The Last Mogul
Lew Wasserman, who died last summer at 89, was not only the most powerful and influential man in Hollywood over the past half-century but also the most enigmatic. Like his mentor Jules Stein, Wasserman shunned publicity, rarely spoke to the press, put almost nothing in writing and came to understand that the cult of mystery and suspicion around him--and his company, MCA-Universal--was ultimately an asset. Wasserman maintained his silence after being forced out as MCA board chairman in 1995 (at 82), despite the frequent entreaties to go on record with his own account of MCA's remarkable history and his role as chief architect of the New Hollywood. And even after the 1998 hatchet job by journalist Dennis McDougal in The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood, Wasserman declined to bow out with a self-serving (or self-defensive) mogul memoir.
Now comes Connie Bruck, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker and author of two very good corporate biographies: The Predator's Ball, on junk-bond king Michael Milken, and Master of the Game, on Steve Ross and the epochal Time Warner merger. Bruck began writing about Wasserman after the Seagram buyout, and was sufficiently intrigued to start a book-length project just as McDougal's The Last Mogul appeared. McDougal's account essentially rehashed Dan Moldea's 1986 book, Dark Victory: Reagan, MCA, and the Mob, assigning Wasserman's and MCA's success not only to the ruthless exercise of power but also to longstanding alliances with politicians like Ronald Reagan and reputed mobsters like Sidney Korshak. Bruck has a different story to tell, one that jibes far better with the industry's more recent view of Wasserman, which has evolved from fear and distrust to grudging respect and, in some circles, outright deification.
Bruck's account is When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence, and the title alone, cumbersome though it is, indicates her more sanguine view of Wasserman. Bruck scarcely ignores the darker side of his "power and influence," but the overall effect of her book is to both deepen and effectively counter the earlier versions of the Wasserman-MCA saga. And rather than portray Wasserman as the last of the studio moguls, Bruck sees him as an altogether original figure in Hollywood annals. By the 1960s, writes Bruck, Wasserman had assumed "a new, imperial role of his design. There had never been one individual who spoke for the industry, and who navigated its course singlehandedly." For the next three decades, Wasserman "wielded authority over all of Hollywood"--and not as a power-hungry, avaricious tyrant but as a benevolent dictator.
Bruck ably supports this thesis in her thorough, balanced and insightful biography, which is likely to stand as the definitive account of Wasserman's remarkable career, due not only to the quality of her reportage but also her exceptional sources. Most uncharacteristically, Wasserman submitted to a series of interviews with Bruck. Though he initially agreed only to discuss MCA founder and his longtime mentor, Jules Stein, he eventually began talking about his own life and career as well. Bruck admits in her introduction that "much of what he said had a distinctly prerecorded quality," but the fact is that she got closer to the famously reticent Wasserman than any other journalist or biographer, which adds immensely to the project. Bruck also gained access to Stein's own unpublished memoirs, "as told to" Murray Schumach of the New York Times--yet another tantalizing bit of arcane MCA lore whose existence was known to Hollywood insiders, and whose unpublished status only fueled the mystery surrounding Stein, Wasserman and MCA.
The Wasserman-MCA story is largely the Jules Caesar Stein story as well, and thus a substantial portion of When Hollywood Had a King focuses squarely on the ophthalmologist whose interest in music--and making money--led to the creation of the Music Corporation of America. Stein launched MCA in 1924 as a band-booking agency in Jazz Age Chicago, and within a decade built it into a nationwide powerhouse. A brilliant and innovative businessman, Stein either invented or perfected the one-night stand, "exclusive" contracts with talent buyers, product tie-ins and, perhaps most important, "packaging," which provided buyers with a full season's bookings while giving MCA a packaging fee on top of its commissions, as well as a taste of actual production.
Stein understood power, and dealt astutely with the musicians' unions, with the new medium of commercial radio and, while operating out of Chicago during Prohibition, with the mob. During the 1930s he developed a close working relationship with Sidney Korshak, a rising mob lawyer who helped Stein navigate the treacherous waters of labor relations--and who would continue to help MCA on the labor front for decades. Stein was also a man of cultivated taste and considerable intellect. His obsession with antiques furnished MCA's far-flung executive offices for a half-century, and his fascination with tax law and the stock market proved vital to MCA's rapid growth into an amalgam of interlocking companies.
By the mid-1930s, MCA was by far the largest and most powerful booking and talent agency in the music business, whose client list (itself a closely guarded secret) reportedly included some two-thirds of the nation's top bands. In 1936, Stein made two momentous decisions. One was to move MCA's corporate headquarters to the West Coast and broaden its focus to include the movie industry. The other was to hire Lew Wasserman, a tall, lean 23-year-old publicist from Cleveland who in time would take the company far beyond even Jules Stein's grandiose dreams.