A few weeks later, I brought this exchange up with Laurie. She told me that Ian Schrager’s brother was a friend of hers in high school and that Schrager’s dead mother has “come to” her over the years. “Blanche came while you and I were talking,” Laurie explained to me. “I felt my energy pulled, and I knew I was having a simultaneous conversation with the other side. So I felt compelled to ask you about Ian. I felt I was meant to bring it up.”
Richard Parsons, Levin’s successor as Time Warner’s chairman and CEO, says that even in Levin’s corporate-killer days, there were flashes of a “holy man” within. “It’s just that Jerry had a day job that kept him from pursuing this side of himself.” (Parsons has announced that he plans to retire in the next year or two, but he tells me he has no spiritual bent akin to Levin’s that he’s waiting to break out. “I don’t have the philosophical orientation that Jerry has,” he says. When I ask him about his postretirement plan, rumored to include a run for mayor of New York in 2009, he laughs. “I’m a vintner. I like wine.”)
“Some might see Jerry’s current life as a pose,” says a former Time Warner colleague. “But that’s Jerry: He has the type of personality that’s amazingly convincing in whatever he embraces. I’ve seen him talk about Moonview, and he had the same earnestness when he talked about the AOL merger. He could have backed out of the merger at any time, but it was that one-mindedness that kept him locked into it.” Still, says the colleague, “A lot of people were surprised by how quick the transition was to his new persona.”
Michael Eisner, who’s known Levin for 25 years, was pushed out as CEO of Disney in 2005 after shareholder outcry. Perhaps identifying with Levin’s quest for a fresh start, Eisner says he sees no artifice at work in Levin’s new identity. “I don’t think it’s an act. I think people who have that view are being disingenuous themselves. I think he’s committed to this and to his wife.”
Laurie says that during the planning stages for Moonview, she personally consulted Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin.
“Even before I met Laurie,” Levin says, “one morning I got up and said, ‘I’m 63, I have no belief system.’ As a CEO, I may have worked on mergers and satellites, but I never stopped and went inside and said, ‘Why am I here? Where am I going? What’s eventually going to happen?’”
He claims he never quite felt at ease in the corporate world. “There was the ‘me’ that was doing that,” he says, speaking about his time as a suit-clad warrior, “and the ‘me’ that was observing what was going on. I’m kind of looking at myself participating in negotiations, board meetings, shareholder meetings, speeches—I would kind of wind myself up and go in and perform. I stopped paying attention to myself, let alone my family.”
At Moonview, he revels in the opportunity to help the type A clients hurtling down the path he at last diverged from. The advice he gives them: “Everyone you interact with, you should come at with patience and understanding. Of course, it’s hard to do that in the male-oriented, brutal environment that modern corporations exist in.”
Certainly Levin was primed to embrace Laurie’s conception of the afterlife. In Parsons’s eyes, Levin’s transformation has little to do with the bitter fallout from the AOL merger. Or the simmering pressures of life in a ruthless, male-oriented environment. Or the general urge to reinvent oneself after a public failure. It has everything to do, argues Parsons, with the unimaginable horror and pain that Levin endured when his son was murdered.
“People tend to put them back-to-back,” says Parsons, “but you can’t compare those two things. AOL, that’s a business transaction. Losing a child is the one thing that no human being is equipped by nature to deal with.”
‘It happened to be a son who shared the same birthday as me,” says Levin. “Who was teaching, doing what I aspired to do. Who loved sports the same way I did. To have him taken away, without any warning, in the most brutal fashion. To see it portrayed in the media. It was getting so much attention because it happened to be the son of a CEO, and that really got to me. But I had no response for it. I had no way of dealing with it. So I didn’t deal with it. But it was the most powerful thing that has happened to me in my life.”
There is something distinctly solemn about Levin. He speaks in a slow, even voice, always quiet and never rushed. He hunches his head low over his sloped shoulders and bends his chin into his hollow chest. His eyes look watery and haunted. Not long into our lunch at Moonview—and slightly out of nowhere—he reveals to me that he has suffered from epilepsy and that more recently he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “It’s another trauma,” he says. “We deal here a lot with people who’ve had medical diagnoses that turn their lives around.”