One of the hallmarks of the personal mythology swirling around David Geffen is the story of how he landed his first job in Hollywood. The son of a Brooklyn bra-manufacturer, he faked a degree from UCLA to gain a spot in the fabled mailroom at William Morris. Terrified he’d be discovered, he arrived an hour early every day for four months, rifling through every bag of mail before intercepting and doctoring the long-expected letter from the admissions department disavowing any knowledge of him.
Four decades and two billion dollars later, Geffen is one of the richest tycoons ever to come out of show business. For Tom King, that deft act of deception in the WMA mailroom is a definitive mark of the will to power that fueled Geffen’s dizzying ascent to the top.
“Men at the Morris office could not help but see that young Geffen bore a striking resemblance to Sammy Glick,” King writes, “the backstabbing huckster who employed appalling tricks to run to the top in Hollywood, kicking others off the ladder as he rose higher and higher.”
Improbably, King was Geffen’s authorized biographer until a much publicized break last year — when it became clear that his portrait was more negative and intrusive than expected. One can imagine Geffen’s horror at discovering that a book he greenlit paints so vindictive a picture of him.
King has compiled anecdote upon anecdote of Geffen’s Machiavellian deal-spinning, crying jags, screaming fits and vendettas. King’s Geffen has no defining aesthetic, taste or personal conviction (with the single exception of his passionate crusade against AIDS). He’s just an outsized creature of the system, continually “driven by a devil that told him he needed to be bigger, more and something else.”
The narrative is a workmanlike job, methodically tracing Geffen’s rise through the ranks of WMA as the “favorite son” of prexy Nat Lefkowitz — the first in a line of “rabbis” including Clive Davis, Armet Ertegun and Steve Ross, each of whom, in King’s telling, Geffen emulated then discarded.
We see Geffen form Asylum Records, which became the epicenter of the emerging California sound epitomized by Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He joins the list of Hollywood royalty, flirts with est, the “Lifestyle” and five-day-a-week therapy sessions, and dates Cher and Marlo Thomas in an effort to suppress his attraction to men.
King treads prudishly, however, over Geffen’s sex life — he was “among the lucky ones to dodge the AIDS bullet — especially lucky given his promiscuity,” we’re told, but no more details are forthcoming.
Geffen voraciously builds his power base, becoming the Midas of Broadway, investing in “Dreamgirls” and “Cats.” He assembles a world-class collection of art and real estate, including Jack Warner’s 12-acre Beverly Hills manse, and becomes a billionaire when he sells Geffen Records, home to Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses, to MCA for $550 million. He brings his boyfriend to the Oval Office to help coach Clinton on spinning the press and joins the “dream team” of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg to preside over a new studio idealistically modeled after the old UA.
However persuasive one finds King’s case for Geffen the power-mad impressario, though, the sneering tenor of his writing undoes even his strongest arguments: Geffen is constantly moaning to his shrink, sobbing to his friends, shrieking at his adversaries. The book seems to be written by someone on the losing end of a shouting match with Geffen, striking back in the only way possible, by revealing that Hollywood’s most powerful tycoon is in the end a diminutive blob of emotions, a “hyperactive leprechaun” with no moral compass.
Will this surprise anyone in the industry? Probably not.
Had King embroidered this book with any grander ideas — some nuanced vision of the zeitgeist that swept Geffen to power, or a clear indication of what’s meant by the book’s flashy but meaningless reference to “the new Hollywood” — his book might have been more than the sum of its lurid, gossipy scenes. Instead, it’s just another saga of Hollywood excess, as hollow at its core as Geffen himself is purported to be.