SEPTEMBER 21, 2011
“It’s like being in the middle of a movie I’ve never seen before … where I’m the star.”
—A “dice student” singing the praises of his mentor, Dr. Luke Rhinehart
A FEW DAYS BEFORE Jeff Parker was shot to death on his mother’s doorstep, we talked over lunch at a patio café in Newport Beach. I wanted to write a book about what happened on April 30, 1983, and he wanted people to know he wasn’t the monster they read about in their morning papers.
Three months had passed since a San Francisco businesswoman named Joan Mills collapsed in a Beverly Hills hotel room after a night saturated with sex, champagne, and high-grade cocaine. The man she had met only hours before, panicked and coked out of his mind, was trying to administer CPR to her battered body when the paramedics arrived. As soon as Mills was pronounced DOA at the hospital, police arrested her new companion, Jeff Parker. Pictures of the victim and the accused made the front page — and why not? Both were young, blond and beautiful, seemingly successful, the world at their feet until a one-night stand went wildly wrong. “L.A.’s Mr. Goodbar Murder” captured headlines up and down the California coast.
Freed on bail, Jeff agreed to meet with me because I was a family friend. “The accident,” as he called Mills’s death, was simply a bad reaction to the drugs he had generously provided. The tragedy for both of them, according to this self-described all-American boy from Minnesota, was simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His only regret seemed to be the embarrassment he caused his mother and sister.
An optimist by nature, he hoped to be cleared of murder charges and make the most of prison time for drug possession by writing stories for his favorite TV series, Cheers. After all, he could spin comic banter with the best of them. He asked if I might be able to get him a copy of a sample script from my new agent, and I promised I would. Pleased, he wanted to give something in return. As we walked out, he opened the trunk of his sports car, pulled out a cherished hardcover edition of The Dice Man, and handed it to me. This book, he said, is hilarious. More than that, it can change your life. Read it.
Later, after Jeff was dead and buried, I did, searching for clues about a man who — like all of us — contained multitudes. After all, as Dr. Luke Rhinehart wrote in The Dice Man, “anybody can be anybody.” Rhinehart (a pseudonym for author George Cockcroft) exhorted readers to follow his example and break free from the chains of civilized behavior by surrendering to his new religion, The Power of the Die. All a troubled soul needs to forget failures, heal neuroses, and relieve the ennui of the moment is a six-faced buddy to toss with abandon. Each face bears a different option. If the die were to show a “three,” you might fly to Peru, a “five,” you could tell your father to go to Hell, a “one,” you would rape your best friend’s wife (which is just the first of Rhinehart’s appalling, amoral escapades once he turns over his conscience to Chance). So many opportunities to honor unrequited impulses, so little time.
Originally published in 1971, this cult classic still reeked of fashionable subversiveness when Jeff Parker embraced the author’s proselytizing about the rewards of Chance made Flesh. Blessed with a fast, smooth wit of his own, Jeff knew comic brilliance when he saw it. And he, like literary critics before him, loved the nihilistic “memoir” of a disaffected psychiatrist who, weary of life’s mundane demands, exchanges individual choice and responsibility for liberation via the die. Fate trumps free will and its inherent guilt trips with every giddy throw. All was “accident … full of chaos and falsehood and whim.” The first time I read the book, I found myself both annoyed and entertained by its too-cool, superior swagger. Soft porn scenes, though deliberately ridiculous, also offended my feminist politics; then again, the book delights in being an equal opportunity offender. Careerists and Zen Buddhists, schizophrenics and sadomasochists, Jews and Catholics, everybody is parodied by Rhinehart, but none with the rage he directs to fellow psychiatrists who settle for keeping “the corpse alive,” rather than shocking hapless patients into radical change. A raucous ode to the free-to-be-me decades, the book’s black comedy challenges the rigid pride of authority — any authority — with a vengeance. Still, Dr. Rhinehart pleads with society to accept his acolytes. Why? Unlike normal human beings, “dice people are amateurs at evil.”
Jeff Parker and I first crossed paths at the Jeffries Banknote Company annual Christmas bash. I watched him work the ballroom with panache, holding court among a circle of admirers. A former Trojan yell king “discovered” by a Universal casting director on The Dating Game, he signed a Universal Studios contract before he turned 21. His USC pal, Tom Selleck, went on to stardom, but Jeff’s celluloid dream fizzled in a string of TV bit parts he would later dismiss as “eminently forgettable.” Still, he prided himself on maintaining Hollywood connections that impressed civilians like me. I was a young aspiring screenwriter then, boiling baby formula in the suburbs, when my husband — also a salesman at JBCo (as it was called by insiders) — slipped Jeff my first feature script to pass along to a producer friend of his. Jeff did. The producer didn’t buy it, but the encouragement convinced me I might have some talent after all. No doubt about it, Jeff assured me.
Jeffries Banknote Company — you may remember the sign that graced its downtown corporate building, visible from the southbound 110 — seemed an odd match for a bon vivant who grooved on the glitz of Rodeo Drive, peppered every conversation with the latest movie reviews, and perfected a masterful Travis Bickle impersonation, available on demand (“You looking at me?”). Then again, company founder W.P. Jeffries, my husband’s grandfather, was himself a bold risk-taker. After arriving from Kentucky as a poor teenager, W.P. won a half-broke printing shop in a poker game (the power of chance!) and transformed it into the largest “we set the gold standard” financial printing operation west of the Mississippi. The difference between W.P. and Jeff, of course, is that the former took both the risks and the responsibilities that accompanied them.
Half a century later it was one of W.P.’s grandsons who trained Jeff in the fine art of selling and entertaining clients in lavish style at Le Dome. The young salesman’s biggest coup was landing the printing account for the 1984 Olympics. Executives anticipated millions in revenues, and Jeff anticipated a big six-figure commission: a commission he would never collect. After too many absences from too many sales meetings and a late arrival one morning with a black eye, rumors of “a drug problem” began to circulate. Definitely not the desired image for a company that catered to a conservative, pinstriped clientele. Eventually Jeff was escorted from his office by security guards, a departure JBCo would describe as a “mutual agreement.” in the press coverage following his arrest nine months later.
Police labeled the ambush that took Jeff Parker’s life “a professional contract killing.” At Jeff’s memorial service in his mother’s home, only yards from the front porch where he bled to death, speculation ran wild. Was the shooter a hit man hired by uptown clients who didn’t want to be exposed? Joan Mills’s estranged fiancé? A drug-dealing crony? Word was now out that Jeff did more than use: he also sold blow to the carriage trade. One ex-girlfriend implied he intended to blackmail the rich buyers who left him high and dry when he needed money, and Jeff always needed money for a double life he could never afford. I imagined a non-fiction book, and hounded investigators and former JBCo clients, the unsolved mystery whetting my writer’s appetite. But ultimately, after hitting too many brick walls and receiving too many warnings from the police, I backed off. Why take the risk? I wasn’t the Dice Man, for God’s sake.
Or was I? The non-fiction book morphed into a roman à clef, which I started and occasionally revisited in between scripts for television dramas that won Emmys for portrayals of flawed characters who were more — and less — than they seemed. Then, like Luke Rhinehart’s stunted ambition before his liberating transformation, it went on the shelf to wither and wait.
Until a couple years ago, when I put my scripts aside and unearthed the files of “L.A.’s Mr. Goodbar Murder.” Boxes of yellowed clippings and ancient interviews littered my office. The dog-eared pages of The Dice Man. A handwritten note from Jeff’s mother promising to return the Cheers script that Jeff had received the day before he died. And greetings from Jeff’s sister from the first Christmas after her brother’s murder. The illustration on the card showed a boy and girl playing with their sled on a snowy winter day. It reminded me of growing up in Illinois before my parents abandoned seven generations of Midwestern roots for a California future that didn’t live up to the advertising. We all take risks.
I picked up The Dice Man and read it again with the perspective of many years gone by, this time finding it funnier, wiser, sadder. Despairing in its protagonist’s total disillusionment. So desperate is he to stay unencumbered by his former good-citizen self that he follows the die’s commandment to carefully stage a murder for which he will never serve time. Because being a dice man means “never having to live up to anybody’s expectations, including your own. You just go with the flow, guiltlessly.” Being a dice man also means never getting caught and never, in the words of another famous novel of the era, having to say you’re sorry.
The abyss between who we truly are and who we want to be is where the devil awaits. Lies we tell ourselves can burrow underground for years, but ultimately, they have their way with us. A bizarre accident. A sudden coronary. An out-of-the-blue suicide. Friends and family register their sincere surprise: “I never knew she had a problem with (fill in the blank). He always seemed so (fill in the blank).”
We never know because they keep the illusion going at all costs. The truth is just too terrifying. Dr. Luke Rhinehart knew that better than most. Just before he crossed his personal Rubicon with the first climactic throw of the die, he is admonished by his mentor to release his unrealistic expectations of life.
“You are a classic case of Horney’s,” the mentor thunders in contempt, “the man who comforts himself not with what he achieves, but with what he dreams of achieving.” “I am,” Rhinehart admits, and then creates dice history by acting out every adolescent fantasy and malevolent impulse without shame. The die made him do it. The only problem with that, as Jeff Parker discovered, is the inconvenient truth of consequence. That’s why I finally finished that roman à clef begun long ago. A cautionary coda to the gospel of the die. In memoriam to Jeff Parker and Joan Mills and my own youthful illusions.
In the land of noir, the dice are always loaded.