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Barber to the Stars Seeks a Bigger Cut of Iacocca Book

September 28, 1987|PAULA SPAN | The Washington Post

NEW YORK — In the beginning, everyone seemed quite delighted with the arrangement--the barber, the business icon and the publisher.

The barber--Gio Hernandez, who owns a swank little salon in the Hotel Pierre where the mighty get manicured--called his client and "dear friend" Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca on behalf of another client, a Bantam Books veep eager to publish Iacocca's autobiography. Bantam was granted an audience; Iacocca signed the contract. Gio (no one calls him anything else) was invited to the publishing party, three years ago now, where he told reporters--he loves reporters--that he would now proceed with the film deal.

"Everything was very easy and very pleasant," Gio recalls, "until they started to make a lot of money on this book."

The Friendship Wanes

"Iacocca: An Autobiography" went on to become one of the biggest-selling nonfiction titles in history. And somewhere around the 20th printing, Bantam and the barber found their friendship wearing thin.

Now they're in court, Gio claiming that he's entitled to the standard 10% literary agent's commission, Bantam scoffing (in a legal memorandum) that he was "of no ultimate significance in the publication of 'Iacocca.' " Recently, a New York State Supreme Court judge rejected Bantam's motion for summary judgment, thereby permitting Gio to pursue the case.

"I can't wait to go to trial," Gio says, snipping gracefully at the nape of "my good friend," former "CBS Morning News" anchor Forrest Sawyer.

Anyone whose head, pores or cuticles Gio tends becomes his dear friend, a list that includes ABC News chief Roone Arledge, Yankees potentate George Steinbrenner, director Sidney Lumet, superagent Mort Janklow and broadcaster Frank Gifford, who gets regular pedicures. He dined with Iacocca recently, Gio reveals without much prodding, and is headed for actor Al Pacino's apartment at 7:30 this evening, Al being in need of a trim.

A Cuban immigrant who built his clientele at Bergdorf's, then opened his own shop five years ago, Gio now charges $100 for the first styling, a mere $65 thereafter. (He has come to work this day in a Hermes shirt and tie.)

He can get a client a discount on a Chrysler or wangle him a seat on a booked plane. He's seen at the Super Bowl and the U. S. Open; he flew to Monte Carlo this spring for the Grand Prix. He's Barber to the Stars, business and media division.

"I don't mind to lose or win--well, I would like to win; it's my money, I should get it," Gio amends, combing and cutting. "The main thing is to prove the point."

The point, to Gio's way of thinking, is that Bantam Vice President and Director of Publicity Stuart Applebaum, his one-time barbee, agreed to compensate him for his services as go-between (though how much compensation was never specified, he concedes). Deal making is an honored activity hereabouts--each of the salon's marble-floored cubicles contains a phone so clients can reach brokers and negotiate clauses right through their shampoos--and Gio feels his honor has been impugned by Bantam's insistence that he was not a player in the publishing coup of the decade.

He and Iacocca are "closer than ever," assures Gio. "It's the publisher, not the author," who's feeling his legal wrath.

Denies the Claim

Bantam, for its part, emphatically denies that Applebaum or anyone else at Bantam made any agreement with Gio. "We're confident that if and when this does go forward, we will prevail, because the claim is without any merit," says Sara Goodman, associate general counsel for Bantam Books.

But because Bantam executives apparently, at one time, believed Gio deserved something, the publisher sent him a check for $5,000 in November, 1984. An accompanying invoice read "consultant fee re: Iacocca." Bantam, whose legal memorandum now describes the check as "a totally voluntary gift," may have thought this a gracious gesture. Unfortunately for Bantam, it arrived on a day when yet another of Gio's dear friends--attorney Roy Cohn--came in for an appointment.

"He was very upset," Gio recalls. As Cohn put it to a reporter at the time, "If they'd called (Gio) in and praised him for his role and offered $100,000"--a trifling sum under the circumstances, Cohn thought--"he's the kind of guy who would have taken it."

Returned the Check

Cohn, clearly not that kind of guy, sent the check back to Bantam with a note suggesting that perhaps the $5,000 was a tip left after a haircut. A few months later, Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, the law firm with which Cohn was associated, filed Gio's lawsuit.

Cohn has since died of AIDS.

But the suit lives. "I think it will go to trial and I think it will be successful," says Filip Tiffenberg of Saxe, Bacon.

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