by RIP RENSE
Oct. 19, 2005
Steel gray hair. Straight, just combable. Green sunglasses. Green
cigar. Black eyebrows headed for collision. Gray or brown suit jacket,
perhaps plaid shirt, nondescript slacks, shoes. Not natty, not ratty. About
five-feet-five. Economical features. And that voice, a sharp report that
made heads turn.
It was his call. A kind
of New Yorky squawk that more or less meant, “know what I mean?” It came
between sentences, between words, perhaps all by itself. “Hear it, and you
knew Gene Vier was near.
I’m not sure exactly what
Gene Vier was, but then, I’m not sure exactly what I am, either. He was a
newspaperman, among other things, and maybe newspapermen are people who were
meant to be something else but found working with words easier.
Gene was a tennis coach
at one time, and wrote a fine book about the game, “Tennis: Myth and
Method,” with former champion Ellsworth Vines. He had some beat-scene,
activist tendencies, and was on hand to cheer the L.A. Free
Press into existence in the mid-60's. His father and grandfather taught
philosophy at the Sorbonne, and Gene looked perfectly fit for the job,
himself. His speaking manner
was more "Front Page," though---direct as an old wire service machine, and sometimes he’d get so excited at
what he was saying that he would raise his voice and poke you in the chest
with delight, grinning.
I’d say he was
absent-minded, but I think it was more busy-minded. There is a legend
that he inspired Peter Falk’s characterization of Columbo, the detective
with rumpled clothing and seemingly rumpled mind. (Falk has variously
confirmed and denied it.) I’ll say this: I like Falk, and I like Columbo,
but Vier would have been better. He did irksome, irascible,
and ingratiating without acting.
Gene either recognized you as a kindred spirit, a
worthwhile soul, or walked by.
I’m not sure I’m the best
person to write about the guy, as I didn’t know him well, but I think he
needs writing about, and I’m not sure anyone else will bother. So. . .
I knew Gene on and off
for about thirty years, now that I do the shocking tally. And “on and off”
is an apt term, because he would sort of appear in your life from time to
time, then vanish for years on end. I think this is because he was extremely
busy appearing in other people’s lives, and then vanishing from them for
years on end.
A hell of a lot of people
in Los Angeles were acquainted with Gene. As opposed to knowing him. I
always thought he was essentially private, somehow, despite being a gadabout
who haunted Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood for decades, apparently knowing
everybody who was ever anybody, from Jerry Brown to Tom Waits and Charles
When I met him, Gene was
one of the “rim-rats,” or copy editors (they sat around a horseshoe shaped
copy desk known as the “rim”) at the Valley News in Van Nuys. He’d landed
there in the mid-70’s, somehow, after the New York Times (Paris edition),
Guardian of London, and the L.A. Times (rumor had it that he was ousted for
using Otis Chandler’s shower, or was it sleeping on his sofa?) There were a
bunch of old boys with distinguished newspaper resumes on that rim, putting
in their last stints in the racket. A lot of them drank, and drank a lot.
But Gene was not
exactly of their ilk. Not part of the hell-with-it, seen-it-all,
booze-and-cigarettes-for-lunch-bunch. He was too pissed off at, or too
interested in, the world. I fondly recall how he took special interest in
poisoning the minds of impressionable young reporters and editors with all
manner of idealistic and subversive notions.
No wonder there were a
lot of young people at his funeral last week, after cancer escorted him out
after 80 years. It’s fitting, and Gene would have just loved it. He had no
children of his own, and I suppose that fueled his generosity of spirit
towards one-time pups like me.
Long after I left the
Valley News for more soiled pastures, you see, Gene checked in from time to
time. Once or twice a year, the phone would ring, and that barking voice
would force my ear back from the receiver an inch: “Rip? It’s Gene. . .So
the problem with the L.A. Times is, hah, that Otis didn’t---Otis is a nice
guy, see, hah, but. . ." There would be rashers of Vier calls, sometimes
four or five in a week, then nothing for months, or years. And yet. . .
You’d run into people who
knew him, or had seen him. And then you’d run into the man, himself. I once
found him playing tennis on a court beside me, and he took a few minutes to
correct my backstroke, which was a lost cause. The last time I saw him was
about a year ago, at the Nuart Theater in West L.A.. He had taken a bus from
his home in Hollywood to see “Touchez Pas au Grisbi,” a great old Jean Gabin
I sidled up next to
him on the way out, said, “Hi, Gene,” and he began talking to me
immediately with great intensity about Gabin and the film, as if we were
picking up a conversation from the other day at the Valley News. The other
day, 30 years ago. I drove him home, despite his protests that a bus was
fine, and joined him for dinner at some Italian joint that he had lately
affixed himself to.
Maybe that’s what he
did---he affixed himself to you. You were either with him, or agin
him, just like the Bush “war on terror.” Gene either recognized you as a
kindred spirit, a worthwhile soul, or walked by. He liked you for his own
reasons, the way he liked restaurants or films. I suspect they had to do
So he asked for a copy of
my novel that night, and I sent it to him. He’s actually in it---in a
“cameo” based on a real incident that I witnessed at the Valley News in
which Vier, just a wee bit fed up with learning a new computer system,
suddenly stood, kicked his chair out behind him, spat all over the computer
screen, and yelled, “you dog-f---er!”
Thus earning my
About three months after
the Nuart night, I found about a five-minute message on my answering
machine: Gene telling me what he liked about the book, and what he didn’t
like. He was spot-on in all observations, but I’m still going to write
another one, anyway.
I tried calling him back,
but never reached him.
Which, I guess, is how it
will be from now on. No more calls from Gene to see “how are ya, hah?”
A mutual pal from the
old Valley News sent me an e-mail informing of Gene’s passing, saying “I
hope he rests in peace.” Well, I don’t think anybody does much of anything
after they die, let alone rest, and I wrote this response:
“I think he rested in
peace to a great extent in his life. He seemed very happy being Gene Vier,
mystery muse, tennis expert, quasi-subversive, cosmopolitan journalist.”
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