In When Hollywood Had a King, the distinguished journalist Connie Bruck tells the sweeping story of MCA and its brilliant leader, a man who transformed the entertainment industry— businessman, politician, tactician, and visionary Lew Wasserman.
The Music Corporation of America was founded in Chicago in 1924 by Dr. Jules Stein, an ophthalmologist with a gift for booking bands. Twelve years later, Stein moved his operations west to Beverly Hills and hired Lew Wasserman. From his meager beginnings as a movie-theater usher in Cleveland, Wasserman ultimately ascended to the post of president of MCA, and the company became the most powerful force in Hollywood, regarded with a mixture of fear and awe.
In his signature black suit and black knit tie, Was-serman took Hollywood by storm. He shifted the balance of power from the studios—which had seven-year contractual strangleholds on the stars—to the talent, who became profit partners. When an antitrust suit forced MCA’s evolution from talent agency to film- and television-production company, it was Wasserman who parlayed the control of a wide variety of entertainment and media products into a new type of Hollywood power base. There was only Washington left to conquer, and conquer it Wasserman did, quietly brokering alliances with Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
That Wasserman’s reach extended from the underworld to the White House only added to his mystique. Among his friends were Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, mob lawyer Sidney Korshak, and gangster Moe Dalitz—along with Presidents Johnson, Clinton, and especially Reagan, who enjoyed a particularly close and mutually beneficial relationship with Wasserman. He was equally intimate with Hollywood royalty, from Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart to Steven Spielberg, who began his career at MCA and once described Wasserman’s eyeglasses as looking like two giant movie screens.
The history of MCA is really the history of a revolution. Lew Wasserman ushered in the Hollywood we know today. He is the link between the old-school moguls with their ironclad studio contracts and the new industry defined by multimedia conglomerates, power agents, multimillionaire actors, and profit sharing. In the hands of Connie Bruck, the story of Lew Wasserman’s rise to power takes on an almost Shakespearean scope. When Hollywood Had a King reveals the industry’s greatest untold story: how a stealthy, enterprising power broker became, for a time, Tinseltown’s absolute monarch.
Until his death last year, Wasserman was one of the last survivors from the corporate side of Hollywood's golden era. Having started as an agent at MCA, he eventually became the firm's president, but not before he'd turned the talent agency into a powerful film and television studio, buying out Universal in the process. Wasserman's story is inseparable from that of MCA, and this book appropriately begins with an account of the company's founder, Jules Stein, who began booking bands from his Chicago office in 1924. This put Stein, and MCA, in contact with the local musicians' union, which then linked him to organized crime the first of several such links the book explores. Wasserman helped shift the balance of power to Hollywood, remaining with the firm despite being widely sought after by rival agencies and movie studios. He also helped extend MCA's political influence, through extensive fund-raising and a longstanding connection with former client Ronald Reagan. New Yorker staffer Bruck (Master of the Game) is strong on Wasserman's corporate tactics, as well as later buyouts of Universal by foreign investors. But she also demonstrates extensive familiarity with the business's underside, exploring Wasserman's connections with mob lawyer Sidney Korshak, which assured a comfortable relationship between MCA and Hollywood's unions. Much more than a celebrity-studded tale, Bruck's work offers a look at the corporate machinations behind the film industry's myths. 8-page photo insert not seen by PW. (On sale June 3)