[JPL] THE MAD, VICIOUS LIFE OF PHIL & RONNIE SPECTOR
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Wed Mar 7 13:24:10 EST 2007
THE MAD, VICIOUS LIFE OF PHIL & RONNIE SPECTOR
By MAUREEN CALLAHAN
"It was a sick love. He even said, 'I have a glass casket in the basement,
for Ronnie.' "
- Ronnie Spector
March 7, 2007 -- IN the more than 40 years that she has been famous, Ronnie
Spector has been known as many things: the teenage protégée of her future
husband, mad genius Phil Spector; star of the brilliant '60s girl-group the
Ronettes; abused wife; then, after her divorce in 1974, a rock 'n' roll
With the induction of the Ronettes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Monday night, Ronnie Spector's narrative would seem to have reached a
satisfying denouement, validating her artistry and reframing her as a
post-feminist rock icon.
Today, however, Ronnie sees herself as something else entirely: Phil
Spector's greatest victim, still. The way she sees it, Phil has done more
damage to her than to anyone: even, say, the other Ronettes, who claim that
Phil cheated them out of money and proper credit. Or the Spectors' adopted
children, who claim that Phil abused them. Or even Lana Clarkson, the woman
Phil allegedly shot to death three years ago. (His trial begins March 19,
one week after the Ronettes' induction.)
"He wrote the Hall of Fame to tell them not to put me in," she says. "He did
everything he could to stop me. He's bitter that I left him. He wants
everyone to think he's the mastermind. He thought everything was because of
Listening to Ronnie Spector talk is disconcerting for several reasons. At
63, she speaks with a little-girl patois that's undercut by a thick New York
accent and a pebbly voice. She can, and does, take all questions unrelated
to Phil and makes them related to Phil. She sees everything through one
prism: her rock 'n' roll martyrdom. When asked whether she expects to be
subpoenaed as a witness in Phil's upcoming murder trial, she says, "You
would really have to talk to my lawyers. I do know that's the reason he did
it." (Her publicist forcibly stops her from elaborating.)
"You're talking about two people who are totally f----d up," says Mark
Ribowksy, author of the Phil Spector bio "He's a Rebel." "They're both
When she first met Phil, Ronnie - then Veronica Bennett - was barely 18, a
sheltered girl from Spanish Harlem. She says she grew up wanting to be like
"the sassy black girls flicking their cigarettes on the street." Back then,
she didn't drink or smoke, and though she would come to epitomize a new
strain of rock chick - with her beehive hair, heavy black eyeliner, short
skirts and uncertain ethnicity, she came across as uncontrollable, as
dangerous as the boys. It was all persona.
"She wasn't really rebellious," says writer Josh Allen Friedman, a post-Phil
ex-boyfriend. "She wasn't allowed to date musicians. She had her mama
looking out for her. At the time I knew her, she didn't have one record in
While still in her teens, Ronnie, along with her sister Estelle and cousin
Nedra Talley, sang in a group called, unfortunately, Ronnie & the Relatives.
They were signed to Don Kirshner's Dimension Records, which operated out of
the Brill Building in Midtown - that is until Phil, who worked with
Kirshner, heard them and quickly co-opted them.
"When Phil heard my voice, he pushed the piano back and said, 'That's the
voice I've been waiting for!'" Ronnie recalls. "And he meant it. No [other
artist] could stay with him very long, because his mind was so much on me."
"With her, it becomes 'me, me, me, me, me,'" says ex-Ronette Talley. In that
way, Talley says, Ronnie and Phil were well-suited: "Phil's got some 'me,
me, me, me, me' issues," she says dryly.
The Ronettes had their first hit single in 1963, with "Be My Baby," which
Brian Wilson later called "the greatest pop record ever made." They toured
with the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Phil, who was still married when he
got involved with Ronnie, was petrified that she'd prefer Mick or Keith or
Paul or John to him.
"When the headlines broke that the girls were screaming over The Beatles and
the guys were screaming over the Ronettes, Phil was on that plane to London
in two days," Ronnie says. "I thought he was coming over to make us bigger.
He came over to stop it."
Phil began further isolating Ronnie from her sister and cousin. "I didn't
understand her with Phil," says Talley, who retired from the group in 1967,
and now lives with her husband in Virginia Beach. "He was no beauty! I mean,
he was a genius. But when you're young, you're thinking, 'What will my
children look like?'" She pauses. "I was shocked. He wasn't her type."
"He would say, 'You're beautiful; I'm a beast,' " says Ronnie. "I'd say, 'If
the shoe fits ...' " She and Phil relocated to California and married in
1968. She has said she spent her honeymoon night hiding in her bathroom with
her mother. Soon after that, the gates went up and the guard dogs were
"I wanted my career so badly," Ronnie says. "It was like, 'OK, you don't
want me to go outside?' " So she didn't.
Ronnie and her cousin both believe that Phil was paralyzed by his
"He had 'Little Man Syndrome,'" says Talley.
"He was so upset over his hair!" says Ronnie. "When we had dinner,
everything was really dim, because he had bad hair. Toupees." She pauses.
"Boy oh boy - it got so hard to do anything because of his hair. If he
couldn't get his hair right, he'd say, 'I don't feel good.'"
Hair issues gave way to darker concerns. Ronnie wasn't permitted to leave
the house alone, ever. According to her, she would be summoned to Phil's
side while he was recording with other artists - just to sit on the stool
next to him, not moving. "He would say, 'You're my inspiration,'" she
recalls. She would be punished like a little girl, often sent to bed hungry.
"It was a sick love," she says. "He even said, 'I have a glass casket in the
basement, for Ronnie. So I can look at her anytime I want.' But I was in
love with the guy, so I didn't think that was too bad."
By then, the Spectors were the parents of three boys, all adopted (though
Phil presented the first as his biological child): Donte, then twin brothers
Gary and Louis. "Phil knew I loved all kids," Ronnie says today. "He knew
"She couldn't care less about the twins," counters biographer Ribowsky. "She
didn't want them. They were trophy children. Both of 'em couldn't have cared
less about Donte. Total neglect. "
At that point, the children were not necessarily Ronnie's foremost concern:
"I knew I was going to die there," says Ronnie. She called her mother, who
flew to California. "She took one look at him, one look at me, and said,
'I'm getting you out of here.' We stayed up three days and three nights
plotting our escape. He had two dogs at the front gates. A dog by the car. I
was trapped. My mother said, 'Don't wear any shoes,' and asked Phil if she
could take me for a walk. He looked down, saw I didn't have any shoes on,
and said OK."
"That is true," says Talley, who has not spoken to her cousin in 15 years.
"From what I remember, they left without shoes."
Spector wanted custody of the boys. According to Talley and biographer
Ribowsky, Phil began checking Ronnie into mental institutions as legal
strategy. "He would stress her to the point where she would go to
'hospitals' for the weekend," says Talley. "I'd say, 'Don't do this; he's
gonna play it to his advantage.' But she couldn't see it."
Ronnie lost custody until 1980, when Donte, then 10, ran away to a local
police station. Phil continued to enjoin the Ronettes legally, seeking to
cut them off from royalties, trying to prevent them from performing their
songs live (he controlled the publishing). She began a post-Ronettes
"I would've been 21 or 22 when I met her," says writer Friedman, who recalls
a "radiant, bubbly" Spector walking into songwriter Doc Pomus' apartment one
night in the late '70s. They began an intense affair that lasted four
"She was both wonderful and terrible - Godzilla disguised as Gidget,"
Friedman says. "She was in a very heavy drinking period. She was doing
oldies gigs with Eddie Fisher - which was depressing for her, because she
was so young. I remember one horrible night, walking her two blocks in the
rain to the venue, and her cursing me the whole way because she's the star
of the show - which she wasn't - and she's walking up to the back of the
venue with me, and she's got these backup singers with expensive boyfriends
stepping out of Corvettes. She was yelling, 'When Phil was your age, he was
writing hits for me! And what the f--- are you doing for me? Holding an
umbrella over my head!' "
Friedman says that Ronnie and Phil were, surprisingly, still talking to each
other during this period: "Anytime he'd call, she'd go into a trance," he
says. "But anytime she had something going, he'd f--- it up. I don't know
He has no recollection of her ever seeing or talking to Donte: "When a court
takes custody of the son from the mother and gives him to Phil Spector -
what does that say about the mother? He's certifiably insane."
Their affair ended, he says, suddenly and horribly: "She threw me out in a
drunken rage - she threw me and the maid out at the same time. She was
screaming, slammed the door and locked it. So I turned to the maid - this
poor old black woman who came in a few times a week to clean up and put
fresh flowers on the table. Turns out, the maid is the mother. Ronnie would
never talk to her, and only refer to her as 'the maid': 'Oh, the maid's
That was the last time Friedman ever saw Ronnie or spoke to her. "She was a
talented, gifted woman whose sense of values were a mess," he says. "Phil
was a brilliant, funny guy, and about as mentally ill as anybody could be
without being in an institution. She wasn't that far behind. Why he would
still have a hold over her today ... it's really pathetic. I'm sorry to hear
she still talks about him. Some people are beyond the realm of psychiatric
Over the next 20 years, Ronnie and Phil have remained in each other's lives,
in the most unhealthy, counterintuitive ways possible. The Ronettes sued
Phil for back royalties; Phil countersued; the Ronettes eventually won.
After Phil was arrested in connection with the death of Lana Clarkson in
2003, Ronnie defended him to the press, insisting that Phil wasn't that
homicidal - he may have threatened to kill Ronnie, but he wasn't going to do
it personally. He was going to hire hit men.
According to Ribowksy, Ronnie refused to speak to the police in connection
with their investigation; the LAPD, in turn, was convinced Phil paid her
In the years since the Spectors' 1974 divorce, Ronnie had a minor comeback
in the mid-'80s, echoing her famous "Be My Baby" refrain on the Eddie Money
hit "Take Me Home Tonight." She got married again, to a man named Jonathan
Greenfield, who serves as Ronnie's manager. They had two children of their
own, twin boys. Today she can be found doing a medley of her old hits at
Foxwoods. "She's tried to cash in on the old sex-kitten act, but she's been
a wreck of a person for a long time now," Ribowsky says. "The booze and the
cigarettes destroyed her voice."
To this day, Ronnie has little to do with her adopted children with Phil.
Talley, her cousin, says that Ronnie is unable to cope with unpleasant
"Ronnie has cut herself off," Talley says. "When a cousin dies, I'm the one
who's there. Ronnie can't handle it. When her mother got sick, I flew to New
York." When Ronnie's mother died, Nedra says, "We never knew where she was
buried. There was never a funeral."
As for what became of Ronnie's adopted children with Phil, the eldest,
Donte, was last reported to be HIV-positive, homeless and living in a car
blocks away from Phil's mansion in Beverly Hills. He and his brother Gary
have both spoken on the record about the physical and sexual abuse they
claim to have suffered at Phil's hands.
"I met Gary," Ribowsky says. "He grew up in a mansion, but they locked the
door to his bedroom on him. He had to go to the bathroom in a pot. You can't
make this stuff up."
Ronnie claims to have a good relationship with her adopted sons - especially
Donte, "the half-breed like me." She pauses. "Four years ago, Donte's
saying, 'Mom, I have AIDS.' I don't know if that's true - he may be trying
to distract me from what I'm doing."
She says she heard from Gary last Mother's Day, but that call didn't go so
well either. "He called me saying, 'Mom, Dad's the celebrity.'" She was
outraged. "I'm like, 'I'm the celebrity!' " She says they have caused her so
much anguish she can't deal with them anymore: "I had to let my husband
Jonathan deal with the kids so I could deal with my own life," she says.
Which, for her, reaches its culmination when Keith Richards inducts the
Ronettes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ("I wanted Keith! They wanted
Cher," Ronnie says). Talley will be seeing her cousin for the first time in
15 years this Saturday, when the Ronettes rehearse. "It should be
interesting," Talley says, laughing. "Welcome to my world!"
Ronnie, however, is thinking only of her legacy, which she now regards as
secure. "I was at a private party [for inductees] the other night, and they
gave me a chocolate disc with my name on it, and it was the best party I
ever had. The guy from the Village People hugged me - that's my reward. It
was all about me." She pauses. "I'm so, so happy to be getting my due. And
it is due to me."
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