Dec. 1, 1987, was one of the worst days of Ben Stein's life. That was the day Joan Rivers tearfully announced that she was slapping a $50-million libel suit on Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine and Bert Hacker, the pseudonym of the writer who penned the piece about her.
Ben Stein, you see, is Bert Hacker.
"You can say I wrote a draft of the story," he says in his Beverly Hills office.
The night after Rivers' announcement, Stein was lying in bed with his wife and dogs ("We sleep with all four dogs in bed with us"), still wound up.
"I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the civil rights movement," he recalls. "A lot of time. And I said to Alex--that's my wife--'Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.' " He sings it defiantly, his brow furrowed.
"Do you know that one? So we started singing, 'Ain't gonna let Joan Rivers turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.' And we sang civil rights songs till about 3 in the morning.
"And I think to myself when I'm feeling really low, like when I was served with my complaint, we are not ashamed, we shall not be moved, we shall overcome. I think the whole country should draw strength from the example of the civil rights movement. I certainly do.
"I love to sing, by the way."
In an interview done against his lawyer's wishes, but which he taped in compliance with his lawyer's demand, Stein admits that Bert Hacker was his pseudonym. The GQ article titled "Big Hearts, Little Pizzas" that triggered the suit has made the December issue a hot item.
"I have known Joan Rivers for more than 20 years," began the first-person account that allegedly quotes Rivers complaining bitterly about her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, before and after his suicide last August.
'He Makes Me Crazy'
"I think things are just about finished with Edgar," Rivers was quoted as saying to the author of the article. "Since (Twentieth Century Fox chairman Barry) Diller ended my show, he's been all over my case like a maniac. . . . Listen, when I think of the way he makes me crazy, I really wonder if they didn't execute the wrong Rosenbergs."
Later in the piece, the author said Rivers was on the phone with her publicist negotiating for a People magazine cover after her husband's death. " 'I want either a firm yes or a firm no,' Joan said. 'I've done a lot of crappy stuff for People that I didn't want to do. They owe me this one. Who's got a bigger story this week?' "
Rivers called the piece a "total pack of evil, vicious, sick lies" in her press conference, where she also demanded a full retraction. "On the night that the article claims I had dinner with the author in Los Angeles, I was not in Los Angeles," she said. "I was not even in the United States. Unfortunately, I was in the emergency room of a hospital in Dublin with my late husband, Edgar Rosenberg, because he had been taken ill during the night."
At the time of her press conference, the author's identity was unknown, so Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, offered a $5,000 reward to the first person to reveal the name. Three days later, when the lawsuit was filed, Stein's name had been added.
In his new office, with his "beautiful assistant Ann Marie" sitting on the sofa, Stein is willing to talk about the suit. But before he does, he announces, "I have to do this for 60 seconds." He pulls off his glasses, closes his eyes and gently rests his head on his desk.
"I learned that when I was in kindergarten," he says upon rising. "I have nap time in my house, and now since I've bought this"--he points to the beige sofa--"I lie on it. And I do not get any starlets coming in here. And if I did, I'd make them leave because I have to write."
Opening a desk drawer, he pulls out a box of cough drops, a bottle of aspirin, a jar of Vitamin C and some antihistamine capsules, pops a Pine Bros. honey cough drop ("These are my favorite") and begins his monologue on the Rivers case. It is done in an italics-punctuated nasal drone unique to Ben Stein. His speech pattern earned him cult status in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" as the economics teacher whose lectures turn his students into catatonic zombies. To hear him is to know him.
What She Is Saying Is ...
"Essentially what Joan Rivers is saying in this lawsuit is, Yes, I am a famous comedian. Yes, I have been spending all my adult life saying to people, come look at me, make jokes. Yes, many of those jokes are about dead people. Yes, many of them are about my husband. And yes, I told a number of jokes about my husband after he was dead. But I didn't tell these specific jokes. Because these specific ones went a little too far and I didn't tell these.