In Hollywood, stars put them in the driver's seat

Chauffeurs hold the keys when it comes to celebrities

March 03, 2003|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOLLYWOOD - Scott Herwitz travels in a world of celebrity, privilege and, sometimes, drama. Wearing a dark suit and shades, he is silent and nearly invisible - qualities that make him privy to secrets, deals and the occasional romantic liaison.

Herwitz is a limousine driver, one of thousands in Los Angeles. To those on the other side of the partition, he is simply "the driver." But he sees and hears everything.

"You're the ultimate fly on the wall," says Herwitz. "You see the best and worst of people - on their way to the Oscars [which this year fall on March 23], and coming back with nothing."

The professional code is simple: What goes on in the car stays in the car. Some drivers keep their passengers' secrets. A few leave a scuttlebutt trail.

On rare occasions, the driver takes center stage. Phil Spector's driver, for example, has been swept up in a celebrity homicide case. (After dropping off the music producer and actress Lana Clarkson early morning Feb. 3 at Spector's mansion, he heard gunshots. He called the police. Arriving officers found Clarkson dead in the foyer.) During the O.J. Simpson trial, limo driver Allan Park delivered crucial testimony and became a reluctant celebrity in his own right.

There are private and company drivers, and actor-drivers moonlighting on prom nights. But there are also the journeymen, the self-described chauffeurs. On average, full-time drivers make $40,000 a year, but the elite - who can tell you the make of bottled water currently favored by the rich and famous - can earn close to $100,000. And driving is the least of their job.

In a dozen years as both a company driver and a private driver, Herwitz hasn't witnessed a killing, but he has seen just about everything else. "I've been in the bedrooms of the most beautiful women in the world," he says, grinning. "The only problem: I'm carrying the luggage."

The partition between the front and back seats is a symbolic reminder of the upstairs-downstairs relationship between driver and client. "The hardest thing to do," he says, is "to tell Arnold Schwarzenegger to put out his cigar and put on a seat belt."

Herwitz drives for Playboy, routinely taking centerfolds to Hugh Hefner's mansion. He has driven actor Jack Nicholson, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and billionaire oil tycoon Marvin Davis. The last "only said three words, `Speed, speed, speed.'"

Other passengers have been more relaxed. Promoter David Gest and singer Petula Clark sang Beatles songs and ate chitterlings and black-eyed peas during one trip.

There is an inverse relation between a client's power and the size of the car he chooses, Herwitz says. Limos are for those who think they're important. Sedans are for those who are important. "The SUV is `not only am I important, but I'm hip.'"

Herwitz has heard business deals go down and often knows about Hollywood hires and fires before they're in the trades. And although he says he would never seek to profit from information overheard in the car, there are tales of less scrupulous colleagues.

In one popular - if unverifiable - story, a chauffeur who drove Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone heard of Viacom's plans to acquire Paramount well before rumors started to circulate outside the car. He bought stock and made out like a bandit.

The rearview mirror can also be a window on more personal dealings. Herwitz heard a prominent attorney verbally abuse his wife but bit his tongue. Drivers' discretion, after all, is the better part of valor.

"Shut your mouth, and get where you're going" is how Charlie Horky puts it.

Twenty years ago, Horky drove his first client, singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg. Today, he owns CLS, one of the largest limousine companies in the country - with 220 cars and 400 drivers in Los Angeles alone - and ferries the Rolling Stones, U2 and, says Horky, "the Katzenbergs of this world."

Preston Snyder is one of Horky's top guys. "A chauffeur," says Snyder, "not a driver." It's an important distinction. A driver simply drives. A chauffeur, he says with pride, "is a mobile concierge."

Snyder says he can get his passengers the best table at the best restaurant, entree to the hottest club in town and - unlike a concierge or a personal assistant - a quick or discreet escape.

He studies the city, doing geographical and social reconnaissance. Or, in his words, "advance work." He is on a first-name basis with the top concierge at the Four Seasons and at most other high-end hotels. He knows maitre d's and doormen across the city. He also knows most back doors and alleyways. "You have to be up on everything," he says.

He never gossips.

"It's really simple: My car is a sanctuary," Snyder says. "When the client is in the car, the last thing they should have to worry about is a nosy driver."

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