Before I get to the story I want to tell, a little background on my dad. He was the only child of my Eastern European grandparents, and he was the blackest of sheep in the whole family. He was tall, dark and handsome; kind of a cross between Cary Grant and George Clooney with that same bad-boy twinkle in his eyes. That twinkle was what I think was his most endearing feature. Even as a youth he was a rascal—which is really just a euphemism for a scoundrel. Two stories I heard about his teens: One, he lied about his age—said he was 16 when he was fourteen and forged his parents’ signature to get into the high school he preferred (the then-prestigious Los Angeles HS). It backfired when his parents threw him a surprise party for his fifteenth birthday and invited all his friends. Two, when he partied too much and got failing grades in said high school, he convinced his immigrant parents that the “Fs” on his report card stood for “Fair.” Neither of these were too terrible, but that was just the beginning of his life on the margins of society.
His parents owned a kosher butcher shop, first in the formerly Jewish neighborhood of East LA, and later in West Hollywood. He was slated to become a butcher too, but, long story short, he had a falling out with his father and went to work as a butcher at Grand Central Market, where he lost his right arm above the wrist in an accident with a meat grinder. After that he became a bookie and a gambler. He also invented various explanations for his one-armed status; sometimes he said he lost it in the war and eventually even convinced the VA of this canard. I mention this thing about his arm because it will become central to this story shortly.
So fast forward about thirty years—thirty years during which among other things, I was born. Thirty years of living a life somewhere between Damon Runyon and the Rat Pack. I went to Vegas with my dad for the first time when I was about eight—the first of many trips in the days when the Sands Hotel was the tops and Sinatra and Dino played there. During the days, he would gamble and I would play in the fabulous swimming pool and order club sandwiches and Shirley Temples from the pool boys. During the nights, he would gamble and I would sit in the lobby after dinner with all the comic books I wanted—dozens of Archies and my favorite, Katy Keene.
And of course, in the ensuing thirty years I grew up and got married and had a kid, but my dad never remarried after my parents’ divorce. By now it is the early 1980’s. Now, in all honesty, I don’t know how this came about but somehow my dad met a bunch of Saudis. Or more precisely, a bunch of young Saudi princelings in Beverly Hills.
During this period—after OPEC and when the world was just beginning to get a glimpse of the gargantuan wealth of the Saudi kingdom—lots of young Saudi princes were allowed to go to the US and Great Britain for higher education. And they were like kids in a candy store. They had come from the very repressive backgrounds of (what I later learned) Wahabi religious families. They had been married off at eighteen or nineteen, had probably started having kids, and had never been to the West; never had a drink and had been dutiful sons to their royal families. But now they were free! The nightlife and debauchery of London and Beverly Hills beckoned. Their families had let them out of their cages ostensibly to get a good education, but they had other ideas. And there was another dynamic at play here: They were suckers. When the first wave of Saudis came to the West Coast they might as well have had large signs on their backs saying, “Mega-bucks here—screw me!” Wherever they went in their Rolls Royce Silver Clouds and their shemagh headdresses, grifters if all classes, from shop girls to Hollywood moguls took advantage of them. And they were getting bad press too, with their ostentatious behavior. That’s where my dad comes in; where he had his idea.
As I said, I don’t know how my father met his first Saudi, but he capitalized on that meeting and parlayed it into quite a nice little gig. He understood that these princelings were feeling victimized—on all fronts. Here in the US, they were being taken advantage of by everyone they came in contact with. Back at home, they were in constant danger of being recalled to Riyadh and cut off financially. But they wanted to party! My dad proposed that he act as a beard—and agent if you will—for the young Saudis. Did they want to buy a mansion while paying only fair market price? He’d buy it for a cut. A new Mazerati? Ditto.
But how did they know they could trust him? Why should they? Well, remember about my dad losing his arm? That’s what did it– what made him trustworthy in their eyes. At one point he was summoned to a meeting with an older Saudi higher-up, one of the senior royalty who wanted to meet my father as he was establishing his relationship with the princes. As they were introduced, the Saudi noticed that my dad’s amputated arm was in one of the handmade silk slings he always wore. He had to have noticed, as my father could not shake hands with his missing right hand.
“What happened to your hand,” the Saudi nabob asked him.
“I lost it, your highness, “ my father replied.
“How did you lose it?” the guy wants to know.
Without missing a beat, my dad tells him, “I am a thief.”
A long silence. Followed by bursts of laughter. (As you all probably know, the punishment for stealing in Saudi Arabia is to cut off the right hand of the thief.) I guess they figured that anyone either so honest as to admit this, or so witty to joke like that must be trustworthy. Or, that it would take a thief to catch one. Anyway, my dad was in.
The College Degrees
From then on, my dad became the go-to man for anything the princes wanted. Not only purchases of high-ticket items, but for navigating all the vagueries of life in the US. Drivers licenses, theater tickets, you name it, my dad supplied it. But one thing these youngsters worried about was that they were supposedly here to go to college. They were not supposed to be playing. And one day they would have to produce a diploma and return to Saudi Arabia and take up their place in sober royal society.
My dad knew that when that happened, his meal tickets would end. And he was, for the first time in his life, living the high life—he had a Rolls now too, and a modest house in the canyons above Beverly Hills, and clothes from tailors. He told me of his worry. But I, being his larcenous daughter, had a plan. You see, I was at this time a graphic artist by profession. I had used this to my own advantage on a couple of occasions, but for very small potatoes. For instance, I would routinely make my own parking stickers to avoid the fees at the garage at work, and could even make phony handicapped parking car thingies if I wanted—but I only did that once for my mom who really had hurt her foot. My plan was to forge actual college diplomas. These would be mailed to Riyadh to the princes’ families to fool them into thinking their sons had actually attended college instead of whoring and drinking for four years. Everyone wins! I won’t bore you with the details—obtaining the parchment, finding the official seals from the various universities, and getting embossing tools made of those official seals. Suffice it to say, I made it work. I produced plausible facsimiles of the diplomas (if you were not a born English speaker and if you kinda squinted) and my dad was a hero.
Charlie’s Angels for Cloistered Wives
My next involvement in the family enterprise was much more pedestrian. As I mentioned, these Saudis had wives back home; bored ones. Sullen rich ones. Wives who were likely getting resentful of their young husbands’ escapades in Gomorrah. As a little taste of decadence, the princes would send their wives video tapes of forbidden fruit: pirated TV shows. At first, the husbands would occasionally tape them themselves, but soon their wives’ appetite became insatiable for more. “Charlie’s Angels”, “Dallas”, the soaps and anything by Aaron Spelling were in great demand. For a small fee, I taped them all, and they were sent to SA weekly. I made only one mistake. I assumed the best product would be with all the ads removed; I spent a lot of time fast forwarding past the commercials. But I soon learned they WANTED the commercials. In fact, they thought those were the best parts! Easier for me, then. Whatever.
The Million Dollar Flight From Riyadh.
Things escalated. My dad began providing more services and they became increasingly, well, illegal. As time went on, it became apparent that these princes (and did I mention their names? Sultan was a popular one—there were a couple of those, along with Abdullah and Fouad) did not want to go back to Jeddah, or wherever. But how to get their money? It seems it is illegal for Saudis to take their money out of the country. But not for a Jewish guy from Los Angeles to do so, evidently. So my dad went to Saudi Arabia. He was given a million dollars in cash and stuffed it all around his body and boarded a plane to Zurich. This really happened. He later told me he was sweating bullets and it did not go completely smoothly. He was questioned by Saudi officials at the airport and asked if he was Jewish. (Who– Him?) When he got off the plane in Zurich he was met by some unfamiliar Saudi toughs who kept him in a hotel overnight while they checked the money. But he said the hardest part was carrying the actual money. “Do you realize how much it physically is—a million in cash?” (No, I didn’t, and still don’t unfortunately.) He said it was hard to sit on the plane with that money taped to his body, but the worst was the money stuffed in his shoes—man, his feet hurt as he limped off the plane!
Dr. Kalifa in Monte Carlo
The years went by. My (legitimate) career advanced and our son was about to turn eight. Dad had advanced too, moving on from the princelings to the older members of the family. In particular, he was close to a mysterious gentleman named Dr. Khalifa. I heard the name of Dr. Khalifa frequently while at my dad’s, who was said to be very highly placed among the royals and a genuine physician. One, I later learned, who prescribed for himself. To be honest, I don’t know, or want to know, the full nature of my father’s dealings with the good doctor. And that went double after I met him.
By now my father had become a bit of an international traveler, always in the company of Dr. Khalifa. And my dad was getting worn out. One day, he told me he was to meet Khalifa in Monte Carlo, and he had insisted to Khalifa that he would only go if he could bring his family—me, my husband and son. God knows what story my dad concocted to make Khalifa buy this, but sure enough, we immediately got a packet of first-class Air France tickets in the mail. Whoopie! It was our first trip to Europe. And what a trip. Even the flight was fantastic—Karl Lagerfeld was right across the aisle. The food on the plane was the best ever.
Looking back, my husband and I were such hicks. We didn’t even know where we were to go, other than that we were to stay at Dr. Khalifa’s apartment in Monte Carlo. And my dad was on another flight, along with a couple of very glamorous young women. But when we landed in Nice, there was a man in a chauffeur’s uniform stranding there with a sign with our name on it. We spoke no French, he spoke no English, but hey, we went with him. He drove us to Khalifa’s place. (The doctor was staying at the Beach Plaza Hotel.) It was a magnificent condo overlooking the sea and the coast of Monaco. I kid you not—the bathroom was lined in lapis and the fixtures were solid gold. We were in heaven. And that chauffeur was at our beck and call for the entire trip. We kept telling my dad how much we wanted to thank this Dr. Khalifa—could we take him to dinner or something? But Khalifa really didn’t want our thanks—it was nothing to him, this amazing trip. However, we eventually prevailed and we all went out to an extravagant meal at La Reserve. Now, remember—we have our eight year old with us, and he had just turned eight on the flight over. At that dinner, he was sorely tested. I mean, we’re talking a LONG meal, in a very snooty place. But here’s where you get good service: The waiter must have sensed our son’s boredom, so in the middle of the meal, he simply came over with the full dessert cart and wheeled it bedside our kids and said, I guess, enjoy! But I digress. Who was this Dr. Khalifa? He was a small, middle-aged homunculus. With slightly yellowed skin and mumbled, unintelligible speech. His eyes darted constantly and he seemed shy. But we had been determined to thank him, and dammit we did whether he liked it or not. And it was “not.” We had a terrific time on that trip—the casino at Monte Carlo, the sights—the meal! Alas, not so my father. He was worn ragged, doing I know not what, but he looked pretty tired. Hard work being a go-fer. But rewarding financially.
That trip marked the beginning of the end of this era for my dad. A couple of years later it was over. The Saudis could now fend for themselves, and so would my dad be forced to. But it was fun while it lasted!