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Author Finds Magic Wearing Off of Eisner's Kingdom

March 17, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

"I'm Peter Guber, right? That's your book," bristled Michael Eisner in a characteristically distrustful, albeit understandable, response to journalist Kim Masters' initial interview request in 1997 for her book on the Disney chief.

Eisner, portrayed in the book as becoming "increasingly Nixonian in his paranoia and isolation" ever since Disney President Frank Wells died in a 1994 helicopter crash, would continue to turn down Masters' repeated interview requests despite her assurances that "I'm painting a subtle and nuanced portrait of you, and you are not Peter Guber."

Eisner knew better. The book will be out next week titled "The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip."

Masters, respected for her reporting on Hollywood for such publications as Vanity Fair, Time and the Washington Post, co-wrote the hard-hitting 1996 bestseller "Hit & Run," a scathing expose of former Sony studio heads Peter Guber and Jon Peters and how they "took Sony for a ride in Hollywood."

Masters went on quite a ride herself on the way to getting her Disney tome published.

The book chronicles Eisner's rise to power from his early days at ABC television and the wild "Killer Diller" days at Paramount Pictures, and it portrays the Disney chief as someone who has enjoyed a brilliant career but at his core is mercurial, manipulative, impulsive, intractable, deceptive and aloof.

"Keys to the Kingdom" hits bookstores next week, on the heels of another just-published Hollywood biography, Tom King's "The Operator," about Eisner's nemesis David Geffen.

Like all books on Hollywood's power elite, "Keys to the Kingdom" comes into the market amid a flurry of industry anticipation as well as a good dose of hype.

Masters was quoted this week by her former employer, the Washington Post, carping about allegedly being blackballed from promoting her book on Disney-owned media outlets such as ABC's "Good Morning America."

In early 1999, Broadway Books, a publishing division of Random House Inc., canceled its contract with Masters to publish the book, claiming the manuscript was less revelatory and hard-hitting than expected and demanding that the author repay the half of her reported $700,000 advance she had already received. Masters hired Hollywood's famous bulldog litigator Bert Fields to handle the matter.

Fields accused the publisher of dumping the book because Random House's parent company, Bertelsmann, bowed to pressure from Eisner.

Fields said at the time that he found it very odd that Broadway Books, which had raved about the book in its spring 1999 catalog, suddenly decided not to publish it. Fields also suggested that Random House may have changed its mind because it had published Eisner's 1998 autobiography "Work in Progress."

Random House said Fields' accusations were absurd and defended itself by denigrating Masters' work.

"We're not going forward with Kim Masters' book because we found the reporting to be sadly inadequate," Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum said at the time. Applebaum also said that Disney had no role in "tampering with Broadway Books' editorial integrity."

In June, Masters and Random House reached an undisclosed settlement, which some speculate allowed the author to retain the half of the advance she had already received and released the book rights so she could make a deal elsewhere. William Morrow & Co., which at the time was owned by Hearst Corp. and was later sold to Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins, quickly made a deal.

Masters said she could not comment on the ordeal, though she was more than eager to talk about the book itself, which she views as a "balanced" view of a very complicated man.

Morrow editor Henry Ferris, reached this week in New York, said, "Random House and Broadway Books' opinion of the book was not particularly relevant to me. When I read the manuscript, I regarded it as extremely well reported." Masters, he continued, "has an incredibly good reputation, and I found the reporting in this book to be up to her standard. And I think her standard is extraordinary."

Asked how extensive his content edit was, Ferris said, "That's between me and Kim. But let me say, the manuscript I received was beyond acceptably publishable." He quickly added, "Did I think the book needed a major overhaul? No, I didn't."

Masters' hiring of Fields raised some eyebrows in journalism circles, with many believing it was a conflict of interest for her to use the same lawyer who at the time was representing former Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg in his $250-million legal battle with Eisner and Disney.

Time decided against Masters covering the Katzenberg-Disney trial for the magazine. But she didn't recuse herself from writing about it for Vanity Fair, where she acknowledged that Fields was representing her in the publishing dispute.

Masters has told friends that she was under extreme time pressure to hire a lawyer and found nothing wrong with hiring Fields, whom she regarded strictly as a hired hand.

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