THE TELEVISED IMAGE of truck driver Reginald Denny being unmercifully beaten at Florence and Normandie avenues South Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, ranks among the memories many of us can recall and, inexplicably, also recall what we were doing as we saw the tragic riot of the year unfold.
I caught the first images of the Denny attack on an overhead TV in the visiting room at the Daniel Freeman Hospital substance abuse clinic in Marina Del Rey, where I happened to be visiting performer Diana Ross’ youngest brother.
Chico Ross was a self-styled after-hours club owner who had once been married to the little sister of Playboy centerfold Shannon Tweed but whose life had degenerated into the pathetic Hollywood cliche of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
He told me he had needed money and was again resorting to what washed-up celebrities and the almost-famous often do. He was selling his story – which is to say his story about his life with his famous sister, Diana – through me to the sleazy British tabloids for what would turn out to be tens of thousands of dollars.
“I’m not proud of myself,” Chico told me when we first set out to write his story.
“So why are you doing it?” I asked. “The money?”
“No, it’s not the money,” he said, lying to both of us.
So over several weeks, Chico had unveiled his life of growing up with Diana and the Jacksons. He still had access to the Jackson clan, and we spent long nights into the morning visiting with various members of the former Motown singing group as well as with relatives of Motown founder Berry Gordy.
One night he called me to come get him from a drug shooting gallery in South Los Angeles. Another time he was attacked and had a front tooth knocked out.
“It’s hard,” he said, “being in a family of someone famous when the only thing you have to be famous for is being related to someone famous.”
It dawned on me then that Chico Ross was just one of many in similar situations – people related to someone famous who seem to be crying out for recognition of their own, even if negative recognition.
Billy Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s brother, came immediately to mind. Soon President Bill Clinton’s brother Roger would have the same dubious distinction.
I remember asking Chico why he didn’t ask his sister for help.
“I don’t need her help,” he insisted. “I can turn my life around on my own.”
Instead, he tumbled further into the abyss.
Then on April 29, I got another call from Chico.
“I’ve been in rehab and they say I can now have visitors – can you come?” He sounded plaintive and, I feared, suicidal.
We played cards much of the afternoon in a visitors’ room filled with other addicts in the throes of rehab, as well as their apprehensive relatives.
At some point, the game shows that had been on the television set blurred into a news bulletin of the Simi Valley courtroom acquittal of the four LAPD cops in the Rodney King case, then exploded into what seemed like surrealistic images from helicopter cameras of angry crowds and Reginald Denny having his brains bashed in with a brick.
The visitors’ room at Daniel Freeman went silent and numb. Jaws dropped and eyes glistened in disbelief. It went unspoken, but suddenly everyone must have realized that the world’s problems were bigger than the addictions in this room.
It also struck me that what I was seeing on the television set was, like Chico Ross, Billy Carter and the like, another instance of insignificant people becoming famous for all the wrong reasons.
Amid this, a nurse informed Chico that he had a telephone call. He left for a few minutes, then returned.
“My sister’s on the phone,” he said. “She wants to talk to you.”
I assumed that she wanted to read me the riot act, a less violent form at least, about writing a story about her family. I was wrong.
“Hi, this is Diane, Chico’s sister,” she began, calling herself Diane, not Diana. “Chico says he trusts you, so I need to trust you. Is he going to be OK? I’m in Vegas doing a show. Do I need to cancel and fly there tonight?”
I told her I thought her brother was fine as long as he stayed in rehab. She said that if she could delay doing so, she would fly into Los Angeles the next morning to check on Chico herself.
“But he has to stay there,” she said. “Promise me he’ll stay there, even if you have to be there yourself.”
She gave me a handful of telephone numbers for contacting her should there be an emergency.
Then, out of nowhere, she asked:
“Is there a riot there? Someone said they were rioting in L.A. Is that true?”
Her distinctive voice didn’t fit in with the images of the Florence and Normandie intersection violence I was watching on the TV screen, even as she asked if L.A. was rioting.
I told her there was violence, but no rioting. It wasn’t that I was lying, but that the rioting hadn’t fully developed.
“Good, I’m glad to hear that,” she said. “People are always exaggerating.”