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Living Large in the 'Bimbo Vortex'

How Nerdy Norm Zadeh Became Popular With the Gold-Digging Set and Found His Tortured Version of Paradise. An Excerpt From a New Book About Beverly Hills.

March 16, 2003|David Weddle | This article is excerpted from David Weddle's book "Among the Mansions of Eden: Tales of Love, Lust and Land in Beverly Hills," to be published March 18 by William Morrow. He last wrote for the magazine about "The Lost Boys of Sudan."

Ashley leaps into a momentary silence. "He was the most beautiful little boy you've ever seen, if you see his fifth-grade pictures."

Norm's eyes snap back at the recollection of the cataclysm that drove him from that Eden. "Dad had a semi-sabbatical at MIT. I had to leave my incredibly popular situation." He was yanked out of school and enrolled in a private school in Cambridge, Mass. Norm had to skip from seventh to eighth grade to gain admittance. He passed the necessary tests and threw himself into his studies, earning straight A's. How did his father reward him? "I was just reaching puberty and my dad said, 'You know, the idiot is actually not doing that bad. Let's leave him here.' "

Lotfi had to attend to some duties at Berkeley and wanted Fay to come with him. But he didn't want to take Norm out of school again--so Lotfi arranged for his son to stay with an MIT professor and his family to finish the school year. "After the first three days I could sense this family didn't want me around," Norm explains. "I'm sitting there and I have to stay with them for four months, so I went from being an extrovert to an introvert right during puberty."

Four months later, he returned to California, but he was stuck into high school classes where everyone was a year older. No matter how hard he tried, he was never able to get back in sync with his peers. "I was a complete outcast. I did not go to any high school dance. It was brutal."

Before relating each anecdote, Norm says, "I'll tell you another cute story." But they are never cute; they always turn out to be another installment in his adolescent parade of horrors. The time he got drunk to work up the nerve to ask a girl to a dance, only to be turned down. Then the first time he tried to make out with a girl. "It was a complete fiasco. And she married somebody else the next week." The very next week? In Norm's mind, that's exactly what happened.

Beneath his self-loathing, a hatred built up for all of the beautiful ones who had grown taller and stronger; for his father, whom he felt had abandoned him; for the world itself that never made a place for him. And so he began to seek vengeance, in crafty, covert ways such as poker. He had his father's facility with figures and easily outplayed most of his contemporaries. With a deck of cards, he lured them onto his turf. Wanna play for money? How much you got on ya? He stripped them of their allowance in one sitting, and when that was gone he took their Playboys.

Playboy! As he leafed through it, he discovered the long-forgotten lane to paradise. Others had managed to get there. The parties at the Playboy Mansion with Robert Culp, Tony Curtis, Clint Eastwood, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Cosby and Peter Lawford sauntering in pajamas through supple tangles of long-legged Bunnies, shaking it up on the dance floor, prancing through the gardens, and always by the end of the evening plunging into the mists of the grotto. And hovering above them was Hef, in a silk bathrobe with pipe in hand, an airbrushed Dionysian demigod, smiling beatifically at what he had created.

Hugh Hefner perfected the bachelor in paradise lifestyle, but he certainly didn't originate it. A long procession of starlets made the pilgrimage to Charlie Chaplin's boudoir, and John Gilbert and John Barrymore threw legendary orgiastic parties. Howard Hughes developed the assembly line approach when he bought RKO Pictures in 1948. The dashing multimillionaire/aviator had already dated virtually every major female star in Hollywood, but now he had the machinery of an entire movie studio at his disposal to funnel a steady stream of ambitious lovelies to his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. All he had to do was dangle a contract in front of their fame-hungry eyes.

Hefner could not hope to match the scale of Hughes' operation, but Hefner refined the conceit into a complete way of life. He showed millions of American men that it's possible to build a self-enclosed pleasure dome, a realm of pure sensual delights, intoxicating tastes and textures, charismatic friends and endless frivolity.

By the century's end, Playboy had acquired a certain respectability, thanks to a rash of raunchy magazine imitators and the hard-core pornography pumped into American homes via cable and satellite, which made Hef's fare look staid by comparison. The Playboy corporation had become a valued source of tax revenue for the city of Beverly Hills and a prominent civic booster that sponsored jazz concerts and cultural events and made sizable contributions to local charities.

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