Even though I was a terrible secretary, by sheer luck and because of a harried personnel director, I got a job at the world’s most famous talent agency, William Morris in Beverly Hills. Because of my pitiful secretarial skills, I quickly went from working for a first-floor agent (swank; big name actors) to the third-floor, back corner, music department, where I typed contracts, entertained clients, and fielded calls for Nick, a coked-out, short, schlubby Italian guy who handled the tours of R&B and funk performers.
When I got the gig, I was a kid who believed myself to be a woman of the world, a sophisticate, no longer the child who collected such things as matchbooks, swizzle sticks, snowflake globes and sea shells. But that all changed with a shark drawing.
That same year, I spent the summer in Ibiza, Spain, with my boyfriend Howard Sackler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who was 47 to my 19. He was an adventure-seeker and an avid scuba diver who drew a rudimentary picture for me of how to kill a shark with a blowgun.
When we got back to L.A., he broke up with me. That drawing was one of the few remnants of our relationship, along with a cravat that I took because it smelled of his cologne. The drawing was thumbtacked to my bulletin board at the William Morris Agency when Prince was sitting on my desk and asked about it. It was 1979 and he was just on the verge of being a superstar, but he was still an opening act who had to wait at the secretary’s desk for his agent.
He took out a pad from his manager's office and drew “Sharkey Chan by his owner & trainer, Percy L. Begonia,” a well-executed drawing of a smirking, shady-looking character in a suit and fedora — a “loan shark.” I hung it next to Howard’s.
Prince was set to open for Rick James, who proclaimed himself “The King of Funk,” and was more than a little threatened by the young upstart. Within the week, while Nick was screaming to a concert promoter on the phone, Rick James came out of the office, wandered around my desk making small talk, and saw the shark drawings. He then drew a shark with long eyelashes and lipstick, and titled it, “The Shark Girl.” He signed it and pinned it on top of Prince’s.
Soon after, I was hanging out at my friend Wendy’s desk, a first-floor secretary, dissecting the meaning of the Prince/Rick James shark drawings, when the TV star and game show host Bert Convy came out of his agent’s office and stopped to chat with the “girls.” It was unthinkable at William Morris (and got you fired immediately) to ask for an autograph, so Wendy looked at me in horror as I asked Convy to draw a shark. He was amused. What he handed me was a pretty basic drawing of a shark with the inscription, “Sorry Robin. But what do I know? Bert Convy.”
After that, I asked famous people for drawings wherever I saw them. Because I worked in the entertainment business, I knew about private clubs, parties, concerts. And because I was sassy and fearless, I talked my way into places where I wasn’t invited but wanted to be. I also went up to many celebrities on the street or in stores, told them about the shark drawings and asked for one. No one said “no” — although Richard Dreyfuss wrote on a napkin, “This is not a drawing of a shark. — Richard Dreyfuss.”
Most of the shark drawings are from 1979 to 1982. I have them from actors as diverse as Clint Eastwood, Scatman Crothers, Buddy Ebsen, and Candy Clark; recording artists like David Lee Roth, Johnny Rotten, Elvis Costello, and James Taylor; comic actors Bill Murray, Robin Williams, Marty Feldman, and Martin Mull.
In 1986, at a party in Manhattan, on a lark, I got shark drawings from artists Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, David Salle, Susan Rothenberg, and Kenny Scharf.
I eventually showed the collection to a publisher and was turned down because they really had no idea how to frame it as a book. It’s such an odd assortment of celebrities. So I put the shark drawings aside.
About three years ago, I opened the envelope where I had kept them to show a friend and inside were Xeroxes I made of the originals — but no originals. I was bereft. I’ve had things taken from me, but this felt like the biggest loss, not because of the potential value, but because it was a piece of my life, and one in which I was an audacious, adventurous young woman — someone who I have to remember I was, from time to time.
I was sure they were stolen. I asked people, blamed others, suspected some, and then forgot about them altogether. What could I do? And then two nights ago in New York City, my ex-husband (and friend) handed me a manila envelope and said with a big smile, “I was going through old papers and look what I found.” It was my shark drawings that I had accidentally left with his things in 1989.
Now they are spread out before me on a table, chairs, and couch and I see things I hadn’t thought about 25 years ago. The first thing I noticed is the variety of mediums on which they’re drawn. Cocktail napkins, notepads, lined school paper, random slips of paper. Fred Schneider from the B-52s drew one on a coffee filter (I wish I could remember that story!); Madonna’s has an aerobics class schedule on the back; the sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison insisted on drawing one on his own stationary and mailing it to me at I.R.S. Records; Bill Murray’s is on a diner placemat.
It’s funny how many celebrities think they are the only one to come up with a “loan shark” although that was originally Prince’s idea. John Hiatt drew a “common pool shark” — the only one. From Jon Voight, a small deserted island with a palm tree, circled by fins.
There is no logic to who is a good artist, who isn’t (Madonna has many talents but drawing is not one of them), who spent time on the drawing (Bill Murray), who spoke to me about the project (Bonnie Raitt), and who simply drew a shark and signed it because I asked (Marty Feldman’s with bulging eyes, and Peter Falk’s with a cane and a cigarette).
But mostly what strikes me is how many of these people have died. It ranges from predictable because of age (Buddy Ebsen) to people I didn’t know had died (Rick James), to tragic deaths.
In the early '80s, I saw Robin Williams in a nightclub. He wanted to know, “Why sharks?” I explained the origins of the project. He drew the first one on a napkin that I handed him; “Bishark going down” – a line and two triangle fins. Then he sat next to me on a bar stool, rifled through his bag and enthusiastically drew two more on a notepad. One is “Shark on acid,” a horizontal line and an upside down fin, the other, “The Great White Shark,” is a line, a fin with an eye, and a squiggle he labeled “Lacoste.” He signed it “Harry Belafonte.”