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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Irving Link, 90210

He's been rich, he's been poor. But, always, he's a gentleman--one of the last in Beverly Hills.

May 19, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He prepares for each day and its audiences like one of yesterday's grand dandies. Diamond links hold monogrammed French cuffs, one circling a yellow gold and lapis watch. The tie is Italian silk, the first of an edition limited to 12, which is why it cost $250. The white hair is styled daily, professionally, and no strand dares go astray. Ever.

"No. I don't think I have any of those," he says. He has just been asked, rather impertinently, if he ever wears T-shirts. "But I do have two pair of blue jeans. I wore a pair once."

Slim, calm, precise, ducal, polished, well-ordered and with one of those faces you can't quite place but know it used to be famous, he talks of friends invited to his approaching birthday party at the Peninsula Hotel. Names are dropped from a magnum Rolodex: former Sen. George Mitchell of Washington, D.C.; Mr. Tony Bennett of New York; Washington state Supreme Court Justice Charles Z. Smith; Ahmet Ertegun, who owns Atlantic Records; and Marvin Davis, who owns just about everything else.

"I once met Ari Onassis at a party at the Beau Rivage in Lausanne and he told me the three elements of a successful man," he remembers. There is no desire to impress, not a wisp of posturing in the telling. Or of using "Ari." "He said, 'Dress impeccably, have a good address and show a tan all year.' "

There are fade-free stories that add lingering mystique to this persona of a charming, wry and wily rascal whose only addresses for the past 50 years seem to have been the flamingo-pink Beverly Hills Hotel and the nouvelle-elegant Peninsula.

He testified against Jimmy Hoffa and was not reincarnated as a building slab. There were five-figure gin rummy games at the Friars Club in 1963 that crashed when the big loser found a peephole in the ceiling and some players wearing wires.

"These were trying times when I went from riches to rags," he remembers. It is not a comfortable memory. "I survived because I knew I'd done nothing wrong. I just got caught up, sucked in by the criminal activities of others."

And there, in three nutshells, is Irving V. Link, just days away from 90 and still an icon of when citizens of Beverly Hills paid $4,000 for a Cadillac convertible, $16,000 for a home and Rodeo Drive was residential.

He's also a youthful, gentle man glowing sans peur et sans reproche while bringing a moment of grace, manners and style to largely impolite, undignified and profane times.

That's why people, even the known and confident, seek admission to his court, to be touched by politesse: Because he's an escape, a salve that somehow, just for a moment, delivers us from what's out there, which is harsh and threatening.

Or as friend and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik says: He is our perception of the ideal grandfather. Or how grandfather would be if he left grandmother home.

"People . . . ask to meet Irving just so they can say they had at last met a man who has it all figured out," says Gopnik, now living in Paris. He sees Link as a true California type as much as any snazzy actor or wealthy courtesan. "He puts me in mind of some great performance piece. Irving is his own creation."

Richard Koshalek, director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, offers another take: "He exemplifies something important about Los Angeles, which is that the fragmentation of the city, which everyone always decries, also means that there are these remarkable subcultures all around, where people with very specific, amazing plumage flourish."

Despite Link's vivid plumage, he is not filthy rich. Like most his age, Link relies on his Social Security check each month.

He did not inherit wealth, nor was he reared in a fine home. His father, a card-playing Talmudic scholar and rabbi, performed his own circumcisions on his sons to save money. The family of 10 was submerged in $18-a-month apartments in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

He did not attend Harvard Business School, but PS184 on New York's 116th Street, and the High School of Commerce.

So he chose to invent himself.

"What I have become is really available to anybody," Link says. It helps, he agrees, to have looks that fall somewhere between Douglas Fairbanks and David Niven. Also to being stuck with a slender, 145-pound build since puberty. "But achievement is a matter of individuals crafting themselves into what they want to be, of developing physical and mental skills--and people skills.

"I'm not skillful at much. I'm not a student of many things. I had very little schooling and can't create anything with my hands. But the one think I do have is people skills. I can sell. I know about luck and opportunity and making friends. And I've always been exactly who I wanted to be."

According to those friends, he's a man who believes religion comes from the heart, not from visiting a church. They say his emotional strength is rooted in a strong family, his children and grandchildren, and loyalty to all.

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