The David Viscott You Didn't Know

Times staff writer Nora Zamichow's last article for the magazine was on the post-earthquake reconstruction of the Santa Monica Freeway

On line 11 is Michelle, a 25-year-old former Catholic school girl who once aspired to be a lawyer but became a prostitute with a drinking problem after her stepfather raped her. She has trouble trusting men, she tells the late-night television talk show host. * Dr. David Viscott listens to her with the gentleness of a kindly uncle, probing her pain delicately. Then, ultimately, as he always does, Viscott delivers his karate chop: "You will never get more clear instructions in your life: You must sober up and you must get to work on your ultimate goal in life." * Psychiatrist David Viscott became one of the early stars of shrink radio by serving up short-term therapy to people with long-standing emotional wounds. It was tough love and no nonsense. He'd coddle you, coaxing out the most intimate details--and then clobber you. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself," he told one woman suffering depression. * As talk radio exploded in the 1980s, Viscott was your drive-time friend and entertainer on KABC-AM. At his peak in the early '90s, he advised millions on both radio and

television programs, selling his wisdom in seminars and aboard pricey therapeutic cruises. He developed his own greeting-card line with self-sufficient messages like "No matter what happens, we always have us," and audio tapes with such titles as "52 Minutes to Turn Your Life Around." At age 58, he had written more than a dozen books, including two autobiographies.

He offered individual therapy for $1,500 per two-hour session and supervised four centers staffed by therapists he'd trained in the quick-hit Viscott Method: Four sessions--at most--and you were cured (except for extenuating circumstances). You walked out the door armed with cassettes of your therapy sessions and workbooks; Viscott had taught you how to discover your "inner gift," your reason for being on earth.

His followers adored him, a short, pudgy man whose thick Boston accent made him seem more approachable. An hour before his afternoon KABC radio program began, the station's switchboard would be flooded with callers begging for a spot in line. When his television show ran, the 12 phone lines in his office were jammed with 500 calls a day.

"He was to psychiatry what Mozart was to music," says Lee Holloway, a friend and astrologer who hosts her own radio show.

Abrasively confident on the air, megalomaniacal off it, Viscott was never in doubt about what other people should do with their lives. But when his own life began to crumble, he turned out to be clueless. The fact that he could write a book titled "Emotional Resilience" did not mean he had any.

Viscott died alone in October, drained of money and prestige, the apparent victim of heart disease. All the guru's trappings were gone. "He was reduced to just being a psychiatrist and just being a psychiatrist wasn't enough for him," says Eric Steinwald, his accountant and friend.

Viscott's death came only three months after he'd purchased a $1-million life insurance policy--a fact that troubles a few friends who wonder whether the distraught psychiatrist took his own life. Viscott's insurance company refuses to discuss the incident. But in cases in which a policy is purchased so close to the time of death, the company always investigates, a spokesman said.

The life of David Viscott contains a lesson that he did not intend to teach: The next time you're listening to one of the countless self-help masters make life sound so simple, remember that the expert's life may well be as messy and contradictory as yours.

At the time of his death, Viscott was depressed, estranged from his wife, a daughter and several close friends. He'd been bumped off his KABC radio show because of poor ratings and never found his radio footing again. His two attempts at television shows never took hold. The fiction that he loved writing didn't get published. His efforts at a screenplay were a flop. He'd lost his $1.5-million Hancock Park home after declaring bankruptcy four years ago and his $1 million-a-year income plummeted by 80%.

Unhappy with his daughter Penny's decision to marry, Viscott--the man who hammered you with the importance of communication--stopped speaking with her, talking to her again only in recent months, friends and family members say. He never met his first grandchild, Penny's 3-year-old daughter.

His marriage had spiraled into a painful state of flux, according to friends and family members. Police were occasionally summoned to his home to break up domestic squabbles, according to court records. The unpredictable nature of his relationship with his second wife, Katharine Random, was often painful for Viscott's three children from his first marriage. Before his funeral, the family had not been united since 1988, when his eldest daughter, Liz, now a 36-year-old book editor in New York City, got married.

Last summer, Viscott separated from Katharine after 13 years of marriage, telling friends and his children he could no longer cope with her drinking, a problem serious enough that her driver's license had been suspended twice in four years, according to Department of Motor Vehicles records. He obtained a restraining order against her, claiming in court documents that she had attacked him with a rake on one occasion and threatened to smash the glass French doors of his bedroom with an iron-rod-framed mirror and punched him on another.

He filed for divorce, but his resolve melted, and the rest of his life was punctuated by a tempestuous on-again, off-again relationship. Viscott hated to be alone and loved Katharine with a self-destructive passion that he once referred to as an "addiction."

What would David Viscott have told such a caller to his own show?

"He'd say, 'What, are you crazy? Get out!' " replied his 31-year-old son, Jon, a product manager for an L.A.-based entertainment company.

Such was the dichotomy between radio life and real life.

"David clearly had genius for diagnosing other people's problems," says writer Kaaren Kitchell, a friend. "But he couldn't solve his own."

Viscott picks up line 10 to speak with Bob, whose wife is about to give birth to the couple's first child. The Problem: Bob has decided he's bisexual and has engaged in a menage a trois with his brother and his brother's lover. "I'm only 25; I'm only a kid," Bob pleads with Viscott.

The maestro of emotion is not swayed.

"You're a father, pal," Viscott tells him. "Stop having sex with men until you tell your wife."

Viscott was at the forefront of a media movement that gave the most public forum to the deepest private pain. As early as the 1950s, psychologist Joyce Brothers had begun chatting on the radio about topics such as impotency and frigidity. But it was not until the 1970s that a psychologist named Toni Grant changed the rules of the game by taking live calls on the air in Los Angeles. Call-in radio therapy soon pervaded our homes, cars and offices, allowing us to eavesdrop on garden-variety and parade-sized problems. Best yet, each problem had a tidy solution, perfect for a society that desired its personal crises to be resolved as quickly as TV dramas.

Viscott, who began his radio career subbing for Grant, had the gift of being able to blend his psychiatric training with a McDonald's-like efficiency. Instantly, he could divine a caller's problem and dish up a solution. To hear him tell it, he had been blessed from boyhood with a sense of calling.

The son of a pharmacist, Viscott grew up in Dorchester, Mass. Even as a young child, he told friends, he began hearing voices mystically instructing him that his purpose in life was to help people. His Aunt Hannah gave him a set of Compton's Encyclopedia, which the first-grader voraciously read in his spare time. His mother shared her love of poetry and the arts. According to Viscott, when the school principal queried his class about Shakespeare, young David was the only child who not only knew of the famed author but could recite part of Hamlet's soliloquy.

Viscott set aside his interest in music to carry out his father's wish that he become a doctor. He graduated from Dartmouth College and Tufts Medical School and married his childhood sweetheart at 21, partly out of a sense of obligation after her parents were killed in a car crash. He set up a practice in Massachusetts and began writing books.

After 17 years, his marriage faltered, and Viscott met Katharine Random in a ski-lift line in Killington, Vt. Random was vacationing for a week with her then-boyfriend, who broke his arm their first day on the slopes. She skied alone for the rest of their stay, and on her next-to-last day, she shared a chairlift with Viscott.

"Up the mountain we went, and the way my husband told the story, by pole 9, we were in love," recalls Katharine, a petite, poised 48-year-old blond. "I said it was pole 13. We hit it off pretty good, pretty fast."

With Katharine and her daughter, Melanie, Viscott moved to Los Angeles and began seeing patients in his home. He came to the attention of Wally Sherwin, then program director of KABC, who heard Michael Jackson interview Viscott about a new book he'd written. This man belongs on the radio, Sherwin remembers thinking. But Viscott had more-traditional interests--treating patients and writing.

Sherwin wouldn't quit. For weeks he wooed Viscott over lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He promised to ease Viscott's way into radio--he'd hold up cue cards, he promised; he'd show him how to gracefully wrap a segment. Flattered, Viscott began filling in for Grant.

Sherwin recognized the doctor's insecurities from the start. "I'd tell him, 'David, you're a genius.' He loved to hear that," Sherwin remembers. Reassured, Viscott was ready for the next call.

Lisa, 27, awaits on line 12. She feels guilty because she has slept with six of her roommate's boyfriends. She does it because her roommate is always belittling her, she tells Viscott. "She makes me feel like I'm inferior."

"You have to tell her you are really angry at her," Viscott advises. "Lisa, in a word: Stop!"

"But she is my friend," Lisa whines.

Viscott furrows his brow and doodles with his pen. Write a letter explaining your feelings about your roommate's biting put-downs and confessing the affairs, says Viscott, dispatching Lisa with the brusqueness of a short-order cook. There is no goodbye or good luck.

Over the 13 years Viscott spent at KABC, he became a local celebrity. In restaurants, diners would approach his table, gushing about how he'd changed their lives. With the panache of a Hollywood star, he'd ask the chef to make him a special dish, or ask his waiter to send an unusual sushi roll to the attractive woman sitting with the glum-looking fellow across the room.

The man who claimed he could teach you your special gift fancied himself as a gift to the modern world, a visionary therapist who would surpass Freud. His unquenchable ego began to shape his ultimate downfall, friends and former friends say. He was aware that he unintentionally alienated people by the score; friends occasionally heard him acknowledge his "ego problem." They recognized that he was driven by deep insecurities--about his father's remoteness, his own pudgy appearance, his short stature.

"David was besotted with the sound of his own voice," says screenwriter Jerry Leichtling, a friend. "He loved to talk, loved to be the last word on every subject. Luckily, most of the time it was highly entertaining."

Lee Holloway, the astrologer, who felt practically like an older sister to Viscott, was torn. It was fun to hear him call up with his newest notion. But occasionally he reminded her of a "child coming home, going, 'Mommy, look, I got an A.' " She understood. "He needed feedback, and if you will forgive me, I think that by its very nature, great creativity and great genius and artistry require a great ego."

Great ego likes to have people in its midst like Robbie Horwitz, a producer of Viscott's television show whom Viscott could count on to feed him a compliment. It didn't matter that Horwitz was 25 years younger. It did matter that Horwitz was never negative. If he didn't like how Viscott handled a caller, he'd avoid him, go make a telephone call or offer a cup of juice.

"He'd look at me and say, 'Wasn't I fantastic? Wasn't I godlike?' " Horwitz says. "Most of the time, I didn't know what he was talking about. I was always invited to parties and events so I could tell him how great he was. There was nothing I had to do except be his friend and listen and nod my head like a Chihuahua."

On Horwitz's 30th birthday, Viscott hosted an elaborate candlelight dinner for the two men. With great ceremony, Viscott's maid brought out root beer and poured it into wineglasses. Viscott twirled the beverage in his glass, sniffed it, tasted it. After his approval, the maid served the root beer to Horwitz. Then Viscott entertained his guest with a four-hour monologue on electroshock therapy and concluded that Horwitz would benefit from it. Horwitz ignored the advice.

So needy for an audience was Viscott that he would invite his friend David Greenberg to his office to watch him write. "He couldn't go on after three pages if he didn't have feedback," Greenberg remembers.

Even when Viscott was wrong, he was right. One evening, as Leichtling watched Viscott field calls during his radio show, a young man from Toronto phoned in. He'd fought with his parents over the college courses he was taking. Viscott talked briefly to the student, then turned to Leichtling with the microphone off and announced that the underlying problem was . . . alcohol. Leichtling was awe-struck.

Viscott proceeded to question the young man, probing for material to buttress his theory.

Have you had problems with alcohol? No.

Drugs? No.

Do your parents have problems with substance abuse? No.

In fact, the caller said, no one in my family drinks. I often thought they'd be better off if they did, he added.

"David turned to me," Leichtling recalled, "and with no sense of irony said, 'See, I told you it was an alcohol problem.' "

During a nationwide tour conducting seminars, Viscott stopped in Chicago, where a reporter attended his one-day program and interviewed the psychiatrist. It was a crucial promotional opportunity, but Viscott could not resist the opportunity to touch upon his favorite topic: himself. How his haircuts cost $75. How he massaged his thick copper-brown hair, of which he was always inordinately proud, with baby oil. As he talked to the reporter, he devoured a bowl of mixed nuts. When he finished, he wiped his fingers on her notebook, calling the greasy blotch 'Viscy oil.' Of his therapy, he said: "I have a lot to give, and I think it would be criminal not to give it. The best thing I have is my capacity to love people and find something in them to love. I help them understand what they feel. . . . I don't worry about being wrong, because I'm never wrong, because I'm always me."

The next day, the Chicago Tribune ran its story with the headline: "Instant Analysis: The Shrink to the Masses Looks at Himself and Just Loves What He Sees."

Where the Tribune reporter saw a self-absorbed, narcissistic man, Viscott viewed himself as a spontaneous and exuberant free thinker. When the waiters at a Greek restaurant asked him to join them in a dance, he didn't hesitate in locking arms and gamboling about the eatery. When he went into a store in search of the antique toys that he and his daughter Liz collected, he walked through the aisles, adorning himself with boas and ladies' hats. "Does this color do anything for me?" he'd ask a fellow shopper as everyone roared with laughter. He would moon people on the street, start a food fight at a restaurant or put a cookie beneath the nose of his sleeping dog. On a golf course, he once disappeared briefly in pursuit of a ball he'd hit into the woods and reemerged stark naked, screaming: "Lions! Lions!"

When Viscott's daughter Melanie was 15, Viscott didn't like her then-boyfriend, a graffiti artist.

He's anti-social, he told his daughter.

He's deep, Melanie responded.

You can do better, Viscott answered.

Dad, I want to make my own mistakes, Melanie said.

The relationship lasted eight months.

"He was always right--well, not always," sighs Melanie, now 26 and a book designer for a New York publishing house. She would listen to tapes of her father as she worked out at the gym and would feel proud when her friends asked if they could "borrow" her dad to discuss a problem. She'd watch as he cut to a person's raw nerve--issuing sweeping pronouncements, telling them they were insecure or controlling--and then walk out of the room.

"He couldn't lie," says Melanie, whom Viscott adopted after he married Katharine. "He couldn't chitchat."

Explained Viscott: "I see the truth, I speak the truth."

Fourteen-year-old James tells Viscott that he believed his new stepmother married his father only because she wanted his money.

Why do you feel she is a gold digger? Viscott asks. She never stays over, she has her own apartment, the boy says.

Do they have sex? The boy assumes so.

How long have they been together? Six months, the boy says. They got married a month ago.

Is your dad well off? Yeah, the boy says, he's really wealthy.

Have you spoken to him? No, not yet, the boy says.

If you love your father and you have this fear, you need to express your fear, Viscott says. Do you know what a friend is? Without waiting for an answer he continues: It's someone who tells the truth.

One friend suggested Viscott tell his audience the complex truths about his own life. It would have made him more human, more like his fans. But Viscott did not want to be more like his audience; he wanted to be the hero of his own story, a cultural superhero, someone who'd made a difference in the world. Like Beethoven.

By 1992, he was poised to achieve his greatest success. He was offered a late-night television program that was being considered for nationwide syndication. A first chance at TV, a 30-minute show on KNBC-TV, had been canceled in 1987 after less than six months; he was not about to see that happen again.

For a while, he juggled both his TV show and his radio program, making it clear to everyone that he thought his future was in television. Meanwhile, his radio station, KABC-AM--once No. 1--found itself in a fierce ratings war with KFI-AM, which had introduced Rush Limbaugh against Michael Jackson in the 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot in 1988.

It was no contest.

"Rush came on and he beat Michael Jackson soundly, and so David was part of the decline," says George Green, then general manager of KABC. "We lost a lot of shares. David was one of the victims."

Green, at the suggestion of his program manager, who believed that shrink radio had peaked, dismissed KABC's longtime therapist.

Viscott took it in stride. After all, he had what he really wanted--his television program, and there was talk of not only national but international syndication.

Then the unthinkable occurred: The syndication deal fell through. The show was considered "too L.A." Station managers didn't think it would play in Ohio. The program was canceled, a move that sent shock waves through Viscott's business because he relied on a lifeline to the public. A business based on short-term therapy needs a constant supply of new clients. Without the drumbeat of publicity provided by a radio or TV show, the clientele began to disappear.

Instead of focusing on this defeat, Viscott--the ultimate spin doctor--bubbled over with talk of his future projects: a movie, therapy via the Internet, a Viscott Web page, another book. Some colleagues saw it as denial, others as effervescent optimism. Only occasionally did the veneer crack, and a friend caught a glimmer of Viscott's anxiety--the realization that he was increasingly less able to fulfill his life goal of becoming a world-renowned therapist. The further his goal slipped, the more obsessive and self-centered he became.

Professional retrenchment was inevitable. His office moved to smaller quarters from its Beverly Hills location. One by one, the therapy centers closed and seminars were downsized. To keep his name in the public arena, Viscott did a series of radio and television commercials for the Pain Relief Network, a nationwide chain of clinics set up to help patients suffering with pain.

Viscott had become a man with expensive tastes. He drove a Jaguar (later, a Range Rover), had a personal shopper select his clothes and liked cashmere sweaters. Now he and his business partner, Matt Small, scurried to stay afloat. By 1993, he was in debt for more than $1 million, he hadn't paid his taxes, his mortgage, his butcher or a host of others. In June 1993, he declared bankruptcy and lost his treasured Hancock Park house.

His efforts to regain a toehold in radio met with little success.

Four months after losing his television show, Viscott was rehired by KABC, but he was assigned an evening slot, from 7 to 9 p.m., which was frequently preempted by Dodger games during the baseball season. The stint lasted only a few months.

Next, he moved to KIEV-AM. Initially the show was sponsored by the Pain Relief Network. After several months, the arrangement fizzled, and Viscott's business paid for his slot--a move that meant he had to find his own advertisers. For the first time in his career, he paid for the privilege of being on the radio.

He jumped at the chance, later in 1995, to host a 9 p.m.-to-midnight show on KMPC-AM. Once again, there was the promise of national syndication. But the ratings floundered. It would be his last real radio job; in the remaining months of his life he appeared on KIIS once a week.

As Viscott's business crumbled, his friendship with Small soured. In January 1996, the partnership officially dissolved. The psychiatrist's 11-year association with Small was one of a series of personal relationships that disintegrated.

Viscott didn't take responsibility for failure, some friends say. He believed that everything that went wrong was a result of the people who surrounded him. Several friends, like David Greenberg, ended up feeling used and betrayed. Greenberg, heir to Standard Brands paints, would fish with Viscott, clambering on rocks and sitting on the shores of Malibu beaches, swapping childhood tales. Greenberg helped promote Viscott's cruises. After the L.A. riots, they started an organization called UP that they hoped would help rebuild Los Angeles.

But on Sept. 4, 1995, Viscott abruptly terminated their friendship, saying to Greenberg, "You are not loyal to me." Greenberg is still puzzled. Was it that he stayed with his then-girlfriend, whom Viscott had told him to give up? Did Viscott still believe he hadn't garnered sufficient credit in the UP publications?

"He was like my father, my brother . . . if he was a girl, he would have been my lover," says Greenberg, now an urban designer living in Hawaii. In the end, he felt Viscott was interested in him for his money and social status.

"When a friendship went sour, it was usually because of a misunderstanding, a distortion of the facts. . . . It became clear that resolving most of life's difficulties required telling or hearing the truth."

--From "Emotional Resilience"

Among the close relationships Viscott went about ending was his marriage.

Last July, he filed for divorce, claiming several instances in which his wife physically assaulted him under the influence of alcohol, including one occasion when he had her arrested for spousal battery. He had joined AL-ANON, a support group for loved ones of alcoholics, and last spring he'd begun writing a novel called "Hostage," about a man dealing with his wife's alcoholism, friends and family say. In August, he began a diary, using material from his entries for his book, family members say.

Viscott's income now depended largely upon seeing patients. "He never knew if he'd make it through the month," says accountant and friend Steinwald. Steinwald was astonished--and said he urged reconsideration--when Viscott took out the costly insurance policy, naming his estranged wife as beneficiary.

Diane, 45, tells Viscott that she's involved with a younger man who has a problem with alcohol and cocaine. The relationship is destroying her life.

This is my first relationship, she tells him.

First relationship at 45? Viscott asks incredulously. You want this so bad you cannot think it's not good. What's he getting from you? Do you give him money?

Yes, once I gave him $100, Diane concedes. In a small voice, she adds that her relationship with friends and family members has begun to suffer.

A good relationship makes your other relationships fuller, Viscott tells her. Diane, I'm just a simple country psychiatrist--why in the world are you holding on to this relationship? This relationship has got nothing good for you. You deserve better than this. Leave him.

I can't do it, Diane replied.

Don't say "You can't." You don't want to. You finally have someone to at least pretend you're involved with. The reason you're with him is you're afraid of being alone.

Despite living in separate residences, he and Katharine were unable to stay apart. Viscott anguished over his waffling, friends and family members say. He finished "Hostage" a month before his death, spending his last days polishing various chapters. He felt guilty about her drinking, Small believes, because the psychiatrist had at times butted in, unwittingly obstructing her treatments--one of which was court ordered. "His position was, 'If I can't make her better, no one can,' " Small says.

In the weeks before his death, Viscott believed he was going to die. Born with a heart abnormality (his heart was on the right side of his chest), he'd begun to complain, telling several friends that he would die soon.

He called a few people with whom he'd lost contact, leaving chatty messages. Several weeks before his death, he spent an evening shooting pool with John Dosa, the man who'd screened his calls on his radio and television shows. The two men talked about the late actor James Dean and the immortality of a celebrity who dies young. Viscott recited a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--

It gives a lovely light!

Later, Dosa would wonder whether his former boss knew he was going to die.

In the month before his death, the psychiatrist on three different occasions told his friend Kaaren Kitchell that he was dying.

"I didn't believe him," Kitchell recalls. "He had so much energy."

He told his friend Lee Holloway how he wanted his remains to be handled. (He wanted his ashes scattered over places that he loved.) He told his friend Paul Brownstein to make sure that the traditional Jewish mourners' prayer, the Kaddish, was said at his funeral.

"He was beaten down. The strain was really getting to him," says Jerry Leichtling, who sensed a physical decline after he saw Viscott winded by climbing steps. "You could sense that the repetition of his battling with Katharine had really gotten old. He had to have some inkling of mortality."

Today, other friends wonder whether Viscott committed suicide. How could this doctor, an accomplished physician, not know the warning signs for a heart attack? Wouldn't he--the man who never hesitated to phone a friend to gab in the middle of the night--have called for help?

"Things were not going right for him, and either he took his own life or there's the remote possibility of foul play," Steinwald speculates. "If he didn't have success and couldn't have Katharine, there was nothing left."

According to Katharine, the fights were over and the romance had begun afresh. At a November tribute to her husband, Katharine told a crowd of 100, mostly friends and colleagues with a sprinkling of fans, that she and Viscott had decided to renew their wedding vows and go on another honeymoon. It's a claim that her two stepchildren and some friends do not believe.

In his final days, Viscott wore a heart monitor while he slept, as his doctor had suggested. On Oct. 12, a Thursday evening, at his home in Studio City, he logged an entry into the computer diary:

Heart fibrillations. Called it a night at 10.

The computer file was recorded at 10:22 p.m.

Four days later, a cleaning crew found Viscott's body in bed and called the police. The police, uncertain whom to contact, pushed the speed dial button on Viscott's phone and reached Steinwald.

Matt Small, the former friend and business partner, and Viscott's son Jon were summoned to the house. There, in bed, was David Viscott, wearing his pajama bottoms and the monitor. His cocker spaniels, Walter and Isabelle, hovered anxiously. A Halloween card sat on the kitchen counter. It was a card that Viscott had made for his only grandchild, the toddler he'd never met.

Viscott's doctor, a family friend, signed the death certificate, saying the psychiatrist died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack. He'd suffered heart disease for the past 14 years, his doctor noted on the certificate. The county coroner did not perform an autopsy because Viscott had been seen only days earlier by his doctor. As Viscott desired, he was cremated, a final disappointment to some friends, who feel that his death will linger as a mystery.

Son Jon sees no mystery. David Viscott made his own choices, Jon says. He lived as he wished. And if he fell short, at least he dreamed.

"At the end of the day," says Jon Viscott, "my dad was a human being, like the rest of us."

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