Had you met this man just one year ago today, the surroundings would have been quite different. All necessary arrangements would have been made through a personal secretary and household staff. A limo would have been sent and one would spend the leisurely drive upstate composing one’s notes and biographical tidbits, preparing for an afternoon with one of the Forbes 400’s most eccentric moguls. What the man might do or say – then as now – would be completely unpredictable. In fact, the only surety in the entire interview would be the introduction; a quick pump of a handshake followed by the man’s near-infamous mantra: “I’m Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire, I own a mansion and a yacht”.
Things have changed, however. As anyone who reads the newspapers knows, the Hamptons estate is gone, the Brunnhilde, his eighty foot yacht, sits in dry dock, the controlling chair of the multi-billion dollar conglomerate known as ACME, Inc. has passed to a succession of vice-presidents, and the founder himself – still one of the wealthiest men in America today – has a new address: the Jones-Avery Spa for Psychiatric Well-Being, in the foothills just north of Burbank, California.
It may be called a “spa” but it becomes readily apparent, once passing through its high gated security check-point, just what kind of a place this is. A summer camp for rich lunatics. Don’t be over-hasty to read derision into this reporter’s initial impression of the Jones-Avery Spa; indeed, it is my firm, personal belief that the upper-class are just as deserving of mental health as the bourgeoisie. And if they can afford imported tapioca and a higher quality of butterfly net then bully for them. But this place, with its manicured grounds, swimming pools, and tennis courts is the polar opposite of the iron-barred Gothic asylum one might expect. No Snake Pit this. Here, in a country club milieu, is where Fudd is now – according to the spa’s press release – “enjoying a calming, ordered life of supervised indoor and outdoor activities while benefiting from the finest in ‘round-the-clock counseling and pharmaceutical treatment.” Which allows one to rest assured that the man’s days are filled with all the basket weaving and lithium his money can subsidize.
Really, the place is lovely. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, very protective of its privileged charges.
Although clearances had been arranged through every appropriate channel and the interview date and time rigidly set some two months in advance, I was met at the gate by two cheerfully gargantuan “helpers” (Bob, a rather stony gent, and his better half Tex, he of the charming grin) who had been asked to escort me directly to the waiting room of Dr. Freleng while a final decision was being made regarding my “access” to Mr. Fudd.
And so it came to pass that this reporter’s search into the truth behind the dramatic disintegration of one of the business world’s finest minds was effectively couched in a stylishly modern anteroom full of comfortable furniture and soft, muted colors. The entire philosophy of the Jones-Avery Spa rings out through its oppressive color choice: better living through pastels. Though none of the walls are barren stretches of white, khaki green, or gray and though carpets replace the expected polished tile floors there still hangs about the place the pervasive, antiseptic stink of “hospital”. Within mere minutes my eyes had glazed over, as serenely unseeing as any successful lobotomy case. Given plenty of time by the good doctor’s last minute bureaucratic shuffling, I was obliged to reflect on the person that I had flown cross-country to find, the man who, until one late afternoon last fall, we all thought we knew.