The Don of Dons

Lew Wasserman, longtime head of MCA-Universal, a man thought by many to have the sharpest and best-disciplined business mind ever to exercise executive power at a major American movie studio, died just a year ago, of a stroke, after having been a sometimes distant but always respected presence in Hollywood since the early Forties. His family, faithful to his orders, buried him quietly on the very day of his death, but eventually, with some reluctance, allowed a memorial service to be held; the reason for their reluctance was the shabby treatment they felt he had received, in the last decade of his life, from three successive owners of the great company he had labored so carefully to build. The owners were in turn Japanese (Matsushita), Canadian (Seagram), and French (Vivendi). We’ll get to the shabby treatment in a bit.

The memorial service, largely organized by the media baron Barry Diller, was held in the Universal Amphitheater. Picasso reportedly said that no one had looked as hard at Matisse as he had: similarly, I doubt that anyone has made a closer study of Lew Wasserman’s method and practice than Barry Diller, although the agent Michael Ovitz probably runs him a close second. MCA was principally a talent agency for forty years. For Diller, Lew Wasserman was the gold standard, and he said as much when he addressed the crowd. So many of the great and famous were crammed into the amphitheater that day that, had an earthquake swallowed the place, it would have been necessary to more or less start over with Hollywood.

Connie Bruck has written a fascinating, if, of necessity, somewhat constrained book about this shock-and-awe-inspiring man. It is neither a full biography nor yet a narrowly defined history of Wasserman’s business career. Lew Wasserman was, for example, married to Edie Wasserman for more than sixty-five years, but the reader will have to skip and dip to locate even five pages about what would normally be called Lew Wasserman’s “personal life.”

By contrast the several chapters Ms. Bruck devotes to the crucial years between 1946, when Wasserman became president of MCA, and 1962, when he and the founder of the company, Jules Stein, agreed to dissolve their talent agency in order to avoid being put out of business altogether by an antitrust action, are so packed and dense with business detail that I had to read them three times in order to feel that I had the sequence of events more or less clear.

Ms. Bruck’s task was not made easier by the fact that Lew Wasserman was a quiet man in a loud town—quiet, that is, unless he was in the process of losing his terrible, blistering temper; when that occurred, as it not infrequently did, I don’t know if the Black Tower—as sufferers call the Universal headquarters building in Studio City—itself actually shook, but you can bet the people in it shook. Many wept, some fainted. And yet …

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