Mogul's potent partner for life

Times Staff Writer

Kathleen SHARP originally intended to write a book about the late Lew Wasserman, the onetime super-agent and MCA mogul who was, for decades, arguably the most influential behind-the-scenes figure in show business. During the six years she spent researching the project, however, her focus shifted a bit.

Wasserman was every bit the force he was reputed to be, Sharp determined, but the power of his wife, Edie -- and Hollywood's female subculture in general -- had been greatly underestimated. "Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire," recently published by Carroll & Graf, attempts to remedy that.

Edie was Lew's secret agent, throwing dinners at which introductions were made, finding a bedroom for a starlet in trouble, shrewdly manipulating the media, Sharp points out in the book. Lew didn't make a major move without consulting "Madame," as he called her in their twilight years. Rather than an appendage, the writer maintains, she was her own power base.

Edie, says Sharp, was self-confident, spirited and politically astute. Operating out of her Beverly Hills living room, she formed the first Hollywood Wives Club -- before the term acquired a negative connotation. Stars such as Janet Leigh, Polly Bergen and Rosemary Clooney let their hair down during her "happy hours," sharing secrets of the back lot that she'd pass along to Lew. And Teme Brenner, the publicist wife of another MCA agent, kept her informed about the inner workings of the town's newspapers.

"If Lew was the gold standard, Edie was a diamond -- hard and outspoken," says Sharp, who covers Los Angeles and Hollywood, in particular, for the Boston Globe. "Though she functioned in the social and charitable realms, there were economic and political repercussions. An avid Democrat, she was an early backer of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- savvy enough to cultivate Gov. and Nancy Reagan, who'd been ignored by Lew.

"Edie was instrumental in shaping the Music Center, CalArts and Cedars-Sinai [Medical Center], helping to turn Los Angeles from a cow town to a cosmopolitan city," she continues. "Yet she was content to stay out of the limelight and bask in her husband's glory."

That's still true, it seems. Prodded by friends such as Steven Spielberg, former MCA president Sid Sheinberg and ex-studio chief Tom Pollock, Lew granted Sharp some interviews in 1999, three years before his death. Edie, however, was uncooperative, going so far as to have her evicted from a 1999 luncheon for the Motion Picture & Television Fund, the writer maintains. Now 88, Wasserman declined to comment for this story. Nor has she spoken out publicly on Sharp's 599-page tract, which examines both the professional triumphs and personal secrets of Hollywood's top power couple.

The daughter of a man who was the attorney for Moe Dalitz, head of the Jewish mob in Cleveland, Edie held court in Hollywood for decades, Sharp observes, part of a lineage that includes Mary Pickford, a co-founder of United Artists, and gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, who held sway in the 1930s and 1940s. Doris Stein -- the "drop-dead gorgeous" wife of MCA co-founder and chairman Jules Stein -- was another of Hollywood's resident doyennes, meshing Pasadena bluebloods with Hollywood folks such as Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the years after World War II. She was Edie's role model -- and arch-competitor.

Edie had all the tenacity of those who preceded her. In 1969, Lew was on the verge of being fired -- or, eased out, at least -- after his 1962 purchase of Universal Studios and subsequent development of TV, movies and the studio tour lost MCA $100 million. As Sharp tells the story, Edie worked to thwart the plan by tipping off newspaper columnists and trade publications about it during a weekend when the Steins were throwing a high-profile bash celebrating their charitable work. She also tried to build sympathy for her husband (and antipathy toward Lew's boss Jules Stein), Sharp writes, by circulating a bogus story that Lew had suffered a heart attack. A canny Lew retained his job, and Edie forged an uneasy peace with Doris Stein.

Lew's currency rose in the mid-1970s, when he was honored with the prestigious Jean Hersholt Award for his humanitarian efforts and "The Sting" won the best picture Oscar, breaking Universal's long-term losing streak.

As he consolidated his power, shaping the modern media conglomerate as well as much of what we see on screen, Edie too came into her own.

"From that point on, they were the undisputed king and queen of Hollywood among the baroque society of Rodeo Drive," Sharp observes. Among the 700 people attending their 50th anniversary bash: Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, Lady Bird Johnson, and California Sens. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson.

Guardian of his image

Edie was ever mindful of her husband's career, Sharp's book recounts, wielding her considerable clout to present him in the best possible light. And when he wasn't, she knew how to turn frosty. The couple were stung by the airing of a 1989 "60 Minutes" segment investigating ties between MCA's video and music businesses and organized crime.

"I told Lew, a close friend, that we were doing a piece on Hollywood and the mob in which his name came up tangentially," says "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt. "We'd be showing a picture of him with some mobsters, I said -- and he wasn't happy to hear it.

"That's the last time we ever talked. I always assumed I could have patched things up with him if it weren't for Edie, who has never forgiven me. Lew was more reasonable and could understand that, as a reporter, I couldn't turn my back on a fact."

Entwined as they were in many ways, the Wassermans were not above the fray when it came to marital infidelity, maintains Sharp. She paints Lew as an inveterate, if discreet, womanizer and Edie as an affection-starved wife who compensated for his workaholism with dalliances of her own and conquests who included director Nicholas Ray ("Rebel Without a Cause") and Errol Flynn. And, unlike many of her Hollywood cohorts, Sharp points out, Edie never had a face-lift.

"Edie worked the bedrooms while Lew worked the boardrooms," the author says. "In the 1950s, a woman couldn't be CEO of MCA or any other company, so she found other ways to assert herself."

Times have changed. The Wives Club broke up in the 1960s and '70s when divorce engulfed its ranks. And women, though still underrepresented, now hold top positions at Universal, Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The "Hollywood wife" can be just as vacuous as those in Jackie Collins' novels, Sharp concedes, but that category now includes women such as child advocate Cheryl Saban and activist-philanthropist Barbara Davis, who, incidentally, are married to entertainment magnates.

"Women are exercising their political and philanthropic muscles, following the path Edie paved years before," Sharp says. "Still, it's fair to say that there's no one like her on the Hollywood scene today."

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