March 29, 2011 / 12:54 AM / 7 years ago

The Hollywood superlawyer whose death went unnoticed

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - For Arthur Crowley, messy personal lives were good for business.

Crowley, whom legendary producer Robert Evans once called “the toughest Irishman attorney west of Chicago,” practically invented one of the stock characters of the current tabloid world: the celebrity divorce lawyer.

Today, few things move newsstand sales and boost online traffic more than broken vows. But long before the likes of Hollywood superlawyer Laura Wasser regularly made headlines extricating Angelina Jolie, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Reynolds from failed marriages, Crowley — whose death one year ago at the age of 85 drew strangely little notice — was turning big-league divorces into can’t-miss showbiz theater.

“He was, in his day, the most famous trial lawyer in Los Angeles,” says prominent entertainment attorney Bert Fields.

Known for his outrageous legal gambits, Crowley won a $20 million settlement for Johnny Carson’s third wife, $42 million for the first wife of then Los Angeles Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, dug up dirt on Steve McQueen, sued Howard Hughes and helped divvy up the Frank Sinatra estate.

Crowley learned to play rough with the powerful and famous by staring down all of Hollywood in the notorious Confidential magazine libel trial of 1957. Representing the publication — the National Enquirer of its day — in a case brought against it by the state of California, the attorney subpoenaed more than 100 stars including Elvis Presley and Clark Gable to testify whether stories about them were true. (Perhaps the most infamous was an article alleging that actress Maureen O’Hara all but had sex at the back of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.)

It was said that as a result of Crowley’s ploy, half the town hurried to vacation in Mexico. The attorney made such a name for himself with the case that when he was sued four years later in a paternity matter by a former Miss USA, the well-known ladies’ man garnered headlines in the Los Angeles Times.

But when Crowley — whom colleagues describe as a brilliant attorney but an often-distant co-worker — passed away April 20, 2010, of unknown causes, the Los Angeles Times didn’t memorialize him. In fact, Crowley slipped away without a single media outlet — including the New York Times, which had spilled plenty of ink on his cases — taking note of his five-decade-plus career. Indeed, only a 50-word paid obituary in the Los Angeles Times noted his death, describing Crowley, who ran his own namesake firm, as a “WWII vet, famed trial attorney and loving father,” but offering little else.

The only tangible reminder of Crowley is his Holmby Hills mansion — a three-acre spread near the estates of Paramount chief Brad Grey and acting couple Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman — which is on the market for $23 million. Attempts to contact Crowley’s family through the real estate agent selling the property were unsuccessful, and phone calls to a handful of others believed to be related to Crowley went unanswered or unreturned.

It was a surprisingly quiet send-off for a Hollywood player who for years ruffled feathers in a town known for having a long memory. Former Crowley client Joanna Carson, third wife of the late talk-show king, is baffled by the lack of public notice. “It of course saddened me,” she says. Like several other friends of the lawyer, she learned of his death by word-of-mouth. Imagine, for example, if there hadn’t been obituaries penned for the equally colorful Johnnie Cochran.

Cochran, in his made-for-the-airwaves defense of O.J. Simpson, helped usher in the 24/7 TV news cycle. Crowley’s career was likewise on the leading edge of a seismic shift in both the coverage of news and what’s deemed newsworthy, changes that eventually would give rise to the likes of TMZ. The current preoccupation with Hollywood divorces and the endless war between stars and the tabloids were only nascent developments when Crowley came onto the scene in the 1950s. He soon helped put them front and center.

It’s worth noting that while Crowley’s family wouldn’t give interviews for this report, he is best known for defending another publication’s right to run what it considered news. Confidential, which debuted in 1952, was America’s first no-holds-barred tabloid magazine. It broke ground with its reporting tactics: Sources were paid for information and required to sign affidavits vouching for it. The magazine was run by publisher Robert Harrison, who had cut his teeth in the 1940s putting out risque “girlie” magazines including Wink and Eyeful. He installed his niece, Marjorie Meade, as head of Hollywood Research Inc., Confidential’s clandestine investigative bureau.

Although established media outlets panned the bimonthly Confidential for its loose journalism standards, it was an instant hit, at its peak outranking even Time in circulation. There were stories about leading men who beat their wives, leading ladies who were neglectful mothers and gay actors who kept secret their sexual orientation. One cataloged the female lovers Marlene Dietrich had taken, while another insinuated that Liberace had brazenly pursued a young male press agent.

The magazine’s brash approach inevitably angered the studios. A handful of actors employed bulldog lawyer Jerry Geisler, who preceded Crowley as a leading Hollywood attorney, to sue the magazine for libel. By early 1957, the studios had pressured California Attorney General Pat Brown to act against Confidential. Brown, who would become governor two years later and was the father of the current governor, effectively banned the magazine in the state by threatening distributors with prosecution, according to “Shocking True Story,” Henry E. Scott’s 2010 book on the publication.

In May 1957, Brown went after the magazine more directly, indicting Harrison, Meade and several others associated with Confidential for conspiracy to commit criminal libel. The stakes were high: Harrison and his crew faced not only big fines but also jail time. Crowley, just 32, was hired to defend them.

When the trial began August 7, 1957, reporters from dozens of newspapers were in attendance, including a correspondent from Paris Match and four from London, according to Shocking True Story. (The Hollywood Reporter, apart from a few mentions in its Rambling Reporter gossip column, stayed away from writing about Confidential. Hy Hollinger, a former THR reporter who worked at Variety in the 1950s, says the trade publications “mainly ignored” Confidential because of a level of “decorum” that made it uncommon to go after other publications.)

Crowley came armed with an over-the-top plan: If the studios were going to claim the articles in the magazine weren’t true, then the stars had better prove it. He tasked famed private eye Fred Otash with delivering more than 100 subpoenas. Many actors successfully avoided Otash, including Sinatra and Gregory Peck, who headed for Las Vegas.

“It looked like the exodus from Egypt,” said Crowley in a 2003 interview with Vanity Fair.

But not everyone was so lucky: Actor Tab Hunter, then a 26-year-old closeted heartthrob, was subpoenaed and ordered to appear in court. Hunter had been the subject of a story whispering that he’d been at a pajama party staged “strictly for boys.”

“I was scared to death,” Hunter says today. He came out publicly in his 2005 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential. “You had to be under oath, and I don’t lie.”

Ultimately, Hunter wasn’t called to testify, which would have undoubtedly ruined his career; Judge Herbert Walker ruled that only a limited number of Confidential stories were at issue. Some stars — including Dorothy Dandridge, who denied an article about a lovers’ tryst in the Lake Tahoe woods — did take the stand, though they did so as witnesses for the prosecution. Still, Crowley’s strategy seemed to have worked.

“He was very crafty,” says Scott, who interviewed the attorney at the Baroda residence in 1996. “He emptied the town out, and what it did was the studios lobbied the prosecution and said, ‘Maybe we should think about this. Maybe we should let up on these guys.’”

After a two-week deliberation, the jury was unable to render a verdict. Before a retrial could proceed, the studios and Harrison — who, already saddled with a hefty legal bill, was not eager to face charges again — worked out a deal by which Confidential would no longer “publish exposes of the private lives of movie stars,” according to Shocking True Story. The magazine was irrevocably damaged. With the lack of ribald stories, circulation plunged, and Harrison sold the publication in 1958; it soldiered on until 1978. But the magazine lived on in the James Ellroy novel “L.A. Confidential” and its 1997 film adaptation, both of which fictionalized it as the tabloid Hush-Hush.

Crowley’s success in keeping his clients out of prison raised his profile dramatically. It wasn’t long before the politically conservative lawyer, a fastidious and fashionable dresser who enjoyed both big-game hunting and ballroom dancing, became a regular in the L.A. Times’ society pages. In 1962, Crowley married actress Jana Lund, who gave Elvis his first onscreen kiss in the 1957 film “Loving You.”

Nearly a year after the Confidential case, Crowley, representing Lana Turner’s ex-husband Stephen Crane, helped clear his client’s young daughter, Cheryl, in the stabbing death of Turner’s boyfriend Johnny Stompanato, one of gangster Mickey Cohen’s bodyguards. A month after the April 1958 ruling, Crowley again represented Crane, this time in a custody fight with Turner over their child. A string of high-profile cases followed, including suits that involved Oscar-winning actress Dorothy Malone, Vic Damone, Debbie Reynolds and Mel Torme.

In many of the cases, Crowley was on the side of the lesser celebrity, a role that — like his position in the Confidential case — essentially pitted him against the powers that be.

Subtlety wasn’t Crowley’s strong suit. Attorney Sorrell Trope, who attended law school with Crowley, recalls the day his longtime friend, who was prematurely bald, began wearing a toupee. Without prior announcement, Crowley made the switch in 1967 while in the midst of a trial. Says Trope: “The first two days of the trial, he comes in with his bald head, and the next day he comes in with this white toupee. The judge almost fell off the bench.”

But Crowley’s swagger served him well. That was certainly the case in the 1979 divorce of Cooke, the late Lakers and Washington Redskins owner, from Crowley’s client, Barbara Jean Carnegie. The $42 million sum he extracted from Cooke, north of $100 million in today’s dollars, was the largest divorce settlement at the time.

It wasn’t the first time Crowley was playing in the biggest of big leagues. In 1963, he personally lodged a $12 million lawsuit against industrialist Hughes for allegedly wiretapping his telephone, though the case was dismissed in 1968. Crowley’s connection to Hughes stemmed from the attorney’s earlier representation of another lawyer who was trying to collect allegedly unpaid fees from the reclusive businessman.

Then there was Crowley’s work in the early 1970s for producer Evans. In his 1994 memoir, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” he wrote of employing Crowley when he got into a skirmish with actor McQueen, who married Ali MacGraw after her divorce from Evans. McQueen wanted to adopt MacGraw and Evans’ son; however, Crowley compiled an apparently damning “dossier almost a foot in height” on McQueen, which ended the actor’s efforts.

In the 1985 Carson divorce, Crowley crafted another cagey approach — but he might have gone too far. In addition to demanding a temporary monthly allowance of $220,000, Crowley argued that his client should be entitled to more than half of the couple’s community property because of so-called celebrity goodwill. His reasoning centered on the notion that the talk-show host’s brand was enhanced during the marriage, thus requiring additional compensation for Crowley’s client.

According to Norman Oberstein, who represented Johnny Carson after he had dismissed another attorney, the judge ultimately authorized $35,000 a month in temporary support. And Crowley’s argument for celebrity goodwill was rebuffed. “He certainly did all the right things; he was always a fierce adversary and very well-regarded, and it was a lot of fun to go against him,” recalls Oberstein.

Crowley was paid handsomely for his efforts. According to James A. Albert’s 1989 book “Pay Dirt: Divorces of the Rich and Famous,” Crowley charged Joanna Carson $260 an hour and $520 an hour on Sundays. Several lawyers said Crowley’s standard rate was quite high for the mid-1980s — equivalent to $1,000 an hour or more today — and none had ever heard of an attorney who billed a higher rate on Sundays.

Joanna Carson still walked away with a neat $20 million in cash and property. “I admired him greatly; if you had a problem about something, once you were friends, you could always call him,” Carson says.

The attorney lived a lifestyle commensurate to his paychecks, attending black-tie charity galas; dining with the Club of the Vikings, an elite private dining group, at the since-shuttered hotspot Scandia restaurant; and throwing get-togethers with live music at the fully staffed Baroda house. The estate, it seems, had a personality that matched its owner. The living room was decorated with taxidermied trophy animals bagged during Crowley’s hunting trips to Africa.

“On the walls were various animals: gazelles and all sorts of exotic wild game, not just your average deer,” Scott says.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that a divorce lawyer was himself married multiple times. He was married to Lund for 13 years; the couple, who had a son and a daughter, divorced in 1976. In 1989, the attorney wed Toni Holt Kramer, but their marriage lasted less than three years.

In addition to his children with Lund, there’s the matter of the paternity case brought in 1961 by former Miss USA Terry Huntingdon, who claimed Crowley had fathered a daughter by her that year. The widely covered legal matter — it made newspapers throughout the country when Crowley called Huntingdon a “call girl” in court — stretched on for several years during the 1960s. The matter was ultimately settled quietly, according to a 2005 story in the daily Los Angeles legal publication Metropolitan News-Enterprise. In his typical hard-charging nature, Crowley defended himself in the suit and even was able to compel testimony from Huntingdon’s roommate about the beauty queen’s allegedly concurrent sexual dalliances.

But there were cracks in the armor. In her 2000 autobiography “My Father’s Daughter,” Tina Sinatra wrote of a contentious estate-planning meeting she had with her father, his wife Barbara Sinatra and Crowley. When the singer admitted under questioning from his daughter that he wasn’t sure he understood the meaning of some documents he’d signed, she exploded at the attorney.

“Turning to Arthur, I expressed my outrage and added, ‘That’s the dumbest toupee I’ve ever seen!’ “ she wrote. It was a barb Crowley would not forget. After Frank Sinatra died in 1998, a tearful Tina Sinatra, in the midst of funeral arrangements, at one point found herself being consoled by Crowley. But he took the opportunity to remind her of the day nearly a decade prior when she had insulted his hairpiece. Sinatra wrote: “‘I didn’t forget that,’ Arthur said. ‘That really hurt my feelings.’”

Despite that moment of vulnerability, colleagues say Crowley rarely let his guard down, projecting an image of total control. It is perhaps this aspect of Crowley’s character that could explain his family’s unwillingness to discuss him.

According to public records, one child, a son, is a resident at the Baroda house, which records show Crowley purchased in 1970 for about $250,000. The five-bedroom, roughly 9,000-square-foot modern residence, which was built in 1951 and includes a swimming pool and tennis court, is, by current standards, a teardown.

While it would appear that at least Crowley’s one known son is behind the sale of the house, it’s unclear if other siblings also stand to benefit from the potential windfall.

On a recent visit to Crowley’s former estate on Baroda, there was little to be seen. The house is situated well inside the property, hidden behind a tall gate, gnarled trees and soaring cacti.

A press of the button on the driveway’s metal call box summoned someone who cut the conversation short with a terse reply: “I just work here.”

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