Edie Wasserman — a prominent figure in showbiz philanthropy, a key adviser to husband Lew Wasserman and his important strategic partner through her politically astute use of the Hollywood social scene — died Thursday in Beverly Hills of natural causes. She was 95.
As he rose to power as a Hollywood agent and eventually head of MCA and then Universal, Lew Wasserman was the most important behind-the-scenes figure in Hollywood for decades, and Edie played an important role. In the 2003 book “Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire,” Kathleen Sharp described the setting in which Edie Wasserman ruled: cocktail hour at the Wasserman’s Beverly Hills home, where MCA agents’ wives, MCA publicists and MCA actresses gathered, including Janet Leigh, Polly Bergen and Rosemary Clooney.
On a typical day, she would make the rounds of showbiz watering holes accompanied by someone from MCA, gleaning information she would give to her husband.
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Leigh’s daughter, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, said Thursday in a statement about her godmother: “The world (has) lost a dynamic force for good in Hollywood. The great work of her philanthropic endeavors and most importantly her passion, zeal and unending commitment to the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital will bear beautiful fruit long after her passing. She was a unique and fascinating woman.”
“Edie was not simply married to the town’s most powerful man; she was a force in her own right,” Sharp wrote. “At 43, she had more zest and energy than most of the 20- and 30-year-olds she protected.” She was respected and feared, and “her friends often sought — and took — her sage counsel.”
Dennis McDougal, in the 1998 Lew Wasserman bio “The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA and the Hidden History of Hollywood,” wrote that Lew “never ignored (Edie’s) advice. Lew’s clients as well as his employees began privately referring to Edie as ‘the general.'”
An example of Edie’s influence: In 1948, Edie “discovered” the comedy team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin and brought them to Lew’s attention, though they already had representation. Lew allegedly had men steal the Lewis and Martin contract from their agent and subsequently won the duo away, resulting in litigation that MCA settled.
Edith “Edie” Beckerman grew up in a mansion in suburban Cleveland Heights in Ohio, the daughter of a politically connected lawyer tainted by legal troubles likely of his own making and by increasing money trouble. She ended up taking a job as a department store clerk.
In her later years, Edie remarked, “Lew was from the wrong side of the tracks, and I from the right side,” but in “The Last Mogul,” McDougal wrote that “hard times and bad luck leveled the playing field.”
Edie and Lew met while he was publicity director for a Cleveland casino.
They were married in 1936, exactly after a week after her father’s acquittal on charges of conspiracy in an attempted arson. They lived briefly in New York, then moved in 1938 to Los Angeles, where Lew was a young agent at MCA.
During WWII Edie did the scheduling and booking for the Hollywood Canteen, where servicemen got to meet and dance with movie stars; there she began a long-term friendship with Frank Sinatra. She also spent time on the road at bond rallies.
In the 1950s, Edie made inroads into Los Angeles’ social sphere, appearing on the society pages of the daily papers thanks in part to her charity work, contributing time and money to what was then Mount Sinai Hospital.
“Everything in my life has had something to do with show business,” Edie told Dominick Dunne. “My fascination with the industry was natural, since my father was an attorney for show business people, and I wanted to be a dancer. But when I was a little girl, dancing was not considered a proper career for a young lady.”
During the 1980s Edie hit her social peak in Hollywood. The Wassermans screened hundreds of films a year at their private projection room for selected guests, and they hosted Democratic fund-raisers at their home on a regular basis. Their 50th anniversary party in 1986 involved 700 guests and a re-creation of 1936 Cleveland on the Universal backlot.
Also during the decade, Edie became a member of the board of trustees for the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills and set upon a fund-raising effort, drawing a $2 million maintenance endowment for the home from Jules Stein (Lew’s former boss at MCA) and his wife, Doris, according to Sharp. She subsequently held her birthday party every year at the Home.
Enthusing about the Country House and Hospital to Variety’s Army Archerd in 1996, Edie said, “I try to take a lot of people out there who have never been and see it. They are hooked.” She took Kirk Douglas, for example, who gave $1 million for the Harry’s Haven Alzheimer’s building. “Then he decided it wasn’t big enough, so he gave us another million,” she added.
Edie was already on the board of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, had set up a scholarship fund for Cal Arts students when that institution was founded in 1977 and was a key supporter of the Los Angeles Musi Center. Her Wasserman Scholars program aids not only at CalArts but at UCLA, Brandeis U., Georgetown U., Caltech and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
After Lew’s death in 2002, Edie carefully guarded his image.
Survivors include daughter Lynne Kay Wasserman, a lawyer who worked for producer Jerry Weintraub; grandson Casey Wasserman, who runs the Wasserman Foundation, established by Lew and Edie in 1952, as well as sports and entertainment agency the Wasserman Media Group; granddaughter Carol Ann Leif, a standup comedian; and three great-grandchildren.
Donations may be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.