Lew & Edie Wasserman: Hollywood's Yin-Yang Power Couple

Guest blog: Lew could be ruthlesss and relentless; Edie's mantra was, “Keep the chummy-chums together”

 

I learned a lot researching and writing about Edie and Lew Wasserman, the late great chairman of Universal Studios and the industry’s original power couple, reigning from 1936 to his death in 2002.

One of Lew’s favorite sayings was “Stay out of the spotlight. It fades your suit.” He expected his men to keep their heads down and work. When they left the office, they attended parties, premieres or bailed out clients from jail before the press arrived.  

Here’s how relentless he could be, in a story I included in my 2004 book "Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood," about to be released in audio and e-book:

During the 1940s and 1950s, Wasserman called regular early morning meetings with his agents at a time when most of the studio moguls were still in bed. Secretaries used to buy cookies for these sessions, but “few men had the stomach for sweets when Lew was looming over them,” one woman told me for my book.

Wasserman assigned a few agents to do nothing but monitor each of the seven studios. They were expected to keep MCA clients happy on movie sets, to check in with producers and learn which pictures were moving forward and which ones were stalled.

Wasserman demanded full reports detailing all studios’ projects, and if an agent didn’t know more than Wasserman about a studio, he’d be replaced. “Lew would ask you what was happening at 20th Century Fox, but he’d know more about the studio that you were supposed to be on top of,” said one agent.

These briefings were so brutal and conniving, they were called “Fagin meetings,” after the Charles Dickens’ thief who trained his gang of pickpockets.

When upset, Wasserman would throw sharp-pointed pencils at his men. He once compared his management style to that of a man who kicks his dog every day: “If one day you stop kicking the dog, it will wonder why you stopped loving it.” So he kicked and yelled.

Once, during a Fagin meeting, he zeroed in on agent Harry Friedman, who was sandwiched on a couch between two other men. Wasserman paced: “What did you do last night, Harry?”

The man said he’d had dinner with his wife.

“Where were you? I couldn’t get a hold of you.”

Friedman slouched lower on the couch; his companions inched away. “Lew yelled at the poor guy because one of his clients was in trouble that night, and Lew couldn’t find him,” one man who was at the meeting told me.  

As Wasserman continued screaming, Friedman sunk lower until he hit the floor. “Then, Lew got down on his knees and in the guy’s face and continued shouting at him,” said the man. “It was awful.”

Lew’s management style has since been copied by other leaders ranging from Donald Trump, the boss of  “The Apprentice” known for his Twitter rants, to the late co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, who was notorious for spittle-flying tirades.

But most mogul-like leaders don’t have a secret agent, like Lew did in his savvy wife Edie. “Keep the chummy-chums together.” This was Edie’s mantra, and she did everything she could to soften the blows that rained upon her MCA (and later Universal) family.
She was fiercely loyal to the company and cultivated a circle of agents’ wives, studio “press gals,” and female stars, whom she called her “chummy chums.” As the daughter of a mob attorney, Edie understood the power of relationships.

Here’s a scene from her “office” at her modest home on Sierra Drive during the 1950s, as related in my book:

One of her rituals was to open her doors to MCA’s girl clients every afternoon for cocktails, pep talks and bits of studio “intelligence.” She’d set out plates of cheese and crackers and pour the vodka tonics. While her girls nibbled and sipped, Edie lit their cigarettes and complimented them on their new lacquered hairstyles.

"Basically, show business is an unhappy business with a lot of unhappy people," said MCA agent Jim Murray. "Everybody kisses everybody, but underneath, it's a desperate way to live."

Edie's friends were performers whose worth was measured by ratings and box-office numbers. Her husband collected at least 10 percent from these performers’ salaries — which amounted to millions of dollars. His pioneering TV subsidiary charged 30 percent or more for producing their shows and network specials.

Edie’s friends may have been marquee names and Silver Screen magazine cover girls, but privately, they were as vulnerable as wounded finches. A few suffered from low self-esteem that had been tweaked neurotically by years of too much adulation, said Merrill Park, wife of MCA agent Arthur Park. "But Edie knew how to handle such people.” She stroked their egos, assuaged their fears, and clucked over them as their own mothers never had.

So, amid rings of cigarette smoke and clouds of Chanel No. 5, the women would huddle and confide in one another.

Edie’s entourage tended to dress in the same mandatory uniform of tight-crotch slacks bought from Jax's, bright-colored crop tops, and the same style of high heels. "We favored the ‘low vamp’ look," Judy Balaban, the daughter of the head of Paramount Pictures, told me.

"We had our babies delivered by the same gynecologist, Dr. Kron," said one woman. The Jewish mothers checked in at Cedars-Sinai near Beverly Hills, while the Catholics and Protestant moms booked rooms at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica.

When actress Janet Leigh was pregnant with her second child, she had “a really rough time.” First, she suffered a kidney infection, which placed the baby in danger. Then her father-in-law (Tony Curtis’ dad) died. The Curtis-Leighs had only one car, which Curtis took to the set. So, Edie offered to drive Leigh to the hospital the minute she felt labor pains- then formed a back-up plan.

“Edie made sure there was a second car in the driveway and a driver, in case I started labor,” the late actress once told me. Mercifully, Jamie Lee Curtis was finally born.

After an MCA wife or client delivered a baby, she’d receive bouquets of flowers and catered dinners from Chasen's, served bedside by a tuxedoed waiter — with congratulations from Edie and Lew. "They were godparents to all of our children," said Jackie Gershwin. Edie and Lew Wasserman gave every MCA baby a cash gift or, later, Universal Studio stock.

The gifts were placed in a trust so the children couldn't touch them until they turned 18. "You have no idea how valuable that was for my children later, when the troubles began… “ said one former starlet.

Edie went on to raise millions of dollars for the Motion Picture and Television Fund. Other moguls’ wives such as Barbara (Mrs. Marvin) Davis, Mavis (Mrs. Jay) Leno and Cheryl (Mrs. Haim) Saban have picked up her baton in their fashion.

But none of them ever matched the power that Edie wielded in her 60-plus year reign.