Bill Berle is comedian Milton Berle’s adopted son. We became friends in a western civilization class at CSUN. I sat at the desk in front of Bill with my body turned so that my ear was in proximity to his wisecracks. Our whispers and snickers provided a backdrop for the teacher’s bi-weekly lectures and blackboard demonstrations. It is not that the class was boring. For history it was as good as it gets. The professor, Julian Nava, was masterful in bringing the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and ancient Romans to life. Historical time lines and battles were punctuated with discussions about bizarre customs, including unconventional sex practices.
“Were you in a Nazi concentration camp?” I tentatively asked Dr. Nava after class one day. For two months, I had been horrified by the tattooed numbers on his forearm, assuming he was an Auschwitz survivor. During the Holocaust, Nazis had labeled Jews and other “undesirables” according to their race and fitness for labor. Certain digits had a particular significance. The complicated system was devised by IBM.
“No. I was a pilot in the Navy. The numbers were for identification purposes, in case a plane crashed. A pilot’s hands and forearm might be found attached to the steering wheel while the rest of the body’s gone.”
I recoiled at the thought.
Dr. Nava was more than a professor. In 1980, he had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. He had been born to Mexican immigrants and had served as the first Hispanic on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. In 1993, he was a pallbearer at Caesar Chavez’s funeral.
Bill had no desire to track down his natural parents, and I figured if intuition told him that it was a bad idea, maybe it was. An adopted child might inherently sense unhappiness and disease festering on her family tree. Branches could be rotting from the weight of alcoholics, convicted felons, or suicidal kin. The family tree could have withered entirely. It could have been dead for years. It is possible an adopted kid intuits such things.
On the other hand, I felt that even bad news about ones relatives might be enlightening. It might help an adopted child better understand herself and improve her lot in life. Knowledge can bolster personal happiness, and some researchers have come to a similar conclusion. They say that adopted kids often search for their natural parents due to an emotional split from the community in which they are raised. The reunion with the genetic mom or dad can aid in solidifying personal identity.
“I never felt the need to find my natural parents and don’t have any baggage from being adopted,” Bill told me. “As the child of Milton Berle, I got to live like a little prince. Out of respect for my adoptive parents, my mom in particular, I haven’t felt the need to search.”
I heard Bill’s words, but didn’t altogether believe him. There was a glint of sorrow in his eyes and a sense that he struggled to live up to the expectations of his dad. On some level, he may have enjoyed luxuries as a little prince of Beverly Hills, but on another level, he seemed isolated and jaded about the world. Bill’s world was bizarre compared with that of the average American. Bill had lived on the fast track of glitz and sexual promiscuity with a father who surely loved him, but who was self-absorbed, dictatorial, and disliked by many.
I was about to be brought into the unpleasant world of Milton Berle.
The 18,945 square foot Friar’s Club looked like a windowless, grand yacht. It was anchored on Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Milton Berle and other old-time celebrities had started the private show business club in 1947. They frequented the venue for lunch and events. The ceiling was shaped like a rolling wave, and the dining room was a spacious cabin at the stern of the mighty structure.
Bill and I were seated at Milton’s private table in the center of the room, and that is where I met the famous comic, who wore a blazer and gray slacks and treated me as if I was a deck chair rather than a person. By the end of the meal, it felt like I had been thrown overboard or walked the plank.
“I fucked Nancy Reagan, Lucille Ball, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe,” Milton bragged as if trying to impress me or somehow be funny.
“Nice… to meet you,” I stammered, truly disgusted by the vile and misogynistic language. The man totally lacked class, and although I had rejected much of my Atlanta upbringing, I was unimpressed with people who cursed a lot or made an effort to be offensive. The comedian brought out the “debutante” in me.
“I bet you’ve heard about my dick.” Milton slid into a monologue about his gigantic penis and then segued into kinky details about recent sexual exploits with women whom he clearly did not respect. I felt sorry for Milton’s wife and glanced at Bill. He looked embarrassed.
“She gave me head and I ate her snatch….Me and that broad. We shtupped for three hours…” Milton suddenly noticed a patron on the other side of the room. “Oh, I gotta give that cocksucker a cigar.” He jumped from the table for one of his many flits to converse with diners.
The menu was predetermined. A waiter appeared with a tray of dishes, which prompted Milton to dock himself at our table for a bite.
“I’m a vegetarian. No meat, please,” I told the waiter as he spooned portions of food onto our plates.
“No. Give her some of that,” Milton said, pointing to a beef dish.
The waiter seemed torn, but ultimately decided to obey Milton.
“No, no,” I pleaded. “No meat, please.”
“Give it to her,” Milton motioned again at the beef dish. “And give her some of that chicken, too.”
The waiter flashed an apologetic look but did as Milton commanded. My pleas had been firm, but the comedian did not care. He seemed to be on an ego trip or think he was at war with me. I had lost the battle of the Friar’s Club lunch, and my plate was contaminated. My innocent peas and crisp salad had lost the battle as well. Meat sauce oozed onto them, encroaching upon their purity and deliciousness. Tiny chunks from terrorized chickens tainted my once pristine rice. Bill looked ashamed but stayed silent. It was as if he knew from experience that he could not confront his dad. He had no doubt lost countless skirmishes himself. His spirit had been wounded.
I ate nothing for lunch, but Milton—still obsessing over sex stories—failed to notice. When the comedian bolted from the table to continue his romp around the room, Bill told me that his dad had sent a prostitute to his hotel room when he was sixteen to provide him with his first sexual encounter and that his dad had once suggested the two of them be “serviced” by the same woman.
“I hate your dad,” I told Bill at the end of lunch.
“I know,” Bill replied, as if this sentiment had been expressed as often as Milton’s vulgarities.
Milton later told Bill that his only mistake in life was adopting him in 1961. Devastated, Bill placed a gun to his head, but in the end did not pull the trigger. Today, Milton and Bill’s adoptive mother are dead. Bill still has no desire to search for his birth family.