Beyond the Headlines by R. G. Belsky: New Excerpt
By Crime HQMay 6, 2021
A black-pajama-clad figure crouched alongside the sandbags piled up to protect the building in Saigon—a building filled with U.S. soldiers.
Putting an explosive charge between the sandbags powerful enough to blow up the building and everyone inside.
He was a Vietnamese youth, with dark hair and dark eyes, his face covered with sweat.
He had laid his weapon—a Chinese-made AK-47—down on the ground as he worked on planting the explosives.
When he was spotted at the last minute by a U.S. soldier, he lunged for the rifle.
He managed to get off one shot.
But it was too late.
A bullet hit him in the head and killed him instantly.
Just before the war ended and U.S. troops went home for good.
So long ago, and yet it seemed like yesterday.
THE RULES ACCORDING TO CLARE
Death is a funny business sometimes.
Especially in big-city newsrooms, where I’ve worked for most of my life.
I remember one of them where we all loved to play a game called Somebody Famous Died. The idea was to fantasize about celebrities dying and try to come up with the ones that would be the biggest stories to put on the air or on the front page.
Like say Kim Kardashian. In bed. While making a sex tape. With a man who was not Kanye West.
Or Justin Bieber—who had sixty-four tattoos at last count—dying from an infected needle while getting a tattoo of Selena Gomez removed for a new one of Hailey Baldwin.
Or Oprah Winfrey—this was back when she was the biggest thing on TV, both figuratively and literally—choking to death on a ham sandwich. “Just like Mama Cass!” said the guy who came up with that one. I think he won the game in our newsroom that day.
It’s impossible to work in a newsroom and not hear a lot of gallows humor about death.
My favorite story is from a long time ago when New York City newspapers actually had dedicated people who did nothing but write obituaries. Legend has it that one of them was known for yelling in a loud voice to a copyboy whenever anyone newsworthy died: “Boy, get me the clips on so-and-so.” Until one night, he had a heart attack and died at his desk. Someone in the newsroom stood up and yelled: “Boy, get me the clips on . . .” I have no idea if this story is true or not, but I’ve heard a million stories like that in newsrooms.
I had a firsthand encounter with this kind of morbid newsroom humor not long ago when I covered a story where a man was shot to death right in front of me, then I rushed back to the office to get the story on air.
“No video?” my boss at the TV station complained to me. I pointed out that trying to shoot a video in that dangerous situation might have cost me my life. “Well, at least it would have been good video,” he said.
I guess we joke about death because we have to deal with so much of it as journalists—murder, plane crashes, sickness, and all the other things that make up the TV newscasts and newspapers and news websites every day.
Laughing about it helps us put a distance between ourselves and the reality of the deaths or deaths we’re covering. Most of the time it works, but not always.
Take the O.J. Simpson story, for instance. O.J. is a punchline now. A national laughingstock. Comedians still make jokes about the whole circus the O.J. story became—Kato Kaelin, Johnny Cochran, O.J. on the golf course after his acquittal vowing to catch Nicole’s real killer and all the rest. Funny stuff, right?
Except one day, a long time after the O.J. story was over, I spent some time in Los Angeles. I decided to visit the crime scene—the house in Brentwood where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman had been murdered.
I was stunned when I got there. Not because of anything spectacular that I observed. Just because it all seemed so . . . well, ordinary. For months and months, we’d seen that house on TV and in the papers. The condo where Nicole lived; the street and neighborhood outside; the front yard where the bloodied bodies of Nicole and Goldman were found.
But, standing there in person now on a sunny Southern California afternoon, I could have been on any block in America.
I suddenly felt for the first time the terror Nicole and Goldman must have felt on that night when a killer came at them out of the darkness. They would have had no reason to be afraid until the end. They probably had only a few seconds to realize the terrible thing that was happening to them before it was all over. They had no idea that their murders would turn them into the most famous victims in tabloid and TV history.
Even all these years later, I still remember looking at that seemingly normal house and yard and street where two people were butchered on a hot summer night in 1994. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman died a horrible death, and sometimes we forget about that. Me, I don’t make O.J. jokes anymore.
Death remains the biggest mystery for all of us—no one really understands it.
And so we do our best to avoid taking it seriously for much of our lives until one day it comes knocking at our own door.
And then it’s no laughing matter . . .
“Do you know who Laurie Bateman is?” my friend Janet Wood asked me.
“I do,” I said. “I also know who Lady Gaga is. And Angelina Jolie. And Ivanka Trump. I’m in the media, remember? That’s what we do in the media, we cover famous people. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.”
“Laurie Bateman hired me.”
“As an attorney?”
“Yes, as an attorney. That’s what I do, Clare.”
We were sitting in my office at Channel 10 News, the TV station in New York City where I work as news director. I should have known something was going on as soon as Janet showed up there. We usually met at Janet’s law office, which is big, with panoramic views of Midtown Manhattan, and a lot nicer than mine.
Janet never comes to see me at Channel 10 unless she has a reason.
I figured I was about to find out that reason.
It was early December and outside it was snowing, the first real storm of the winter. The snow started falling during the night, and by now it was covering the city with a powdery white blanket. Pretty soon the car exhausts and trucks would turn it into brown slush, but for now it was gorgeous. From the window next to my desk, the city had an eerie, almost unreal quality. Like something from a Norman Rockwell painting.
My outfit for the day was perfect for the snowy weather, too. I’d walked in wearing a turtleneck sweater, heavy corduroy slacks, a blue down jacket with a parka hood and white earmuffs, scarf and mittens. The ski bunny look. I felt like I should have a cup of hot chocolate in my hand.
“Why does Laurie Bateman need you as an attorney?” I asked Janet.
She hesitated for what seemed to be an inordinately long amount of time before answering.
“Are we talking off the record here?”
“Whatever you want, Janet.”
“I need your word on that.”
“C’mon, it’s me. Clare Carlson, your best friend in the world.”
“Laurie Bateman wants me to represent her in divorce proceedings.”
“I thought you’d like that.”
“Is it too late to take back my ‘best friend in the world/ off-the-record’ promise?”
Janet smiled. Sort of.
“How much do you know about Laurie Bateman?” she asked me now.
I knew as much as the rest of the world, I suppose. Laurie Bateman seemed to have the American Dream going for her. Since coming to the U.S. as a baby with her family after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the pretty Vietnamese girl had grown up to become a top model, then a successful actress, and finally, the wife of one of the country’s top corporate deal makers. She had a fancy Manhattan townhouse, a limousine at her beck and call, and her face had graced the covers of magazines like Vogue and People.
Her husband was Charles Hollister, who had become incredibly wealthy back in the ’70s as one of the pioneers of the burgeoning computer age. He was a kind of Steve Jobs of those early days, and he later expanded into all sorts of other industries—from media to pharmaceuticals to oil drilling and a lot more. He was listed as one of the ten wealthiest businessmen in America.
When Hollister married Laurie Bateman a few years ago, there were a lot of jokes about the big difference in age between the two—she was so much younger and so beautiful. Like the jokes people made about Rupert Murdoch with Wendy Deng and then Jerry Hall, his last two wives. People always assume that a younger and pretty woman like that is marrying for the money. But Laurie Bateman and Charles Hollister insisted they were in love, and they had consistently projected the public persona of a happily married couple in the media since their wedding.
Except it now appeared they weren’t so happily married.
“Is she trying to divorce him to get her hands on his money?” I asked.
“Actually, he’s trying to divorce her and stop her from getting her hands on any of his money.”
“So the bottom line here is this divorce is about money.”
“Isn’t there a prenuptial agreement that would settle all this?”
“Yes and no.”
“Spoken like a true lawyer.”
“Yes, there is a prenup. But we don’t think it applies here. That’s because other factors in the marriage took place, which could invalidate the terms of the prenup they agreed to and signed.”
“Such as?” I asked finally.
“For one thing, Charles Hollister has a mistress. A younger woman he’s been seeing.”
“Younger than Laurie Bateman?”
“Much younger. In her twenties.”
“Jeez! Hollister’s such an old man I have trouble imagining him being able to have sex with his wife, much less getting it up for a second woman on the side.”
“Her discovery that he was cheating on her, along with a lot of other reasons, have turned Laurie Bateman’s life into a nightmare—a living hell—behind the walls of the beautiful homes they live in. She’s kept quiet about it so far, protecting the happy couple image they’ve put on for the media. But now she wants to let the world know the truth. That’s where you come in, Clare.”
Aha, I thought to myself.
Now we’re getting down to it.
I was about to find out the real reason Janet was here.
“Laurie Bateman wants to go public with all this,” Janet said. “She wants to tell her story in the media. The true story of her marriage to Charles Hollister. We know Hollister is going to use his clout to try and smear her and make her look bad, so that’s why we want to get her version out quickly. What I’m talking about here is an exclusive interview with Laurie Bateman about all of this. Her talking about the divorce, the cheating—everything. And she wants you to do the interview with her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why not Gayle King? Or Savannah Guthrie? Or Barbara Walters or Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer or another big media name? I’m just the news director of a local TV station here.”
“She wants you, Clare. In fact, I think that’s the reason she hired me for her lawyer. She found out you and I were friends—and she’s hoping I can deliver you to her to do this interview on air with her.”
“I still don’t know why she wouldn’t want to go with someone really famous . . .”
“You’re famous, too, Clare. You know that as well as I do. And that’s why she wants you. You’re as famous as any woman on the air right now.”
Janet was right about that.
I was famous.
It could have gone either way—I could have wound up being either famous or infamous because of what I did—but in the end I’d wound up as a media superstar all over again.
Just like I’d been when I won a Pulitzer Prize nearly twenty years ago for telling the story of legendary missing child Lucy Devlin—even though I didn’t tell the whole story then.
“Laurie Bateman’s life with Charles Hollister is a big lie,” Janet said to me. “Now she wants to tell the truth on air about all those lies she’s been hiding behind. Like you did when you finally told the truth on air about you and Lucy Devlin. That’s why she wants you to be the one who interviews her.”
I still wasn’t sure how I felt about all this newfound fame I’d gotten from my Lucy Devlin story, but there was no question that if it got me this Laurie Bateman story . . . well, that would be a huge exclusive for me and the station.
“When can I meet her?” I asked Janet.
Excerpted from Beyond the Headlines. Copyright © 2021 by R. G. Belsky.