Jack Valenti – Six Degrees of Separation

By Cam French

In 1990 I was employed as executive personal assistant to Barry Hirsch, an  entertainment attorney and power broker to the rich and famous. The same talented folk who populate the headlines of newspapers and tabloids alike. This type of position might offer the occasional glamorous screening or entre to a private event. Most of the time, though, it entails demanding work and a plethora of very unglamorous responsibilities—event planning, managing schedules, travel arrangements and other roles that in my case included family members. Discreet behavior in all endeavors was Rule #1.

On this early Saturday evening, I’d been waiting for Jack Valenti outside the Orion building on Century Park East. He was to pick up an envelope Barry had left for him in his office. Barry’s manner had appeared edgy when he mentioned the envelope and he made certain I was clear as to the time and place for the pick-up. The building was on lockdown for the weekend, as was Barry’s office.  I felt odd standing alone on the mostly deserted Century Park East Boulevard.

Century City was originally the private ranch of early cowboy star, Tom Mix. That was before William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought the land and built a movie studio that eventually became 20th Century Fox. In the late 1950s, when the studio suffered several financial reversals plus the staggering and ruinous costs of producing “Cleopatra,” the studio sold off the backlot to developers who built the “city within a city.” Century City is a bustling beehive during the week and a tomb on the weekend, eerily silent against the backdrop of looming skyscrapers.

Century City Twin Towers

Jack Valenti made his appearance around 6:00 p.m. when his sleek, black limousine glided up to the curb. A very dapper-looking fellow with alert and beaming brown eyes, he was immaculately dressed in a navy blue pin-striped suit. His hand shot out welcoming mine, a strong and self-assured handshake, one used to power.

Valenti had one of those great smiles you never forget—as if you are the most important person in his universe. Napoleonic in stature—what some might even call diminutive—he owned a large and charismatic personality, a very keen eye, an intuitive mind all imbued with a high nimble energy. Charming and affable, he was also all business. Someone once praised Valenti for his morals and his social skills; one described him as “smiley” and “able to charm the horns off a Billy goat.” I saw all that and more in the face studying mine. The cunning that had brought him so far in politics and the shark-infested waters of the entertainment business was also apparent.

Jack Valenti had been a successful Texas businessman before joining Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the White House as a media consultant. After three years in Washington, he was named head of the Motion Picture Association, where he served as Hollywood’s chief lobbyist from 1966 to 2004. Valenti became the distinguished public face of the movie and television production industry.  He devised the film-rating system, restructured the Hays Act, and was one of its strongest advocates. His tanned face was a fixture at the annual Academy Awards broadcast.

As the elevator climbed to the 18th floor, he and I chatted amiably though minimally. I reflected on how close I stood to history and my mind’s eye couldn’t help revisiting that famous photograph taken on Air Force One. The iconic one that captured all the sorrow and solemnity of those first unbelievably terrible hours in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The event that shook our nation to its core.

Standing in the background, Jack Valenti (one of only twenty-six people on Air Force One) stands just to the right of Lady Bird Johnson. His dark eyes wide with shock and disbelief as he absorbs this monumental moment in U.S. history. That moment when Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office as the 36th President of the United States. A stunned and sorrow-filled Jacqueline Kennedy stands on Johnson’s left, a bleeding rose in her blood-spattered pink Chanel suit.

Jack Valenti (right) with Lyndon B. Johnson as he took the oath of office.

Secrets are routine business in entertainment and politics. Nevertheless, by then, I knew there were no real secrets in either enterprise; that more often than not someone else is always on another extension listening to those “private” conversations. I also knew this because during my employment with Barry, I was the one on the other end of the extension listening to deals being made, film stars’ complaints about contracts or broken hearts, studio heads, money changing hands, and occasionally a career-ruining secret was disclosed for which the tabloids paid large sums of cash to traitorous informants.

The same applies to the envelope meant for only Jack Valenti’s eyes. He gave a jaunty wave as the limousine drew away from the curb outside the Orion building. Meanwhile, Jack Valenti held the power in his hands to someone’s future within that manila envelope.

© 2022 Cam French

Cam began her creative life in early childhood and now works primarily in oil or acrylic mediums every day. As a painter she’s participated in group shows and one-woman exhibits. She is a past member of The Madison Watercolor Society and The Madison Art Guild. She is also writing a memoir. Cam and her husband, Jim, live in the Dane County area in a 136 year old brick farmhouse. Both enjoy working in their large garden.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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