The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

WHITING’S WORLD | POST-WAR JAPAN

June 2014
Steve Parker: Cobbler, Con Man, or Cheat?
By Robert Whiting

Steve Parker was one of the more memorable individuals I interviewed as a journalist in Japan. He was one of the first Tokyo denizens I met when I first arrived in the city in the early 1960s.

I was introduced to him by a mutual acquaintance at the popular nightclub, Club 88. Parker was, according to former publisher and editor of Tokyo Weekender Corky Alexander, the “unofficial mayor” of the US community in the city at the time. The community numbered some 7,000 US residents—not counting the US military that largely confined itself to the outskirts of the city.

Parker was a theater and film producer who was married to well-known actress Shirley MacLaine. As he liked to tell people, he was born in Germany, and, as the son of a State Department official, had grown up all over the world.

He said that, during World War II, he had been a paratrooper and spent much of his time in New Guinea, where he developed an interest in the theater and helped organize shows before being sent to Hiroshima immediately after Japan’s surrender.

After the war he moved to New York where he struggled as an actor, but met and married rising new star MacLaine, who was appearing in the hit Broadway musical The Pajama Game. The couple relocated to Los Angeles as her career took off.

Tired of being known as Mr. Shirley MacLaine, Parker moved to Japan in 1956, and the two maintained a Trans-Pacific, and famously open, relationship for nearly 30 years.

In Tokyo, Parker developed a successful musical revue extravaganza—Holiday in Japan—that starred some of Japan’s biggest singers and dancers. He took the revue to Las Vegas’ New Frontier Hotel and Casino in July 1959. The show featured 60 performers, medieval costumes, rock and roll singers, and startlingly nude dancers.

It introduced the United States to post-war Japanese culture—and, in turn, introduced Japanese show girls to American-style slot machines.

A year later, in November 1960, he staged a benefit in the same city for victims of a typhoon in Nagoya, Japan. He recruited some of Hollywood’s biggest names—Bob Hope, Jerry Colona, Lucille Ball, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sammy Davis Jr., Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Vic Damone—with his wife serving as Master of Ceremonies. He charged $50 a plate, auctioned four expensive samurai swords for $200–300 each, as well as a child’s kimono for $275. The cream of Tokyo society attended, including top kabuki actors and other celebrities.

A charming, rakish, back-slapping bon vivant who stood 5’ 9” tall and had a Clark Gable mustache, Parker was a fixture of Tokyo nightlife. He was a patron of Tokyo’s teahouses where geisha sang and danced and served drinks, and was also a regular at the glitzy big-band hostess clubs such as the New Latin Quarter and the Copacabana with their imported shows.

He dined at expensive restaurants every night and had Dom Perignon champagne for breakfast. Parker was famous for the raucous parties he threw at his big ranch-style house in Shibuya with its huge garden, koi pond, stone fountain, and cherry trees.

Parker had a permanent suite in the Halekulani luxury hotel on Wakiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii; a chalet in Italy; a yacht in the Mediterranean; and land in Nasu, Japan, which is now surrounded by golf courses and ski resorts.

In his wife’s long absences, he held up his end of their famously open marriage, engaging in a long-term relationship with a former teahouse maid named Miki Hasegawa, who frequently stayed at the Shibuya house.

In 1958, his two-year-old daughter, Sachi, by Shirley MacLaine, came to live with him. As the story went, Parker had gotten word that a Mafia boss was planning to kidnap Sachi as a means to “appropriate” MacLaine’s talent. Thus, Shirley agreed that Sachi would be safer in Japan.

The daughter lived in Tokyo until the age of 12, and attended the prestigious private Nishimachi International School.

In 1962 Parker produced the movie My Geisha, which was filmed in and around Tokyo, as well as in Kyoto and Hakone. During production, MacLaine’s co-star, the French actor Yves Montand, bet Parker he could seduce Parker’s wife. Parker lost the bet, and MacLaine (unaware of the wager until it was too late) and the Gallic heartthrob went on to have a steamy affair.

The unofficial mayor also had a dark side. He was a serious drinker and, according to Al Shattuck, proprietor of Club 88, Parker was “better known as a disagreeable drunk in most of the clubs, especially the Copacabana . . . A drunk and a troublemaker . . . Knowing Steve as I did, I find it hard to believe that Steve ever did anything for charity and I find it hard to believe that he had a charitable bone in his body.”

Parker told conflicting stories. He had told his wife that he was the son of a diplomat stationed in Germany, but told Alexander that his father, in fact, was a sea captain who had won a battlefield commission in New Guinea.

And his life was shrouded in mystery. Howard Baron—a business associate of Parker’s, and former president of the Tokyo American Club who was fired for embezzling funds from the institution—was found dead in Parker’s Hong Kong office. He had been shot while working for the infamous black-market group, the Khaki Mafia.

In Sachi Parker’s autobiography, Lucky Me, she described how Parker paraded around the house naked and sometimes invited her, still in primary school, to sleep in his bed with MacLaine and himself in the buff. She wrote that he once took her to an all-male bar where the waiters were naked and stirred cocktails with their genitalia.

She also recounted episodes of violence, and watched her father erupt in anger and brutally attack a girlfriend with his fists.

According to Sachi, she discovered after many years that her father was simply a con artist—albeit one with great skills of persuasion.

In her book, she describes how he tricked his wife into believing he was a clone of an extra-terrestrial named Paul (who was the “real father” of Sachi) and persuaded MacLaine to send him $60,000 a month to support a secret NASA mission in hyper space, 43 light years away from the Earth, of which Paul was a vital part.

According to Sachi, MacLaine, who long believed in extra-terrestrial life as well as reincarnation, swallowed the story completely. Convinced she was helping the US government defend itself against aliens, she made the payments every month for 24 years.

She sent the checks directly to Parker, thinking he was forwarding them to his NASA contact, and didn’t realize he was using the money to fund a lavish lifestyle for himself and his Japanese mistress.

When MacLaine finally realized the truth, in 1982, she stopped payments and filed for divorce. Just before he died in 2001, Parker admitted to his daughter that it had all been one giant con.

MacLaine called her daughter’s autobiography “almost all fiction.” However, in one of her own books, My Lucky Stars (1995), she described her ex-husband as a “con man” and “cheat,” who was not the son of a diplomat but a cobbler, who had never been a paratrooper or seen battle, and who was not one of the first troops into Hiroshima as he had claimed.

She claimed Parker had squandered the millions of dollars she had deposited in their joint account and left her bankrupt by her mid-forties.

Parker was not the only Western con artist to move to Tokyo and seek his fortune in the year following the end of World War II. But he was certainly the most inventive.

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Robert Whiting, 71, is an author and journalist who has written several books on modern Japanese culture, including You Gotta Have Wa and Tokyo Underworld.

Whiting first came to Japan in 1962 with the US Air Force Intelligence, where he worked for the National Security Agency in the U-2 program. He graduated from Tokyo’s Sophia University in 1969 with a degree in Japanese politics.

He went on to became an informal advisor with the Higashi Nakano wing of Tokyo’s second-largest criminal gang, the Sumiyoshi-kai, and worked for Encyclopedia Britannica Japan as an editor until 1972.

His first book was The Chrysanthemum and the Bat.

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