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ZAN THOMPSON

The Force Is Still With Joe and Dee

February 27, 1992

When I first met Joe and Dee Wambaugh at the home of Phyllis and Jess Marlow, I thought Joe was Irish. That's because he looks like my cousins. He has that West of Ireland face with high cheekbones.

Dee Wambaugh is a charmer. She's a pretty woman, and the kind of person you would have been lucky to have as a best friend in the fourth grade, and would still treasure.

The Wambaughs were high school sweethearts.

I recently had dinner with the couple after not seeing them for about 10 years.

They're getting ready to start a new house up the mountain, where the lights of Palm Springs will be at their feet. Now they live in Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County.

They have two dogs, Fannie, a schnauzer, and Jake a golden retriever. Fannie is a big girl; she weighs 93 pounds and eats the same maintenance diet as Peaches, for dogs that are, well, too fat.

Fannie always gets what she wants, Joe says.

Joe Wambaugh was a Los Angeles police officer from 1960 to 1974. During those years, he took an English major at Cal State Los Angeles.

After earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in the late '60s, and after his first blockbuster book, he left the force. "It was a big decision," Dee said, "giving up his security as a policeman and walking away from his pension."

But Joe was on his way. He had a string of 12 bestsellers, now 13 with "Fugitive Nights," published in January.

The Wambaughs are levelheaded about success. "When I was a cop we used to eat in the kitchen of the Cove," Joe said.

"The Cove was a posh restaurant at the side of the Ambassador Hotel. When I had a bestseller, the maitre'd at the Cove welcomed me with a great flourish.

"I said, 'Oh, I've eaten here many times.' The maitre'd said, 'Oh, no. I would have remembered.' I said, 'I was a cop and your staff let me eat in the kitchen. Maybe that's why you don't remember me.' "

I told Joe I'd always thought he was Irish.

"I'm three-quarters Irish," he said.

I learned his paternal grandparents came from Ross Muck in County Goway, just a few miles from my grandfather's home at Clifden.

Joe said he had Joyce relatives, and I said, "Hello cousin. My maiden name was Joyce."

The Wambaughs have had three houses in Newport Beach, three in San Marino and a place in the desert for several years.

In Newport, they lived on Linda Isle, a golden piece of land where about a hundred houses have a float and a dock for a back yard.

Joe said, "While we lived on Linda Isle, there was an Irish bartender named Mike Cullen from Dublin who worked at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club and made the world's most perfect mai-tai.

"We used to take our little boat and go across the channel to the club, tie up the boat to the club dock and go in. I'm sure everyone thought we were club members. We'd have a couple of drinks and go back across the channel."

"We were never members," Dee said. "We were just mai-tai fanciers and friends of Mike Cullen's."

San Marino had its domestic adventures too. "When we lived in San Marino we had a koi pond worth hundreds of dollars," Joe said.

"We also had some corner-store goldfish. One night a bunch of raccoons had a luau and ate all the koi, not touching their poor relatives the goldfish," Joe said.

"Of course, these were very selective San Marino raccoons, you understand," Dee said.

Joe still spends time with cops. "I like to be with them, hear the way they talk." He says cynicism is their occupational disease.

Dee types the final versions of Joe's books. She tried to get Joe to use a word processor, but he doesn't want one. It takes him about three months to write a book, and he is totally alone with the manuscript seven days a week when he is writing.

I asked, "Do you know what your next book will be when you're writing the one in the typewriter?"

Dee said, "When he's writing, he's looking for the end of that one."

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