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Eyes Wide Shut

In the Land of 10,000 Maniacs, David Geffen is King

THE OPERATOR: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood; By Tom King; Random House: 674 pp., $25.95

March 12, 2000|FRED GOODMAN | Fred Goodman is the author of "The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce."

Wealth, applied with intelligence and charity, can do a lot of good. It also has the power to write history. Yesterday's robber barons, amassing immense personal fortunes at everyone else's expense, are today's philanthropic foundations. Henry Ford might have been the most important businessman in American history, but he was also a notorious anti-Semite whose labor practices included recruiting murderous anti-union goons right out of the Michigan prisons. Who could blame him or his heirs for preferring to link the family name with research grants, museum exhibits and PBS programs? It's not difficult to find a man who believes you don't succeed in this life unless you're a son of a bitch; it's impossible to find one who wants to be remembered that way.

Hollywood kingpin David Geffen takes his legacy and the heft of his life and wealth seriously: He once suggested to a reporter that only Robert A. Caro, perhaps America's best and most celebrated biographer, could do justice to his life story, and though that pairing would have been as out of place as Vladimir Horowitz on Asylum Records, it speaks eloquently to Geffen's sense of self and his dreams of aggrandizement. Still, the mogul found a serious and appropriate biographer when he agreed to tell his story to Wall Street Journal reporter Tom King in 1996. And although Geffen later grew leery of King's line of questioning and stopped cooperating with him, it's unlikely he expected the results to read anything like the exhaustive and distressing 674-page chronicle of greed and misanthropy that "The Operator" turns out to be.

For anyone with even a passing knowledge of the modern entertainment business, the trajectory of Geffen's career is already a familiar story. Over the course of the last four decades, he has proved himself a brilliant businessman,made one of the biggest fortunes in Hollywood by starting and selling first Asylum Records and then Geffen Records, and he is a partner with director Steven Spielberg and film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg in DreamWorks SKG. His endless machinations and Machiavellian penchant for making friends and enemies in both the film and record industries are equally legendary, and he has, at various times, counted Steve Ross, Ahmet Ertegun, Mo Ostin and Ted Ashley as mentors and adversaries while alternately courting and denigrating a cast of artists and executives that appears to have included everyone in the business at least once. The contours of his personal life--from his childhood in Brooklyn to his emergence later in life as an openly gay man and a major financial supporter of AIDS charities and fund-raiser for Bill Clinton--have also been widely chronicled in several books and dozens of magazine profiles. For the most part, the press--including such major outlets as Vanity Fair, 20/20, the New York Times, Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times--have treated him with kid gloves. King has not.

If all that media coverage supplied the road map of Geffen's life, then "The Operator" provides a topography of the landscape. From the Brooklyn classmate who recalls him as a teenage backstabber--"a lying cheat obsessed with taking credit" in King's words--to the more recent unreported and unbidden acts of kindness, such as the rekindling of a dormant relationship with agent Sue Mengers at the time of her husband's death, King offers a great deal of detail. But it's plain to see why Geffen would ultimately disassociate himself from this book: Though the executive is willing, even eager, to show the world how awfully relentless he is, more often he just seems relentlessly awful. By the chilling end of "The Operator's" second chapter, when Geffen's brother recalls how the 18-year-old David's first-ever limousine ride--a trip to the cemetery to bury their father--was an occasion to fantasize that people passing them on the road might think them rich, it's easy to wonder whether anything that comes after will make David Geffen sympathetic.

A disagreeable subject is not a minor obstacle for a biographer to overcome. King's strategy is to focus on a simple question: Why David Geffen? Why, of all the people in the entertainment industry, did he succeed so extraordinarily as a businessman? The answer, as King presents it, is a gift for recognizing the path to success and plotting a sometimes Byzantine strategy to achieve it. More important to King, Geffen sticks to that path with a sometimes superhuman determination which "The Operator" attributes to a nearly pathological fear--fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of dying his father's anonymous death.

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