Life Of The Party

By Connie Bruck

The New Yorker, January 25, 1999

Gail Zappa began writing checks to the Democrats because Bill Clinton reminded her of her husband.

Earlier this month, one of the Democratic Party’s most generous contributors had dinner with an old friend, Larry Flynt, at Chasen’s, in Beverly Hills. The much publicized million-dollar bounty offered by Flynt for proof of sexual indiscretions by sanctimonious politicians has, of course, sealed his status as a social pariah; even Democrats condemn his efforts publicly and disavow any connection with him. But not this Democrat – Gail Zappa. She consistently goes out of her way to underscore that she is not only a friend but also a great admirer of Flynt’s, and nothing seems to rile her more than what she views as the squeamishness of some Democratic politicians and their aides. “Why do they have to revile Larry?” she demanded. “Why can’t they say, which is the truth, ‘We really enjoy what Larry’s doing, but we can’t become involved in it’? ” Gail, who is the widow of Frank Zappa, the composer and musician, has given more than half a million dollars to the Democratic Party and its candidates over the past three years, and she ranks among the party’s top individual donors. She is so solidly in the Democratic fold that she dines often at the White House and has become a regular at the fund-raising events that President Clinton and Vice-President Gore routinely attend when they are in Los Angeles.

At the dinner, the two old friends were a distinct contrast. Zappa, a warm, irrepressible woman with a vivid presence, is careless of externals – she was studiously unadorned, as always, wearing just a big dark sweater and a long skirt, and abjuring makeup and what she still calls a “hairdo.” Flynt, although taciturn and remote at times, was visually flamboyant, with plenty of shine, from his signature ornate diamond jewelry to his gold-plated wheelchair. Raising their glasses, Zappa and Flynt drank toasts to President Clinton, to the Democrats, and, as Flynt declared finally, with a wicked grin, “To Monday!” Zappa flashed him an exuberant thumbs-up and a big smile. On that day, Flynt explained to me, he would release the name of a second Republican congressman (following Speaker-Elect Robert L. Livingston) whom his investigation had turned up. And Flynt mentioned, as he had before, audiotapes of phone sex which he says are among his collected evidence, and chortled at their contents: words that could not have better suited his purpose, to show up what he sees as the Republicans essential hypocrisy.

Flynt met the Zappas in 1984, when he asked Frank to create a photo spread of one of his fantasies for Hustler, Flynt’s smutty sex magazine. The two became fast friends, and remained so until Zappa’s death, in 1993. “Frank was a genius, a rebel,” Flynt said. “And Frank and I in all our conversations had a very honest dialogue. We were never really out of sync politically or socially. There were always things to talk about, but never really anything to argue about.” He hesitated, then added, shyly, “Frank really, really liked me a lot.”

“Frank loved Larry!” Gail interjected. “Frank and Larry were kindred spirits.”

The Zappas and Flynt shared a quirky but abiding interest in government. Frank, like Flynt, was a First Amendment absolutist. Both men, moreover, wanted to run for President. Flynt made a brief run in 1984, and Zappa, who had harbored the desire for many years, finally announced that he was going to run in 1991. He planned to use talk shows as his vehicle, but he became ill with prostate cancer and couldn’t continue.

Frank’s frustration at failing to fulfill his ambition led Gail, after his death, to think about becoming involved in politics herself; but on a more pragmatic level. Bill Clinton played a role, too: he was the first Presidential candidate in her adult life who had appealed to her. “It appeared that he had a sense of humor and didn’t take himself too seriously,” she said. “And he reminded me of Frank, in that he was really smart and perceptive and inclusive. You sense a compassion in him. It is a gift to be able to see the suffering that people endure – some people never see that someone else is suffering in some way. You know that he’s seen it and knows what it feels like and doesn’t forget that.” None of the Clinton scandals have tarnished his image for her: his weaknesses only make him more human. (She also notes that from her years in rock and roll, as the wife of a bandleader, she knows something about forgiveness.) “I think the bottom line is that Clinton looks more like us than any other President we’ve had, and that’s why we find the most fault with him,” she asserted.

Listening to Gail talk about Clinton lends further resonance to the popular notion that what is being played out in the Clinton-impeachment process is in large part a cultural war that started some thirty years ago. If that is indeed why Clinton enrages so many Republicans, it is not surprising that he would have the opposite effect on someone like Gail Zappa. Notwithstanding her recent immersion in mainstream politics, she remains incontrovertibly out on the edge. And for her the battle lines were drawn long ago.


GAIL lives in a house in Laurel Canyon, which she and Frank bought in 1968 and, over the years, kept adding on to. It is appropriately Zappa-esque in its flouting of architectural convention and its celebration of whimsy. Constructed on numerous levels with different entrances, it makes its way with unexpected turns through disparate parts that seem barely to cohere, and is sufficiently mazelike that, after my second extended visit, I had to struggle to find my way out. There is a library with animals painted on the ceiling and a Japanese koi pond painted on the floor, and a sitting room with leopard-print-covered furniture, and a foyer with a pink wall, and a living room that is never used. The kitchen – the last add-on, oddly shaped, so as not to disturb a towering jacaranda tree in the yard – is the largest room in the house, and the place where everyone (family members, friends, the four Zappa cats) ends up.

As we drank chai, the latest West Coast craze, one afternoon, Gail told me that both her father and Frank’s had been scientists (her father was a research physicist in the military, and his was a meteorologist), and both families moved frequently; but, once Gail and Frank were on their own, each independently gravitated to Los Angeles. “There’s so much light in L.A.,” Gail said. “And there are a lot of people in LA. who are in search of the thing they like to do the best. They just know they want to have a life where they’re doing something that they really like doing, and that no one else is making them do.” Indeed, she said, the four Zappa children – Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva – all live here and are all following creative pursuits. All of them, moreover, finished their formal schooling by the age of sixteen; Gail does not expect that to hinder them in any way.

Gail is convinced that she and Frank were destined to spend their lives together, but she recalls that their initial encounter was not auspicious. It occurred in 1966, shortly after “Freak Out!” – the first album of his band, the Mothers of Invention – had been issued. That record, with its liner-note explanation of “freaking out” as “a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment,” had an enormous effect on a small but receptive audience. Matt Groening, the “Simpsons” creator, told me recently that Zappa had been his idol from that moment on. He’d been struck by Zappa’s outrageous humor and by his eclecticism – Zappa’s music grew out of not just rock, blues, and jazz but, particularly, the achievements of Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky. And Zappa, for all his provocative eccentricity, disdained the mindless conformity of the psychedelic-hippie phenomenon. Groening, for one, took heart from Zappa’s message that “you could be a weirdo but didn’t have to do drugs.”

Gail, however, hadn’t heard “Freak Out!” when she went with a friend to a gathering at Zappa’s house. “A couple of people at the party were so bizarrelooking,” she recalls. “Frank didn’t have a shirt on, and he had these bell-bottom pants that were too short, and they were made out of cotton piqué. And they weren’t hip-huggers – they were actually waisted, which was crazy, because they looked like something your mother might wear on a bad day. Not my mother but someone’s mother. They were white cotton piqué and had brilliant-red hibiscus flowers all over them. And the shoes! These weird tennis shoes that looked way too long for his feet but they weren’t. It was sort of like Donald Duck he had enormously long feet, and because the pants were so short and the shoes were so long, and he was so weird – no one walked like him – he , looked like he was a puppet, almost touching the ground. Everything he did was in some sort of peculiar rhythm of his own – it was very different from everyone else’s.” She left the party early.

On their second meeting, she said, it “took.” The next morning, she recalls, “I rolled over and I saw one eye, over the edge of the pillow, and, the moment I saw that, I heard a voice. I'd heard voices all my life – it was probably my voice, but I was young and didn’t realize that. I thought it was coming from somewhere else. And it said, ‘This is it. If you can’t accept this, we’re never talking to you again.’ And I remember thinking, Oh, my God! Here’s this guy, I think he’s extraordinary, it’s such a different sensation! I know he hasn’t taken a bath in four months, and his mustache smells like peanut butter, and a whole lot of other stuff I don’t even want to discuss – you know?” She laughed, and added, “But I thought, Well, O.K. So, I think that’s the same thing as love at first sight.”


THE Zappas’ first serious experience with mainstream politics was not a happy one. In 1985, Frank testified at a record-label hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The hearing, conducted by Senator Al Gore, among others, had been promoted by the Parents Music Resource Center, or P.M.R.C., whose leaders were Gore’s wife, Tipper, and Susan Baker, the wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker III. Frank, who began his testimony by reading the First Amendment, called Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, and their committee “a group of bored Washington housewives,” and declared that the list of P.M.R.C. demands “reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of ‘toilet-training program’ to housebreak all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few.” And he added, “Ladies, how dare you!”

“The original concept was to label records ‘O’ for occult, ‘X’ for explicit, ‘V’ for violent, and ‘D/A’ for drugs and alcohol,” Gail recalls. “Frank’s point was that, once you start doing that, you’re labelling an individual – you’re saying this is an obscene person – and it’s just your interpretation, and people are writing lyrics for their own group, for themselves, as a thirty-five or forty-year-old person, and what the hell does that have to do with a mythical thirteen-year-old who might listen to it?”

Later that year, Frank released an album entitled “Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention.” One selection, “Porn Wars,” includes recordings of various voices at the P.M.R.C. hearing. On the album, the future Vice-President tells Frank that, although he disagrees with some of Frank’s statements, “I have been a fan of your music, believe it or not. And I respect you as a true original and a tremendously talented musician.” Senator Ernest Hollings, for his part, refers to some lyrics as “outrageous filth,” and says, “If I could find some way constitutionally to do away with it I would.” For years, Frank had been urging his fans to go to the polls, and this albums liner notes exhorted, “Register to vote before it’s too late!”

Zappa was no stranger to censorship, albeit of an informal type: his lyrics were rarely heard on American radio. In the early eighties, furthermore, after a protracted lawsuit with his label over control of his master recordings, he was financially snapped. Frank was the certified genius in the family (for example, he couldn’t be bothered waiting in line at the D.M.V., and had to be driven everywhere by his wife); Gail saw to the practicalities of daily life. In 1983, she decided to start a mail-order business to bolster the family finances. “I took all the boxes of fan letters that we’d never answered, and I typed up names and addresses, and I did a mailing. I think we had about six thousand names. We sent out a little postcard that had the logo of the record company on it and that said, ‘Would you like to buy a T-shirt?’ The response was overwhelming! So I was suddenly stuffing T-shirts in bags and putting stamps on them on the floor of my living room for weeks on end, but the money was coming in. Eventually, we started selling records that way as well.”

Most artists make deals in which the record company pays them an advance and assumes responsibility for everything required to bring a record to the public (recording, manufacturing, distribution, promotion), and then the company; after reimbursing itself for all those costs (and fees) from the record’s profits, pays the artist royalties. Gail realized that, by operating independently she and Frank could, essentially collect the record-company share. Their company prospered. Gail says, “We never advertised, and we were servicing, ultimately; on a regular basis, between fifty thousand and seventy thousand customers. Other musicians wanted the big advances, the artists’ deals, the promotions, the touring – everything that goes with it. But this way you have control. Otherwise, you don’t get to play your music the way you want to play it. People were afraid of Frank, because he didn’t hold back, and he didn’t compromise himself in any way, artistically or in terms of his own perspective. It’s so absurd, you know. We were very, very patriotic – grateful to be in the country whose chief export, apart from everything else, was democracy; but stunned by the fact that most people didn’t appreciate it. They were too busy crying to make rules to swallow it up, and were not thinking about what happens when you do that.”

In 1990, in Prague, Frank met Vaclav Havel, the newly elected President of Czechoslovakia. Since the sixties, Zappa’s music had been smuggled behind the Iron Curtain; his song “Plastic People” had become an underground anthem, and he had been considered an arch-enemy of the Communist state. Indeed, Havel has said that Zappa was one of his greatest influences. Now he asked Zappa to become Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to the West for trade, culture, and tourism, but the appointment was opposed Secretary of State Baker, and Zappa quietly withdrew. (“They told Havel he could have a relationship with the U.S. or he could have one with Frank Zappa,” Gail says.) According to the columnist Jack Anderson, Baker was “carrying an old grudge” from Zappa’s attack on his wife as a “bored housewife.”

Baker’s grudge may have pushed the Zappas toward the Democrats in the 1992 election, despite Al Gore’s place on the ticket. Matt Groening recalls Gail’s telling a friend at the time who was critical of the Party, “Well, the Democrats may be reinventing the wheel, but the Republicans are reinventing the swastika.”

When Frank died, the following year, Gail received a letter from Clinton and also one from the Gores. “It was immediate,” she recalled, “and I was so moved. Clinton, especially, was recognizing Frank as an artist, and recognizing what he contributed to a free society; which was still struggling with what its version of freedom was.” The Gores’ letter persuaded Gail that when Gore had expressed his regard for Frank at the hearing – something that, at the time, she and Frank thought might be disingenuous – he had been sincere after all. In August, 1995, soon after she had donated a hundred thousand dollars to the Democratic National Committee, she was introduced to Gore at a coffee for about ten people in the Map Room of the White House. “I went to one of those infamous White House breakfasts – which, at the time, who knew?” she said, referring to the subsequent Justice Department investigations into campaign-finance activities. Of the meeting, she said, “It felt like family to me. He’s a very warm and wonderful and responsive person. His public persona is not the way he is in a small group of people. I see the humor completely. And the powerful intellect is there.”


IT may be that there has never been an insider who was quite such an outsider as Gail Zappa. Ari Swiller, a Democratic fundraiser during the ’96 campaign, commented recently that most large donors appear to be motivated “either by their business interests or by their desire to be close to power, their love of the limelight,” and he went on, “I’ve got hundreds of calls – ‘My seat isn’t good enough! I’m not seated at the Vice-President’s table!’ From Gail, never. She shows up in a schmatte, not looking to impress anyone.” Swiller then said that when groups of donors meet with Gore the meetings are usually boring, because everyone is so guarded. “Not Gail! She says what she thinks. She is who she is. And the whole family is that way. Ahmet shaves his head and wears funny clothes, and there are pictures of him with the President where Ahmet’s making funny faces. Who does that? There’s no rein on them.”

A potential rein might be Gail’s accountant, Gary Iskowitz, who insists that she has been giving at a level disproportionate to her wealth. “It's like there’s a neon sign in front of the Zappa house: ‘Come and get it!’” Because she is so generous, Iskowitz says, and because she doesn’t make the kinds of demands that other major contributors do, she tends to be taken advantage of by political operatives. “They nickel-and-dime her. She gave more than two hundred thousand in 1997. Then, ‘The President’s coming to town!’ It’s not ‘Come, be our guest’ but ‘Come – for another five thousand.’” Last year, Gail was one of Gray Davis’s major supporters in his successful bid to become governor of California. She contributed thirty thousand dollars herself; raised thousands more from her friends, and stuck with him even when he was all but counted out in the primary. But she wasn’t among the guests at his Inaugural.

Gail knows that fellow-members of the elite club of major donors regard her as an oddity: in her kitchen there is a photograph of her, Dweezil, and President Clinton at a fund-raising event held in the kind of palatial residence so characteristic of L.A. that it seems almost ordinary. The host, visible in the background, is eying them darkly. “We call that ‘The Photo of the Evil Lurker,’” she told me, laughing. Yet, referring to what she perceives as a general attitude toward her in Democratic circles these days, she went on, “I know why they’re handling me with kid gloves – it’s because I always make it a point to say how much I admire Larry.” Flynt, of course, was anathematized even further by the Democrats after last week’s outing of another congressman. “Everyone runs away from him,” Gail says. “But I feel I have an obligation – because he’s devoted to the process and devoted to the Party.” Gail told me, too, that when a fund-raiser called her recently she said, in exasperation, “Look, I don’t have deep pockets, and I only have one friend with deep pockets. And one of these days one of you guys is going to have balls big enough to meet with him!”

Someday she hopes, Clinton himself might do just that. Perhaps when this war is over. She says that, through all the vicissitudes of the Lewinsky battles, she has never lost faith that Clinton will prevail. “I just see him as being on a spiritual mission. That’s what I see – it emanates out of every pore. I feel that nothing can stop it.”

Indeed, she used the occasion of a Democratic fund-raiser last year to convey her insight to Clinton personally. She knew he was being bombarded with advice from his strategists on how to survive, but her counsel was different. “Mr. President,” she said. “All you have to do is breathe.”

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)