The Nearly Complete Angelyne Documentary That No One Knew About (Until Now)
Courtesy of Jesse Small

The Nearly Complete Angelyne Documentary That No One Knew About (Until Now)

Just two weeks after the mystery of the L.A. billboard legend was finally solved comes the revelation that a young filmmaker shot a documentary about her past — and in a conversation, he corroborates and expands on what's known about the enigmatic blonde bombshell.

On Aug. 2, THR published an article I wrote about Angelyne and the iconic L.A. billboard queen’s illuminating past as Renee Goldberg. Since then she’s continued to tool around town in her pink Corvette while Hollywood players have begun to contact her in pursuit of the rights to her unique story.

After declining to substantively engage with my findings over many months, Angelyne has spoken to multiple media outlets about the piece. In an on-air conversation with the local public radio station KPCC, she complained of unspecified “inaccuracies” without denying that she’s Goldberg.

Meanwhile, some readers wrote in with their own memories and tips about Angelyne, while many others on various social media platforms speculated about her past and surfaced information allegedly connected to her.

Together, the crowdsourced details continue to sketch out both a quintessential and singular portrait of postwar American life in Southern California. Someone found a 2015 Facebook post from a now-deceased veteran defense industry engineer named John Cornel Kovach in which he recalled that Goldberg’s machinist father (a man Kovach knew as Harry) — who at the Nazi prison camp Skarzysko labored on munitions — worked as a prototype builder at Lockheed Martin’s notoriously secretive Skunk Works weapons development complex in Palmdale, more than an hour north of L.A.

In a Facebook post after THR's article ran, the Hollywood talent manager Sam Lufti (best known for his legal imbroglio with former client Britney Spears) reminisced about how he’d made Angelyne’s acquaintance as a youth in the city. He said she’d once acknowledged to him “that her father was Jewish, but she explained she came from an era where admitting being Jewish wasn’t good for [making it] in Hollywood,” going on to refer to how the Polish Warners of Warner Bros. had anglicized their shtetl names.

The most revelatory correspondent, however, was 27-year-old Jesse Small, a USC film school graduate who sent me an e-mail that began “I don’t know where to start” and went on to note that he’d begun “making a documentary on Angelyne in 2012 and spent the better part of the last five years uncovering the story you wrote about.” He explained that, among other endeavors, he’d visited archives in Europe, spoken to her stepsister Norma St. Michel and looked through a suitcase of old photos and documents with ex-husband Michael Strauss. Small continued, “I’m not a journalist and I’ve never made a film before so I don’t know if ‘scooped’ is the right term to use here, but I guess I’ve been scooped!”

I took him out to lunch at a restaurant near the Sony lot. Small, a keen and wry Playa del Rey resident whose day job is managing his family’s real estate investments, brought a sheaf of research files he’d accumulated and proceeded to unspool a parallel tale of inquiry, which overlaps and expands on my own, and in one place corrects it. My story included a call to an Annette Block and her husband Stanley of Oxnard, California; they were, on account of what turns out to have been a misread of her birth date by my genealogist source, the presumed sister and brother-in-law of Angelyne, who resides in a neighboring town. The real Annette, born two years earlier, spoke to Small while he researched his in-the-works documentary, Angelyne, but hasn’t spoken to her famous sister in years.

This interview has been condensed and edited. It also incorporates material from a subsequent e-mail exchange for clarity.

How did you end up looking into Angelyne?

I was looking for a film project when I graduated from USC in 2012. I had a bunch of different ideas. I was thinking about doing something on [the naturalist] John Muir. This just came to me. I’d seen all her billboards in the city growing up on the Westside, on my way driving to school. I went to LACES, between Fairfax and La Cienega — it turns out Angelyne went to the same school when it was known as Louis Pasteur Middle School. Then, when I started looking into it, the information online about her was very limited, not only just the real story about her, but the comments on message boards skewed thin: negative remarks about her appearance or her age, and how this woman was holding onto the ’80s. There wasn’t much from her perspective and what she wanted to share — I thought that would be absolutely fascinating. I was just, like, “Who is this person who drives around in that pink Corvette?” My original pitch to her was, “Show me whatever you want to show me.” I wasn’t even thinking in terms of story. I just thought it would be fun, entertaining. Someone would watch that.

So what did she think of your original pitch?

She was not into that idea because she didn’t want me to get a bad angle of her. I learned very quickly that lighting — or what she perceived as lighting — was very important to her. She wanted to control her image. She told me something to the effect of, "If someone did an interview and called me a bitch I wouldn’t think twice. But if there’s a bad picture of me, no." So we started working together, kind of loosey-goosey.

Why do you think she chose to work with you?

I think she liked me because I was young. She told me she likes working with unestablished people because she can control them better. I was fine with that. At the time I really didn’t have an interest in looking into the things that she was uncomfortable with. Honestly, I really didn’t have a clear vision. I think we just sort of vibed. She was like, “I don’t really know what this is, but I think I can make it work.”

What was your impression of her when you started spending time with her?

That this was no joke — not an act. I thought she would be a little bit more like Elvira, where it’s definitely a character but then she goes back and forth to herself.

She doesn’t. That’s who she really is. She’s disappeared into the role she created for herself long ago.

I think that’s really an interesting part that people don’t realize. They think that she has, like, normal clothes. I don’t think she does.

There’s no Clark Kent. This is it.

Yeah.

Did she connect you with people around her?

She did, but it was random, like she wanted me to meet her dentist.

She had me meet the dentist too, when I profiled her in 2015.

The dentist tells me, more or less, “We’ve been friends, I was married and then I got divorced and Angelyne’s kind of always been around.” I was like, “Well, what do you know about Angelyne?” “Not much, really.” It was the strangest thing because I was like, “Who actually knows this woman?!” That was my real motivation in talking with her assistant Scott [Hennig] — I thought that he would have that kind of information. I come to find out that he doesn’t either.

You don’t think anybody really knows Angelyne?

No. I’m convinced that there is no person today out there in her life who knows her as both Renee Goldberg and Angelyne — zero. She had a conscious break in the ’70s to bury Renee Goldberg and became Angelyne.

Let’s talk more about Scott. He’s more elusive than Angelyne. He wouldn’t even meet me in person. We could only speak by phone.

Scott’s such an interesting character because he knows more than he would ever let on, and yet he works really hard to not acknowledge it, publicly for professional reasons, but also I think that while it’s her longest relationship of the people in her life, I think that she keeps up that same barrier with him as she does with most other people. I imagine he would never ask, “Is this your real name?” And if he did, she would say no and he would believe her. He’s her No. 1 fan. He himself does not want that illusion to be broken.

He’s in very deep, to the end. He reminds me of Max, Norma Desmond’s loyal butler played by Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard.

I went to this place he has in Idaho and interviewed him. He spends some time there. What he told me was that he likes this secret place that he lives. He likes the privacy. Initially I had a difficult time understanding Scott and why he was sticking around all these years — what was he getting out of the relationship — and until I went to this place I didn’t understand it. His place, this apartment in Idaho, is a Hollywood memorabilia museum. It is filled, very clean, very meticulously organized, with not just Angelyne memorabilia but old monster movies and Sharon Tate posters and sketches that he has done of pictures of old Hollywood celebrities over the years. And I’m, like, whoa, that’s what it is. He is kind of living in his dream of this Hollywood that I believe doesn’t really exist. And this is the closest thing that he could get to that, by being with Angelyne, because she keeps up the façade, the appearance, unlike most other big Hollywood stars who, if you were to get to know them, you’d be having a regular conversation. Not Angelyne.

Right, the façade is her life. Did they ever have a romantic relationship?

They did in the past. They both told me that they did. I don’t know what that relationship is now. Also, they had a neighbor at the time, Denise, who I interviewed early on. Angelyne got a restraining order against her and they were apparently like the neighbors from hell. She turned off the electricity in Angelyne’s apartment and Angelyne accused her of stealing her underwear and Scott would duct tape the dryer in the common area of the building and whatever. So she also said that they were in a relationship.

Angelyne presented her stalker situations to me as classic stalking, not something that came out of, for instance, a neighborly dispute.

I do believe that to an extent she’s had real stalkers, but I think she’s embraced them. These are the people who would buy personal items from her, beyond the T-shirts — her shoes, her underwear or whatever. They kind of are stalking her, but she’s embracing it. I think the people that she’s called stalkers over the years, I don’t think that they were ever actually stalking her. She’s called me a stalker over the years.

When did this happen?

We were in her Hollywood office and talking about what kind of information is available about her online. She got really upset at me for knowing this stuff. I said, “You can’t control it too much –- this is YouTube.” I pull up a video that identifies her in a scene of an old movie called Can I Do It…‘Til I Need Glasses? where she’s Red Riding Hood. I watched the video next to her, the few minutes of it that it is, and she’s like, “That’s not me.” It was throwing me off. I said, “Really? It’s the same voice as you and you’re speaking in my ear right now.” She’s like, “No, that’s definitely not me. I should e-mail them to take it down." I said you should if it really bothers you. She’s like, “No, no, no, let’s leave it up for right now.” I go, “OK.” That’s when she called me a stalker. I think that’s how she tries to negatively describe people whom she doesn’t want to deal with.

So how long did you spend hanging out with her?

I paid for her life rights and we started right around the time I graduated, the spring of 2012, and we were done by the end of the year. I saw her daily for a period of more than six months.

Why did your work with her come to an end?

It was just psychologically incredibly draining. It was difficult to be spending a lot of time with her. She said to me in the beginning of working with her that she’s like uncut heroin. Without personal experience, I think that’s probably true. Also, it became very difficult not because of her concealing her identity or anything like that but just on a financial level. Every time I saw her she wanted a gift.

I had the same experience when I interviewed her. It was always absurd requests, like I was being pranked. She wanted a bird of paradise head one time. And as a journalist on assignment, I told her all I could pay for during our time together was the cost of shared meals.

She’d ask for bottles of pink champagne, Bulgari Jasmine Noir perfume, Chanel bubble bath. Oftentimes it was not even gifts. She would simply have me fill up her gas tank, and if I refused she would threaten to stop working with me.

She did successfully mandate that, since she was driving me around in her Corvette, The Hollywood Reporter should fill up her gas tank.

It got so bad. To the extent that I pre-ordered bottles of Jasmine Noir perfume because it took too much time to always have to go to a department store to buy one. I still have an unopened bottle sitting on my shelf. 

Does she do it to screw with people?

I think it’s twofold. It’s a psychological need to be loved, and I think that she needs to know that you’re going to these insane lengths. She does kind of realize that it may be unreasonable. She gets this feeling that if someone is bending over backwards, doing all these things for her, then she can trust them, she can bring them closer to her.

Over the course of the project you switched your approach. What happened?

One step at a time I got curious. I suppose the most practical answer is that I realized that I needed an actual film. The material I had with her wasn’t enough. But also, when I started pulling files, things were strange, like she had used multiple social security numbers on different public records involving civil suits and creditors. I thought, Why is she going to these lengths? If she had just used a stage name, without officially changing it in court, she could’ve lived her life very privately. So I wanted to see where this was going. I wanted to find the end of the rabbit hole.

How did you begin?

I tried to find Hugo [Maisnik], her financial partner on the billboards. I tracked him down in a retirement home in Westwood. He remembered her, and he had some interesting stories.

I understand he has Alzheimer’s.

He does, and that was the beginning of it. At that point his wife was still alive and they were living together at this retirement home. He told me that their deal was 50-50 — that he would pay to print the billboards. He was a billboard printer and he had the connections to the outdoor advertisers. They worked it out. He said she just cold-called him one day. She was in her band at the time and was just relentless. He asked what she looked like. She said, “I’m five-two, I’m blonde and I have big boobs!” He’s like, “OK, we can meet.” They clicked. He’s incredibly nice. He’s a quirky, interesting guy. They worked together through the ’90s and he eventually passed her off to this guy David Staley, who’s also a billboard printer, and that relationship continued for a while.

Billboard advertising became more expensive over the years.

I spoke with some of the salespeople at that those companies. They remembered her. She did trades, barters — just hustled it. That kept her going for a long period of time.

What kind of trades and barters?

She sent this one guy I spoke to, a billboard painter, a list of items she would trade for, and he looked at this list and it was, like, a sprinkler system, carpeting, lawn mowing — very strange things. He thought, “I need new carpeting.” It turned out to be some sketchy guy who did a really shoddy job, and he had to get someone else to redo it.

Wow.

She told me that Hugo introduced her to the idea of this barter system: never pay for anything. I wouldn’t want to live life like that, but pretty much every time that I’ve gone to see her anywhere, I’m either paying or someone else is paying. I’ve never seen a wallet of hers. I think that’s how she lives her life.

What did you learn of Angelyne’s family life?

Look, at the very least, being a child of Holocaust survivors, moving across the world and not speaking English, having her mother die when she’s a teenager — and not just die suddenly but after a prolonged battle with cancer — it’s a lot to go through…

But it was more challenging than even that.

I spoke at some length to Angelyne’s niece, Cheyenne — the daughter of her sister Annette. She told me that Angelyne was locked in a closet as punishment many times when she was growing up, for up to a day at a time. She was beaten in the house — that was her childhood for many years. It was very difficult. Cheyenne also told me that their mother would send them to school with thick braids like Jews out of Eastern Europe and that they were embarrassed by their parents’ accents. Cheyenne said that her mother named her Cheyenne because she wanted the least Jewish-sounding name she could think of, so she picked something Native American.

What else can you tell us about her sisters?

I come to find out that Angelyne’s father died in 2004 but carried on a relationship with the other daughters, Annette and [half-sister] Norma. I spoke to Annette on the phone and she told me that they have not spoken in many years and she had reached out to Angelyne without success. Angelyne has denied having a sister to my face. Norma has less patience with her. She told me that Angelyne was always running away, going to parties and sneaking off with boys, while Norma was the good student who wanted to stay home. There’s also a third sister, or there was, who went by Genia or Eugenia. She was disabled and passed away in 2014. It turns out she’d been living her whole life in a facility in Jerusalem, since the time the family left for America. I had an e-mail exchange with a nun who had been taking care of her. She said Genia had difficulty moving but that she’d lived an incredibly long time for the condition she was in and also still had a good sense of humor. It sounds like they took really good care of her. It’s strange. I know this fact and I’m not sure Angelyne does. She’s been out of contact with her family here for so long.

Your film on Angelyne eventually took you from her hot-pink office and Corvette along Hollywood Boulevard to the concentration camps and former Jewish ghettoes of Europe, tracing the Holocaust.

My family’s Jewish and our roots are in Eastern Europe, but my grandmother left what is today the Ukraine in the 1910s, so it was well before the Holocaust. This was my way of learning firsthand about that history.

What part of the Goldberg family experience did you find most notable?

One of the last camps where her father was located, Dora-Mittelbrau, he was likely put to work on the secret [Nazi] V-2 rocket program. I had records showing him there at the time period it was going on. He was a trained mechanic.

Do you think Angelyne’s been aware of the research you’ve been doing?

I think she heard a rumor or two. Maybe someone called her up and said that I interviewed them — someone who she hadn’t spoken to in many years.

How many people in her orbit have you spoken to?

Maybe 15.

What’s the status of the project now?

It’s all shot. It’s all researched. I have a cut of it, which is 58 minutes, and I’m looking for a new editor right now. In the right hands it’s like a six-week job to finish it. But to find the right hands has just been an incredibly difficult process. I’ve never made a movie before.

What’s the ending of your film?

For a long time we were editing this thing and I’m in the room with the editor and we’re talking about it and we said we’d love Angelyne to have a comment. I think what’s happened over the past few days, the things she’s said addressing your story, is probably going to be the closest thing. So that might be it.

When were you planning to contact her with your findings?

Well, I’m going to try now that your article is out. I was basically waiting for the film to be done because I didn’t really know where this is going. I didn’t know if there was something else [to discover]. I knew what her reaction would be: denial and being upset at me for bringing this all to her. So I will ask her for another interview, but I don’t have high hopes.

Some of Angelyne’s fans have been upset with me for revealing her reality, and particularly her difficult past, against her wishes. You have gone even further and are also likely to be met with this criticism. What’s your response?

I am OK with what I’m sharing. I would feel differently if this was someone who was in witness protection, just trying to live a normal life — under the radar. She doesn’t do that. You can’t put yourself out there like she does and not have people engage with it.

What don’t people understand about her?

She’s a very hard worker and a hustler in the best sense. I wouldn’t want to be friends with her or spend too much time with her and, honestly, I feel bad for anyone who has an interaction with her. Most of the time, a sincere fan comes up to her and they just want a picture. “$20!” It’s not even nice sometimes, how she treats strangers on the street. That being said, seeing where she comes from, and the fact that she’s sustained all of this for all of these years, it’s incredibly impressive and if she wants to live her life like that, then I suppose she’s doing it amazingly.

Did you listen to her interview with KPCC the other day?

I did. I was like, it’s not all the way there, but she’s starting to accept Renee Goldberg. She’s been afraid for many years. At some point it was good business and it pays to keep this up. But what I’ve been thinking for a while is it’s too bad that she doesn’t embrace [being Renee Goldberg] because this is even more special and more amazing. I hope it comes across in the doc. I really do.

What would you want to tell her?

On a very personal level, that she went through these circumstances, these events, and there’s no reason to hide it. People love you for who you really are — even if you don’t know who you really are. Everything that you’ve done is even more amazing because of it. There’s a complete person there, and I really want to show that.

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