Thursday, November 23, 2006

The election

I’ve avoided commenting on the election simply because it seems all too obvious. Only to say that one hopes Democrats won’t be lulled into thinking the nation has finally turned to them because of their coherent policies or principled politics. Any idiot knows they won because of Bush’s handling of Iraq and the general corruption and sleaze on the part of the Republicans. Let’s see what the likes of Pelosi and co do with their little bit of power. Waxman aside, I’m not terribly optimistic. What’s more, it’s a long way from here to 2008.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Gustav Hasford
Part 2

During his time in London, Hasford resided in a Mayfair flat which Kubrick’s entourage had found for him. Whenever the writer and director got together to “collaborate”, Hasford could not stop himself from winding-up the director, talking at length about The Killer’s Kiss and Spartacus, two Kubrick films the director hated with a passion. With Kubrick still threatening to abandon the project, Hasford removed himself to Paris. By September, he was back in London, where filming had finally begun a month earlier. It was only when filming finished in March, 1986 that ,Hasford was able to get a look at the final shooting script, and realised that it was 99% his own work, and 1% Kubrick’s. Fortunately, Hasford had kept records, copies and had witnesses, so could prove that it was his script, and that not only was he not receiving full credit, but, according to Hasford, had never signed a contract that would have given Kubrick the legal right to adapt the film. The director probably believed Hasford would be so concerned about getting paid, or receiving a modicum amount of credit, that he would finally agree to the final result. But Hasford knew that, until he got his way, he virtually controlled the film’s future.

Eventually Kubrick relented and Hasford was given a full screen credit, making him, in all likelihood, the first writer to take on Kubrick and come out on top. It also meant he had got the better of Warner Brothers with all their lawyers and money. This Hasford accomplished without an agent, much less a lawyer. Though it could have been that Kubrick decided that Hasford wasn't the Alabama hillbilly he thought him to be. Or perhaps Kubrick realised that he was dealing with someone as obsessive as he was, and, with the writer willing to go to any lengths to get his way, it was not going to be worth the trouble of trying to outmanoeuvre him. Hasford would only say that he got his way because he threatened to to go to the media, and say, “I”m a Vietnam veteran and Kubrick’s ripping me off.” Thus discrediting Kubrick’s movie and turning it into a box office disaster.

Back in LA for the release of Full Metal Jacket, Hasford spent two weeks promoting the film. Warner Brothers gave him the full treatment, putting him up at the Westwood Marquis where the arrivée gave interviews and, having always lived on a diet of junk food, ordered $25 hamburgers from room service. But events were to take their toll. For one thing, unused to his situation, an over-sensitive Hasford was becoming increasingly paranoid. Moreover, the LA literary crowd tended to regard him as nothing more than an amusing, if manic, freak. For his part, Hasford, unable to ingratiate himself, could scent condescension. Preferring to hang-out with local artists and outsiders, Hasford was eventually able to regain some of his easy going composure, and for a while it looked like he was beginning to enjoy his new celebrity status. With Full Metal Jacket playing to full houses, and Bantam's new paperback edition of The Short-Timers selling in large numbers, Kubrick’s attorney, Louis Blau, took Hasford on as a client. Hearing that Bantam had accepted The Phantom Blooper for publication in 1990, Hasford moved into a spacious house in San Clemente. Free of stress and money worries for the first time in his life, he bought a big-screen TV, a VCR, a jeep and a new flak jacket, spent time on the beach and lavished gifts on his friends. Unfortunately, he was also gaining a great deal of weight, and, though contemplating new projects, couldn’t resist continuing his feud with Kubrick, this time over Lee Ermey, the film's drill instructor, whom Hasford called "a fucking pogue lifer" and a propagandist for the official Marine Corps pro-war line on Vietnam.

Though he dated a number of attractive women during this period, Hasford was convinced most of them were after his money. And he might have been right. He missed his old “girlfriend,” and looked her up with the hope of renewing his courtship. She, of course, wanted to have nothing to do with him. After all, Hasford had practically stalked her. Hasford’s response was to bombard her with angry letters. After a friend intervened, the letters stopped, but he wouldn't or couldn't give up the idea of winning her heart. His persistence paid off with Kubrick. Why not with this woman?

Then disaster struck. On March 21st, the LA Times reported that Hasford was being sought by California Polytechnic State University authorities, who discovered some 10,000 books from libraries around the world in a storage locker rented in the author’s name. The article went on to say that campus police had located overdue books from Cal Poly, delinquent to the sum of $3000 in fines, as well as rare books from libraries in England and Australia. There was no arrest warrant because investigators, according to the report, had to first inventory the books, contained in 396 cardboard boxes that comprise a pile 27 feet long, five feet wide, and five feet tall. The same story appeared on the AP wire, in the L.A. Herald Examiner, and on CNN and KNBC-TV. True or not, a charge of library theft was going to be a tough one for Hasford to live down, for it is something that the literate as well as illiterate can feel superior about. Any chance of an Oscar vanished with the news. This even though the reported 10,000 books was later found by Miles Corwin, an L.A. Times reporter, to be only 800. More paranoid than ever, Hasford was convinced his con-man friend, Sam, had conspired with a security cop to set him up. Though he might also have wondered if it might not have been Kubrick out to exact revenge. In any case, Hasford seemed, at this point, relatively unconcerned; he envisioned simply paying the fine and putting the whole thing behind him.

An AP story followed in the L.A. Times on March 31 -- "Author Nominated for an Oscar Charged in Library Book Thefts." The story reported that Hasford had been charged with grand theft on a Sacramento warrant dating to mid-1985, alleging that he had stolen 50 to 100 books worth more than $1,000. This was in addition to the Cal Poly allegations. Bail was set at $50,000. The AP's theft count had dropped from 10,000 to "9,816 books from libraries as far away as Australia and Great Britain." Though Miles Corwin in the Times corrected the stolen-book count to "hundreds," he failed to stress the exaggeration of the original reports. Ray Berrett, the Cal Poly campus police investigator who broke the case, was quoted: "'All the librarians [we called] said [Hasford] had checked out books, didn't return them and then disappeared'. The San Luis Obispo County district attorney could issue a warrant... Berrett [went on]... 'If [Hasford] gets an Oscar... an officer could hand him the warrant [at the ceremony] and say... put your hands behind your back and away we go."' Corwin's story mentioned, without naming, Hasford's former girlfriend -- "a librarian at Cal Poly" -- and another man who “Hasford was a house guest... and left 'unexpectedly with a number of books'... found in Hasford's collection."
To no one’s surprise, The Short-Timers did not win the Academy Award for best screenplay, which went to The Last Emperor. Meanwhile, the legal machinery, once in motion, ground on, and, as it did so, Hasford's life began to spin further out of control. At first, he thought he would be shielded by Louise Blau's reputation as a lawyer, but, for some reason, he ended up retaining a San Luis Obispo attorney named Orlan Donley, who eventually billed him for some $20,000. On June 23, at an arraignment in the San Luis Obispo County Municipal Court, Hasford pleaded innocent to two counts of grand theft and 10 counts of possession of stolen property. He was booked at the county jail and freed on $7,500 bail. "Books from 77 different libraries were found in Hasford's collection," Miles Corwin reported in the Times, while the AP finally reduced the number to "hundreds of stolen books." Later, Bruce Miller, the San Luis Obispo bookseller, was appalled to discover that the campus police investigating Hasford's collection had even confused university-press books with university property.

By the end of the summer, Hasford had become worn down by the process. It was not only the strain of commuting between San Clemente and San Luis Obispo, but it was the question mark that remained over his future. Still, he was planning his next book, which he decided would be an exposé of those bringing charges against him. He planned to hire private detectives to get information on his persecutors, and everyone who had conspired to turn his fame against him. He was certain it would sell millions. On December 2, Hasford pleaded no contest to possessing stolen property, with two counts of grand theft dismissed in the terms of the plea bargain. The prosecutor, Deputy D.A. Terry Estrada-Mullaney, recommended Hasford serve hard time. At this point, Hasford was hoping he’d get off with a fine, restitution costs and maybe a community service order.

On January 4, 1989, Superior Court Judge Warren Conklin ordered the defendant to serve six months in jail and five years' probation for the theft of 748 books from nine libraries and "one individual." The court also fined him $1,100 and directed him to pay shipping costs for the return of the books. After the verdict, a gloating Deputy D.A. said Hasford's punishment would "serve as a lesson that stealing library books is a serious offence." Half expecting to walk free, a stunned Hasford was handcuffed and taken to a rural annex of the San Luis Obispo County Jail, where he was issued an orange jumpsuit and assigned to manual labour on a road crew. It wasn’t going to be an easy six months for a sedentary writer.

In prison, Hasford contracted intestinal flu and lost 40 pounds. Humiliated by the ordeal, he would never regain his health or spirits. After his release, and was able to get his belongings from the police, he found that a number of items were missing, including a collection of gold pieces. He now wanted to go to go to Greece for an indefinite period. In the interim he took up residence in an El Cajon motel so he could be close to what books he had left, which now needed to reorganise. Moreover, Hasford was now drinking for the first time- beer and wine in the evening, so he could sleep- and talked about applying for political asylum in France.
While visiting his mother and brother in Tacoma, a friend took Hasford to the local Veteran’s Administration hospital where they ran tests, diagnosed him as diabetic and given an insulin shot on the spot. A doctor friend in Seattle tried to convince Hasford to regulate his diet, and lose some weight. He also urged him not to travel to Greece as he was still intending to do. Despite his friend’s advice, Gus left in April, and by the autumn had moved into a pension in Aegina, some 45 miles by boat from the coast. By that time, this naive manic but talented writer was no longer communicating with his friends. The woman who owned the pension entered Hasford’s room one day and found his body. He was alone when he died, aged 45, from complications of untreated diabetes. His 1993 death coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Tet offensive, which he wrote about in The Short-Timers.

(With acknowledgements to the late Grover Lewis’s 1993 article in the LA Weekly.)