Chronicle of a Mean Mogul: Lew Wasserman, Deal-Maker

When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence, by Connie Bruck . Random House, 528 pages, $29.95.

Thank God for Melody Sherwood. It’s not until page 328 of this massive book about MCA/Universal president Lew Wasserman-a slow-moving Q.E.2 of a biography-that his pert, patient secretary puts in an appearance. But when her voice finally pipes up above the dull male thrum of ‘sters (gangsters, Teamsters, shysters, trustbusters) powering the story, it’s like the welcome honk of the pilot ship’s foghorn.

Not that she comes bleating dish. “He was very old-fashioned, the straightest person in the world,” Ms. Sherwood, one of hundreds of interviewees, declared to super-scrupulous author Connie Bruck. “The last one to have an affair!” Married from age 23 till death to the spirited Edie Beckerman-who may have taken a few extramarital spins herself (who could blame her?)-Wasserman “avoided leisure (vacations, cultural pastimes, recreation) like a scourge,” and was a workaholic long before the term became fashionable. The couple’s only daughter, Lynne, doesn’t even merit a mention in the copious index. “I was unfortunate not to have a son …. ” quoth her father, as late as 1978. Brrrr.

After Lew’s new assistant settled into her job (the intense stress of which sent one of her predecessors home with a migraine every day), she tried to lighten the mood on the 15th floor of the black-glass-windowed MCA tower: She complimented her pallid, beanpole boss on his tie, for example (“Don’t get personal,” he barked in response); or she joked limply with executives in the anteroom. “Someone would be waiting to see him,” she said, “and his screams would be coming out of the office”-the reader will have grasped by now that these were not screams of laughter-“and I’d say, maybe you don’t want to ask for that raise today.” Sweet Melody.

The Devil Wears Prada , another saga of a nightmare boss, was supposed to be this season’s “beach read” (ever notice how “read” becomes a noun around Memorial Day, like “party” as a verb and “fun” as an adjective?): light, gossipy, stimulating and untaxing, as if rising temperatures make poor grammar and trashy literature socially acceptable along with skimpy garments. But there’s another school of thought on “beach reading”-a dubious publishing-industry construct based on the hopeful idea that when summer vacation approaches, hordes of unread Americans will suddenly make a mad dash for the shelves of Borders. The alternative “beach read” is long, substantive, challenging and possibly soporific (intellectual heft beats down like the sun), a project to be stretched over the three months of summer–SAT prep for adults. When Hollywood Had a King belongs to this school-and school is exactly what it feels like. Ms. Bruck, author of two other hulking books-about junk bonds and Time-Warner-comes equipped with the snappiest credentials possible: She’s agented by Binky Urban of I.C.M., edited by Ann Godoff, late of Random House, and a contributor to The New Yorker since before the choppy Tina Brown days. Financial history is her specialty, so if words like “garnering” and “utilizing” and “encomium” are what tousle your beach towel, then this is the book for you. You’ll also get “residuals,” “tax credits,” “percentages” and acronyms, an entire ticker tape’s worth: MCA, CSU, IA, SAG, AFTRA, FBI, CAA, SEC, CIC, AFI, LRW, AMPTP, IATSE, MPAA, GATT, CREEP, etc. It’s enough to make your average right-brainer say “UNCLE!”

“Can’t you just, y’know, skim it?” someone suggested when I described my mounting despair circa page 64, at which point the book’s primary subject had still not been introduced, and I was futilely trying to sketch out one of those little family-tree charts that precede epic dynastic novels. I have always loathed the term “skim” when applied to reading, as if it were some mode you could switch into where you just skate lightly over the surface of the book like a June bug. (As opposed to really reading, when you absorb the fat of a book.) At any rate, When Hollywood Had a King ruthlessly defies skimming. It’s big, all right, but more muscle than paunch, with scores of players, major and minor-and practically all men, of course-strutting forth over the decades, then crumpling one by one before Wasserman’s inscrutable sinew. It’s not about movies; that’s merely “product.” It’s only fleetingly about Hollywood, the actual geographic location (no one cares about that except guidebook editors and City Council members). We are dealing here with “Hollywood,” the portable, airless ecosystem of power that travels to Chicago, Park Avenue, Japan, D.C., encompassing decades, cultural shifts, Presidents (Wasserman represented Ronald Reagan early in their respective careers, skirted with being appointed to Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet and said, of Bill Clinton, “I am crazy about him.”) Blink and you’ll miss the glamorous stuff, the stardust sprinkled onto all the number-mongering (Lew was nuts about numbers, we’re repeatedly told): Bette Davis, materializing in “magnificent white lingerie” before the eyes of MCA founder Jules Stein; Jimmy Stewart’s bachelor party at Chasen’s, for which Wasserman hired a pair of midgets; mob affiliate Sidney Korshak procuring hotel suites for Warren Beatty at the 1968 Democratic National Convention-these are rare, precious moments.

Wasserman got his start in publicity at $60 per week when MCA was merely an agency. He went on to bring down the studio system practically single-handedly; to embrace this strange, newfangled thing called TV while most of Tinseltown cowered; to engineer the first summer blockbuster ( Jaws ); to inspire scores of acolytes with his leadership style; and then to watch as one of them, mean Mike Ovitz, sold the empire-first to Matsushita (“the dumb thing I did,” Wasserman admitted to Ms. Bruck) and again, later, to the goofy Edgar Bronfman Jr. But anyone expecting a character study will be disappointed; this is an analysis of the hidden architecture of wheeling and dealing, right down to the girders.

With a little patience, however, the determinedly superficial can extract a kind of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Moguls” from this blameless encyclopedic work. Readers will learn that Wasserman woke up at 5 a.m., and generally ate tuna or fruit salad for lunch at his company commissary, crisp and well-groomed in his uniform of dark suit and white shirt, with a handkerchief in the breast pocket (though he was never seen perspiring). He considered his time too important to waste on niceties like “hello” or “goodbye.” Though he never seems to have complimented employees while they were actually in his employ, he valued loyalty at insanely Godfather -esque levels (I’ll leave it to Ms. Bruck to explain the relationship between MCA/Universal and the Mafia, which is as murky to me as Cleveland, Lew’s birthplace). He made a point of never taking notes, and he always was ready to walk away from a deal. And, of course, he was a master of the tirade. “It was like an out-of-body experience,” said corporate lawyer Mel Ziontz, one of these tantrums’ many witnesses. “He would be merciless, threatening, nasty -though not in a vulgar way,” testified former NBC prez Don Durgin; he added that doing business with Wasserman was like “little boys in kindergarten dealing with Darth Vader.” ( Star Wars was one of the few deals that Wasserman botched.) Another lawyer, John Baity, remembered (who could forget?) the studio chief banging a long, stiletto-like letter opener on the desk as he spoke to his visitor. Another, a tax attorney, popped 10 Maalox every time the big guy called. Makes Anna Wintour look like a pussycat.

“I was always trying to find out how he felt, ” Ms. Sherwood confides on page 457. (Good luck, honey, good luck-you could interview hundreds of his associates and still not have a clue.) “One day, I said to him, ‘Everyone in the industry wants to be you. Who would you want to be?'” Like most average guys, perhaps all Wasserman really craved was sexual dynamism: “Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, ‘Clark Gable.'”

Alexandra Jacobs works for The Observer from Los Angeles.