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AL MARTINEZ

A Tale of Two Women

December 16, 1989|AL MARTINEZ

Bonnie Fleming and Stella Benson aren't even remotely alike. You won't meet them at the same party, the same clothing store or even in the same supermarket.

One is Burbank, the other Beverly Hills. One is show biz, the other workaday world.

But they share a tenacity of spirit that increasingly characterizes the unwillingness of women to simply adorn the world in silence.

They challenged the Establishment as sad and angry human beings and their efforts haven't been in vain.

Bonnie Fleming is the daughter of Warren Cowan, whose Beverly Hills-based Rogers & Cowan is probably the most influential public relations firm in the entertainment industry.

Her sister, Linda, was killed by a drunk driver who was ultimately sentenced to six months in jail. Without Bonnie's persistence, he wouldn't have gotten that.

Even so, she refuses to let the misbalanced moment of crime and punishment go unnoticed. In show biz, you fight back with the weapons at hand. In this case, a movie of the week.

Stella Benson isn't the real name of the second woman. She insists on anonymity, but her determination to save the home she has occupied for almost 50 years celebrates the dignity of individual effort in a mass society.

Stella's small stucco house, boxed in on three sides by multistoried apartment buildings under construction, is as clear a symbol of resistance as a bald eagle screaming freedom.

Fleming is an attractive, dark-haired woman with an intensity that drives you to the wall. You stand back a little when Fleming talks, wary of all the energy flashing through the room.

"I don't want vengeance," she said the other day, leaning across the coffee table of an expensive hillside home she had just purchased. "James Payne is a nice boy who happened to have killed my sister. He cried when he looked at her picture.

"But kill her he did, and the case was almost dismissed because it was night and Linda was jaywalking. I couldn't let that happen. The penalty for jaywalking ought to be a ticket, not death."

Linda Cowan, 43, was a gifted graphic artist whose quiet strength guided Bonnie through a difficult year of divorce. They were a close family, and Linda was a special friend.

As Fleming followed the case, she saw an original charge of manslaughter reduced to drunk driving, and other factors mitigating against Payne dismissed as irrelevant. It was as though Linda's death itself was being labeled irrelevant.

Fleming hired a lawyer, built her own file on the case and went after the prosecuting attorney. Through sheer persistence, she at least succeeded in getting the maximum sentence for 26-year-old Payne, who pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.

"It isn't over," she said in a manner that left no room for debate. "I'm not done with the system. This was not a little case that happens every day. This was my sister."

Fleming has already held discussions at a major television studio for a movie of the week based on the fatal accident.

"I want the story told," she said. "I want the system exposed. I want Linda's death to matter. "

Stella Benson lives alone in the small stucco house, the last of her family to occupy it. Unmarried, she once lived there with her mother and sister, but both have since died. Only memories remain.

"My mother planted that as a seedling," she said, gesturing toward an avocado tree that towered over us. "I'm not going to give that up."

We were in the back yard of her house on a busy Burbank thoroughfare. Benson is a solid, no-nonsense woman in her 70s. She was born in Dixie and, she says, the rebel spirit still burns in her soul.

In the back of her house and on either side, three-story apartment buildings are under construction, rising around her like prison walls. The slamming of hammers and the screeching of saws turn a quiet day into calamity.

"This is my home," Benson said, "and I'm not going to give it up. The man building these things may have a dream about what he wants to do, but I have a dream, too. That dream is to stay right here."

They offered her $225,000 for her house, she says, and she told them to go to hell. When they persisted, she hired a lawyer who warned them to leave her alone.

I can't tell you exactly where the house is because Benson wants no publicity on it. That's too bad. She deserves a medal.

But if you're driving through Burbank someday and you see a little green stucco house surrounded by towering apartment buildings, honk your horn for Stella Benson.

And think of Bonnie Fleming, too.

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