Makeup Call By declaring war on CBS, Ben Wright was finally able to make peace with Valerie Helmbreck

May 18, 1998
May 18, 1998

Table of Contents
May 18, 1998


Makeup Call By declaring war on CBS, Ben Wright was finally able to make peace with Valerie Helmbreck

The voice and the words remain distinctive: lugubrious,
pretentious in a campy way, purposefully archaic, Churchillian
with cheek. He tells tales of being "vetted" by Clifford
Roberts, of former associates being "spectacularly addled," of a
certain "devious little mafioso," of "remedial" breakfasts and
behavior "sophomoric in the extreme." Foremost is "my perilous
predicament as a pariah." It's still fun to listen to Ben Wright.

This is an article from the May 18, 1998 issue Original Layout

It's not nearly as much fun to be Ben Wright, not since the day
three years ago this week, at the McDonald's LPGA Championship
in Wilmington, Del., when Wright, then a golf analyst for CBS,
volunteered his rough-cut thoughts on lesbianism on the women's
tour to a newspaper reporter. The series of events that
followed--his emphatic on-camera denial that he had made the
controversial comments, a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story that provided
evidence that his denial was a lie and Wright's subsequent
indefinite suspension from the network--has thrown him into the
darkest period of his 65 years. "I was so bloody stupid; stupid,
naive and weak," he said last week, spitting out the words that
have taken him this long to say publicly. "A day doesn't go by
that I don't regret how I reacted."

The reporter who quoted Wright, Valerie Helmbreck, does not
believe her behavior was stupid or weak, though she does confess
that she was naive. "I can look back on all that happened and
know I did the right thing," she says. "I did my job. I didn't
lie. But some people did, and everyone involved paid a price for

The mostly ignoble aftermath of the 30-minute conversation
between Wright and Helmbreck links them as tightly as any Ben
and Valerie since the Hogans. One behaved badly, and one behaved
well. One has been vilified, the other vindicated. One's
ashamed, while the other's proud. Both were pawns on a corporate
battlefield, were easy targets in the often mean-spirited court
of public opinion and are still trying to put the incident
behind them. Both gave up their old jobs--Wright by force and
Helmbreck by choice--and neither is happy about it.

Clearly the more devastated is Wright, though the public
whipping and exile have seemingly not taken a physical toll.
Since spending a month at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho
Mirage, Calif., undergoing alcohol rehabilitation in April 1996,
Wright has worked with a trainer and dropped from 310 pounds to
250, and he hopes to shed 30 more. He's playing a lot of
golf--his handicap is down to 10--and his face, bloated in the
months following his suspension, is tanned and smooth.

The psychological effect is more pronounced. Wright admits to
suffering from bouts of deep depression and a lingering sense of
shame that often makes him reluctant to go out in public. Most
days and nights are spent in his chalet-style house in Flat
Rock, N.C. There he sits alone in the spacious living room with
the 20-foot ceiling and flicks through a mental slide show of
his troubles. There is the ongoing divorce from his fourth wife,
Kitty, who left him in November 1996. An IRS audit is pending.
Early Times, the 11-year-old Arabian gelding whom Wright's
16-year old daughter, Margaret, planned to ride in this summer's
Youth Nationals, recently died of colic. A financial downsizing
is necessary, and Wright must sell his 67-acre tree farm in
South Carolina as well as his second home, on the golf course he
designed, Cliff's Valley Country Club, in Travelers Rest, S.C.
The backdrop for what he might call this "calamitous collage" is
what he refers to as "the incident," which transformed a man who
had marketed himself on dust jackets as THE VOICE OF GOLF into
THE BOOB ON THE TUBE, which is how Wright was portrayed in a
front-page headline in the New York Post after his comments in
Wilmington. "It's quite incredible, the streak I'm on," says
Wright. "I feel as if something or someone is getting even with

After telling Helmbreck, a reporter for the News Journal, that,
among other things, "lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf,"
Wright found himself in a firestorm. He was summoned to CBS
headquarters in New York, where demonstrators from the Gay &
Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National
Organization for Women were picketing the building because of
his remarks. In a six-hour meeting Wright says company lawyers
and top executives hammered out a cynical damage-control
strategy in which Wright was to deny having made the statements
and to discredit Helmbreck, who had taken notes but not used a
tape recorder. "I always had a feeling it would come back to
haunt me," says Wright. When the SI story came out in December
'95, it did. When reminded that in the story he characterized
Helmbreck as divorced, involved in a custody battle and possibly
even a lesbian with a gay-rights agenda, even though Helmbreck
and her husband had been happily married for 15 years and had
three children, Wright winces. "That was the reaction of a
selfish, desperate man," he says. "I'm not proud of that."

After he was suspended, in January '96, Wright went into a
tailspin, raging at friends and associates, blaming them for his
plight, while eating and drinking to excess. By April his
condition had deteriorated to the point that friends (including
former CBS colleagues Frank Chirkinian, Jim Nantz and Pat
Summerall) and Wright's wife and daughter organized an
intervention at Wright's house. After being told of behavior
that he couldn't remember, and hearing his daughter's tearful
pleas, Wright began a 28-day stay at the rehab center.

"I've let go of a lot of bitterness just because I realize I
have to go on," he says. "I'm a very willful person--that's why
I've had four wives--but I can also employ that willfulness to
change for the better." Professionally, he has done an
infomercial, voice-overs and projects for his production
company. He attends a few golf outings a month, usually as the
dinner speaker. The audiences are generally older and golfy, and
they laugh when Wright tells stories about how he flushed his
false teeth down the toilet before a telecast, or how Seve
Ballesteros beat him over nine holes while hitting every shot
from his knees.

Wright's still tormented, though, by what happened three years
ago on the day he was ordered to leave Wilmington and report to
CBS headquarters. On the train to Manhattan, Wright remembers
thinking that Tom Watson, in 1993, told Golf Digest that
lesbians hurt the LPGA, and little had been made of it. "I
thought, What the hell is all the fuss about?" he says. "I
wasn't as concerned about the story as everybody else. It may
have been a little controversial, but it was true."

Wright says he has recurring nightmares about his meeting with
the network brass. During waking hours he berates himself for
taking part in what he describes as a campaign to discredit

Nantz opened CBS's coverage of the LPGA Championship's third
round the next day by saying that the network "was deeply
disturbed by the inaccurate and distorted remarks attributed to
[Wright]." (Nantz says his remarks were part of a statement that
he was instructed by CBS to read on the air.) Wright then gave
his denial, during which he called Helmbreck's story "totally

"Those were not my words; they were written to reflect the
strategy of the network," says Wright. "The most stupid thing I
did was remain silent. I should have come out and said, 'Hey, I
said all these dumb things, and they were wrong.' I think the
public would have forgiven me for that, but no one at the
network really cared what my explanation was. I let myself be
overpowered, hoping they were right, but it was a horrible

CBS had no comment on Wright's allegations. Much of the
hierarchy at the network has changed since Wright's suspension.
Gone are Peter Lund, the president; David Kenin, the president
of the sports division; Rick Gentile, the senior vice president
of production; and Chirkinian, the coordinating producer of golf
telecasts. Kenin, the only one of the four who attended the
meeting in New York, told SI that his recollection of the events
of that day are different from Wright's. Douglas P. Jacobs, who
also took part in the meeting in his role as deputy general
counsel for CBS, was more to the point. "Ben Wright's
description of the events which occurred at CBS's offices in May
1995 is completely untrue," he says. "He was taken off the air
in January 1996 because we discovered he had lied to us about
making certain statements to the press."

Also in CBS's defense was the fact that a typewritten denial,
under Wright's name, had been posted in the players' locker room
on the day he left for New York. The statement, which was
unsigned, said in part: "I am disgusted at the pack of lies and
distortion that was attributed to me in the newspapers this

Wright says he has no recollection of writing the letter. "This
is not an attempt to hide," he says. "It's sad, but I don't
recollect having anything to do with a statement in the locker

Wright is under contract to CBS through Nov. 1, 1999, for about
$400,000 a year as part of a four-year contract that he signed
two months before he was suspended. He says he's planning to
write an autobiography and has begun negotiations with a
publisher. Most of all, though, he wants another shot on TV.
"The thing is, it's like I'm serving time," Wright says. "I
suppose it's not for me to say when I've served enough."

Helmbreck is struggling with her own shackles. A woman whose
sense of irony is the distinguishing characteristic of her work
as a reporter and a critic, she ruefully acknowledges the
invisible bond that exists between her and the man responsible
for the worst moments of her life.

Helmbreck, 45, resigned from the News Journal, for which she had
been a reporter for 14 years, in January 1997. A week later she
accepted a position as a technical writer for a microbiology
company in Wilmington. By all accounts she was a highly valued
writer at the time of her resignation. Only a few months before,
she had won a national Best of Gannett prize for feature writing.

Her new job has given her more time to be home with her husband,
Al Mascitti, an assistant city editor at the News Journal; their
three children, ages 16, 14 and five; and the four corgis that
Helmbreck trains as show dogs. Still, Helmbreck is conflicted by
the turn of events. "I left [the paper] for the right reasons,"
she says, "but I'm not all that happy about it."

Those reasons had a lot to do with the wounds she suffered in
the Wright affair. "I never expected him to deny he said it, and
I never imagined that CBS would go to those lengths to destroy
me," she says, "but to them I was nobody from nowhere. It
appalls me that they could do that to another human being,
especially because CBS fields a news division and was doing it
to another reporter. That was very disillusioning."

She was also hurt by the helplessness she felt while under
attack because the News Journal ordered her not to grant
interviews. "I couldn't defend myself; I couldn't tell my
version of events," she says. "It was like having a cork stuck
in my mouth."

Helmbreck says that in November 1996 the paper's editors asked
her to move to the news side and write longer investigative
stories. "They took me to lunch and called it a promotion," she
says, "but when I said I didn't want to move from features, they
said I had no choice. I don't call that a promotion. If I had
refused, that would have been insubordination and I would've
been fired."

She accepted the transfer but didn't like the longer hours, the
additional time away from her family or her new editors. "It was
dreadful," she says. Two months later she quit, but not before
applying for a position at another paper. She was told she was
one of two finalists but didn't get the job. "They said my work
was very strong," she says, "but that I had become a
personality, and that being a personality would get in the way
of my ability to do the job. That sort of clinched it. I
thought, That's what I am now, and it's not what I really set
out to be."

Helmbreck misses her old job as much as Wright misses his. "I'm
a really curious person," she says. "I love to find out stuff
and tell everybody, so it's very sad I'm no longer a reporter.
It's the saddest thing in my life." Still, in the 16 months
since her resignation she hasn't sent her resume to another
publication, nor has she received any offers.

In the whirlwind that followed her story from the '95 LPGA
Championship, Helmbreck says her first reaction was to defend
Wright. Maybe what he said wasn't politically correct, but he
was representing a point of view and he shouldn't lose his job
for that. "Then," she says, "I was shocked by the CBS strategy,
especially saying that they had done a thorough investigation
even though they had never even talked to me. It still hurts to
think other people thought I lied, or was trying to make a name
for myself."

She vividly remembers Wright's televised denial. "I watched him
struggle and thought, So this is what it's like when you've been
caught. But because his version was so opposite of mine, I had
this moment of panic. Had I dreamed the whole interview? And I
ran to get my notes. My notes were my sanity."

While Wright, his friends and CBS attacked her for the next
seven months, Helmbreck, her reputation tainted, remained
silent. "I should've known that my story was going to hurt Ben
Wright and CBS," she says. "I buried my head in the sand about
that. I made CBS mad. They wanted to hurt me because they
thought I hurt them. I mixed it up with the big boys and got
roughed up." CBS offered no comment on Helmbreck's assessment.

Helmbreck considered suing CBS but decided that would only
prolong her bitterness. "I'm too much of a hedonist to hate,"
she says. "Hating doesn't feel good." She doesn't hate Wright,
either. In fact, she sent him a card when he was in rehab. "I
always understood what happened to Ben Wright," Helmbreck says.
"It was no mystery why he lied--to save his butt. The thing I
minded most about him was his lack of courage. Ben was afraid.
He should be ashamed of what he did to me and what he did to
himself. It's over except for one thing: He hasn't had the guts
to call me."

Wright no longer disputes Helmbreck's version of events. In
fact, he has come to share her view. "I'm tired of lying," he
says. "I want to tell the truth. It was not telling the truth
that cost me dearly."

Before learning that Helmbreck wanted him to call, Wright had
this message for her: "Tell Valerie I'm sorry, that I hope they
didn't kill you as badly as they killed me." Later, when he was
given her number, Wright was apprehensive. "Perhaps I will call
her," he said, "if I can summon the courage."

Last week Wright made the call, but no one was home, and he left
a message. He didn't identify himself by name but said, "I'm
calling from Flat Rock, North Carolina." He left his number,
noting that it contains three consecutive 6s. "Yes, that's the
devil's number," he said.

Helmbreck had to laugh after listening to the message. "I like
people like that," she says. "They're interesting." Wright
called back last Saturday, while Helmbreck was preparing a
surprise party for her daughter's 16th birthday. They talked for
nearly an hour.

"When I called, I thought, This woman has every right to scream
at me, refuse to let me get a word in and then slam down the
phone," said Wright. "Instead, it was really wonderful. We
talked as if we were old friends, a really honest heart-to-heart
with no b.s. I feel a hell of a lot better."

So does Helmbreck. "We have a lot in common," she says. "We were
involved in the same train wreck. I told him I never wrote that
story with the intention of hurting him. He was gracious, kind
and very apologetic. He felt bad about the things that had been
said personally about me and his role in all of it. He didn't
make any excuses. I admire him for doing the right thing, even
if it took three years."

The birthday party is raging in the background, and Helmbreck's
children call her back to it. "You know, the whole thing started
out as a conversation between two people," she says. "Now the
conversation is ended. I didn't think I'd feel better, but I do.
It just made it, you know, over."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND OFF HIS ROCKER Wright, at home in Flat Rock, N.C., says he was crazy to go along with what he claims was a CBS campaign to malign Helmbreck. [Ben Wright in rocking-chair]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS PUPPY LOVE Helmbreck finds joy in her family and her four corgis, but not in the way her newspaper career came to an early end. [Valerie Helmbreck playing with four dogs]B/W PHOTO OLD NEWS At first, Wright couldn't understand all the fuss. [Cover of New York Daily News featuring Ben Wright]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND UPHILL CLIMB Wright still hopes he can find his way back into a television job. [Ben Wright walking up hill on road]
"It's very sad I'm no longer a reporter," Helmbreck says. "It's
the saddest thing in my life."
"I never imagined CBS would go to those lengths to destroy me,"
says Helmbreck.
"When I called I thought, This woman has every right to scream
at me," says Wright.