How David Geffen Got Ahead: Lies, Loot and a Little Luck

The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood , by Tom King. Random House, 670 pages, $25.95.

David Geffen throws up twice in The Operator . He barfs after reading George Trow’s 1978 New Yorker profile of Ahmet Ertegun, in which the Atlantic Records mogul witheringly described Mr. Geffen’s “eager greed.” And he does it again after a disastrous 1986 test screening of the $30 million dud he produced, Little Shop of Horrors . (He is described getting “sick to his stomach with anxiety” prior to the press conference announcing the formation of Dreamworks SKG, but it’s unclear if that involved actual vomiting.) Clearly, this is a man deeply affected by what other people think of him.

And, according to New York magazine, Mr. Geffen again “became physically ill” when he read the manuscript for The Operator , his demi-authorized biography written by Tom King, who covers the entertainment industry for The Wall Street Journal .

It’s easy to see why. Yes, the book tells the story Mr. Geffen must have envisioned when he agreed to participate: how, like Charles Foster Kane, he rose from nothingness to media moguldom. (Mr. Geffen now advises President Clinton.)

But the bulk of The Operator exposes the other ways Mr. Geffen resembles Kane-how along the way he has betrayed, badgered, lied to and cut off most of his family, friends and colleagues, and now, at age 57, worth $2 billion, he forlornly rattles around the massive Jack Warner mansion (which he bought for $47.5 million and spent eight years renovating), with no companion or heirs.

It’s been widely reported that Mr. Geffen originally cooperated with the book partly because of Mr. King’s classy employer, and partly because Mr. King is openly gay. Mr. Geffen himself, after much hemming and hawing, finally came out in a speech at a 1992 AIDS fund-raiser in his honor.

After about a year, Mr. Geffen stopped speaking to Mr. King, shocked, shocked that there might be some negatives in the book. When the author sent him an advance copy of the manuscript, Mr. Geffen called it “fiction” but didn’t single out any falsehoods.

But David Geffen has trafficked in fictions all his life. The Operator could have easily been called The Liar . The William Morris agent-turned-rock manager-turned-record label executive-turned-movie executive has lived a life of self-denial and manipulation, always trying to control the story and make the buck. (As one record executive once screamed at Mr. Geffen, “You’d jump into a pool of pus to come up with a nickel between your teeth!”)

He’d advise clients to lie to get what they wanted; he’d spread lies about people with whom he was feuding; he’d lie about providing a haven for artists against the big corporations, when all he really wanted to do was sell out to them as fast as possible. He even lied to himself about his sexuality, coming perilously close to marrying Cher and then Marlo Thomas.

David Geffen grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the son of a mother who made custom brassieres and a father who didn’t do much of anything. The day of his bar mitzvah, he grabbed every gift envelope and raced to the bathroom to tear them open and count his loot. Later, he lied about having a college education, stole a Social Security check from his mother and headed to Hollywood, where he had a bit part in an early William Shatner movie, was an usher at CBS (getting fired when he took a swing at an audience member the day John F. Kennedy died), and finally landed in the fabled William Morris mailroom in June 1964.

From then on, he schmoozed or screamed his way into the right places. He went into the music business not out of any love for it-he mostly liked show tunes, and idolized Louis B. Mayer-but because it promised the quickest advancement to a young person.

He was drawn to singer-songwriters less for their artistic purity than for the fact that they owned their own material and thus could generate more profits. And many acts he signed, Mr. King points out, were hunky poster boys like Jackson Browne and the Eagles. (It was also Mr. Geffen who later recommended Tom Cruise for Risky Business and Mark Wahlberg for Calvin Klein’s underwear campaign.) It was not Mr. Geffen, but his colleague Elliot Roberts, who first discovered Joni Mitchell; later in his career, Mr. Geffen professed no affinity for the music of acts like Guns ‘n’ Roses, Nirvana and Edie Brickell, who would go on to earn him millions.

Like Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls , Tom King’s book falls into the trap of getting so caught up in the petty squabbles, foibles and box-office tallies that it sometimes loses sight of the art being made and the larger world around it. Despite the subtitle’s mention of “The New Hollywood,” the book is strangely lacking in context about changes in both the movie business and the record industry (which have been well documented in books Mr. King cites in his notes, Fred Goodman’s The Mansion on the Hill and Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men ).

Mr. Geffen came to Hollywood during an amazing period that the book only hints at, when people were sharing shrinks, hot tubs, lovers and drugs. Over the years, Mr. Geffen was an impressionable adherent of first Est, then Lifespring, then Marianne Williamson-the last to such an extent that he was even considering having her bear his progeny. Instead of imbuing this information with any perspective, Mr. King delivers it completely flatly as if he’s listing another group Mr. Geffen signed. (According to Mr. Geffen, two weekends of Est convinced him to live a moral life; maybe he should have gone back for a third weekend.)

For all his spirituality, he was always a brazen starfucker. He pursued Bob Dylan relentlessly; having bagged him, he failed to realize that the album Mr. Dylan tossed off in three days for him, Planet Waves , was arguably the worst of his career. Mr. Geffen just wanted to be able to say he had Dylan. (Bob Dylan and the Band played at Mr. Geffen’s 31st-birthday party.)

Money always seems to be the goal. In 1992, meeting investor Warren Buffett at an economic summit hosted by President Clinton, Mr. Geffen said he felt the same thrill shaking Mr. Buffett’s hand as he had seeing Mr. Dylan perform in the 60′s. On her deathbed, his immigrant mother finally asked him, “How much money do you have?” Hundreds of millions, her son told her, and she laughed joyously. Mr. King even points out that while Mr. Geffen has donated millions of dollars to AIDS causes, instead of doing so quietly, he has always “insisted on, or agreed to, having his name celebrated openly.”

Mr. King never really analyzes how much of Mr. Geffen’s success is, like anything in Hollywood, dumb luck. He invested a million dollars in Broadway’s Cats , and has made a third of the profits ever since. But he also put out the worst records in the careers of Elton John and Neil Young (who have since rebounded). While he focused his energy on Little Shop of Horrors , for instance, another Geffen movie he barely paid attention to, Beetlejuice , was the one that hit.

Mr. King’s prose can get clunky: “Inside, Cher was beginning to be plagued by gnawing thoughts that marrying David Geffen would be a mistake. In fact, she had been having an affair with the bass player from the Average White Band. When Geffen discovered that Cher was cheating on him, he was destroyed, and he became scared and paranoid.”

And the book is disappointingly prudish concerning Mr. Geffen’s love life. For most of the book, Mr. Geffen’s attempts to be heterosexual get a disproportionate amount of attention; late in the game, we glean that he had been quite promiscuous, but there’s no sense of how that fit into his life when it was happening. The longer-term boyfriends are always younger, social and business unequals. (Of course, these days, to achieve parity he’d have to date the Sultan of Brunei.)

After Mr. Geffen made $550 million selling Geffen Records to MCA, he grew restless and bored. During the O.J. Simpson trial, he sat around the house watching it with widowed former agent Sue Mengers. For Mr. Geffen, unlike his partners -Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has something to prove to the Walt Disney Company, and Steven Spielberg, who wants to keep his artist’s vision unfettered-Dreamworks seems less of a passion than a retirement hobby, like golf. He has said it presents an opportunity “to do good work”-a goal he seems to have sighted pretty late in the game.

Amazingly, many of the fellow moguls Mr. Geffen alienates pretty thoroughly in these pages-Mike Ovitz, Mo Ostin, Sandy Gallin-are back in his circle. Maybe they’re just aware that, as Warren Beatty once put it, “a mobilized David Geffen is something that you want working for you, not against you.” Or maybe they hate to see a grown man puke.