The crisis that erupted over the weekend with a report of Woody Herman's imminent eviction from his home (a situation that was resolved Tuesday) was many years in the making. More than 20 years have gone by since the big band leader unwittingly fell into a financial abyss that has only deepened with the decades, because of interest and penalties on the tax money he owes.
The last publicly released figure for Herman's indebtedness to the Internal Revenue Service was about $1.6 million. It is unknown, however, how much, if any, of that has been whittled away over the years.
Much of Herman's story has been well known in music circles since he told it to Gene Lees for use in his Jazzletter, a widely read monthly publication written and circulated by Lees, the critic and songwriter.
Following is an excerpt fromJazzletter, dated June, 1984: "Woody's manager for years was a corpulent diabetic ex-Marine . . . named Abe Turchin . . . we all loved Abe and said he had a heart of gold. And we all knew he gambled. But after all, it was his money. Or was it? For two years during the late 1960s, Abe gambled away the money Woody thought had been paid to the government for his income taxes. When the government stepped in, it was discovered that Abe hadn't filed withholding on the musicians, either.
"And Woody was held responsible for all of it. He came close to going to prison. And he has been paying those taxes ever since. He told Artie Shaw a year or two ago, 'I'll be on the road the rest of my life.' "
Herman's daughter, Ingrid Herman Reese, told much the same story. "The only inaccuracies," she says, "were that his name was Turchen, not Turchin, and there were three years, not two, for which taxes were not paid--1964, 1965 and 1966."
Turchen apparently died about three years ago. He is still listed in the Sioux City, Iowa, phone directory. A woman at his number who refused to identify herself said Wednesday that Turchen was "not responsible" for Herman's troubles. She said Turchen was dead. "Woody Herman knew what was going on," said the woman, who claimed she was Turchen's sister-in-law. "It's a big lie. Goodby.")
That Herman may have been victimized by careless management, does not, in the government's eyes, reduce his responsibility for the back taxes, however.
"His employees' money was not forwarded to us," said IRS spokesperson Lowell Langers. "It wasn't just a simple question of his own personal taxes."
So the IRS seized his four-bedroom, three-bath Hollywood Hills home and sold it for $99,800 in 1985 to satisfy some of that debt, Langers said.
Herman's family claims the house is now worth about $400,000. According to county records, Herman bought the house from actor Humphrey Bogart in 1946 for $56,000.
During his 1984 interview, critic Lees asked Herman how he had the courage to keep on in the light of his difficulties. Herman's answer was: "Two reasons. The first is my love of music. The second is that I have an overwhelming need to make a living."
Speaking of his debt to the IRS, he said: "It gets bigger. My lawyer is trying to get a settlement for once and for all, and I am hoping he will."
A figure behind the scenes is the prominent Washington lawyer Leonard Garment, who as a young man had played saxophone and worked briefly in the Woody Herman orchestra. Garment told this reporter Monday: "There are good lawyers working on this case and we are trying to have something worked out." Garment has been in direct contact with Ingrid Herman Reese.
Woody Herman's world today is short on finances and health but infinitely long on friendships. Ironically, the news about his latest trauma and the outpouring of sympathy it evoked, coupled with offers of assistance, brought about the first notable improvement in his condition and spirits. He was able to talk on the telephone to Frank Sinatra, and to express his gratitude to KKGO (the radio station whose owner, Saul Levine, offered to pay off the overdue rental debt of four months for $4,600) and others who had rallied to his side.
The station has already set up an account for an Oct. 23 Woody Herman Tribute at the Wadsworth Theatre. The account has substantially increased with almost $4,000 in contributions from listeners, said Jeff Gehringer, operations manager at the station.
Despite the outpouring of public support for the ailing Herman, the IRS has not been as sympathetic.
"It's not just a sudden thing. We're talking 20 years later," IRS spokesperson Langers said. "The fact that an individual may be a public figure and well loved can't figure into our considerations. The code is specific and we're required to collect the taxes."
When taxes are delinquent, the government can seize any money or property to pay off the debt, Langers said.