Review: ‘When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence’

Lew Wasserman rarely gave interviews and long insisted he would never cooperate with any book written about him. But Connie Bruck had his cooperation for this biography. A richly detailed portrait of Wasserman's career and the times that shaped him, it's likely to remain definitive for years to come.

Lew Wasserman rarely gave interviews and long insisted he would never cooperate with any book written about him. But Connie Bruck, a New Yorker writer whose last book, “The Predator’s Ball,” was an expose of junk bond king Michael Milken, had his cooperation for this biography. A richly detailed portrait of Wasserman’s career and the times that shaped him, it’s likely to remain definitive for years to come.

Wasserman’s mystique is as deeply etched in showbiz history as the stars in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame — many of whom have Wasserman to thank for their place in the Hollywood firmament.

The austere and fearsome mogul whose trademark, thick, black-rimmed glasses Steven Spielberg once said resembled two movie screens, “never lost in a deal, never made a mistake, could see around corners into tomorrow,” writes Connie Bruck.

At least that was the Wasserman mystique, Bruck writes.

But when Bruck persuaded Wasserman to sit for a series of interviews in the last four years of his life, she confronted a different man: a frail, nostalgic figure, stripped of his corporate power, who, with some hesitation, was prepared to reminisce about his business triumphs and his failures — foremost among them the 1990 sale of MCA/Universal to Japanese electronics firm Matsushita, which effectively ended his reign as Hollywood’s pre-eminent business titan.

Armed with unparalleled access — to Wasserman, hundreds of pages of an unpublished Jules Stein memoir, stacks of correspondence and FBI wiretaps of the more unsavory figures in Wasserman’s orbit — Bruck methodically sets out to dismantle the Wasserman mystique, pierce the culture of secrecy that surrounded him and reconstruct his remarkable showbiz trajectory.

Bruck brings a fresh perspective and often new details to the familiar highlights and controversies. She recounts how the early history of MCA, which Stein built from scratch in 1920s, was intertwined with the history of the Chicago mob during prohibition.

Examining the complex and often monopolistic system of exclusives and packaging at MCA that provided the financial foundations of the company, she traces Wasserman’s evolution from spindly theater publicist and Stein protege to the charismatic leader of the company.

Bruck also recounts the deals that consolidated Wasserman’s power, including the 1950 precedent-setting profit-participation deal for Jimmy Stewart to star in “Winchester ’73,” which helped smash the studio contract system. Another was the $200 million production deal with NBC in 1965 that turned MCA into a production factory, creating “his own version of a contract system he had once helped destroy.”

There are few smoking-gun revelations, but the book contains a healthy dose of dishy gossip, as when Bruck speculates about Doris Stein’s and Edie Wasserman’s infidelities; and when she rips into Jack Valenti, characterizing him as a diminutive sycophant to LBJ who helped Wasserman gain control of labor and politics in Hollywood.

The book also offers a flesh-and-blood portrait of Wasserman sorely lacking from Dennis McDougal’s bio, “The Last Mogul.”

Bruck transcribes Wasserman anecdotes, told in his own voice, such as a dinner party with Meyer Lansky and other mob operatives on a trip to Cuba with Alfred and Alma Hitchcock at the height of Hitchcock’s fame.

“Lansky says to my wife, ‘Is that Alfred Hitchcock?’ ” Wasserman recalls. “And Hitch says to me, ‘Is that Meyer Lansky?’ ”

The book is textured with details of Wasserman’s daily regimen in the 1960s and ’70s, when he rose at 5 a.m., drove to the office in his Mercedes roadster with the license plate, MCA1; and ate at the same table at the commissary every day year after year.

Wasserman was so obsessed with numbers, Bruck writes, that he required aides to hand him slips of paper with updated B.O. figures, the Universal Tour count, and stock market closings throughout the day.

Employees who didn’t perform up to standards were treated with outbursts of anger so volcanic that Wasserman’s tax lawyer Donald Rosenfeld would pop 10 Maalox in his mouth whenever he heard that the mogul was on the phone.

In his heyday, Wasserman’s tentacles reached from the White House to the underworld, and Bruck sheds considerable light on Wasserman’s connections with the Teamsters and the mob, handled by and large through his friend and lawyer, Sydney Korshak, who became known as his “fixer.”

In Bruck’s telling, Korshak is a schizoid character: an elegant figure in silk Pucci suits who lunched with judges at the Hillcrest Country Club, but who also fraternized with mobsters and threatened associates with cement shoes.

MCA, she writes, enjoyed overlapping interests with the mob. And the company itself was run like the Mafia, with its strict discipline, fierce code of loyalty, and all-consuming culture of secrecy. Latter trait apparently stemmed largely from Wasserman, who had a photographic memory and never committed anything to paper.

It was only in the 1980s, at the height of the merger and acquisition boom, that Wasserman’s power began to wane.

The Matsushita sale, which came as Wall Street analysts began to look askance at MCA, was disastrous for Wasserman. Michael Ovitz, described Wasserman knockoff, engineered the deal, and led MCA to believe the Japanese would be passive investors. Instead, they turned around and sold the company to Seagram without consulting Wasserman.

Sitting for an interview one day in his office in the black glass skyscraper he’d had modeled after the Seagram Tower in N.Y., Wasserman peered at Bruck across his perfectly clear desk, grimaced, and offered an admission of vulnerability that would have been unthinkable a decade before.

“Those are the smart things. Now do you want to know the dumb thing I did? Sold the company to the Japanese.”

When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence

Random House, $29.95


Connie Bruck


Release Date June 10

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