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The Double Life of a Beloved Insider

Why did a top publicist to rock and movie stars use their names to swindle his friends? Paul Wasserman wanted to be rich and famous too.

December 17, 2000|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace, a former Times staff writer, is a senior writer at Los Angeles Magazine

Once, Paul Wasserman was a legendary publicist in Hollywood. The rumpled man everyone knew as "Wasso" handled the media for such musical giants as the Rolling Stones, the Who, U2, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, and actors such as Jack Nicholson, Lee Marvin and Dennis Hopper. Now, he's in jail.

For nearly 30 years, Wasserman ruled. An old-school strategist who read a dozen newspapers a day, he knew how to defuse the bad press and cultivate the good. While on tour with his bands, he kept journals of their on-the-road antics and mailed them to the nation's top music critics and writers. Once, he stood outside a San Antonio hotel room until 4 a.m. to make sure Mick Jagger didn't miss an important interview.

Wasserman was persuasive and well-connected, and that, perversely, is what got him in trouble. For more than a decade, Wasserman, 66, had been using his connections to the rich and famous to swindle some of his dearest noncelebrity friends. Falsely claiming to be selling shares in investment schemes that he said were backed by clients Nicholson, U2 and Internet powerhouse Yahoo!, Wasserman cajoled friends and acquaintances out of cash, usually in $10,000 and $25,000 chunks. Then, three months ago, his lies took him down.

"I've always liked living on the edge. But I guess I realize I don't have the ability to kill myself, so I'm facing the music," Wasserman said last month in an exclusive interview with The Times at the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, his home since August. Looking wan and fragile in his brown jail jumpsuit, the gray-bearded publicist acknowledged swindling more than 20 people, but insisted he repaid a few who badly needed the money.

"I'm benevolent, you know. I'm a good guy. . . . There are two mes. Here, I'm stealing from a friend. Here, I'm a guy that's helping a friend."

Wasserman's descent from first-class hotel suites and private jets to a dank, six-man jail cell is a distinctly Hollywood story about the corrupting power of fame. At its root, it is the tale of a great publicist who resented that he would never shine as brightly as his clients, and who decided to get even.

But Wasso wasn't the only one who was undone by envy and avarice. His scams played on a kind of star-is-born fantasy, clung to by many in Los Angeles, that one's fate can change overnight. Wasserman trafficked in the idea that the right connections could solve life's problems and get you rich quick. And the people he robbed wanted to believe.

"He got to me on the greed factor," admitted Brenda Kershenbaum, who invested $25,000 last year in a sham stock option after Wasserman told her Nicholson had also bought in. "He told me later that he'd figured out that the stock market was just like the movie industry. All you have to do is start a rumor about what's hot. But he messed with the wrong woman."

Last month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronni B. MacLaren accepted Wasserman's guilty plea to one felony count of grand theft. He was sentenced to six months in jail, five years of probation and restitution of nearly $87,000 to be paid to Kershenbaum and two other victims. As for the other people Wasserman admits he duped, most did not file police reports. Many declined to be named for this article, saying they were embarrassed.

"My pain is more emotional than financial--to be taken by somebody who I was so fond of. We used to talk every day. He just put out the carrot and I was willing to bite," said one longtime friend, the husband of one of Dylan's former personal assistants, who was scammed for $40,000 two years ago but did not press charges.

*

In recent interviews with dozens of Wasserman's business associates and friends, a portrait emerged of an eccentric, lonely man. Fond of making dramatic gestures, he gave thoughtful gifts and liked to pick up the check at dinner. But he also made a habit of stealing silverware from the city's finest restaurants. He represented some of the wealthiest people in entertainment. But instead of defrauding those with really deep pockets, he robbed his friends--seven of whom were interviewed by The Times--of what appears to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"You don't ask somebody with $20 million does he want to invest in something," Wasserman explained. "And I guess I wouldn't have gone that far--screwing a client."

Spokesmen for those whose names Wasserman used to lend credibility to his scams reacted with surprise when contacted by The Times. All said they had no knowledge of the supposed investment opportunities Wasserman was peddling, which included Neptune Inc., a nonexistent film production company that he claimed was Nicholson's; a radio-TV network in Ireland that U2 was said to be backing; and stock options in Yahoo! that Wasserman said he was authorized to sell.

Nicholson declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Principle Management, which manages U2, said, "He was a terrific publicist and we are distressed by the situation."

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