Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogulhas a great title and a great subject. His title conjures up The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitz gerald’s never-finished novel about Irving Thalberg (a.k.a. Monroe Stahr), the most romantic and enigmatic of all Hollywood executives, who died young and left a legacy of legendary pictures. McDougal’s subject is Lew Wasserman, the steel eagle of MCA who became "the most potent single figure in show business," and is about as romantic as the black tower on the Universal lot that bears his name. Wasserman didn’t die young; he’s still around in his mid-80s. In a moment of self-definition as rare as it was startling, he once announced, "I do not intend to sell. I do not intend to retire. And I do not intend to die."
He did sell (to the samurai at Matsu shita); he did retire (thanks to Edgar Bronfman Jr.); and if McDougal’s book doesn’t put him away, it won’t be for not trying. Wasserman is not so much enigmatic as he is secretive in a way McDougal finds sinister and investigates for over 500 pages with the kind of relentless zeal one associates not with Fitzgerald’s Stahr, but with Monica’s. They used to call Wasserman "The Praying Mantis," McDougal tells us, but in these pages he’s just prey. The first sentence is a grabber. "Lew Wasserman did not want this book published," McDougal writes, and it’s no wonder. After two or three pages peppered with allusions to the mob, it dawns on the reader that the author has no intention of cloaking Wasserman in the mantle of Thalberg; he wants to dress him in the flashy pinstripes and spats of George Raft in Some Like It Hot, a movie Wasserman put together before he apotheosized from ten-percenter for Marilyn Monroe and others to mogul of moguls.
As buffs know, Some Like It Hotcontains an inside gag about the early days of MCA, when Jules Stein was still a band booker operating out of a rented room in Chicago as the Music Corporation of America. Dr. Stein (a title he insisted upon) was the onetime ophthalmologist who would become Wasserman’s mentor in hardball and a big-time donor to worthy causes like the eye clinic named for him at UCLA.
Wasserman began as a teenage movie usher in Cleveland, then plugged movies for a while, then became press agent for Cleveland’s Mayfair Casino at the end of Prohibition. The casino was syndicate-owned, McDougal tells us, and couldn’t get a liquor license, but it booked bands, which led Wasserman to Dr. Stein and MCA, where he proved to be the best and the brightest. A source from those days tells McDougal, "Selling bands was like selling whores, and Lew’d sell his own mother. Get a good price for her, too."
McDougal doesn’t suggest that Wasserman’s mother was a working girl. The bedroom gossip here mainly involves Wasserman’s wife, Edie, or Dr. Stein’s daughters, and comes across as wildly irrelevant. There’s a lot of movie-star name-dropping and keyhole reporting, too, some of it new to me (I never knew about Janet Leigh and Johnny Stompanato), but the names McDougal drops with real relish are those of Al Capone, Moe Dalitz, Meyer Lansky, John Gotti and Sidney Korshak, without whom — McDougal argues — MCA’s rise to power might never have gone so far, so fast, or proved so enduringly lucrative.
The agency cracked Hollywood and the movies ä by selling the Ice Capades to MGM for a 1938 movie that almost ended Joan Crawford’s career. It turned to wooing or stealing stars from older, more staid companies like William Morris, and bought and sold Bette Davis, Betty Grable and others like grain futures or pork bellies. The austere MCA style was reinforced by the Men in Black uniform — black suit, black tie — decreed by Dr. Stein, who had a famous sideline in 18th-century English antiques that he cultivated while Wasserman became his heir apparent and the most powerful agent in Hollywood.
The funereal garb was a tip-off. The agency brought unyielding principles of supply and demand to an often sentimental business and took no prisoners. When Wasserman dropped Shirley Temple as a client, Temple protested, "Stars drop agents; not vice versa."Silly Shirley. "You’re through," Wasserman told her. "Washed up," and handed her a Kleenex as he showed her the revolving door.
Wasserman’s iceberg style was for outsiders; MCA employees got the rage. "People walked out of his office and threw up," an insider tells McDougal. The author adds, "The volume started low, then climbed steadily from harsh whisper to accusing snarl to molar-aching scream, until invective and spittle exploded in a single acid stream."
One agent posted a reminder above his desk: "To err is human, to forgive is against company policy." Another describes MCA as a place where "my most ruthless enemy was the man in the next office." Wasserman didn’t invent fear, but he knew how to make it pay. In McDougal’s telling, failing to make the best possible deal for MCA — forget about the client — was tantamount to being found weeks later in the trunk of a parked car. What better company to finance Jaws?