Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob
City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s
A president who is popular in the country and cuts a commanding figure in Washington, which Ronald Reagan has been, will always generate an interest in his background. In the case of presidents who become folk heroes, like Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts, hagiographers created an enduring mythology around the story of each man’s progression through young adulthood; whatever noble qualities are attributed to the president and his time in power are made to spring from the virtue inherent in his early milieu. But during the formative period that Lincoln spent as a country lawyer, or Teddy Roosevelt as an urban-reformer-cum-Western-big-game-hunter, Reagan was a contract player at Warner Brothers, and while we may be addicted to Hollywood we don’t think of it as building character. Young Man Reagan has therefore not been a favorite subject of admiring conservatives.
It’s the Reagan haters who are drawn to the subject of his years as an actor. Apart from the atmosphere of triviality and decadence, what beckons them to Hollywood is the shadowy outline of a scandal. It goes something like this:
1947: Reagan, rapidly becoming more conservative (the year before, he resigned from the board of a Communist party—infiltrated Hollywood “citizens’ committee,” and began secretly informing for the FBI), takes over from Robert Montgomery as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He is also suffering what we’d now call a premature mid-life crisis, with his acting career and his marriage to Jane Wyman both disintegrating.
1949: Reagan’s agent, Lew Wasserman of MCA, later to become the most powerful man in Hollywood, persuades Warners to grant Reagan the unusual concession of letting him half out of his contract (he is now obliged to do only one picture a year, at half pay), and then gets Reagan a five-picture deal at Universal—an immense financial boost for an actor in career trouble.
1951: Reagan buys a 290-acre plot of unimproved ranch land along Mulholland Drive for $293 an acre.
1952: The Screen Actors Guild, under Reagan’s leadership, grants Reagan’s agency, MCA, an immensely valuable “blanket waiver” of its rule prohibiting agents from being producers too. This allows MCA, and no other agency, to move aggressively into the production of television shows while keeping its base as a talent agency.
1954: With Reagan’s career again in decline, MCA arranges a $125,000-a-year contract for him with General Electric, which gives him the job of host on the weekly GE Theater on television.
1960: Reagan comes out of retirement as president of the Screen Actors Guild to take the helm for six months, during which time the guild makes a deal permitting owners of films made before 1960 to play them on television without paying the actors royalties; MCA, as owner of the largest film library, is by far the greatest single beneficiary of this policy.
1962: MCA, its activities as a TV producer having become much more important than those of its talent agency, dissolves the agency under pressure from the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Reagan testifies before a grand jury investigating his role in the granting of the blanket waiver that allowed MCA to produce shows ten years earlier, and General Electric drops him as its television host and spokesman.
1966: Reagan is elected governor of California, and shortly after the election two MCA executives handling his finances, Jules Stein and Taft Schreiber, arrange for the sale of most of his ranch land to Twentieth Century-Fox, for $8178 an acre, making Reagan finally a rich man.
An important element of this story is the reputation of MCA. It was founded by Stein, an ophthalmologist, in Chicago in 1924, and it first made its way by booking bands in speak-easies on the South Side—Al Capone’s territory. It moved into Hollywood at about the time that the Chicago mob became a power there, through its control of the biggest theatrical workers’ union. MCA has always played hard, or even rough; it has been under federal investigation, fruitlessly, for decades. In particular it has used two techniques: developing sweetheart relationships with the unions that control the talent (at first the American Federation of Musicians, and later the Screen Actors Guild); and pressuring the buyers of its talent to book large all-MCA packages that include both stars and nobodies, or face a complete freeze out. In other words, Reagan was not represented by Snow White for all those years.
Like many other stories about Reagan, the intertwined histories of his relationship with MCA, his career, his real-estate deals, and his running of the Screen Actors Guild can be told as an innocent, inspirational success myth, which is how Reagan tells it in his autobiography: practical-minded men of humble midwestern origins rise together in California, giving birth to a great industry in the process. Or it can serve as the best example of Reagan’s astonishing ability not to become mixed up in wrongdoing even when it’s going on all around him, and sometimes is done on his behalf. Or, finally, Reagan is simply one of those people who have been dishonest (even while being celebrities) without ever being caught.
Dan Moldea’s Dark Victory takes the last view and, by failing to support it, tends to make the others more plausible. Moldea opens with a drum roll of insinuations—“There remain numerous unanswered questions and allegations about the relationship between Reagan and MCA. These doubts raise delicate issues that involve possible personal and political payoffs—as well as links to major Mafia figures.” But, like the reporters and prosecutors who have walked this road before him, he can’t prove them. Thus MCA’s success “paralleled the rise of the Chicago Mafia,” but, later, “The full story of [Jules] Stein’s dealings with the Chicago Mafia is fuzzy.” Moldea describes Reagan’s real estate dealings, with some justice, as “questionable financial transactions,” and then says by way of delivering the goods, “Once governor, Reagan made executive decisions [involving the tax treatment of film libraries] that were greatly beneficial to MCA and other corporations with motion picture studio interests”; the connection is never more than implied.
On the Screen Actors Guild waiver that helped MCA, Moldea twice quotes from the twenty-five-year-old notes of a Justice Department lawyer who says that an unnamed “industry” source told him that Reagan was paid off by MCA—probably in the form of the GE job. Again, though, Moldea offers no proof; instead he makes liberal use of the old Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theorists’ concept of “propinquity,” and drops hints by slyly juxtaposing phrases. “Although it may never be proven that Reagan or any other SAG official pushed through the SAG special arrangement with MCA and then received a suitcase full of cash,” Moldea writes at one point, “it is clear that, within months of the deal, Reagan benefited personally, financially, professionally, and politically from his relationship with MCA.”
At the end of the book, in the course of trying to show that Reagan as president has gone soft on organized crime because of past associations, Moldea reaches the pinnacle of implausibility by implying that when David I. Bazelon, who as head of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals was the epitome of the power-wielding liberal federal judge, attacked Reagan for trampling the civil liberties of criminals, he was in effect doing a favor for the mob. The only supporting evidence he gives is that Bazelon is an “old friend” (no attribution for this either) of Paul Ziffren, a political lawyer in Los Angeles who was once the protégé of Jake Arvey, the Chicago political boss, and that an FBI agent (unidentified) told Moldea that “nothing could have given Reagan’s war on crime more legitimacy than an attack from Bazelon.” In other words, Reagan undertakes a “cosmetic” (Moldea’s word) war on crime while he is really laying off the mob; Bazelon attacks him for being too tough; and conservative Americans, having thus been thrown off the scent, conclude that if liberals like Bazelon are upset then Reagan really must be cracking down. Q.E.D. On the other hand Lew Wasserman, Stein’s protégé and successor at MCA, who has lived for half a century at the very center of Moldea’s target, is, implausibly, “smooth, charming, likable, and honest.”
But the weakest part of Dark Victory is Moldea’s attempt to establish a connection between Reagan and Sidney Korshak, a Los Angeles lawyer and “labor consultant” (you hire him and your labor troubles disappear) who, according to Moldea, has long been suspected of being the Chicago mob’s man in the entertainment business, but has been carefully kept clean so that he can maintain his relations with the respectably powerful. Dark Victory is presented as a triptych of Hollywood corruption—that’s the message conveyed by its subtitle, “Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob.” If it were just “Ronald Reagan and MCA” the story wouldn’t have anywhere near its sinister implications. Making the mob part convincing depends on showing a link between Reagan and MCA and Korshak.
But as far as I can tell there is no evidence here that Reagan and Korshak have actually met, let alone collaborated in some way. On page 6 the two men “had allegedly been associated.” On page 79 they are both on the membership rolls of the Friars Club in the late Forties. On page 104 an anonymous “federal law-enforcement officer” tells Moldea “that he had only heard rumors about Korshak’s possible role in the MCA-SAG blanket waiver.” On page 141 a former union official, recalling Reagan’s brief, pro-MCA reprise as president of the guild in 1960, when the actors renounced residual claims for pre-1960 moneys, tells Moldea that “Korshak’s involved in that whole proposition you’re talking about there.” On page 228 the FBI says Korshak is secretly part owner of a restaurant in Beverly Hills where the Reagans often used to go to dinner. On page 259 Moldea clinches the case by saying of Reagan’s run for reelection as governor of California, “the extent of Korshak’s alleged support in Reagan’s victory remains unknown.” I find it hard to believe that Reagan never ran across Korshak during nearly forty years in California; but if you’re going to write a book based in part on their relationship, you ought to be able to document that they have had one.
Most of the material in Dark Victory is drawn from previously published sources, for instance Seymour Hersh and Jeff Gerth’s long series on Korshak in The New York Times in 1976. In his footnotes, Moldea refers to only seventeen interviews that he conducted (none of the principals would talk to him). His one coup as a reporter, a genuinely important contribution to our store of knowledge about Reagan, is in having got, through the Freedom of Information Act, a cache of documents from a Justice Department antitrust investigation of MCA in 1962, the investigation that led to MCA’s disbanding its talent agency. During the investigation Reagan testified before a grand jury that wanted to question him about his part in granting the guild’s blanket waiver to MCA in 1952, and extending it in 1954.
The trouble is that these documents don’t translate well into prose. Moldea several times offers what he calls “recreated conversations” based on Justice Department memoranda, and he devotes one thirty-five-page chapter to reprinting in its entirely Reagan’s grandjury testimony. Here Reagan claims barely to be able to remember that MCA was ever granted the waiver, because at the time he was so preoccupied with newlywed bliss (he had married Nancy Davis a few months earlier) that he didn’t have his mind on union business. As for the waiver’s having been extended in 1954, he said, “I think maybe one of the reasons I don’t recall was because I feel that in the summer of  I was up in Glacier National Park making a cowboy picture for Ben Bogeaus Productions.” Reagan insists, when forced to offer some explanation, that the guild granted the waiver solely because it would help out-of-work actors; like many explanations he has offered since, this is implausible but, so far as his sincerity is concerned, somehow can’t be refuted. The historical value of the testimony notwithstanding, legal material is dull, justice didn’t find a smoking gun, and Moldea’s summary is not particularly coherent. Garry Wills, in his forthcoming book Reagan’s America,* tells the Reagan-MCA story (using Moldea’s Justice Department material) briefly and much more comprehensibly, and with greater insight.
But MCA is a wonderful story—the retelling, even Moldea’s, captures the initial rawness and subsequent longing for “class” that goes with big-time success in Hollywood. It is gratifying to learn that Willie Bioff, the film-industry representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, got his start by running a crooked Depression soup kitchen, and met his end in 1955 after flying back from Las Vegas to Phoenix with Barry Goldwater in Goldwater’s private plane, when he was blown up by a bomb that had been planted in his car. Or that Leonore Annenberg, the former White House chief of protocol, “had been previously married to Beldon Katleman, the owner of El Rancho Vegas, and former bootlegger Lewis Rosentiel, the head of Schenley Industries.” Or that when Jules Stein retired, MCA as a special tribute gave him the title of “Honorary Founder,” even though he really was the founder.
Finding and savoring little tidbits like these is a special talent of Otto Friedrich’s, and he puts it to good use in City of Nets, his version of the world that gave rise to Reagan. It is a book with a gimmick: Friedrich got the idea that if he read virtually every book ever published on Hollywood in the Forties (he lists 518 of them in his bibliography), he could artfully rearrange the anecdotes contained in them into a book of his own. The result is a confection made by juxtaposing the apt improbable characters and incidents, and writing in a light, dry tone. The obvious stories are about the making of everybody’s favorite movies, like Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, and Casablanca, and Friedrich doesn’t neglect them; but by carefully interlarding these with the sad goings-on in the outside world, from the zoot-suit riots and the internment of Japanese-Americans to the Holocaust, he gives the subject at least a patina of deep meaning. A second layer, of high culture, comes from what’s obviously Friedrich’s favorite part of the story, the incongruous presence in Hollywood of refugee European intellectuals like Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. If the fragmentation technique owes something to Doctorow’s Ragtime (and maybe also to Edward and Nancy Sorel’s “First Encounters” cartoon-with-text series), the mood comes from The Day of the Locust—gaudy, ominous, desperate.
Friedrich’s account reminds us that Hollywood, and the country, were not at the time characterized by the simple patriotism and virtuousness that have since become attached to the Forties. Movie moguls as ever were cruel and greedy. Actors were often terrified hayseeds underneath their smooth images. The best movies were made largely by accident. This country, not to mention other countries, was racist, insensitive to the worst brutalities of World War II, and, as the McCarthy era soon proved, never anywhere near its self-estimation on the question of how much personal courage the average person had.
But the heart of Friedrich’s book, as with many other books about Hollywood, lies in its anecdotes, not its message. It takes considerable self-discipline not to repeat more than a few: Walt Disney exclaiming, during the scoring of Fantasia, “Gee, this’ll make Beethoven!” Harry Cohn keeping a picture of Mussolini on his office wall. Louis B. Mayer, born outside Vilna, telling the House Un-American Activities Committee, “I was never in Russia.” Orson Welles traveling by taxi from Rome to the Hotel du Cap on the Riviera to plead with Darryl Zanuck for more money to finish his film version of Othello. Zanuck staging a gala première of a biographical movie about Woodrow Wilson in the home town not of Wilson but of himself—Wahoo, Nebraska. The director Sam Wood inserting a clause in his will requiring his legatees to swear “they are not now, nor have they ever been, Communists” before receiving their inheritance. Max Reinhardt suffering a crippling stroke while being bitten nearly to death by his own dog in a telephone booth on Fire Island. The young actress Joan Barry breaking into Charlie Chaplin’s house at one in the morning, lecturing him at gunpoint for more than an hour, and then sleeping with him. It’s the high surface gloss that all these people put on their lives that gives interest to these stories—it couldn’t possibly be as thrilling to learn forty years from now about the human failings of the movie stars of today, since they’re already exposed in People magazine every week.
Friedrich’s portrayal of Reagan is more dutiful, has less zest, than the rest of the book. It’s useful to have Reagan set in such a rich pudding, but the character of the man himself—which was so visible in Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter—is, once again, difficult to find. Reagan is certainly not the only postwar president to have come out of a new, rapidly changing demimonde in American life; Johnson’s oil-booming Texas, Carter’s New South, Nixon’s Southern California, and John F. Kennedy’s Wall Street/New Deal-Harvard axis were all that. But the others all had a much stronger relationship with the larger, older, national social order. They or their fathers had either fought their way into the Establishment or burned over having failed, while Reagan, whatever his real ambitions, hasn’t seemed to care.
In the same way, the others all created their own images, but in a manner that showed some residual attachment to the traditional American conception of character and fate, in which you can pretend to be something but your true self will always make itself known somehow. In Reagan’s case, it is about as relevant that he is the son of a small-town drunk as it is that Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino with curly black hair and a low forehead. The image becomes truer than what it was meant to disguise. Life, if you will it to, can be made to conform to the plot twists of a Forties movie. This may not actually be true but it does seem to be the way Reagan’s mind works. In the case of his dealings with MCA it is more plausible that he convinced himself that he was acting out some drama of noble, patriotic cooperation with the right kind of people than that he knowingly did something shady. No writer has been able to pin down Reagan, but if one ever does I expect he will find that Friedrich was closer to the right track than Moldea.