Backseat Babylon: confessions of a Hollywood limo driver
By Gina Piccalo For The Telegraph.
September 9, 2014
Drunk film stars, diva demands, stormy affairs... The limo driver played by Robert Pattinson in Maps to the Stars sees it all. But what about his real life counterparts?
The steamy August morning that Maurice Dean’s white limousine became a glamorous getaway car started off like any other. Alone at the dispatcher’s desk, he answered a call from a guy named Carlos Gambino, requesting a car for several hours.
Dean, then 27, was already an experienced limo driver who knew discretion and flexibility led to fat tips. He didn’t ask probing questions. He threw on a dark suit jacket over a crisply pressed white shirt, and slid into the driver’s seat. Then he guided the limo along the parched, palm-lined streets of Los Angeles until he found his client, a freckled 23-year-old wearing a dark blazer, holding a briefcase, standing in front of a posh house in Beverly Hills.
“He looked like [youthful Mad magazine mascot] Alfred E. Newman,” said Dean, now 50, recalling that day from the desk of Excelsior Limo, the service he owns with his wife. “That’s when I learnt you can’t trust anybody.”
Hollywood’s limo drivers, like its life coaches and plastic surgeons, see privilege at its best and its very worst. (Justin Bieber’s driver, who had the pop star arrested for assault this year, can attest to that.) They’re both confidante and enabler. The dark leather confines of their sedans and SUVs are equal parts sanctuary and stage. Bruce Wagner, the novelist and screenwriter of David Cronenberg's film Maps to the Stars, drove a limo in the Nineties, shuttling the likes of Orson Wells and Mick Jagger. He compared it to another one of his odd jobs: ambulance-driving.
“There was something quite similar between driving with people who were either dying or thought they were,” he said recently, “and people who were either famous or thought they were.”
Wagner now has Beverly Hills street names tattooed on his fingers. In the film, Robert Pattinson plays the Wagner character, a screenwriter-actor-limo driver who gets drawn into the tragic melodrama of a showbiz family.
As the film depicts, limo drivers are often a celebrity’s main line of defense against the banal, even unsavory, demands of real life. It’s not uncommon for a limo driver to discreetly shuttle a celebrity’s prostitutes and mistresses and keep their drug habits and family squabbles secret.
“I’ve had clients cry on my shoulder,” says Dean. “I’ve picked up clients and carried them to their bedroom because they’re too drunk. We’ve become friends outside driving as well.”
Just before her wedding to Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes entrusted her £31,000 ($50,000), Swarovski crystal Armani wedding gown and her bridesmaids’ dresses to Dean, who stashed them in his car until morning.
“I was actually in the room with Katie Holmes when she was trying on her wedding dress,” says Dean. “I could have snapped a picture and been a millionaire.”
Lindsey Lohan’s mother Dina regaled one Los Angeles driver with tales of her good parenting; proud that Lohan was 14 years old before she ever drank Scotch. “I put my foot down!” she told the veteran driver, who anonymously posted the experience at limoconfessions.blogspot.com. “And she followed my rules.” Then she asked the driver to pull over at a tattoo parlor. “I’m pricing dog tattoos for Lindsay!” she said.
That same driver gamely stood in line at a hot dog stand for Britney Spears when she craved a chilidog with everything on it. “I would give a million bucks to be able to stand in that line without anybody knowing who I am,” she told her driver. “But hey, I’m a zillionaire chick, so I’m not allowed to complain.”
Another one of Spears’ drivers found her an all-night wedding chapel in Las Vegas so she could marry her childhood friend, inspiring a mini-scandal for the pop star. Snoop Dogg is notorious for keeping drivers waiting all night outside his hotel, just in case he gets the munchies.
“Hip hop artists think they own you,” bemoaned that driver on his anonymous blog seeeverythingsaynothing.com. “That was a 21-hour day for me.” The limo world is full of tales of drivers having to don rubber gloves and pick up condoms from the back seat at the end of a shift. And the late singer Whitney Houston's demands on her drivers were reportedly so horrendous than many still shudder at the mention of her name.
For the wealthy lesser-knowns, a good limo driver will get your groceries, pick up your dry-cleaning, babysit the kids or even read the books and magazines you haven’t gotten to yet so you can sound worldly at cocktail parties.
“Imagine if you didn't have to do anything that wasn't fun in your life, you had someone to go out and do it for you --that's what I do,” says one longtime Los Angeles chauffeur.
Limo drivers in LA are often aspiring actors and writers drawn to the job by its flexible hours. The average driver earns about £19,000 ($30,000) per year. Sometimes, they land glamorous perks, like a gratis week at a rich client's summer home in La Jolla, Calif. or a free Armani suit. But they rarely get rich behind the wheel.
Mostly, they spend a lot of time waiting, parked in some of the world’s most famous driveways, outside awards shows and nightclubs. There are times, as Dean’s wife Lubov Demchuk-Dean wrote in a recent article for narrative.ly, when a driver is so much at the mercy of a client he can’t even take a bathroom break.
“When there are no facilities in sight and a driver ‘has to go,’ they might rely on empty water bottles,” she wrote. “The tinted windows help them be discreet.”
Those tinted windows were no doubt one reason the now infamous Gambino chose a limo to commit his crimes. As Dean remembered it, Gambino refused to talk face-to-face, instead hiding behind the privacy panel obscuring the driver’s view of the back seat. He spoke through the intercom, ordering Dean to make intermittent stops at fast food joints and strip malls.
Dean grew so suspicious that he started jotting down the location of each stop. At the last stop, Gambino came up suddenly from an alley. “He jumped in the car screaming – ‘Go! Go! Go!’” Dean recalls.
Dean hit the gas, and as he drove, he pushed the button on the limo’s intercom. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
Gambino was breathless. He mumbled something about his wife needing him at home. “I said, ‘I’m either going to take you back to that store or I’m calling the police,’” Dean told him.
“No! No! No!” Gambino pleaded. “Just take me home. Just keep the money!”
But Dean suspected he’d been an unwitting accomplice and called police from the car. As soon as the limo reached Beverly Hills, a caravan of police cars fell in line behind them, following all the way to Gambino’s house. As Dean parked, the squadron surrounded the limo.
“I got out of the car and started running down the street,” recalled Dean. “I hid behind a car across the street. I was waiting for a shootout.”
Gambino, whose real name is Ian Seth Goldstein, succumbed peacefully. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison for robbing several stores at gunpoint, including £16,000 ($26,000) from a coin and stamp store. For his help, Dean won the Courageous Citizens Award from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
Today, at his own limo service, Dean’s drivers rarely use limousines anymore. Those stretch cars don’t telegraph the same power and affluence they once did.
"People who use Town Cars are important," he says. "People who use SUVs are important and hip. People who use limousines think that they’re important."