• Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Shortly before Christmas 1990, a literary agent asked if I wanted to write a book about Betty Broderick. I had spent many hours talking to Betty in the spring and summer of 1988, back when she was merely a wrathful divorcée. With reporter Paul Krueger, I also had interviewed Dan Broderick and others involved in the Broderick melodrama. Eventually Krueger and I wrote an 8500-word chronicle of the Brodericks’ divorce. Then, shortly before the piece was scheduled to run, Dan Broderick informed us he would sue for invasion of privacy if the story were printed, his earlier cooperation notwithstanding. So we didn’t publish the article until after the morning Betty killed Dan and his second wife Linda. I then updated and rewrote the piece to run 11 days after the shootings, on November 16, 1990. At that point, I knew as much about the Broderick case as any reporter.

Broderick wedding. They wrote a promise to each other to remain married for "at least fifty years."

Broderick wedding. They wrote a promise to each other to remain married for "at least fifty years."

Until the Twelfth of Never

But I never did go on to write a Broderick book. When the agent rushed a copy of my article to New York publishers, a dozen of them told her that the subject didn’t merit book-length attention. “The study of Elisabeth’s obsession is just not strong enough, not intriguing enough, to carry it through,” concluded an Atlantic Monthly Press editor. “It’s not high profile enough for us to be able to publish a book on it successfully,” wrote Warner Books. A woman at Crown Books declared in her rejection letter, “The potential of this story eludes me completely.... Betty Broderick appears so totally nuts that it is impossible to even be sympathetic towards her.” “Folks around here think they’ve seen it all in the true crime department,” explained the Doubleday representative who turned down the idea.

One person did react with excitement, an editor at Simon & Schuster named Claire Zion. She was ready to champion the story. But Zion discovered that another woman within her publishing house, Judith Regan, was already talking to a creative writing professor from USD named Dennis Clausen about writing the Broderick story. Within a few weeks, Clausen began to worry about lawsuits that a Broderick book might attract, and he backed out of the project. Regan then turned to Bella Stumbo, at the time one of the most respected correspondents for the Los Angeles Times.

Stumbo eventually signed a contract with Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books division, and I’ve always been grateful that the contract went to her, not me. Her 546-page book, arriving in stores this week, may, just possibly, be the final word on the Brodericks. But it’s been preceded by two other books, two television docudramas, many national magazine articles, and specials by both Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey. Stumbo began working on her book with the expectation that it would take no more than a year to complete. “I had a yearlong book leave [from the Times]. And then Betty gets a hung jury! I felt like somebody’d knocked me through the eyes,” Stumbo grumbled in a recent interview. “No resolution for another entire year!”

Stumbo’s reputation as a flamboyant and aggressive journalist could never be deduced from her physical appearance. She’s a slender woman who will turn 50 this fall, but her glossy chestnut hair, worn shoulder-length, makes her look younger. On the day I met with her at the clubby Pacific Dining Car restaurant just west of downtown L.A., she arrived dressed in blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a red blazer and joked about the bathrobes she had worn out while laboring over her book. As we talked, she kept her package of Basic cigarettes close at hand.

Raised in a small Colorado town, Stumbo got two degrees in government, then earned a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University in 1967. By 1971 she’d won a position on the staff of the Los Angeles Times. There she rose from covering fashion shows to writing feature stories for the “View” section. Later, in the 1980s, as a national correspondent (a post that afforded her a coast-to-coast range of journalistic pickings), she produced scorching takes on Jerry Brown’s late chief of staff B.T. Collins, on the Coors brothers of Colorado, on Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich. Most sensational was Stumbo’s 1990 profile of Marion Barry, in which the then-mayor of Washington D.C. flaunted his sexual appetites and drug use and, more damning still, let slip stunningly indiscreet comments about Jesse Jackson.

The Times released that 5500-word bombshell in January of 1990. Within a few weeks, Stumbo heard from Regan at Simon & Schuster about the Broderick project. The newspaper reporter liked the idea of turning book writer, but she felt unsure about the subject matter, she says, “because it sounded to me like just another traditional triangle story.” She suggested that Pocket Books pay her expenses while she checked into it. The publisher agreed, and Stumbo began visiting San Diego that spring.

She says she brought with her few biases as to how she would approach the story. Like so many women who would eventually write about Betty Broderick, she had experienced divorce firsthand — twice, in fact. However, Stumbo says her two ex-husbands are today her two best friends. In each of her marital breakups, “There was no money, no kids. It was very peaceful.” (In fact, she gives credit for helping her cut some 300 pages from her original draft to Noel Greenwood, one of her former editors at the Times and also an ex-husband.)

Stumbo says she did venture down to San Diego thinking that “Betty was probably a feminist. Mistake number one — ’cause she’s not.” She got her first exposure to Betty, incarcerated at Las Colinas, in May 1990. The five-hour phone conversation left Stumbo with a headache, yet “I was instantly struck by her obvious intelligence, her quick blasphemous wit — and most of all, by her utter remorselessness,” she writes in her book preface. “She might have just killed two rapists breaking into her bedroom, so self-justifying were her remarks. She was also completely out of control. She reminded me, in that first conversation, of an overheated radiator on the road to Yuma in August. Hissing, spewing, a pressure cooker exploding in my face.... Betty Broderick was no killer of any kind that I had ever imagined.”

Stumbo recalls today that Betty was also “throwing out so many allegations that I thought, ‘Can this be true? Sealed courtrooms. And he’s having her thrown in jail for saying “cunt” and “fuckface”?’ And finally, I just got curious to know what went on all those years before she killed him.”

By July, Stumbo had officially begun her leave of absence from the Times. One minor cloud had materialized by then. In June 1990, fellow Times staffer Amy Wallace, who had conducted several jailhouse interviews with Betty and covered her early court appearances, published an L.A. Times Magazine cover story about the Broderick case. This publicity piqued the interest of some 40 television and movie producers and gave Stumbo her first hint of the media deluge to come.

But she was happy, she says, as she began the reporting work, her favorite phase of any journalistic project. She rented a one-bedroom apartment next to the Museum of Contemporary Art on Prospect Street and contacted Times society editor Dave Nelson. With his aid, she turned an anthropologist’s eye on La Jolla, interviewing social leaders such as Karl Zobell (a senior attorney at Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye) and his wife Barbara, and hotelier Larry Lawrence’s ex-wife Jeanne (who was then living there). “A lot of these people befriended me, so I was getting to go to all these nice restaurants, and they’d point out who was the biggest guy on the totem pole.” In August, Stumbo paid $250 to attend the contemporary art museum’s annual Monte Carlo ball, which she describes in her book as “mainly a function of the second stringers who couldn’t make the grade into Las Patronas.” Las Patronas, she informs readers, is “the most elite sorority in town. Only 50 women at a time can belong, by invitation only, for seven-year terms.” (She devotes the entire second chapter to reporting her observations of La Jolla social conventions.)

In the few months before the start of Betty’s trial, Stumbo also began trying to understand the daunting public records of the Brodericks’ discord. She learned that, just as Betty had alleged, the Brodericks’ divorce file had been sealed in December of 1986, after Dan’s attorney argued that this was in the children’s best interest. So reporters couldn’t just walk into the courthouse and peruse the many folders at will. But there are other ways to get at sealed records (namely, through those who have access to them), and to this task, Stumbo turned her attention. She says Betty herself retained copies of innumerable documents and some court transcripts and gave her unrestricted access to them. “She saves everything. This is [one] great advantage in doing a book on Betty Broderick. She leaves one hell of a paper trail! Matchbooks from 20 years ago. Beer mugs.” There were cards that Dan had sent her over the years — though, curiously, none of Dan’s early love letters. “I couldn’t find them,” Stumbo says. “And I made a pretty thorough effort to.”

Stumbo also spent hours talking to former friends of Betty’s, some from her days as a housewife living on Coral Reef Avenue (the Brodericks’ first La Jolla address) and others whom she met after her divorce, such as Dian Black, the first person Betty called on the morning of the murders. At the same time, Stumbo sought out friends and relatives of Dan and Linda and encountered an initial distrust that, in some cases, gave way to confidences.

April 12, 1963 "The Twelfth of Never" was the song they chose as their wedding theme

April 12, 1963 "The Twelfth of Never" was the song they chose as their wedding theme

Until the Twelfth of Never

From the two lawyers who would be leading the opposing charges at the murder trial, Stumbo got different receptions. Prosecutor Kerry Wells was guarded and would become even more so as the first trial unfolded. (Stumbo says the only time Wells ever opened up was in the summer of 1991, when she wanted to pick Stumbo’s brain about ways she could fine-tune her case in the second trial.) Betty’s attorney, Jack Earley, in contrast, always returned calls and was “as friendly and willing to cooperate as he could have been.”

Among the courtroom players, it was Earley’s private investigator, a 46-year-old former probation officer named Marion Pasas, with whom Stumbo seemed to forge the strongest bond. In charge of “the clothes detail” for the trial, Pasas eventually let Stumbo accompany her when she went into Betty’s storage garage off Garnet Avenue in search of the 12 outfits Betty had specified she wanted to wear (“...the white Adolpho with the matching white snakeskin pumps, and her ‘gold set’.... the blue Escada with the cowl neck, and the brown lizards,” and on and on).

Stumbo thus happened to witness Pasas’s discovery of Betty’s wedding dress “packed in a cardboard box,” Stumbo would later write. “The waistline looked about 18 inches around. A lovely thing with a high neck, bordered in lace, with long sleeves. ‘Why,’ asked Pasas softly, holding the dress up, ‘do you suppose she kept this?’ ”

Stumbo’s notebooks were bursting even before the trial started on September 27,1990. (She ultimately interviewed hundreds of people, besides Betty.) And the seven-week trial provided additional material.

Almost every night, Betty would call. “She’d get back to the jail and pretty much would want to review how things went.” Days, Stumbo noted down details about the proceedings with the single-minded devotion of a pack rat: Betty’s father’s reaction on the morning that one of Dan’s younger brothers greeted him out in the hallway; what Betty’s daughter Kim (who testified against her mother) wrote in the card she gave Betty on her 43rd birthday; witnesses’ hairstyles; the pimple on Earley’s nose on the last day of testimony.

Then came the inconclusive verdict that, according to Stumbo, sent Earley into shock (“Oh my God. This means I’ve got to deal with Betty for another whole year!” she quotes him saying in the elevator that morning) and dashed the writer’s hopes for completing her book quickly. She packed her notebooks, went back to L.A., and temporarily re-joined the staff of the Times. Throughout that spring, as she worked on a story about Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first freely elected president, other journalists began writing about the Brodericks for national magazines such as The Ladies Home Journal and Mirabella. Stumbo grew more depressed, but she left the Times again in the summer of 1991 and started preparing to write.

It took me just forever to organize it,” she says. “I had calendars of what happened on which day and when she got served with what. But it was worth it, because by the time I was through, all I had to do was flip through the calendars and I could tell you what the Brodericks were doing in 1984, on August third.” The actual writing held a pleasant surprise for Stumbo, whose slowness was almost legendary among her newspaper colleagues. “I was doing 2000 words a day sometimes” [while writing the Broderick book], she says. “Now I can’t believe I used to spend two months on a 2000-word piece. But I also found it’s easier to write a book than it is to do a small, tight newspaper or magazine piece, because you can just run on. That was fun. I’d never had that freedom [before.]”

Most exhilarating was the writing of “the parts in which I take the liberty of crawling into Betty Broderick’s head,” she says. As in the scene in which Betty secretly enters Dan’s home, discovers a Boston cream pie baked by Linda, and takes the offending dessert with her into Dan’s bedroom:

She...flung hunks of it onto the bedspread and the walls. Then she opened his closet doors and stared in. What an anal asshole, she thought to herself, as she peered at all the tidy rows of jackets and shirts and slacks, all arranged by color. All those fucking gaudy colors. Pinks, oranges, scarlet. Prints, paisleys, madras, plaids. Dapper Dan. What a cheap asshole! What a piece-of-shit Boston cream pie! She flung it at the clothes, crying, wiped her hands on his bedspread, and left.

Stumbo says by the time she wrote this, “You could ask me a Betty question and I could probably answer it verbatim.” So she felt justified in describing such rampages through Betty’s eyes. Stumbo says she also decided to take Betty’s word that just before she married Dan (back in 1969), her gynecologist informed her “she had two cervixes, two vaginas, two uteruses. The doctor performed a simple operation to correct the dual vaginas,” Stumbo writes, “but, to this day, she says, she has two sets of all the rest.” Although she didn’t have access to Betty’s medical records, Stumbo says, “I believe it simply because she told so many women in La Jolla [about the condition], starting way back in the ’70s.”

Stumbo claims that in almost every other instance, she didn’t take Betty’s word at face value. “To me, it’s bad journalism simply to accept the word of a woman who’s completely traumatized.” Stumbo does report as fact many of Betty’s allegations about her marital history: how she sold Avon and Tupperware with an infant and toddler in tow to raise extra money for the family while Dan was at Harvard Law School; how he was away on a ski trip when she went into labor with their third baby. But Stumbo says confirmation for these and many other intimate details of the couple’s life came from the transcript of the sealed divorce trial—which Stumbo somehow succeeded at obtaining. “I don’t want to talk about my sources,” she says of that accomplishment. “I’m real good about protecting [them].” But she devotes 37 pages to revealing the juicy secrets of those proceedings.

“I read those files and I was just fascinated,” she says. “I know you can’t stop a woman from going into a courtroom pro per, if she wants to, but it was absolutely a disgrace.” Here Betty sat, “in this courtroom, with two of the best lawyers in San Diego at the other table, Gerald Barry and Dan Broderick, and a judge! It was just a massacre! And it was her fault in the sense that she should have gone in with a lawyer. But she wasn’t capable of reasoning at that point. Plus — she wanted Dan Broderick to finally have to answer up. And that was one of the comic things about the divorce trial. She kept saying, ‘Isn’t it your fault...?’ and the judge kept saying, ‘Mrs. Broderick, this isn’t a issue of fault.’ So she’d wait two, three questions, and then she’d [go], right back to ‘Isn’t it true that you were having an affair with Linda Kolkena?’ ” Eventually, writes Stumbo, “She would wear down every man in [the] courtroom. Gerald Barry’s objections', which were constant at first, became increasing sporadic, arbitrary, and listless.”

Bella Stumbo

Bella Stumbo

The account of the divorce trial is probably the biggest journalistic coup of Stumbo’s book, but readers will find numerous smaller revelations. Throughout the time Betty was at Las Colinas, all her mail was photocopied, and Stumbo obtained access to the copies. Thus she treats readers to Betty’s eerie letters to her daughters, “letters that convey, better than anything else can, the increasingly detached state of her mind,” she writes. “This was not a mother in jail on charges of murdering their dad. This was a dutiful, concerned mother enduring an inconvenient period of temporary separation.” Even creepier is the correspondence to Betty from men such as Bill, a man from L.A. Betty had never met, whom Stumbo quotes as writing, “It is past midnight, I am off to the bed, and I will close with love, kisses, erector sets, toys, and visions of sugar plums... Are you allowed platonic conjugals? Here is a kiss, put it where you wish. X.”

Stumbo also got hold (again, she won’t say how) of letters that were written a decade earlier by a young English girl who worked as an au pair in the Broderick household. This was years before Dan would begin his affair with Linda Kolkena, but the girl’s insights reveal a household under stress: Betty crying over Dan’s frequent absences; Dan cold and unfriendly most of the time, but suddenly, alarmingly, chummy one night while alone with her out in the Jacuzzi. Every time I found anything that predated the Linda affair, I was like a kid on an Easter egg hunt,” Stumbo says today. “Because it helped me understand what they were [once] like.”

“Certainly the hardest thing about interviewing Betty [was] to get her to remember even some soft things,” the writer says. “It’s all buried beyond the anger.” Photos from Betty’s files provide glimpses of the life that the family once shared; included in Stumbo’s book, for instance, is a shot of Dan dressed in a Santa Claus suit at Christmas. Stumbo says one of his friends alerted her that Dan did this, and “later I found a picture of him. Then Betty admitted it, but she said, ‘I made him do it. I bought the Santa Claus suit for my Christmas parties.’ But I don’t blame her for that kind of stuff. If you killed somebody, it would be hard [to retain endearing memories of them].”

The other subject from which Betty consistently shied away was sex, Stumbo found. Betty was appalled, for instance, when she learned that Stumbo knew about her sexual relationship with Brad Wright,, a younger man she met after Dan walked out on her. Wright, in contrast, had no inhibitions about telling Stumbo about sex with Betty, or Dinosaur, as he fondly called his old-fashioned mistress. (Later, after Betty gained weight, Wright’s pet name for her changed to Bear.) Wright told Stumbo that Betty in turn called him Animal; he broke one of her ribs during one especially athletic lovemaking session. But Betty insisted to Stumbo that sex was always better with Dan “because Brad wasn’t my husband,” Stumbo quotes her as saying. “At least with Dan, even if it wasn't much fun, I felt like it was right. ”

Every time the subject of sex surfaced, “She’d have an awful time,” Stumbo says. “She’d try to be conversant and sort of glib, but she just always really wanted badly off that subject.” Eventually Stumbo would conclude that “the Broderick case was always a crime grounded not in sexual jealousy, but in Betty Broderick’s sexual inhibitions.” Betty’s infamous obscene tapes, left on Dan and Linda’s answering machine, are one clue to that, Stumbo contends. “The ones that he held her in contempt for, the foul ones, the worst ones, are so graphic. There’s one that’s something like, ‘Are you fucking the cunt on the stairs with her legs wide open.’ And in divorce court, that’s what she asked: ‘Isn’t it true that Danny or Rhett see Linda with her legs in the air?’ ” (That never occurred, by Dan’s insistence.) “It’s Betty’s own constant coming back to the sexuality of it all, the legs in the air. I think she was definitely just incredulous that he would have sex with anyone else. Because she never in her wildest dreams thought of it.” Stumbo adds that Betty’s former roommate, her sister-in-law, held the conviction that the ultimate foundation of Betty’s rage was “the infidelity, period. Period! She’s known Betty for 25 years.”

In September of 1991, Stumbo interrupted her writing to return to San Diego for the second trial. In many ways, it would prove to be a repeat of the first proceedings, but there were also some interesting variations. Both of Betty’s aged parents', Frank and Marita Biceglia, showed up this time. Stumbo says, “My personal feeling is that after the hung jury, they started to think, ‘Well, maybe my daughter isn’t guilty.’ Some of the stigma lifted for them.... They came [to the second trial] and they were angry, they were defending Betty, and pretty much dumping on Dan real good.”

Stumbo was touched by the elderly couple. “I did a lot of talking to them in the courthouse halls. There they were, these two old people, their daughter’s in there on trial. The mother didn’t go in during Betty’s testimony because she said Betty had asked her not to.... She sat in the hall by herself.” The Biceglias, who were staying at the Pan Pacific Hotel, one block from the courthouse, even hosted “a gracious dinner for some of Betty Anne’s friends.” Included was Stumbo, who later wrote of the evening, “The trial was never mentioned. The loveliness of San Diego was discussed in detail.... Marita Biceglia was a model of social grace and small talk. When the entrees were served, she said, T have picked up my fork, so you may all please begin.’ ”

One other newcomer to the courtroom — a tiny, energetic blonde — had a much less agreeable impact on Stumbo. Word soon spread among the courtroom regulars that she was a writer named Loretta Schwartz-Nobel, who also wanted to write a book about the case. Betty Broderick’s friend Dian Black recalls sitting next to her on the first day of the trial “and she looked at me with tears pouring out of & her eyes. I thought, ‘Oh, God, this has to be one of the family.’ Then later on I found out she was a writer. She asked me who the guy was up there with the glasses — Betty’s lawyer. You know, it didn’t take any Sherlock Holmes to figure that out.” Black was also repulsed by the public weeping. “It was pathetic. At first I thought, ‘God, get a grip, man. You didn’t even go through half the royal ride on a hobby horse that I did!’ But she told me she was just so touched by all this.”

“It’s interesting that that’s her memory,” Schwartz-Nobel said over the phone from her home in suburban Philadelphia. “If you had asked me, did I cry during the trial, I probably would have said, ‘Gee, I don’t know.’ But I assume that if [Dian] observed that, I must have [been crying].... I think what I sometimes do is respond emotionally and then step back and interpret later.” In Betty’s tale, Schwartz-Nobel evidently found much with which she could identify. She says that, like the San Diegan, she was part of a generation of women taught to subordinate their identities to men who were supposed to provide for them all their lives. (Schwartz-Nobel will not disclose her age. “I don’t want to tell you,” she said when I asked her.) Also like Betty, she married “a prince who was planning to become a doctor” and lived with him for 14 years, which took the couple through medical school, military service, internship, and two children. Then he left her for a younger woman. “I never got over it,” Schwartz-Nobel writes.

Unlike Betty, she did remarry (another medical doctor) and with him had a son, now six. And she had established something of an independent career by the time her first husband abandoned her. An English major by training, Schwartz-Nobel says she began volunteering her time as a researcher at Philadelphia Magazine back in the mid-’70s. Eventually she wrote a piece on hunger in Philadelphia, which grew into a book published in 1982, Starving in the Shadow of Plenty. From hunger, Schwartz-Nobel shifted her attention to crime, writing a 1986 account of a high school principal and English teacher convicted of murdering a fellow teacher and her two children (Engaged to Murder). Additional books about surrogate motherhood (A Mother's Story: The Truth about the Baby M Case) and the saga of two Florida babies switched at birth (The Baby Swap Conspiracy) followed. Schwartz-Nobel had finished her work on the latter and was scouting for a new project in early fall of 1991, when her agent sent her a clipping from the New York Times.

Loretta Schwartz-Nobel

Loretta Schwartz-Nobel

Photos accompanying the article showed Dan and Linda smiling and holding wine glasses, and Betty, “her face tear-stained and her mouth sort of distorted,” Schwartz-Nobel recalls. “I have for a long time been interested in the stories of women who were relatively powerless or voiceless. And while Betty was talking and talking and talking, in a sense, she still remained voiceless. Schwartz-Nobel called her local library “and asked them to do a computer search to see what else had been done. And I quickly read everything that had been written.” She knew then that this was a story she wanted to write, so she composed a brief book proposal that she forwarded to her agent, then dug into her own pocket to pay for a plane ticket to San Diego. The start of the second trial was just days away.

She says she knew that if her agent managed to get her a contract, her book wouldn’t be the only one on the subject; she’d heard about Stumbo’s work. “But my reaction was, ‘Oh, well, there’s just one other book.’ ” And Schwartz-Nobel says she was once in the reverse situation. She says while she was working on her account of the high school teacher murderers, writer Joseph Wambaugh showed up at the second trial and eventually wrote the best-selling Echoes in the Dark about the case. “He went around paying everybody [to talk to him],” Schwartz-Nobel alleges. (Wambaugh could not be reached for comment.) “But I was the only journalist who spoke to both of the convicted killers. They wouldn’t speak to him.” Schwartz-Nobel concedes that having another writer barge into her story “was difficult. But...it was also rather interesting. In a sense, it turned out not to be harmful. I think [my] book got more review attention than it would otherwise have gotten. Because he also was doing it, it turned it from a local story into a story that was unquestionably of national interest. And he was more upset by it ultimately than I was. took it very hard that the principal characters had spoken to me and were refusing him, with his payments and everything, and that my book was there in the New York Times right next to his. But I took it with equanimity.”

Schwartz-Nobel says she was surprised that the reception in San Diego was as icy as it turned out to be. “There was enormous resentment of my being there.... I think there was a sense that I had arrived as an interloper. And people felt that maybe I would just go away if I couldn’t gain access.” Schwartz-Nobel credits this reception to the friendships and loyalties Stumbo had established over time “that were preventing people from being friendly or helpful. There was one newspaper reporter who was friendly. And I later learned that nobody liked him either. So luckily I had someone who would at least sit next to me. I literally felt like the skunk at the garden party, like if I sat down, people would move away.”

Before coming to San Diego, Schwartz-Nobel had sent a letter to Betty, via Jack Earley, but here too she received little encouragement. “During the trial, Betty acknowledged me with her eyes, and she knew I was there. But she would not talk to me at all.... Apparently she was concerned about upsetting Bella.”

The only bright spot for Schwartz-Nobel was news from her agent that several publishers were interested in her book proposal. (She won’t say how much money she ultimately received from Villard Books, a division of Random House.) With a sale guaranteed, she braced herself for the task of covering the entire trial. “1 was sort of a commuter,” she says. “For seven or eight weeks, I was flying back and forth between San Diego and Philadelphia, because it’s hard to be away from my little son.” For the last three weeks, she brought the boy and his nanny with her, installing the entourage at the Glorietta Bay Inn in Coronado. “As you can imagine, it became a very expensive process.” She says she also spent $3500 for the transcript from the first trial. And then she had to return to San Diego yet again in February in order to be here for Betty’s sentencing. But not long afterward, her persistence finally paid off when Betty invited her for a visit at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

“Betty has never met a reporter she won’t talk to,” Stumbo commented recently with a weary expression on her face. Stumbo acknowledges that she felt dreadful about suddenly facing competition for the Broderick book market. But she knew Betty couldn’t be muzzled, so she never tried to extract any promise of exclusivity, Stumbo states. “Talk about a futile attempt! Give me a break.”

Stumbo says she didn’t exactly feel angry about Betty’s invitation to Schwartz-Nobel. “I get frustrated with Betty.... She takes some getting used to because she will tell you one thing and then do another — literally — within the space of five minutes. And she’s got an awful habit of bad-mouthing people behind their backs. Me included.” Stumbo chalks this up to Betty’s irrepressible need to please everyone. “She’s incapable, I think, of a direct confrontation. Not if she thinks it’s going to upset the other person. That’s one of the reasons she got into such trouble is because she’s not able to take a stand and stick with it. And so it all builds up and builds up....”

Stumbo says she got yet another insight into Betty Broderick’s psyche in those final days of the court proceedings. It was then that Stumbo finally managed to tour Betty’s quarters at Las Colinas. Always before, the two women had talked by phone or through the glass partitions in the jail’s visiting room cubicles. At last seeing “this tiny, tiny cell that she was in — isolated — hermetically sealed — gave me a better understanding of just how traumatic the years and the night of those killings must have been. Because she always said, ‘I was glad to get into this place and to get out of the pressure’ [of her marital disaster]. But just the lack of privacy! The toilet bowl was literally close enough to the bunks that you could put your feet in it. [Being in such a cell] would be like throwing you and me into a closet. You’d go mad. Yet every time I talked to her on the phone, she was upbeat, cheerful, worrying about her hair color, all these things. It gave me chills seeing that room. It made me realize how sick she was.”

Not long after that tour, Betty was transferred to prison, and Stumbo returned once again to face her desk back in Los Angeles. Schwartz-Nobel, in turn, flew to Fresno, where she rented a car and checked into the Holiday Inn. The next morning, she made the long drive to the penitentiary. “I was frightened as I parked the rented red Pinto,” she later wrote about her feelings, “but I knew that there was no place, absolutely no place I would rather be....” Surrendering her personal articles and shoes, she submitted to a body search. Harsh as those measures might sound, Schwartz-Nobel says the prison officials were actually very cooperative. “Normally with a media visit, they’re very restricted. But I went in as a friend rather than as an official media person. They knew I was working on a book, and they allowed me to bring in a tape recorder.” She and Betty spent seven or eight hours together, for three days straight.

After her visit with Betty, she flew home to the task of telling Betty’s story. For Schwartz-Nobel, that job was somewhat simplified by one decision: namely, to present only Betty’s side of the story. (“When there were conflicting versions of events, I have chosen to present Betty Broderick’s point of view, since this book is an attempt to bring the reader into her world,” she says in her Author’s Note.) “I made the judgment not to try and make this a newspaper/journalistic kind of repartee,” Schwartz-Nobel elaborates upon that decision today. “It was written more as a way to try ‘to understand what happened to the soul of a woman,’ I think was my phrase.”

Readers of Forsaking All Others, as Schwartz-Nobel’s work is titled, thus encounter as fact such controversial elements of the story as Betty’s assessment of Dan’s drinking. “He was drunk every night,” Schwartz-Nobel writes. “Dan was happiest when he was drunk.... When he wasn’t drunk, he was crazed, screaming, and breaking things.” (Stumbo, in contrast, found strongly conflicting information about Dan’s alcohol consumption and eventually concluded that Dan “liked to drink” but was by no means “a falling-down drunk.... If he drank, he still succeeded,” she opines. “If he drank, he didn’t beat and abuse her.”)

At times, Schwartz-Nobel’s voice merges eerily with Betty’s, as if the writer had transcribed her tapes and then appropriated the words for herself. On page 57, for example, Schwartz-Nobel declares, “Betty had a lot of gorgeous friends, even a former Miss America, who was so beautiful, she got out of the shower looking great” — words that still ring in the ear of anyone who’s heard the story from Betty directly. In Schwartz-Nobel’s account, Linda Kolkena is a high school dropout who had just turned 19 or 20 when she first met Dan — inaccuracies that Betty is notorious for transmitting. Says Stumbo, “I have told her a thousand times, ‘If you're gonna talk to the media, [Linda] wasn't 19 and she did graduate from high school. For your own image, get this right!' She'll say, ‘Oh, okay,' and then the next time I turn around, she’s told somebody else.... She wants [Linda] to be a 19-year-old bimbo with no high school education. Betty's smart. She can absorb new information, I would think, but she will not.”

Bryna Taubman

Bryna Taubman

Schwartz-Nobel responds serenely that she took Betty’s word “on faith — because from my perspective, What was important here was not whether [Linda] was 19 or 21, but what was underneath. What really happened to these people.... It was a different level of truth.” (Schwartz-Nobel and her editors also clearly didn't check local spellings, as Las Colinas became Las Calinas, Clairemont became Clairmont, and on and on.) The differences between such things as Betty's version of the child custody issues and Dan's view of them “were not that significant,” Schwartz-Nobel judged, and thus omitted the latter. “I didn’t want to get into that level of squabbling. 'Cause what I wanted to understand was what drove Betty to kill — and what drove her to kill was the reality she perceived.”

For slightly different reasons, Schwartz-Nobel defends her decision to “dramatize” numerous scenes throughout the book, writing them as if she were an omniscient eyewitness. “I wanted to make this a book that people could read and understand,” she explains, adding, “I think you gain more in terms of real understanding than you lose in terms of maybe getting one or two things that are not exactly correct.” Describing the morning of the killings, she thus records that Dian Black and Ronnie Brown (another friend of Betty's) climbed into the back of Betty’s daughter’s boyfriend’s car and experienced “an awkward silence.”

“We’ll help you, I promise we will,” Dian said. She had never seen Betty like this, clear one minute, distant the next. It reminded her of people she’d seen years ago when she worked in a hospital as an aide....

“I never talked to the woman,” explodes Black, who says Schwartz-Nobel's dramatization seriously distorts the atmosphere in the car that morning.

Attorney Ron Frant, the first person Betty turned to for legal help after the murders, is portrayed by Schwartz-Nobel as grilling Betty about her financial assets, then telling her he won’t handle her defense (after she says she won’t cash in her children’s insurance policies for him). In fact, Frant represented Betty for about a week (working 8 to 12 hours a day, he says), until Betty replaced him with another lawyer. Frant says he never mentioned the subject of attorney’s fees to Betty and ultimately never collected a penny for the work he did for her. That work included at least one court appearance, and Betty told Schwartz-Nobel about it, Frant learned, when he contacted Random House and they sent him a partial transcript of Schwartz-Nobel’s interview with Betty. There’s even a picture of Frant and Betty in court on Schwartz-Nobel’s book jacket. “And yet she makes it sound like I dumped [Betty] at the police station, and that was that.”

Schwartz-Nobel recalls that writing her book — 237 pages in its published form — took four to six months. Stumbo didn’t turn in the final draft of her book until around December. If the two women harbored any thoughts of racing against each other, however, both were surprised when a third account of the case, Hell Hath No Fury, hit the bookstands.

On the cover of this cheaply bound offering from St. Martin’s Paperbacks, hot pink letters splash across a grotesque portrait of Betty and smaller photos of Dan and Linda. The author of this book is Bryna Taubman, whom I reached by phone at her apartment near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. A 48-year-old veteran of both newspaper (the New York Post) and radio journalism (CBS), Taubman has a husky voice and a briskly cheerful manner. In the mid-’70s, she wrote her first book (about assertiveness training for women), then she did a book about New York City policewomen, and finally a 1988 account of the Robert Chambers case titled The Preppie Murder Trial. She says she first heard about Betty Broderick while covering the William Kennedy Smith trial for some European newspapers. Coincidentally, Smith’s trial was on Court TV in the morning, while Betty’s second trial got the afternoon slot. “When I got back from Palm Beach, I had a call from my editor at St. Martin’s, and he said, ‘There’s this case out in San Diego that everybody’s interested in. Would you be willing to do a book on it?’ ” Taubman agreed. “I had made friends with people at Court TV when I was in Florida, and they did an eight-hour synopsis of the Broderick trial that I was able to watch at home and take notes from.”

In February of 1992, Taubman flew to San Diego and here interviewed Jack Earley and Kerry Wells. “Unfortunately, I was only able to be there for about a week, and it was the week that Betty was being transferred from the county system to the state system. And I was not able to speak to her because they kept telling me, ‘She's in transit.’ ”

Taubman also frankly wasn’t that interested in meeting Betty. “It seemed to me that between all the interviews she’d given, and listening to all the testimony, and reading about it, there really were no more questions to ask.” Working on the Preppie book also had convinced her that true crime works based on trial testimony, rather than interviews, are liable to be more accurate. “There’s several reasons for that,” Taubman says. “The first one is that it’s sworn to in court, and nobody can sue you for libel. The second is that people, when they are telling you the story, tend to put their own personal spin on it. But in court you have experts in the area — the opposing attorneys — asking questions to take the spin off. And you get enormous amount of detail in court testimony.”

Taubman made one other stop in San Diego — at the downtown library. “There is a huge folder in the California Room that is the Broderick case.” What stories weren’t in it Taubman obtained from microfilm and other computerized data bases. Back in Manhattan, she began digesting all the assembled articles so she could restate them in book form. “This basically was a clip job, and I certainly don’t want to give anyone the impression that it was anything more than that,” she says.

Taubman says that from the beginning she and her editors knew there was at least one hardback book about the Brodericks in progress. “But because I’ve always worked in deadline jobs, either in newspaper or radio and television news, I'm a very, very fast writer. And we figured I would be the first one out.” She started writing sometime in March and turned in the finished manuscript by mid-May. The paperback production process also moves much more quickly than does its hardcover counterpart, she says. “The binding process is faster, paper is smaller. You can ship a lot more books in one carton.” Thus Taubman’s book, priced at $4.99, began reaching bookstores in September of 1992, whereas Schwartz-Nobel’s Forsaking All Others wasn’t released until March of 1993. Stumbo’s work, entitled Until the Twelfth of Never, is only appearing now.

Taubman doesn’t plan to read either of them. “I don’t read true crime,” she says. “I think it’s sort of icky. For the last year, I’ve really been trying to get out of it. I find the people you have to deal with when you’re writing true crime are very distasteful. On the plus side, as I keep telling myself, it does make you aware your family isn’t as dysfunctional as you thought it was. ‘We’re still alive. Out of jail. Can’t be too bad here.’ ”

Taubman apparently has also found the genre to be, if not a gold mine, at least a respectable source of income. She says her advance from St. Martin’s was “not very much. In the very low five figures.” Bat the advance is against royalties, she points out, and if the book sells, the writer makes money later. The initial printing of Hell Hath No Fury was 175,000 copies, and at least 100,000 of them had been sold by early May, according to Taubman. (If her royalty rate was the standard eight to ten percent against gross sales, that would amount to at least $40,000 so far, with a potential of earning up to about $70,000 — for about six months’ work.)

Taubman says she can’t predict how the hardcover Broderick books will fare. “The case has received national attention, and there are people that literally can’t get enough. I know a lawyer who goes to bookstores daily just scanning true crime racks for something he hasn’t read. And I know a therapist who does the same thing. I think part of the fascination is a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I kind of feeling.” But on the other hand, Taubman says that people don’t like to spend a lot of money for that true crime titillation. “Shana Alexander, Joe McGinniss, one or two others can sell hardback true crime at $25, $30, a book. But not too many other people can. I’m not sure, for example, that even an Amy Fisher hardback would sell.”

Schwartz-Nobel declined to say how much, if anything, she’s made from her book. Nor could she say how it was selling. She says several national television talk shows that have the power to catalyze megasales have expressed interest in having her on — but only if Betty will agree to be interviewed. (Schwartz-Nobel sent Betty a copy of her book, though she had to cut the spines off it and “treat it as if it were a letter,” in order to conform to prison regulations.) “People want Betty,” Schwartz-Nobel says. “And we haven’t heard back from Betty yet about whether or not she wants to be on.”

Stumbo speculates that Betty’s sudden, uncharacteristic restraint from comment may have something to do with her efforts to appeal her second-degree murder verdict. Betty’s court-appointed appellate attorney filed Betty’s case papers March 31, and the appellate court will hear oral arguments later this year. “They listen to the evidence and decide whether they think there should be a new trial,” says Stumbo. “Can you imagine if San Diego had to go through a third one!” Should this come to pass, “I ain’t going,” Stumbo declares.

Stumbo also won’t be returning to the L.A. Times. She was among those who took the paper’s employee buyout offer this past January, and her contract with Simon 8c Schuster committed her to producing two books — the one about the Brodericks and a second. (Stumbo also declined to say how much she received for the two-book deal.) Before turning to the new project (the subject of which is still undecided), Stumbo will undertake a two-week publicity tour; she already knows that Betty won’t be helping her with that promotional effort. At the beginning of this month, Stumbo received an eight-page letter containing Betty’s vitriolic reaction to Until the Twelfth of Never. “Apparently, she approves of the first 530 pages, somewhat, but it’s the last chapter that she’s in a rage about,” Stumbo told me.

It is that chapter that relates Stumbo’s impressions of how Betty has changed since entering prison. Although “no epiphany occurred... when the doors of the Big House clanged shut,” Stumbo writes, Betty seemed to her to grow “more self-obsessed, more paranoid, harder by the day.” Her “already graphic” language became even cruder; her comments about Dan “increasingly tasteless, flaunting, cruel.... The bubbly girl-at-camp persona vanished.” Always delighted by Betty’s wit, Stumbo found that within weeks “Betty wasn’t even funny anymore.”

And she also found Betty increasingly losing the threads of her own story. “She’s forgotten her own history now,” Stumbo told me during our talk in L.A. As an example, she cited another recent letter in which Betty was raving about the failure of one of her lawyers to protect her from fines Dan imposed on her for unacceptable behavior. “But this lawyer was long gone from the scene before those fines even began. Now she had no axe to grind there. It would have been easy for her to get the correct lawyer. But she mentally confused it. And I think it’s because it’s just a reel that rolls over and over, and so she’s forgetting some of the things she used to know.”

When I wrote and asked Betty what she thought of the women who attempted to capture her story in book form, she replied with this cryptic note: “I can’t read books about this and I have not seen either movie.” Someone had sent her another article I wrote recently about San Diego’s top personal injury attorneys, however, and Betty had read that. She said she was sorry I hadn’t had Dan Broderick to interview. “He was by far the best,” she wrote. “He was smoother, better looking, better dressing, smoother talking, more successful and more aggressive than any of them. I was always his biggest booster, supporter, and fan. Too bad his brains fell out at 40! He knew how to ‘work’ the jury, the judge, the law. He could tear a defense to shreds — he was a great attorney, but a sorry excuse for a man.” She signed this, “Respectfully yours, Betty Broderick.”

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment