Before I could read I used to leaf through everything in the house that had illustrations, which ranged from Harry the Dirty Dog, to The Divine Comedy.

“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Dante, as often quoted by JFK. Illustration by Gustave Doré.

Thanks to the pictures, I had a rudimentary understanding of both. Then one day when I was about five my older brothers and sister — probably tired of my constant “read to me!” demands — sat me down and changed my world. Suddenly those inky hieroglyphs — words — marching across the page made sense. Not only were there endless stories told, there were worlds to explore, people to meet, and new ways of thinking to grasp.

Now I’m going to jump decades ahead to a time when I was writing (never produced) screenplays. I think I was in my late twenties when I was approached by someone who had acquired a vast fortune from wheeling and dealing, he was involved in real estate development, and probably had a hand in ruining the Savings and Loan Industry. He wanted to tell his story to the world, the one that reflected his highly inflated sense of self, and since he didn’t read (at all) or write much (perhaps his signature?), he thought I would be the perfect candidate to bang out a movie script about his meteoric rise and misunderstood fall. I took a meeting poolside at a hotel in Beverly Hills in a sedate sweater set and skirt, perched well under a cabana, while he and his entourage soaked up the winter sun across their vast bellies, lolling in swim trunks, reclining on striped canvas, towels strewn everywhere. When I said something that made them laugh it was like I had set a pod of white whales quivering with delight.

I thought that initial meeting was probably the end of things, since I had demurred in my best egghead-little-sister-way, saying something like, “Your story is much too big to be contained in a little biopic, you should be talking to a ghost writer and working on an autobiography. It could be epic. It would be fascinating.” Now fascinating is a word I use not to hurt people’s feelings, as in, after watching a dud film and being asked my opinion, “Fascinating!” Now you know. Anyway, it wasn’t the end of Mr. Money Bags.

In the course of many lunches at high end restaurants around town I heard the great white whale chortle about his schemes, and pitch stories that had to do with defrauding the insurance industry with some ruse about AIDS patients. He envisioned that one as a Broadway musical, he said between guffaws and sips of iced tea… This, while many of my friends had fallen ill and were dying… I came to realize he cared little to nothing about people, and a whole lot about money, he adored money with a kind of religious zeal, as if it validated his existence. He told me about his various ex-wives (three? four?) and his numerous children (some of whom had to be considerably older than I was.) He said his was a real rags to riches rise — acquired by street savvy — hinting at mob connections and offshore bank accounts. I don’t know why he was relatively candid with me, I think it had to do with my height and slight build — and the fact that in my thirties I was still being mistaken for a big-eyed teenager. Did he give me the willies? You have no idea. The  confessional aspect of our talks reminded me of time I was seated next to a Union Carbide exec on a plane some months after the Bhopal Disaster, and he spent the entire flight telling me it wasn’t his fault… Let’s just say it all ended with Mr. X when he got hold of my home number and suggested I get on his personal jet and fly out with him to Vegas, “You’ll see the whole picture there! You’re gonna write my story!” Needless to say, I never did get on that jet, or write his story.

Yet, I can’t say it was an experience that I didn’t learn something from. It gave me some insight into the shady mind of a certain kind of person; a billionaire con artist, his psyche awash in self-adulation and insecurity, pitching any story, any angle — no matter how ugly — that would get him the most attention.

The wheeler dealer is dead now, but does he remind you of anyone?

Let’s pause here for some words from John McCain from his Friday editorial in the Washington Post.

…Congress must govern with a president who has no experience of public office, is often poorly informed and can be impulsive in his speech and conduct.

We must respect his authority and constitutional responsibilities. We must, where we can, cooperate with him. But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people. We must be diligent in discharging our responsibility to serve as a check on his power. And we should value our identity as members of Congress more than our partisan affiliation…

“We answer to the American People…” It’s time to speak up. The Senate is back in session September 5th.