After my initial experience with corporate phone tappery at Paramount Pictures, I had a more personal and direct experience when I worked for Malcolm Forbes, whom we called MSF–the way he signed his name.
Of all the many properties MSF owned around the world, the ones I knew best were the New York townhouse and the Forbes Magazine building. The townhouse, connected to the rear of the building through a door that led into MSF’s office, was where I did my work stuff four mornings a week.
I had become a qualified, if subversive, guide to the public areas of the buildings even before my Anglo-French friend Hélène, on a visit to New York, came to meet me at Forbes one afternoon.
That day, as was often the case, MSF was out of town. His absence was a prerequisite to escorting friends through his office and townhouse. He was, for all the warmth he projected, a rigorously formal, cool man. Even those of us without awe did not just parade into his office, friend in tow, with a wave at him as he sat behind his desk and a “Hey Malcolm! just taking my friend Hélène around, continue whatever you were doing.”
That day, just as I began the MSF Townhouse Tour with Hélène, Malcolm’s houseboy appeared. Please excuse the term “houseboy” but I can’t think of, nor do I want to think of, a euphemistic job title. This particular houseboy was a sweet kid from the rough streets of upper Manhattan, naive to the social [im]proprieties of the nouveau riche and therefore vulnerable to Malcolm’s frequent grand seigneur gestures – usually followed by overtures of a sexual nature. This shy kid, I’m sure, had been happy to take the job and, unwittingly, the implicit role as Great White Man’s Burden.
“Want to see The Boss’s place?” he asked us. (“The Boss” was the male personal staff’s name for MSF; another Jersey boy, Bruce Springsteen, hadn’t sued, as far as I know.) So Hélène got two guides: I did the kultcha bits, paintings and what-nots, and the houseboy did the naughty bits, of which I had heard but had not yet seen.
No, no–you’re not going to get the naughty bits here, because the point in this narrative is phone tapping. Remember?
We were in MSF’s bedroom, a surprisingly small room, with an attached bathroom. On a night table at the side of the bed was a phone and a device that appeared to be an answering machine. It wasn’t. At some point, MSF had begun tapping and taping our office calls.
We owed this heady info to a friend who was close to a security guard who talked too much. He had taken her upstairs, played the tape back for her and she heard her own voice chatting and giggling with a friend. She was stunned.
After she told me, I would cheerfully warn anyone who called and was leaning toward a kvetch about MSF, “Be careful what you say. Our phones are tapped.”
I suspect that MSF’s eavesdropping had less to do with paranoia than titillation, that he was hoping for some sexy chitchat. The rest of the bedroom confirmed my suspicion that he required a little extra in the stimulation department: at the foot of the bed, sitting on a long table, were statues of a mildly erotic disposition. A Grecian-type naked lady, stuff like that. Nothing that turned me on or that was memorably dirty.
There was something slightly embarrassing about the statuary line-up, as if whoever gazed upon it could equally get off on bare-breasted women once pictured in National Geographic.