Inside the Savage Nation

He adored beatniks, trolled the streets of North Beach in a beret, and was once Timothy Leary's gatekeeper, and now he packs a gun.

He also has conservative critics. "He goes too far," says L. Brent Bozell, founder of Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group. "To me, Michael Savage is to talk radio what Jerry Springer is to talk television."

If such criticisms faze Savage, he doesn't let it show.

"There are people out there who don't like what you say. You don't let it bother you," he says.

But that doesn't mean he's unaware of the vitriol he generates. "I've had death threats and I try not to let them bother me, either." All the same, he has a license to carry a firearm and concedes that he has packed a pistol since 1998. One of the reasons he doesn't do book tours is because hotels are "too high a security risk." He sometimes travels with a bodyguard. "That's the world we live in," he says.

He wasn't always Michael Savage. A native New Yorker, he was born in the Bronx and grew up in Queens as Michael Alan Weiner, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Ben, whom those who knew him describe as gruff and profane — and who died of a heart attack in his 50s — was a street vendor who worked his way up to owning a small antiques store on Manhattan's Lower East Side and was socially conservative.

"Benny had a chip on his shoulder and was always mad at the world, and he was tough on Michael. There was nothing Michael could ever do to please him," recalls Alan Zaitz, who has known the radio talker since the two of them were in Hebrew school together as second-graders.

Benny Weiner verbally abused his son and didn't hesitate to embarrass him in front of his teenage friends, Zaitz says. "Michael would have on tight black jeans and a boat-necked sweater and his dad would say, 'I don't like the way you're dressed. You look like a fag,' stuff like that," he recalls.

The father would have surely disapproved of Weiner's interest in beatnik culture once he enrolled at Queens College. Zaitz recalls weekends when he and Weiner slipped away to Greenwich Village to hang out in coffee houses, smoke pot, and troll for women. In those days, he says, the future Michael Savage kept a paperback copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road in his pants pocket.

Weiner's fascination with the counterculture scarcely abated after he settled into his first marriage, to Carol Ely, in 1964. The whirlwind union lasted less than four years and was marked by "Michael's incessant dreaming and his impulsiveness," says Ely, a retired advertising copywriter who lives in Florida.

Ely volunteers that she had two abortions during the marriage.

Shortly after the wedding, Weiner decided that they would go to the Bahamas, where he hoped to "strike it rich" working for someone he knew who owned a casino there, she says. He enrolled in medical school in France, an experience that lasted "barely a week" before he concluded that it wasn't for him. Next up was Majorca, where the couple spent the better part of two months after Weiner "talked his way into the compound" of expatriate British poet and novelist Robert von Ranke Graves.

Once, while living in Queens, where he had taken a job as a high school biology teacher, he made a spur-of-the-moment suggestion that they visit Timothy Leary (whom neither of them knew) at the psychedelic drug advocate's farm in upstate New York, Ely says. Leary took a liking to Weiner and made him a "gatekeeper" at the farm "since Michael was maybe the only person there who wasn't into psychedelic drugs." On a trip to Los Angeles, she says, Weiner once left her at a hotel while he made an unannounced visit to the widow of author Aldous Huxley, whose work he admired.

"Michael was unpredictable and could be tyrannical, but the one constant about him was his desire for success and to find fame and fortune," his ex-wife says.

Journalist and author Ira Rifkin, another of the radio host's former pals from his New York days, saw the same ambition, plus something else. "He has a very strong need for public adulation. He wants to be loved," says Rifkin. He recalls the time that Weiner, who was a big admirer of comedian Lenny Bruce, bombed mightily during an "open-mike night" at an East Village club. "It was painful, like watching your son strike out four times in a row. But I could see then how motivated he was for public affection and how determined he was to pursue it."

By his account, the man who became Michael Savage had decided that his future lay in academia when, with new wife Janet, he set out for Hawaii in 1968. Weiner ended up in the botany department at the University of Hawaii. He earned master's degrees in botany and anthropology while traversing the jungles of Tonga and other South Pacific islands collecting exotic plants with medicinal qualities.

Although no one could have known it at the time, the experience, and the knowledge he gained from it, would help launch his career in the '70s and '80s as a successful author of more than a dozen books on herbal medicine.

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