COVER STORY : David Geffen...
On a warm winter afternoon, David Geffen is cruising up to his $47.5-million Beverly Hills estate.
His chauffeured Lincoln Continental glides through an elaborate wrought-iron gate and up a long drive--past rolling lawns, gurgling fountains and a five-acre golf course--before coming to a Georgian mansion that could pass for the White House.
The billionaire entertainment mogul steps out of his car and into the sun-washed foyer, which is big enough to house a small family. Then he’s off in a sudden burst of energy--scaling the long spiral stairway two steps at a time, disappearing into doorways and pushing through a maze of ornate rooms like a strong gust of wind.
The 10-acre estate, which was once the domain of another Hollywood titan named Jack Warner, surely ranks as one of the country’s most ambitious home improvement projects. For the dining room library alone, wood has been procured from a Civil War-era artillery compound. But there’s hardly time for a visitor to take in the fine architectural details.
In the blink of an eye Geffen is back in the foyer, where he is met by three construction supervisors who are visibly relieved when he says the work “looks great.”
“Great.” “Great.” “Great,” they concur, their voices bouncing off the walls of the unfurnished room. “Taking out the pillars made a big difference,” Geffen adds. “A big difference,” they chime in. “Yes, a big difference.” “Oh, a big, big difference.”
Were it not for the deferential treatment, Geffen could easily pass for one of his own workers in his khaki pants and denim shirt. But he will soon become the sole inhabitant of this 1990s Xanadu, with its bleached walnut walls, handcrafted bronze banister, inlaid floors and William Kent-style arches.
Until recently Geffen seemed a bit embarrassed by the musty grandeur of the house, which he bought at the tail end of the high-flying ‘80s, mostly as an investment. He succeeded in unloading $11-million worth of furnishings, but plunging real estate values negated plans to sell the house as well.
“This is really an act of grandiosity on my part, but the fact of the matter is that I own it,” he says. “And it’s a privilege to be able to live there.”
For Geffen, who has called a casual Malibu beach cottage home for nearly 20 years, there’s more than a little symbolism in the move. It signifies both his shifting personal priorities and his new place in the Hollywood social order, after building an entertainment empire around two successful record companies and a string of hit Broadway plays and movies.
Two weeks ago Geffen turned 50, which marks him as an elder statesman by rock ‘n’ roll standards. He rang in the occasion at a small dinner party at the Beverly Hills home of Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, and attended by close friends such as QVC Network Chairman Barry Diller, producer Ray Stark, talent manager Sandy Gallin, actress-writer Carrie Fisher and fashion designer Calvin Klein.
Months earlier Geffen marked another milestone when he publicly proclaimed that he is gay during a speech at a glittery Aids Project Los Angeles benefit. The Advocate, one of the country’s leading homosexual magazines, subsequently labeled him “the most powerful openly gay man in the country.”
Seemingly anxious to take the torch, Geffen hired one of Hollywood’s savviest political operatives, Bob Burkett, to help promote his agenda. Within weeks he was leading the fight for gays in the military--even pushing the issue in discussions with his new friend, President Clinton--and intensely monitoring developments on CNN like some foreign head of state.
“David is just beginning to taste real political power, and he likes it,” one associate said in the wake of the gays-in-the-military initiative.
While politics has always been one of the last frontiers for the independently wealthy, for Geffen it’s also a place to channel the prodigious energy that’s gone into his businesses.
“I would say I’m less driven than I used to be, because I can’t find a reason for being driven anymore,” he says. “I mean, I don’t want to make any more money. That’s not my goal. It has been a goal of mine for a long time to be successful and to make money but it isn’t now. And frankly, I make money anyway so it doesn’t matter, you know?”
One of Geffen’s cash cows is his signature record label, which continues to rake in revenue from rock heroes such as Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, Don Henley and Aerosmith, though Peter Gabriel’s latest release hasn’t performed up to expectations so far. Geffen’s $600,000-a-year contract with company owner MCA Inc. expires in two years, but the chairman says he’s open to staying longer.
Day-to-day responsibility for the label is largely delegated to senior executives under Geffen’s management. That has buffeted him to a degree from controversy, including two sexual-harassment suits brought against the company last year and an ongoing contract dispute with Henley.
It has also liberated him to pursue other interests. At this stage of his life, Geffen says, he is almost totally removed from the rock ‘n’ roll culture. Riding in the back of his car, the rock impresario tends to whistle show tunes.
On the movie side, Geffen’s Warner Bros.-based company is moving ahead with the long-awaited production of “Interview With the Vampire,” based on the Anne Rice bestseller. The film will be directed by Neil Jordan of “The Crying Game” and will star Brad Pitt and, possibly, Daniel Day-Lewis. Also on tap are “M. Butterfly,” to be released this fall; “The Witching Hour,” which goes into production this summer, and “Dreamgirls,” which is still in development.
Geffen could easily increase the flow, but says he rarely runs across quality material. In a statement that is sure to endear him to the Writers Guild, Geffen says there are many “extraordinary actors and directors,” but very few “extraordinary writers or stories.”
He is also turned off by the high cost of filmmaking.
“I think that films are so expensive that people want to have what they hope will be a sure thing,” Geffen says. “And in the world of sure things you don’t make ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ And so that’s one of the big problems.”
Like “Lawrence of Arabia,” Geffen can be a pretty steely character beneath the polished exterior. Friends and enemies, of which he has plenty, say there’s precious little upside to crossing him. In Hollywood, Geffen has a well-known reputation for meddling in other people’s business dealings, though it usually comes at the behest of one of the principals.
Such bare-knuckled offensives are usually played out in private, but a few years back Geffen’s hand was plainly evident in Michael Jackson’s cold and swift dismissal of lawyer John Branca and manager Frank Dileo in favor of the Geffen-friendly combo of Bertram Fields and Sandy Gallin. Geffen was serving as Jackson’s informal adviser at the time.
“He is capable of charming your socks off when it’s in his interest,” says one person who has done business with Geffen. “When it’s not, he can be very tough.” Adds entertainment executive recruiter Steve Unger: “The big difference between (MCA Chairman Lew) Wasserman and Geffen is that Wasserman is revered, while Geffen is feared.”
Geffen’s power feuds over the years have involved some formidable foes in the insular world of entertainment, including the late Time Warner Chairman Steven J. Ross, Creative Artists Agency Chairman Michael S. Ovitz and fellow record executive Irving Azoff. A hallmark of the feuds is rconciliation, often followed by more feuding. “The definition of a love-hate relationship is Irving and David,” says one associate of both men.
At the same time, Geffen is surrounded by a core group of high-powered friends with an almost familial loyalty. Katzenberg, when asked to describe his rather low-key birthday party for Geffen, reacts as if he is being violated. Stark, who has been called a father figure, says Geffen “is completely reciprocal” when it comes to their friendship.
Over the years there has been persistent speculation that Geffen and his friends would go in on a movie studio or network after his MCA contract expires, but Diller looks for him to put his money elsewhere. “His interests are far more varied and interesting than that,” Diller says. “He’s a student of the world.”
Even now, Geffen has very little of his vast fortune tied up in entertainment. His portfolio consists mostly of equities and bonds. Geffen’s business associates or advisers include influential New York investment banker Felix G. Rohatyn and financiers Richard Rainwater and Ronald Perelman.
The confidante over the years of music makers as diverse as John Lennon, Cher, Madonna and Jackson gets a bigger charge now out of mingling with moneymakers.
Geffen says that meeting renowned investor Warren Buffett, the so-called “oracle of Omaha,” at Clinton’s economic summit in Little Rock, Ark., last year reminded him of the thrill he felt upon seeing Bob Dylan perform for the first time in the 1960s. Explains Geffen: “When people ask me who are you a fan of, I say Warren Buffett. I’m a Warren Buffett fan.”
Geffen’s primary business tool, as always, is the telephone. He is a legendary talker capable of fielding an unrelenting torrent of calls, whether he is at his house, which is stocked with several multi-line phones, or traveling in his car, which is equipped with enough telecommunications gear to satisfy the Secret Service.
His ambitious networking hasn’t spawned any major deals so far, though Geffen and some partners tried to acquire the failed Executive Life Insurance Co. two years ago. But friends caution that it’s dangerous to underestimate his long-range ambitions.
“If you only know him at pedal to the metal, fifth gear hyper-velocity, then it’s true he’s shifted down one gear,” says Katzenberg, who talks to Geffen daily. “But he’s still at warp speed.”
Geffen’s oft-chronicled rise in the entertainment business started, conventionally enough, in the William Morris Agency mailroom. It was there that he spawned his own legend by intercepting the letter revealing that he had faked a UCLA degree on his resume. The native New Yorker went on to manage singer Laura Nyro, which brought him his first big success.
Then came the real career breakthrough: the 1970 founding of his own management company and Asylum Records, in which Geffen capitalized with his typical mixture of timing and taste on the runaway success of such California-based acts as the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, before selling the record company to Warner Communications in 1972.
A faulty cancer diagnosis brought his high-speed career to a temporary halt in the late 1970s. But by 1980 he was back in the game, starting Geffen Records with the help of Warner. Geffen also shrewdly backed such Broadway hits as “Dreamgirls,” “Cats” and “M. Butterfly,” along with occasional film forays that included the hits “Beetlejuice” and “Risky Business.”
As a record executive, Geffen expected to remain in the Warner family. But in the late 1980s the relationship soured when Geffen accused company chairman Ross of excluding him from the mega-merger that created Time Warner Inc. An angry Geffen subsequently bypassed Warner and sold his record company to MCA Inc. in 1990, when values were at a historic high.
He became Hollywood’s richest man a year later when Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. bought MCA for $6.59 billion. As the owner of 10 million shares of MCA stock--the payment for his company--Geffen realized more than $700 million from the sale.
The deal cemented Geffen’s reputation as an all-star player, based largely on the assumption that he saw the MCA sale coming. But he insists that he went into the deal with the intent of running MCA, which includes Universal Pictures and Universal Studios theme parks.
“I thought to myself that, given that (MCA Chairman Lou Wasserman) was 77 at the time, it was likely something would happen with the company,” Geffen says. “But I wasn’t expecting it to be sold. I was expecting to buy it.”
Not that he is unhappy with the outcome.
One of the first toys Geffen purchased after the MCA sale was a $20-million Gulfstream IV jet, which transports him between L.A. and New York. Being a billionaire allows for some other indulgences. He buys much of his clothing in duplicate so that he’ll have identical wardrobes on both coasts. He has four homes--two in L.A. and two in New York. Art is another passion: With the Warner estate nearly completed, Geffen has been buying up works by Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and other contemporary masters to hang there.
When he moves into the mansion this fall, which he plans to use as a site for fund-raisers, Geffen will surely be the first occupant whose preferred wardrobe is a T-shirt and jeans, sometimes augmented with a baseball cap. There is something odd and indelible about the sight of the casually dressed mogul padding around in his hopelessly large house, like some midlife version of Kevin from “Home Alone.”
But if all this conspicuous consumption suggests that Geffen has gone soft, friends say he is merely in a period of transition. “I think he has the same energy he had 25 years ago,” Stark says. “He just has it in a more sophisticated and mature way.”
Azoff agrees that age is one reason for Geffen’s shifting priorities. “He’s mellowed,” Azoff says. “He’s not as manic about little things that really used to bother him.”
Another, more compelling reason is the AIDS crisis, which has claimed countless friends, including actor Anthony Perkins. Geffen says he feels lucky to be alive and healthy.
“One thing (AIDS) does is make you realize the future is an illusion,” Geffen said. “All you have is right now. And you aren’t alive five years from now, you aren’t alive 10 years from now, you aren’t alive 30 years from now. You’re just alive today. And to start living your life for the future is dumb. There is no future.”
Geffen formally stepped out of the closet last December, with a moving speech delivered at the APLA benefit honoring him and Barbra Streisand. While his sexual orientation was no secret in Hollywood--for years he had edged toward a disclosure, professing at one point that he was bisexual--it still represented a bold move for someone so squarely in the public eye.
“My hesitation in the past is strictly that I think these are private matters,” Geffen says. “But I, unfortunately, am not a private person. I have become, by virtue of my success and other things, a public person.”
On another level, he was compelled to go public by the APLA recognition, which was bestowed after Geffen donated $1 million to the agency.
“I could not get up in front of an audience of 6,000 people put together by AIDS Project Los Angeles, where so many people are infected with HIV and are dealing with this very, very serious issue of AIDS, and not acknowledge that I was a gay man,” he says. “I just couldn’t do it.”
Then comes the third part of the equation--Geffen’s fundamental rejection of what he sees as the “exclusionary” politics practiced by the political right. As a gay man with a liberal social agenda, Geffen says he was outraged by the speeches delivered by former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and the Rev. Pat Robertson at last summer’s Republican National Convention.
“They were talking about an America that was about being white, Christian, heterosexual male. Well, you know there are people who just don’t fit into that category,” Geffen says.
On one of thoe brilliant, blue-sky California mornings Geffen is sitting in the living room of his Malibu home--a casual place with overstuffed white chairs and couches, hardwood floors, a small dining room and a solid wall of picture windows overlooking the ocean.
One of the first things you notice about Geffen is that his features have softened with age--the unruly hair is now shaved close to his head, his eyes are bracketed by crow’s feet and he appears a bit slouched, even though he stays in shape with daily workouts in an extensively equipped exercise room. Asked about the process of growing older, he says: “I’m, like, delighted to be 50. It’s not a bummer, you know? It’s nothing.”
The faint sound of waves coming ashore is interrupted only by the chatter of Geffen’s pet parrot, Archie. Geffen taught Archie to speak in hopes of gaining a companion, but ultimately realized that Archie was incapable of independent thought and merely repeated whatever he was told--a trait that is not so uncommon in Hollywood. “I’d get annoyed and tell him to shut up,” Geffen says, “but then he’d respond by telling me to shut up.”
This morning Geffen is fixated on CNN. Clinton is set to announce his plan for lifting the ban against gays in the military. Bob Burkett, Geffen’s representative, has been in Washington lobbying against the ban all week. On top of that, Geffen has bankrolled and even helped design two full-page ads in the New York Times calling for the ban to be lifted. The headline on one reads: “No one signs up for boot camp to get a date.”
In his usual blunt fashion, Geffen sums up his position on the issue this way: “I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would want to serve in the military, but if people who happen to be gay want to serve their country they should have the right to do so.”
The funding base for Geffen’s political and social causes is his private foundation, which doled out more than $5 million last year. All of the profits from his films and plays go into the foundation. Geffen refuses to divulge how much he’s inclined to spend in the years ahead, but he’s already inundated with requests.
That is one reason Geffen hired Burkett, who formerly worked for reclusive Interscope Communications Chairman Ted Field. During Burkett’s tenure, Field quietly bankrolled the successful opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, among other things, and became a leading backstage force in Democratic politics. Burkett, whose challenge is to do much the same for Geffen, describes his new boss’s brand of activism as “social action philanthropy.”
One of Burkett’s jobs is sifting through the hundreds of new requests--from major organizations as well as individuals facing costly operations or simply trying to finish college--that pour into the foundation every week.
Geffen’s been a consistent supporter of progressive causes over the years. But the continuing battle over gays in the military offers the best insights into the behind-the-scenes manner in which he now intends to use his considerable influence.
Friends say Geffen anticipated the storm of criticism over Clinton’s efforts to lift the ban well in advance. Through Burkett, he organized the first meeting of groups supporting the overturn, including People for the American Way and the ACLU. With Geffen helping provide the seed money, the group soon hired a staff and came up with the slogan, “Live and Let Serve.”
It also organized meetings between congressmen and military leaders who were in favor of lifting the ban. Proponents of the overturn view it as a victory that Clinton has given the Joint Chiefs of Staff six months to work out a plan for ending the 50-year-old prohibition.
“It would not have happened as fast as it did without David,” says one source close to the situation. “He saw the need before anyone else for a broad-based grass-roots effort.”
Geffen’s activism has been honed over the years. The politically active actor Warren Beatty, a longtime friend, recalls Geffen playing a serious role in Eugene McCarthy’s 1972 presidential campaign as an organizer and go-between with the music industry. Since then he has backed progressive causes such as abortion rights. “David has a cutting intelligence, and the same cutting intelligence that he has in business translates to politics,” Beatty says.
But others say his involvement has assumed a new urgency now that Clinton is in office and he has identified himself with the pressing issues affecting gays. Geffen even joined the President briefly on his recent swing through California. William Rubenstein, director of the ACLU’s national lesbian and gay rights project in New York, says his potential is boundless.
“His commitment to these issues--both his financial contributions and personal talents--make him a very important leader in this community,” Rubenstein said. “He gives us the ability to play on a bigger stage than we have in the past.”
AIDS Project Los Angeles is also well aware of Geffen’s significance. The agency is considering naming its new headquarters, or at least a wing, in Geffen’s honor.
As an activist, however, one of Geffen’s greatest challenges is reckoning his business and political interests. By nature he is not a bomb thrower or a pedant. At the same time, he doesn’t want to be dismissed as another champagne liberal from Hollywood, the latest unfocused foot soldier in the so-called cultural elite.
Further complicating matters is his cozy relationship with the Hollywood power structure. Unlike many gay leaders, for instance, Geffen has not joined calls for the boycott of Colorado, in part because a lot of high-powered friends own property and businesses there.
“I’m in favor of putting whatever pressure can be exerted on the state of Colorado,” he says of the controversial state measure banning local laws that protect homosexuals from discrimination. “But it’s unreasonable to expect people who have second homes in Colorado not to use them, or to cast them in the role of not supporting the sentiment involved.”
Another thorny issue is the entertainment industry’s record on gay rights, which some homosexual leaders consider shoddy.
After struggling with the question of which entertainment companies are most responsive to gays, Geffen offers up the names of Disney, Time Warner and MCA. Then, upon further reflection, he says that he doesn’t want to suggest that the opposite is true of the other three major companies.
“There are a great many gay people in the entertainment business, and I think that generally speaking, this business is more compassionate and more accepting than maybe any other industry except fashion in the United States,” Geffen says. “On the other hand, you know there is a thing called fear, and people have a lot of fear. And sometimes their fear is not necessarily rational.”
Geffen rejects the idea that he, as a major power broker who happens to be gay, has a responsibility to make only socially responsible films. “I made ‘Personal Best,’ ” he says. “That was the first film I made. And I’ve just made ‘M. Butterfly.’ But I think that the goal . . . first and foremost has to be to make a successful movie. Otherwise you go out of business.”
Geffen’s main base of operations is his second-floor office at Geffen Records in West Hollywood. He arrives there around 11 a.m., after spending the morning working out of his Malibu home, and puts in about five hours a day in the spare room overlooking the Sunset Strip.
His company releases about 25 records a year, which is modest by industry standards, but the label’s presence looms large because of mega-groups such as Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses. A just-completed survey by Radio & Records, an industry newspaper, ranked Geffen number one in the album rock and alternative rock fields for radio airplay between December and February.
The company has had a colder hand at the retail level recently--its biggest release, Gabriel’s “Us,” stalled at No. 50 on the Billboard charts--but industry executives have higher expectations for upcoming records such as Aerosmith’slatest in April.
Geffen says autonomy is one key to the company’s success. “I’m very grateful for the fact that they (MCA) bought our business and let us run it as though we still owned it,” he says. “And of course the business has continued to grow. I mean in 1993, we’ll do $400 million in sales worldwide. For a little record company that’s an extraordinary amount of business.”
Not all of the news has been rosy, however. Geffen’s label came in for some heat last year when two employees filed sexual-harassment suits against the company. Both cases, one of which was settled, involved an executive who has since left. The company has declined comment.
Geffen has also run into problems with one of his most respected artists, Don Henley. The former Eagle maintains that he has fulfilled his obligations to Geffen Records, but the company says his contract has two years remaining. Oddly enough, sources close to the case say the dispute partly revolves around Henley’s feeling that Geffen is ignoring him.
“Basically, Don doesn’t feel that Geffen is his booster anymore,” said one source close to Henley. “He went to the label because of Geffen, but he doesn’t feel Geffen is involved.”
Henley also is disputing the royalties paid by the label, according to sources.
Geffen denies that he’s an issue in the dispute. He predicts that the case will be amicably resolved, with Henley remaining on board. But he concedes that his role in the record company is limited these days.
As an executive, he doesn’t scout acts, doesn’t go out of his way to cultivate relationships with artists signed to the label and doesn’t profess to understand contemporary tastes, though he says he has enjoyed recent releases from 10,000 Maniacs, Pearl Jam and Annie Lennox. When he’s asked to specifically define his role, the following exchange occurs.
“Generally speaking I stick my head in when people ask for an opinion.”
“And would you be involved in helping to select the song order?”
“The album cover design?”
“Absolutely not. No.”
“The way the group is promoted?”
“No.” (He later clarifies that, saying he occasionally lends a hand.)
“So what does that leave?”
“Well, I mean I kind of run the, you know . . . I set a tone for the company.”
Geffen’s role isn’t always so passive, however. He has a well-known aversion to violent rap music, and broke off the company’s ties to Def American Records, one of the industry’s stronger independents, because of his objections to a record by the Geto Boys.
“Records that cavalierly talk about murdering people for whatever reason to me are unacceptable,” Geffen says. “I mean, society is troubled enough without putting this message out into the world that it’s OK to kill cops, or it’s OK to mutilate women or whatever.
“In the case of the Geto Boys, I was simply unwilling to put out a record which talked about killing women, and f------ the dead bodies. You know, and cutting off their tits. I’m not going to put out records like that. Now they can call that racism if they want, but it has nothing to do with racism, it has to do with being a responsible person.”
Some people have labeled Geffen a hypocrite for trying to draw a distinction between hardcore rap and the equally incendiary lyrics of some rock and heavy metal songs. Guns N’ Roses, for instance, incurred the wrath of minority groups several years ago for the language contained in a song called “One in a Million.”
But Geffen insists there’s a difference.
“You know I keep on answering this question, but I don’t think that because a person uses the word faggot in a song that makes them homophobic,” Geffen argues. “They may have been insensitive at that time. But they’re not homophobic.”
Geffen will lose one of his top acts, Aerosmith, to Sony Music after two more releases. The Boston rockers have signed a $37-million deal with the company. Geffen has mixed views on the recent spate of costly superstar deals, including that one.
He says he understands those involving Barbra Streisand, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince, because of their continuing popularity and sizable catalogues. On the other hand, Geffen questions the logic of making long-term, multimillion-dollar commitments to aging bands such as ZZ Top and Aerosmith, who have more limited backlogs of work.
“When you’re talking about Aerosmith, you’re talking about a much older artist and so the question is for how long into one’s 40s and 50s can an artist continue to sell at these high levels?” Geffen said. “I think that the same is true with ZZ Top. I mean, they’re not kids.”
Geffen is equally outspoken on the state of the industry. After a growth spurt in the 1980s, the record business has suffered along with other industries from the economic downturn. Small record labels have been especially hard hit, but Geffen says that’s not strictly due to the economy.
“I don’t think the failure of companies is they don’t have money,” Geffen said. “It’s that they don’t have a vision. They don’t have enough talented people. And I think that’s always the story in the record business.”
In the long run, however, Geffen sees a bright future for the record business, especially with new technologies making music ever more available. And when he talks, the industry usually listens.
“I think music becomes a more important part of peoples’ lives with each generation,” he says. “With Walkmen and other portable carriers of music, it’s underscoring everybody’s life for a larger portion of the day. It’s underscoring their lives on the streets, in their cars, when they’re jogging, when they’re walking, when they’re screwing, and so I would say that the prognosis for the music business is very good.”