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Dark Victory: RONALD REAGAN, MCA AND THE MOB by Dan E. Moldea (Viking: $18.95; 382 pp., illustrated)

October 12, 1986|David Pecchia | Pecchia is a Times editorial employee and regular contributor to Sunday Calendar

Organized crime will put a man in the White House someday--and he won't know it until they hand him the bill.

The implication is obvious. The message--disturbing. These words, attributed to New York Police Department's Ralph Salerno in 1967, precede the text of Dan E. Moldea's "Dark Victory." Ronald Reagan had a featured part in the 1939 Bette Davis film of the same name. In Moldea's book, however, Reagan has the starring role.

The author, who detailed the rise and fall of former Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa in 1978's "The Hoffa Wars," has picked the Music Corp. of America as his target this time out. Reagan, in much younger days, was represented by that entertainment conglomerate while also serving a six-term run as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Moldea focuses primarily on the alleged, lucrative arrangements that were bestowed on MCA by a far from impartial Reagan. In turn, MCA reportedly rejuvenated the actor's floundering career with acting jobs and real estate ventures that would ultimately make him a multimillionaire.

Working chronologically, the author briefly touches on the origins of MCA. Jules Stein was an ophthalmologist who discovered that he could make more money booking bands than as an eye doctor, so in 1924, with old college buddy William R. Goodheart, he co-founded MCA. Shrewd and somewhat underhanded booking tactics (clubs that refused exclusive deals with Stein's company were pelted with stink bombs during the sets of other agency's bands) quickly established MCA as a major force in the music industry. By the mid-1930s, it represented more than half of the nation's major bands.

As MCA's power and influence rapidly expanded, organized-crime members muscled their way into lofty show business union positions. Depicted in the book as the liaison between the Mob and the labor unions is Chicago attorney Sidney Korshak, another "Dark Victory" main character. Moldea is meticulous and thorough in these areas, carefully pointing out relationships between mobsters and moguls, MCA or otherwise.

Enter Ronald Reagan. His film career on the skids, and first wife Jane Wyman filing for divorce for "extreme mental cruelty," Reagan began devoting more of his time to duties as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Wyman had also said in court that his activities with the guild had led to the dissolution of the marriage. "Perhaps I should have let someone else save the world and saved my own home," said Reagan at the time, somewhat prophetically.

By 1952, Lew Wasserman had taken over the reigns of power at MCA as its president (Stein stepping up to chairman of the board). Reagan and the guild at this time granted MCA a "blanket waiver" allowing them to go into television production while still operating as a talent agency, an arrangement previously prohibited by guild rules. Other agencies were denied such waivers and screamed their disapproval. However, it wasn't until the early '60s that (through pressure from the federal courts by way of antitrust litigation) MCA decided to abandon its talent agency in favor of production.

Also included in "Dark Victory" is the entire transcript of Reagan's Feb. 5, 1962, grand jury testimony. Excerpts have been printed in Daily Variety by reporter David Robb, who uncovered the document, but here we have the entire testimony. More than 30 pages of what could be called an "attack of amnesia" by Reagan.

The book forges on through Reagan's tenures as California governor, subsequent presidential attempts, and finally, his 1980 election.

"Dark Victory" is indeed a victory for author Moldea. He has, through sheer tenacity, amassed an avalanche of ominous and unnerving facts. It's a book about power, ego and the American way. Moldea has shown us what we don't want to see. We need to look closely at his findings to try to understand what makes them matter.

Granted, Moldea has gathered much of his accounts through other, pre-existent material; the notes and bibliography sections overflow with the sources of his research. Granted too, the author's style tends to be on the flat side with little humor or liveliness. These problems are minor. There is much information that is fresh in this book, and through numerous interviews and previously unattainable federal documents, Moldea has woven myriad previously separated facts into a startling political pattern.

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