Los Angeles—In a city that already regards chefs, hairdressers, and lawyers as acceptable playmates, the flowering of yet another exotic social type can’t be regarded as particularly noteworthy. But in Los Angeles this season there’s a new species of personal companion on the rialto that is not only positively orchidaceous but that demonstrates just how chic addiction has become. The hottest companion here is a “disenabler.”
A “disenabler” (also known as a “key voice”) is a person who keeps you from doing drugs or from drinking. I saw my first disenabler at a party given by a producer last February in honor of his new mountainside home in Beverly Hills, an eccentric 35-room pile that looks like Mount Vernon descending Benedict Canyon. As the producer’s wife was showing me around, I watched my host, a dapper fellow in his 50s, being followed around by a weather-beaten guy about the same age dressed in jeans, jersey, and a baseball jacket that had the initials “S.O.B.” sewn on the back.
The producer and his follower eventually came by and the producer said to me, “Great place isn’t it? Meet Charlie.” I shook hands with Charlie. The two strolled away. “Is Charlie somebody I should know?” I asked the producer’s wife, fearing that I might have insulted some studio face card or other local figure of consequence.
“No,” trilled the producer’s wife, “Charlie is just here to keep Leo from doing any drugs.”
“I didn’t know Leo had a problem.”
“The worst. Leo just got out of Betty Ford’s,” she explained. “While I was down at the fat farm in La Costa, Leo checked into Betty Ford’s.”
“I thought that was a drying-out place.”
“Yeah, but everyone goes there. Leo went there for his coke problem. They told him after he got out to go down to the Cocaine Anonymous meetings at Cedars-Sinai. Paul, you should see the women at those meetings. And the men! Primo! All great-looking. Well, anyway, Leo’s been going. And Leo talked at one meeting about how hard it is to stay off the stuff at parties. So somebody suggested he get a guy to keep him from being tempted. That’s Charlie. Charlie breaks through the patterns and people that, I guess, ‘enable’ you to slip back into your old habits, and do drugs. Charlie is a ‘disenabler.’”
A few weeks later, I was at another party offering to get the hostess a drink from her own bar when a very highstyle woman dressed in white linen intervened. “No, thank you,” she said, “I’ll get us a couple of Cokes.” Off she went, and sensing another “disenabler,” I asked my fast-lane friend, “Have you been to Betty’s?”
“Yep,” she said, “I was there for seven weeks. Now I go to A.A. meetings, and Elsie—”
“The woman in white?
“Yep … is my ‘key voice.’ She comes along with me when there’s a big temptation. A lot of people in my crowd don’t like her, but they’re the same ones who made it possible for me to continue drinking and doing coke. Elsie ‘disenables’ for me.”
Elsie wasn’t the only surprise of the evening. When it came time for the band to play, the bar was shut down. In keeping with the new ethos, it turned into a cocktail-less cocktail party.
BETTY FORD, FORMER first lady, recovering alcoholic, and founder of the Betty Ford Center for the treatment of alcoholism and drug abuse, is the one to thank for these sights. And I do mean thank; through her center and her work, she relieves much misery and despair. Leo’s personal puritan and the nonalcoholic cocktail party are comic instances in Los Angeles’s persistent belief that everything in life, from achievement to personal tragedy, is of no consequence unless it can be purveyed stylishly and publicly. Mrs. Ford is not to blame if there is such a thing as addiction à L.A. mode.
The center started by Mrs. Ford, to which they’re all flocking, is a 14-acre institution at the giant Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs. The elaborate hospital was constructed after we nearly lost Ike in 1956 because then-existing Palm Springs hospitals weren’t adequate to his heart condition. The hospital has blossomed since then, and has become a favorite stopping place, especially for Republican first families in need of medical attention. The spirit of philanthropy aimed at resolving the distempers of famous Republicans can be expected to soar in the future. Centers dealing with the morbidities of more recent first families are now being proposed. I understand that the president and Mrs. Reagan will be honored with the Dutch and Nancy Reagan Sugar Tolerance Impairment Pavilion to make the world safe for jelly bean eaters. Not far behind are the plans for the Pat and Richard Nixon Dermatology Wing for further studies in thick and thin skins.
Meanwhile, a stay at the Betty Ford Center is all science can do for someone suffering the diseased life-style of the rich and famous. The Betty Ford Center, which was opened in 1982 at a cost of $5.8 million (all raised privately), is described as “a chemical dependency recovery hospital.” Inpatient treatment lasts about six weeks and costs about $150 a day. About 1,900 patients have been treated there since opening. A good many have been celebrities. The center won’t release the names of patients, but a careful scrutiny of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Herald, and The Washington Post reveals that Elizabeth Taylor (she was the first), Mary Tyler Moore, the late Peter Lawford, Johnny Cash, Tony Curtis, Liza Minnelli, and Andy Gibb are among the clientele.
According to spokesmen for the center, the treatment program, which also requires members of the patient’s family to come in for one week, combines medical care and group therapy. It is designed to help patients stay away from drugs and liquor, to reconstruct their emotional lives, and to involve themselves after hospitalization with chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, and other self-help groups.
Patients live in clusters of 20 (there’s only room for 60 at any one time) at the hospital and spend virtually the whole day in the residential wing. They have private rooms with patios, but share living spaces, and do all the household cleaning themselves. It’s a treatment program, not unlike the one at Long Beach Naval Hospital that Mrs. Ford underwent in 1978, except that at the Betty Ford Center, the program was redesigned to be of especial value to women.
“Most facilities dealing with chemical dependency problems are geared to men,” a center official said, “and even in coeducational treatment groups, women are more likely to focus on the men and stay locked into their traditional role of nurturing others and putting the needs of others before their own.” So a portion of the program and one wing of the center are designed just for women.
“In this program,” said the spokesman, “we emphasize the dangers of overmedication that women, especially upper-middle-class women, face. Too often their physicians prescribe pills when some other kind of therapy is called for—usually psychotherapy. And we try to train women to gear up for their own independence, how to eliminate anger, how to eliminate guilt over children, and general survival skills.
“The center was not designed to be a celebrity spa, and it really isn’t one. We have all kinds of people here, and they all follow the same general treatment program. But since so many celebrities have been coming here, we’ve tried to address their special needs. Living in the public eye creates special stresses and living with entourages where the celebrity is coddled and catered to are some of the things we try to address. We encourage them to stay in touch with ‘key people’ whenever they feel resolve waning, or circumstances overwhelming. That’s why you see them at parties with people who are there sometimes just to keep that resolve firm. It works.”
HOW THE BETTY FORD Center began to attract celebrities has something to do with how Mrs. Ford has helped transform the public’s perception about the nature of alcohol and drug treatment facilities.
In 1978, at the request of her family, Mrs. Ford entered the Naval Hospital, which had been treating naval alcoholics for 13 years. She didn’t enter as the result of a binge, or for detoxification, or even as an alcoholic. She issued a statement upon admission which said that as a result of years of muscle and nerve problems she “has been overmedicating herself.” She insisted she was not a drug or alcohol abuser, but merely “chemically dependent,” In her autobiography. The Times of My Life, she wrote, “For 14 years, I’d been on medications for pinched nerves, arthritis, and muscle spasms in my neck and I’d lost my tolerance for pills. If I had a single drink on top of the pills, it would make me groggy.”
SOME WEEKS LATER, sober and enlisted in Alcoholics Anonymous, she emerged from the hospital, determined to do something for people, especially women, who were similarly afflicted. She felt some bitterness against the medical profession for treating women with pills and shots, and toward society for encouraging vast amounts of social drinking. (She cites “magic martinis” served in the White House.) The Betty Ford Center was born.
Enter the redoubtable Elizabeth Taylor in late 1983. Like many celebrities who drink or use drugs, Taylor was hospitalized for treatment under a pretense. She was ostensibly admitted to a California hospital for “a bowel obstruction,” But during her stay she was persuaded by family and friends to enter the Betty Ford Center, The thought terrified her and her public relations staff until they talked things over with Betty Ford herself, who remains active as a counselor at the center. The message of the Betty Ford Center—“We are the abused, not really the abusers”— won Taylor over.
On December 5, 1983, Elizabeth Taylor checked into the Betty Ford Center. A press release was distributed that stated, “She selected the Betty Ford Center because she has great admiration for Betty Ford and believed her problem to be very similar to those experienced by Mrs. Ford in that much of her treatment stems from prescription drug administration over a period of years to combat her various medical problems. She expressed concern for the privacy of other patients undergoing treatment as well as for herself and hopes the press will respect the basic principles of the Center regarding the anonymity of all concerned.”
Most celebrities issued similar statements as they went into the center—even though many of them weren’t hooked on prescription drugs, but on street drugs like cocaine and heroin. It didn’t matter. They all qualified as victims.
Mrs. Ford and Taylor took recovery very seriously, and each, shortly after entering her program, gave up the prone posture of victim. Taylor no longer blamed medications. She said she was a drunk, “Not being a drunk is the only way I’m going to stay alive,” Taylor told The New York Times recently, “Drunk is a hard word, but I’ve had to be hard with myself to face it. A drunk is a drunk. Somebody who drinks too much is a drunk. Somebody that takes too many pills is a junkie. There’s not a polite way of saying it.” Addiction chic was born.
Hollywood, ever the home of trends, was fascinated by Taylor’s admission. “She made being a drunk into a sickness,” says a Beverly Hills PR man, “and she made it no sin to be sick.” Shortly after being released from the center, Taylor’s career took a turn for the better, especially on television. Along with cameos on the evening soap operas, she signed a $500,000 contract for a made-for-TV movie called Malice in Wonderland, in which she portrayed Louella Parsons, the Hollywood gossip who ruined the career of many a star by hinting in print at their liquor and drug problems.
And, not to neglect a point of paramount importance in Hollywood, she looked great. She lost 11 pounds in the center, and quickly lost 45 more. She began showing up at Michael Jackson concerts, at Prince concerts in a punk wig, on Broadway, and everywhere else. Other stars soon followed her to Betty’s door.
A friend of Liza Minnelli—who entered the clinic last summer—says Minnelli did so “because of the publicity that Liz Taylor got, I think people felt it was nothing to be ashamed of, Elizabeth Taylor looked better when she came out and she told people she was feeling good for the first time in years. I think that it was Liza’s feeling that it was O.K. to do it. It was not fashionable when Taylor did it, and Liza’s a follower, not a leader.”
Says one woman, a friend of a star who underwent therapy at the center with her friend, “The first thing I’d do in the morning is walk down the corridors of the three residential units to see ‘Who’s here today?’ It was like being at Ma Maison on Friday lunch.”
The other patients, wrestling with their problems and undergoing detoxification, were nonetheless star-struck. Some brought autograph books to the hospital, creating a difficult situation for a program where anonymity is a key principle of recovery.
Taylor solved the problem, though. Upon admission, each patient is given a volume called “The Blue Book,” a kind of “Lives and Acts of the Apostles” of Alcoholics Anonymous that contains brief biographies and memoirs by A.A. members about their struggles. The authors are identified by first or nickname only. Taylor inscribed the end papers of these books with a mere “Love, Elizabeth,” The patients cherish these volumes.
NOT ALL OF the patients who enter the Betty Ford clinic recover. At Taylor’s urging, Peter Lawford checked into the clinic. He told Hollywood reporter Malcolm Boyes soon afterward, “I really think Elizabeth saved my life by persuading me to check into the Betty Ford. Her entering there made a lot of people wake up to the fact that they had a problem ... myself included. There is a joke going around town at the moment that you’re nothing unless you’ve been to Betty Ford, But seriously, it is terrific that people like myself who do have a problem are facing it.”
Taylor also secured an acting job for Lawford, who was broke, in Malice in Wonderland. Lawford’s deal called for him to do two days’ work for $2,000, a pittance, but still cash. Six months later, just a day or two before he was to report for work, Lawford’s wife found him drinking vodka and smoking a joint. “He seemed terrified of going in front of the camera,” his wife told reporters. “When I found him he was completely out of it,” Lawford was treated at a hospital, and sent off to work. He collapsed on the set, and within a few days was dead.
“Stopping an addiction,” Taylor said in her New York Times interview after Lawford’s death, “is basically an ongoing process… Although the cure rate at Betty Ford is about 75 percent, it’s not like seven weeks there undoes years of drugs and alcohol. You have to re-create what you learned every day. Staying clean becomes a dedication. If you need to rekindle your promise, you have key people to call. Or you repeat the A.A. Serenity Prayer whenever you need to. And treatment at the center doesn’t always work, Peter Lawford was there the same time I was… He didn’t make it.”
But, upon his death, Lawford achieved something thousands in Hollywood aspire to. His sad story received massive magazine and TV coverage. Says a People magazine editor, “Right now that’s all you have to do to make the cover—enroll in the Betty Ford Center, or die within a few months of leaving. It’s a guaranteed cover. It’s that chic.”
This article originally ran in the July 8, 1985 issue of the magazine.