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.
Hill and Frederick Fekkai at the Alliance for the
Arts Gala. May 2005.
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.
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.
Hill with Robert Wilson. May 2005.
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
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 ...
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
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.
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