Frank Langella was wonderfully stern playing William S. Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck, the George Clooney-directed movie about Edward R. Murrow. And, as Babe Paley in Infamous—the biopic that foolishly followed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning title role in Capote—Sigourney Weaver was long and lovely and almost always seen with a Bakelite cigarette holder in hand.
So far, Bill Paley hasn’t turned up as a character in any films. He did help make a movie, though. He was a production assistant on A Talent for Loving, an independent Western comedy that lacked both laughs and an audience.
Paley went to work on A Talent for Loving for three months just after dropping out of Rollins College in Florida. “I did dreadfully in school,” he says. “My cerebral and emotional development was late. But then again, I was in the Army at 19.”
In 1968, he was drafted for service in Vietnam, but he enlisted before being called up for duty so that he could secure an assignment especially suited to his skills: motion-picture photographer for the Army. He was stationed at Long Binh, the largest Army base in Vietnam. Half of his time was in the field. The other half wasn’t.
“I shot a lot of medal ceremonies and marches,” he says, laughing. “As anyone will tell you, war is an extraordinarily boring time interspersed with short periods of intense panic.”
In a 1977 Washington Post profile headlined a famous father’s son lives out of the public ‘eye,’ Paley confessed that he had dealt with both the boredom and the panic of war by indulging in heroin. “I’d been a user since I was a teenager,” Paley says today, lowering his already soft voice to a confessional level. On the movie shoot in Spain, he’d gotten hooked on amphetamines. And before Vietnam, he also spent time in Morocco, where, he said in the Post article, the hashish was “lovely.”
William Paley, his father, was already looking for a successor the year his son returned to the US. The elder Paley was 69, his son 21. William didn’t control enough CBS stock to name just any successor he wanted, much less a college dropout. CBS, after all, wasn’t a cigar store. But he could have placed his son Bill in any number of jobs. Such as the one Paley’s half-brother, Stanley Mortimer, had working with his stepfather in a perfume business initially founded by Babe Paley. (In addition to Bill and daughter Kate, William Paley had two adopted children from his first marriage to Dorothy Hart Hearst and two stepchildren from Babe Paley’s earlier marriage to Stanley Mortimer.) But Bill Paley wasn’t interested in pursuing any of the paths his father could have laid out for him.
“After Vietnam,” he says, “I wanted to take a break from anything I had ever done before.”
Think about that for a moment: Paley had grown up in an exclusive Long Island community. He had been to boarding school in Switzerland. He had taken European vacations with his family, eating in the temples of haute cuisine with his father. He wanted to take a break from that? Or, knowing it was already too late to become heir of the CBS chairman’s seat, did he really just want to run away and hide?
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After he was discharged from the Army, Bill Paley put a gold hoop in his left ear, grew his hair to shoulder length, and moved to Piney Point, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. He would spend the next half decade on or near the water. In Piney Point, he restored a dilapidated 57-foot sailboat, then sailed it to Florida and traded it in for a 1930s gaff-rig schooner. For three years, he sailed that boat around the Florida Keys, working odd jobs when the schooner was docked.
“It was all about living a life that was free from responsibility,” Paley says, flashing a smile that’s still toothpaste-ad material. “It was marvelous.”
His father didn’t agree—and Bill Paley knew it. So in 1975, right after CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye painted him as a ne’er-do-well, Paley decided to do something that might make his father happy. He used his trust-fund money and, with a few partners, opened three restaurants and bars in Washington and Baltimore: “I got in the restaurant business because I loved food but also to please my father, who was a great epicurean.”
In DC’s Adams Morgan, in the space now occupied by Perrys, Paley had the Biltmore Ballroom. In Baltimore, he and his partners established the Brass Elephant, an eatery that would outlast Paley’s ownership by decades, closing only three years ago. And on Capitol Hill, Paley created the Gandy Dancer, a spot that Washington Dossier, a now-defunct society magazine, praised for its Fruit Fantasia and Hamburger l’Elegante and for its unique mix of clientele—Hill staffers and theater types. The magazine also asked, “Doesn’t it give you a warm feeling in your tummy to know that Babe Paley’s son has a piece of the action?”
Babe Paley’s son not only had a piece of the action; he was at the center of it. “Bill always had a lot of attractive women around him in the place, and he was a real gladhander,” recalls Keith Stroup, legal counsel and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, who was a friend of Paley’s in the mid-1970s and a regular at the bar. “If you were in Washington and politically active in the ’70s, the Gandy Dancer was the place to be.”
The book High in America, which chronicles NORML’s early years, says plenty of influence-peddling went on in the bar. “The Gandy Dancer was the in spot for Washington’s younger political crowd, much as Duke Ziebert’s restaurant had been for the older political generation,” wrote author Patrick Anderson.
Duke’s was in business 44 years; the Gandy Dancer didn’t make it to four. Paley and partners kept a tab open for NORML, which Stroup says often went unpaid, and artists were given food and drinks in exchange for art at the Biltmore Ballroom.
You could blame Paley’s drug use for the collapse of the business, but he doesn’t: “I was in my twenties. I had no idea what I was doing.”
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Paley’s father, William, dropped by the Gandy Dancer just once. After a night out with Henry Kissinger and with his limousine waiting out front, the founder of CBS entered through a lower-level door, peered into the dining room from the kitchen, ordered an egg-salad sandwich and onion soup, and took the food away in a doggie bag. He later said he was impressed with the place. But his son today doesn’t think his restaurants truly pleased his father.
Then again, trying to please William Paley may have been impossible. In her biography of him, In All His Glory, Sally Bedell Smith paints the elder Paley as a “hard-driving” narcissist who “treated his children much as he dealt with his top executives. . . . What counted was that they knew he was in charge.”
Actually, his executives probably saw Paley more often. For much of the year, William lived in Manhattan during the week and saw Bill and his sister, Kate, in Manhasset only on weekends. But there were also family trips to the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Europe. In Europe, Bill and his father bonded over the pleasures of a gourmet meal. William Paley aspired to live “the good life,” surrounding himself with beautiful things and people. Smith titled an entire section of her book “The Hedonist.”
On that subject, it’s like father, like son. Bill Paley markets La Palina cigars as high-quality products that adhere to tradition and enhance the good life. He tells stories of how his father lived that life and how his mother embodied it. Lately, he’s been telling his own story, too.
Paley is increasingly the public face of La Palina. He has even started to appear in its ads. The bearded, white-haired Paley is now selling himself as sort of a Dos Equis Guy for stogies. And what’s really interesting about this cigar-smoking version of the Most Interesting Man in the World is that he’s an ex-addict who is selling vice. Proudly.
“When the time came to let go of everything else,” Paley says, “I picked my favorite drug—tobacco—and decided to become an expert in that.”