When Lew Wasserman, once the president of the Music Corporation of America (MCA), died in 2002, probably few Americans knew his name or his place in the cultural history of the United States during the twentieth century. For more than half of that century, Wasserman had been a key figure in deciding what films and television programs were aired, who the stars of such shows were, and how these entertainment offerings would be presented. As the president of MCA, he headed an organization that managed the professional services of many of the brightest stars in Hollywood’s galaxy. Not content with being an agent, Wasserman expanded his company’s operations into the development and production of films and television shows, to the point that he was probably the most powerful man in the world of entertainment. Connie Bruck’s incisive biography of Wasserman and his business is a fascinating exploration of the realm of celebrity, politics, and art, plus a healthy dose of the influence of organized crime.
A staff writer on The New Yorker and the author of other well-reviewed books on business and politics, Bruck has done extensive research and interviewing in constructing her portrait of Wasserman and his world. She shows her expertise about the convoluted world of Hollywood, with its deals and schemes in both films and television. Her knowledge of how the major players in show business interact and relate to one another gives her account a lively immediacy that will interest even those not familiar with the milieu in which Wasserman functioned. Readers will learn much about the real way power is used and influence exerted in American entertainment in Bruck’s lucid account of the temperamental, mercurial, and successful executive that Wasserman became.
In many respects, this book is more a history of MCA and the men who oversaw its development than it is a biography of Wasserman as such. As Wasserman’s private life was not readily accessible to the author and because he spent most of his time on his business affairs, such an approach to the book makes sense. Wasserman does not appear in the first seventy pages of the book, which recount how Jules Stein founded MCA in the 1920’s, then survived the rigors of a close association with organized crime in the early days of the business and finally moved his operations to California. In Hollywood, MCA achieved preeminence among the talent agencies of the burgeoning film industry. Stein’s rise, facilitated by his connection with James C. Petrillo and the American Federation of Musicians, shows how entertainment agents evolved into power brokers within show business by their ability to control the careers of the people the public wanted to see. MCA’s somewhat dubious origins, and the willingness of its leaders to reach back to their sordid origins in a crisis, were secrets of its enormous power in Hollywood.
When Wasserman came on the scene in 1939 at the age of twenty-three, his energy, skill, and ruthlessness quickly took him to a position of dominance within MCA. Stein understood that he had an unusually talented subordinate, and Wasserman emerged as first among equals in the growing MCA empire. He recognized that having good relations with the Hollywood stage unions was essential for stability within the motion picture industry. A violent strike by these ruthless labor leaders could result in a production shutdown that would interrupt the flow of films to a public eager for entertainment. Labor peace entailed dealing with the crime-ridden International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), then under the direction of such mob-linked leaders as George Brown and Willie Bioff. Wasserman proved to be a masterful negotiator with these union figures, thanks in part to the clandestine help that MCA received from Sidney Korshak, an influential Los Angeles attorney who had connections with the various national crime families on his own. One of the key contributions of the book is Bruck’s ability to trace the interconnections between organized crime and the motion picture business. She also shows how the Mob’s influence seeped into national politics in ways that historians have only just begun to explore in any depth.
Over the following two decades, Wasserman built himself into a dominant...
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