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Munitz’s Flight Plan Runs Into Head Wind

Barry Munitz, the Getty Trust boss whose unrepentant spending prompted a U.S. senator to recall “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” just keeps raising the bar. In an interview with the Times of London, Munitz was asked about his penchant for traveling first class, and he had an answer that put the “C” back in hutzpah.

“You have to understand life in L.A.,” he said. “People find it embarrassing to travel commercial class.”

I headed straight for the Burbank airport to see if I could find anyone in steerage who wasn’t too ashamed to answer a question or two. Jim Bain, a Van Nuys bloke who works in a recording studio, has never flown first class but said he thinks he can live with the shame.

“I just bought a ticket to New York on JetBlue,” he said, and he seemed a little smug about knowing he wouldn’t end up sitting next to Munitz. “They don’t even have first class.”

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Bain volunteered that he has a problem with the Getty. It may have a first-class boss, he sniffed, but it’s got a second-class art collection.

What would he know?

You throw these people a bag of peanuts and they think they own the world.

Beth Wilson, who divides her time between Los Angeles and Oregon, was boarding a flight to Oregon on Alaska Airlines.

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Wilson is on medical leave from a management job for the YMCA -- a nonprofit -- and she was holding a coach ticket.

“Budget is always a concern at a nonprofit,” said Wilson, who always flew coach for the Y. “You always had to find the cheapest way to fly.”

With that attitude, she won’t hear the pop of a champagne cork next time Munitz sails the Dalmatian coast on a chartered yacht.

Frankly, I admire Munitz. The man is under fire and he doesn’t flinch.

To recap, Munitz was upbraided in June by U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has a problem with nonprofits getting tax-exempt status and then spending like royalty on everything but the public good.

I don’t know whether it was the Tuscan villas, the $1,000-a-night hotel rooms or the yacht rentals with Eli Broad and Dick Riordan that caught the attention of Grassley and prompted an inquiry by the California attorney general.

Meanwhile, the Getty’s senior curator is set to go on trial in Italy, charged with conspiring to receive stolen artwork, and Getty staffers have left in droves, including a young college student Munitz hired from a Sacramento restaurant called Jammin’ Salmon, which was not known for its art collection.

Jill Murphy, despite her lack of art-world experience, became Munitz’s chief of staff and apparently pushed her weight around as if she’d transferred from the Louvre rather than the Jammin’ Salmon, which has since closed.

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It was against this backdrop that Munitz happily pointed out that any self-respecting Angeleno has no choice but to fly first class. It’s an image thing.

I called Munitz’s office Tuesday to congratulate him for sticking to his guns, but a PR man said he was on vacation.

Big surprise there.

Of course, I could just e-mail Munitz or dictate a message the way he does with his staff. My favorite was the one about his wife, Anne T. Munitz (ATM):

“ATM saw in Europe but can’t find her Tropicana blood orange juice, no pulp, not from concentrate. Can you look on the website and find out where we can get this on a regular basis locally?”

No word yet as to whether ATM ever found the right orange juice, so if anybody out there knows where she can get it, please contact the Getty immediately.

On a personal note, I mentioned in my last Munitz column that my wife had trouble finding the Kona Longboard Lager she developed a taste for in Hawaii, and readers came through.

I’m now buying Kona Longboard at Beverages & More.

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Another favorite Munitz communique was the one in which he instructed an aide to get the “best possible sound system” and “biggest possible sunroof” for a Porsche SUV bought on the Getty dime, demonstrating a level of urgency and priority not seen in the museum’s pursuit of great art.

And I can only imagine the scramble of Getty employees racing to answer the boss’ call from Chicago for someone to overnight two umbrellas to him -- the big ones, not the “rinky-dink” ones.

“BM would like two big black umbrellas FedExed today for arrival to his Chicago hotel tomorrow (thunderstorms predicted).”

Good thing the forecast wasn’t worse. Can you FedEx a snow blower?

Munitz isn’t alone, by the way, in his thoughts on the proper way for an Angeleno to fly. You may recall that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony stretched out in first class on his recent trip to the Vatican for the selection of a new pope.

As many of you pointed out in his defense, Mahony had a leg injury, and he also developed a blood clot in his lung in 2002 after flying to Rome and back for a conference on pedophilia. The clotting problem is sometimes referred to as “economy class syndrome.”

This makes me admire Munitz all the more. He could have told the Times of London that he suffers from “economy class syndrome.”

Instead he proudly pointed out that he’d rather not breathe the same air as the hoi polloi.

At the Burbank airport, I happened to bump into Steve Lee, a retired Studio City surgeon now living in Ventura.

He was flying coach to New Mexico. With first-class prices ridiculously inflated, Lee said, he only flies up front when he can score an upgrade with frequent-flier miles.

Just out of curiosity, I asked the surgeon if it was true that you could get “economy class syndrome” sitting in first class as well as coach.

“Of course,” he said.

Somebody might want to pass that on to Cardinal Mahony.

Last weekend, by the way, I flew to Philadelphia on US Airways to visit my sons.

Please forgive me, Barry, for what I’m about to say.

I didn’t feel good about myself, but the price was too good to pass up.

In both directions, I sat with the great unwashed.

You have any idea what it’s like to fly that far with a bag over your head?

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez.


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