LONDON — Harper’s magazine editor Louis Lapham and retired Wall Street businessman Edward Perlberg testified Wednesday that Roman Polanski made “tasteless,” “vulgar” and “creepy” remarks to Perlberg’s girlfriend just weeks after the murder of the director’s wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969.
However, the subject of those remarks, Scandinavian model Beate Telle, was not called to the London court where Polanski is suing publisher Conde Nast over a 2002 article in Vanity Fair.
Article alleged that the director tried to seduce Telle in Elaine’s restaurant in New York on his way back from London to Los Angeles for Tate’s funeral in 1969.
Lapham confirmed he was the source of the Vanity Fair anecdote.
Both Lapham and Perlberg testified that Polanski had joined their table, between Lapham and Telle, and spent several minutes making advances to the Norwegian model (described as Swedish in the Vanity Fair article).
“He began to talk to her in a forward way, to praise her beauty, to romance her,” Lapham recalled. “He said, ‘I can put you in movies, I can make you the next Sharon Tate.’ He meant it as a compliment, to impress her, to express his admiration for her looks.”
Perlberg said his girlfriend found the director’s behavior “creepy,” and they later agreed he was “a twerp or some word like that.”
Lapham said he thought Polanski’s words were “tasteless and vulgar … and a cliche” but not “monstrous.”
John Kelsey-Fry, Polanski’s counsel, accused both men of lying and attacked their accounts for inconsistency, implausibility and imperfect recollection.
Vanity Fair has conceded the event didn’t happen before Tate’s funeral but shortly afterward.
Lapham said he saw Polanski’s actions. Perlberg, who was sitting further away, said he was aware of Telle’s discomfort but that she only told him the details on their way home.
“She was very agitated,” Perlberg recalled. “She said, ‘He touched me with his hand, and he said that I should come to Hollywood and he would get me a screen test and make another Sharon Tate out of me.’ ”
Perlberg said he tried to persuade Telle that Polanski’s behavior “could be excused because he just suffered such a terrible shock.”
Key witness not present
Without Telle’s evidence — neither side has explained why she has not been called as a witness even though she is understood to be living in Norway — the case comes down to a duel between the integrity and recollection of Lapham and Perlberg on the one hand and of Polanski on the other.
Referring to Lapham, Perlberg said, “He’s my friend, but I wouldn’t perjure myself for anyone.”
He admitted that his earlier witness statements had not included all the details of Polanski’s advances to Telle but said he had “tempered” his previous account “to protect her honor.” “That’s just the way I’ve been brought up,” he added.
Tom Shields, representing Conde Nast, said the Vanity Fair article could not be responsible for damaging Polanski’s reputation in the U.K. since the director has “actually no reputation to protect in this country at all.”
“He was the one who fled the U.S. in February 1978” after being found guilty of sex with a minor, Shields reminded the jury.
Polanski is taking part in the trial via video link from Paris — were he to come to London, he could be extradited back to the U.S.
Kelsey-Fry mounted a sustained attack on Lapham’s journalistic standards. He pointed to an article by Lapham in the September 2004 edition of Harper’s in which the editor described watching the Republican Convention even though the event had not taken place at the time of writing.
Lapham acknowledged the mistake in the next edition following a reader’s complaint.
Kelsey-Fry also quoted extracts from Lapham’s 1999 book “Lapham’s Rules of Influence,” which contains the following advice: “When invited to spend the weekend with important journalists or movie stars, it is considered polite to bring three or four malicious libels in lieu of a house gift or bottle of wine.”
Lapham countered that the book was “a satire.”
The case continues today with the closing statements by Kelsey-Fry and Shields, followed by the judge’s summing up. The jury is expected to return with its verdict on Friday.