Billionaire Boys Just Wanna Have Fun

Dick Adler is an editor and writer who co-authored, with the late Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, "Public Justice, Private Mercy: A Governor's Education On Death Row."

Randall Sullivan's monumental (in every sense) book about Joe Hunt and the Billionaire Boys Club is full of excellent ironies. One of my favorites is that in May of 1984, both the world class con artist Ron Levin and Jim Pittman (a.k.a. Graham), the former security guard who later admitted on "A Current Affair" but not in court that he shot Levin in the head, were both driving around Los Angeles in Rolls-Royces obtained under suspicious circumstances. Pittman's was almost certainly stolen, and Levin rented his on an American Express gold card from one of his closetful of phony companies.

You remember the summer of 1984: Reagan was in the White House; Milton Friedman was in the financial saddle; Mike Milken and Charles Keating were respectable; and people without homes were just beginning to be noticed. In Los Angeles, we were getting ready for the Olympics--many of us by leaving town. And in their expensive offices on Third Street in Beverly Hills, Joe Hunt and his BBC acolytes were preparing to move from fraud to murder.

If your only vision of Joe Hunt and the BBC is Judd Nelson and a crew of Armani-clad yuppies in that extended and basically simple-minded version of "Law & Order" which aired as a TV movie, Sullivan has a surprise for you. The real story is much more important and infinitely more interesting. It took him 10 years to get it all down on paper, and he may have put in a hundred or so more pages than was absolutely necessary, but Sullivan has done what every aspiring true crime writer hopes to do: He has crossed the line from titillation into cultural history.

His historical period isn't very long, about 25 years from the time Joe Gamsky (as he was known then, before he and his father changed their name to Hunt) entered the fortress of privilege called the Harvard School until Hunt's present enrollment at Folsom Prison. But what it lacks in length is more than made up for by the depth of detail Sullivan has ferociously amassed, the shards and relics he artfully arranges to re-create the period. "What the China Club [the official recruiting station for BBC members] expressed better than any place in L.A. was that money, fashion and video had replaced drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll as the night life's holy trinity," is as perfect an epitaph for a dead era as a Faberge egg. And in Joe Hunt's three-hour speech in March 1983 to formally launch the investment firm officially called (after a Chicago bar) the Bombay Bicycle Club, can be found this chilling portent: "The malaise in the industrial East only served to underscore the surging economy in Southern California. . . ."

Another of the book's ironies is that Ron Levin turns out to be its hero. A dyslexic Mama's boy who became a voracious reader of medical and legal books, a protege of celebrity coroner Dr. Thomas Noguchi who liked to sit in on autopsies and once worked in a mortuary, Levin is worth at least a major novel of his own. When he met Joe Hunt and the other BBC boys for the first time, at an advance screening in Westwood of "Superman III," Sullivan reports, "his full beard was white . . . and even more magnificently manicured than the hair on his head. . . . Tall and slender, he wore lambskin loafers with linen slacks and a loosely knit Italian sweater that had to have cost at least $600." One BBC boy remembers "Dean [Karny] and Joe talking to him about different things, art and film and literature and philosophy, about how Superman comics and movies were the new mythology. . . . You could tell by Levin's responses that he knew what these guys were up to, but the way he allowed it to go on, it was like he respected them enough to let them have their day in court. . . ."

Pat Hackett wrote in Interview magazine that Levin "paced like a panther and spent his lifetime making enemies by cheating people in order to make money to buy friends." His supreme--and fatal--cheat on Joe Hunt and the BBC is beautifully memorialized here, at fitting length.

Others are captured more succinctly. Dean Karny, Joe's first disciple who became his witness-protected Judas, is remembered by another BBC member with this epigram: "Dean took better care of shoes than anyone I've ever met. Dave and Tom May, the dim-bulb twin sons of TV actor Ty Harden who were adopted by department store heir David May II, are similarly skewered by their tastes in clothes, cars and under-aged girls. Of Ben Dosti, doing life for murder, Sullivan writes, "Evan [Dicker] regarded Ben as an ideal social companion. 'He was witty and always got the jokes.' "

I said that the book might be 100 pages too long, to which Sullivan might legitimately ask, "What cuts do you suggest, pink boy?" Here are a couple. "On [UCLA's] North Campus, students were amused by the self-appointed pundits who pointed them out as symptoms of spiritual malaise," he says at an early point, immediately after a long burst of the same kind of punditry. And when the BBC moves into the lush confines of the Wilshire Manning apartment building, with Mr. T and Julie Andrews as neighbors, Sullivan breaks into a three-page historical digression on Gaylord Wilshire, which is worthy of Kevin Starr but here only serves to slow down the narrative flow.

Still, the only serious problem with "The Price of Experience" is what isn't in it. Locked in his cell at Folsom, caught up in endless, self-managed legal maneuvers to escape punishment, Joe Hunt has obviously not consented to the lengthy interviews that might have given Sullivan and his readers any significant glimpses into the depths of his black soul. We are left with tantalizing hints--Hunt counseling Karny about a girlfriend: "He had incorporated into his psyche a fundamentally destructive fallacy, Joe told Dean, the idea that he needed the approval of others to function as a complete person." The wife of an inventor finding Joe adorable. . . . Always so interested in everyone else's problems . . . always concerned with what's on your mind, what you're feeling. . . ." And finally a juror, who says, "You can't see into Joe Hunt. . . . He's one person who can't be penetrated."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World