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Getting Lew'd

Dennis McDougal’s The Last Mogul has 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 Hot contains 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?

 

Much of this is fun to read, but not much of it is new. As long ago as 1946, MCA was dubbed "The Star-Spangled Octopus" by the Saturday Evening Post. That was before MCA gave up the agency business (one step ahead of the Justice Department) in favor of movie and television production, studio tours, theme parks, and — McDougal says — stage-managing events in the Oval Office itself through Wasserman’s best-known client, the otherwise unemployable (but pliant) Ronald Reagan.

Rumors and allegations about mob-related activities have swirled around MCA for years, as have stories of excessive and sinister political influence, most of them already aired in Dan Moldea’s Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA and the Mob (1986), which McDougal acknowledges as a source. This is not to suggest that McDougal has left unturned any stone or clipping that might yield fresh evidence. He has not. A former Los Angeles Times reporter who knows how to dig, he is the co-author (with attorney Pierce O’Donnell) of Fatal Subtraction: How Hollywood Really Does Business (1992), in which he demonstrated that he is nothing if not dogged.

McDougal’s publisher no doubt raised libel flags at every fact or allegation he crammed into The Last Mogul and probably a few that didn’t make the cut. But a disturbing number of his sources — including Wasserman’s ex-son-in-law — have prison records and/or obvious axes to grind. For all I know, they are all beyond reproach, but too many of them wind up suicides or dead in motel bathtubs; too many relationships are "cozy"; too many associates are "cronies"; too many sources are anonymous, relating too many "unexplained series of events" for the evidence to be persuasive in the absence of a smoking machine gun, preferably in a violin case.

McDougal is no F. Scott Fitzgerald, but even so, the exhaustive research that has gone into The Last Mogul is undermined by journalistic prose and undone by the hundreds — thousands? — of footnotes, which suggest promiscuity in the clipping files. They substitute poorly for the source notes this book lacks and desperately needs in order to establish and sustain credibility. This may be an editorial decision, but the pages suggest no editor at all to catch things like "nothing short of an oracle," when "miracle" is clearly intended. Nor does it inspire confidence in a book claiming to reveal the "Hidden History of Hollywood" to read that Mary Pickford was "The Biograph Girl" (it was Florence Lawrence) or that Pickford was discovered by Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle (her discoverer was D.W. Griffith). Hitchcock was not forced by Wasserman to use Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain; he boasted that stars were his insurance policy against failure. Sabrina Fair was not a small off-Broadway show; it was a whopping big hit on Broadway with Joseph Cotten and Margaret Sullavan.

There are so many errors of this kind that I stopped counting, but the book’s greatest weakness is that, in overestimating him as an enforcer, McDougal underestimates the degree to which Wasserman truly changed Hollywood.

Wasserman virtually invented packaging when Mike Ovitz was still a law-school dropout and tour guide at Universal, dreaming of himself as a baby Wasserman. At a time when most Hollywood executives were selling off their patrimony, Wasserman was buying (the Paramount library, for instance), and imposing a corporate structure and strategy that ensured survival without reference to nostalgia or nicety. He took MCA from an agency that collected 10 percent to a corporation that not only divvied up the pie, but baked it. McDougal refers to "the indelible mark of Lew Wasserman" on pictures like Operation Petticoat and Imitation of Life (there’s a legacy for you), but where? The mark Wasserman left, unlike Thalberg’s, is not on pictures; it’s on contracts.

MCA is no more, of course, having been sold to Matsushita and then to Seagram’s, something Wasserman read about in the papers. Sic transit gloria. Seagram’s Universal has yet to find its own identity in the wake of Meet Joe Black and Babe: Pig in the City, but must do so in an industry Wasserman transformed as surely as he transformed a band-booking agency into an entertainment empire reaching all the way from the Bates Motel to the Lincoln Bedroom. McDougal acknowledges that Wasserman long ago earned a reputation as the smartest man in Hollywood, which isn’t the same as the nicest, or most tasteful, or most visionary. Along the way, he made himself at least a half-a-billionaire by "reduc[ing] movie making to the science of the slide rule," as McDougal writes. His real crime is, he may have reduced movies, too.

 

Steven Bach is the author of Final Cut and Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend. His biography of Moss Hart will be published by Knopf.


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