Friday, April 15, 2016

The Hollywood Scandal that Sparked "The Gatsby Game"

Usually writers search for a story. We often find inspiration in news stories. Or sometimes a story springs entirely from our own imaginations.

But sometimes the story finds us.

And won't let us go until we write it.

That's what happened with my comic suspense novel, The Gatsby Game, which is based on a real unsolved Hollywood mystery—one that personally touched my life.

When I was in college, I dated a man named David Whiting—an odd duck who seemed to live in his own private F. Scott Fitzgerald-fantasy world.

A couple of years later, he was found dead in actress Sarah Miles' motel room during the filming of the Burt Reynolds movie, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.

It was a huge scandal—which has been called one of the 10 Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History. Some people in the media even accused Reynolds of murder. Most people suspected suicide or an overdose. But the forensic evidence wasn't conclusive. The coroner finally ruled it an accident.

I was out of the U.S. when it happened, but when I got back, I researched everything I could find on his death. I could tell I knew things about David most people didn't—he once said I was the only person who really knew him—and I've always had a strong theory about what happened that night, but his death remains unsolved.

For decades, I mulled over the story, unsure of how to write about it. But when I was in England promoting my first novel, Food of Love, I came across Sara Miles' autobiography in a used bookstore, read the chapters about David, and the seeds of a novel began to grow.

David had been a true "ladies' man"—with few male friends—who collected A-list girlfriends the way Carrie Bradshaw collected Manolos. He wasn't wildly handsome, and his phoniness was over the top, but somehow he always ended up with some supermodel or movie star on his arm. He showed me photos of himself with Jane Fonda and Carroll Baker.

He made it clear from the beginning that I wasn't A-list enough to be serious girlfriend material. That was OK with me. We didn't have the term "friends with benefits" in those days, but that would have described our relationship.

I dated him mostly because I found him hilarious. Every date was a piece of performance art.

Because I wasn't emotionally into him, I thought his ways of sneaking into my room and rearranging things—or leaving odd tokens—was funny. And when he'd deny something I knew very well to be true, I'd laugh. I hadn't yet seen the classic film Gaslight or been aware of how manipulative and terrifying "Gaslighting" can be to a vulnerable person.

It wasn't until I read Sarah Miles' book that I realized how David hooked his prey. He used the weapon so many abusers do—self-pity. (I've recently heard this kind of person called a "crybully.")

He made women feel sorry for him and want to protect him. At the same he would make himself indispensable, taking care of mundane things like booking hotels and getting the best table at posh restaurants. He was like a little boy trying to earn approval from a narcissistic mother. (Which is exactly what he was. His mother's actions seemed cruel and self-absorbed.)

My characters are fictional, and I'm not sure what Ms. Miles would make of the character of Delia Kent, the movie star who befriends—and then is almost destroyed by—the Fitzgerald-obsessed con man I call Alistair Milborne.

The heroine is entirely fictional, but was inspired by a line I read in an Esquire article about David's death: Ron Rosenbaum's piece called A Corpse as Big as the Ritz. He mentioned that the local sheriff always suspected Miss Miles' nanny—who had been dating David at the time—had been responsible for his death.

The nanny wasn't given a name, but I made her a smart-mouthed Ivy Leaguer who was only semi-attached to David the way I had been. I gave her a messy family background of privilege, because Alistair, like David, is devoted to social climbing.

Then I paid homage to the narrator of The Great Gatsby—Nick Carraway—and called my heroine Nicky Conway. I don't know if any readers will get that, but it was fun for me. The story is not dissimilar to Jay Gatsby's: Alistair is a social climber who worships a class that will never accept him.

The real villain of the piece is the character I call "the Gorgon": Alistair's neglectful, narcissistic mother. I made her an aging gold-digger. I have no idea if David's real mother was anything like the Gorgon. I only visited her house once—a mansion in Arlington VA. David called it "Mother's house"—not his—and said she was away "on the Riviera" and wouldn't let me touch anything.

All the furniture was draped in dust covers and the place felt creepy. Especially since David himself was living in a tiny room off the kitchen. A maid's room. I thought then that perhaps his mother was actually a servant in the house. But I realized years later there was a strong possibility he and his mother didn't live there at all and he had simply broken in and was squatting to pretend to have posh background.

Nobody will ever know what really killed David, or why nobody claimed his body. My story is a fictional exploration of what might have happened to this tragi-comic, self-deluded con man who touched my own life such a long time ago.

This piece first appeared on Donna Hole's blog in 2012. Her old blog has mysteriously been taken over by an Indonesian herbal company (who actually use her name for their rather elegant logo—very strange) But she has a new blog under the name Dolorah. Donna/Dolorah...Thanks for letting me guest post for you!

The Gatsby Game, my fictionalized version of David Whiting's story is only 99c at all the Amazons for one more week. 

A paper version is available for $10.99 at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The ebook is available for $2.99 at Barnes and Noble for NOOKInktera and Kobo. It's also available at Scribd

When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead a movie star's motel room—igniting a worldwide scandal—the small-town police can't decide if it's an accident, suicide, or foul play.

As evidence of murder emerges, Nicky Conway, the smart-mouth nanny, becomes the prime suspect. She's the only one who knows what happened. But she also knows nobody will ever believe her.

The story is based on the real mystery surrounding the death of David Whiting, actress Sarah Miles' business manager, during the filming of the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.


  1. Sounds like a fantastic novel with many twists and turns. Adding it to my TBR pile. Thanks for sharing the story behind the book.

  2. The "pity ploy" is a classic sociopathic/psychopathic tip off. They use the woe-is-me approach to ensnare their victims. They're also referred to as "crybullies." A nasty, treacherous type to stay far away from! I'm glad you kept your distance *and* that you got a fabulous book out of the experience!

    Thanks for mention of my blog on the Big Blog! Everything from Suzy Chapstick and the Fonz to panty girdles and garter belts. ;-)

    1. Ruth--I just heard that term "crybullies" this week. I was a sucker for them for much of my life. NO more!

      LOVE your blogpost this week. Nostalgia can be awfully funny!