same type of ammunition that killed her—a “relatively obscure” Smith and Wesson .38 special “+P” round that, according to prosecutors, “had not been manufactured in more than ten years”—had also been seized. It was another important win for the prosecution. No fingerprints had been found on the gun (prosecutors claim Spector wiped them off), and with investigators unable to tie anyone to the revolver’s ownership, the defense was alleging it belonged to Clarkson. (Clarkson, according to Lozzi, was “trained and proficient” in guns and other weapons from her movie roles.) Nevertheless, the ammunition found in his bedroom at least circumstantially connects the gun to Spector.
As all this was unfolding, the atmosphere surrounding Spector was growing increasingly bizarre. In September 2005, he filed suit against Michelle Blaine, heretofore one of his closest allies, for allegedly embezzling $425,000 from his pension fund. Blaine denied the charges and countersued for $5 million, charging that among other things Spector had asked her to procure a prostitute and then ordered Blaine to his hotel room, handed her a defective penis pump, told her that it “needed service,” and then invited her to join with the woman in a threesome.
More to the point, Blaine claimed that Spector told her not to speak to prosecutors and had proposed marriage so that she would not have to testify against him at the upcoming trial. When she refused, claims Blaine, she was fired. But in a deal reached in October 2006, Blaine agreed not only to repay the pension fund money but $635,000 Spector had lent her to buy a house in Costa Mesa. Nevertheless, the victory could cost him. As a result of comments he made in the lawsuit, a judge has ruled that Spector must now disclose if he ever discussed Clarkson’s death with Blaine.
One thing has always been clear about Phil Spector’s upcoming trial: A guilty verdict would be a death sentence—the slow demise of a mentally ill man heading into his late sixties, sitting in a six-by-eight-foot prison cell in the middle of some desolate Central Valley steel-and-concrete death trap, waiting to die either by natural causes or at the hands of some psycho on a mission from God. That’s why Cutler will have no choice but to resort to his specialty: carving up the witnesses for the prosecution and portraying Clarkson as a suicidal, over-the-hill porn star.
In a recent phone conversation, Cutler laid out the essence of Spector’s defense. Spector, he said, “hadn’t taken a deal because he wasn’t guilty of anything. Someone kills herself in your home—advertently or inadvertently—you’re not guilty of a crime. There’s [no proof] of motive, malice, or intent.” Cutler promises a courtroom packed with “people close to Phil—musicians who owe their careers to him, who’ll be there to offer their support.”
The prosecution, too, is playing a high-stakes game. The D.A.’s disastrous losses in trials like O.J.’s and Robert Blake’s require a win. Especially now that Judge Fidler is allowing TV cameras into the courtroom.
Meanwhile, people keep asking if Spector has received any special treatment. The answer is, not since Clarkson’s death. It’s unusual for a murder case to take four years to come to trial, but the original judge and lead prosecutor were both replaced, and Spector is now being represented by his third defense attorney, all of which required delays. The only special treatment Spector received was that granted to people with fame, money, and power in a show business culture where who you know is often everything. Clarkson might still be alive if any number of friends, family members, victims, or witnesses who experienced Spector’s violent behavior had pressed charges. But they all fervently wanted what Spector could give them or, conversely, wanted desperately to keep what they feared he’d take away if they opened their mouths. That’s the real tragedy of Lana Clarkson’s life.
Photo-illustration bySean McCabe
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