In 1958, William Peter Blatty, a publicist and aspiring author (“The Exorcist”), wanted to see how hard it would be to fake nobility among Americans. It proved to be too easy. But then, he had chosen the one city that is most ready to reward pretense: Hollywood.
I’ve always been curious about how Americans really feel about royalty, and, like Alice in Wonderland, I got “curiouser and curiouser” when King Saud of Saudi Arabia came to the United States recently and got a classic concrete-and-steel cold shoulder from New York’s sky line and New York’s mayor. Was New York speaking for America?
I was in a convertible, coasting along Hollywood Boulevard. Beside me in the driver’s seat was Frank Hanrahan, an old Georgetown chum and an ex-FBI agent. Frank looks stern. Frank looks distinguished. Frank has never been known to play a practical joke since coming to Los Angeles. This is important, as you’ll soon see.
Bright-eyed and unaware, we were on our way to an afternoon gathering of Frank’s friends in the Hollywood hills, when “Great screaming Teddy bears!” (or something like that) exclaimed Frank. “With those sunglasses on, you look just like an Arab sheik!” This was not surprising, as both my parents are Lebanese, but right then I knew my moment had come.
“Do I look like an Arab prince, maybe?” I prodded Frank.
“Whaddya mean? Whaddya mean?”
“Do you think I could pass for an Arab prince with your friends?”
Frank gently braked the bathtub and pulled up to the curb. He squinted at me in the glaring California sunshine. “Say something in ‘prince,'” he said finally.
“Ycsss—sank—you—very—mush,” I hissed haltingly.
Frank’s unblinking stare brushed over my face with light, inscrutable finger tips. “We’re in,” he said, and roared into gear.
Frank drove to a house where his friends — none of whom had ever before seen the author — were watching a football game. Frank entered first and prepared his friends.
“Look folks, I’m in a little bit of a spot. I met a Saudi Arabian prince—”
“King Saud’s son. I met him at a party some Egyptian friends of mine threw in Beverly Hills the other night. He wants to see how Americans really live and he asked me to show him around town. I’ve got him out in the car and—”
“Now. So look. I’m gonna bring him in. Now don’t panic! He’s a regular guy and he doesn’t want any fuss made over him. Just remember to address him as ‘your highness.’ But one thing — be casual!”
Blatty entered the room like a slumming prince.
I hastily spotted the most imposing chair in the room, marched over to it like Yul Brynner imitating Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and sat down, curling my fingers around the arm rest as though the chair were a throne, and, so help me, I felt majestic, even though I was wearing desert boots, Bermuda shorts and a loud, peppermint-striped shirt.
“Do you like football, your highness?” asked Denny Owen, a rugged college footballer.
“Ah—don’t they play football in your country?”
“Well…” and he good-heartedly launched into an explanation of the game. This seemed to ease the tension considerably, and someone else asked me if I would like a beer. I gave him the royal “oui” and Denny and Frank went into the kitchen.
I overheard their conversation:
Denny: “Cripes. I can’t hardly stand it! A prince! Here! And watchin’ the Rams on TV!”
Frank: “Take it easy, will ya, Denny? He’ll hear you.”
Denny: “What’s the deal on the candy stripe shirt, huh, Frank?”
Frank: “Oh, he’s just trying lo be one of the boys. Here, give him his beer.”
Denny: “A can, Frank—a can? We gotta give it to ‘im in a glass!”
Frank: “Nah, he’s a regular guy, I tell ya.”
Denny: “Well. O.K.”
And at this point I turned on my thro— er– chair, and saw rugged Denny carefully wiping and rubbing the top of the beer can with the tail of his clean white shirt.
Meanwhile, the Rams won the game, the TV was turned off and everyone became convivial. I learned later that some of the people in the room rather sided with the Israelis in the Arab-Israel dispute, but they were warm and friendly, and never gave a sign of their feelings. They were even suggesting nightclubs that they thought I should visit, places like the world-famous Mocambo.
Blatty was the toast of Hollywood that week. He appeared on talk shows and variety shows. He was invited to private dinners with movie stars. He succeeded beyond his most cynical dreams. The charade climaxed when Blatty got a chance to match his imposture against one of the country’s best fake princes.
One night a noted Hollywood publicist invited me along to an evening at ‘Prince’ Mike Romanoff’s. And thus it was that in the cool of the evening, ‘prince’ met ‘prince,’ ingenious imposter met up-and-coming challenger.
Entering Romanoff’s restaurant, accompanied by a studio publicity agent, Blatty seated himself with noble aplomb at a table. Within minutes, ‘Prince’ Romanoff hovered into view.
“Well, hello there,” he smiled genially, coming up to us.
“Hi, Mike. . . . Uh— your highness. Prince Kheer, may I present his highness, ‘Prince’ Romanoff?”
“How are you?” I murmured.
“A pleasure,” said Romanoff.
“His highness,” said the publicist, “is from Saudi Arabia. You know. King Saud’s son.”
“Oh. Of course, of course.” For one memorable, tremendous moment, Romanoff’s gaze locked with mine. It was toe-to-toe and there was silence in the arena.
The moment passed.
“Uh—by the way, your highness,” said the publicist, “there’s something I think you ought to know. I mean, I think I ought to tell you.”
“Well. “Prince’ Romanoff— he isn’t really a prince.”
Our shrimp cocktail had arrived.
“Iss what?” I demanded.
“They say he’s not a prince. Everyone knows it. But we like him so much we go along with the gag. No harm done.”
I put down my shrimp fork. “But iss not prince! ”
“Sorry. I am insult.” And rising majestically, I strode out of the dining room, out of Romanoff’s and out of my life as a prince, because, brother, I believe in quitting while you’re ahead!
With that snub, that out-royaling Hollywood’s most famous ‘royal,’ Blatty returned to life as a commoner.
In 1957 Oklahomans planted a large time capsule on the grounds of the Tulsa county courthouse with instructions that it be opened in 2007 to celebrate the state’s centennial. The principal object in the sealed vault was a Plymouth Belvedere. Unfortunately the time capsule proved not to be waterproofed. Instead of recovering a mint relic, the car proved to be a rusting wreck.
While Tulsans were naturally downhearted at the unveiling, there was a sadder spectacle that was generally overlooked. Placed on the car seat were jugs of gasoline.
Back in 1957, the far-sighted planners reasoned that, within the next 50 years, automobiles might no longer be powered by gasoline. The jugs of gasoline ensured the car could be operated in the distant future when gas stations might have all disappeared.
There was no need to worry. The gas stations are still around. We’re just as dependent on oil as ever. The only change is that America had moved away from leaded gasoline.
America occupied a highly enviable position in the post-war world. Its cities and businesses had emerged whole and hearty from the war. Its infrastructure hadn’t been wrecked by bombings and sabotage. We had the only intact economy in the Western world, and plenty of oil. There was little interest in conserving fuel now, especially with articles like “Now We Have Plenty of Oil,” which appeared in the Post in 1950.
“Turn up the oil burner. Fill the gas tank, the cigarette lighter, the kerosene range. Order a new diesel locomotive, a jar of cold cream, a jet plane, and make free with petroleum products any way you fancy. Forget that rumor you heard just a few years back—the one that predicted that we would shortly run out of oil and into calamity. It was not true. There is oil in quantity under American soil. Having had less than a hundred years to regularize its cycles, the calendar of perpetual petroleum alarm and reassurance is not yet as accurate as a barometer, but at this points it reads calm, comfort and all the gasoline you want. The next cycle of worry over oil shortage may be a decade or more away, to be followed no doubt by surplus, to be followed no doubt by shortage, to be —
“Anyway, right now oil is easy, and this should be a powerful load off the national mind. The importance of whether or not we have enough oil in America grows greater every year.
“… perhaps it is permissible to point out that the record of oil ups and downs is at least odd, if not downright hilarious. No decade has passed in the present century without some authority writing off our oil future as failing and soon doomed. Crankcases today are full of oil that was once seriously described as nonexistent.
“Take the notable warning of 1919, when the chief geologist of the United States Geological Survey flatly predicted complete oil exhaustion in this country by 1936. Or the comparatively recent fright of former Secretary of the Interior Ickes in 1943, who solemnly divided known oil reserves by consumption and pointed out that we had a supply good for only fourteen years.”
The writer spoke of unlimited oil, and new fields of crude that had recently been located in Texas. What he failed to tell readers was that, since four years earlier, the United States was starting to consume more oil than it could produce domestically. As early as 1946, we were losing our energy independence.
Even so, the confident tone could still be heard in 1962. In that year, another Post article, “The Oil of the Arab,” addressed the rising nationalism of Arab nations, which were providing us with most of our gasoline. He quoted Sheik Abdullah H. Taliki, Saudi Arabia director of oil:
“’Allah made nothing without cause,’ he says. ‘He made the great desserts that are useless to man. But he buried oil beneath them. It is Arab oil. It must be used for the Arab’s benefit. Today others can use our oil to further their interests, which may not coincide with ours.’
“The oil, buried in a great basin that stretches from the southern slopes of Turkey’s Taurus Mountains to the shores of the Arabian Sea, and from Iran’s eastern borders to Saudi Arabia’s western shore, constitutes what is probably the world’s greatest reservoir of mineral wealth. Reserves estimated at 181,000,000,000 barrels, two thirds of the free world’s known oil supply, have already been discovered; millions of square miles, on land in the waters of the Persian Gulf, remain to be explored. Tiny Kuwait, a sun-parched desert little bigger than Connecticut, has proven reserves of 62,000,000,000 barrels, exceeding the total reserves of North and South America combined. Beneath the dunes and bare gravel plains of Saudi Arabia lie 50,000,000,000 barrels more. Iraq has 25,000,000,000 barrels in reserve, Iran 35,000,000,000.
“The total reserves in the United States are estimated at 33,500,000,000.
“’Some day,’ he says, ‘we will unite. Once we are strong enough to shut down all the wells, and close the Suez Canal and shut off the pipelines—even if only for a few days—the companies will suddenly see a great light. The world cannot live without the Mideast’s oil.'”
Well, it was easy for the author to see why the Arabs would never succeed in exerting its power.
“The weakness in Mr. Tariki’s position lies in the fact that at the moment there is more oil available than the world can use…”