NO TOPIC of conversation generates more interest in Los Angeles than people's salaries. Sure, everyone wants to talk about who's trying to bribe whom for an Oscar. But, in a metropolis which has historically drawn so many fortune-hunters, they want to know one thing above all else: how much do you get paid?
This question, lurking beneath so many dinner party conversations, has been answered by a survey into the salaries of a cross-section of Angelenos, from studio bosses and top chefs to limo drivers and maids. The results, compiled by Los Angeles Magazine, make intriguing reading, if only because of the enormous discrepancies they reveal.
Some winners in the City of Angels are to be expected: Michael Eisner, head of the Walt Disney Company, comes top of the list of highest paid people in publicly-traded companies. Last year he earned dollars 204m (pounds 137m), almost entirely because he sold 5.4m shares of stock. Up there in the stratosphere is Steven Spielberg, who has made dollars 72m in the last two years; Bill Cosby, with dollars 66m, and a relatively new arrival the author Michael Crichton, with dollars 24m.
But the real surprises lie elsewhere. For reasons hard to understand, even given the fierce battle for ratings, the city's local TV newsreaders are paid vast sums anything up to dollars 1.3m for peddling tawdry accounts of crime and show-biz tittle-tattle. Still more baffling are the riches lavished on TV weathermen. Although they often have little to forecast beyond uninterrupted sunshine, they are showered with cash. Top whack is dollars 550,000.
Crime pays the average burglary nets around dollars 3,000 but sex is less reliable. The heartland of America's multi-billion dollar pornography industry is in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, in north-west Los Angeles (epicentre of the recent earthquake). Although top porn stars may get dollars 5,000 a scene, the run-of-the-mill failed Hollywood actor receives a mere dollars 300-dollars 400. for exposing his short-comings to the world. Phone sex operators get a measly eight bucks an hour, which ends up only slightly above the annual average earnings of dollars 12,800 clocked up by more orthodox actors.
Despite a recession in southern California, the rich have been rewarding themselves with the usual largesse, according to the survey. The average chief executive's package has gone up by nearly a third in the last five years, to dollars 770,000. This has not trickled down to Los Angeles' other half, its army of Hispanic house-helps and manual workers. Hotel maids get an average of dollars 14,000 a year less than a quarter of the annual tips paid to a server in Spago's, one of Hollywood's favourite posing venues.