Farewell, Michael Eisner

I’ll cherish those witty notes you used to send me.

Looking back on Eisner's golden ears. Click image to expand.
Looking back on Eisner’s golden ears

How I will miss Michael Eisner—my Moby Dick, my Great White. In a world where the studios are run by suits, Eisner was an executive who carried himself like a Hollywood mogul. He didn’t own Disney but, by God, he acted as though he did. The judge in that shareholder case in Delaware put it best: Eisner’s conduct was “imperial” and “Machiavellian.” He had acted as “the omnipotent and infallible monarch of his personal Magic Kingdom.” You just don’t get media barons like that any more.

Eisner was once considered a kind of genius, but his image has been tarnished of late by his costly fights with former friends and associates. What’s easy to forget is how engaging he was. Colder than Walt’s supposedly frozen corpse, he could also be mesmerizing: quick, funny, slightly off-the-wall … and potentially lethal.

I first met Eisner in 1986. In those days, he had a wonderful, avuncular P.R. man—the late Erwin Okun—who made sure Eisner knew enough about a journalist to flatter him or her into a state of near senselessness. Before that first meeting, Okun learned that I liked Jane Austen. Almost as soon as I sat down in the chair, Eisner told me he was re-reading Pride and Prejudice in my honor. “Quick,” I wanted to say. “What’s Darcy’s first name?” (Answer: Fitzwilliam.)

Soon after the interview, an envelope arrived at my office (then at the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley). Inside was a pamphlet, “The Jane Austen Map of England,” and a red-ink note written in Eisner’s boyish scrawl.

Dear ‘Janeite’ Kim, I thought you would enjoy the Jane Austen Map of England as I start my abandonment of Romanticism (goodbye Hawthorne, Melville, Dumas and even good old Emily Bronte) toward realism and order and discipline. And I’ve already read 100 pages of Pride and Prejudice.Neoclassically yours,

Yes, I was cynical of this gesture. What harried assistant had really tracked down the Jane Austen Map of England? Did he or she also supply an executive summary of the major themes of English literature? Yet, the fact that I kept the note shows how effective it was. And looking back, I realize that it underscores a point in which Eisner took considerable pride. “I was an English major!” the note screams. “Unlike those schmucks David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and even Barry Diller—one of the few people who actually intimidates me on God’s earth—I have a college diploma!”

Eisner made spectacular use of such notes—usually composed on narrow “buck slips” with the Disney logo on top. A journalist at a business magazine once told me that Eisner (or someone) slipped one under his door at home one afternoon. I have another that I particularly like. It arrived after the premiere party for The Lion King at the National Zoo in Washington. It was 1994 and the shit was about to hit the fan at Disney, as Katzenberg was a nanosecond away from getting the ax as studio chief. I saw Eisner at the party after the screening but barely had a chance to nod in his direction. Here’s the note:

Kim, I ran out on Thursday night. I did not get a chance to say goodnight—
Goodnight, it was nice seeing you.Best,

With the death of Erwin Okun, such niceties vanished—at least for me. Even so, Eisner flourished as Disney’s commander in chief. A friend once told me about a fund-raiser at the late Hollywood emperor Lew Wasserman’s house. Everyone was waiting for the president (that would have been Bill Clinton) to arrive. Sitting among the expectant guests was Jane Eisner. When there was a sudden bustle outside, someone said, “That must be the president!” At which point Jane supposedly chimed in, “Or my husband.”

Eventually, the façade of imperial command cracked. Eisner’s shortcomings became exposed as the team that had helped him transform Disney dropped away. The executive group was like the Beatles: Eisner and his patrician No. 2 man, Frank Wells, were John and Paul. The annoying but effective Katzenberg and the unsung Okun were Ringo and George. That version of the Beatles broke up in 1994, Disney’s annus horribilis. Wells died in a helicopter crash, Okun was carried off suddenly by illness, and Eisner tossed out Katzenberg on his round, black ear.

Disney already had a reputation for litigiousness but Eisner took it to a new level once he was unfettered by the counsel of Wells (who was not only a lawyer but a Rhodes scholar, thereby trumping Eisner’s college degree and commanding his respect). Katzenberg sued to get his money, which led to the airing of Eisner’s now-famous line: “I think I hate the little midget.” The same lawsuit also produced the less-remembered but equally beguiling, “I’m the cheerleader and he’s the tip of my pompom.”

Shareholders delivered another memorable piece of theater by suing over the $140 million severance package lavished on Michael Ovitz after a mere 14 months as Disney’s president. In that trial, it came out that Eisner had called his erstwhile friend incompetent, untruthful, and “a psychopath.” Name another executive—at least, one who hasn’t done hard time—who’s delivered that type of entertainment.

More recently—with the end in sight—Eisner published the book Camp, a valentine to his boyhood summertime experiences. Who else would have the chutzpah to publish a book about teamwork and fair play just as he’s under oath explaining how he’d shivved his erstwhile best friend, aka the psychopath?

What Eisner will do in the wake of leaving Disney is, of course, the subject of dinner-party speculation in Hollywood. He once told Charlie Rose that he’d stay at Disney until he died. Now he’s out at just 63. There’s time, perhaps, for another act, and meanwhile, he’s got a little empire to build. Eisner loves architecture (all that control!) and he’s had Robert Stern working on an enormous oceanfront property on the western edge of Malibu. A prominent Malibu neighbor admirably describes the Eisner project as a “Hyannisport thing,” referring to the famous Kennedy family compound in Massachusetts. Eisner is the only guy in Malibu who’s received permission to build a two-story elevator into the bluff to whisk family and friends partway down the steep embankment to a cabana overlooking the beach.

This project has given him plenty to fight about. With the litigation and bureaucratic battles that have been under way for some years now, Eisner’s architectural plans, permit applications, and other documents now take up more than 8 feet of shelf space in a California Coastal Commission office. So, even if Moby Dick is temporarily beached, with that kind of conflict, he’ll feel right at home.