Deconstructing David Geffen

His mother called him King David.

Perhaps that’s why, when David Geffen was profiled in GQ magazine in 1991, the writer suggested that, “he seemingly swaggered straight from the womb.”

But from the start of Susan Lacy’s documentary “Inventing David Geffen,” airing in November as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series, Geffen appears more like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, the brash and determined individualist of her triumphal 1943 novel, “The Fountainhead,” than the biblical hero. King David was part of a royal line; David Geffen made himself into Hollywood royalty.

Geffen’s charismatic, winsome personality drives Lacy’s documentary, with Geffen candidly narrating his own journey from middle-class Jewish boy from Brooklyn to masterful music and movie mogul. The story is peppered with dishy interviews from legendary friends, including Cher, Warren Beatty, Elton John, Steven Spielberg, Arianna Huffington and Rahm Emanuel, to name just a few, whose flattering accounts of Geffen seem to swell his stature into almost mythic importance. Pared down to its essential plot points, Geffen’s biography is a fascinating account of a hard-charging, radically ambitious man whose life became the embodiment of the American dream, at once an astonishing feat, but also a stark reminder that not too long ago radical mobility was possible.

Like Rand’s Roark, Geffen has played the architect, in his case refashioning the music and movie industries so substantially he’s been compared to Hollywood’s founding fathers. As actor Tom Hanks plainly puts it in the documentary’s opening sequence: “He defined this culture. He built it.”

A contribution to the culture of fandom devoid of any critique, Lacy’s fawning portrait is the one Geffen would most like you to see: He is the self-made, sensitive-souled star-maker, the biggest legend of all. But in his case, what might seem an inflated self-image isn’t actually that far from reality.

Gifted. Ruthless. Brutally honest. Friends and enemies alike characterize Geffen as a business firebrand. “His power comes from those Vesuvian impulses of his,” media mogul Barry Diller tells us. 

Watching the film, it is hard to begrudge Geffen his storied reputation, his billions, or even his braggadocio, because he’s just so darned candid about who he is (“I don’t see ambition or ego as pejorative words”), as well as what he wants (“I wanted to get out of Brooklyn and move to California where the sunshine was constant, where everybody was pretty and good looking … [and] everybody was rich”). He is also forthright about his flaws: He told the crowd assembled for his 2010 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “I have no talent except for being able to enjoy and recognize it in others.”

David Geffen’s success arose more out of desperate yearning than a unique skill set. He grew up poor, and his mother was the family’s primary breadwinner and his deepest influence. He was ashamed of his father, a struggling intellectual who worked odd jobs, like pattern-cutting, before dying young, when the future mogul was just 18. Geffen’s mother, Batya, was a vivacious spirit who owned a corset shop and worked tirelessly to keep the family afloat. But the trauma of losing her entire family in the Holocaust, and then suppressing that history, brought her to a nervous breakdown. To this day, Geffen is reticent to discuss it (see sidebar). When prodded about his Jewish background at a recent press conference, he carped to The Journal’s Naomi Pfefferman, “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”

GeffenDon Henley and David Geffen. Photo by Henry Diltz

Indeed, Geffen’s desire to transcend his childhood has been an animating force of his adult life. He tells Lacy: “My mother said, ‘You better learn to love to work, because we have no money and you’re going to be working the rest of your life.’ ” And since he believed himself to be “completely without gift,” he had to be more resourceful and more wanting than anyone else. 

Before he became the industry godfather, Geffen had a protean career with many chapters. He started out in the William Morris mailroom, a job he notoriously obtained by lying, falsifying his resume with academic credentials from UCLA. The mythology goes that when a co-worker was fired for the same offense, Geffen arrived early at the mailroom for the next six months so he could intercept the inevitable letter from the school exposing him. He succeeded, replaced the incriminating missive with his own fabrication and, along the way, managed to impress the higher-ups with his dedication to sorting mail (given all this, one can only wonder whether his massive charitable contributions to UCLA don’t have their roots in reparative gratitude). 

Geffen went on to become a rock ’n’ roll manager, record producer and, finally, a game-changing executive known for championing solo artists. During his heyday, which coincided with the cultural revolution of the 1970s, he helped launch the careers of iconic singer-songwriters Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Neil Young, among others. While music and pot whirred through the air, Geffen was at his desk cutting deals. But he was different from other executives: “He loved music like an innocent person loves music,” Young says in the film. His relationships with his clients were characterized by a loyalty and nurturing that often bordered on the familial. Geffen had no musical talent, but he possessed an artist’s soul — sensitive, wounded, mercurial and restless, qualities that burnished his ability to recognize and cultivate talents, and draw them close. 

“It was always about the song; it was always about the spirit,” Elliot Roberts, his partner at Asylum Records tells us in the film. 

Where Geffen was passionate, it was wise not to cross him. Once, when he brought a green Jackson Browne to see kingpin record-producer Clive Davis, Davis made the mistake of taking a call during Browne’s performance, and Geffen walked out. He started his own company, Asylum Records, in competition. Choicely located on the Sunset Strip, a boulevard lined with music halls and nightclubs, Asylum became a star factory, with Geffen poaching talent he discovered during the evening lineup. It was at the Troubadour, for instance, that he discovered the Eagles, a scouting method so effective he went on to cofound another legendary club, the Roxy, in 1973. 

“We would do anything to be with David Geffen,” lead singer Glenn Frey tells Lacy. “ ‘Here: ‘Sign this.’ I didn’t care. I wanted David Geffen to be involved in as many aspects of my career as possible.” 

By Geffen’s own account, his was a fast rise: In 1964 he was a lackey in the Morris mailroom; by 1972 he had sold his first record company and had $10 million in the bank. His success in music got him attention from the movie business, and he did a short stint as vice chairman of Warner Bros., but his maverick methods and flouting of authority quickly got him fired. In 1980, he assembled a small team of agents and created Geffen Records, which added alternative rock bands Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana to an already impressive roster that included Elton John, Irene Cara, Cher and Don Henley. 

Geffen’s ineffable, je ne sais quoi eye for talent and fortuitous timing eventually enabled his success with movies. He took on the Tom Cruise star vehicle “Risky Business” when no one else would read the script, and followed up with a series of hits including “Lost in America” with Albert Brooks, “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Interview With the Vampire.” It is clear, however, that Geffen’s heart was never in the movie business in the same way it was in music. By 1990, he was getting restless. He sold Geffen Records to MCA (now Universal Music Group) for an unprecedented $550 million in stock, and when the Japanese company Matsushita purchased MCA, Geffen’s stock had risen to almost a billion in cash.

Geffen worked hard and played hard, achieving a lifestyle of decadence and glamour to match his Herculean work ethic. Though he has always lived as an openly gay man, the documentary makes no mention of any significant relationship with another man; instead Lacy portrays his 18-month romance with movie and music diva Cher as the one great love of his life. “It was the greatest high I had ever experienced,” Geffen said. After they broke up, Esquire magazine ran a cover story about Cher under the headline, “Who Is Man Enough For This Woman?” Geffen confessed: “Clearly I was not.” 

The AIDS crisis compelled him to finally, officially “come out.” As friends attest, the difference between quietly living as openly gay and making a public declaration about his identity was significant. It meant “freedom” for him, the designer Calvin Klein says in the movie. Geffen kick-started his philanthropic side when he became a pioneering donor to AIDS research, and he admitted that, for a time, he feared he had the disease. “Every time I took a shower I looked at my body to see if there were marks,” he recounts in the film. 

Cher and David GeffenCher and David Geffen. Photo by Nate Cutler/Globe Photos/

By the time Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg approached him to help them co-found DreamWorks, in 1994, Geffen, by then 51, had one foot in retirement. He had become more interested in political fundraising (he was close with the Clintons before he switched to Barack Obama) and enjoying his extravagant lifestyle. Still, he helped DreamWorks “overcapitalize” — his strategy for how a movie studio could succeed — by raising $2 billion dollars in just a few weeks, although from the start he had little interest in the day-to-day running of the studio.

Once the man-about-town, Geffen today is an enigmatic presence in Hollywood, his name more likely to appear on buildings — the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood — than in the headlines. After his meteoric rise and novel achievements, sources say that that he is now content to play a quiet, behind-the-scenes role as advisor and mentor to his many successors. 

“He’s a kibitzer,” former Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein told me. “There are generations of people in music and film who call him for advice all the time — and he loves to give advice, and he’s very good at giving advice. He’s like the Cardinal Richelieu of the entertainment business.”