Sunday, January 16, 2011
This is a tale about passion, intrigue, high adventure, skulduggery, bloodshed and death. Except leave out all but intrigue and make it low adventure, as though there might be such a thing. Will you settle for a tale about a sloe gin fizz, a pair of panties and the Fontainebleau Hotel, where they'll coronate either Blame or Zenyatta as Horse of the Year at a $350-a-plate dinner on January 17? I have other Fontainebleau stories, but none involves panties, and who would want to hear a story like that?
Many years ago, Sella Hatfield, one of three sisters who owned Portland Meadows, and Gladys McKee, secretary-treasurer of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, were having a quiet drink in the Bull & Bear at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The Bull & Bear is a spiffy room, which besides hotel clientele draws an upscale crowd from all over the East Side of Manhattan. Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame home run hitter and later a broadcaster for the Mets, used to drink there. There's one bartender at the Bull & Bear who serves such a wicked manhattan, both in strength and volume, that it's guaranteed to knock you into the middle of next week. Drink a second one and have someone call you a cab.
Gladys McKee always drank sloe gin fizzes, and I can't remember what Hatfield was drinking, but that's not important. The reverie of their evening was broken when Gladys knocked over her drink, right into Sella Hatfield's lap. Sloe gin is a red liqueur that stains badly. Weeks later, by phone, Sella was still complaining to Gladys about the loss of a pair of new knickers that had cost her dearly.
A few months later, there was a monthly meeting of the TRA scheduled for the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. Hatfield and McKee were both supposed to be there, but a few days before the meeting, McKee was told to stay home. There was a move afoot, ramrodded by the New York Racing Association, to oust Cliff Wickman as head of the TRA's track security arm. The meeting would be a donnybrook, Wickman had many friends in many places, and I was drafted to take the minutes instead of McKee. Go figure. I don't think that anybody at the TRA knew that I had actually taken a high school course in Gregg about a quarter of a century before.
The day before I flew to Florida, Gladys handed me a small gift-wrapped package and said to give it to Sella Hatfield with her compliments. I hadn't heard about the sloe gin fizz that couldn't stay on the table.
At the Fontainebleau, Hatfield was also a no-show. So I tossed the mysterious gift into my suitcase and would give it back to Gladys upon my return to New York in a few days. The meeting was fiery indeed, and at one point the targeted Wickman was asked to leave the room and wait out in the hall, while executives from about 50 race tracks settled his fate. "All Wickman's agents do is arrest guys for stealing hubcaps in our parking lots," I remember one NYRA official saying, but Cliff deflected the purge and saved his job.
A day later, I was in front of the Fontainebleau, en route to the airport and waiting for valet to pull my rental car around. My suitcase was there, but suddenly it wasn't there. "That was your bag?" somebody said. "We put it in that woman's trunk who drove away."
It could have been worse. The precious minutes from the pivotal meeting could also have been in the bag, but for some reason I had them under my arm.
When I returned to the office, I told the boss, J.B. Faulconer, about the muckup at the Fontainebleau. He seemed more interested in Gladys' package than the minutes.
"Did you give Sella Hatfield her new panties?" he said. I was the only one in the office who didn't know about the panties.
"Panties? What panties?" I said. These were two very grown men talking.
"Gladys sent you with the package, that was Sella's panties," said Faulconer, who went on to tell me about the sloe gin fizz at the Waldorf.
"I guess you didn't notice," I said. "Sella wasn't there. Those panties were in the suitcase."
"Get on the phone and tell Dianne about this right away," Faulconer said, referring to my wife at the time. "If they find your suitcase and send it to your house. . . Dianne's going to open that package, thinking you got her a gift, and find these panties. By the way, do you ever buy Dianne panties?"
I made the requisite phone call. The Fontainebleau never did find the suitcase. I think Gladys bought Sella another pair of panties and mailed them to Portland. People began keeping their distance whenever Gladys ordered sloe gin fizzes. The Fontainebleau hemmed and hawed about reimbursing me. I did not include the panties in my claim. At one point, on the phone, the hotel's security chief asked me to describe the person who had handled my bag. They had the man's name from the start, but still wanted a description to match the name, I suppose.
"He was about 5-foot tall, spoke little English, was wearing black pants and a white t-shirt," I said. "That should be a big help. There are only 49 other guys in front of your hotel who look like that."
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, January 09, 2011
If You Own a Track, Your Stigma Might Be Showing
The late Dick Young of the New York Daily News would sometimes refer collectively to the owners of major-league baseball clubs as the "lords of baseball." No flatterer, he. When Young started calling them "the lords" in print, it meant that his blood pressure was rising and he had a brickbat in hand. I thought of this the other day when Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, said that he would make a bid to buy a harness track in Maryland. As though he needed a reminder, Angelos was quickly told that he'd have to divest himself of the Orioles in order to purchase Rosecroft Raceway. The lords of baseball had righteously risen again, the better to remind their brethren that while owning a track might not be sinful, it sure as hell doesn't make you a better person.
The big-league owners work in strange ways. When the late George Steinbrenner owned the New York Yankees, he also dabbled in race tracks, and (gasp) owned
horses as well. Steinbrenner even got himself in hot water, admitting that he made an illegal contribution to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign. There were a couple of penny-ante fines doled out, and Steinbrenner wasn't allowed to come to the office or go to the games for 15 months, but that was the equivalent of being flailed with a strand of wet linguine. In the 1980s, I asked the baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, why no one had found a copy of "War and Peace," or maybe Joyce's "Ulysses," to throw at Steinbrenner, and insist that he own either the Yankees or the tracks, but not both. "Easy," Kuhn said. "The rule about track ownership came about after George already had those racing investments. So he was grandfathered in."
In 1980, under Kuhn's watch, Ed DeBartolo, who also owned tracks, wanted to buy the Chicago White Sox. The San Francisco 49ers, of the NFL, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, a hockey team, were both sold to DeBartolo, with no one questioning the sleazy gambling business he was in, but there was no grandfather clause to protect him in baseball, and the deal came a cropper.
When the Angelos situation in Maryland came up, I put in a call to the offices of Major League Baseball in New York. I mentioned the DeBartolo affair, 30 years ago.
"We take these things on a case-by-case basis," a spokesman said, "but I need to talk with our lawyers before I say any more."
A few hours later, he called me back and said: "The rules have not changed regarding (club) ownership and gambling."
There was an oldtime radio show called "Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons," and eventually someone did a parody called "Mr. Tracer, Keener Than Most Persons." I suspect that Angelos, a defense lawyer with an enormous practice, is also keener than most persons, and despite baseball he will find a way, such as listing the harness track in his wife's name. Despite his failings with the Orioles--Sports Illustrated once suggested that he was the "worst owner in baseball"--Maryland racing authorities will gladly welcome Angelos. They've had many years of Frank Stronach there, for corn's sake. "Mr. Angelos is a good businessman, a prominent lawyer and well-known in the community," said John Franzone of the Maryland Racing Commission, forgetting to include that Angelos breeds and races horses. "To me (he's) like a trifecta," Franzone ended up saying. Before Angelos, or his missus, owns Rosecroft, however, they will have to outbid a few other parties at a public auction.
The wife-owns-one-the-husband-owns-the-other fandango has satisfied baseball's morals police at least once before. Bob Levy owned Atlantic City Race Course and his wife owned a piece of the Philadelphia Phillies. "But how about this," said a friend of mine, who works in baseball and asked not to be named because he wants to continue working in baseball, "major casinos all over the East advertise liberally on radio broadcasts of major-league teams. The Boston Red Sox carry a lot of casino advertising, and so do the Yankees. There may be others, but the point being is that baseball doesn't mind taking money from casinos, yet it frowns on someone owning a team just because he's deeply involved in another form of gambling."
I'm reminded of the time when Phil Rizzuto, the Hall of Fame shortstop, was broadcasting Yankee games, but for another station he did commercials advertising New York City OTB (you all remember New York City OTB, don't you?). "Bet with your head, not over it," the Rizzuto spot said, borrowing from a slogan that could be found on the wall in one of the track kitchens at Belmont Park.
Steinbrenner might have been a track owner, but he didn't countenance one of his minions pushing an enterprise that operated at the same time the Yankees played some of their games. Forthwith, he introduced Rizzuto to his carpet.
"Scooter (Rizzuto surely was the oldest person to ever be called Scooter, although some day Scooter Libby will take away his title)," Steinbrenner said, "how could you? What were you thinking?"
"George, it was no big deal," said Rizzuto, one of only a few people who could talk to Steinbrenner like that. "I had a chance to make a few bucks, and I did it."
What Steinbrenner said next, I never heard. What I wish he had said was, "We're going to yank those commercials." It would have been a verb that fit the occasion perfectly.
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, January 02, 2011
Just Another Much-Needed Fan
At the upstairs bar at Sardi's, Dan Langan walked in. I never did figure out, exactly, what Langan's game was, except that he seemed to be a music promoter who placed acts at various bars and clubs around Manhattan. He had an Irish singer, who was his girlfriend and might have become his wife, and she was appearing at Langan's on West 47th Street, and wasn't that a coincidence, because Dan Langan, as far as I knew, had no financial interest in Langan's the bar and restaurant.
There are a lot of characters like Langan who people Sardi's and fit this non-description description. But Langan was good company, so what the hell. I even sympathized with him the night they took his topcoat off the coat-rack in the corner and hid it someplace in the bar. It was around this time of the year, and it was like Valley Forge outside. Langan was frantic, and really frantic when some of them insisted that he had never come in with a topcoat in the first place. Someone even suggested where Langan might buy a good topcoat at a reasonable price. Langan threw down what might have been his eighth toddy. He came in a cab, but left in a huff, sans topcoat, which showed up, mysteriously, on the coat-rack the next day.
"Do you have Lina Romay's phone number?" Langan asked, this night in Sardi's. He was wearing his topcoat. Now I lived in California, and Lina Romay lived in California, but I thought, "Why the hell would he be asking me that?" And, "What is the remote chance, out of the blue, that I could possibly have the number?" I did know Lina, but I had never told Langan that, as much as I could remember. I was surprised that he would even think that I knew who Lina was, but this was Langan's lucky day. I did have Lina Romay's number. That night, I might have been the only one in Manhattan with the number.
All of this came rushing back the other day when I learned that Lina Romay, 91, had died in a hospital in Pasadena. I hadn't spoken to Lina in a long time, but back in the day, when this onetime Hollywood glamour girl was working at Hollywood Park, we chatted almost every day I came to the track. Not about Hollywood Park, but Hollywood. The chats were nice--what movie buff wouldn't relish inside glimpses of some of the biggest names in movies--but what was nicer was Lina Romay, supporting racing not for any selfish interests, but just because she liked the track, liked the people in the game and wanted to see the game flourish. She was racing's unvarnished booster, the kind the game has too few of. Sending out results to Spanish-language radio stations, she didn't need the money (and how much could they have been paying her?), she was long past the time when she needed the notoriety; it was just a labor of love, pure and simple.
I went back to some of her old movies. To begin with, she had been a kid singer with the Xavier Cugat orchestra. "I was the only kid singer that Cugie didn't sleep with," she once told me. There was an irony about the Cugat connection. She had been discovered by MGM while singing with the orchestra at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. A couple of years later, they made "Week-end at the Waldorf," one of her first pictures. Backed by Cugat and company, she was all over the stage and the ballroom, a Mexicali rose in full bloom. Her routine went on for several minutes. Van Johnson, playing a U.S. serviceman, was among those in the audience who marveled. I couldn't wait to get back to Hollywood Park. "Oh, baby," I said when I saw Lina. "'Week-end at the Waldorf.' Oh, baby." She beamed.
My wife at the time was a psychiatric nurse, one of her patients being the superb character actor Edmond O'Brien. "Give me some of his best movies," Dianne said. "I need something to pep him up." Lina Romay knew O'Brien. Between us, we came up with "D.O.A.," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Seven Days in May," and, of course, his smarmy, Oscar-winning turn in "The Barefoot Contessa."
My wife told O'Brien, who was ravaged by Alzheimer's, that her husband had been a longtime fan and named the films. "Yeah, that Contessa picture," O'Brien muttered. "I won some kind of a (effing) prize for that one."
I reported back to Lina with the story. "We went to their house many times," she said. "Eddy could drink. He wasn't always that nice to Olga." That would be his wife, Olga San Juan, whom they called the "Puerto Rican Pepperpot."
Lina was very active with the Southern California Broadcasters Association, an organization that, if I have it right, threw racing a crumb every blue moon. But Lina reminded them from time to time that the game was still alive, and once, for want of a speaker, they invited me to talk about the Kentucky Derby at one of their luncheons. Afterwards, Lina said I had done well, but she would. That might have been the day she gave me her phone number. The one I surprised Dan Langan with, that night he wouldn't part with his topcoat at Sardi's.
Written by Bill Christine