Special to the Big Thrill: Reconnaissance as a True Profession by Kathleen Sharp
It was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get into the Black Tower. I had no crampons, harness or rope, and security on the top floor was tighter than that inside a Swizz bank. I considered going the traditional route: up the elevator, through the gauntlet and into the lion’s den. But that way was madness. Lew Wasserman was the legendary creator of Universal Studios, the long-reining king of Hollywood, friend of Cleveland’s Silent Syndicate, and he hadn’t gotten that far by being nice and open.
So, I swallowed hard and did what every non-fiction suspense author does: I requested an interview.
And I was summarily rejected.
That was about 13 lucky years ago, after I signed a deal with a New York publisher to write Lew’s biography called MR. AND MRS. HOLLYWOOD: EDIE AND LEW WASSERMAN AND THEIR ENTERTAINMENT EMPIRE. Who knew that the kingpin never gave interviews?
Like many movie legends, aspects of Lew’s reputation turned out to be false. I eventually interviewed the man in his Tower, but only after several years and 450 interviews. Hollywood has an arcane pecking order with all the intrigue and betrayal of a Borgia Court. But I wasn’t a thriller fan for nothing. As a reporter, I turned to the tactics I’d read about in the nail-biting novels penned by so many ITW friends. To wit:
1. Circle the castle. Wasserman had been born into poverty in Cleveland in 1913. As a teenager, he’d worked the door of an illegal casino owned by Moe Dalitz, rum-runner Morris Kleinman and other members of the Jewish crime syndicate. The “crooked noses” went on to build Las Vegas, hiring bands and stage talent controlled by the then-agent Lew— Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, and others. I found the capos and runners who had worked backstage at The Desert Inn, The Sands and other spots. And boy, did they have stories, like the fact that Lew and his men patronized all the hotels in town except The Flamingo. Why? Because Lew knew that Bugsy Siegel was skimming money from the mob’s casino, and wanted to stay clear of trouble. Bugsy was eventually gunned down but not Lew.
2. Move from outer circle to inner sanctum. These charming old-timers eventually introduced me to the “acts” they had represented. That’s how I met the star of SPELLBOUND (1945) the psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In that film, Gregory Peck played an amnesiac wrongly accused, but in our talks, he came across as a strong and gentle man. Our interviews were more like friendly exchanges and we found common ground. Gregory Peck was Catholic, had married a reporter, and had a son who lived in my town of Santa Barbara. Peck told me that after Lew took over Universal Studio, “things were chillier” on the set of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). That coldness may not have pleased Peck. But you can feel the chill in several key scenes of that beloved movie—for the better.
3. Cherchez le femme. Many a great mystery involves a woman and so, too, in the life of a great man. While researching this book, I ran into the back story of Lew’s wife, Edie. This firecracker of a woman had practically lived at Cleveland’s night clubs in the 1930s and no wonder. Her father had been the attorney for the mob and had crossed paths with Meyer Lansky and other underground types. In 1932, Edie’s dad had stood trial for embezzling a fortune from the public treasury in the “most outstanding criminal case” in Cleveland’s history. After that sensational trial, three friendly judges acquitted Edie’s dad. The next day she eloped with her boyfriend, Lew. He found work with the biggest talent agency of its day, which sent the newlyweds to the no-man’s land of Los Angeles.
There, the daughter of the mob proved she had a nose for power. In 1939, Edie let a struggling actor sleep at her home until he could find work, thus earning the loyalty of Jimmy Stewart. Around 1969, she befriended an obscure peanut farmer and funded his political campaign, turning Jimmy Carter into the 39th president of the United States. Edie was the power behind Lew’s throne, more colorful than her taciturn husband. She soon got equal billing in my book.
4. Close the circle: Throughout my years of reporting, I kept Lew apprised of my progress. I continued to send him letters requesting interviews, and he continued to decline. By then, however, I had interviewed most of his friends and enemies: Tony Curtis, Steven Spielberg, Mike Ovitz, and Nancy Reagan. Some of these people reported back to their boss, telling them that, for a journalist, I was okay. “You should talk to her.”
Finally, in 1999, Lew received me in his suite atop the Black Tower on the studio lot. He was alternately rough, stern, funny and endearing. I was one of the last people to interview the lion and, a year or so after his death, Carroll & Graf published my book. The next year, I helped turn MR. AND MRS. HOLLYWOOD: EDIE AND LEW WASSERMAN AND THEIR ENTERTAINMENT EMPIRE into the acclaimed documentary THE LAST MOGUL (Think Films). It was released in theaters in 2005 and still plays on Bravo and other cable channels. The NEW YORK TIMES hailed it as “elegantly classy,” rather like Lew.
And this month, AudioGo (formerly BBC Audio) is issuing a new condensed version of the book to mark the mogul’s 100th birthday and the 100th anniversary of Universal City itself. The e-book will be followed by the audio book in July and there are plans for a paperback later this year.
These days, Hollywood is a loose affiliation of not just studios but of conglomerates; moguls like Lew no longer rule. Yet, the world still loves a good tale and the cat-and-mouse strategies that work so well in suspense novels are absolutely essential in the hard work of writing true thrillers. KIRKUS REVIEWS called my book “dramatic and enthralling…lavish and extravagant.” But the same thing could be said for the lives of Edie and Lew Wasserman. He made the deals: She mixed the drinks. And together they were nothing less than vital.
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