She started out as a Hollywood starlet. She was a glittery blonde who kicked up her heels in stage shows and Hollywood supper clubs, and who played out a career in B movies, TV serials and floor-wax commercials.
Now, at 57, Dori Pye is at center stage in a far different role. As president of the Los Angeles West Chamber of Commerce, she has emerged as one of the most powerful non-elected figures in West Los Angeles--perhaps in all the city, according to some observers.
She acts as the political voice for about 800 chamber members, among them some of the giants of California commerce--Occidental Petroleum, General Telephone, Bank of America, Tishman West Management Corp., Mann Theatres, the Whittaker Corp., and more. She wields clout that has changed cities, her supporters say, and her connections reach all the way to Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
"I can get Mayor (Tom) Bradley," Pye will tell you. "I can call him on the phone, like I did . . . (recently) on a Thursday, when I said, 'I want to see you, I'll be down there about 10 o'clock, Mayor Bradley. . . .' And he didn't ask me what I wanted to see him about. . . . He didn't ask me--he just said, 'OK, if you want to see me, I'll see you.' "
Pye is regarded by some as a stunning success story--a charming and energetic promoter of community-improvement projects and Westside business interests.
Often, her reviews could pass for Variety ads:
"She is a dynamo. . . . "--Mayor Tom Bradley.
"She is a tremendously energetic, bright, engaging and effective person . . . unique . . . a breadth of vision that is broader than the usual narrow focus of most chambers. . . . --Los Angeles Councilman Marvin Braude.
"Dori Pye stands out as a person of passion, commitment and class . . . she travels at 100 miles per hour from start to finish. . . ."--Steve Saltzman, president of the nonprofit Greater Los Angeles Energy Coalition, an agency of city and county government.
Some Call Her Pushy
But among her detractors--many of whom declined to be named for fear of her political power--the criticism is often bitter. They say she can be pushy and ill-tempered, and many brand her a self-promoter.
"She's got an ego that won't quit--an exaggerated, inflated opinion of herself," one former associate said. "It's just her nature . . . to think you can't do anything better than Dori Pye; you can't do anything as good as Dori Pye--she's perfect."
One Westwood Village merchant said, "Nothing would bless the Westside more than if she went away."
Controversy still lingers over a $50,000 loan the chamber was forced to take two years ago, after moving to posh new offices on the 11th floor of a Wilshire Boulevard office tower. According to some critics, the new quarters have doubled the chamber's annual rent to more than $72,000, forcing the chamber into what one former member called "terrible, terrible" financial shape.
Pye's salary--which she places between $70,000 and $90,000 a year--and her membership in the exclusive Westwood Regency Club, which often runs from $250 to $500 a month in membership fees and dining bills, have contributed to the difficulty, former members said.
But chamber board President Chuck Schneider said growth forced the chamber to acquire the new offices, and he attributed the loan to unexpected costs related to moving. Schneider said chamber leaders are optimistic over the addition of seven new members in January and the start of a membership drive Feb. 1.
Schneider called Pye a "top-notch chamber manager," and attributed the organization's growth to her "vital, dynamic personality. She knows every politician there is."
Pye took over the chamber 16 years ago, when it numbered fewer than 100 struggling merchants in Westwood Village. Starting with a "cobwebby" two-room office and no business experience, she has built an empire: an organization that stretches from "City Hall to the sea," its new motto boasts, with offices occupying nearly 5,000 square feet in a gleaming Wilshire Boulevard tower.
She can be seen driving through town in her black Corvette--license plate: DORI P--or in her chamber-supplied Cadillac Eldorado; or found dining at the Regency Club, surrounded by big money and wood-paneled fireplaces; or mingling at campaign fund-raisers, sipping wine and cocktails and chatting with powerful political leaders.
More than perhaps any other Westside executive, her chamber directors claim, she has the power to unite corporate leaders and government policy makers--over issues ranging from regional growth to international trade. She is credited with establishing height limits and cleanup programs in Westwood Village; for helping to ease traffic problems in Century City; and for launching the nation's largest sidewalk art show in Westwood.
She has also helped quash a proposed building moratorium in greater Westwood, and has worked independently of the chamber to support a variety of political campaigns--including one that, two years ago, helped alter the balance of elected power in Santa Monica.
"You are talking to one of the most important chamber leaders in the country," Pye says boldly. "This chamber is one of the real success stories . . . in the country."
Unlike many other chamber leaders, who admit that they steer clear of partisan politics, Pye has based her success on close affiliations with elected government leaders. "No chamber leader in the country has the relationship with city government that I do," Pye claims. Bonny Black-Matheson, former director of the Century City Chamber of Commerce, admitted that that organization has lost members to Pye's, largely because of her political connections.
"We're not a mom-and-pop chamber," said Western Bank President Bill Turner, who attributed the chamber's success to Pye's assertive leadership. "We're more a political organization."
Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles, called Pye a "very strong, active" Westside leader, but said it is difficult to know whether she is more politically involved than powerful chamber executives in San Francisco and San Diego. The 3,500-member Los Angeles chamber, which covers five counties in the basin, also has an extensive roster of large corporate members and political connections.
But comparing the organizations is difficult, Remy said. "I don't know the range of her contacts," he said. "I do know that when I was with the city, we did look to Dori . . . as an important voice."
Pye said she expects to hold a fund-raising dinner this month or in March for Mayor Tom Bradley, whose April reelection bid is being challenged by City Councilman John Ferraro. The guests will number only 15 or 20, Pye said, but they will be influential businessmen who will pay $1,000 a plate to get in--and be glad for the chance.
"For these people, $1,000 is not too much to have a chance to sit down and talk with the mayor," Pye said. "That's one of the things I feel this chamber has been very successful at doing: enabling the membership who are interested in politics to talk to a congressman, or a senator, and be able to know them."
When a fund-raising dinner comes up, the chamber does not make direct financial contributions. "We wouldn't do that," Pye said. "But I'll go and call up members . . . maybe those who I know are Republican bent, and who want to support (Sen.) Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), or (Gov. George) Deukmejian; or those who are Democratic bent, and who want to support Mayor Bradley--or whoever it might be."
She will suggest that those businessmen buy a table, Pye said, to support the candidate of their choice. "It's not chamber-purchased, but our members did it," she said. As for the candidate--" He knows it's the chamber."
The evidence of her connections can be seen on the walls of the chamber offices, and in photographs lining the hallway of Pye's fashionable Brentwood condominium. In frame after frame, Dori Pye is there. Embracing Tom Bradley. Or smiling with Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), or with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), or Los Angeles Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, or Rep. Howard Berman (D-Sherman Oaks), or Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), or . . . even President Reagan. ("I knew Ronnie when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild," she said.)
Pye's political leverage comes from a vast network of such relationships, carefully cultivated and maintained. Cranston, for example, contacted in Washington, D.C., said he consults with Pye on national business issues that may relate to the Westside. Pye is correct, Cranston said, when she says her yearly trips to the Capitol are met with more than a cursory handshake.
"I can go to Alan Cranston's office, always an hour-and-a-half meeting, closed door--'Don't bother me, don't disturb me, I'm talking to Dori,' " Pye said. "Mel Levine and Howard Berman . . . generally it's dinner--(at) the Rive Gauche. That's the kind of relationship we enjoy. It's very important."
Night had fallen along Westwood Boulevard. The neon-streaked darkness could be seen through the huge windows of Western Bank, where the chamber's annual December mixer was in full swing. The hors d'oeuvres--nearly $4,000 worth--had been ordered for a high-fashion crowd of 400: men in business suits and women in long dresses packed in among the small tables and cashier's windows.
And almost all carrying impressions of Dori Pye:
"A tough lady . . . effervescent . . . doesn't let anybody stand in her way . . . a woman of power . . . personable . . . gets things done. . . ."
Pye arrived late, accompanied by a camera-toting staff member, and moved quickly through the crowd, kissing chamber members, shaking hands, posing for pictures. Staying only long enough to watch a raffle drawing, she was then off to a less-publicized event: a private cocktail reception for developers celebrating the defeat of a greater-Westwood building moratorium, a Yaroslavsky measure that would have halted three proposed office towers on Wilshire Boulevard. Pye, one of the first outspoken opponents of the plan, joined developers to lobby against the plan and shared credit for its defeat by the council in November.
To most observers, Pye seems equally at ease in the spotlight or behind the scenes. She is a frequent speaker at Los Angeles City Council and commission hearings, and twice has run for seats on the council--once against Yaroslavsky in 1975 and once against Councilman Marvin Braude in 1981.
In 1982, Pye acted as a campaign co-chairman for Democratic primary challenger Steve Saltzman in his bid to oust Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). She currently serves as an appointed member of the Los Angeles citizens advisory committee on housing, helping to shape policies affecting more than 27,000 units of low- and moderate-income housing.
But much of Pye's political influence is exerted backstage.
In 1980 and 1981, she took interest in a brewing political storm in Santa Monica, where a new rent-control law and tough new development standards had created what many considered an anti-business climate. Santa Monica's often-volatile council meetings began creating newspaper headlines--headlines that drew Pye's attention.
"I started keeping all these clippings on the City Council people--their profiles, who they were, what their philosophy was--and . . . I got incensed," Pye said. "I got incensed that any city so close to where I live would permit that kind of outrageous behavior." Pye talked with her board of directors, which wanted the chamber to stay out of the fray, and then decided to act "as a private citizen" to stop what she calls the potentially "cancerous spread" of anti-business attitudes.
Borrowing a corporate board room, Pye brought together Santa Monica businessmen and community leaders. Over wine, cheese and crackers, Pye laid out what it would take to defeat then-mayor Ruth Yannatta Goldway in the April, 1983, city elections.
"I told them, 'The problem with you is that you're all factioned,' " she said. "At the 11th hour before a campaign you put your money in and do things and nothing happens. It's like pouring your money down a rat hole."
The admonishment was heard by only 25 or 30 guests in that summer of 1982, but out of it grew the All-Santa Monica Coalition, which raised $250,000 and sponsored three candidates, former treasurer Tom Larmore remembers. The politically moderate coalition defeated Goldway in 1983 and in 1984 forged a 4-3 majority on the seven-member council--a swing that could still hold fundamental implications for Santa Monica's future.
Although changes in the political climate might have fueled the campaign anyway, Larmore said, Pye "got the first ball rolling."
Occasionally, Pye's heavy political involvements have exasperated some chamber members, who privately scoff at her attempt to separate her private life from her chamber position. "She is the chamber," one critic said.
Another charged that she ignored the problems of smaller chamber members when she lobbied against a Westwood Village building moratorium that was enacted in December.
"We need the moratorium," the chamber member said. "I don't know who authorized her to fight . . . the moratorium. She seems to lean more toward the heavy hitters than to the little guys."
But Pye ardently defends her activism. She represents all members of her chamber equally, she insisted, and all of her chamber business is supported by the policy-making board of directors. As a registered Democrat, she said, she gives her chamber access to the party of political power in the state Legislature--an avenue that is cut off from many Republican businessmen.
By being an active Democrat, she said, she was also able to win a recent appointment to the International Policy Commission of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, enabling her to lobby congressional leaders in Washington, D.C.
"I can go back and they're talking apartheid, South Africa," she said. "They want sanctions, and I can call (someone) and have lunch and say, 'You're taking the wrong tack. You're not going to help the poor blacks by pulling all American business out. Other countries will follow, and there will be no jobs.'
"Those are the kinds of things you can do."
During the 1982 Democratic primary campaign, Pye personally raised between $85,000 and $100,000 to try to unseat Tom Hayden, according to Saltzman. Although Saltzman lost the party nomination, he credited Pye with going far beyond "normal human efforts" to run the campaign.
"She was there to introduce me at the kick-off breakfast, and she was there to console me at 3 in the morning after the election," Saltzman said. "She was a phenomenal fund-raiser. I can't imagine running without Dori."
When the campaign was over, Pye and Hayden met at the Regency Club to discuss the business interests of the Westside. Hayden press aide Stephen Rivers said the assemblyman was interested in meeting with Pye because of her political clout. "She can be an effective advocate or an effective opponent," Rivers said. "She's someone you'd rather work with than against."
By all accounts, Pye's character was largely shaped by her mother, a powerful influence in her life and her entertainment career. Her mother, Grayce Nowak, was a wealthy finishing-school product whose husband died a year after Dori was born.
Left with two children--a teen-ager and a 1-year-old--Nowak left Atlanta, Ga., and came west, settling in Hollywood. She lost her wealth in the 1929 stock market crash but found work in a department store. Her ambitions, Pye said, became centered on her youngest child.
"She wanted me to be the next Shirley Temple," Pye remembered. One of her first auditions, at age 9, was for the David O. Selznick production of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."
"I was chosen to be Becky Thatcher, over 200 candidates," Pye said. But a last-minute replacement cost her the part. "That was very heartbreaking."
Her first role came at 13, in a teen love story called "Adolescence." Then came a whirlwind variety of projects--dancing in Hollywood supper clubs, earning a journalism degree from Columbia University in New York, appearing on the covers of Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, performing dramatic theater in West Los Angeles, playing parts in TV serials.
There were two marriages, the second to a studio art director named Merrill Pye. She gave up work in soap and floor-wax commercials to concentrate on raising her two children, and she ran a yearly art show at St. Albans Episcopal Church in Westwood. By the time the second marriage dissolved, she had come to know many of the village merchants by selling ads for the show program, Pye said.
When the elderly chamber manager retired, Pye stepped in. Her first salary was $666 a month--she calls it "starvation wages"--and chamber members were struggling. Westwood Boulevard, which had once connected Wilshire to Sunset, had been cut off by UCLA, separating the village from many upscale shoppers in Brentwood and Bel-Air, Pye recalled. Regional growth had not yet brought new traffic into town.
"When I came to this chamber, in 1968, you could have shot Skee Ball in the village--there was no traffic, there were no bodies," Pye said. "It was pathetic. The stores were all dying."
Under Pye's new leadership, the chamber worked closely with the city, raising $50,000 for a planning study designed to preserve the village. The study led to a three-story height limit throughout the village, ending fears that small shops would give way to high-rise office buildings. It is widely considered a milestone in the village's growth.
"This . . . village is low-rise thanks to this chamber--you're looking at it," Pye said.
Although she had no management experience, Pye began forming strong opinions about what the chamber should be and how the village should grow.
"She set a lot of goals," remembers Elsie Parker, Pye's first secretary, now an aide to Los Angeles Councilman Howard Finn. "She picked the brains of other chamber managers. She went to a chamber management school, put on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce . . . and she came back bursting with ideas and energy . . . what we could do to build up our chamber."
Pye streamlined the board of directors and aggressively sold new memberships. She moved the chamber to a nicer office, in a ground-floor suite on Wilshire Boulevard, and won accreditation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a step toward attracting larger corporate members. To build her political contacts, she began introducing herself at City Hall and holding "brown-bag lunches" in the chamber board room, where elected officials were invited to speak.
She also cast a critical eye at Westwood Village and worked with merchants and the city to bring about other changes. She launched the Westwood Village sidewalk art show, which has become the largest in the nation, according to Pye, attracting more than 500 exhibitors twice a year. She arranged to have trash in the village picked up six nights a week, and to have the sidewalks steam cleaned just as often. Merchants chip in to meet the costs.
"Yours truly drove down Wilshire Boulevard about six years ago, coming from my home in Brentwood, and I looked north into the village and I was shocked--I was aghast," Pye said, recalling another of her reforms. "I saw a huge billboard right in the center of a building, right in the center of the village."
At the time, there had been a gentlemen's agreement among merchants not to erect billboards, Pye said. She promptly made it official, working with Yaroslavsky to establish a village sign-control ordinance. "A stiff one, a stiff one," she declared. "But it's a good one--the way it should be."
In contrast to the image that most political leaders see--stylish, professional and elegant--Pye is often demanding and abrasive, according to former staff members who say few employees last more than a year working for Pye.
She routinely yells and threatens staff members with dismissal, former employees say, often over such concerns as membership sales and the appearance of the chamber offices.
"We'd run around with a sponge and cleanser cleaning spots on the wall," one former associate remembered. "I'd be chasing her around with a sponge and cleanser and we'd have work to do. She was just so hellbent on having the office look like it came out of Office Beautiful."
"I'm a demanding boss--I totally agree," Pye said, although she drew a line between yelling, which she considers rude, and raising her voice. Pye attributed the turnover to the fact that employees learn under her and move on to better-paying jobs.
Sitting in the Regency Club, surrounded by candlelight and soft piano music, Pye said she knows that the critics talk. "They say, 'That Dori Pye, she's something else.' " Many wish she would go away.
But she is happy, Pye said. She has a challenge. She is where she wants to be.
Pye said she is looking toward the day when all the world will be her stage--when her chamber will work through the Pacific Rim Forum, an international study group based at the University of Hawaii, to promote trade between America and other Pacific-bordering nations, including China, Japan and the Philippines.
The group's vice chairman, Dr. Thomas Paine, was the former administrator of NASA--the man "who pushed the button for Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, to reach the moon," Pye said.
"Dr. Thomas Paine is my consultant," she said. "This man is a genius. He's the one who's giving me the guidance. He's a strong fan of mine. We plan someday to get ourselves together, take a 747 jumbo jet, and take our key people over there to every chamber in that Pacific Rim Forum.
"It might take a year and a half, but we'll do it."
She sipped a glass of white wine. A Gainsborough painting hung on the wall behind her. Outside, far below the view windows, the lights of Westwood glittered on a windy night.
"I've always been the sort of person, you can't rein me in," Pye said. "I want to be the top dog. That's it. I've got to be the top."