On a damp, misty Long Island morning – the kind of morning when the shoreline disappears in slow-moving tufts of fog – Bill Stanton is ready to face the enemy. Strapped to his waist is a Kimber Ultra Elite CQB, a lightweight .45-caliber aluminum pistol. The Ferrari of handguns, the Kimber seems to shine even in the flat light of this dreary, sunless day.
Stanton carries his weapon cocked and locked in a custom-made, non-thumb-break leather holster designed for speed. On the other side of his waist are two Wilson magazines, each holding six bullets; and there are two more in the pocket of his cargo pants.
“Don’t think. React. When you think, you get in trouble,” yells a small, wiry man in ninja pants and wraparound Oakleys. “It’s simple. See the motherfucker, shoot the motherfucker.”
The man is Pat Rogers, an internationally known combat instructor who looks – white hair, military demeanor, and all – like Senator John McCain’s slightly demented brother. A former Marine and New York City cop, Rogers trained the elite units that guard Yasser Arafat and
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. But on this morning, he is at the Pine Barrens Shooting Range, a lifeless collection of targets and sand hills on a former Air Force base in Westhampton. His student is New York private detective Bill Stanton.
“In a perfect world, when someone’s coming at you” – all I can think is that in a perfect world, nobody would be coming at me – “one shot between the nipples should cause the assailant a significant loss of morale. It never does. So let’s work on the Mozambique.”
Rogers steps up to face the targets, which stand nine feet away. In the blink of an eye, shells fly and the air explodes with the sound of three shots. I can taste the gunpowder. “That’s the drill,” Rogers says with evident satisfaction. “Two to the chest and one to the center of the forehead. That’ll stop anybody.”
“You know, most cops sit around and dream about winning the Lotto or someone dying and leaving them money,” says former partner Sergeant Al Parlato. “Not Billy. He was gonna do it himself.”
Stanton gets in his modified Weaver stance – feet just about shoulder-width apart, left foot slightly forward for balance – and on command gets off three quick shots. The tough one, the one to that small area of the forehead, is perfect. “You know,” says Rogers quietly, “90 percent of the guys who do what Billy does don’t get anything near this kind of training.”
True. But in his career as a private investigator, Bill Stanton has never been called upon to put a bullet between the eyes of an onrushing assailant. Or, as a matter of fact, to fire his weapon for any reason. However, the gun is an indispensable part of the show, and the show is an indispensable part of the job. For Stanton, being a private detective is a full-time, scenery-chewing, perception-building, high-octane performance – from the sophisticated weaponry to the all-black Matrix-like outfit to the buffed-up body to the late-night escapades – and it’s a role he was clearly meant to play.
In the small, competitive world of celebrity private eyes, image and self-promotion are everything. “There’s no question that you’ve really got to bang the drum and make some noise to get them in the tent,” Stanton says. “But once they’re inside, you’ve got to give them a good show or they won’t come back.”
All of which is critical to understanding how a former cop, bouncer, and bodyguard from City Island built a private-detective agency with a seven-figure annual gross. He’s worked on explosive, sensitive, headline-producing cases like the acrimonious Carl and Liba Icahn divorce, the Perelman-Duff debacle, the multi-million-dollar face-scratching dispute between famed saloon-keeper Elaine Kaufman and a customer, and the case of Charles Schwarz, the cop convicted of holding Abner Louima down while Justin Volpe brutalized him.
“Billy is always my first call,” says bombastic attorney Dominic Barbara. “I’ve been doing this 31 years, and he’s the best I’ve ever seen. He always gets it done. And I just love that smile.”
Smile? With all due respect to the romantic image created by Raymond Chandler, today’s hungry detective-entrepreneur isn’t a laconic loner sitting around drinking gin, smoking cigarettes, and waiting for the sultry blonde to walk into his life (like Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep). He’s out promoting himself, putting on his show: successful, flamboyant, outrageous, wild Bill Stanton, P.I. The tough, smart, twenty-first-century private detective.
Friends and clients talk about Stanton’s tenacity, his ingenuity, and his dependability as a P.I. But what they really want to talk about is everything else: his personality, his energy, his gall, his uninhibited social life, and his womanizing.
“People just want to be around him,” says Fox News Channel anchor and friend Laurie Dhue.
“Billy is unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” says ABC correspondent John Miller. “His personality is overwhelming, and his personal story is remarkable. To look at what he’s invented and how he’s invented it is amazing. He’s a character who could only exist in New York.”
When Bill Stanton arrived at the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx to work his four-to-midnight shift on a cold March afternoon in 1987, he had no idea his life was about to change. He parked his old Mustang in the usual place, hit the locker room, put on his uniform, and stood for roll call. As always, Stanton was paired with Sergeant Al Parlato, a seventeen-year veteran who had, in the course of teaching him how to work the streets, become a kind of father figure for him.
Thirteen years ago, the 40th Precinct was one of the worst in the city. The cops called it Alcatraz. There was gunfire just about every day, and as hard as some of the cops worked, the neighborhood remained a virtual free-for-all: robberies, muggings, shootings, rapes, drug deals, murders. There were only two reasons a cop got assigned to the four-oh. Either he was being punished or, like Stanton, he was a rookie with no hooks (connections) to get him a better assignment.
On his way out to the patrol car, Stanton tossed the usual obscene insults back and forth with a couple of his friends in the squad. Then he and Parlato started their shift the way they always did, at their favorite coffee shop on 149th Street and the Grand Concourse. (There was a waitress they couldn’t resist.)
The two men seemed an odd pair. Parlato was a cop’s cop, the most popular guy in the four-oh if not the entire Bronx. With just over two years on the job, Stanton was still essentially a rookie. But he was impossible to ignore. Loud and cocky, he was the precinct peacock, the kind of cop who bought a full set of custom gear – from shirts to nightstick – on the day he graduated from the academy. He was a lean, tautly muscled triathlete, and oh how he relished taunting his less snappy-looking colleagues.
But Parlato loved Stanton’s sense of humor, his manic energy. He picked Stanton to be his driver because he believed he saw something special in him, a raw intelligence, and the two became inseparable. They worked well together, and they even screwed up well together.
Like the time they were doing a midnight-to-eight tour and they were both really tired. At 4 a.m. they stopped for a red light at 138th Street and Brook Avenue, a very busy intersection. Parlato still laughs when he remembers he closed his eyes for just a moment and woke up an hour and a half later. They were still at the intersection. Stanton was fast asleep with his foot on the brake. Traffic was going by all around them. Somehow, no one thought it was worth reporting a running radio car in the middle of the street for an hour and a half with two sound-asleep cops in it.
“Bill appears genuinely fascinated by women, which is the key difference between a womanizer and a romantic,” says New York Times media reporter Alex Kuczynski.
Their shift on that critical night in March, however, got off to a quiet, routine start. For a couple of hours, they drove around so Parlato could check, as sergeants often do, on the cops out on foot patrol. But just before seven o’clock, the radio began to squawk a priority code: 1085-Forthwith. 1085-Forthwith. Officers in pursuit need assistance. Repeat, officers in pursuit need assistance.
“When this happens,” says Stanton, “your adrenaline goes from zero to a hundred in two seconds flat. ‘Cause now you hear a cop yelling into his radio as he’s chasing someone. You hear him huffing and puffing, and you hear all kinds of other noises, and you don’t really know what’s going down. You just know you gotta get there. So it’s lights and sirens, and the juices are flowing. I mean, I’m 23 and I’m Superman. I even had an S on my vest. And I’m thinking, I’m gonna get the bad guy as my trophy. I’m gonna say to the other cops, ‘I beat you guys.’ “
When Stanton and Parlato screeched up to the scene, Stanton spotted one of the cops chasing the robbery suspect on some train tracks just below street level. He let his door fly, and he was out of the car practically before it stopped. He scaled two fences and was running along a wall that was six feet above the tracks.
“They were about 25 yards ahead of me, and I could see them go into a tunnel. I couldn’t go any further unless I got down to the tracks. So, thinking I’m Rambo, I jumped,” Stanton says. “And as soon as I jumped, I knew I was in trouble. I was in the air too long. The tracks got lower as they went into the tunnel, and what had been maybe six feet was now more like twelve or fifteen feet.”
Stanton put his hands down to help cushion the fall, and when he landed, his palms hit the ground and he fell over backward. For a moment he thought he’d gotten lucky. He was so pumped, so adrenalized, he felt no pain and was ready to pick up the chase.
“I go to grab my gun, and it was dark, and I didn’t seem to be able to get at it. For a minute, I didn’t understand what was going on. My fingers just wouldn’t curl around the handle. Then I saw the blood squirting everywhere. So the other cops are yelling, I’m yelling, and I’m pissed because I’m out of the game now. And Parlato is standing up on the wall like a dog looking to jump in a pool. He’s moving back and forth trying to find the right spot. He never did actually jump.”
Landing in debris on the tracks, Stanton severed the tendon and some nerves in his right hand. The injury required several surgeries, and then almost a year of physical therapy. But in the end, he was still unable to produce the sixteen pounds of pressure required to pull the double-action trigger on a .38, the NYPD’s standard-issue weapon back then. As a result, Bill Stanton’s career as a cop was over.
There were no maudlin all-nighters at McSherry’s across the street from the precinct. There were no watery-eyed heart-to-hearts between Stanton and Parlato. Stanton had always wanted to be a cop, and he was deeply disappointed that he couldn’t be one anymore. But he also recognized it as an opportunity.
His injury was a chance to get out of the Bronx, to see some of the world, and, as things turned out, to reinvent himself. Here was this half-Polish, half-Puerto Rican kid from City Island whose father drove a cab and whose mother was a legal secretary. A kid whose brother was always the smart one, the good-looking one, the one with all the promise.
Now he was 24, out of a job, and without any easily identifiable skills. But though he’d rarely been anywhere beyond the Bronx (“It was like I lived in Mayberry and Manhattan was Mount Pilot”), he had an insatiable hunger to succeed, to get a piece of the good life. “Billy really loved being a cop,” says Parlato, who recently retired after 32 years on the job. “But he was always a dreamer. We’d park sometimes when there was a lull, and he’d talk about being a star. Not an actor necessarily, but some kind of celebrity, something in that life.
“You know, most cops sit around and dream about winning Lotto or someone dying and leaving them money. Not Billy. He was gonna do it himself.”
What Stanton has done is become a player. First, there’s his business, the private-investigating agency with its colorful case mix that includes Fortune 500 companies as well as high-stakes matrimonial dustups and complex criminal actions being handled by some of the city’s most visible lawyers: people like Richard Emery, Joe Tacopina, Ron Fischetti, and Larry Shire.
Then there’s his social world. He’s become a kind of star at night, a legend in certain circles, for his stamina, his creativity, and his often outrageous behavior. He’s a regular at Elaine’s and Il Mulino. The maître d’s at 21 and Fresco and Chicama greet him by name.
And when he’s out at night, which seems to be pretty much all of the time, his gravitational force pulls in a Manhattan menagerie that includes the city’s best-known lawyers and cops, journalists, the occasional executive, TV producers, and a sprinkling of actors, models, Playmates, and topless dancers. (Unbeknownst to many people, given his high nocturnal profile, he has been married almost four years to a churchgoing chiropractor-nutritionist named Jane, whom he’s known since he was 19. Though they have no kids, she anchors what is almost his secret “normal” life, which actually includes quiet family time.)
Stanton has even become a go-to talking head on security issues for Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. When Elián González was scooped up by the Feds, there was Bill Stanton on Good Morning America explaining the tactics used in that kind of operation.
Stanton is so tight with the city’s top cops that he often has dinner with Bill Bratton; he has a line to new commissioner Bernard Kerik; and department chief Tom Fahey is a good friend. He’s so much a part of this inner circle of celebrity cops that he even got former NYPD deputy commissioner Jack Maple to become his partner. And to accept second billing: the firm is called Stanton & Maple, P.I.
“Billy’s certainly not everybody’s cup of tea,” says Bratton. “But he’s very creative; he’s always thinking. And that’s probably why he and Maple get along so well. Both of them are characters. Dreamers who’re always coming up with what seem like crazy ideas. But every once in a while one of them works. Both are also deceptive in terms of appearance, and you’ve got to get beyond the façade to realize how smart they are.”
Among the many things Stanton has cleverly picked up from Maple and Bratton and their fraternity is the idea of a kind of restored 1940s romance about police work. The notion (which they very successfully put forth when they ran the NYPD) that there is glamour and honor in fighting crime: the impossibly quaint but appealing picture of real men protecting people and doing good work during the day and then hanging out together drinking in saloons at night.
“The key thing in this business is knowing people,” says onetime star cop and now matchless celebrity P.I. Bo Dietl. “I haven’t been home for a family dinner between Monday and Friday in probably fifteen years. You need to be out there every night circulating and meeting people. You need to be networking, and that’s really something Billy has used to great advantage.”
Dietl is the Bill Gates of celebrity private eyes, the 800-pound gorilla, the archetype against whom everyone else measures himself. Including Stanton, who has feuded on and off with Dietl over the years and was actually fired by him four times in the early nineties. “I really like Billy and I gotta give him a lot of credit,” Dietl says, “for coming as far as he has. Believe me, nobody’s as surprised as I am. ‘Cause to tell you the truth, as a detective, he still couldn’t find a black person in Harlem.”
Mike Ciravolo, who runs Dietl’s operation, laughs when I ask him about Stanton. “I sent him out on a routine surveillance six years ago, and I’m still waiting for him to come back. Billy’s got a black belt in bullshit. He could charm the balls off a brass monkey.”
“I had to get into Elaine’s if I was going to be a player. That was the watering hole. That’s where the buffalo and the rhino went: the top cops, the actors, the writers, the news people, and the producers.”
Like Dietl, Stanton is a shameless self-promoter – everything springs from the force of personality. Stanton is good-natured, laughs easily, and makes others laugh as well. But there is nothing cool or sophisticated or subtle about the Stanton charm. By current standards, he is pure caveman or, perhaps more accurately, a graduate of the Frank Sinatra-Arnold Schwarzenegger finishing school.
He’s disarming and often shockingly blunt, and on a bad day he can look and sound like a guy who’s dream in life is to be a male stripper. But there is also something innocently adolescent about him. He gives off a clear sense that he’s a guy who likes to have fun.
“Bill appears to be genuinely fascinated by women, which is the key difference between a womanizer and a romantic,” says New York Times media reporter Alex Kuczynski, who has known Stanton for several years.
“I’ve cried on his shoulder and gone to him for advice,” says Fox’s Laurie Dhue. “And he always makes time for me. He’s a real friend. And as brash and outspoken as he is, women find him attractive because he appeals to their needy side. He makes women feel beautiful.”
Men respond to Stanton as well. There is a long list of guys who call him and almost plead to go out with him because, as he would probably put it, using one of the endless movie references that dress up his conversation, at night, he’s like Maximus striding into the Colosseum.
One night at Il Mulino, Stanton was doing the Stanton thing, chatting up several attractive women he’d just introduced himself to at the bar while everyone was waiting for a table. There was some mildly suggestive, playful teasing, and everyone was all smiles. A little while later, when the women had been seated at a table next to Stanton’s, one of them got up to go to the ladies’ room.
She stopped and said something innocuous to Stanton about her after-dinner plans. He smiled, picked up the pepper mill from the table, and said, “How ‘bout I get some batteries for this and we have a party?” Rather than smack him or look horrified, she smiled, leaned over, and began stroking his ample chest.
“If I walked into a room and did some of the stuff he does, I’d probably feel the force of somebody’s fist against my jaw,” says ABC’s Miller. “But he’s so good-natured, he has a way of pulling it off.”
And he’s always on. In the morning, at night, on the phone, in his office, at lunch. Tirelessly networking, Stanton draws people into his universe and starts connecting them with one another. And along the way, anything he can do for them he does, from a simple introduction to a job to concert tickets.
It’s unspoken, of course, but all these things are chits that go into the main computer of the great favor bank that makes New York turn. “He has this constant desire to do something for the other person,” says Dominic Barbara.
Keeping the swirl in motion is an extraordinarily high-energy enterprise. He spends two hours a day working out at the Reebok Sports Club NY, which has, of course, become a client and is where he cracked a health-club theft ring that was stealing things like $15,000 Rolex watches from lockers.
More critically, he averages 5,000 minutes a month on two cell phones used mostly in his maroon Durango, which he refers to as the “war wagon.” It is specially equipped with a global-positioning navigation system; Nextel two-way radio; radar scrambler; video camera with a night-vision lens; a hand-activated, touch-sensitive safe (it opens by identifying his fingerprints); a full-size, lifelike dummy in the backseat wearing a straw cowboy hat; and a remote starter.
Even a short ride in the truck means getting immediately sucked into the vortex. One afternoon, we were on the L.I.E. in a blinding downpour on the way to inspect a murder scene critical to one of his cases. As he munched on a whey protein bar (his food intake goes from the sublime to the ridiculous; one morning at seven, he was eating leftover sausage and peppers and an hour later a beef jerky), he talked on both cell phones, repeatedly checked his pager, and feverishly poked his Palm PC.
Ignoring the weather, he worked the phones nonstop during the two-hour round-trip, talking to his investigators and two lawyers; he promised to get someone else ‘N Sync tickets; he made arrangements for a five o’clock appearance on Fox; he discussed the previous night’s mischief with a cohort, as happily as an adolescent; and he promised a corporate client on his way in from Chicago that he’d make arrangements for them to go out that night.
despite all the gloss, the showmanship, and the hell-raising nightlife, Stanton remains, in many ways, the quintessential private eye, the guy who handles routine surveillance and tawdry cheating spouses. Beyond that, however, Sam Spade wouldn’t recognize much of the work – computer security, for instance, and corporate due diligence, which includes everything from background checks on prospective employees to unraveling sexual-harassment cases.
“We’re working for a company,” Stanton says, “that’s interested in how one of its competitors keeps coming up with hugely successful products. Our job is to find out who’s generating the ideas and how they’re doing it. Once we identify the genius, they can try to steal him.”
Corporate work can be stranger than you’d think. “We handled a case,” Stanton says, “where we were hired to protect the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. The company makes colored contact lenses, and believe it or not one of these white-supremacist groups issued threats against him because he was enabling non-Aryan types to have blue eyes.”
Surely no one has ever done more with less time in the police department than Stanton. “You know,” says Miller, who was Bratton’s deputy commissioner for public information, “part of me feels like, Who the hell did he think he was to try and fashion himself into the modern-day Sam Spade and start taking on clients who use Kroll and Fairfax and Bo and people on that level? He had an awful lot of nerve to do that. On the other hand, he went and did it. And a lot of guys who saw him on the way up and said, ‘Who does he think he is?’ and ‘He’ll never make it,’ are now asking if he can give them work here and there.”
Stanton has this Ralph Kramden, unrealistic-dream-of-the-week side to his personality that enables him to go after something even when it seems clear to those around him it makes no sense.
“He works off an entirely different page than other people,” says Mike Swain, a nineteen-year NYPD veteran who oversees the day-to-day operation of Stanton’s company and has been with him since they worked together in the 40th Precinct. “I could never come up with the stuff he comes up with. And that’s one of the reasons he’s the best at putting together a scam or an undercover operation on a case. It’s always another TV episode, and he’s starring and writing the script.”
Though Stanton didn’t pay his dues the traditional way, his current social and professional success came after a decade of grunt work, of getting experience wherever he could and trying to learn from the right people as he went along.
When he was forced to retire from the NYPD, Stanton spent his first couple of years as a civilian, predictably making the most of the few attributes he had. He became a bouncer. The place was a very popular working-class club in Manhattan called Rascals. “The owners, Tommy Nally and George Stephanos,” he says, “taught me about Manhattan nightlife.”
But the work was tough. “It was a place that attracted people from the boroughs who wanted a night out in the city but couldn’t get into the A-clubs. And the mentality of the guys was, ‘If I’m not gettin’ laid, I’m gonna get into a fight.’ “
Next he tried security, working the midnight shift guarding a construction site. He was posted on the fifty-second floor. “So I’m there, and this cop with a big gut shows up to work with me. He’s got his blanket and a little TV and his lunchbox, and he sets up his bed on the Sheetrock,” Stanton says, shaking his head and starting to laugh. “I remember I just sat there all night freezing my ass off, listening to that fat, alcoholic motherfucker snore, and thinking about my life working for $12 an hour. As I watched him, I knew I was looking at the Ghost of Christmas Future.”
Stanton figured his only way out and up was to get some real training, to add value to what he was trying to sell. He’d met a guy who was a member of Henry Kissinger’s security detail who convinced him that protecting politicians, celebrities, and dignitaries might be the kind of thing he was looking for.
So Stanton took a course at the Executive Protection Institute in Virginia. When he got there and took a look at the competition – ex-Navy seals, CIA, FBI, Secret Service, state troopers – he quickly realized he was completely overmatched. “They looked like the Boys from Brazil, and I was looking like some mutt from the ASPCA.”
It was here that Stanton got his first real sense of the importance of personal style. “The clients wore us like they wore their jewelry,” he says, “so the way you looked and behaved was important. They assumed we were all qualified.”
Stanton learned how to act, which fork to use at dinner, and how to blend into the background. He began buying better clothes, and he realized there was this whole world he’d known nothing about. He worked for the king of Greece, the Rockefeller family, John Kennedy Jr., and Jackie O. Stanton’s hair was quite long back then, and the former First Lady would sometimes help him pin it up. She also sweetly offered small tips – on fashion or manners – to help him bevel some of his rough edges.
After about a year, just around the time he was becoming frustrated by the long, lonely hours of protection work, Tommy Nally called with an offer. The China Club was opening a place in Aspen, Nally was going to manage it, and he needed someone to handle security, run the front door, and work the VIP area. Within 48 hours Stanton had packed up his Pathfinder, and the kid who’d never been west of New Jersey was on his way to Aspen.
“I was in Aspen working on getting the club ready to open,” says Michael Barrett, one of the owners of the China Club. “Suddenly these phone calls start. ‘Hey, it’s Wild Bill. I’m on my way, I’m in Illinois.’ Then, a little while later, ‘Hey, it’s Wild Bill. I’m in Indiana. I got on my slicker and my cowboy hat.’ ‘Hey, it’s me again, and I’m in Nebraska, and I’ve had like 22 cups of coffee.’
“He probably called 25 times during the 48 hours it took him to drive out there. He believed he was taking the first real step toward where he wanted to be. You know, Aspen, celebrities, and all of that. It was like opening Pandora’s box.”
When Stanton finally arrived at Barrett’s house, he kicked in the door, dropped to his knees, and kissed the carpet. “Wild Bill’s here,” he screamed.
“We had people over for dinner,” Barrett remembers, “and at this point I really hated him.” Nevertheless, he stayed with Barrett, and they quickly became fast friends. Within three weeks, he’d also become fast friends with Sylvester Stallone (it is hard to overstate the significance of this for a kid who’d had Rocky and Rambo posters in his bedroom growing up).
“Aspen was party fuckin’ central,” Stanton says. “I couldn’t believe the drugs, the sex … But I realized after a while that I was popular for what I was, not who I was. I ran the door at the hottest club in town, the place everybody wanted to be.”
After eight months, he was back in New York, bouncing around between the China Club, Bo Dietl, and protection work. One day he’d be picking up the Stanley Cup at the airport, responsible for guarding it and getting it to a WFAN radio promotion, and the next day he’d be working security at Moe Ginsburg.
“I was like a cowboy working roundup to roundup. I’d be with the king of Greece, working protection, and we’d go to the opera, to Cipriani, and shopping at Ferragamo,” Stanton says. “And then the next night I’d be guarding a dead body at some fuckin’ funeral parlor in the Bronx because the guy’s family thought the estranged wife was going to kidnap the corpse.”
If his daytime life was out of control, his nights were even more so. The locus for his excesses was the China Club, where he worked, partied, and sometimes even slept. “I was having the time of my life,” Stanton says, “living paycheck to paycheck and looking for adventure.” But he knew he needed focus.
“I told him he was better than just working security at my club and handling the odd private-eye and protection gig,” says Michael Barrett. “I told him there was more to life than staying out all night and ending up in bed with some broad he didn’t know or care to know. I stayed out and got wild, but I owned the club. He needed to find his niche in life.”
Stanton knew Barrett was right. “I felt like I was becoming a party boy,” he says. “I felt like the good-looking chick everybody wants to fuck but nobody wants to take home to meet their mother.”
Then, thanks to a little serendipity and a good measure of creativity, two things happened that changed his life. Barrett had run into Dominic Barbara at a dinner party, and the blustery litigator asked if he knew anyone who could handle security for a party he was throwing. Barrett immediately thought of Stanton, who was so eager he volunteered to do it for free. The party was Joey Buttafuoco’s get-out-of-jail celebration at a Long Island restaurant called Cafe Testarossa.
“After that, Dominic started giving me work,” says Stanton, who credits Barbara with enabling him to start his detective agency. “Small jobs at first, but he always said, ‘Stick with me, kid, and we’ll build something here.’ “
Equally important was Stanton’s move into Elaine’s to get himself a seat at the table with William Bratton, Jack Maple, and the city’s other celebrity cops.
“I felt I had to get into Elaine’s if I was going to be a player in security and private investigations,” he says. “I believed that was the watering hole in every sense – that’s where the buffalo and the rhino went: the top cops, the actors, the writers, the news people, and the producers.”
He also decided he needed to meet William Bratton. It was 1994, and Bratton was at the peak of his fifteen minutes. He was the city’s new top cop, a cool, commanding presence in crisply starched shirts with white collars and cuffs, and he was reforming the department, cutting crime, getting tons of press, and hanging out at Elaine’s. Not exactly a guy Bill Stanton, with his shoulder-length hair, leather pants, and muscle shirts was likely to become friends with. Stanton, however, had a strategy, one that was pure Billy-vision.
Bruce Willis was a China Club regular, and Stanton had become chummy with him. He knew that Willis was a Republican, an enthusiastic supporter of law enforcement, and a guy who liked photo ops with well-known public officials. He also happened to be in town shooting a Die Hard movie. So, on a Monday night on the VIP deck of the China Club, Stanton asked Willis if he’d like to do a public-service announcement for the NYPD.
Willis quickly agreed. The problem was that Stanton knew absolutely no one at police headquarters – the highest-ranking person he knew was his old partner, Sergeant Al Parlato. He called information and got the phone number for police headquarters. Then he called the main number and actually began to tell his story to an operator. “You represent who? And he wants to do what? Huh?”
Half-a-dozen calls later, the request found its way to the desk of John Miller, who was intrigued enough to call Stanton back. “I really had no idea what to make of Billy until we sat down,” says Miller. “And then I got an idea about the level of energy we were dealing with.”
Stanton suggested a dinner so everyone could meet, and within a week, Bratton, Willis, Miller, and Stanton were sitting down at Il Mulino. A few weeks later, the NYPD had a TV commercial by Bruce Willis. And everyone was happy. But no one was as happy as Stanton, who had successfully, implausibly, pulled off a deal (scheme) that got him on the inside.
After the commercial was done, Bratton invited Stanton to Elaine’s. (He also told him to get a haircut.) “Once I walked in there with him, I was a made man.”
His acceptance at Elaine’s, he believed then and he still believes now, gave him credibility that was particularly important given his anemic résumé. “Remember, perception is everything. I can bring my clients there, and I’ve met all kinds of important people in the corporate world and in law enforcement. It creates an aura of success. People say, ‘Oh, who’s that guy, I see him here all the time?’ And it’s like a subliminal sale. They think, ‘Oh, if he’s here all the time, he must be good.’ “
For years, Stanton has been haunted by a scene near the end of Raging Bull, where Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), the onetime world middleweight champion, is sitting in a bar in Miami. He is in the midst of an awful, unstoppable downward spiral. He has become a fat, pathetic, cheesy character in cheap clothes, and he starts talking to a blonde at the bar. “Are you 21?” he asks her. “Are you sure you’re 21? Can you prove you’re 21?” (Of course she wasn’t 21, and LaMotta is arrested the next day for statutory rape and has no money to post bail.)
“This is a funny business,” Stanton says one night while driving to see a client. “In the cosmetics business, Lauder may have a 50 percent market share, but in this, no one has more than a couple of percent. You know Al Pacino’s third cousin might be a retired cop, so he gets some contract that way even though he probably doesn’t know shit. It can be tough to build and sustain something.”
It is particularly difficult because success for Stanton is so dependent on the larger-than-life character he’s developed. “Billy is a very bright, talented guy,” says his partner, Jack Maple. “But if I had any reservations about going into business with him, it was the concern that some people wouldn’t be able to see past the image. My counsel to him has always been that he’s got to show people who he really is. They have to see the serious side as well as the other side.”
Stanton knows he has to walk a very fine line when he’s performing. He has to maintain the show, but he also has to make sure he doesn’t cross over into parody or alienate people he’s trying to attract as clients. Particularly since he now spends a lot of his time competing for business in boardrooms.
“How many times can I put on the red nose and big floppy shoes?” he asks. “You know, after a while I get a little tired of it.”
On the other hand, practically everything in his life now depends on it. “Believe me,” he says one evening just past midnight as he’s preparing to go out, “I know that unless I’m out there with the tambourine, it ain’t gonna rain.”