I first met him at his apartment in Trump Tower when Trump Tower was just another glitzy apartment building on Fifth Avenue.
“Look at the view of the park,” he said. “Ever seen anything so beautiful? Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re on top of the world?”
Before I could answer, he was rushing me out the door and downstairs where his chauffeur-driven Rolls was waiting at the curb.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Who are we meeting?”
He wouldn’t say. I was hoping it was someone whose superstardom he had boosted — Michael Jackson, Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen. A half-hour later, we got out of the car in front of a dilapidated church on the Bowery.
“What’s here?” I asked.
“Stop asking questions.”
When we walked into the sanctuary, the Cocaine Anonymous meeting was already underway. I would have preferred Springsteen but, a twelve-stepper myself, I was glad to see him take sobriety so seriously. After all, I’d come to Trump Tower to convince Walter Yetnikoff to let me write his book. Now we had a bond. The biggest bond of all, though, turned out to be love.
I came to love Walter. I loved him not only because he reminded me of my Lower East Side Jewish uncles who were cab drivers, card sharks and bookies, but because he wore his wounds the way generals wear their medals. He displayed his pain with pride. He was as open about his self-sabotaging failures as he was his spectacular successes. Once all-powerful, he understood that his fall from grace was not only the stuff of myth but also the stuff of raucous humor.
“I used to be Walter,” he said, “but now I’m back to my Yiddish name, Velvel.”
Velvel was a raging storm, an unstoppable force who had turned CBS corporate culture upside down. The artists he championed adored him. He was blindingly brilliant, wildly impulsive, megalomaniacal, kind, furious, wicked, generous and, above all, hysterically funny. He had the chops of a Catskills comic. Velvel was the Don Rickles of the music business.
“We’ll open the book with my affair with Jackie Onassis,” he said.
“You had an affair with Jackie Onassis?”
“No, but you’ll turn it into a dream. My dreams usually come true. Maybe not that one, but most of them.”
Thus, the opening of “Howling at the Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess”: “After her third orgasm, Jackie O looked at me with a mixture of gratitude and awe. ‘Jack was a powerful lover,’ she said. ‘Ari was a passionate man. But you, Walter Yetnikoff, you’re nothing short of astounding.’”
Velvel was astounding, but in ways I never would have imagined. He was astounding because he allowed vulnerability to overwhelm arrogance. After his career collapsed, he had the guts to reinvent himself, not as a big shot but as someone seeking spirit. He sought redemption by helping others, embracing a new life that surprised, delighted and confused him. He found the humility to live with confusion.
“The process of writing this memoir is confusing me,” he confessed, “because I’m seeing parts of myself I never saw before. I don’t like those parts, but I see what they got me.”
“A helluva good story.”
Today, on Velvel’s 88th birthday, I celebrate his story. I celebrate the enormity of his character and the inexhaustibility of his energy. Somewhere along the way, he became a loving man. Despite or because of his ribald past, he leaves a legacy of tremendous accomplishments, notable setbacks but, most movingly, miraculous transformation.
David Ritz, Velvel’s ghostwriter, has collaborated on the life stories of everyone from Aretha Franklin to Willie Nelson.