Video: David Gest on Liza

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NBC News
updated 2/6/2004 8:02:16 PM ET 2004-02-07T01:02:16

Their wedding that was a papparrozzi's dream come true, and for the next 16 months, they were everywhere -- magazine covers, talk shows, the tabloids. But David Gest's marriage to Liza Minnelli didn't last. So what happened? Did he become a victim of domestic violence, beaten by a wife addicted to alcohol? Does he have an addiction of his own, to publicity? In his first interview since his very public and painful split from Minnelli, Gest talks about it all, from the questions about his sexuality and whether he married for money, to the injuries he says have wrecked his life, but not his love for Liza. 

The song was "Unforgettable,” and so was the scene: David and Liza, exchanging vows before God -- and the king of pop.

Stone Phillips: “When you heard that song at your wedding, and looked at your bride, what were you thinking?”

David Gest: “That she's the most beautiful woman in the world. And that this is who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”

Phillips: “Here's what you said to her. ‘Liza, I love you more than any words can say. You have made me a complete person. You are everything to me. And I cannot think of living life without you. And I love you forever.’”

Gest: “I meant it. “

Phillips: “And this is what Liza said to you. ‘David, you don't ever have to live life without me. One day at a time, I belong to you. I honor you. I adore you. You are my embraceable you.’"

Phillips: “Could you believe Liza Minnelli was saying those words to you?”

Gest: “It wasn't Liza Minnelli. It was the woman I loved.”

Phillips: “Two years later. From beaming with love, to battered husband?”

Gest: “What a tragic ending.”

A fantasy wedding

It was March 16, 2002 when show biz legend Liza MinnellI and music producer David Gest tied the knot in New York City, in front of more than a thousand of their closest friends. Even jaded Hollywood party-goers seemed awed by the sheer spectacle of it all. at 49, the groom was making his first trip to the alter. For his 56-year-old bride, it was marriage number four. The maid-of-honor was eight-time marriage veteran, Elizabeth Taylor. The best man was David Gest's long-time friend, Michael Jackson. And they were all witness to that magic moment.

Phillips: “What do you think when you look back at that?”

Gest: “Like I was sucking out her mouth, going in there looking for a treasure or something.”

Phillips: “It had that Hoover vacuum cleaner kind of feel to it, David.”

Gest: “Oh, absolutely. I was so caught up in the moment.”

Rumors fly

But not everyone was. Other tongues were wagging that day, for different reasons.

Gest: “I married Liza Minnelli, and all of the sudden you know, I have Elton John, saying ‘What would you give Liza for a wedding gift?’  And he says, ‘A heterosexual husband.’

Gest says he resented the jokes about his sexuality and adamantly denies the rumors that he's gay.

Gest: “I'm into women. I've always loved women. I don't have to announce all the women I've slept with. What man in his right mind would go and start saying, ‘I did this to this one, that to that one.’ Why?”

Phillips: ”There were plenty of cynics out there who were convinced that you married her because she was a ticket to fame. “

Gest: “If I wanted to be famous, I could have been famous before. I mean, I produced a Frank Sinatra special-- Elizabeth Taylor, with Michael Jackson, Gregory Peck, I won't even take a picture.” 

Phillips: “You would have been content to stay behind the scenes?”

Gest: “Absolutely, I never looked for it. It just came.”

Gest insists he didn't marry for fame or fortune.

Gest: “I was already set for life when I met her. I had just done a Michael Jackson 30th anniversary celebration. We did well over $20 million.  And we owned that, Michael and I. She was, as she said in interviews, basically broke. So I didn't marry her for anything that she could give me as far as financially. I just loved the woman. I mean, I just loved her, unconditionally loved her. “

Two sides of the track

They came from opposite ends of the entertainment world. Gest became a record company publicist at age 17. A year later, he founded his own P.R. and management firm.  by 1983, he was producing charity events and benefit concerts, cultivating a circle of celebrity friends. his most successful production, that Michael Jackson 30th anniversary special that earned him millions and date with the cast-member, who would become his companion.

Video: More clips Minnelli was born a celebrity. Her father was film director Vincent Minnelli. Her mother, Judy Garland, was Hollywood royalty. Liza would grow up to win three Tonys, a Grammy, an Emmy and a 1972 Oscar for “Cabaret.” But she also brought along some baggage. 

Gest: “On stage, don't go near her. She's the best performer in the world. But when alcohol comes in, start running. Because there's a demon there, and it goes back to her childhood.”

If Liza was born with her mother's voice, she may also have inherited some darker traits, as well. Garland suffered from depression and a lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol. She died of an overdose at 47.

In a Dateline interview, two months before their wedding, Minnelli told Jane Pauley about her own struggle with alcoholism and the support system she turned to.

Liza Minnelli: “You know it's called Alcoholics Anonymous, but I've never been able to be anonymous. I mean, they took my picture I was born and I smiled and I said hi.”

In that same interview, they said a relapse in December 2001 almost ended their relationship.

Gest: “Basically what happened was, she decided to remedy the problem and she checked herself in and it saved our lives.”

Struggling to recover

Minnelli's alcoholism had effectively derailed her career. Her 1999 return to Broadway in "Minnelli-on-Minnelli" had proved disastrous. The star was struggling with lyrics, missing notes and even canceling performances.

That was Minnelli before David Gest, the producer, took charge. Even before they married, he became her manager. He insisted she follow a strict regimen, from her diet and daily cigarette allowance, to her dance and vocal training. it was all to rekindle her career, with a comeback concert tour he was producing.

Gest: “And I told her point blank, you've got everything to live for. You've got such talent. You're back singing great, lose the weight. And she went and did it, and look at her now!”

And her hard work paid off. In the spring of 2002, just a few months into their marriage, "Liza's back" opened in London.

Gest: “Every paper said 20 standing ovations, the greatest show they've ever seen, Liza's back.”

Phillips: “Is it true that you bought up tickets to fill the house?”

Gest: “Absolutely. I bought up the first two nights thinking if you can pack  them the first two nights, by the time the reviews came out, she'd be able to sell tickets.“

Phillips: “Even if it meant laying out your own money to buy the tickets?”

Gest: “I didn't care.  It's my wife. Nobody, nobody would have done that for somebody unless they loved them.”

Media spotlight

From the moment the two walked down the aisle, their public life became a series of photo-ops. As familiar as it may have felt to Minnelli, some suggest the media attention was more than a bit intoxicating to husband number four. Gest even turned his 50th birthday, last March, into a minor television event.

Off-beat British talk show host, ruby wax, greeted them in front of their London hotel. It was a full-day in front of the cameras. Liza's gift to the birthday boy was a command performance of her signature song from “cabaret.”

But even as the "liza and david show" played to audiences worldwide, gest says their life behind the scenes was anything but a cabaret, that minnelli's comeback and their marriage were in serious trouble. His wife losing her battle against alcoholism.

Phillips: “You told me her heart is what made you believe she could make a come back.  What made you think she could stay sober?”

Gest: “I was naive enough to think that I could make the difference.”

Phillips: ”Did you go too far in trying to control her?”

Gest: “I don't believe I did.  She'd probably say I did, but I don't believe I did.”

Battered husband

Gest says the playful punches Minnelli showed on television were only a hint at the beatings he was subjected to behind closed doors. Minnelli’s fury, he claims, was fueled by binge drinking and jealousy that he was stealing her spotlight.

Gest: “She just kept hitting me in the head with her fists, over, and over and over. The pain was so enormous that I get now 80 shots around the head to deaden the nerves.”

Phillips: “Eighty?”

Gest: “Eighty. No one should have to go through that. No one should have to live like that when they've done only good things for the person.”

Phillips: “Liza has denied ever hitting you. She says these allegations are without merit and hurtful.”

Gest: “Liza is a liar, point-blank.”

For 16 months, he was half of the world's most ubiquitous couple. That's how long David Gest's marriage to Liza Minnelli lasted.

Since their split last summer, Gest has been living here in Hawaii, in virtual seclusion, looking out on the ocean and back on his stormy life with Liza.

To hear his side of the story, marrying Minnelli was like picking up a crab at the beach. He says he just never knew when he'd wind up on the receiving end of an unprovoked attack.

Major damages

As lovebirds, he and Minnelli had feathered-their-nest with an iron-clad prenuptial agreement. But that didn't stop Gest from filing this lawsuit against her last October. 

Phillips: “You're suing her for $10 million.”

Gest: “True.”

Phillips: “Claiming that she physically beat you, injured you. How bad did it get?”

Gest: “I don't know if I'll ever be the same.”

Gest claims the physical abuse began before they were even married. The first incident cited in his lawsuit: December 2001. Remember his story about Liza's relapse three months before their wedding? Gest now tells a very different story, that Minnelli violently resisted going for rehab.

Phillips: “You claim in the lawsuit she ‘...hit you in and about the head with open hands and fists employing all her strength while sitting next to you...’ right in the back of the limousine on the way to the treatment center.”

Gest: “She did.”

Phillips: “Hitting you hard?”

Gest: “Yeah, she was hitting me hard. She was drunk and she was hitting me hard.”

Phillips: “Did she hurt you?”

Gest: “I didn't really feel I was being hurt, but you could feel it. “

Phillips: “So you knew going into the marriage. I mean, what things could be like with her under the influence of alcohol?”

Gest: “Yes. But she told me she was never going to drink again. ‘I promise on my mother I'll never drink again. I'll never drink again.’ I believed her.”

Alcoholism

It happened again, Gest says, just five months into the marriage. The couple was staying at a hotel on Lake Como, in Italy. They'd gone for a little rest and relaxation.

Gest: “Here we are on a vacation and out of nowhere she starts going to the mini-bar.  And I come in and she's violent. And I was stunned.”

Phillips: “Did you do anything to set her off?”

Gest: “Nothing. Nothing. She just -- when she wants a drink she goes and gets a drink. I said, ‘What is the reason?’ Because I wanted to know the reason.  And she could never give me an answer. And I realized that, you know, I had a problem on my hands.”

Phillips: “That you alone could not solve.”

Gest: “No. I knew I couldn't solve it. Because I couldn't figure out what made her drink when things were going well.”

Phillips: “It's called alcoholism.”

Gest: “Yeah. But I thought love would more than prevail. And that someone caring about her finally and loving her and wanting to do for her. I didn't care if she worked. I never cared if Liza worked. I said, be a housewife. Go out and shop. Take the credit card. I wanted to give her a normal life. I loved her. You know, it tore my heart out.”

Later that same month, the couple returned to New York, staying at a hotel while their apartment was being renovated. It was here, Gest charges, that the next incident occurred. And this time, he says, he wasn't the only victim.

Gest: “She bit my bodyguard. She bit him in the stomach. She put her hands around the neck of our production manager, and you know, started to choke him.”

Phillips: “And you? What did she do to you?”

Gest: “Beat me and hit me everywhere.”

Phillips: “Were you, I mean, were you bruised? Were you ever bleeding?”

Finger marks

Gest: “Well, let's put it this way. This is the last reminder of what she did with her hands. And it's the first time I've ever seen a white man keloid. But can you see those marks?” [shows marks on stomach]

Phillips: “Yeah.”

Gest: “Can you see those finger marks from her? She dug her nails in and I keloid, and I  have to go to plastic surgery to have those removed.”

Phillips: “When did this happen?”

Gest: “On the last one.”

Phillips: “London.”

Gest: “London.”

It was June, 2003 according to Gest, in their room at a London hotel, that the worst of the alleged beatings took place. Gest says Minnelli went out to pick up some dinner for them -- and instead consumed a bottle of vodka in the limo, returning to the room, drunk and disorderly.

Gest: “She was saying everything, all the things that she resented me for. That I used her to become a star. That I was going to have a-- that I wanted to record an album. And have a singing career.

Phillips: “She's screaming this at you?”

Gest: “Yeah. You’re just going to have your own singing career and go on-stage."  I mean, it was all ridiculous.”

And it wasn't long, Gest says, before she assaulted him with more than just words.

Gest: “She'd hit before. But never over, and over, and over, and over, and over, into the head.”

Phillips: “So what-- and what are you doing? Just covering up?”

Gest: “I'm covering like this. My face and my-- so she won't hit me in the nose. And I'm trying to grab her hand at the same time to put her into the bed. And I saw that I couldn't do it. And I called Imad.”

Phillips: “Was Liza beating David up that night?”

Imad Handi: “She was bashing David.”

Imad Handi is the bodyguard hired BY Gest for many of the couples' trips abroad.

'Whoa. She can punch'

Handi: “Not in a boxing-style sense, like bam, bam, bam, bang. But more of I call it "punching-swimming", of where they just, I call it going over the head.”

Handi told Dateline he was trained to protect clients from outside attacks, but not from one another. When he finally intervened, after about eight minutes, he says, Minnelli turned on him.

Handi: “She punched me in the stomach.”

Phillips:” She punched you in the stomach?”

Handi: “I'm like, whoa. She can punch.”

Phillips: “Little Liza Minnelli?”

Handi: “Yeah. It's like the Incredible Hulk, yeah? When the Incredible Hulk is a green monster, he doesn't know what the other side does.”

Phillips: “But we're talking about Liza Minnelli here.”

Handi: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “A woman in her late 50's. Not, not even a large woman.”

Handi: “But, alcohol can do a lot of things to you.”

Gest: “Look what happened to my head. It's indented...”

Liza's denials

As bad as Gest says the beatings were, never once did he seek immediate medical attention. Lawyers for Minnelli insist, that's because the attacks never happened. She has denied being physically abusive, to Gest, or any member of their staff. Minnelli's attorney's also point out that the staff members claiming to have witnessed the alleged incidents were hired by Gest.  

Still Gest says his agony and injuries are real that no one would endure the painful and expensive treatment he has if it weren't absolutely necessary.

On New Years Eve, 2003 we were with David Gest as he made his entrance at the first of two concerts he was producing that night in Honolulu. It was his first public appearance in more than six months, and Gest seemed upbeat. But he said the only way he was surviving the pounding in his head was with pills and regular injections. Not exactly the life he had planned to be living with Liza Minnelli.

David Gest says Hawaii was going to be the couple's refuge, a place to escape the publicity they seemed to both curse and crave. But instead, that corner of paradise has become what Gest describes as a virtual prison: The 51-year-old music impresario held hostage, he claims, by injuries he suffered at the hands of the 57-year-old show biz legend whose return to the limelight he'd worked so hard to orchestrate.

Phillips: “A lot of people listening to this are going to be thinking, ‘How could he not have protected himself from this woman who's older than he was, older and smaller?’”

Gest: “Well, you're putting one hand against your face. The woman's hitting you fist-to-fist over the head.”

Phillips: “Was she blocking the door? Could you have not left the room?”

Gest: “I did try to leave, and she came running after me.”

Phillips: “So, all you could do was take it?”

Gest: “All you could do is take it I move four feet, she started coming after me and just hitting, hitting, hitting, and hitting.”

Phillips: “Why didn't you seek medical treatment immediately?”

Gest: “I didn't know anything was wrong. It wasn't like I was bleeding.”

Chronic headaches

Gest says his symptoms didn't start until he arrived in Hawaii, about a month after the last alleged beating.

Gest: “You get a concussion. It could take 30, 40 days until that starts to come to life where you're in agony. Ask any doctor.”

We did. With Gest's consent, we spoke to the neurologist who's been treating him. In addition to anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory and anti-pain pills, Dr. Leo Maher has been administering a series of 60 to 80 injections, every six to eight weeks. Dr Maher says along with chronic headaches, Gest's symptoms include dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and memory loss. At times the pain has been so severe, the doctor has had to make house-calls, treating Gest in his hotel room. Dr. Maher has hospitalized Gest on three occasions and ordered him not to travel.

Phillips: “What's your diagnosis?”

Dr. Leo Maher: “He has intractable common migraine headache, secondary to traumatic brain injury.”

Phillips: “What degree of medical certainty? Do you have about this? That these symptoms were caused by beatings.”

Dr. Maher: “Absolute certainty.”

Phillips: “One hundred percent?”

Dr. Maher: “One hundred percent.”

We were surprised to hear that, given that Dr. Maher admits his diagnosis is based largely on accounts of the alleged assaults from Gest and his bodyguards. As we learned, there was no physical evidence of damage.

Phillips: “What did the lab work show?”

Dr. Maher: “There was nothing metabolically abnormal.”

Phillips: “And what about the scans?”

Dr. Maher: Scans—“

Phillips: “CAT scans and MRI?”

Dr. Maher: “Normal. No stroke, bleed abscess, no tumor, no aneurysm.”

Phillips: “So how did you conclude that there was head trauma?”

Dr. Maher: “Ah, from his history. He was assaulted on five separate occasions over, over a year.”

Phillips: “This is based upon what he told you?”

Dr. Maher: “Based on what he told me, plus what his personnel has affirmed to me.”

Phillips: “How typical is it for the onset of the pain to come weeks, after the injury?”

Dr. Maher: “Very typical. There are early effects, and late effects from a traumatic injury, a concussion.”

Delayed reactions

Medical experts we spoke to agree there can be delayed reactions to head injuries. But they noted that it's highly unusual for even multiple concussions to lead to severe migraines, that even among football players and boxers, it's rarely seen.

Phillips: “Is it possible that stress, the breakup of a marriage perhaps, could have led to these symptoms? These severe headaches, maybe underlying depression, the anxiety, the kinds of things he talks about?”

Dr. Maher: “I doubt it. It certainly is a contributing factor. But he's had to give up all of his income, all of his activities. So I don't think he would be to the point of that self-destructive behavior.”

Phillips: “Does it concern you at all that these claims are part of a $10  million lawsuit?”

Dr. Maher: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Phillips: “Doesn't that raise some question about what he might be telling you?  What his motives might be?”

Dr. Maher: “Absolutely. The role of the physician is a primary advocate for the patient. If you don't believe what the patient is telling you then you probably shouldn't be involved in that relationship.”

Dr. Maher says he'll testify on Gest's behalf if the lawsuit goes to trial, and told us he will not be compensated for it. He is, however, being paid thousands of dollars by Gest, for these treatments.

As they finished this round of injections, we discovered another interesting wrinkle in Gest's story: The drug he was being injected with is botox, which can be effective for pain management. We were assured it is not being used for cosmetic purposes.And remember Gest's claim that Minnelli hit him so hard it put a dent in the top of his head? We asked his doctor to check it out and give us his assessment.

Phillips: “Show him the dent, cause he has not seen it.”

Gest: “It's right there. You can feel it.”

Phillips: “Does that appear to be the result of trauma?”

Dr. Maher: “I don't think so, that I don't think so.”

Gest: “What is it from?”

Dr. Maher: “I'm not quite sure.”

Those discouraging words from a potential star witness didn't leave Gest any less determined to make his own case for pain and suffering.

Phillips: “Where is the pain focused for you?”

Gest: “In here where she was hitting me and hitting me and hitting me.”

Phillips: “The top of your head?”

Gest: “Yeah. The top of my head. Cause she kept—“

Phillips: “And what do you experience?  hat does the pain feel like?”

'Like somebody's hitting a drum'

Gest: “A drum.  Like somebody's hitting a drum, and it intensifies to where you can't take it anymore.”

Phillips: “I mean this is classic, classic migraine pain. The question legally is going to be, was it caused by trauma to your head?”

Gest: “I never had migraines. Never had migraines. Nothing can repay me for what has happened to my health. No $10 million, no $20 million, no $30 million, no $40 million. 'Because I would give it all back to have my health.”

It's about an hour before midnight, New Year's Eve. On the way to the second of those two concerts Gest was producing in Honolulu, he seemed to be holding up pretty well.    

Phillips: “So are you in pain as we're talking right now?”

Gest: “No, because he took, he went in here, and here before I got with you, my doctor. And he went here and here.”

Gest: “And, yes, Botox is not just for, ah...”

Phillips: “Cosmetic purposes.”

Gest: “Cosmetic. It was never made for cosmetic. It was made to deal with nerves.”

Phillips: “What do you think it's going to take to get better? To be done with this? To stop feeling this pain?”

Gest: “He said y'know, the doctor told me that it may never go away.”

Phillips: “And none of this had anything to do with turning 50?”

Gest: [laugher]

Gest told us this evening was a first for him, that never before had he stood in the audience and watched one of his own productions. He said he'd rather be in his usual spot: back-stage, hands-on, running the show. He says producing was always his first love -- that is, until he MET Liza Minnelli.

Phillips: “Do you still love her?”

Gest: “I will always love her.”

Phillips: “If that's how you feel, why are you suing her for $10 million?”

Gest: “I can help a lot of other people who've gone through the same thing by building a center that will help men and women who don't have the funds to take care of themselves and get the medical treatment.”

Phillips: “But you don't need Liza Minnelli to help you build that center.”

Gest: “No, but Liza took went and took away from me, possibly my livelihood. I cannot fly. I am on constant pills, I cannot go a day without them and I'm on constant shots, and in every way I feel right to sue her.”

The pain, the pills and the shots may be behind his lawsuit, but Gest told us something else caused the breakup of his marriage: a headline.

'The end of our marriage'

Phillips: “The National Enquirer: ‘Liza's Hubby Moves Out.’ This was the fateful article?”

Gest: “This was the end of our marriage.”

The article, published last August, portrayed Minnelli as a raging alcoholic and Gest as the attentive husband who struggled to keep her sober.

Gest told us the headline was correct, he did move out, but only to set up house for the two of them in this seaside property in Hawaii.  But after Minnelli read the article, Gest says she cut off all communication with him, convinced that he was behind it.

Phillips: “So you're saying you didn't end the relationship. Liza ended it?”

Gest: “Absolutely. And Liza actually believed it.”

Phillips: “That you had written this article or given it to The Enquirer.”

Gest: “Yeah.”

Gest flatly denies he had anything to do with the story. He's certain that it was a friend of Minnelli's, looking to sabotage the marriage, who planted it. And unfortunately, he says the plan worked.

Gest: “She got the magazine on a Wednesday morning, and on Thursday announced our marriage was over. “

Phillips: “Are you saying if not for this article that you'd still be together?”

Gest: "Absolutely."

Phillips: “You'd still be with her? You still want to be with her?”

Gest: “If Liza would have come and said, "I want to take care of you, I'm sorry, I didn't realize what I've done, who knows what would have happened.”

Gest showed Dateline the dream house that's now up for sale, with an asking price of $3.9 million. 

Phillips: “What did she think of this place?”

Gest: 044121 “She's the one that said, ‘This is our home.’  She said—“

Phillips: “This is it?”

Gest: “This is it. I mean, it's heaven, absolutely heaven.“

Claims about money

This house may have been heaven, but for Minnelli, living and working with David Gest was apparently nothing short of hell. Last November, she filed a lawsuit of her own for $2 million, alleging that she took a beating from him -- financially -- that he "schemed" to put money she earned, in his pocket.

Phillips: “She has sued you claiming that you were cruel and inhuman, that you constantly berated here and were, and I'm quoting here, ‘so offensive that people in the entertainment industry began refusing to work with her’ if you were involved.” She says you damaged her career.”

Gest: “That's the most ridiculous statement in the world. No one at 57 gets cosmetic deals. She was making great money at personal appearances. I did get her a recording deal and to hear that she's suing me, saying that I took her money, or she made no money...”

Phillips: And you didn't alienate people?”

Gest: “Oh, I'm sure -- everybody alienates -- ah, people.  But did it stop me from getting her everything she needed?  Not at all. Whether people love me or hate me, the one thing they all say is "David Gest brought her back."

Phillips: “Do you take responsibility for contributing in any way to the failure of this marriage?”

Gest: “I only tried to love my wife. I loved her fully and unconditionally. And I don't feel in any way responsible.”

Dateline requested an interview with Liza Minnelli. She declined. Her lawyers told us they'll make their case in court.  Again, Minnelli has denied being physically abusive. As for David Gest, he told us that while part of him will always love Liza, he expects to marry again -- within the next two years. He wouldn't tell us her name, but did say his new love interest, like Liza Minelli, is a well-known show biz personality. Could another unforgettable wedding soon be in the works? Stay tuned.

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