An Accident Waiting to Happen
May 18, 2006
By Nikki Bazar
Not long after graduating in journalism from USC, Chip Jacobs walked straight into the Los Angeles Times and asked then-editorial-page editor Anthony Day for a writing job. “Listen kid,” Day said to young Jacobs kindly, “see me in about five years. You got ability, but you’re so green you should be on a tree.”
Day didn’t know who he was dealing with. Jacobs was a kid with cojones, ones he inherited from a long line of male ancestors, most especially his quadriplegic uncle Gordon Zahler who, despite his handicap, became a major pioneer in music and sound effects in Hollywood. Jacobs went on to become a successful journalist, writing for the Los Angeles Business Journal, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune chain, the Los Angeles Times, before landing an investigative-reporting gig at the Los Angeles Daily News in the mid-1990s.
But even as he wound his way up in the newspaper world, Jacobs’ mother kept nagging at him. She wanted him to record her brother Gordon’s life; it was, she reminded him time and time again, an amazing story. Jacobs demurred at first, but as he obligingly poked around into his family’s past, he found some sensational stuff — murder, betrayal, intrigue, triumph over adversity — the kind of story any reporter would kill for, right in his own backyard.
So a few years ago, after a notable career of aggressive reporting, Jacobs essentially quit full-time journalism and dedicated himself to writing a book about his Uncle Gordon. After exhaustive research and numerous interviews with his uncle’s fading contemporaries, the result (is the book that’s now) Strange As It Seems: the Impossible Life of Gordon Zahler (Rare Bird Books – January 2016).
Gordon Zahler was only 14 years old when a daredevil stunt in gymnastics class ended in tragedy; a broken neck and smashed spinal column left him permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Though Gordon miraculously overcame perilous risks such as pneumonia, kidney failure, infection and heart failure, among others, the financial and emotional windfall of his tragic accident devastated his family. His father Lee, a prosperous composer of music for the movies, was eventually driven to accept charity from the Motion Picture Relief Fund. After that came a mountain of debt, the separation of Gordon’s parents and Lee’s eventual death of a heart attack less than seven years later.
“When you have one accident, everybody’s in that accident,” says Jacobs. “When my uncle broke his neck, it was like the whole family had that happen to them.”
When his widowed mother had to submit to going on welfare, Gordon suddenly found his motivation. With the help of a group of dedicated friends and a headset, he began to market his father’s musical library — 915 scores in all. The time was ripe; tensions between TV producers and musicians made a storage of pre-recorded clips a big attraction. Gordon used his big personality to compensate for his physical state which often made people uneasy, but also impressed.
It worked. Gordon’s company eventually scored contracts with a number of successful television shows and even movies, most notably cult director Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Soon, Gordon was a genuine force in Hollywood, attending parties and hobnobbing with the rich and famous.
Jacobs still marvels at his uncle’s bravado. “Just imagine trying to keep up a façade, going to the Brown Derby in the 1960s with famous people all around, and you get pushed up to a urinal so your attendant can empty your bag of waste into a toilet while there’s guys in $500 suits talking gigantic movie deals and my little uncle saying, ‘Hey, you gonna need music on that?’”
But Gordon often overcompensated for his handicap with his loud talk, hyperbolic stories and forward humor. “He talked louder, promised more, exaggerated better, charmed harder because subconsciously he realized that physically he was a piece of broccoli with a head on it and he had to just keep all the attention above his collar,” says Jacobs.
That sometimes did more harm than good. Though Gordon’s career expanded and met with unexpected success, he often blew even bigger chances that came his way. “One of the most impressive things about my uncle was that he saw how media was going to change the world. He understood cable TV was going to change it, Muzak was going to change it … because he had so much time to sit around and think. He had brilliant ideas, but also an obnoxious quality of not knowing when to shut up. He was always on the verge of impressing people and then overtalking it.”
But perhaps most amazing about this story is that Gordon even had a career which could be measured by its failures and successes, despite his physical state. His General Music Corp. was, for a time, one of Hollywood’s biggest independent postproduction companies. Blown opportunities aside, Gordon had his stint as a well-known and profitable businessman and even got married. His secret, says Jacobs, was an almost complete denial of his physical state. He traveled and owned a boat, he expressed a desire to learn how to fly and water-ski. The book recounts numerous instances in which Gordon would mesmerize rooms full of people with his colorful anecdotes and forceful wit.
“How somebody that small and shriveled and vulnerable could be the life of a party I find really interesting,” remarks Jacobs. “He really did suck all the oxygen out of the room. … Then again, he was also a reminder of how vulnerable you were. Just one bad fall and you could be him.”
If Strange As It Seems reminds readers of that, it might also remind them that there is substance to be found in any man’s life, no matter how small he may seem.
When Thomas Carlyle wrote that biography is the only true history, he meant that the past is best viewed as a sum of all who lived it. Lurking in the shadows of Gordon’s tragic accident, Jacobs’ mother and grandmother emerge as the book’s quiescent heroines, and Jacobs himself as the triumphant narrator. No man’s accident is his alone, and neither is his past. What Jacobs found in the journey into his uncle’s life was not only an intriguing set of tales — he discovered two family murders and some torrid affairs along the way — but the truth of his own history as well. And perhaps even a dose of the future.
Seemingly in no rush to return to journalism full-time, Jacobs is currently working on a new book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles (The Overlook Press/Penguin Group USA – 2008), and also a true crime book, The Ascension of Jerry: Murder, Hitmen and the Making of Muckraker Jerry Schneiderman.
“As a journalist, I never cared about families and characters and emotion and dialogue, and it was scary. It took me a long time to beat the phony journalese out of myself and try to develop a voice. The greatest thing my uncle ever did was help me have a little confidence that I could do this.”
Note to readers: this story and its accompanying photograph has been updated and corrected from its original version.