Part II: Here's looking at you, Chief

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 “Never admit to a fact, never deny a rumor.” – Chief Gordon

 

Despite the fact that her history with Chief is ultimately painful and traumatic, Debbie Wyatt feels indebted to him for hiring her in 1978 straight out of UVA law school. Debbie remembers that Chief’s law partner, John Lowe, was against the idea, but Chief said Debbie was coming on board or he would leave, and so she was made an associate. It didn’t hurt, of course, that she was young and pretty.

READ MORE: To see Part I of this two-part story, click here.

Debbie left Lowe & Gordon in 1980 to start her own law firm, and when Lowe & Gordon broke up, Chief asked if he could join her. Debbie, like John Lowe, was a civil rights attorney, and had by then argued some big cases, including two in front of the Supreme Court. Chief, on the other hand, was continuing to practice personal injury law, which makes a lot more money than civil rights work. Debbie never saw any sign that he was bothered that he produced the bulk of the firm’s income. In fact, he seemed happy to share and never insisted on a “pre-nup” type of arrangement.

Kerry Moynihan, dishwasher, waiter, bartender and manager 1980 to 1984: “Chief is one of a kind. Who else would get in front of a jury and say ‘Your honor, my client comes before you cloaked in a mantle more precious than the purple worn by kings, more precious than silk encrusted by jewels, more precious than gold brocade. He wears the mantle of presumed innocence.’”

Plunket Beirne, bartender from 1986 to 1990, describes Chief as being an intellectual about the law, but as Debbie sees it, he wasn’t invested or passionate enough to be intellectual. She says he was like a gifted artist mechanically producing paintings; it came easy to him, but he didn’t really care. Debbie and Chief didn’t really socialize. He was fun, she says, but unreliable.

Chief Gordon at a birthday party at Fellini’s in 1984.

In November of 1983, Chief was pulled over at 4am for suspicion of driving drunk. He refused to take a breath or blood test despite being reminded four times of Virginia’s implied consent law, which says that by possessing a driver’s license you give consent to be tested or face a penalty. Chief refused again at the magistrate’s office and was put in jail at 5:15am, at which point he promptly asked if he could take the test. He was told it was too late.

Ultimately Chief wasn’t charged with a DUI, but he lost his license for 90 days for refusing to submit to the test. He appealed the conviction, but the appeal was denied.

For many years, Debbie ignored the goings on at the restaurant, but by 1986 or 1987 Chief’s drinking had started to become something of a problem. He was always functional and was never drunk at work, but Debbie could often smell last night’s alcohol on him.
Chief was pulled over twice more (once he famously fell asleep at a stop light in the middle of 29N), and was charged with DUI each time. A third DUI conviction on May 18, 1987, would have meant serious jail time, but in a lucky break, the court lost the record of one of his convictions, so he was only charged with two DUI offenses in five years, instead of three. He pled guilty, was fined $300, sentenced to 30 days in jail and lost his license for three years.

One of those years would be suspended if he completed a Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program, which, in April of 1988, he did. In the comments section of his release paper, the prognosis was given as “poor,” and the counselor wrote: “Mr. Gordon feels his drinking problem is severe, but is still in strong denial. He plans to implement controls on his drinking, but has apparently done so before without much result. Mr. Gordon is at risk for future DUI.”
In 1990 or 1991, he was declared a habitual offender and lost his license permanently.
And then things really went downhill.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & His Driver
When Donna Bible first started working at Fellini’s, she worked with a great bunch of people, all of whom she considered friends. But after her first year, a mysterious bunch of Brits, who she found disturbing, showed up. They were, she says, kinky and seedy, and they attached themselves to Chief and began to drag him down. Plunket remembers them, and claims they were stealing money, wine, and whatever else they wanted.

Trisha Gordon, Chief’s second wife: “Because of how [Chief] was, a lot of the people that had worked there a long time, they stopped caring it seemed to me. ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter to [Chief] so why should it matter to me what I do, or if I do it well. I can get away with things like Chief.’”

A copy of Fellini’s for sale notice filed with court records. Trisha Gordon ran the business until 1994, when it was sold.

The mysterious Brits were Nanny Whip, Terry “Darling” (because that’s what she called everybody), and a cook named Vic. It’s around the time that these three showed up that most people agree things got really weird at the restaurant. For example: Vic was a problem drinker himself who died soon after leaving Fellini’s, and I heard a story that one night Vic was having sex on the butcher’s block in the kitchen with an unnamed waitress, when the women in question reached over, opened the fridge and began to eat prosciutto.

Chief, meanwhile, dealt with the loss of his license in classic fashion: He hired a series of drivers. The first was a guy named Dave Edwards (“Dave the Slave” he was called), and then there were a few more before Chief found Jason.

Plunket: “[Jason] was bad news. He was a leech, and I don’t know why he had influence over Chief, but he did.”

Jason was a boxer who came over from England and also happened to be Terry Darling’s long lost son. She had given him up for adoption, but he tracked her down and followed her to Fellini’s. Very few people that I talked to even knew Jason at all, let alone well, but those who did viewed him as a very shady character.

It was always showtime at Fellini’s, but as the ’80s ended and the ’90s began, the show became increasingly dark and twisted. Not that there weren’t dark and twisted parts before, but Fellini’s, for all its reputation as a den of sin, was for the most part an old fashioned den of bohemia. Chief, in truth, was the one who brought the seediness.

Zipper Lippman, bartender from 1985 to about 1987: “He liked the dark side. Oh definitely. He liked anything bizarre.”

Show Chief something outrageous, deviant, or just different, and he wanted to be a part of it, or at least watch. As one person who spent a lot of time at Fellini’s told me, “It wasn’t about getting laid for him, or getting his jollies off. It was more like, ‘Ooh, isn’t this interesting.’”

Other than the well known rumors of sex in the restaurant, the stories whispered about Chief go well beyond the norm: topless women riding around in his convertible, an interest in golden showers and women’s underwear, and lots of stories about hanging out with transvestites.

Zipper: I heard these rumors. He never really came across that way, but if you said something to him he’d say, “Of course!”

Chief always used to say, “Never admit to a fact, never deny a rumor.” The facts of his life, his wives and ex-wives, children, work, debt, restrictive driving laws, combined with the consequences of those facts, served to pull him farther away from Casablanca, from Fellini’s, from the never ending fun he so desperately wanted his life to be.

In 1988 Debbie Wyatt was away from the office for two years while she had her second child. Halfway through her maternity leave she had lunch with Chief at Fellini’s to check in. Something seemed wrong to her. There was a discomfort and a chill; she sensed an estrangement between them that hadn’t been there before.

And then, while she was still on leave, some of his clients began to call the office asking for their settlement money, money they should have gotten by then, but hadn’t.

Debbie came back to work part-time in 1991, and while on vacation that summer, got a call from someone in the office telling her that there were some serious financial discrepancies.
Around this time Terry’s son Jason became Chief’s driver, and the two of them began taking mysterious trips to Washington, D.C. on the weekends. Jason had been a professional boxer in England, and had told Chief that he’d made so much money off of one big bout that he’d been able to retire. The reason Jason gave for going up to D.C. was that he was boxing, except Chief doesn’t remember him ever doing any fighting while they were there. Chief, meanwhile, says he was simply visiting friends, going to movies and barhopping; he had no idea what Jason was up to.

And then one day, Chief hired Jason to kill him.

The deal was $5,000 up front and then another $5,000 would be waiting at Fellini’s. Jason was supposed to drive Chief out to a lake, shoot him and dump the body. Instead, Jason took the money and disappeared.

I heard this story from a lot of people, some who barely knew Chief, and some who knew him and Jason very well. No one had proof, of course, but no one doubted it either. So I asked Chief if it was true. We were talking over the phone, but I thought he sounded briefly shocked.

“I heard something to that effect,” he said. Chief told me that Jason had disappeared with his car. It was found near Dulles Airport and Terry and Vic went up to retrieve it. He didn’t comment on the rest of the story. He simply said that he had no complaints about Jason’s behavior on that issue.

I asked Trisha why Chief might have wanted to die. She thinks that he may have been feeling remorse about stealing his clients’ money and was perhaps hoping that she and the girls (they had by now had a second daughter) could collect insurance if he were dead, that “he could sort of make good on what he had done.”

Debbie confronted Chief with the accounting irregularities and the missing settlements. It looked, she said, like he was stealing his clients’ money. He didn’t deny it; instead he promised that he would quit the law immediately.

Everything happened, as it often does, very quickly. Debbie got a new office within one day and sent a letter to all of their clients telling them that she’d separated from Chief. On a trip back to the office to grab some things, she was shocked to see, sitting on Chief’s desk, a brand new lawsuit getting ready to be filed. She knew right away that Chief was not planning on quitting, and she knew that she had to turn him in.

Chief was arrested at Fellini’s on December 4, 1992 at 6pm, just as the curtain was about to rise on another night. He was charged with two counts of felony embezzlement; he’d been taking his clients’ settlement money and using it for himself. He went home and told his wife and then turned himself in. It also happened to be his birthday. He turned 47 in jail.

He was released around Christmas and went back to the restaurant for a while, until Trisha discovered that he was taking money from the till and changed the locks. Chief’s last day at his post, standing there at the end of the bar, was graduation weekend in May of 1993. After that he was never involved with Fellini’s again.

Chief pled guilty to two counts of felony embezzlement on June 23, 1993. The claims against him totaled $182,429. The sentencing trial was held four months later, on October 14. Character witnesses for Chief included Steve Tharpe, owner of Millers at the time, Plunket and Congressman George “Macaca” Allen. Chief was sentenced to 20 years in prison for each indictment and was ordered to pay restitution to his victims. All but eight months of the prison sentence was suspended, and eventually Chief was released much earlier, in mid-December of 1993.

Both Debbie and Chief were sued afterwards, and she found that she had to deal with people in the community who were somehow angry at her. One high-ranking police officer told Debbie to her face that she was scum for turning her partner in. To this day she feels that Chief got off easy, that what he did was a very serious breach of trust. She felt angry and betrayed, and she hasn’t seen or spoken to Chief since.

Everyone who knew Chief says that stealing from people, especially from clients, is very much against his character. He is generous, giving, and he wants everyone to be happy. Zipper’s theory is that Chief, who loved games and saw life as one big game, probably thought he could just move money around and no one would get hurt. Most people I ran this idea by agreed, but, as Jean Dunbar pointed out, he wasn’t stealing from his law firm or from a corporation, he was stealing from his clients, and in personal injury you’re stealing from people who, in a sense, have already had something stolen from them.

Trisha: “He just thought he could get away with stuff. He’s always had that attitude. In fact he’s not having fun unless he thinks he’s getting away with stuff.”

With Chief gone, someone had to run Fellini’s until it could be sold, and that someone ended up being Trisha.

Trisha: “It sucked. I hated it. I never wanted to own a restaurant or run one. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do…I didn’t make any money. We were really struggling, but I did it to keep things going until the restaurant could be sold. Mostly that was it, just to make it more marketable. But the writing was on the wall and people were leaving.”

Fellini’s was sold on April 1, 1994 for $165,000. Trisha was there at the closing. “Just watching those lawyers rubbing their hands. ‘All right, we’re gonna get paid!’ It was disgusting.’’ The building and the business were sold entirely. The official contract of purchase was attached to an addendum of “other items,” amongst which are listed the following: six Fellini posters, two antique wooden mirrors, one 9′ oak dining table.

Trisha and her two kids were left with no income and all the unpaid back taxes. It took a long time, she says, for her to get back on her feet.

Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Plunket: “Chief wanted to be that guy that everybody loved. And he was.”

Michael Williams, regular and occasional dishwasher: “All of a sudden people wondered, ‘Where’s Chief?’ And then sometime after that they said, ‘Oh, he’s driving limos in L.A.’”
I meet Chief at a Starbucks around the corner from his apartment in North Hollywood. Since he gets up most mornings at 5, he’s already had a cup of coffee at McDonald’s and is reading a mystery novel. He’s still tall and grey haired, but no longer thin. He’s wearing a black Hawaiian shirt with flowers and little ships, open a bit at the chest, and khaki pants. He looks nothing like the picture of him I had in my mind.

Chief Gordon pictured in a North Hollywood Starbucks in July.

“What could I do in Charlottesville?” he asks. “Wait tables?” He’d been disbarred and lost his driver’s license, his restaurant and his houses. He was a convicted felon with two failed marriages and four kids. “I just don’t know what I would have done. It was an easy decision.” Chief flew to California on January 3, 1994. Initially, he rented a room on Fairfax and Pico for $75, but soon moved to a place near Paramount Studios where his old friend turned major Hollywood player Mark Johnson had his office. Right away, however, he started getting work as an extra without Mark’s help, most notably as a stand-in for Malcolm McDowell on the set of Tank Girl, starring Lori Petty, Ice-T and a not-yet-famous Naomi Watts. During filming there was one role that hadn’t been cast yet, and so Chief ended up playing an unnamed trooper, delivering the very Chief-like line, “Sounds like Cole Porter to me, sir.”

For about a year and a half he worked as a stand-in, until McDowell’s people suddenly stopped calling. “To this day,” he says, “I don’t know why that gig ended. We certainly never had a falling out.”

To make money while he waited for acting work, Chief got a job driving a limo (it seems that California either didn’t know or didn’t care that he’d lost his license in Virginia). “My claim to fame as a limo driver,” he says, “is George Clooney requested me.”

Chief is a great conversationalist. He listens to you, laughs at jokes, and never runs out of stories. These days, most of those stories are about the many celebrities he’s driven around L.A. over the years. It’s an impressive list: Harrison Ford, Lauren Bacall, Robert Altman. Chief loves to tell you which ones are jerks, which ones are down to earth, and which ones tip well. Meeting celebrities is clearly a big thrill for him and he doesn’t shy away from saying, “Hey, I’m a big fan of your work.”

Chief drove a limo for 13 years, before quitting in 2007 to take care of his 93-year-old mother. He says that this is now his full time job, despite the fact that she lives in Seattle, and he only visits her every two weeks for about three days.

“My daughter Courtney sends me funds to take care of the travel and incidentals,” he says, “so that’s enough to keep my head above water.” His mother is well off, so he’s counting on an inheritance when she dies, enough so he can do a lot of traveling. But there clearly isn’t any inheritance yet. Chief doesn’t have a car, he takes the bus instead, and the days of fine-dining restaurants are over. As far as I can tell, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and the occasional Hollywood bar are his main haunts.

Since the bit part in Tank Girl, there’s been no more acting. He says that he can’t commit to an acting gig right now because he has to take care of his mother, but he also regularly mentions the frustration he feels that his long ago friendship with Mark Johnson hasn’t yielded fruit. Mark is currently one of the executive producers of the hit AMC show “Breaking Bad,” and although he’s never seen it, Chief is certain that there’s got to be a part as a judge that would be perfect for him.

“I get my blood drawn at a clinic not too far away and one woman, when I happened to mention ‘There’s a chance I’m gonna be on Breaking Bad.’ [she said] ‘That’s my husband’s and my favorite show! We can’t wait! Please tell me when you’re gonna be on it!’”
The truth is that Johnson no longer returns his calls, and hasn’t given him any work since Diner, 30 years ago. “To this day,” Chief says, “I don’t know why Mark has just totally ignored me.”

Trisha and Chief have been separated since 1994, but they didn’t finalize the divorced until 2009. She’s never visited him in California. He has two grandkids now, but he has to think for a moment when I ask how often he sees them or his children.

“Winter of ’09, everybody got out to Seattle to see mom while I was there. … My son and I talk all the time. The girls, the younger girls, you know I leave messages with them. I’ve now cut it down to every other Sunday, I call and leave a voicemail.”

Donna Bible: “Chief was a bit of a tragic character in that he didn’t know how to get off of the roller coaster of the expectations of his generosity, his humor, his brilliance.”

I ask Chief if he still has the white dinner jacket. “I don’t have it with me out here,” he says. “If it’s with some clothes of mine back in Virginia I just don’t know. I would happily don it again, or don a new one.”

He clearly misses Fellini’s, but not being a lawyer. “You know, I didn’t like practicing law anyway, and if I were foolish enough to try to do it again something bad would happen. Either the same thing would happen, …” he pauses for a moment but doesn’t finish that thought.

When it comes to the events leading up to the end of his law career, all Chief will say is, “The record speaks for itself. [Debbie] did what she had to do, and it ended the way it did. There’s really nothing to say about that.”

But why, I ask, why did you steal the money?

“Overextended would be the word, the simple explanation.”

It’s not a satisfactory answer, but it’s the only one he’ll give. After all the questions about his personal life, and all the stories of sexual deviance, his arrest and disbarment are the only things he refuses to talk about.

Zipper: “If you toned Chief down, you wouldn’t have had the joy.”

Plunket told me a story about Chief’s life in L.A. that he says Chief told him. He’d started hanging out with this woman who ended up in the local women’s prison, and when Chief asked if there was anything she needed from the outside, she said that the one thing they couldn’t get was nice underwear. So Chief helped her out. “When the tips are big,” he said, “It’s Victoria’s Secret, and when they’re not, I go to J.C. Penny.”

Well, eventually the original woman disappeared, but Chief kept visiting, delivering lingerie to new friends he’d made every Thursday. The final twist came when some of the inmates he’d been visiting were released to house arrest due to overcrowding. When the judge asked if they had anyone to stay with, they all said “Chief Gordon!”

“So it starts out visiting someone he knows,” Plunket told me, “turns into papering L.A. County women’s penitentiary lock-up with underwear, and then it turns into women are being remanded to Chief’s custody for 30, 60, 90 days to stem the overflow in the jails… He’s like, ‘Well, I’ve got a one bedroom! Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.’”
Chief doesn’t remember this story, but he says he was friends with one female inmate who asked him to pick up some heroin in San Diego and smuggle it into prison for her, but he politely declined.

Chief’s current roommate is a woman who was once a man, even served in Vietnam. They met in a bar one night and Chief “being fooled by her getup,” thought he was going to get lucky. Later that night she told him the truth and they became friends. He also tells me about another “dear friend” who’s a dominatrix. He says he plans to help her with some videos she wants to make by “suffering indignities at the hand of her whip. Crack! Crack!”
One day in 2006, Zipper was walking down the stairs at Vivace, the Italian restaurant he owns in town, when he heard a familiar voice say, “Zippy, Zippy, Zippy!” It was Chief, back in Charlottesville for his eldest daughter’s wedding.

Zipper: “I swear, my legs buckled. I thought I was going to die laughing. And he was sitting right here, and he was telling me about his limo driving. And of course I said to him, ‘Tell me a sordid story,’ and he starts telling me this story about John Travolta.”

Chief: “Now I did drive Travolta and I think he came on to me. Ironically, the restaurant came up. I’m not sure how we came around to that, but he said, ‘So you used to own a restaurant?’

“And I said, ‘That’s right John, I did.’
‘Did you ever have any after hours parties at that restaurant of yours?’
‘Yes John, as a matter of fact I did.’
‘You ever get any sex at those after hours parties?’
‘You know John, sometimes!’
‘So, you tell me you’re living in Hollywood. Is that right?’
‘Yeah…’
‘What’s the street life like there in Hollywood?’
‘Well, you know, it’s kind of like…’
‘You ever get any sex at that street life in Hollywood?’
‘Well, sometimes John.’
“You know I fully expected him to say, ‘Let’s pull over here in this shady off road and talk about this further.’ But that’s as far as it went.”

Zipper: “I had two girls eating dinner right here, and he just got a little carried away with it, and when he left I looked at the girls, they were young, about 18, and I said, ‘Sorry girls, that was a little bit rough.’ And they went, ‘No, we loved it!’”

Epilogue
Michael Williams: “He invented Chief Gordon. He could’ve been F. Guthrie Gordon, attorney at law. That didn’t have much appeal to him. He decided to invent Chief Gordon, and for good or ill he did a great job at that. There wasn’t anything phony about it. That’s what he wanted to be.”

For years I’ve wanted to know more about Chief Gordon. He was a romantic figure in my mind, the perfect combination of dashing and decadent and the kind of person I sometimes dreamt of being. I was searching for Chief Gordon, and when I met him, I felt a twinge of disappointment. Chief is no longer the person I wanted him to be. But of course that’s unfair. What actor can ever live up to his greatest role?

My wife was with me when I met Chief, and he complimented her often, tried hard to make her laugh and never failed to ask after her whenever we talked on the phone. But when I asked her what she thought after hearing all the stories, she said he seemed like a ghost. After a while, I began to see that she was right. The more I wrote, the more he disappeared before my eyes, slipping into the cracks between my words and other people’s memories. The more I learned about him, the less I knew who he really was.

Chief’s old partner Debbie Wyatt once had a conversation about Chief with another lawyer, and the two of them tried to figure out which parts of him were a mask and which were real. He seemed to always be acting, she says. But she also remembers that he would leave the office every day to go down to the restaurant and make the salad dressing. It was one of his duties; he always had little duties and he was faithful to them. Debbie told me that story more than once, and when she did, I heard a fondness in her voice that I hadn’t heard before.

I think the only real moment I had with Chief happened the last time we spoke. I needed to ask some difficult questions that I’d been avoiding out of nervousness. He handled them well and was pleasant and easygoing, as he was every time we talked. After we said goodbye, as I took the phone away from my ear and ended the call, I heard him say “Christ!” loudly and angrily. It was the only emotion I ever got from him, the only sign that anything had ever penetrated the persona. Maybe he was swearing at a bad driver, or maybe he’d missed his bus, but it made me feel sad and ashamed and I never called him again.

Trisha Gordon had dinner at the new Fellini’s a couple months ago to celebrate her youngest daughter’s birthday. “She wanted to go there,” Trisha says, “and it was really nice. I enjoyed it.” Is it weird, I ask, to see that building? Do you often find yourself thinking about those days? “Not much,” she says, “There’s so much other stuff that’s come and gone since then that I’m not reminded, even seeing Fellini’s. It’s just like, it was a long time ago.”

I was searching for Chief Gordon, and the old Fellini’s, but I was also searching for the old Charlottesville. It was a Charlottesville I had heard about from my parents and their friends, a town where hippies and southern gentry mingled at parties and where the line between the respectable and the depraved was much harder to find. In Fellini’s tragic end, I saw the burned out star of the Charlottesville I live in now; bigger, richer, more sterile, and no longer able to nurture someone like Chief. But maybe Trisha is right. It was a long time ago, so much has come and gone and maybe what I was looking for no longer exists, if it ever did.

Chief seems to have left it all behind as well, out there in sun-bleached Los Angeles. “In Charlottesville I was seen to be a bit of an eccentric character,” he says. “Man, now I’m middle of the road. There’s lots of goofier characters out here.”

“My personality is what it is. Things worked out as they were meant to. And I’m happy out here in L.A. I’d pretty well burnt out Charlottesville.”

But despite what he says, and despite his transvestite roommate and dominatrix friend and his endless tales of driving the stars around Hollywood, I get the feeling that there’s not much to fill his days. After so many years surrounded by people having a good time, he seems completely alone. He’s the last one at the party, staring at the mess that’s been left behind, too scared to turn out the lights.

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