• U.S.

A Mistress’s Life and Death

6 minute read
Alessandra Stanley

Vicki Morgan’s accused killer goes on trial

Much is known about Vicki Morgan’s life, perhaps too much. For twelve years she was the lavishly kept mistress of Alfred Bloomingdale. The multimillionaire former head of Diners Club was part of Ronald Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet,” and his widow Betsy is a close friend of Nancy Reagan’s. Shortly before Bloomingdale died of cancer in 1982, Morgan, then 29, filed a $5 million palimony suit that publicized the lurid details of their affair.

About Vicki Morgan’s death, however, far too little is clear. No one disputes that she was clubbed to death in her bed with a baseball bat last July. Her roommate of three weeks, Marvin Pancoast, an emotionally disturbed Hollywood habitue and avowed homosexual, walked into a Los Angeles police station and confessed, “I did it. I killed Vicki.” His case went to court last week, but Pancoast has now recanted his confession. His attorney, Arthur Barens, has charged that “persons unknown” killed Morgan to suppress videotapes of her having sex with Bloomingdale and several prominent Government officials.

Such tapes not only would produce a sensational trial but would also send tremors through Washington—if indeed they exist. Barens has had subpoenas issued to the FBI, the CIA and the Los Angeles police department for any videotapes and documents pertaining to Morgan’s Washington liaisons. No names were listed in the court documents, but Barens told reporters his client maintains that Presidential Counsellor Edwin Meese was among Morgan’s filmed partners. Claims Barens: “We have information that the videotapes exist and that the Government has them.” Last month Meese told TIME he had never met Vicki Morgan.

Stories about the incriminating footage first surfaced on the day of Morgan’s funeral. Robert Steinberg, a Beverly Hills lawyer with a flair for self-promotion, announced that a mysterious blond woman carrying a Gucci bag had handed him three of the videotapes. When he was asked for proof, Steinberg claimed that the tapes had been stolen from his office. A grand jury later indicted him for filing a false robbery report. Marvin Mitchelson, the celebrity divorce lawyer who filed Morgan’s palimony suit, insists that a White House aide confirmed over a year ago that there were such tapes.

Despite all the rumors and allegations, there is no evidence that the tapes ever existed. Police, prosecutors and the FBI have all denied any knowledge of them. TIME, in seeking to track down the rumors, interviewed many people who were supposed to have known about the tapes. The investigation uncovered no trace of them.

Whether or not they can convince anyone that there were tapes, Pancoast’s lawyers will try to make Morgan’s relationship with Bloomingdale a central focus of the murder trial. Morgan was 17 and married when she met Bloomingdale in 1970. He paid for her divorce and remained an unstinting patron through her two other brief marriages. Morgan received up to $18,000 a month in allowance from Bloomingdale. She was usually paid by check through one of his companies, in return for her companionship and “therapy” for what she called the aging millionaire’s “Marquis de Sade complex.” Morgan even accompanied him on many overseas trips, often following him in secret when Betsy Bloomingdale was along.

Morgan, friends say, also had other rich and powerful friends. For a while she dated the King of Morocco, who showered her with jewelry. During one separation from Bloomingdale in 1975, she moved into the Bel Air mansion of Bernie Cornfeld, after the sybaritic international financier had been released from a Swiss prison. Cornfeld, who then played host to a dozen other women, says that he kept Morgan in a special bedroom, linked to his by a secret passageway.

Morgan frequently boasted to friends about her insider’s view of the Reagan White House. While working as an aide on the Reagan campaign, Morgan gossiped about dining with Bloomingdale and Reagan cronies and chauffeuring Vice Presidential Candidate George Bush around Los Angeles. Recalls Marvin Mitchelson: “She said she knew political and sexual secrets about this Administration that would make Watergate look like a play school.”

Bloomingdale hoped that the newly elected Reagan would name him Ambassador to France, and he promised Morgan a minor Government job in Paris. Federal investigators let him know, however, that his compromising affair made his appointment impossible. TIME has learned that Bloomingdale had been investigated by the FBI as early as the late 1960s, when his name came up in connection with organized-crime figures in Las Vegas. About 15 years ago, Bloomingdale shelled out $5,000 in blackmail because of his habit of beating up prostitutes. Yet despite that record, he was chosen by Reagan as an appointee to the sensitive Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in 1981. Bloomingdale fell ill shortly afterward.

Pancoast entered Morgan’s life in 1979 when they were both being treated for depression at a private Southern California mental hospital. Pancoast, who held a series of minor show-business jobs, helped Morgan gather material for her palimony suit. After she lost the case and was forced to sell her jewelry and Mercedes, he split the rent on her $1,000-a-month apartment in North Hollywood.

The prosecutors say that they will fight to prevent Pancoast’s attorneys from turning the defendant’s murder trial into an expose of the relationship between Vicki Morgan and Alfred Bloomingdale. There is no evidence of a conspiracy behind Morgan’s sad, shabby death. But the prosecution’s case against Pancoast is far from ironclad. Beyond his now repudiated confession, there is no hard evidence. A strong motive has not been established, and the investigation of the case was strikingly inept. The police neglected to seal off the scene of the crime and did not recover any fingerprints from the bloodied baseball bat. Nor did the district attorney’s office interview a number of material witnesses at the time. Deputy District Attorney Stanley Weisberg lamely explains, “We had other cases more important than this one.”

—ByAlessandra Stanley. Reported by Reported by Jonathan Beaty and Steven Holmes/Los Angeles

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