In the land of Goshen
by Charles Shaughnessy
“And thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen…. And there will I nourish thee; for yet there are five years of famine; lest thou, and thy household, and all that thou hast, come to poverty.”
The Land of Goshen was a place of refuge where Jacob and his family could ride out the bad times: a place of safety, renewal and hope.
“I hope you don’t have any plans for the next seven years!”
I was standing on a balcony, looking down one of the many canyons that slope down the side of the Santa Monica Mountains from Mulholland Drive. It was a typical balmy, spring night, the moon hung crystal sharp over the distant Pacific and you could actually see into some of the houses that clung to the sides of the hill like glittering limpets. Suddenly a dog exploded in a frenzy of breathless barking; an emphatic warning to some raccoon that these hills were no longer public property and that he would have to raid someone else’s trashcan if he wanted to keep his tail!
We were celebrating the fact that CBS had green-lit the pilot to a show called The Nanny. Despite the overwhelming odds against a pilot actually “going to series”, we were giddily enthusiastic and in the mood to celebrate even this small victory. Rob Sternin, Executive Producer of the show, had escaped the frantic, vodka-fuelled party inside and was leaning on the railing next to me.
“I’m sure there’s nothing I couldn’t put on hold. I’ll check with my social secretary”, I said.
We both grunted a half-wishful, half-hopeful laugh and looked back down the canyon. Only now I looked with different eyes. What had a moment ago seemed like a snug, sleepy community nestled cozily into the dark hills like puppies on a blanket, had suddenly become “real estate”. In some corner of my brain I had just calculated how much money seven years would mean and just how many of those hillside homes I might be able to buy.
In the end we made six seasons of The Nanny for CBS. It was “the little engine that could”. With no “big names” above the marquee we were always the “also-rans”. Of course, Fran Drescher went on to become a huge TV star as a result of this show, but, at the time we started, her biggest claim to fame was as Bobbi Fleckman in “Here Comes Spinal Tap”, and as part of the “Princesses” ensemble on CBS – a show that lasted three episodes! In New York, at the up-front dinner, where the network trotted out its new shows to potential advertisers, our table was closest to the kitchen and we never got dessert. Faye Dunaway and the action movie star, Chuck Norris, both had new shows that year and they were treated like royalty; we were made to feel fortunate to have nabbed an invite to the Ball at all. But then we all know how Cinderella turned out, don’t we?
So, I bought that real estate, and private schools, and catered birthday parties, and private trainers, and spring break at the Grand Wailea, and first class… I bought the whole package. And why not? At first it had seemed like an intoxicating novelty. Success brought all kinds of perks from no waiting in restaurants, free promotional “stuff”, lots of attention from hotel and “wait” staff and, of course, money! We pretty much indulged ourselves as though we deserved it. And then, on April 10, 2005, two months after my 50th birthday, it all evaporated like an exotic dream. Around 11:00 that morning we got a phone call from our business manager, Bill Wine’s, office:
“Missing? Not come in to work ‘missing’, or missing ‘missing’?”
Phyllis, Bill’s assistant, was doing her best to maintain calm despite a rising hysteria.
“No. Missing missing! No one knows where he is and it looks like he’s been up to something with the clients’ money.”
And just like that we went from owning the whole package, to owning little more than what we didn’t owe on the house and a small checking account.
Phyllis, it should be said, at this time and for the next few months, despite her own loss, worked tirelessly to mitigate the shock and ease the financial pain for all of Bill’s victims. She worked round the clock, picking through the ashes of this monumental scam to find scraps for his devastated clients to live on. It was a tsunami. Of course, tsunamis can be relative. I am not comparing what happened to us with what happened in Japan or Indonesia, nevertheless, if the water knocks down your house, it can seem pretty devastating to YOU, if not everyone else. This knocked down our house. At least, we lost it. We moved into a small, one floor rental, I sold my BMW, eating out was a thing of the past, my eldest daughter had to leave her private school and go to the local public school, personal trainers were let go, birthdays were downsized, Gelson’s was traded for Trader Joe’s… but here’s the funny thing, I also happen to think it was the happiest, most important time of our lives.
Of course I didn’t feel that on February 10th. Or for a year or two after that, as a matter of fact, but the Universe moves at its own pace and lessons are there to be learnt when you are prepared to listen. My wife suspects this is my way of dealing with the trauma. “Always look on the bright side of life!” But I honestly believe that Bill Wine despite all evidence to the contrary, may actually have done us a favor.
You see the house that we built in Santa Monica (north of Montana), or rather the house that “The Nanny” built, was intended to be our “dream house”, and to a large extent, it was. It was a beautiful Tuscan villa that dipped and flowed through about 4,000 square feet of old timbers, tumbled marble and distressed plaster walls. We filled it with gorgeous furniture, paintings, objects d’art and hand painted frescoes. The house itself was a work of art. What we forgot was that a family was going to live there. I have nothing against populating your house with as many mementos of past vacations and sentimental knick-knacks as you can dust in a day, but our very talented decorator mostly picked ours out. It was really one big, expensive “set” decorated with props that tastefully told the story of our success: it just wasn’t actually “our story”. We certainly had space to spread out, but had to communicate with each other over an intercom. The sweeping staircase was magnificently dramatic, but not exactly safe for a tousle-haired toddler.
And it didn’t stop at the house. Maybe it goes back to that thing about “vagabonds and thieves”, but when an actor becomes middle-class (by which I mean rich), he drinks deeply of that heady brew. Maybe he just wants to be thought of as “one of the chaps”, eligible for the country club, belonging to the serious strata of society. Or maybe he just can’t resist the role. We love to inhabit skins other than our own, so why not that of a cigar smoking, wine tasting, private-school-fundraising, portfolio bearing, Grand Wailea-vacationing, “Indian Princess” dad. The trouble is, the longer you wear the make-up, the harder it is to take off. We began to lose touch with our old friends. Yes, having kids affects whom you hang out with to an extent. They tend to be other parents at school or playgroup, but many of our old friends also had kids and we were not seeing them as much. It was no one’s fault. It can be disruptive when one person in your group enjoys sudden success. It can suddenly be uncomfortable to be eating dinner in their ornate and richly decorated dining room, when, in return, you invite them back to eat Thai take-out at your one-bedroom-apartment’s kitchen table. There is no snobbery involved; it’s just that the tribal identity of “penniless artist” has vanished. I remember one evening in particular when a bunch of us went out for dinner at some favorite local eatery. This was soon after my success on The Nanny was established. The check arrived and I found myself in a dilemma that I had never foreseen. Do I pick up the whole check and am seen as “Mr. Money-Bags rubbing in his success?” Or do I let everyone pitch in and be seen as “ Mr. Tightwad who doesn’t want to share the wealth!”
Not a simple thing.
Another strange thing happened when we began to make “serious” money. It became much more important in our lives. I started checking the stock market more often, worrying about which investment we should make, comparing our wealth with those, in our circle, who seemed to have more; money seemed to be much further forward in my consciousness than it had ever been before. I certainly gave some thought to how I could best “give back”, donated to favorite charities and even played with the notion of starting one myself. But, to be honest, this was a half-hearted effort as most of my energy was focused on making the most of what I had: plotting as to how to make my money “work” and multiply. I look back on those days and think about the vacations we took, the cars we drove, the house we owned…and I remember the “ things” much more clearly than I can remember us being happy. I honestly don’t think we were. And that is shocking to me. I consider it a huge blessing that I had the opportunity to see both sides of the “wealth” coin and have learned some invaluable lessons. I have certainly re-defined “success” as being far more complex and personal than the outward trappings of fame and fortune, and I have clarified some important priorities. Now, seven years later, we are back on our feet.
I am working as an actor, one daughter graduated college and is working in production and looking to get into politics, the other about to graduate High School. Recently we bought a small but charming and comfortable house. Whatever life brings our way from now on, I like to think that I will enjoy it very differently. I now know that life HAS to be lived outwardly. What comes in must find a way out, whether we are talking about success, love, money or even knowledge.
The Universe, and everything in it, beginning with the Big Bang (expansion), and what we now believe is its current slowing down (retraction) is all about breathing in and out. Like the tides, like the seasons, like life and death itself, it’s all about “in” and “out”. If you don’t breathe in, you die. If you don’t breathe out, you die. Next time around, I will make sure that I am breathing out as much as I am breathing in!
Finally, here’s a little coda to this whole extraordinary journey we found ourselves on. You remember that little bungalow we rented just after we lost our mansion? The place that became our refuge for the next year while we licked our wounds, re-grouped, hugged each other a little tighter and moved on? It so happened that from the kitchen of that little house you could clearly see the street sign of the road that intersected ours: Goshen Avenue.