"Look at me, do I look like an alter kocker?" Jerry Weintraub asks. Verily, he does not. At the moment, he looks like a guy ready to swing a golf club at a visitor for asking him if he feels like -- to offer a rough translation from the Yiddish -- an old fart.
At 72, Jerry Weintraub is still swinging. He has just come out with his autobiography: "When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man" (Twelve: 292 pp., $25.99). For a fat tract of the last half of the last century, Weintraub was the Man Behind the Man, whether the man was Sinatra, Elvis or George H.W. Bush.
Long ago, Weintraub realized that the guy who does favors is never far from the guy who has favors done for him. One thing parlays into another. His firm, Concerts West, revolutionized the form in the 1960s. He managed recording artists and then moved on to producing television, Broadway shows and movies. He became chairman of United Artists. And he still works the phone.
"I get calls every morning," Weintraub says from the deck of his Palm Desert mountaintop oasis. "Really I am a concierge, because the first 150 things I do in the day are for somebody else -- get somebody rooms in Vegas, tickets for James Taylor, can you get me into this hospital, get me into that college?"
"When I Stop Talking" is anything but a rote, let-the-record-show memoir. In it he tells about the folks he's known and worked with: He describes the statue of the Buddha that Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker, kept in a cabinet in his motel room on the road and how he almost cast Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune in "The Karate Kid." How he got Bob Dylan to perform on the Chabad telethon he produced, how he hung out with Bobby Fischer and tried to make an album, teaching a kid how to play chess, with him.
Although it's packed with stories he's surely been telling at dinner forever, the book is also a modest set of guidelines for how you too can be a successful mogul. "A lot of it comes from my father," he says. "He told me when you walk in to work, in the office, just say 'Good morning' and go to work. Whatever you do, don't say, 'How are you?' Because people will tell you -- and there goes half your day."
More than that, it's written with stealth and style, doubtless shaped by his co-writer, Rich Cohen, who profiled Weintraub for Vanity Fair in 2008. The book, really, is a performance, a monologue by a guy comfortable hanging with Armand Hammer at Leonid Brezhnev's funeral or with Joey Bishop at a deli. It's a show based on horse pucky on braggadocio. As Weintraub writes: "If I had been around with Van Gogh or Melville, they would not have had to wait so long for fame." Weintraub has been married twice, the second time to singer Jane Morgan. They never divorced, and she gave him her blessing to live with his new discovery, Susie Ekins. " Warren Beatty, lothario of lotharios, once asked me the secret. 'How did you make it work, Jerry?' "
He's a steamroller with gold cuff links. His gift, he likes to say, is packaging, and what he most of all packages -- even better than a show or a movie -- is an impression. When he started booking shows for Led Zeppelin, the band complained that the sound system was not loud enough. Weintraub vowed to fix that. He spent the day of the next show painting speaker-size cardboard boxes black and making a wall of fake speakers beside the stage. That night, the band was impressed, and grateful, that Weintraub was able to deliver. He had fooled them, but he had satisfied them. "If you expect loud, loud is what you are going to hear," he writes.
Everything Weintraub's gotten in life has been based on a capacity for making connections. Even he can't fully explain it. He tells the story of how he became friends with Bud Ekins, Hollywood stuntman and Susie's father. Quietly, Weintraub steered the hard-living brawler, and Catholic, to Judaism on his deathbed. Weintraub was asked to speak at the funeral. He felt a need to tell the assembled friends what Ekins had done in his last days and why a rabbi was presiding over the funeral. He knew they would be shocked.
"I spoke of how he had decided to become a Jew. Many of the mourners looked confused. These were stuntmen and bikers, hundreds of tough guys with long hair and leather coats, giant guys named Tiny. 'Let me explain why he became a Jew,' I said. 'Because Bud Ekins did not want to confess his sins.' With that, the stuntmen and bikers went wild."
Endlessly suggesting, relentlessly convincing -- and then spinning the result. It's what Weintraub has done his entire life.
"I'm not afraid to go out there and put my neck out on the table," he explains. "If you are going to have celebrity like I do, I know this, you have to live with the consequences of it, the good and the bad. It's OK, it comes with [the] territory. . . . I have access to money, I have access to people. I can be in any business I want to be in. And by the way, it's my belief that they are all the same. At the end of the day, you either buy something or sell something." He buys cardboard boxes and builds a stairway to heaven.
He was raised in the Bronx and received his extracurricular schooling in the mail room of William Morris and then working for Lew Wasserman at MCA. You've heard of the Great Man theory of history? "When I Stop Talking" is theory put into practice. Weintraub was introduced by Jane Morgan to George H.W. Bush long before Bush entered the White House, and one thing led to another. "He took me behind the scenes, showed me how the world was wired," writes Weintraub. The mogul learned from the best, hectoring Col. Parker and persuading him to let Weintraub set up an American concert tour for Presley that, by cutting out local promoters like Bill Graham in the Bay Area, rewired the concert industry.
After that came tours with Sinatra. Then Weintraub got bored and took to Hollywood, where he produced "Nashville" and "Diner." But of all the big shots he's shot it with, perhaps nothing means as much to Weintraub as having built and managed the career of an icon who seems more Muppet than Great Man: John Denver.
It's hard in 2010 to understand how big John Denver was in the 1970s, how his helmet of corn-silk hair and the easy grin appealed to a boomer generation that was eager to move on from the struggles of the 1960s and head for the mountains. But from the moment Weintraub saw him performing in a small Greenwich Village club, he felt he had found something special. And something that would be indisputably his, the way Elvis or Sinatra never could be. Weintraub makes clear the personal interest he took in Denver's career. "He would be a test case for all my theories on selling and packaging, for everything I had learned since I left home," he writes. Through Denver, Weintraub achieved everything he might have wanted, perhaps, but not everything Denver wanted. In the end the singer dumped the man who "cooked [him] from scratch," and the book makes clear the move still angers Weintraub, though not as much as it baffles him. How could he leave at the peak of his success?
He says he recently spoke to Annie Martell, the late singer's ex-wife, about a tabloid report that Weintraub once roughed up Denver, throwing him out of his office and shouting that he was a "Nazi." Weintraub says it's a fiction and called Annie to say so.
The view from Weintraub's back patio takes in a huge swath of the Coachella Valley, and a man is quietly cleaning out the reflecting pool that seems to merge with the desert horizon. The mogul is wearing sunglasses, doctor's orders. He's also still feeling the effects of a near-death encounter with a mysterious infection he says he picked up in a hospital. Even so, Weintraub is hardly ready to retire. His role producing the "Oceans" capers gives him an important new foothold in Hollywood as much as it closes the circle for a guy who was right there with the Rat Pack back in the day. He's producing a Liberace biopic with Michael Douglas as the lead and Matt Damon as his lover; Steven Soderbergh starts shooting early next year.
The phone rings; he lets it go. He looks like it's killing him, but he's trying to finish a big point here. "It's very hard to leave the stage. Look at Brett Favre. Everybody thinks he should have left the stage five years ago. But he stayed there and stayed there and last year had the best year of his career. Sinatra never could leave, though he would claim he was retiring. No one leaves, you can't leave. I'm not leaving the stage. I know I can hold my own . . . you want to go out on the top. But then you want to reach new tops."
Smith is working on a biography of James Brown.