Movie and music mogul David Geffen is a drama queen–that much seems incontrovertible. He is also probably impulsive, unreliable, domineering, meddlesome, egomaniacal, somewhat treacherous, and, having enjoyed his position as one of the richest and most feared power brokers in Hollywood for an unusually long time, not very good at taking criticism–at least not with any grace or style. (Click here to read about the hysteria with which he greeted a biography of him filled with dish.)
But Geffen almost certainly balances his less lovable traits with reserves of taste and charm. How else could he have spotted as much talent as he did and given it sustenance and room enough to grow? How else could he have managed to win back as many friends as he has, after having alienated one after another with his trademark screaming fits? Laura Nyro, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Cher, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Nirvana, Courtney Love, Tom Cruise, Albert Brooks, and innumerable protégés on the business side all owe a goodly portion of their exceedingly lucrative careers to him. Calvin Klein when he almost went bankrupt, the late Columbia Pictures president Dawn Steele when she got brain cancer, agent Sue Mengers when her husband died and she fell ill, and several AIDS organizations have benefited from Geffen’s un-self-interested generosity. Even Wall Street Journal reporter Tom King, Geffen’s embittered and estranged biographer, concedes that the man has magnetism. “There’s a magic about him that’s irresistible,” he told Lisa De Paulo in New York magazine. “I found it seductive too.”
Having been seduced, King must have found it galling to be abandoned. That is the only explanation Culturebox can think of for the spiteful pathography King has produced. The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood evinces on almost every page a weakness fatal to the biographical project: King dislikes his subject so much he can’t explain what’s interesting enough to warrant the book-length treatment, let alone why we should hate Geffen as much as King does. He either refuses to or is incapable of getting far enough inside Geffen’s skin to make him marginally sympathetic, nor does King have the literary ability to create a vivid portrait of the monster he makes Geffen out to be. All King can do is give us the dry outlines of Geffen’s business deals–a few of them brilliant, many of them prescient, some of them appallingly slimy–and a great deal of sputtering and jeering.
The jeering begins in the foreword, which King must have written as an exercise in preventive counterspin, knowing that Geffen would attack the book. In it he outlines the terms of his deal with Geffen, alluding almost mockingly to Geffen’s hope that his biography would not be dissimilar to one recently written about Warren Buffett, and seeming to brag about how he told Geffen, apparently dishonestly, that he “wanted to write a biography that would examine [Geffen’s] towering professional achievements as well as his compelling personal journey.” Next, King lists all the people he talked to who were afraid of Geffen–or, at least, afraid of what might happen if they talked to King. He seems quite confident that the key to their reluctance lies in their relationship with Geffen, not in any doubts they may have harbored about King.
King then proceeds to describe Geffen’s childhood, where he justifies every one of Geffen’s outbursts by trashing Geffen’s mother. Batya Geffen, obviously the source of Geffen’s entrepreneurial zeal and intelligence, was a poor Ukrainian Jew who managed to get an education by sneaking past Russian revolutionary guards into Romania at the age of 13. In her 20s, she fled to Palestine to work as a seamstress for an uncle, and then made it to America by marrying Geffen’s American father. Abe Geffen, a passive Jew who had converted to Christian Science, was chronically unemployed, so she went back to sewing and opened a brassiere business with which she supported the family. When her mother-in-law was widowed without an inheritance, Batya added her to the list of people she took care of. When Batya learned from her sister in the Soviet Union that the rest of her extended family had been wiped out in the Holocaust, she kept it to herself until she finally had a nervous breakdown. Having recited this chronicle of suffering and stoicism, what does King choose to dwell upon? The fact that Batya was blunt, bossy, something of a ball-buster, and favored David over his older brother. “Like Mother, Like Son” is the mean-spirited title of the second chapter.
The sputtering comes next. As a child, Geffen was what Jews call a finagler–he would say or do anything to get what he wanted. He became a ticket scalper when he was a preteen. He forged his parents’ signature on high-school report cards that said he needed to work on effort, courtesy, and self-control, so that they never saw the documents. He dropped in and out of college, lying constantly about which school he went to and how much he had attended. He lied his way into his first real job in the William Morris mailroom, and then, realizing that some day his bosses would check his references, came in an hour early every day to make sure no damning piece of mail made it onto their desks. He rose through the ranks at William Morris and several other agencies and record companies by dint of extremely hard work and an inventive application of backstabbing worthy of his Hollywood antihero, Sammy Glick. All this is morally questionable, of course, but highly entertaining–or at least it ought to be. But King is so busy getting up on his high horse he can’t tell the story. Instead, he gives us boilerplate condemnation, reverting to clumsy sentences like this one: “David was too preoccupied in his quest for fame and fortune to worry about his dying father or the other dramas that filled his family’s life.”
Eventually, Geffen moves out on his own, forming and then selling one record label after another until he manages to break into the business he wanted to be in all along–the movies. King devotes this portion and the rest of the book to a tedious blow-by-blow of Geffen’s compulsive wheeling and dealing, with brief but welcome intermissions for Geffen’s struggle with his homosexuality, his failed romances with Laura Nyro, Cher, and Marlo Thomas, the many handsome young men who moved in and out of his life, and his quest for self-understanding on the couches of analysts and in the convention halls of New Age healers, starting with Werner Erhard and est and continuing through the decades. Now 57, Geffen has managed to remain one of the richest men in America despite not being in on the dot-com revolution. He involves himself mostly in Democratic Party politics, managing the business side of Dreamworks SKG seemingly more for fun than for profit. But he is also single, childless, estranged from his brother and family, and lonely. He’s a troubled man, but also an interesting one, if only because he has always managed to suss out the spirit of the age, find some innovatively sleazy way to cash in on it, and produce pretty good art along the way (often with a keener sense of what works and what doesn’t than the quarrelsome artists in his employ). Culturebox would love to read what a better writer would make of Geffen’s idiosyncratic brand of cultural capitalism, but he will probably never co-operate with a biographer again.