Why was a man who made so many bad choices in his life impossible to forget?
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If you want to be remembered long after you are gone, immerse yourself in scandal. If the infamy includes sex, drugs, and glamorous movie stars, consider yourself immortal. David Andrew Whiting, a former classmate of mine at Washington, D.C.’s tony, Episcopal Church-affiliated St. Albans School for Boys, earned his star on the Hollywood Walk of Shame nearly half a century ago. It was not what he intended. Indeed, on the surface at least, at the time of his messy, controversial death in February 1973, David seemingly had the world by the tail. In June 1968, he had been hired as a staff writer straight out of Haverford College by Time magazine. Two years later, the newsweekly’s managing editor, Henry Grunwald, who called David “my Golden Boy”1 because of his literary gifts, assigned him to the magazine’s Los Angeles bureau. It was like throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch.
David used his new position to interview such iconic film stars as Jane Fonda, Paula Prentiss, and Candice Bergen. He became friends with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s daughter, who reportedly called him “Preppy” because, even in his twenties, he behaved liked an “ebullient prep-school boy.”2 The youngest correspondent ever hired by Time – David was 20 when he got the job – no longer saw his future on the printed page. He wanted to paint his stories on the silver screen. In 1971, he boasted to a friend that he would become “the greatest [film] producer there ever was.”3 Just two years later, however, the flawed vehicle David had built to carry him to Hollywood greatness, fueled by drugs, jealousy, and rage, crashed and burned in the Arizona desert.
On Sunday, Feb. 11, 1973, sometime between 8 and 11:15 a.m. (the witness kept changing her story), his battered, bloody corpse, sprinkled with red drug capsules, was found sprawled on the floor of room 127 at the Travelodge Motel in Gila Bend, Arizona. The room was registered to English actress Sarah Miles. The elfin, tightly wound 31-year-old, who was married to Academy Award-winning English screenwriter Robert Bolt, was co-starring with Burt Reynolds in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. The MGM Western was being shot in the cactus wastes surrounding the tiny desert town.
David was Miles’s talent agent, business manager, and one-time lover. The aspiring screenwriter and producer had met the actress two years earlier when he interviewed her for Time. A week later, after getting her stoned on Acapulco Gold,4 Whiting seduced her. The tryst sparked a fatal obsession. After the newsweekly fired him for grossly exceeding his travel expenses, Miles hired him. The newcomer to the movie business promptly rewarded her by landing her one of the most sought-after female film roles of the year, opposite Burt Reynolds. His breakout performance in the 1972 action-adventure thriller Deliverance had made the former college football star one of Hollywood’s most bankable properties.
Following an official inquest, a coroner’s jury ruled, on March 21, 1973, that David had succumbed to a fatal dose of the hypnotic sedative methaqualone. However, the panel could not determine how the 26-year-old writer had sustained the multiple injuries found on his body. They included scratches and bruises on his face, neck, wrists, chest, shoulder, and abdomen, and an inch-wide gash on the back of his head that had left blood evidence in three different motel rooms. The four men and two women on the jury admitted that, based on the complex, often contradictory medical testimony they had heard, they did not know if those injuries had contributed to David’s death. They suspected he had been involved in a violent altercation shortly before he died, but they could not identify his assailant.
Despite the inquest verdict, key players in the lurid showbiz drama, including Sarah Miles and the Gila Bend police officer who first responded to the death scene, have long insisted that David was murdered – possibly by Cat Dancing’s leading man. They suspect that Burt Reynolds, known for his quick temper and propensity for fisticuffs, beat David to death as payback for his alleged attack on Miles, in a jealous rage, just hours before his body was discovered. Whiting reportedly had lain in wait in Miles’s motel room, then assaulted her after she returned from visiting Reynolds in his motel room following a party celebrating the actor’s 37th birthday.
This ominous death scenario has been repeated in a seemingly endless stream of tabloid newspaper stories and online postings about the incident.
I was never satisfied by either the murder theory or the official explanation of David’s death. I believe the truth lies somewhere in between. While trying to crack this conundrum, however, I stumbled on what I found to be an even more intriguing mystery: How did a man whose impact on the entertainment world was negligible, and whose biggest “accomplishment” in life was to die very publicly and ignominiously, turn into a Hollywood legend? How did the story of David’s frenzied final days and the investigation into his death end up being named, in July 2019, as one of the “12 More Famous Unsolved Hollywood Murders?”
I found clues to the latter mystery in the dozens of stories published over the years about David and the events in Gila Bend; in a mystery novel penned by a woman who dated him in college; in an award-winning feature film written, produced, and directed by a former classmate of David’s at Haverford College; and in my own memories of David.
Who Was That Masked Man?
David Whiting’s improbable transformation from insignificance to immortality, I learned, began less than three weeks after he died. On March 1, the London Daily Express ran a front-page story headlined “Appointment at Gila Bend: The Bizarre Tale of an Odd, Secretive Young Man Who Died Reaching for the Stars.”5 The British tabloid portrayed David as an ambitious, larger-than-life, if somewhat unbalanced character known for his sartorial splendor and his generosity toward his friends. It said he always seemed to have a wad of cash in his pocket.
“He spent lavishly, dressed well, smoked Havana cigars and puzzled many by his outward wealth,” the Daily Express reported.
“He’d fly from Hollywood to London for the weekend,” a friend of David’s told the newspaper, “just to buy a Savile Row suit. Then the next weekend he’d fly back to get the suit altered.”
Some people suspected the young journalist was supplementing his income by trafficking in drugs, but “nobody took it further than the rumor stage.”
The Daily Express also revealed, for the first time, that David was married – to a “gorgeous air hostess” – a fact he kept secret, even from his mother, so he could continue his swinging bachelor’s lifestyle unmolested.
It gave no details on the matrimonial union, but municipal records show that 24-year-old David Whiting married 22-year-old Nancy Cockerill in Cook County, Illinois, on January 29, 1970. The Chicago native was a stewardess for Pan American World Airways.6
“He would introduce Nancy at parties as his girlfriend,” a friend of David’s told the Daily Express.
The article said David used his wife’s flight discount card to make frequent trips abroad. However, author Steven S. Walsky, who met David at Papa Germano’s Roman pensione in 1971, said he got the impression that the journalist’s wealthy dad paid for his trips. In a story he posted in 2013 on the Simplicity Lane Web site,7 Walsky wrote: “David seemed to have unlimited funds and a ‘who cares’ attitude about life. He told me, ‘My father is vice president of Pan Am and I fly for free. I’m making eastward and westward trips around the world for the fun of it.’” . . . “Must be nice, I thought (the abundance of money and free travel, not his attitude).”
Claiming that his dad was a wealthy airline executive was just one of the many Donald Trump-style “alternative facts” David conveniently invented to maintain a glamorous façade. His actual father, Chicago city planner Robert Whiting, rarely saw David after divorcing his mother, Louise, when their son was just three years old. The elder Whiting struggled to support his second wife and her two children from a previous marriage on the salary of a mid-level municipal employee. He did send Louise, who also had remarried, modest child support payments, but not nearly enough money to finance David’s jet-setting lifestyle.
In mid-March, the Washington Star-News published a profile of David8 in which people who knew him during the decade he lived in the nation’s capital described him variously as “unpredictable,” “bright,” “daring,” and “easily perplexed by life.” One friend declared: “He loved to the point of insanity.”
The story’s author, Mary Anne Dolan, who knew David, described him as “an original of sorts,” who “often told friends that he was ‘striving to perfect a lifestyle which combines Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Frank Sinatra.’ He yearned for Cole Porter days of escargots for breakfast and evenings at the Ritz Bar in Paris.”
In fact, Dolan learned, his home life was devoid of glamour – and somewhat depressing. At the small brick house in northwest Washington where David lived with his mother and stepfather, federal tax economist Francis Newell Campbell, said a friend who had visited the home, “It was always dark, with the shades drawn.”
Dolan ended her piece by relating a story that captured David’s signature daring and defiance of the rules. Because of his previous experience reporting on the Washington debutante scene for the Star-News during his college years, Time assigned him to cover the masked ball being thrown at the White House by President Richard Nixon’s 23-year-old daughter, Tricia.
“Security, as usual, was tight at the Executive Mansion,” wrote Dolan, “and members of the press were sequestered in the downstairs family library where they were formally ‘briefed’ on what was happening at the party.
“Midway through the evening, a head count was taken in the library and the Secret Service nervously realized that one writer – ‘that young one from Time’ – was missing.
“Whiting was discovered finally, his patent leather slippers gleaming in the candlelight as he swept across the East Room dance floor holding the President’s smiling daughter in his arms.”
My former prep school classmate’s defiance of the U.S. Secret Service had paid off handsomely – Time got a scoop and he was not arrested. But if he kept on taking such high-level risks, how long could this brash young writer’s luck be expected to last? The answer, it turned out, was three more years.
Birth of a Legend
If I had to name a specific date on which David Whiting crossed the elusive boundary separating death from legend, I would choose March 26, 1973. That is the day on which both Time and Newsweek ran stories on David and Gila Bend, pegged to the verdict reached by the Arizona coroner’s jury five days earlier. In the Time piece, a former colleague of David’s at the national newsweekly memorably described him as “a star-struck man-child with a Bond Street wardrobe, a pair of lavender glasses, a well-thumbed copy of The Great Gatsby, and a lust for the life of the Beautiful People.”
Two months after this eye-grabbing epitaph appeared, Ladies Home Journal published a profile of Sarah Miles9 that included material from an interview reporter Diana Lurie had conducted with the actress’s newly anointed agent and business manager in January 1973.
“I bet you I won’t live the year out,” David eerily had predicted.
Then he told Lurie something even more bizarre: He planned to marry Sarah Miles, albeit not right away because “she won’t leave Bolt.” Looking on the bright side, he asserted: “He’s twenty-two years older than I am. Yes, I am going to be around to claim her when he dies.”
Sarah Miles’s spouse was 48 years old back then. The world-renowned screenwriter would live for another 22 years. Novice screenwriter David Whiting died, at age 26, less than a month after he spoke with Lurie.
In August 1973, Esquire published Ron Rosenbaum’s epic (20,000-word) feature, “The Corpse as Big as the Ritz: Burt Reynolds, Sarah Miles and That Dirty Little Death in the Desert.” The investigative reporter framed his story around David’s obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He noted telling details other reporters had missed, such as the police report listing the items found in the dead man’s motel room. According to Rosenbaum, these included 59 photographs of Sarah Miles and an Olivetti portable typewriter “with the ribbon and spools ripped out” – no doubt, by a frustrated David Whiting after hitting a snag in The Capri Numbers. David, said Rosenbaum, was working on his first screenplay, which he was co-authoring with a British actor friend. Midway through his stay in Gila Bend, he reportedly had walked into Miles’s room, thrown his screenplay draft onto her bed, and declared: “I’ve just read it and it’s no good at all. I can’t write anything.”
Rosenbaum concluded that David’s driving concern was neither sex nor literary fame, but rather his desperate need to belong to “a loving family,” which he believed he had found with Sarah Miles, Robert Bolt, and their three-year-old son, Thomas (aka “Tomcat”).10
On the pretense of interviewing them for Time, David had moved into the movie couple’s country estate in Surrey County, England, southwest of London, in 1971. However, as the days turned into weeks, the couple’s houseguest seemed to be making little or no progress on his magazine story. When they asked to see a draft, David became angry and defensive, as if they were prying into his private affairs. At this point, it was becoming clear to his hosts that the young American journalist, as Miles later would testify at the inquest, “was not a totally balanced young man. He had fits of depression and then fits of creativity when he showed his brilliance. Then he had those manic times when he got over the top with excitement.”11
When the blues hit, David would hole up in his room for days at a time, not even emerging to share meals with the family. Yet, with saint-like patience, the Bolts let him stick around. On the writer’s good days, says Robert Bolt, they enjoyed his company.
“He could be witty, self-mocking and extraordinarily perceptive,” Bolt recalled in a London newspaper interview published shortly after David died. On the other hand, he noted, the young man he had come to regard as a “surrogate son” also could be “Napoleonic, fly into rages, brood and withdraw into himself.”12
The rages, said Bolt, often were sparked by David’s extraordinary possessiveness toward Miles. He said David’s attitude and behavior toward his spouse on any given day depended on whether he was anchored in reality or taking a trip down fantasy lane. The screenwriter recalled that the journalist seemed to live a life that was “half fantasy, half reality. When it was reality, he was charmingly articulate. But when he lived out his fantasy, he became intensely jealous of anyone who displayed affection for Sarah.”13
Both Bolt and Miles repeatedly urged David to see a psychiatrist. He refused.
“If only he had the humility to get help,” Miles lamented, in an interview with this writer. “I was forever trying to persuade him. But then it’s an old tale isn’t it, that one? The more brilliant you are, even a genius, the greater your capacity for attracting the darkness, and the more frequent become those visits from the devil.”14
In October 1973, Playboy published Bruce Jay Friedman’s article “Burt Reynolds Puts His Pants on One Leg at a Time Just Like Me.” In the first-person “new journalism”-style piece, the writer expressed his admiration for David Whiting’s “John Wayne mother,” who had arrived in Gila Bend four days after David died with “guns high-end firing.” He said Louise Campbell was determined to prove that Burt Reynolds had murdered her son. On the other hand, the writer poked fun at David’s vaunted writing talent, citing a magazine story in which David ludicrously describes actress Paula Prentiss entering a room “with breasts squirming like live puppies beneath her jersey top.”15
But the true gem in this story was Friedman’s serendipitous discovery of one of David Whiting’s ex-lovers. He met the twenty-something “blonde girl reporter” at the Travelodge cocktail lounge. Both apparently had come to Gila Bend, a few months after David Whiting’s death, in search of his ghost.
“The key to [understanding] David,” said the alluring young woman with “piled up” blonde hair, “is that he lost his father when he was very, very young.”
Whiting’s former girlfriend also suggested to the Playboy writer that if he was willing to do his homework, he could crack the death mystery.
“Every one of those thousand journalists who covered Gila Bend,” she told him, “has a little piece of the truth. If you could put those pieces together, you’d have the answer.”
David and Me
A dozen years would pass before another brushstroke was added to the still-uncompleted post-mortem portrait of David Andrew Whiting. In November 1985, I published a story in Washington, D.C.’s Regardie’s magazine about David and two other St. Albans classmates who “ran into trouble early in the game.” Each had died young in a way that seemed to reflect the struggles our (Baby Boom) generation had faced while coming of age: drugs, personal demons, the war in Vietnam. I wrote the story to make peace with their memories and sense out of the troubled times through which all of us had passed.
From the moment I met David, back in September 1960, I liked the nattily dressed, big-talking 14-year-old who had just become the newest member of the class of 1964. He was witty and sardonic and told wildly entertaining tales. He told me, for example, that his going-away present to the headmaster of his former boarding school in Lake Placid, New York, had been a gift-wrapped box of human excrement. But beneath David’s “rogue charmer” mask, I later would learn, lay deep emotional insecurity dating back to his early childhood. Robert Whiting had virtually abandoned David after divorcing Louise. As a result, David was raised by his eccentric, emotionally distant mother. She also had abandoned him, in a sense, by shipping him off to a succession of boarding schools starting at age 10. He never forgave “Mater,” as he contemptuously referred to his mother, for exiling him at such a tender age. He would spend the rest of his days searching for a surrogate with a tender heart. When he met Sarah Miles, he thought he had found her.16
Of course, delving into David Whiting’s psyche was not a top priority back then – either to me or to any of his other St. Albans classmates. We hoped to crack more elementary conundrums, such as: Could his Chaucerian tales of sexual and athletic conquests possibly be true? Admittedly, I bought into some of them at the time, but would learn that his boasts, for instance, of being a “pre-Olympic” skier and a member of the ski-jumping team at an ultra-exclusive Swiss boarding school, were entirely fictitious. To show how clever David was, he told me that his mother had forced him to quit the Le Rosey School’s ski-jumping team because he had a “congenital heart defect” so serious that, if exacerbated by the stress of competing in the dangerous sport, it could kill him. He was thus able to demonstrate to me his athleticism and guts without risking anything. In fact, David was considerably overweight, which led his classmates to nickname him “Gumpy.”
As for his actual athletic prowess, one classmate remembers David this way: “He sort of waddled onto the [football] practice field one day wearing white cotton gloves with a blue border on top. He told me his mother made him wear them because he was allergic to dirt.”17 (David did eventually earn a spot as a reserve lineman on the St. Albans Junior Varsity football squad.)
Intellectually, however, David was a superstar. In the spring of his Fifth Form (junior) year, he had scored in the mid-700s on his college board exams (800 is perfect) and was the only National Merit Scholarship finalist in our class. He could do his calculus homework using a ballpoint pen, which does not allow for errors, in a matter of minutes. He delighted in taking on teachers in intellectual combat – a practice that amazed us and impressed them.
“He was a little troublesome,” recalls David’s Third-Form English master, Stanley Willis.18 “But he was extremely intelligent and a damn good writer. He could do anything he wanted.”
Well, not exactly. School administrators considered David a borderline student who had committed the gravest sin possible at St. Albans: he wasn’t living up to his potential. During his second year at the school, his grades began to fall. He was placed on academic probation. By the end of his Fifth Form year, he had exhausted the school’s patience. He got a C-plus grade that spring semester, thus failing to maintain the B average that the academic committee had demanded of him. He was dismissed from school.
Final approval of that decision was made by the Reverend Charles S. Martin, who was the headmaster of St. Albans for 28 years before he retired in 1977. Pope Charlie, as we sometimes called him – though never to his face – could freeze a boy at 30 yards with a single piercing stare over his half glasses. But the former college wrestling star (at the University of Pennsylvania), teacher, and author also was capable of remarkable bravery and loyalty to members of the school “family.” In the mid-1960s, he had traveled to Mississippi to rescue another former classmate of mine who had been jailed on a trumped-up murder charge following a civil rights march. And though he could be intimidating at times, Canon Martin was at heart a kindly man and surprisingly approachable. The door to his book-lined headmaster’s study was always open to any boy or parent who wanted to discuss a problem. On the other hand, he held all of us – especially the Upper School boys – accountable for our actions. He knew David had been given several chances to redeem himself but failed to exploit any of them. In Canon Martin’s eyes, he had made his choice. Like the wicked servant in the biblical parable the school’s Spartan leader often read aloud in morning chapel, David had buried his talents in the ground.
“He was an extraordinarily able boy,” the gray-haired cleric, then 78, recalled to this writer in a 1984 interview. “But it seemed wise for us and for him that he leave us.”
Three months later, David enrolled as a 17-year-old freshman at Georgetown University, just a few miles from St. Albans. After a desultory academic performance, he was asked at the end of the school year to leave that educational institution as well. However, in a move that showed both his personal resilience and film industry connections that he never revealed to anyone, my former classmate landed a job working as a scriptwriter for Trans Africa Films. The U.S. production company was shooting a series of documentaries in Libya’s Sahara Desert. While on location in North Africa, David wrote some revealing letters to John Davis, the assistant headmaster of St. Albans, who had continued to mentor him after he left the school.19
“Being good has always come more or less easily,” David confessed in one of those letters, “though the courage is lacking to enter the no-man’s land that leads either to excellence or failure. I am reasonably enthusiastic about films, but the gradient of success is so fine that failure is all but invisible.”
David also told his first real father figure that the Spartan conditions he faced while filming in the desert had made him realize how soft and decadent his previous life had been. “Drinking, smoking, debutante parties – all that is vanishing from my mind.” He said he was “stirred by the desert, vast, inscrutable and exquisitely beautiful.” He deemed his Libyan adventure “the greatest experience of my life.” He said he was eager to return to the Sahara from the Libyan capital of Tripoli, where he and his fellow crew members were taking a break from filming, so he could once again experience “the stillness, the beauty, the tinge of danger” in “being three hours by plane from the nearest civilization.”
In later letters to Davis, however, David seemed more focused on his inner struggles. He stressed the impossibility of returning to the “destructive” environment of his family and said that he regretted not finishing at St. Albans. “There are winners and losers in life,” he wrote, and because he lacked even a high school diploma, “the future appears to be very black.”
He asked Davis to help him apply to several colleges. In addition to book learning, he said he hoped to get counseling at whatever institution might “take a chance on me.”
“With their help,” he predicted, “I could shake off the emotional problems and hostile attitudes that have so far crippled me.”
Whiting closed this letter, written while on location in the Sahara, by noting, rather melodramatically: “It has ceased to be simply a matter of education and is now one of salvation. So, with the wind howling through the tent, and the desert sand flying, I am not merely asking, I am begging – will you help me? It may be the last time anyone can.”
Later that year, with John Davis’s help, a leaner, stronger, more confident David Whiting, who had shed 30 pounds during his Libyan adventure, was admitted to Haverford College near Philadelphia as a sophomore.
A Mystery Lingers
In November 1987, 14 years after David Whiting’s death, People magazine reminded its readers that the question of why his “body was found with a severe cut and scratches” on it in Sarah Miles’s motel room in February 1973 “has never been explained.” Only its editor knows why the celebrity-focused periodical was moved, at that moment, to weigh in on the controversial way in which the young screenwriter had departed this life 14 years earlier. (People did not exist in 1973).
Five years later, British entertainment writer John Austin published Tales of Hollywood the Bizarre, a nonfiction book that includes a chapter on Gila Bend, in which the author seemed to answer People magazine’s question. Austin said the “severe cut” on the back of David’s head came from the edge of a coffee table in Burt Reynolds’s Travelodge Motel room. He said Whiting had sustained the injury after being shoved by the actor during a violent confrontation.20
In the book chapter entitled, “The Man Who Died During Cat Dancing,” Austin used interviews he conducted in 1987 with retired Gila Bend police sergeant Forrest Hinderliter and former Gila Bend coroner Mulford Winsor to make the case for David’s murder, and for a subsequent cover-up of the alleged crime by MGM.21
In 2000, the Arizona Republic published a retrospective story, enticingly headlined: “Gila Bend Hollywood Whodunit ’73 Death Still Has Elements of Mystery.” Its author, Charles Kelly, described David as “an erratic man,” and stressed to the newspaper’s readers that “the desert is not kind to the erratic.”22 While reading Kelly’s story, I could almost picture my former classmate lurching like one of George Romero’s zombies through the unforgiving sands of Gila Bend.
In the Eyes of the Idols
In 1994, both Burt Reynolds and Sarah Miles published memoirs in which they discussed what Miles calls “the David Whiting episode.”
In My Life,23 Reynolds flatly denies harming David, whom he describes as “insanely jealous of me” and “a sick, sick man.” He admits that he wanted to confront David after the latter allegedly beat her up, but Miles had restrained him. Then he drops a bombshell: Janie Evans, David’s 23-year-old English girlfriend, who had traveled to Gila Bend from London to look after Miles’s 5-year-old son, Thomas, had caused David’s possibly fatal head injury.
He said the assault had occurred when David returned to Miles’s motel room to attack the actress a second time.
According to Reynolds, “The nanny,” described by a reporter covering Whiting’s death inquest as “dark haired, dark eyed, and sultry looking,” “grabbed a lamp and hit him over the head. It stunned him long enough for them (Miles and Evans) to flee in separate directions. Who knows what shape Whiting was in then, but he returned to his room, lay down (which is where the blood in the pillow was found), then came back to Sarah’s bathroom with over one hundred Quaaludes (methaqualone capsules), and somehow swallowed them all.”24 (Reynolds was off by a factor of 50 in estimating David’s drug intake.)
Deemed by many to be the real villain in the Arizona death drama, Burt Reynolds died on September 6, 2018, at age 82, in a Florida hospital, following a heart attack. He insisted, to the end of his days, that he never laid a hand on David.
Four months later, on January 18, 2019, the Globe newspaper ran a photograph of David on its cover under the provocative headline: “BURT REYNOLDS MURDERED THIS MAN – and got away with it! He beat movie agent to death in JEALOUS RAGE over gorgeous actress.”
Even in death, the actor could not escape the wrathful judgment of the tabloids. And the writer he allegedly had murdered could not stop being cast, once again, as the victim of a fatal love triangle.
In Miles’s memoir, Serves Me Right, the actress paints a mostly unflattering picture of David. She describes him as violent, emotionally disturbed, and suicidal. But she also admits that she was initially charmed by him, quickly came to see how “totally brilliant”25 he was, and eventually became “enormously fond of the boy.”26 In one chapter, she vividly recalls the day, in April 1971, the brash young American reporter showed up at her bungalow, at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel, to interview her.
“He was dressed in a Savile Row suit, hand-made shirt and shoes,” wrote Miles, “with a battered brown briefcase. His thick straight golden hair framed a pair of finely made tortoiseshell specs.” She also recalled that David “exuded frighteningly zestful energy” and had a “talent for ego-boosting” that appealed to the outspoken actress who, like David, often covered up her insecurity by acting provocatively.27 When initially interviewed about David’s death by Gila Bend police sergeant Forrest Hinderliter, for example, she reportedly responded: “He was my business manager, but all he wanted to do was fuck me all the time, and I was not going to be fucked by him.”28
Miles’s one-night stand with David would unleash a cascade of misfortune that ultimately would break up her marriage to Robert Bolt (the couple would later remarry) and nearly destroy her acting career.
Yet in a recent interview with this writer, the 78-year-old retired actress, who today runs a spiritual healing center in Sussex, England, claimed to hold no animosity toward the man who, decades earlier, had caused so much pain to her and her loved ones. In fact, she says she would like to obtain belated justice for David, whom she believes was murdered in Gila Bend.
Now decades removed from the incident, and no longer beholden to MGM lawyers trying to protect the movie company’s image or limit its legal liability in the death, Miles says she has “run out of fear” with regard to finally revealing publicly what she knows about David’s fate. And about the manipulation and deception she says were used by the movie studio and its lawyers to cover up the truth.29
In November 2019, she completed a screenplay about my former classmate, with whose memory, apparently, she never has quite made peace.
“I want closure,” Miles told me, “for me and for David.”30
Even if Miles’s screenplay never gets produced, David Whiting will not be disappearing from the public imagination anytime soon. In 2012, Southern California writer Anne R. Allen, who attended Bryn Mawr women’s college when David was at nearby Haverford College for men, published The Gatsby Game. The comedic mystery novel features a David Whiting-like protagonist named Alistair Milbourne, described in a book jacket blurb as “a social climber who worships a class that will never accept him.” In Allen’s fictionalized version of the events in Gila Bend, Milbourne dies from a concussion he sustained in an accidental fall.
Allen describes the strange dating relationship she had with David, whom she characterized as “an odd duck who seemed to live in his own, private F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasy world.” She later told this writer my former prep school classmate would sneak into her dormitory room when she wasn’t there and “leave me little love notes and gifts,” which often included quotes from Fitzgerald’s works. At the time, says Allen, because she was “genuinely infatuated” with David, she was “charmed” by his stealthy courtship methods, but now deems them “bizarre.” And though she considered him romantic back then, in his own weird sort of way, she says he also could be cruel.31
“He made it clear from the start that I wasn’t A-List enough to be serious girlfriend material,” she wrote on her blog after publishing The Gatsby Game. “That [arrangement] was okay with me,” wrote Allen. “We didn’t have the term ‘friends with benefits’ in those days, but that would have described our relationship. I dated him mostly because I found him hilarious. Every date was a piece of performance art.”
Allen also recalls that David “wasn’t wildly handsome, and his pretentiousness bordered on the comical, but somehow he always ended up with some supermodel or movie star on his arm. He showed me photos of himself with Jane Fonda and Carroll Baker” that he had taken while working as a still photographer in Europe.32 Allen says David told her he had sex with Baker, and she suspects his boast may be true. She told me that when she was dating David, “a number of women” at Bryn Mawr “seemed to be competing for his attention, which labeled him [to her] as desirable.”33 Still, she reflects, “I can’t imagine the [other] women didn’t see through him as easily as I did. Like me, I suspect they were intrigued by the occasional glimpses of a real person beneath the phony surface – a person in a lot of psychic pain.”
In 2014, The David Whiting Story, an avant-garde movie written, produced, and directed by Walter Reuben, a former classmate of David’s at Haverford, premiered in Los Angeles. In publicity materials, the feature-length film was billed as a “genre-defying comedy about the unreliability of memory.” It is also gender-defying. In one film segment, Reuben casts a very short actress, wearing a false moustache, in the part of Burt Reynolds.
Members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association liked the film so much they gave its 69-year-old auteur their annual award for experimental independent film and video in 2014. Were Whiting still among us, he probably would be pleased by his old college classmate’s belated success, even though, in an online interview, Reuben referred to David as “a con artist, a thief, and a pretentious poseur.”34
David, who loved to stir people up, might consider this a compliment. He had demonstrated countless times that leaving a negative impression on someone was far preferable, in his eyes, to being ignored. In any case, he undoubtedly would enjoy watching a movie named after him. Albeit posthumously, and with a little help from a man who apparently despised him, the “star-struck man-child” had finally made it big in Tinseltown.
Once again, my former St. Albans classmate had managed to reinvent himself – this time, in the ultimate David Whiting role: as the star of his own movie. There he was, larger than life, up on the silver screen, the same canvas on which he had hoped to project his own cinematic visions. For 87 glorious minutes, he once again commanded center stage, all eyes on him, just as they had been more than four decades earlier when he danced with the president’s daughter at the White House while Secret Service agents searched for him in vain.
There was something about David that Anne Allen, Walter Reuben, Sarah Miles, and I could not forget. Something to which each of us felt compelled creatively to respond. I cannot speak for any of them. But to me the most unforgettable thing about David Whiting is the relentless fury with which he pursued his romantic and cinematic dreams. Like a boxer in a championship bout, no matter how many jarring hits he took, he would not quit. Too much was at stake. Although David never met his literary idol, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died six years before he was born, the Jazz Age novelist and screenwriter seemed to have my former classmate in mind when he wrote, in Tender is the Night, “There is something awe-inspiring in one who has lost all inhibitions, who will do anything.”
- Sarah Miles, Serves Me Right. Macmillan, 1994, p. 405. [↩]
- Ivor Davis, Victor Davis, and Philip Finn, “Appointment at Gila Bend: The Bizarre Tale of an Odd, Secretive Young Man Who Died Reaching for the Stars,” London Daily Express, March 1, 1973. [↩]
- Ron Rosenbaum, “The Corpse as Big as the Ritz: Burt Reynolds, Sarah Miles and That Dirty Little Death in the Desert.” Esquire, August 1973 [↩]
- Sarah Miles, Serves Me Right. [↩]
- Davis et al., “Appointment at Gila Bend.” [↩]
- Details about Nancy’s last name, age, where and when the couple was married, and the airline that David’s secret spouse worked for are from Ron Rosenbaum, “The Corpse as Big as the Ritz.” [↩]
- Stephen Walsky, “Building Blocks (Death Becomes the Written Word . . . ,” Simplicity Lane website, June 13, 2013. [↩]
- Mary Anne Dolan, “A Life Like No Other.” Washington Star-News, March 12, 1973. [↩]
- Diana Lurie, “Sarah Miles – The Story Behind the Scandal.” Ladies Home Journal, June 1973. [↩]
- Ron Rosenbaum, “The Corpse as Big as the Ritz.” [↩]
- Washington Post, March 15, 1973. [↩]
- Mary Anne Dolan, “A Life Like No Other.” Dolan’s story was published a few days before the March 14, 1973, Whiting death inquest hearing in Gila Bend. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Sarah Miles, October 1, 2014, email. [↩]
- Bruce Jay Friedman, “Burt Reynolds Puts His Pants on One Leg at a Time Just Like Me.” Playboy, October 1973. [↩]
- Quote and facts from the author’s 2019 interview with California mystery novelist Anne R. Allen, who dated Whiting in college. [↩]
- Interview with Whiting’s classmate and fellow junior varsity football teammate Roger Clapp. [↩]
- Interview with Stanley Willis. [↩]
- Quotes from letters in the collection of John Davis, shared with the author. [↩]
- John Austin, Tales of Hollywood the Bizarre. Spi Books, 1992. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Charles Kelly, “Gila Bend Hollywood Whodunit ’73 Death Still Has Elements of Mystery.” Arizona Republic, February 27, 2000, p. F1. [↩]
- Burt Reynolds, My Life. Hyperion, 1994. [↩]
- Reynolds, My Life. [↩]
- Sarah Miles, August 18, 2017 email. [↩]
- Reuter’s News Agency, March 14, 1973. [↩]
- Sarah Miles, Serves Me Right. [↩]
- Ron Rosenbaum, “The Corpse as Big as the Ritz.” [↩]
- Sarah Miles, August 18, 2017, email. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Quotes are from 2019 emails sent to the author by Anne Allen in response to written questions. [↩]
- Quotes in this section are from Anne Allen’s blog, Anne R. Allen’s Books, and emails to the author. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Anne R. Allen, “The Must-Read Story for Writers with an ‘Impossible’ Dream: Walter Reuben and The David Whiting Story.” Feb. 1, 2015. Blog. [↩]