‘The Lost Supreme’ and a Classic Hollywood Con

 

 

by Peter Benjaminson

The call that I’d been waiting for all my life came, naturally, while I was away from my Manhattan home in the summer of 2010.

“My name is Karen Spencer,” a sultry female voice cooed into the phone of my Providence, Rhode Island, motel room. “I’m a film producer and investor and I just loved your latest book. I’d love to make it into a movie.”

The book she was referring to was The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard. Ballard had been one of the original Supremes until she was forced out of the three-woman group by Motown founder Berry Gordy and Supreme diva Diana Ross.

Read Our 1977 Diana Ross Cover Story

After spending much of her post-Supreme life on welfare, Ballard died of coronary artery thrombosis at age 32 in 1976. I had interviewed her for eight hours over several weeks in 1975 and then spent 32 years looking for a publisher to print the biography I wrote based on those interviews. Chicago Review Press finally published the book in 2008.

During that decades-long quest, I had quit my job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press and worked for, among other organizations, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York City Department of Investigation, the New York State Department of Labor and Columbia University. I’d also moved up and down the East Coast, been married, divorced and remarried and had written five other non-fiction books.

And now this, this call from the white-hot center of every writer’s ambition — Hollywood. Of course, many writers say they would disdain such calls, and instead wish to remain pristine scribes whose books never migrate to the silver screen. They are lying.

I was mulling this over in my motel room while Spencer gave me the details of her proposal to option the movie rights to The Lost Supreme. Although I think I responded rationally, I was spending most of my energy trying not to drool audibly. Summoning up my most neutral tone of voice, I asked Spencer to send me her proposal in writing and I would send it on to Chicago Review Press. She did, I did, and after some back and forth, we all signed on the dotted line

Two other would-be moviemakers had previously signed option contracts on The Lost Supreme story with my publisher and me, but these wholly legitimate options had expired without any movement toward even the earliest stages of film production. I had signed the first option agreement with a music industry figure I knew personally, Andy Skurow, and his filmmaker brother Matthew, before I had signed the contract to write The Lost Supreme. That option was based not on the book but on the eight hours of interviews I had audiotaped with Ballard during the last year of her life. My publisher and I signed the second option contract, after the book was published, with Karen Harris, a scriptwriter for General Hospital.

The first agreement involved no upfront money at all. The three of us merely agreed to split all the money we received, but we received nothing before the contract expired. Harris purchased a six-month option on The Lost Supreme for $100, but agreed to pay much larger amounts when and if the book was produced as a film or television project. Neither of the optioneers was acting on behalf of studios or indie movie producers; they had hoped to establish such ties to produce this film. They were unable to do that, however, and their efforts came to no fruition. But my publisher and I didn’t lose any money by signing these agreements, and the small amount promised us under the second agreement was duly paid. So when Spencer offered not only to arrange for the filming of the book, but to raise the money to finance the project and to pay $15,000 to my publisher and me on the first day of movie production and another $15,000 a year later, plus other sums on further down the line, neither my publisher nor I saw any reason to say no. Although I never met Spencer in person, I did have lunch in Manhattan with one of her associates, a presentable and intelligent young man who seemed to know what he was doing.

While hopeful about Spencer’s effort, I tried to remember that the same fate that had befallen the previous two attempts to bring my book to the screen would likely befall her project. I am incurably superstitious, however, and believe, along with millions of others, that the third time is always the charm. Very soon, I had an inkling that that might be true.

TheSupremesBiggerHenrygrossmanCoffeecupPic 300x193 Peter Benjaminson’s Article for Rolling Stone

 

Flo, Diana, and Mary pose for famed photographer Henry Grossman. You can order this rare footage-cs

First of all, the film was to be titled Blondie, a title Ballard probably would have loved, since “Blondie” had been her nickname. More significantly, Spencer soon sent a 55-page screenplay for my approval, certainly a sign that she was taking her option responsibilities seriously.

I was shocked, however, to see how amateurish the screenplay was. It was not much better than a screenplay that I, a complete screenwriting novice, might have written. What I’d been sent was basically verbatim passages from the book, or summaries of those passages, with the margins adjusted to resemble standard screenplay style. For instance, wherever I had quoted Ballard’s Supremes singing partner Mary Wilson in the book, the screenplay had Wilson saying exactly the same thing at the same place in the screen narrative. That would be followed by whatever scenic description from the book followed Wilson’s quote, transferred perfectly intact to corresponding place in the screenplay. I found it difficult to believe that this was a screenplay produced by professionals who were serious about making a movie.

I called Spencer and asked her why she’d bothered to send me this atrocity. I didn’t know what her reaction to my in-her-face criticism would be, and was pleasantly surprised when her only response was to say that she would have it redone. I figured I’d never hear from her again, but within a few months she had sent me a much longer, better screenplay that she said she had co-written with a Hollywood professional named Roy Fegan, who had appeared on television series such as The Shield and Will & Grace.

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The cover of ‘The Lost Supreme.” You can order a copy-cs

Not only was this new screenplay longer and better, it positively glowed on the page. Although I knew Ballard’s story and had, in fact, lived with it for decades, I read the revised script in one sitting, quickly turning the pages as I smiled and laughed at the scenes of triumph, scowled, swore and pounded my fist on the table at the scenes of treachery and felt tears come to my eyes at the scenes of despair. Reading the screenplay was like stepping into a world suffused with magic. It took me a few minutes to get myself together after I put it down.

And there was a bonus. I had not appeared as a major character in my own book, but in this new screenplay, which told Ballard’s story in flashbacks, I was portrayed as her friend and hand-holder rather than the neutral interviewer I actually was. I knew this was a distortion, but hey, this was going to be a movie based on the book, not the book itself.

My joy would have been complete except that I wasn’t portrayed as the person I, rightly or wrongly, saw myself to be: a tough investigative reporter with an iron fist, a nasty wit and a brilliant mind. After all, my first book, Investigative Reporting, which I had written with David Anderson, had become the standard college textbook in the field. In the script, however, I was portrayed not only as an ignorant sort of scribbler, but as an admirer of the fictional TV reporter John-Boy Walton. My character just trotted along with Ballard, unaware of the significance of much of what she was telling him.

I called Fegan to protest this and although he stuck to his guns, I got the feeling we could make changes later. In any case, my friends reassured me that everyone who knew me would know my real abilities no matter how I was portrayed on the screen. I reluctantly accepted this reassurance, sort of.

In late 2010, the casting began and Faith Evans was selected to play Ballard. Not only was Evans an excellent singer who strongly resembled Ballard, but she was a star in her own right, with three platinum albums to her name.

As the widow of the Notorious B.I.G., Evans’ personal life, of course, had been just as dramatic as Ballard’s. What better person to portray the forgotten Supreme? Evans was the success that Flo could have been. I called to congratulate her, and told her of my admiration for her recording, film and writing career.

Soon afterwards, in another astounding demonstration that Spencer, now officially on board as the film’s executive producer, was serious about her responsibilities, she and Evans traveled to Detroit, Ballard’s hometown, to generate publicity and do research for the upcoming movie effort. They spent a weekend touring Motown sites and meeting with Ballard’s three adult daughters, who were appointed co-producers. The Detroit Free Press reported that a soundtrack set to include performances by Evans, Lauryn Hill and others would accompany the film, which was budgeted at 7 million dollars.

The Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s African-American newspaper, exceeded the enthusiasm displayed by the Free Press by accompanying its own positive article with a photo of Spencer, Evans and several of Ballard’s relatives pledging their support for the film. The Chronicle also published a picture of Michelle and Nicole Chapman, two of Ballard’s daughters, posing with my book.

Evans, too, posed for a photo in which she held a hard-cover copy of the and smiled for the camera. I hung a framed copy of that picture in my Manhattan apartment and prayed to it daily. My prayers were at least partly answered, since Evans subsequently appeared on the Wendy Williams Show, the Mo’Nique show and 106 & Park to publicize the upcoming film.

According to Spencer, Bille Woodruff, the director of Bring It On: Fight to the Finish and the Jessica Alba-starring Honey had initially been signed to direct the film, but then had to leave because of conflicting commitments. Shortly thereafter, Spencer appointed Martha Coolidge to helm Blondie. My enthusiasm rocketed upward: Coolidge had directed the HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, which had won five Emmys. I called Coolidge to congratulate her, reaching her just after she had returned from a horseback ride with her husband around their Los Angeles estate. I assured her that in my unbiased opinion, with her in the director’s chair, the movie would be a high-quality monster hit.

Good stuff kept coming. Spencer said that Adrien Brody had been hired to play me. At first, I was somewhat taken aback, because Brody is the only actor I know of with a nose longer than mine. However, when I mentioned to several women that Brody would play me, I couldn’t ignore the flush that rose to their cheeks. I immediately dropped my objections.

On the other hand, I assumed lots of producers were trying to interest Brody in their films, so I wasn’t suspicious when delays with Blondie clashed with other commitments on Brody’s part and, according to Spencer, he had to leave the film. In keeping with the script’s John-Boy characterization of me, Jon Heder, the actor who’d broken out after his lead performance in Napoleon Dynamite, was, said Spencer, hired to replace Brody.

This was annoying, but Spencer boosted my self-esteem by agreeing to allow me to play Motown Executive Michael Roshkind in the film. Although Roshkind had been convicted of tax evasion, he was a forceful and dynamic executive. And the thought of my face actually appearing in a movie based on my book acted on my nervous system like a large dose of a major illegal drug.

Meanwhile, I got a whiff of what Hollywood life might be like: two attractive women who wanted parts in Blondie approached me, and one of them sent a revealing photo of herself.

Then the bad stuff began.

First, Evans quit, calling Spencer a “fraud” without going into specifics. When I asked Spencer about this, she said that it was because she’d told Evans she would hire her only if Evans agreed to attend acting classes. According to Spencer, Evans did not fulfill her part of this bargain and was therefore dumped. But Spencer told me not to worry, since Jurnee Smollett, a fine actress perhaps best known for her role in the film Eve’s Bayou, had been selected to replace Faith. (Later on, actress Terry Dexter was selected to replace Smollett, Spencer said.) Meanwhile, other actors were being constantly added to play other roles in the film, including Billy Dee Williams, who, Spencer said, had been chosen to play Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father.

Soon after that, Spencer fired Martha Coolidge. Coolidge was shocked. In an e-mail to me, Coolidge wrote, “I am no longer directing this movie. I have no explanation…” Spencer soon calmed my fears by telling me that Todd Turner, who’d been assistant director on Remember the Titans, among other films, had been hired as Coolidge’s replacement.

Then an Ohio woman messaged me via Facebook to say she’d been visited by Spencer and other fundraisers for the movie. They had told her about my book and the film project, and convinced her and two of her girlfriends to invest some money in the filming. Although Spencer and the others had promised that the money would be returned with interest, they had not done so. When I asked this woman to call me, she told me that she and her friends had loaned Spencer and her associates $3,000 for 14 days, after which the lenders were to receive $6,000 in return. This certainly sounded suspicious. I was upset when the woman told me she was a single mother of two with a third on the way. But I should probably be more ashamed than I am to say that I disregarded the whole incident. What did I know about how movie producers raise money?

To my relief, the project continued. Spencer told me that the exterior filming in Detroit had already been completed and that the interior filming would soon begin shortly at Tyler Perry’s studio complex in Atlanta. Vastly adding to my excitement, she told me that I would be hired as a consultant for the movie in addition to working on it as an actor.

As the production’s start date approached — a date which coincided with when my publishers and I were due to receive $15,000 — I began to receive appropriate documents, including a detailed 24-day shooting schedule. Spencer also informed me that she’d turned over all the necessary documentation to the attorney for the investors and had secured sufficient insurance to cover the filming.

On the eve of filming, Spencer asked me by e-mail where I wanted my check sent and said she’d also soon be sending me an airline ticket for my trip from New York to Atlanta so I could begin my consulting stint. Soon after that conversation, she gave me a definite date for the beginning of filming that, unfortunately, conflicted with a trip out of the country I needed to make for family reasons. I asked her if I could be a few days late to the filming and she said not only that it would cause no problem, but that she’d send me the airline tickets and the check so they’d be waiting at my apartment when I returned.

I made the trip, returned to New York and searched eagerly through my accumulated mail for the tickets and check. Neither had arrived. I called Spencer and left a message, but my call was not returned. I called the next day and left another message. Nothing.

Then I found out why. Federal marshals had arrested Spencer, whose real name was Jami McCoy and whose hometown was Humble, Texas, for jumping bail in Texas in 2009. She’d been due in Federal District Court in Houston to be sentenced to Federal prison after pleading guilty in September of that year to conspiracy, aggravated identity theft and bank fraud to the tune of $300,000. Her guilty plea had followed four days of trial.

Spencer had been applying for bank loans in the names of other people by conning personal information out of her marks, mixing her own contact information with the stolen info and then paying bank insiders to make sure the loans, which officially went to her victims, actually went to her. Later, Michelle Chapman, Ballard’s daughter, told me that during the final stages of Spencer’s con, Spencer kept asking her for her bank account number so that she could wire her money.

While Spencer was waiting to be sentenced, two of her associates were sent away for five and seven years each in the Federal slammer. Apparently shocked by these sentences, Spencer asked the judge to give her two weeks prior to her own sentencing to tidy up her affairs. She then went on the lam, traveled to Georgia, found a place to live and called me. Why she chose my book for her deluxe treatment remains a mystery.

It was amazing that McCoy/Spencer, who had obviously changed her name to avoid instant detection, made the stupid mistake of allowing her photograph to be taken, printed and broadcast in the course of publicizing her movie project. Is this what you would do if you were hiding from Federal authorities?

It certainly was recognition that Spencer had to fear, and it was recognition that finally brought her down. According to a U.S. Prosecutor Investigator, while she was lying to me, she was also lying to someone in Cobb County, Georgia, by posing as a concert promoter. Another woman in Georgia who knew about this became suspicious of Spencer, noticed her facial resemblance to a bank fraudster the Feds were looking for and alerted the appropriate authorities.

The Federal marshals who re-arrested Spencer returned her to Houston, where she was sentenced to four years and three months in the federal penitentiary, a term she is now serving. She saved herself from a longer sentence by cooperating with authorities on yet another fraud with which she had been involved.

I know what you’re thinking. How did Spencer lure seasoned movie industry professionals into her web? Coolidge told me recently that the only reason she had become involved with the project in the first place was because “it came to me through a friend of mine.” That friend was Aleta Chappelle, a casting director who has worked on 17 legitimate films, including The Godfather: Part III. Chappelle told me that she herself was sucked into weeks of unpaid labor on the Blondie film after Spencer and a fairly prominent Hollywood figure, who she preferred not to name, asked her to join them on the project. The aforementioned figure left the film after a few weeks. Chappell believed that the person in question eventually realized that Spencer was a fraud, but for some reason didn’t tell anyone else. “It’s unfortunate ,” said Chappel, “that people don’t warn other people when they think something is not on the up-and-up.”

Chappelle added, however, that it’s not unusual for film figures to work for weeks for nothing. “It always takes a while for the studio to pay you,” she said, adding that casting directors especially are often asked to work for free for some time because “studios don’t green-light a film until the actors are attached.” She also said, however, that as far as she knew, none of the other professionals on the Blondie project were paid at any time. Chappelle believes that the hopeful nature of many movie industry professionals adds to their particular vulnerability. “In our business,” she said, “we’re all dreamers, we’re all artists and we have an emotional involvement in what we’re doing.” She added that, “when someone comes along and says they believe in your project” you want to work with them. (Faith Evans did not return my phone call seeking her comments on the project.)

But why didn’t I, an experienced journalist who had worked as an investigative reporter in Michigan and Georgia (and later as a state investigator) smell something wrong? In retrospect, I should have dropped out of the project after Evans called Spencer a fraud and the Ohio woman told me she and her friends were scammed out of $3,000. But I hoped against hope that the project would produce a movie. I also knew that whether it did or not, media gossip about one of my books being filmed would hardly hurt my writing career It was the investors who lost money, while providing me with free publicity, although I was not paid a single penny for my participation in what I thought was a legitimate film project.

The whole scam didn’t even embarrass me that much. I was merely a mid-level investigator and writer-on-the-make entangled unknowingly in a scheme masterminded by a pro. As author Luc Sante wrote in his introduction to the 1999 edition of David Maurer’s seminal study on confidence men and their scams, The Big Con, “The best con artists possess a combination of superior intelligence, broad general knowledge, acting ability, resourcefulness, physical vigor and improvisational skills that would have propelled them to the top of any profession.” He could certainly have been describing Spencer on the rise.

With Spencer now in prison, however, my movie ambitions have joined her there. The filming didn’t start, the show didn’t go on and the ghost of Florence Ballard did not reappear. Most of the other people who innocently or otherwise had become entangled in Spencer’s coils floated off to other projects. Since writing about Ballard, I’ve written and published a bio of Mary Wells and I’m working on a bio of Rick James.

Most significantly, however, although the contract my publisher and I signed with Spencer is null and void, the controversy seems to have scared off anyone who might have been interested in taking out another movie option on The Lost Supreme. But I’ll keep dreaming.

Benjaminson is an investigative reporter and  has written stories for the Detriot Free Press, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other publications. His book “The Lost Supreme: The life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard” was published in 2008. He is a famed Motown Biographer. This story first ran in the 7/1/14 Rolling Stone.