All’s Farrah In Love

Four years after Farrah Fawcett’s death, her alma mater and her former partner, Ryan O’Neal, went to court over an Andy Warhol painting of the blond pop icon. In December a jury settled the case, but it had no hope of deciding on the question at the heart of the dispute: Whom did Farrah really love?
Warhol painting: Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Bequest of Farrah Fawcett, 2010 (c) 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by: Rick Hall
photo illustration by randal ford

It was a Monday morning in mid-December at the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the day of closing arguments in the matter of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System v. Ryan O’Neal, and the show was just minutes from getting under way. Outside the courtroom, the players milled about. O’Neal was strolling down the courthouse hallway in a navy blazer, an open-collared light-blue shirt, and dark pants. Seventy-two years old and still impossibly youthful, with only a touch of graying hair, he wore gold-rimmed sunglasses and held a plastic water bottle, which he wiggled before him as if he were going for a birdie putt on the eighteenth green at Riviera. “God, I’m nervous,” he said.

Then here was 68-year-old actress Jaclyn Smith,the brunette from Charlie’s Angels, and she too seemed impossibly young, dressed in a sweater and tight pants that showed off her still-curvy derriere. “I am just hoping that justice will be done,” she told a cluster of reporters. She was about to say something else when tears began streaming down her perfectly lifted face. “I’m sorry, this is so emotional,” she murmured as she headed toward the courtroom, accompanied by two thin men who seemed to have had a little facial work done themselves. 

Over by the stairwell stood O’Neal’s attorney, the bespectacled and barrel-chested Marty Singer, a Hollywood legend whom the New York Times once described as a “guard dog to the stars.” “I think the University of Texas is going to be very interested in what we have to say,” he said, letting out a chuckle that sounded more like a low growl. “Let’s get this going.” He adjusted his tie and strode into the courtroom, where UT’s attorney, David Beck, of Houston, sat quietly studying his notes. A slim man, the 72-year-old Beck was wearing a pin-striped suit that matched his sober demeanor. Beck is one of the state’s most distinguished litigators, a methodical and brilliant man who made his reputation representing Fortune 500 corporations in high-stakes trials. On this morning, he faced what was surely one of the most challenging legal maneuvers of his long career. In his closing argument, he was going to attempt something that no one—absolutely no one in history—had ever successfully done before. He was going to try to penetrate into the heart of that greatest of American sex symbols, Farrah Fawcett.

As you probably by now know—for the bare bones of this story have been reproduced by just about every media outlet imaginable—Farrah, who died of cancer in June 2009 at the age of 62, decided to bequeath her art collection, including one or possibly two large paintings done of her by Andy Warhol, to the University of Texas, where she’d been an undergraduate in the late sixties. Shortly after her death, O’Neal, her longtime companion, had gone and retrieved one of the Warhol paintings from her home, later claiming that it was his. In 2011, after learning that O’Neal had taken the painting, UT filed suit. 

Initially, the lawsuit appeared to be nothing more than a simple contract dispute, one that O’Neal didn’t seem to have any chance of winning. Farrah had amended her living trust in 2007, leaving all her “artwork and art objects” to UT, and the language was ironclad. Yet from the moment he was hired, Singer had been relentlessly reframing the case. He snarled to the media that the university was driven only by greed. (The paintings are estimated to be worth as much as $12 million each.) “Apparently for this university, one iconic Warhol portrait is not enough,” he said. He also claimed that UT cared nothing for the paintings and sculptures Farrah herself had done, which made up the bulk of her gift. “They’ve stuck all her own work in some basement catacomb somewhere and have not even inventoried or catalogued the art.” As to the question of who owned the paintings, Singer said that Warhol had made it clear that he was doing one painting for Farrah and one for O’Neal, and that Farrah herself had said many times that the second Warhol belonged to O’Neal. 

For his part, Beck said that both paintings had always belonged to Farrah and that she did not want  O’Neal to have one, mainly because she had never forgiven him for cheating on her in 1997. Though they hadn’t married and kept separate homes, Farrah and O’Neal maintained a monogamous relationship for decades, beginning in 1979. Then one day she paid him a surprise visit at his house in Malibu and found him in flagrante delicto with a 25-year-old redhead, directly underneath the watchful eyes of the very same Warhol painting now in dispute. Beck noted that Farrah was so hurt by this that she took the Warhol from O’Neal’s home and kept it with the one she already had until her death. What’s more, Beck charged, Farrah had not left O’Neal a single penny in her will, whereas she had bequeathed $100,000 to her old college boyfriend, former Longhorn football star Greg Lott. 

Lott, in fact, was a central figure in the drama. After a spectacular couple of years in the late sixties, during which he was both Farrah Fawcett’s boyfriend and Darrell Royal’s starting quarterback, Lott had fallen on hard times, spending a few years in prison for selling drugs before finally pulling himself together. Last October, about a month before the trial commenced, he went on Good Morning America and proclaimed that he and Farrah had reunited in 1998 and carried on “a loving, consensual, one-on-one relationship” until her death. He took aim at O’Neal, calling him a coward and a liar who had known all along that Farrah owned both of the Warhols. He shared love letters Farrah had sent him, one of which the GMA producers could not resist quoting in large type on the screen: “Great food, great weather, great sex, great great you.”

Suddenly a straightforward estate struggle had become one of the most talked-about celebrity trials of the year—and one of the most interesting. As in all estate fights, the essential argument was over who had the authority to speak for the dead. Yet since the person in question was Farrah Fawcett, a pop icon whose heart and mind (and face and hair) had been coveted by, well, everyone, this was no easy question to answer. Had she always remained a UT sorority girl, forever bound to the Forty Acres? Or was that just a minor chapter in a biography that now included decades as one of the most famous women on earth? The battle lines had been drawn—to some extent by Farrah herself—as Texas versus Hollywood, Lott versus O’Neal. “She was the love of my life, and vice versa,” Lott insisted, while O’Neal simply said, “She was my soul mate.” 

During the two-week trial, a parade of Farrah’s associates took the stand, from her hairdresser to her chiropractor to the producer of her reality television show to such Hollywood personalities as Alana Stewart (another Texas gal turned Hollywood sweetheart). All of them claimed to have known Farrah intimately, and day after day they solemnly offered their opinions about sex, infidelity, fame, the true meaning of art, and, of course, whether love really means never having to say you’re sorry. By the time the closing arguments rolled around, the jury was not just going to have to decide whether UT owned the disputed Warhol. One way or another, it was going to have to decide whether Farrah had truly loved O’Neal or whether, deep down, she had always wanted to be back in the arms of her college sweetheart. 

The University of Texas had first become involved with Farrah’s estate several months after her death, when a letter arrived on the desk of Randa Safady, the vice-chancellor of external relations for the UT System. Safady opened it to find a note from the trustee of the estate, stating that the star had left her art collection to her alma mater. This was unexpected news, since no one could remember Farrah making a gift to the university before. Safady later received an inventory of the works of art—among them, a bronze sculpture titled Reclining Nude; another bronze, titled Farrah’s Patina; and a painting titled Two Faces. Most of the art had been done over the years by Farrah herself and was likely of limited financial value, but at the bottom of the list Safady noticed that an Andy Warhol portrait of Farrah was included as well. 

A posthumous gift from Farrah may not have been expected by the university, but it wasn’t entirely out of left field. As Marty Singer would later say, Farrah was “one of the most famous nonathletic alumni of the university.” It was during her time as a coed that she had been discovered, when a Los Angeles publicist noticed her on a list of the school’s ten most beautiful women and encouraged her to give show business a try. Yet the gift suggested that UT had been important to Farrah in another regard—that it was, as it has been for generations of students, the place where she had discovered herself.

Farrah grew up in Corpus Christi, where her father worked in a refinery. She was extraordinarily beautiful from an early age, but it wasn’t until she arrived at UT, in 1965, that she understood quite how powerful her beauty was. Stories abound of fraternity boys from other universities going to Austin on weekends and driving past the Tri Delt house hoping to get a look at her. When she finally settled on Lott, at the start of her sophomore year, the two made such a stunning couple—he with his soft brown eyes and big smile and she with those long legs and blond tresses already going in a dozen directions—that when they walked across campus, other students literally stopped in their tracks and gaped.

It wasn’t just that Farrah was pretty, it was that she seemed to be a free spirit, someone who played by a different set of rules from all the other girls at the sorority house. Some of that had to do with the fact that she thought of herself as an artist. At UT she studied with Charles Umlauf, a nationally renowned sculptor. She wore cutoff shorts to class and unabashedly painted and sculpted female nudes. “When you were with her, it was like you were next to a bright light,” Lott once told me. “There was simply no one else like her.”

It was that quality that set the entertainment world on fire when, in 1968, she dropped out of UT and moved to Los Angeles, where she immediately began to get cast in television commercials. She posed in a red swimsuit for a poster that sold 12 million copies. She then appeared for just a single season on Charlie’s Angels, and her sex kitten voice and braless T-shirts put half the country into a trance. Lott made several futile trips to California to win her back, but in 1976 she married Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man, then in 1979 left him for O’Neal, who had risen to fame in the sixties television soap opera Peyton Place and had received an Oscar nomination for best actor for the 1970 tearjerker Love Story. 

Farrah and O’Neal were the Brangelina of their day—the glamorous Hollywood king and queen whose every move was captured by the tabloids. One of their fans was Andy Warhol, who became obsessed with the couple. He gave them a drawing on a tablecloth of two hearts coming together, and in 1980 he painted two nearly identical silk-screen portraits of Farrah, in which she stares intently, her red lips pressed together, her eyes bright green, and her hair brushed behind one shoulder. One painting went to O’Neal’s Malibu beach house, the other to Farrah’s home in the hills above Bel-Air. 

Meanwhile, Lott’s life was going south. A knee injury had ended his football career, and after college he drifted aimlessly. He served two stints in prison for drug dealing: one for selling marijuana, the other for selling cocaine. Among UT football fans, he became a legend of sorts: the all-American boy who had nearly destroyed himself because he couldn’t get over the loss of Farrah. Eventually, he got sober, married a woman he had met in a twelve-step program, and opened a small flooring-and-design company outside Austin. 

That’s where I found him in 1996, when I was working on a story for Texas Monthly about Farrah turning fifty. Lott had never talked publicly about his relationship with Farrah, but he finally agreed to meet me for lunch. He seemed happy, but as the meal progressed, it became clear that he still held a torch for his old girlfriend. He relished telling me stories about how she made every college boy who met her feel like she genuinely liked him. He also told me that Majors and O’Neal weren’t good enough for her. 

And then came one of those funny coincidences. The article ran as the cover story of the February 1997 issue, and within days of its being published, Farrah caught O’Neal in bed with the redhead. Devastated, she decided to call Lott. She hadn’t spoken to him since the early eighties, but reading the article had reminded her that he was a man she knew would never betray her. About a year later, I got a call from Lott. He was in a convertible headed down the Pacific Coast Highway between Malibu and Los Angeles. “Hey, guess who wants to talk to you?” he said. He handed the phone to Farrah, who cooed, “Thank you, Skip, for helping bring us back together.”

Lott divorced his wife, and he and Farrah began seeing each other periodically—at one of her homes in Los Angeles, at her parents’ home outside Houston, at Lott’s home in Lubbock. (While there, she worked out at the Texas Tech football team’s gym.) But they were almost never seen in public, especially in Los Angeles. “She didn’t like going out,” Lott told me last year, before the trial began. “The crush from her fans was so huge it was like being with Elvis.” 

As a result, the tabloids remained unaware of Farrah’s relationship with Lott. They believed she had reconciled with O’Neal in 2001, when he was diagnosed with leukemia. And when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, it was reported that O’Neal was the first person she called. Lott insisted, however, that this was just for show. “Everything she did with Ryan, including all of those so-called reality shows they made together, was just Hollywood fantasy, something she had to do to keep up her image,” Lott told me. “When we were together, she would call O’Neal ‘the fat f— from the beach.’ She despised what he had done to her. Her heart was always with me.”

Farrah did write a number of love letters to Lott, which he still possesses. In one, she gushed, “You are my North, my South, my East, my West, and you know the rest. I love you forever and more.” After the cancer got worse, she wrote him love letters from her hospital bed in Germany, where she was getting experimental treatments (“I miss you so much and sometimes the loneliness makes me cry. . . . Thinking of you always and love you forever”). She even wrote that she hoped the two of them would someday be able to meet for a rendezvous in Acapulco (“Let’s both stay positive and count the days until our Mexican vacation”).  

Just before she died, a distraught Lott tried to see her, attempting to sneak into the high-rise where she was living, but he was escorted away. He said O’Neal cut off all his access to Farrah, even blocking his phone calls. Several months after her funeral, Lott flew to Los Angeles and confronted O’Neal on the street. The two men were inches apart, bellowing like old bulls. O’Neal said that it was Farrah who wanted Lott kept away. “You’re a liar!” shouted Lott, who was wearing a UT T-shirt. “She was the love of my life!” 

Lott seemed destined to become a small footnote in the Farrah Fawcett story. Yet he still had one card to play. When he heard from an associate of Farrah’s that O’Neal had taken one of the Warhol paintings out of Farrah’s home, he called his old Longhorns teammate Gene Powell, who was now the chairman of the UT Board of Regents. Lott told Powell that Farrah had mentioned several times that she owned both of the Warhols, that they were worth millions, and that they should go to UT. School officials, who had no idea there even were two Warhols, promptly hired a private investigator to look into the matter. He didn’t have to look very hard. In a scene from the 2011 reality show Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals, which ran on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, everyone could see the second Warhol hanging over O’Neal’s bed at his beach house. 

 “I talk to it,” O’Neal told the jury, his eyes welling with tears as he spoke about the painting. “It’s her presence, her presence in my life, in her son’s life. We lost her. It would seem a crime to lose it too.” He briefly glanced at the jurors, giving them a magnificent woe-is-me look. The courtroom was so quiet that you could hear a cellphone vibrate.

Beck was unimpressed. During his cross-examination, he drilled O’Neal over the pain that his affair had caused Farrah. “Was Farrah furious?” he asked. “Farrah was hurt,” O’Neal replied. “She was in shock.” He said that she had packed up all his belongings that were at her home and sent them to him but had never asked for the Warhol. “About a year after the incident, I asked her to keep the portrait with her,” he said, “because my young friend was uncomfortable with Farrah staring at her.”

Beck shook his head in disbelief. “So as I understand it, you told Farrah that your new girlfriend felt uncomfortable with her painting over your bed, so you asked her to keep it and you’d be back for it? ” he asked.

“I would be back, yes,” said O’Neal. 

Beck presented evidence that Farrah had kept the second Warhol from at least 1998 until her death (long after O’Neal and his new girlfriend had broken up), that she had insured both paintings, that she had once signed documents loaning them to the Warhol Museum in which she said she was the owner of the paintings, and that in one reality television show she had referred to the two paintings as “my Warhols.”  

Then it was time for the jury to hear from Lott. In a videotaped deposition, Lott talked about meeting Farrah at UT, their life together, the love letters she had sent him, their last telephone conversation a couple of months before her death, and his street encounter with O’Neal after Farrah’s funeral. “As a man, I needed to confront him with what he had done to me and my girlfriend,” Lott said. 

The jurors, amused by Lott’s bluster, tittered. And Singer had a field day with him. He had the manager of Farrah’s high-rise testify that Farrah was actually the one who had ordered that Lott be kept away from her. He portrayed Lott as a pathetic figure: a fabulist who had completely invented the story of his “exclusive relationship” with Farrah during the last years of her life because he didn’t want to admit to himself, and to others, that he had been rejected by her again. The only reason Farrah left him $100,000, several witnesses said, was because she felt sorry for him.

On the day of closing arguments, Singer was at his flamboyant best. “One of the facts we have established is greed on the part of the University of Texas!” he told the jury, as a PowerPoint slide flashed the word “GREED” on-screen, in burnt-orange letters. He spent several minutes chewing Lott up again, reminding the jury that his tales about his life with Farrah were so unbelievable that even the National Enquirer wouldn’t run an article about him. He said it was clear to everyone but Lott that O’Neal was the one true love of Farrah’s life. Singer looked at the jury and in a choked voice said, “Don’t allow the University of Texas to take this portrait away from him.”

Beck delivered a much calmer summation, focusing on the documentary evidence he’d introduced, but he too couldn’t help but weigh in on the Lott-O’Neal feud. He tried to get the jury to sympathize with Lott as the man who had always remained true. “He met her back in college and never got over her,” Beck said to the jury. “His life has been stuck ever since.” He finished up his closing argument by asking the jury to “please, please speak for Farrah, because she can’t speak for herself.”

The jury deliberated for four days. When it returned with its verdict, O’Neal was at a doctor’s office, going through minor surgery to remove skin cancer cells from his face, likely due to too much tanning. As he lay on the operating table, O’Neal got a text from one of his sons: “We won.” 

“I started to cry,” O’Neal later told CNN. “There was blood—and tears—running down my face. I just lay there and cried.” 

Beck and his team packed up to return to Texas. “It’s been a long month out here in Los Angeles,” he told me in his typically understated manner. UT officials hedged on the question of an appeal, but they did release a statement saying that the school was disappointed by the outcome and that it had brought the lawsuit “only because we wanted to honor [Farrah’s] legacy.” As for Lott, he seemed crushed by the verdict. Abruptly, he stopped answering any of my calls or texts, finally explaining by email, “I have been advised by counsel not to talk to the media until the appellate process is concluded.” He has said he wants to write a book about his relationship with Farrah, but so far he has not found a publisher. For now, he is left only with his memories and his haunting letters from Farrah, like the card that simply reads, “Forever, until the end of time.”

As for the rest of us, we have the painting, the one UT got, which now hangs at the Blanton Museum of Art. The image is monochromatic except for Farrah’s glowing green eyes and fire-engine-red lips. She’s not smiling, and it’s hard to tell if the look she’s giving is one of sorrow or determination. Either way, it’s a mysterious portrait, one that captures a different Farrah from the grinning model in the red bathing suit. Countless visitors will no doubt gaze at the face, trying to figure out what she’s thinking, the way art lovers at the Louvre stare at the Mona Lisa, wondering what exactly that slight smile is supposed to mean.

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