DONNA RICE : The Path to Hollywood
The waiter at the Ivy was either indiscreet or not terribly bright. “Mrs. Rice,” he announced, approaching the restaurant’s most visible corner--the inside corner table--"there is a call for you!”
Donna Rice excused herself to go to the phone. She had just arrived at the Ivy, late, after getting lost and stopping at La Scala for directions. She had confused Beverly Drive (near La Scala) with Beverly Boulevard (near the Ivy)--a common confusion for an out-of-towner. At La Scala she got directions from a stranger, a man who recognized her. Now the man was calling the Ivy to make sure she arrived.
When Rice returned from the phone, she had a nonchalant look on her face. “His name is--oh never mind,” she said, handing the reporter a business card from a senior executive at a major studio. “He was just checking that I got here.”
Rice raised her eyebrows with an I’ve-been-there look, the look of a woman wiser than her 29 years, and wondered aloud: “Was he thinking of me for a part, or was he wanting to ask me out? You never know who’s in bed with whom here.” Her pause did not seem deliberate. “I hate womanizers,” she said lightly, “and you can’t always spot them.”
If the studio executive had power--and on some level he does, having held several top-level jobs in recent years--Rice couldn’t have cared less. The subject was dropped.
The irony, of course, is that nobody at the Ivy seemed to recognize Rice; she said that nobody at La Scala did, either, except the studio executive. In restaurants on two coasts over the summer, Donna Rice--the Media Star of 1987--has gone unrecognized without even trying. One day she wears her caramel-color hair flowing to her shoulders, one day it’s in a Sandra Dee pony-tail, but never is it disguised, nor is she--and she’s been all over town all summer. The meetings have been endless, with potential managers, agents, producers, production companies and networks. She’s crisscrossed from her parents’ home in South Carolina to New York several times--taping “20/20" with Barbara Walters, filming a jeans commercial--and traveled to Spain (for a talk show, for which she received her only serious media money, a reported $20,000 fee).
On another evening, at the Hard Rock Cafe in L.A., Rice was asked what her life was like last summer--after all, she only met Gary Hart on New Year’s Eve. She laughed softly. “Last summer was my high school reunion! I’m sure glad it’s not this summer.” Then she peered out the cafe’s tinted window and stared at a woman in line, a woman wearing pants so tight they looked spray-painted on. Rice silently watched the woman with a look of knowingness, then she gathered her purse and jacket and got up to leave, again unrecognized (even in a very intense midsummer Saturday night crowd). “I’m going directly home to sleep,” said Rice quietly. “Tomorrow I’m looking for an apartment and a car.”
That Donna Rice is moving to Hollywood is not surprising to anyone, least of all Donna Rice. “I always knew I’d be coming here, like all the other girls who come to be actresses,” she explained, making the move sound logical. “It’s just that I wanted to come with an audition tape under my arm and some money in the bank. So I went to Miami before coming here. Miami is the third largest market for commercials. So I was just like the other girls--I just did it different. . . . I mean who else in the history of the world has this happened to?”
“This.” The party in Aspen. Meeting Gary Hart. The chance encounter at Turnberry. The cruise to Bimini. The townhouse in Washington. The Miami Herald. The withdrawal. The aftermath. Last week’s uneventful TV appearances by both Hart and Rice.
‘If J.F.K. was the first media President,” said writer Liz Nickles, who is collaborating with Rice on a proposed book, “then Donna Rice is the first media courtesan. I call this ‘The Donna Rice Syndrome.’ There is no parallel to Donna in history, for a reason. Technologically it was not even possible for a Donna Rice to have this kind of impact. No single individual is a match for the combined forces of modern media.” Nickles means that neither Wallis Simpson in the ‘30s nor J.F.K. paramour Judith Exner had to deal with the velocity of media attention heaped instantaneously on Donna Rice. Never before has the media been as concentrated, or as powerful. And while Donna Rice may have charted a course for herself, she didn’t chart this one.
Rice’s name evokes emotions--usually either empathy or its opposite, disgust. But say the name aloud, and there’s always a response. Since Gary Hart’s fall from grace (and the presidential race) in May, Rice has been the backstage player in the drama--until last week making only one national TV appearance (with Barbara Walters) and collaborating on one first-person article (for the July issue of Life). Aside from the No Excuses jeans commercial, and her promotion of it, she’s had no other real exposure until now, no interviews, no talk shows--and four months after she became a household name, Donna Rice still has no book deal; her jeans contract was only days ago finalized; her ABC movie is still being negotiated.
Who is Donna Rice? In interviews on both coasts--beginning the June evening she taped the “20/20" interview--the question after a time became redundant. What happened to her is more interesting than who she is, and she knows it. “It could have happened to anyone, but it happened to me. How did I handle it?” she asked one afternoon in her typical questioning style. She asks questions of everyone--of her self-described “crisis manager” in Washington, her packaging agents in Hollywood, her book agent in New York, her lawyer in Miami, her book collaborator in Chicago. Then she listens to herself.
Most of the time. Donna Rice is a person of contradictions. There is about her an ambivalence that’s almost always apparent. She wants to be taken seriously and lightly at the same time. She shuns attention while simultaneously craving it. (Not for nothing is she after a career as an actress, after all.) She’s a Phi Beta Kappa who was also a cheerleader. She studied business and biology (at the University of South Carolina), went to work selling pharmaceuticals, yet she also posed endlessly in cheesecake. Her past has been chronicled ad nauseam and conclusions have been drawn, primarily by people who haven’t met her. Much of the seclusion, and her endless traveling, seems to come from being caught between two needs--the need for privacy and the need to be understood. It’s the same split that led her to spend a summer doing missionary work with Southern Baptists and a New Year’s Eve in Aspen. That’s a schism perhaps only a politician could appreciate.
In terms of the media, there has basically been one question: How to handle this woman? The choices have been so many that the process can be seen as a game. What follows is a look at how the Donna Rice Media Game was played, with input from the above-mentioned cadre of advisers, and reaction from the media--from the winners in the Donna Rice Sweepstakes (Life and ABC’s “20/20"), the losers (People and Playboy), and the provocateurs (Gail Sheehy and Vanity Fair). If the game has been high-stakes poker, the winner is not--not yet, anyway--Donna Rice. Her income so far from U.S. media? $4,000, according to Rice, who added: ‘If I was just cashing in, I would have done that already. Anyway, money is the least interesting element in all this.”
More interesting is the media perception of her. The media people who haven’t met her remain cynical; those who have talked to her have been mostly charmed. “The kind of good ole girl you want to meet at a party,” is how Life’s managing editor Pat Ryan put it. And she added, “And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.” Whereas Sheehy, who did not meet Rice, wrote about Rice’s “manufactured story” and “dubious life style.” But the major surprise among the media is the continuing interest. People managing editor Jim Gaines admits he thought, “Donna Rice would last 15 minutes. But maybe 15 minutes now takes longer.” Pat Ryan thought, “Interest in Donna Rice would last a week, but I was wrong. We’re still interested.” Even Playboy, which could not get a “yes” from Rice in spite of offering her some control and a six-figure fee, is still interested.
Donna Rice has gotten a Hollywood education in one summer. Late on a Saturday afternoon in a sunny living room in Brentwood, she explained why she was willing to sit down and talk on the record. Wearing what in the last two months has become her trademark jean jacket and jeans, hair pulled back into a topknot, Rice responded like someone who’d had time to think.
“I want to do a story for three reasons,” she said simply. “First, to have an accurate picture of me. Secondly, to explore the power of media. And then, finally, I’d like to show a sensitive story of survival. I’d like to show the cost of compromising versus non-compromising. It’s my way versus (her ex-friend) Lynn Armandt’s way. It’s the dignity and integrity approach--not that I have so much dignity or pretend to have so much integrity! But I didn’t take the easy way out. My feeling is, this will pay off in the long run with the right kind of success.”
Rice believes strongly that “If I’d been an executive or, say, a journalist, this would have been handled very differently. I’m a bimbo in a bathing suit is how they saw it--but I’m not. That’s one reason why people see an X factor in me. A bimbo in a bathing suit is not supposed to be introspective and articulate.”
Rice’s primary position is that “what happened to me could have happened to anyone.” She sees herself as a private person thrust into a public role, and she remains firm about not discussing her involvement with Gary Hart. It’s her hole card and she is holding onto it. “How is it that the press presented Gary Hart’s dilemma at a historic level, while I’m perceived as the bimbo at his side?” (Or, as Hart has referred to her, “the woman in question.”) Rice defines the X factor--"the reason why people stay intrigued"--as “mystique. How can I be a woman who has high honors (she was graduated magna cum laude) and a job in the pharmaceutical business and real estate licenses and a background in nutrition and marketing. . . . I’ve been calling on doctors for 2 1/2 years. In terms of my story--Gary Hart is really about half an act.”
But what an act. In observing her over the summer, one feels less a mystique than a rather well-staged sense of being underground. “People in general take to her,” said Liz Nickles (author of the steamy novel “Nice Girls in High Places”) who met Rice 10 days after the scandal. “I accompanied Donna on her rounds of calling on doctors, in Miami,” remembered Nickles. “I watched how she went right back to work. There was no budget for her to vanish to Europe. I saw how the doctors were with her, which was respectful. At Wyeth (Laboratories) some of the staff people, like purchasing agents, shut her out. But mostly I saw respect. My sense, though, is that people take to Donna more than the press does. Because the press lacked access.”
Nickles offered another example of Rice’s reclusiveness: “I was with her in New York for the shooting of the jeans commercial. The producer hired a British director who’d never worked in America before. He treated her like a professional girl doing her job. It was a 12-hour shoot, with one hour of lunch, then a media-event party, very glitzy. But instead of going, Donna and I snuck off by ourselves for a casual dinner. I’m not denying she once had a high visibility life. She was a Miss World candidate from South Carolina. . . . But if you are running after limelight, you go to the media party. And she didn’t.”
Rice believes that “people are fascinated because they know it could have happened to them. But the press is something I don’t understand. For example, why didn’t they ask whether Lynn Armandt spent the night with (Hart friend) Bill Broadhurst? I guess it’s because I’m ‘The Girl.’ Do people ever bother with anything but stereotypes? Anyway, people got a taste of me on Barbara Walters. But it’s a constant overcoming on my part. Frankly, the people who feel ‘It could have been me’ are the only ones who appreciate what happened.”
Rice paused a moment, then remembered an incident that impressed her: “When we shot the commercial in New York, there were kids holding up banners saying, ‘We love you, Donna.’ I don’t think those kids necessarily know who I am. . . . I think that’s a good definition of fame, don’t you?”
On June 15, Rice--accompanied by newly hired crisis manager Tricia Erickson--flew into New York from Washington and registered at the Stanhope Hotel under an assumed name. The Stanhope, on upper Fifth Avenue, is antique-laden and quiet--ideal, in fact, for Barbara Walters and crew to quietly slip in and tape the interview. The hard part, for Rice, was that she was recovering from strep throat and a grueling briefing in Washington the day before to prepare her for Walters’ questions, and she was nervous. (The briefing included Erickson, journalist Rudy Maxa, an unidentified Washington lawyer and a former presidential adviser.)
“Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” Rice asked the morning of taping “20/20,” knowing it was too late to change her mind. On top of the media pursuit, the briefing had left her sleepless.
“Barbara Walters’ people said, ‘Don’t brief Donna, it will show on the air,’ ” said Erickson, a woman of extreme confidence. “But I knew we had to prepare for this.”
“I was unaware she was rehearsed,” Walters’ ABC producer Phyllis McGrady said recently. “I remember she had said she wanted to work on it beforehand, and I remember we left it up to them. There are pros and cons to rehearsing.”
The issue of the briefing was secondary, though; the point had been to secure Donna Rice’s first TV interview. How did Barbara Walters get her? “There were no more than a couple of back-and-forth phone calls,” insisted McGrady. “Finally Donna made the decision on the phone.” First, however, ABC rolled out the star weapon in its artillery--Barbara Walters herself. As McGrady remembered, “I felt if Donna and Barbara at least could talk, and Donna could have a chance to know Barbara . . . if that conversation could happen. . . .”
It happened. Rice said yes, and only the strep throat prompted her request for a postponement. “She asked if we could delay, but we couldn’t and make the air date,” remembered McGrady. “God, this seems like two years ago!”
In the current issue of Washingtonian magazine, writer Rudy Maxa suggests that Walters promised Rice she wouldn’t ask about Gary Hart. McGrady disputed this: “Never! We never promised to never ask about Gary Hart. The thought of that is like telling Barbara Walters to . . . well, anyway, yes, Donna was apprehensive. But we said, ‘Look, those questions have to be asked. Otherwise you are going to be plagued forever. We want you to be fully aware. You are going to be asked about the relationship.’ How she answered was her business.”
“Barbara’s a good person, but she tries to get things out of you,” said Rice the day of the taping. “She has a way about her.”
Some critics have questioned Walters’ way. Primarily because Rice refused to confirm or deny her relationship with Gary Hart, based on “dignity"--and Walters let it go at that. Gail Sheehy, whose delving into Gary Hart’s private life began with a long Vanity Fair article in 1984, last week had some questions about how Walters handled Rice: “Where was the reporting on ’20/20'? Where were the facts? Who brought them up?” Told that perhaps hard reporting was not a function of Barbara Walters’ job, Sheehy retorted: “It used to be! I understand that Barbara’s job depends on ratings. I just don’t like to see her being used to entice guests. Just to get headlines. That’s softball.”
Yet Sheehy--who again probed Gary Hart’s psyche in the September Vanity Fair--concedes that “20/20" made “an impression on my editor and researcher (at Vanity Fair). After seeing it, they both said in essence, ‘You’re totally wrong, Gail, about Donna. She’s smart and bright’. . . . I was away when it aired, but I took a look when they said that. I remember thinking, ‘She really did it! If only she’s that good an actress!’ ”
Sheehy, who has never met Rice, covered the scandal in exactly the opposite way Walters did. Sheehy did massive interviewing and research, whereas Walters scored the coup of landing Rice herself. Since there is no precedent for the Hart-Rice scandal, no example to compare it with, probably a choice had to be made--access or research, but not both. There was never time, or synchronicity enough, for both.
“You have to realize that Donna Rice had never been interviewed,” said producer McGrady. “Think about that. Never to have been interviewed, ever, and the first time is with Barbara Walters! Barbara is so prepared and relaxed when she walks on that she can take a conversation in any direction. It’s a flow.”
Still, a first-time interview might require retakes, reshooting, extra footage. “No,” responded McGrady. “I don’t think we even taped 15 extra minutes. It was a long interview, on the air and off, and I don’t remember that we ever had to stop-tape once. Sure, Donna was nervous. I also found her to be trusting in a world where people are so jaded--that was refreshing.”
The general impression was that Rice on “20/20" was a “hit”; the show got its highest rating of the season, ranking fourth nationally for the week. “It’s been a long time since ’20/20' was fourth,” said McGrady dryly. The success--and the mostly positive response to Rice--was not unexpected, at least not by Tricia Erickson. At a late supper with Rice at the Stanhope Hotel directly after the Walters’ taping, Erickson tried to calm Rice’s nerves. “Barbara wants Fawn Hall,” Erickson said confidently. “Fawn Hall has been like my best friend for seven years. " The size of the coincidence seemed not to faze Erickson. “Barbara told me again tonight she wants Fawn Hall. Barbara will do right by us.”
Ten days ago, while Walters was vacationing in Aspen, McGrady was editing Walters’ interview with Fawn Hall, which is scheduled to air as part of a Walters’ special on Tuesday night. “Fawn is a lot like Donna in a way,” said McGrady. “It’s that thing of being interviewed for the first time--and it’s Barbara Walters!”
The day after “20/20" taped, Donna Rice was still in New York, and not courtesy of ABC. The network (which in the last year has become known for financial belt-tightening) had OK’d only one night at the Stanhope for Rice and Erickson. (The gesture is a comment on both the TV business and getting the story; once gotten, the subject is meant to vanish.) But Rice was unable to make airline connections to get to South Carolina to watch “20/20" with her parents, so she stayed on in New York at her own expense.
“The phones are not ringing as much as I expected,” Rice said early the day after the broadcast. She laughed, mock-nervously. “My book agent said, ‘Gosh, I hope you are still marketable.’ I just hope people don’t think there’s nothing to market!” Again, Rice’s contradictions emerged: Not wanting to cash in on the scandal, she still grasped the need to be marketable. “I didn’t want to preach to everybody, but a high standard was always the idea. A lot of people have this wait-and-see attitude. I hate people who have attitudes.”
That day it was reported that Lynn Armandt was paid $120,000 by People magazine for “her story” and the famous photographs of Rice and Hart in Bimini. The pressure was on Rice, primarily from the London Daily Mail, which offered her $100,000 for an interview. Later that day Rice said, “I just need a weekend alone to work out a game plan. I want to get everybody in place. People talk about this book thing as if it existed. Meanwhile, they’re all printing eight-year-old photos of me in bathing suits!” She paused before adding, “There are various story angles here. One angle is how the mind works on a day-to-day basis. Really, some people would not survive this.”
That afternoon Rice turned down the offer from the London paper. “If I want a story done,” she said, “I want it to be a third-person look, not a kiss-and-tell. A lot of people think they are getting ‘The Gary Hart Story.’ But they’re not getting it from me.” Rice, who’s often described as naive, wasn’t so naive as to miss the point: “Oh, I see see the point all right. Why interview me if it’s not going to shed any light?”
What became overwhelmingly clear then was that Rice was the producer-writer-director of her own saga. In spite of her endless questioning, she was learning quickly the decisions were hers. “I’ve been handling things since I was 13,” she would say more than once. “But I have to keep asking myself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ”
The right thing. “20/20.” People. Penthouse. Playboy. A party for “Miami Vice.” Leeza Gibbons on “Entertainment Tonight.” Talk shows. Game shows. Jeans commercials. A press conference. Autobiography. Endorsements. A lecture tour. A part on a nighttime soap. A part on a daytime soap. Should she expose one-breast-or-two? Charity attachments. Her story on ABC produced by New World. Tabloids. Magazines. Cover photos.
“Do you mean Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy?” Gail Sheehy asked in response to a question about modern media--about how Kennedy’s private behavior went uncovered in his lifetime, whereas Gary Hart’s has not. “During Kennedy’s term, there was an elite club of national press, mostly print, not electronic,” replied Sheehy. “It was a coterie, mostly male, and there were unwritten rules, mostly about staying friendly. We are now more psychologically sophisticated; one-third of all Americans have been in therapy. We now want to know about a leader’s character, about how he’ll react in crises.”
Liz Nickles--who was traveling in France and England when the Hart affair exploded--believes that Rice was treated more kindly by the foreign press than American. “The fairness and empathy came from press outside this country. They perceive women like Fawn Hall and Donna as media creatures, names kept alive only by the media.”
Sheehy sees the media as being “in the middle of a new game. There’s a new license to explore and extrapolate. When the Gary Hart affair was exposed, the press was very tough on the Miami Herald. The paper really took it on the chin. (New York Times columnist) Abe Rosenthal was very high horse about ‘the Miami Herald sneaking in the bushes. . . ' But what if they hadn’t?”
At Hart’s June speech to newspaper publishers at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, Sheehy says it was Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler who “took the heat. While Gary Hart was saying essentially, ‘It’s your fault’ and ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have walked out of the townhouse at 8:05,’ Tom Fiedler was getting pummeled and torn apart by other newspaper people. Because he published things about Hart on 24-hour deadline, etc. The truth is, Tom Fiedler did everything he could to resist the story. But, finally, too many things checked out. The saving grace about the press is--other press. The press won’t go too far because other press won’t let them. If the press is caught going too far--it will be caught by its own tribe.”
What’s too far? A better question: What’s far enough? Sheehy--whose 1984 Vanity Fair article on Gary Hart revealed his spiritual ties with an Indian woman, but didn’t damage Hart--thinks she knows why. “The American public won’t believe a politician has a double life without pictures, or copies of a motel bill. But pictures are better. In order to pin down symptoms that express paranoia or neurosis, you really have to make people look at it. You have to have actual physical documentation.”
Enter Lynn Armandt, the three-month acquaintance of Donna Rice, the woman who sold Rice’s own roll of film to the National Enquirer and People. The thinking in some circles is that People only went to Armandt because they couldn’t get to Rice. But Rice chose Life over People--and the Bimini photographs of Hart and Rice wound up on the pages of People, while Rice’s first-person, not-very-scandalous saga was published in Life. Armandt grossed something close to $200,000; Donna Rice made $4,000.
It’s no secret that within the Time-Life Building there’s rivalry between magazines, in this case Life and People. Added drama is that Pat Ryan, the woman who was managing editor of People, became managing editor of Life just as the scandal hit the press. Pat Ryan was thus in a very hot spot. “I wouldn’t call it a coup,” she said recently of her getting Rice’s story. (Though getting Rice to shoot new color art was a coup.) “And I wouldn’t call it a contest. But you’d have to ask Gaines about that. . . .”
“Gaines” is James Gaines, the new managing editor of People, and Pat Ryan’s replacement. If Ryan was in the hottest seat--she had first access to Donna Rice--then Gaines was even more closely watched. He had no access to Rice, People has a history of checkbook journalism--and Pat Ryan’s were very big shoes to fill.
(Rice’s theory about the People-Life contest isn’t complicated: “I really think People would never have gone to Lynn Armandt if they’d gotten to me. I learned a way to tell what a magazine is up to: When they stop calling me, I know they’re on the brink of publishing something. I knew what People was up to before Bill Broadhurst or any of Hart’s people knew. . . . The phones had stopped ringing.”)
Gaines disputed Rice’s claim that People would not have gone to Armandt had they gotten Rice: “It’s not true. Using Lynn Armandt did not preclude using Donna Rice. We got the story we wanted to get. We pursued Donna Rice as avidly as anyone can pursue a subject, right up to the point of publishing Lynn Armandt’s story. Then we asked for a rebuttal from Donna Rice, and got no satisfactory answer.”
The calls that Rice was taking were from Pat Ryan at Life. About the competition between the two magazines, Rice remembers “people saying this was such a window of opportunity. But I was just thinking about survival.” Ryan, meanwhile, was thinking about her new job at Life. “I was so new here, I was not yet running the regular issue,” she said of the July “Great Outdoors” issue that featured Rice.
Ryan’s first response to the idea of Rice was indifference: It took three calls from “a mutual friend” before Ryan got back to him. “I felt Donna Rice would last 24 hours. I felt nobody would care about her within a week, and remember we are a monthly. With six weeks until that issue hit newsstands, yes, I was interested. But only sort of . I remember thinking, ‘There are probably a thousand Donna Rices in New York, a hundred in Miami.’ Then I got intrigued about what her life must be like.”
Thus Ryan, unlike Jim Gaines at People, saw in Rice an almost fictional girls-in-their-summer-dresses quality. “Good-looking girls around town and how they live. . . . What kind of satisfaction they get out of that life.” Ryan did not want an interview (and neither did Rice) and not just because there wasn’t time. (The Life piece was put together 20 days after the scandal broke in the Miami Herald.) “In terms of Gary Hart, I didn’t care if she did or didn’t , and I thought other people would feel the same way. By the way, I was dead wrong about that. Also, I thought this wasn’t Life magazine’s bag. I wasn’t sure any sophisticated person would care.”
So Ryan came up with the first-person approach as a way for Rice to control her magazine debut. “From the start, first-person felt right,” said Ryan. “Otherwise you need a journalistic investigation. So I thought, ‘Let her be happy.’ I have no problems with that. There are only problems if you show her the copy, and it’s not first-person. Or if you let her choose the pictures, which we did not.”
Nor did Life pay Rice anything close to what she could have commanded elsewhere. Ryan’s instinct about paying for stories has had to change with the change in jobs. At People, it’s a sellers’ market; at Life it’s a buyers’. Whereas People on occasion pays top dollar (six figures), Ryan now says: “At Life, I would pay for certain kinds of stories, I guess, but I would never have paid for Lynn Armandt. My feeling is, ‘Go with what an editor feels comfortable with.’ I was comfortable with Donna Rice getting a standard writer’s fee.”
People’s Jim Gaines looks at Rice in a slightly different light. “The only reason Donna Rice is interesting is Gary Hart. And then if she refuses to answer the really important question. . . .” Another question was payment--to Rice or Armandt or whomever. Gaines’ voice was not snippy when he said, “Life magazine paid Donna Rice.” (Rice’s $4,000 Life fee was the standard free-lance rate, $1-a-word.) Gaines continued: “Are you saying, ‘We all know what we are--but how much?’ If so, then that’s another story.”
But was the Hart-Rice scandal People’s best-selling cover of the summer? “Not even close,” answered Gaines. “Three covers have done better since that one.” Which doesn’t mean Rice is uninteresting. “Anytime Donna Rice would be interested in telling the truth, we’d be interested,” said Gaines. Is Donna more than 15-minute Rice? “My sense is that her future probably depends on her talent. Even being Vanna White requires talent of a sort. . . .”
“Hemingway couldn’t sell a book today,” Rice complained one recent afternoon. “The things publishers want you to write! A lot of people want to talk about this--but some of us have something to say. . . .”
In book publishing circles, beginning early in June, the feeling was that Rice didn’t move fast enough. “The right agent and attorney would have had her a book deal within a week,” said one major agent familiar with publishing deals. Instead of connecting with big guns like Mort Janklow and Irving (Swifty) Lazar, Rice went with Richard Curtis, who has his own small New York agency. (His clients include John Jakes and Janet Dailey.) Rice still has no book deal. (Curtis would not return several phone calls; he was the only one of Rice’s advisory crew who wouldn’t talk to this reporter.)
The literary agent, of course, was working in conjunction (in a sense) with an entire loose-knit team. The crisis manager (Tricia Erickson), the Miami lawyer (Tom McAliley), the book collaborator (Liz Nickles) and the packaging agents (Triad, the Hollywood-based agency that took Rice on in July, but not as an actress). According to Triad agent Rob Lee: “We are packaging her scenario, her life story, for rights to a movie.” So far those rights are still being negotiated, though ABC in August announced to reporters “an oral agreement with Donna Rice.” In fact, as with the book deal, there is no deal. (Last week an ABC spokesman said “We are still in discussion and development with Donna Rice.”)
Rice’s book collaborator Liz Nickles, for her part, is working on a long article for a magazine yet to be determined. Nickles has taken no fee, no retainers, but has traveled with Rice from Miami to New York to L.A. to South Carolina--where she visited the Rice family. Recalled Nickles: “The situation was similar in all places. The phone was constantly ringing. Even though she wasn’t traveling under her real name . . . she would be dredged up from whatever situation she was in. It was definitely the press. People in general were nice to her. Especially in South Carolina.”
South Carolina is where Donna Rice grew up, in the town of Irmo. Rice is not out-of-touch, or out-of-favor, with her family as gossips believe. She is in weekly contact with her parents, who are cooperating on Nickles’ article. “Liz’s magazine piece has a Faulkner quality,” said Rice. “It was originally both a third-person and first-person narrative, but we’re taking out the first-person. Saving that material for the book. Liz is capturing the way I grew up.”
“If you think Donna is private,” said Nickles, “her parents are even more so.” Nickles’ slant on the scandal is that it was a mismatch of a private person and a public personality. “Gary Hart being a public figure had a way to insulate himself. He had a staff, a constituency, use of helicopters and limousines. Donna Rice is a private person, or was--even though she has acting goals--and she took the heat in a completely different way. He took the heat, too, but he was not sensationalized. She was a private individual who became a media event.”
Continued Nickles, “Nobody knows who Donna Rice is. Because you can’t know somebody just from headlines. I felt right away talking to her she was somebody open and honest who needed help. Her voice was stressed. She’s been honest with me, and asking only for honesty in return.”
In South Carolina Nickles saw “people camping out on the lawn, the family being pestered. I felt immediately Donna was paying a huge price for what, for her, was essentially a private incident.” The “private” incident became daily media fodder, and in July Nickles introduced Rice to Todd Harris, an agent who was then in his first week as a packager at Triad, working with agent Rob Lee.
“Donna was looking for someone to give her advice, not even a writer in my case, but someone to clarify her theory,” said Nickles. “One person I could recommend was Todd Harris, who works with Rob.” Within 10 days Triad had made “inquiries” at networks, and Donna Rice was flown by ABC to L.A. for meetings. “These were sit-down-we’ll-meet meetings,” said Lee in July. “Todd and I are her initial formalized agents, informally sending her in other areas, helping her, for example, to find a manager.” (Burt Sugarman and Jeff Wald were early management contenders, but 10 days ago Donna Rice decided to go with personal manager Ray Manzella, who’s worked for 18 months for Vanna White.)
The priorities, according to Rob Lee, are “image building, and getting her story down in written and dramatic form.” The roadblocks, obviously, are enormous: around ABC one hears about everything from “fear of hassles from the Democratic Party,” as one ABC source put it, to “an equal-time problem with Republicans.” Thus the image building is also roadblocked. “This is so spread out, the offers are from so many places . . . endorsements, acting jobs, speaking offers, the book. The important thing is not to exploit Donna.”
That’s one reason Triad hasn’t checked her into an episode of “Hotel” or hired her out as an actress. “We’re struggling with that, with the curiosity factor,” admitted Rob Lee. Another reason: Triad did not sign Donna Rice as an actress, a move seen by some observers to be a power play on the part of the agency. As one rival agent put it, “Sign the woman or don’t sign her. But Triad wanted it both ways. In case she didn’t become an actress she wouldn’t be on their list of actresses.”
Rob Lee replied that “a fast rating isn’t what we’re after. Acting offers come in, but we don’t want to exploit that. I’d rather get some money for Donna, have the best trainer for acting, then slowly look at that. So a few extra doors are opening now. So?” But if Rice needs income, isn’t that an agent’s job? Sources at CBS say Rice met favorably with executives there, and was offered “various options, primarily as an actress.”
“It’s too early to put her on our list of actresses,” Lee said in July. “Everybody we use is a trained actor. Donna Rice is a smart woman. She fields offers with great skill. I’d like to work with her, with her manager. We didn’t shop around her story, we went only to ABC. We’re letting this build.”
Then on Aug. 3, the day Rice returned from Spain (from her appearance on the talk show), the media hit again.
ABC’s announcement to a meeting of reporters of “an oral agreement with Donna Rice” was very premature. It revealed a hunger on the part of the network--and it infuriated Rice. “I’ve got a good mind to pull the whole thing,” Rice said the day after the announcement. “I got off a plane from Spain, and read this thing about an oral agreement between me and ABC. It was unauthorized for Ted Harbert (ABC vice president, motion pictures) to talk to the press before the deal was done. This was not a done deal. So Ted Harbert made two mistakes: Talking to the press--the press I do, I decide to do--and telling them the deal was done. I’m not giving up creative control.” (Harbert didn’t return phone calls from Calendar.)
It’s hardly a surprise that Playboy approached Donna Rice. The only surprise is the subtlety of the negotiations. Bruce Binkow, who works for Playboy’s corporate communications division, met with Rice once during the summer. “We presented our position without being formally rejected,” remembered Binkow, “but to be honest with you, we never heard back from her.”
It’s not being presumptuous to say Rice was too busy for Playboy--but like Life’s Pat Ryan, the Playboy executive is himself surprised at the continuing interest. “We are still hopeful,” Binkow said early in September. “The ball is in her court.”
It’s a very bouncy ball, a ball made of silly-putty one could say: Among the possibilities Playboy offered were photo approval, text without nude photos, photos without text, photos revealing one breast or photos revealing two, a possible percentage of sales of that month’s issue going to Rice--and so on.
“The discussions were very open,” said Binkow, “mostly to see what she was interested in. She completely comprehended what the options were, and the complications. I found her pleasant and intelligent.” Did Binkow find Rice to be apt material for an undressed layout? “As our first choice?Well, we are Playboy magazine and one of the things that interests us is . . . photos. But a feature without them was also possible.”
Binkow didn’t duck the one-breast-or-two issue. “Yes, yes, I remember some conversation in that area. You know, I sometimes have to sit back and remember I am a grown man thinking about these things. Then I remember some men think about them and don’t get paid for it.”
Would Rice have had photo approval? “It’s not inaccurate to say that.” And text approval? “To a certain degree. I mean we are not going to turn the text over to her, but there could be contractual input from her. Let’s say there would be significant input from her about the text, and at the same time no final approval.” Translation: Rice would be consulted about the Playboy package, but not have control over it.
Though Rice moved on to her jeans ad instead, and to ABC, one thing about Playboy had to be alluring. The notion of getting a percentage of every copy sold--a contract stipulation reportedly given in very few cases. “We have a very flexible attitude around here,” stressed Binkow. “We are open to situations.”
The latest, loudest media shock came when Vanity Fair published Sheehy’s piece in the September issue with the cover line, “Why Gary Hart Destroyed Himself.” In her book “Passages” and, particularly, in “Pathfinders,” Sheehy wrote about “life accidents” and “crises of adult life,” and how we survive them. Clearly, Sheehy doesn’t see Rice as a victim of a life accident. So Sheehy didn’t interview her.
“The last thing she wanted was any real reporting,” said Sheehy recently. “I talked to her crisis manager, who seems to be cashing in on all these female victims, while having very little information about the other players. It was quite clear that she was out to maximize celebrity value at all costs.”
Sheehy was asked if she could come up with a historical precedent for Donna Rice. “I don’t think there’s a direct replica,” she replied. “Of course, the world she comes out of raises the ghost of Judith Exner,” but Exner didn’t reveal herself to the press until well after J.F.K.'s death. “There’s a lot of historical precedent for jumping into the bed chamber of kings, though. Donna’s father told me he warned her; he said, ‘I’m gonna check up on this boy. I think he’s a married man.’ ”
Much of the controversy around the Sheehy article (at least in terms of Rice) has to do with Sheehy’s reaching Rice’s father, Bill Rice, a federal highway engineer in South Carolina. Sheehy now claims she was actually calling the house “to speak with Donna’s mother, but he answered the phone. He seemed to me to be ambivalent about her behavior. There was some distress that 10 years ago he hadn’t told her things. . . .”
Liz Nickles, who was in South Carolina “right after that call,” said Sheehy “put words in his mouth, positioning questions like, ‘Well how did your daughter support herself?’ and he would say, ‘What are you trying to say?’ . . . Let’s face it: Nobody’s father ever says to a journalist the things she printed. Finally he hung up on her.”
When Sheehy was asked about the hang-up, she replied, “I have a 25-minute conversation with him on tape. That’s scarcely a hang-up.”
Rice, for her part, said later, “My father just wants me to forgive him. He feels he has to live with this the rest of his life.”
Now Rice has a brand new personal manager, Ray Manzella, whom she shares with Vanna White. Manzella says he has, “come into the picture to get things sorted out. The word of mouth about Vanity Fair must be dealt with. Credibility is what I want for Donna.”
What does Donna want for Donna? Los Angeles is a very different city from Miami, as Donna Rice is finding out. As Liz Nickles put it last week, “I said to Donna, ‘You are 29 years old. This is not the end of your career, or the culmination of your life. Hopefully this won’t be a case of ‘And then they made the movie. Fade out.’ ”