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A Higher Calling?

Businessman and Police Commission President Rick Caruso Has a Vision for Los Angeles, and He's Mulling Whether to Carry It Out From the Mayor's Office

May 04, 2003|Miles Beller | Miles Beller last wrote for the magazine about the making of the Lawrence Bridges film "12." He is co-editor of "American Datelines: Major News Stories from Colonial Times to the Present" (University of Illinois Press, 2003).

In dress and in carriage, Rick Caruso seems an emissary from another era, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age Jay Gatsby, a romantic contradiction of strength and insecurity. Here is a multimillionaire real estate developer who is paid a buck a year for serving as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Here is a bottom-line guy who wants to experience life as an artist, to be a creative force free of convention and routine. Here is a Gatsby for our time--an insider who often feels like an outsider, a polished professional who operates as if he continually has something to prove.

At 44, Caruso is thin and fit, with piercing dark eyes and a preternatural year-round tan. He favors Brioni suits and shirts from Turnbull & Asser, while his drink of choice runs to Chivas Regal and his taste in cars to the opulent, with an armada that includes a Bentley and a Mercedes. Given Caruso's high-gloss image, he initially can come across as self-absorbed as well as self-assured.

This duality is evident when Caruso stops by his newest shopping dominion--the Grove at Farmers Market--and is royally received, the staff greeting him with awe and anxiety. Caruso, impeccably dressed, is ever polite, ever friendly. But he clearly expects to be treated deferentially, to be the focus of attention in his own Magic Kingdom.

While some critics hold that the Grove emits an eerie vibe redolent of "The Truman Show"--the American Dream locked on eternal replay--large crowds are packing this open-air consumer village of retro-Americana. The Grove reflects Caruso's ardent re-creation of Los Angeles as a safe, harmonious place where children frolic, families stroll arm in arm and the city runs with the smooth, clockwork efficiency of Disneyland.

You see, Caruso believes that he knows how to make Los Angeles a better place, and he is now seriously weighing whether he might best effect that change as mayor of the city. At this point, it is a private debate. Indeed, Caruso has the money and ambition to mount a serious campaign. But the struggle between the private family man and the emerging public figure is a volatile dynamic. Like Gatsby, Caruso often seeks solitude, looking to retreat to a place deep within himself. Yet, like Walt Disney, one of Caruso's personal heroes, he loves the big showy gesture, the over-the-top orchestrated public spectacle that generates a big bang and puts him at the center of things. It is this uneasy alliance--an urge to serve harnessed to a desire to control--that both drives Caruso and gives rise to self-doubt and skepticism.

I first met Rick Caruso seven years ago, when our sons were in kindergarten together. Though Caruso initially came across as distant, I once helped him with a speech, without pay or obligation, and discovered complexities and contradictions, his nature sometimes at war with itself. Sentimental one minute, seditious the next, Caruso likes to laugh and does not mind a joke at his own expense. Yet even at his most exuberant you catch those moments where he retreats. But, like Gatsby, Caruso can be a loner who craves fellowship. His baronial Westside home--a 10,000-square-foot mansion filled with such architectural elements as stone fireplaces from a French chateau--is the scene of many extravagant parties. Invitees might include former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, action-adventure star and possible gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who once parked himself at Caruso's piano with a glass of Scotch and played standards deep into the night.

"We were a close family," Caruso remarks when asked to consider his formative years as a middle child, two years younger than sister Christina, 10 years older than brother Marc. To track Rick Joseph Caruso's past is to find a man in a hurry. A 1980 USC graduate with honors who enthusiastically indulged in fraternity life, Caruso received his law degree from Pepperdine in 1983. It was his father, Hank, who made sure this son became a lawyer. "I was told, 'You will go to law school.' I didn't want to go," recalls Caruso, settling in his study, a relatively small room dominated by a large wall of books. "I wanted to get my MBA. And he said, 'No, you're going to law school.' "

In the family pantheon, Hank Caruso, 81, is the bar against which all is measured. The son of an Italian immigrant, he started out by selling used autos and then built a dynasty of hugely profitable new car dealerships. Along the way, he married Gloria Restagno, and in the 1950s became somewhat of a local celebrity, starring in his own TV commercials and newspaper ads. But in 1957 a grand jury indicted him and several employees based on testimony by buyers who alleged that they had been defrauded. Hank pleaded guilty, and after a series of motions to change his plea, a judge handed down a suspended sentence.

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