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A Considerable Town

Jayne Amelia Larson Wanted to Work in Hollywood -- But Instead Became a Chauffeur for Saudi Royalty

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Thu, Apr 5, 2012 at 9:00 AM
click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY PATRICK MCQUADE
  • Illustration by Patrick McQuade

Jayne Amelia Larson is a Jersey girl who made it to Harvard. But she may have gotten her greatest education from her job as a chauffeur.

Larson's 16-hour days behind the wheel were spent driving royalty of every variety: Cross-dressing movie stars. Coked-up rock stars. Spoiled Beverly Hills brats. And princesses -- real ones. As in, members of the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

"There's a lot of bad behavior that happens in cars. People would do stuff in front of me they would never do in front of other strangers. Drugs, alcohol, infidelity. I guess they figure you're in their pocket, especially the upper echelon," Larson says. "It becomes strangely intimate in a car. You're one-on-one for long periods.

"You're in a position of authority because you know where you are and where you're going, and you're an ambassador of the city. Their lives are in your hands, and they expect you to look after them. It's a conundrum, because they might ask you about the best restaurant in town, but they'd never ask you to dinner because you're just a chauffeur."

Larson, who jokes that she hasn't revealed her age since she was 12, has turned her driving observations into a memoir detailing what happens when a Harvard grad pursues a Hollywood dream and hits dead broke instead. Simon & Schuster has scheduled an October release for Driving the Saudis, which is less a tell-all and more a sharply insightful peek at the idiosyncrasies of the super-rich and the superfamous.

The book started with hours of downtime in the car as Larson waited for her clients to eat dinner or finish buying out Rodeo Drive. She began taking notes, thinking she might get a one-act play out of it. After all, she'd studied at Harvard University's Institute of Advanced Theater Training, which led to L.A. and a stint as a fill-in one season with Tim Robbins' group, the Actors' Gang.

That led to the impressive-sounding title of vice president of development for indie filmmaker Entitled Entertainment. Hundreds of scripts and novels later, Larson quit reading other people's stuff because she was sure she had a couple winning scripts of her own. She went broke trying to sell them -- "dead, dead, dead broke," she says.

That's when a couple of friends who were chauffeurs told Larson she had a gift for gab and would make good money driving. She needed the cash, so drive she did.

Along the way, she picked up stories that would wow any Hollywood producer. Especially those starring the Saudi royal family.

Mostly, Larson drove various princesses, although she occasionally chauffeured some of the boy princes. Never the men: In the male-dominated Saudi world, women are spoken to and never heard.

"I was a nonperson to the Saudi men, as if I didn't exist," Larson recalls.

Her princesses ranged in age from 5 to their late 30s. They preferred Rodeo Drive, the Grove and Westfield Century City -- never the Santa Monica Promenade. Too much walking, too few high-end retailers. On a typical shopping trip, the royal teens and tweens would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on themselves and friends. Same for the 30-somethings, who preferred to open their Gucci bags on Rodeo Drive and channel their best Imelda Marcos.

"They'd buy six iPods, 10 laptops, 80 or 100 pairs of shoes in one trip," Larson marvels. "I drove a lot of Americans to Rodeo Drive and they spent a lot of money, but the Saudis did it triplefold."

The Saudi females were mystified by Larson, she says. "They'd never seen a woman with such a job. I was often asked, 'Where is your husband? Who takes care of you?' "

The Saudi demand for cars was off the charts. For a family of seven, plus the help, the Saudis would reserve up to 40 cars. They never used stretch limos, "which are totally out of fashion in L.A. unless you're going to the prom." (Larson drove black Cadillac Escalades or a Crown Victoria, her ideal ride "because it's a cop car, fast and smooth, good for chasing or tactical ramming. Maneuvers on a dime.")

Larson admits she's still trying to figure out why people shared their most closely guarded secrets with her.

Take, for example, a wealthy Hollywood couple's overweight actor son, who was caught in the revolving door of drug and alcohol rehab. The guy would booze it up in the back of her car, get depressed, talk about his issues and then pass out. Larson said she once spent 20 minutes driving the out-cold customer around his parents' walled-in Beverly Hills estate, trying to get in. After midnight, one of the servants appeared. Larson grabbed a leg and helped carry him inside. "I was like his psychiatrist, mother and friend at the same time."

She has retired from full-time driving, although she still moonlights occasionally. Larson tried to work this year's Oscars, but the competition was stiff: "Has to be the economy. Drivers came from all over."

She's trying to leave behind that on-call-all-the-time world. There are just two problems with going cold turkey: The money's good, and so are the stories.

But if the book is successful, it could take away one of those motivations. Larson says she's "waiting for the book to come out and lightning to strike. It would make a great television series."

Sounds like a natural: Jersey girl moves to L.A. to drive the mean streets -- but mostly the incredibly rich ones.

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