Real female detectives differ from fictional gumshoes

August 05, 1991|By Sheila Anne Feeney | Sheila Anne Feeney,New York Daily News

In the beginning, there was the skirt, Nancy Drew.

Next, dames started saturating television like tears soaking a hanky. "Remington Steele," "Moonlighting" and "Murder, She Wrote" all boasted Bettys solving crimes the big boys couldn't -- or wouldn't -- touch.

Now, the big screen has gone dizzy over doll detectives with "V.I. Warshawski," a movie about a glam-gammed gumshoe who springs to work for "a dollar and a just cause." Her job includes computer hacking, a high-speed boat chase, getting beat up and shot at, kidnapping and murder.

New York's relatively few female private investigators rely on wits more than weapons and rarely solve a murder (that, for the most part, is the province of police). Wearing Warshawski's sky-high spike heels on the job is about as likely as sleeping during a surveillance.

"High heels don't go well with my brace," cracks Alice Byrne, 47, a private investigator who owns her own firm, just sold her life story to television, and copes with multiple sclerosis while cracking cases for El Al Airlines (she's security director) and tracking down missing kids, spouses and cash. "I go along with Cybill Shepherd, who said the only place for high heels is in bed."

Ms. Byrne and other private investigators -- both male and female -- affirm that the same reasons women are discriminated against can work to their advantage in soliciting confidences, information and access.

Ms. Byrne even puts M.S. to work for her. "I get by security you wouldn't believe" in the scooter she rides when her legs weary. At least, she rationalizes, she's not impersonating a disabled person.

Ms. Byrne dumfounded a police vet she worked with in one luxurious, top-security building by simply asking the doorman for the sales office. "Three minutes later we were in the elevator, going where we wanted to go."

Also, a "just cause" can be the exception, not the rule. Mimi Jennings, an "operative" for Bo Dietl & Associates, spends most of her time feeling like a mercenary for one spouse trying to catch another in an affair.

An affluent clientele often indicates travel. Ms. Byrne racked up $36,000 in expenses traveling through Greece, Italy and other parts of Europe seeking men who had had flings with an omerican on vacation. The vacationer's lover wanted her to track them down and persuade them to take HIV tests. Ms. Byrne, a registered nurse, reports all tests came back negative.

How did she persuade them to take blood tests?

"I paid them!"

Ms. Jennings has been sent to Germany, Paris, the Bahamas, St. Thomas and Acapulco. Of course, you have to stay in the same hotel asthe person you're tailing; it's usually first class.

Gara W. Gorgone (female P.I.s are partial to initials) sometimes uses her 10-year-old son as a cover. The assistant manager for Pinkerton Security and Investigations in Manhattan left him home, however, when she dressed like a prostitute to nail an employee suspected of pimping.

Ms. Gorgone has never been shot at, abducted or beat up on the job, but once, she was "taking some really hot pictures" from her truck on a stakeout, when a business owner came out and told her to move the vehicle so his trucks could park there. He began swearing at her and told her to "get a job." She firmly ordered, "I need you to leave me alone."

When he didn't, she decked him with a roundhouse that sent one of his teeth clattering to the sidewalk. She continued pounding him until a truck driver peeled her off.

He never hit her back?

"Oh no! He was a perfect gentleman."

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