SANDY HILL PITTMAN

Sandy Hill and Frederick Fekkai at the Alliance for the Arts Gala. May 2005.
Two weeks ago, at the Alliance for the Arts Gala at Gotham Hall where they honored Beth Rudin DeWoody and her brother Bill Rudin, I saw Sandy Hill. It was the first time I’d seen her in seven or eight years. Back then she was known to the world as Sandy Pittman or (as she had then recently started calling herself) Sandy Hill Pittman, and was the talk of the town, talk of the media and the talk of the talk.

This night, coincidentally, marked the 9th anniversary of her much heralded, much hyped climbing expedition to Mount Everest in May 1996 — the adventure on which she embarked with her own web site linked to MSNBC, along with book contract and national magazine assignments, which many believed would make her the “Martha Stewart of the outdoors” – the climb on Mount Everest had ended in catastrophe, for Mrs. Pittman’s media adventure, for the climbing party ... and for eight members of the climbing party, it had ended in death.

I first met the lady in March 1990, when I was in New York from my base in Los Angeles, working on a book project. One weekend our mutual friend Beth Rudin DeWoody took me along to a houseparty hosted by Sandy and her husband at the time, Bob Pittman at their weekend place in northwestern Connecticut.

We met first telephonically, on the way up on Mrs. DeWoody’s cell phone. The conversation was mainly centered on a party picture of Mrs. Pittman that had been published in the latest edition of W (then still a newspaper-style publication). It was assumed, that I, a devoted reader (at the time) of the paper, had therefore seen her although we’d never met. As it happened, I’d slipped and hadn’t noticed.

The Pittmans (I had no idea what to expect) turned out to be two very good-looking, slender and well-formed, gracious people in their mid-to-late thirties. Their country house was a rustic, light and airy 9000 square-foot converted old dairy barn set behind an old stone wall by the side of the road. They were totally American, totally privileged, totally clever, totally athletic, and bright. The atmosphere was comfortable, bonhomie, family (several young and energetic children present); the costume was: jeans and woolens.

Mr. Pittman, I had been told, had “created” MTV and was an up and coming media mogul. In his pristine garage with its spotless and shining cement floors were a couple of highly shined, hulking motorcycles. I later learned that he and some friends either had or were about to embark on a motorcycle trip across the American continent.

Mrs. Pittman was a very good-looking woman, brunette, bright-eyed, enthusiastic; the kind of person whose face is always in a smile, even in repose. She had planned a dinner party for that night and had already gained quite a reputation for giving exceptionally creative parties. A recent one had been an “Elvis” party where everyone was expected to come in costume in some persona related to Elvis, if not the King himself.

 
Sandy Hill with Robert Wilson. May 2005.
That night the guests began arriving about seven, seven-thirty. Having been living in Los Angeles for years at that point, I had no idea what the group might be like, or who were the New Yorkers who lived in Northwestern Connecticut on the weekends in 1990.

It turned out to be a pretty glamorous crowd to this out-of-towner, and although I’ve long since forgotten most of the guest list, it included Tom Brokaw and his wife Meredith as well as Jim Hoge, who was editor of the Daily News at the time, and his wife at the time, Sharon.

Also among the guests was Geraldine Stutz, the fashion executive who had first made a name for herself in the 1960s transforming Henri Bendel into the hottest store on Fifth Avenue, by creating the merchandising concept of boutiques within a larger emporium. At that point, long retired from retailing, she had her own imprint at Crown Publishers. We were seated next to each other at dinner and it was then that she told me she had a book under contract with Bobby Short and was looking for a writer. Because of that initial meeting, I was hired a few months later to write that book.

Although this New York world was a new experience for me, outside of reading about it in W and Vanity Fair, it didn’t take long to get the gist of its importance, or more precisely, its self-regarded importance. It was easy to perceive from conversation where famous names (again from the pages of W and Vanity, the New York Times, etc.) were included, dropped, discussed (gossiped about). It was also easy to see that the Pittmans, despite their obvious achievements (an expensive country house, apartment in New York, celebrated friends), were still in the process of achieving that social success, as it was defined at that moment by names like Steinberg and Bass and Kravis and Brooke Astor and de la Renta and Trump (both Blaine and Ivana) and of course Jackie O et al. It was also apparent that the energy of this couple was such that the aforementioned social achievement was not only within their sights but also never out of their sights.

This was a time when the term Nouvelle Society, created by the editors at W and powerfully advanced in the society pages of Aileen Mehle writing as “Suzy” dominated the consciousness of all who strove for a higher perch in the pecking order known as New York.

The term was ironic, and of course, more than lightly insulting, a matter apparent to even the most obtuse. But it didn’t matter because “getting there; being there” was, as it always is and always has been, for some people, the order of the day. To achieve that took money, talent, brains, looks and most especially drive, as well as its twin: desire, and its most trusted advisor: greed. On the face of it, it was easy to see that Sandy Pittman, and perhaps, from the way it appeared, to a lesser degree, her executive husband, Bob, had what it took.

By then I’d learned something about her. She was a California girl, growing up in Los Gatos, daughter of a man who had a good business renting portable toilets to construction sites. She’d attended UCLA, worked in retail stores, led outdoor trips and then came to New York where her first job was working for the now defunct Bonwit Teller. Meeting an editor at Mademoiselle led to a job as a merchandising editor at the magazine. She also met and was married briefly to a guy named Jerry Solomon who was also in the retailing business. By 23 she was divorced.

In my book, it’s true what they say about California girls versus Eastern girls: they seem to have an extra shot of energy and an independent streak. In many ways she seemed far more wholesome, almost milk-fed in bearing than the women who were dominating the New York scene she appeared to be striving for – Carolyne Roehm, Mercedes Bass, Anne Bass, Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner, Nina Griscom, Brooke Astor, Susan Gutfreund, Annette de la Renta, Blaine Trump. Who could picture any of those girls throwing a javelin? But Sandy Pittman, despite her physical beauty had that quality about her; someone you could more easily picture in a triathlon than in a Valentino.The following summer of that year, Michael Gross published a piece called “The Couple of the Minute; Doing Good with Bob and Sandy Pittman” in New York magazine. The piece, which was widely considered to be “negative” methodically laid out the couple’s background, separately and together.

Bob Pittman was a kid from Mississippi who got into the business first as a disc jockey, attended four colleges, never graduated and at 23 got himself hired as program director of WNBC in New York where he soon became star of the stations TV commercials as well as a late night rock show.

At the time of their meeting (on a plane to San Francisco) Bob had just moved to the new Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company where he was director for the Movie Channel. In 1979, they married. Soon thereafter he was developing other programming.

In late 1981, MTV, the all-music cable network became a reality and the following year Bob was named Executive Vice-President and CEO of Warner Amex networks. MTV was becoming a success. From the outset there has been controversy as to whose idea it was for the creation of the network. In many stories, Bob Pittman has taken credit. Others credit John Lack, another Warner executive. It is a moot point. Steve Ross, then Warner chairman and James Robinson, then chairman of American Express gave it the green light after meeting with Bob Pittman about it, and he became the head of it. A couple of years later, he revamped another Warner Amex channel, Nickelodeon and the following year introduced VH-1 and Nick at Nite. Soon after Viacom made him the president and CEO of MTV Networks, Inc.

Bob Pittman’s media reputation was established. Steve Ross, the man who put together Time-Warner was once quoted as saying that Pittman had an idea a second and he was soon regarded as Ross’ fair-haired boy and heir apparent.

By the time I met them in 1990, Bob Pittman was well-established and highly regarded in New York media circles. He flew his own plane and helicopter. His beautiful athletic wife was noted for skiing in Aspen, kayaking in the Arctic, trekking in Nepal and backpacking the Grand Tetons. With his flourishing career, their looks and activities, they were the darlings of the magazine editors, written about in HG, GQ, Esquire, W. The couple, by then parents of an eight-year-old son, were well-connected and popular, serving on several charity and cultural boards.

In 1992 I moved to New York, ostensibly to write the book for Bobby Short. I occasionally saw the Pittmans, usually when I was in the company of our mutual friend Mrs. DeWoody, at cocktail parties, dinners, openings. They were always gracious. At that point, I’d begun to hear the snipings about Sandy Pittman’s social ambitions and although they seemed obvious, I always found her as the first time we met – friendly, fun, sharp, energetic and attractive – hard not to like.

That same year, Steve Ross died an untimely death from cancer which threw everything into disarray in the Time-Warner executive suites. This was the coming of Gerald Levin who was somehow present at the creation of the merger of Time-Warner and the mad puppy of the moment, American Online, known as AOL. Now, if you were a subscriber to AOL at the time of the Time Warner merger with its company, you knew from experience that this wasn’t necessarily a good idea because the company had a lot of service problems related to its quick and immense growth. If you were a Wall Streeter, however, you had already begun the hot-air balloon ride across the coming dotcom bubble.

Bob Pittman was a major executive at Time-Warner when this merger came along. And the Pittmans were riding high in the social swim, making appearances at the major charity events, the opening of the ballet, the Central Park Conservancy. They were go-getters and they were an ideal couple, a dream-team. There was talk about her plans to become a kind female guru of the outdoors.

She’d made it her ambition to climb the seven greatest mountains of the world. She’d become a writer for Mirabella. With that high energy and high profile, their lives became a subject of ambition being worn on one’s sleeve, so to speak. And gossip. Never gossip about extra-marital affairs, however: just naked ambition, with the wife, not the husband, as the focal point of criticism.

There were supporters too. At the end of Michael Gross’ New York magazine article about them, he quoted a Hollywood producer named Howard Rosenman whom he said “became an unabashed admirer.” (of the Pittmans)

“They're very unpretentious people,” Rosenman told Gross; “Very refreshingly honest. They like successful people, but who doesn't? And who isn't a social climber in New York except some homeless people?”

(Mr. Rosenman’s perception aside, there are quite a few New Yorkers who are neither homeless nor social climbers.)

However, as their social celebrity rose, Sandy Pittman became more actively involved in her own interests and career pursuits. One day when I was staying with our friend Beth DeWoody, the phone rang and because I was the only one home, I answered it. It was Sandy. “Go out onto the terrace,” she said, “and look out at the East River.”

Following her suggestion, I went out onto the terrace and saw, out there on river, two women kayaking and waving wildly. It was Sandy and a friend. The East River never looks so big or so rough until you see a tiny little vessel making its way. As it happened, just a few minutes later an enormous oil tanker came round the bend moving across Hellgate, heading toward and making enormous waves for the little kayak and its two tiny passengers. I held my breath as I watched them maneuver to within an inch of their lives away from the vast six-story vessel as it made its commanding way down the channel.

I thought she was crazy at the time. For what, I wondered, would a woman make such a life-threatening exercise. However, I am not imbued with her sense of adventure or that aspect of fearlessness that many athletic people possess.

And so, it was only a few years later, in 1996 when Sandy Hill Pittman, as she was now calling herself, embarked on her highly pre-publicized climb to Everest. On May 10, 1996, there was a ferocious blizzard on Everest and the climbing party were caught in it. Eight people were killed that night.

Perhaps it was the power of her drive and personality, perhaps it was the obvious quest for celebrity that preceded her, but somehow Sandy Pittman became the lightning rod for explaining what went wrong that night and why so many lost their lives. The fact that she too was victim of Mother Nature’s circumstances was drowned out by the damning accounts that were reported and written in magazines – such as Vanity Fair, Life, Men’s Journal, Outside and in Jon Krakauer’s first person account in the best-selling Into Thin Air. Even the New York Times editorial page opined: “Everest is no smaller than it ever was, but the motives for climbing seem to have steadily diminished.” I thought of the kayak paddling furiously out of the way of the oncoming oil tanker on the East River.

The tragedy of Everest followed her home and Schadenfreude seemed to take up permanent residence outside her door. There was talk that many of her “friends” were avoiding her, many of the stellar social individuals whose company she had kept were crossing her off their guest lists.

Several months later, into the following year, she reported to a friend one day that her husband had not come home after his day at the office and had in fact, gone missing. In fact, he had not gone missing, but Bob Pittman had left his wife. He had, according to her early stories to friends, not told her but simply removed himself and left no forwarding address. After a week or two in the dark of his whereabouts she learned that he was staying at various hotels so that she wouldn’t find him. Whether it was so or not, she seemed, from what I was told at the time, to handle the matter with the same steel nerves that are required on mountain-climbing treks.

When news got out, it provided more grist for the mill
of those who got pleasure from the misfortunes of this coolly ambitious woman. Not only had she fallen down from all the mountaintops, but she had been cast adrift ... and alone.

The next thing I heard was she was calling herself Sandy Hill. She’d bought herself a townhouse on the East Side, far away from the Central Park West apartment she’d shared with her now ex-husband. The fortune he had made in the merger of Time-Warner and AOL had delivered quite a few million into her bank accounts, and she had a boyfriend – a very handsome snow-boarder about fifteen or sixteen years her junior – another Californian, named Stephen Koch.

The following spring (1997) Bob Pittman was seen around town with his new girlfriend — Veronique Choa, the estranged wife of climber and film-maker David Breashears and Sandy Hill was off cruising the Mediterranean with Stephen Koch. Much maligned by the Everest tragedy, she hired a famous libel attorney — Jonathan Lubell, who once defended the Church of Scientology — to protect her.

She wrote about the Everest experience the following August 1996 in Vogue in which she detailed her longtime fascination with climbing and her history as a climber. She summarized the particular difficulties involved in climbing Mt. Everest and glossed over the real dangers, presenting her experience as relatively uncompromised by difficulties, and leaving the impression that she came away relatively unaffected. Perhaps that was so. She’d also gone back to Everest and climbed it again — this time successfully. The climb meant among other things that she’d navigated six of the world's seven top summits.

The following year, now officially Sandy Hill, she decided to move to London, leading many to believe that she was looking to make a new life, away from noisome detractors who were plaguing her good name. There she met another American, also, a rich and handsome man — some say an even richer man than Bob Pittman, named Tom Ditmer.

In October of 2000, Aileen Mehle writing as Suzy in W reported that the couple were seen at a dinner given by the Prince of Wales in London, where “Sandy was one of the most attractive women in the room, swathed in white satin with her long dark hair falling in a fringe. Who doesn't know that's bangs to us Americans?”

In 2001, the couple married and moved to a ranch in the Santa Ynez mountains behind Montecito/Santa Barbara where they have lots of animals, and friends visiting. Some friends from New York, visiting Los Angeles, wanted to see the ranch. Sandy sent a plane for them. Later one of them remarked to her on how “nice it is” that she had a plane she could transport her friends in. “I have two,” Sandy Hill Ditmer corrected with that bright California smile.


Have you subscribed to New York Social Diary?
Enter your Email address below and click on subscribe if you would like to receive emails keeping you abreast of the activities of NYSD. It's that easy. And it's free!
 
Email address:



Email
A
Friend


Click here for The List
Click here
for NYSD Contents