The Man in the Black Tower

Illustration by Eric Jahnke

When Lew Wasserman died, in June 2002, at 89, obituaries spoke to the enormous respect in which he had been held. They mentioned the fear, too. But by 2002, Wasserman’s empire — started at MCA and developed at Universal — was in ruins. As for the fear, that depended on how much you had benefited from, or suffered under, Lew’s cold lash. Fear passes in Hollywood. And sooner or later, nothing is left except the stories, and the book. Then it is up to us how much we need to believe in great men, and how much in the nature of the business.

Wasserman made deals more than pictures, but as you’re riding along on the terrific mix of anecdotes and analysis in Connie Bruck’s new book, When Hollywood Had a King (Random House), you have to decide how far you’ll go. For example, do you accept the “oral history” Lew passed on (to interviewer Steven Spielberg!) near the end of his life? He was talking about 1940, which means that Lew was 27, tall, lean and handsome, with a calculating machine for a brain. He was a newcomer in Hollywood at the MCA agency, a fledgling still in movies though a Chicago-based giant in music and nightclubs.

Well, Lew is learning about Hollywood when MCA has only three clients — Ronnie Reagan, Richard Dix and Hattie McDaniel. Lew is making $350 a week, when he gets a chance to meet Louis B. Mayer, the man he most admires. He goes in to see Mr. Mayer in the famous cream office at MGM, with Mayer up on a platform. Mayer gives Lew a yellow pad and tells him to take dictation. “A firm seven-year contract,” begins Mr. Mayer. And, decades later, Lew is telling Spielberg that he reckoned it meant a new contract for Hattie McDaniel. “$5,000 a week,” says Mr. Mayer. “Now, I know it’s got to be Hattie,” says Lew.

“Vice president in charge of marketing,” says Mr. Mayer, and he is staring straight at Lew through his rimless glasses. “That’s what I’m offering you to come to work here next Monday.”

Where should analysis begin? To do Gone With the Wind, Hattie McDaniel had been under contract to David O. Selznick for $450 a week — something her agency might have known. After she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1940, Selznick gave her a new contract at $500 a week. That’s how her “big break” actually affected the black actress. So maybe we are getting the pipe dreams of a deus emeritus — it’s crazy to believe that Lew ever thought the subject was Hattie McDaniel. It’s also highly unlikely that the newcomer turns down an offer of $5,000 a week from the business chief he most admires and sticks with $350. (Only one deal in his life was as bad, and we’ll come to that.) So you have to decide how much to believe.

You could be forgiven for thinking that When Hollywood Had a King is a biography of Lew Wasserman (1913–2002). It’s not, though I’m not aggrieved at this: You can argue that there was not enough of a human being in Lew to merit a full life, and Connie Bruck lacks the skill or even the sympathy to waste time on the layered motivation of single lives when her forte is business history (her earlier book, on Steve Ross, was far duller than this). Lew Wasserman appears for the first time on Page 65. His childhood and youth are scanned in four pages — again, this is a loss only if you can believe that anything like innocence or childhood ever attached to Lew for more than a few hours (the ones spent yarning to Spielberg!).

The book begins with Jules Stein, the founder of MCA, and a racy account of how he carved out a niche in the music business in Chicago in the late ’20s — and then transported his careful compartmentalization of life to movies (the antique English furniture there; the deals to buy off union support over there; the arrangement to make union trouble for others just around the corner). There is a liveliness and panache to this period that rivals the gallows humor on MCA in Billy Wilder’s sardonic Some Like It Hot.

There is only one flagging passage in the book — the lengthy excursion on how Taft Schreiber (Lew’s abiding rival at MCA) tried to handle the Nixon years. For reasons beyond conjecture, Ms. Bruck gets into lengthy extracts from Oval Office tape transcripts and a kind of detail that is so boring it makes Lew seem smarter for not being around. That lapse is easily forgiven, however, when you come to the riveting story of how Lew and Michael Ovitz (a man who took Lew for a model as much as Lew aped Mr. Mayer) made the deal that sold MCA to Matsushita — and that is the greatest disaster of Lew’s life, even if it made him and his cronies very, very rich.

All of this, and the earlier stuff on how Lew broke the studio system by boosting profit participation for talent and how he then came to be running a movie studio and a TV studio, is first-rate business history (so long as you stay wary about which gossip or recollections to trust).

Two things emerge: Stein and Wasserman made MCA and Universal in their own image — the stress was so much on business that the product was usually overlooked. Thus, it’s very telling to learn that Universal never won a Best Picture Oscar between All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and The Sting (1973). Lew made MCA agents enforcers of harsh, tireless rectitude — guys in dark suits, white shirts, dark ties and horn-rimmed glasses. Depending on your point of reference, they looked like CIA men, or Michael Corleone, or like the black tower built at Universal City, and now the Wasserman Building.


Lew Wasserman doesn’t come across as a human being so much as a force meant to impress or intimidate others. He lived by the barren credo “A tidy desk and a tidy mind.” MCA had no office love affairs — the screwing was all on a higher, fiscal plane (for example, the SAG waiver that allowed MCA to be both agent and producer in television, which lasted nearly a decade, made a fortune, and was enabled by Reagan and Walter Pidgeon). The involvement in charity, in art collecting and in politics all came along as extra refinements in this dark model. Lew believed in very little but power, staying in power and having the respect of others. He stressed loyalty and honesty in many small things and totally ignored their betrayal in larger matters.

And there’s the second point about this book, and maybe the chief reason for writing it — the steady history of links between Stein and Wasserman and organized crime. Lew was a donor to charity; he was a guiding force in the Democratic Party in Hollywood — and a more secret but just as effective promoter of Republican interests. He was also someone who preferred to believe that Moe Dalitz (from Cleveland, Lew’s birthplace) had given up old habits before he got into Las Vegas; that Willie Bioff, Sidney Korshak and Jules Stein were unfairly maligned business associates rather than people who grew up working with organized crime and who easily lifted its dress code, its language and its use of menace.

Don’t even pretend to be shocked by this — and don’t pretend that you or we are going to do anything about it. The histories of show business, the movies, Las Vegas and organized crime make an archipelago of deeply motile land masses in the stream of cash flow itself. Those “dirty” businesses are much cleaner now, but their lessons have all been learned on Respectability Row. It’s unorganized crime that we abhor.

But make no mistake: That shady alliance led to a condition in which the business, the deal and the money are vital, and no one much cares anymore what the product is. Mighty in their day, MCA and Universal are now wrecked. Did Lew cause that, out of fatigue? Or did he do it to highlight his own achievements in contrast to the desert to come? If you want great movies — and America has to decide about that — trust an untidy desk to produce them.

David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film was published in October by Knopf and is now in its sixth printing.

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