Did Bert Fields reveal too much in his novels?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 3 2006 5:37 PM

Pellicano, My Muse

Did Hollywood lawyer Bert Fields reveal too much in his novels?

The Lawyer's Tale book cover

Thanks to the Smoking Gun and the fury of Oprah, we're more aware than ever that the line between memoir and fiction is blurry at best. And now that ambiguous distinction is at the crux of a racketeering trial against two former New York detectives, Louis J. Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who are accused of whacking at least eight people for the mafia. In a literary twist, Mr. Eppolito's 1992 memoir, Mafia Cop, "has been mentioned at the trial almost every day," according to the New York Times, as lawyers look to prove or discredit its veracity.

Memoirs may embellish the truth, but novels have been known to disguise it. In Los Angeles, two novels may provide a key to the federal wiretapping investigation surrounding private detective Anthony Pellicano. The probe has all of Hollywood holding its breath: The assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, Daniel Saunders, is expected to bring forth another round of indictments this month. On Saunders' potential listis high-powered entertainment lawyer Bertram Fields, best known for representing celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, and Michael Jackson. Fields has been a subject of the investigation for years now, ever since Saunders began looking into whether or not Pellicano taped conversations of individuals, including writer/producer Bo Zenga and comedian Garry Shandling. Both Zenga and Shandling were involved in litigation against Paramount Chairman Brad Grey, who is represented by Fields. (Zenga has since filed a civil suit against Pellicano, Grey, Fields, and Fields' law firm.)

The Sunset Bomber book cover

Instead of sifting through hundreds of documents and listening to countless audio tapes, Saunders and his team may want to take a cue from the Mafia Cop lawyers: Fields, under the pseudonym D. Kincaid, is the author of two thinly veiled romans à clef, The Sunset Bomber and The Lawyer's Tale. The similarities between Fields' life and his protagonist, Harry Cain, are striking enough that, at this eleventh hour, the prosecutors should put down their headphones and pick up a book.

The novels tell the life story of big-shot lawyer to the stars Bert Fields, er, Harry Cain, who represents everybody who's anybody in Tinseltown. Copious legal cases require the indomitable Cain to engage in Perry Mason-like hijinks in and out of the courtroom. Meanwhile, the narrative threads are loosely held together by predictable overarching themes in Cain's personal life: In The Sunset Bomber, it's a steamy affair (given the barrage of poorly penned sex scenes, you might almost mistake these legal thrillers for Harlequin romances) and the impending arrival of an illegitimate grandchild. In The Lawyer's Tale, the theme is more somber: the terminal illness of Cain's wife, Nancy.

Cain smacks of Fields in numerous ways. A sampling of the clues: Both drive Bentleys. Nancy is heavily involved in the arts, serving as chair of the Arts Council. Fields' current wife, Barbara Guggenheim, holds a Ph.D. in art history and is a partner at an art consulting firm. Cain's wife, Nancy, dies of cancer. Fields' previous wife, Lydia, died of cancer. When Nancy dies, Cain and his daughter walk "from downtown to the sea," something that he always longed to do with his wife. A write-up in the Harvard Law Bulletin says, "Many Sunday mornings, [Fields] and his wife set forth on their ritual four-hour walk across the city."

But are there incriminating facts to be gleaned from the more salient passages? Cain's close acquaintances mirror some of Fields'—Mel Brooks, Dustin Hoffman—but his most intriguing colleague is Cipriano "Skip" Corrigan. Corrigan boasts a likeness to Pellicano: Apart from the obvious fact that they're in the same line of work, they're also both at least partially of Italian descent, have black belts in karate, and are not afraid to resort to the tough-guy act. As Pellicano told People in 1993: "I always start out by being a gentleman. I only use intimidation and fear when I absolutely have to." Corrigan opts for less traditional scare tactics: "A shoelace, a rolled-up newspaper, or a pocket comb, in his skilled hands, could cause mortal damage."

Cain calls on Corrigan when he's faced with a personal dilemma; he's confident that a Harvard medical trial with a lengthy wait list is the panacea for his wife. So, he asks Corrigan to unearth whatever is necessary to get Nancy into the program. Corrigan's nugget: The man who could get in the way of their participation regularly visits a prostitute. "[H]e calls her two or three times a day from his office phone in between sessions. Don't ask me how I know. You don't wanna know," Corrigan tells Cain, implying that he's able to monitor the man's conversations.

The irony is that, as written by Fields, Harry Cain is obsessed with the idea that others are monitoring his conversations. In The Lawyer's Tale, he represents Joe Miletti, a director angling to get final cut from the studio on his $40 million film, The Last Battle. (Fields himself represented Warren Beatty in very similar litigation when ABC and Paramount wanted to run an edited version of Reds for TV.) At one point, when Miletti and Cain begin to discuss the stolen film, Cain interrupts Miletti, saying, "I don't want to discuss this stuff over the car phone, Joe. Anyone might hear—and anyway, for all you guys out there listening in on scanners, I don't know dick about that film."

Cain negotiates the final terms of Miletti's direction over the film at the studio offices, which the studio has wiretapped so that executives can covertly listen from behind closed doors. Cain explains to Miletti, "The room was obviously wired, not just so Yank could hear our discussion, but also because they hoped we'd make a mistake, and they'd catch us admitting we had the film." Cain's eavesdropping paranoia shines through further when leaving the studio: "Miletti began to speak, but Harry put his finger to his lips, indicating silence. It was not unlikely the elevators in the Consolidated Studios Building would be bugged, if only to hear the thoughts and plans of agents and lawyers as they left their meetings with studio negotiators."

Cain's Pellicano-like sidekickCorrigan makes another couple of appearances in the Harry Cain novels, entering the picture at Cain's beck and call, ready to dredge up whatever dirt is needed. And when Cain questions Corrigan about how he obtains the information he presents, it's typically qualified with a comment like, "You know better than to ask that, for Christ's sake." This wink-wink communication strategy may technically leave Cain in the dark, but his ready embrace of the information, despite the fact that it was questionably attained, may still leave him culpable.

In the end, these slippery tricks may well be the product of Fields' imagination. But it's obvious that he at least partially adhered to the adage, "Write what you know." Leave it to a lawyer to be so literal.

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