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Lord of These Things

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“Because people don’t know!” Bewkes answered. The audience at the Grand Hyatt chortled.

“Stock price—are you gonna make it go up?”

“Yes,” Bewkes replied, provoking another laugh as he let his one-word answer hang there without elaboration.

“When we’re back here five years from now—one year from now—where’s it going to be?”

“I’m not going to predict the stock price,” Bewkes parried. “Whether [Time Warner] is the biggest is not the main thing. It needs to be the most profitable.” With a surprising burst of passion, he added, “We’re not waiting three years for the stock to go up. It has to go up now.”

“Anything else you want to say about that?”

“Buy stock!”

As for the new job, Murray asked, “Did you consider turning it down?”

“No. I need the money.”

Bewkes’s five-year employment contract calls for a $10.25 million pay package in 2008 plus long-term annual performance incentives of up to $8.5 million in stock options—not to mention command of a fleet of four Gulfstream jets. But he’s never really needed the money. Jeff and his two brothers—the older Gar and the younger Bobby—grew up in the gilded suburb of Darien, Connecticut. Their father, E. Garrett Bewkes Jr., was a top executive at Norton Simon, a food, cosmetics, and media conglomerate that owned a large stake in the production company that made The Avengers, who later went on to make a fortune as a leveraged-buyout entrepreneur. Like their father, they attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.

Jeff competed on the debating team and learned to harness the power of logic, memorably persuading school officials to rescind compulsory attendance at breakfast with the argument that it wasn’t fair to expect students to study past midnight and then require them to appear in the dining room at 7:30 a.m. (The Deerfield dean’s office occupies an Italianate mid-nineteenth-century house that, owing to generous Bewkes-family donations, was rechristened Bewkes House in 2006.)

He then went on to Yale, where I met him. He was a senior and I was a sophomore in the early seventies, taking our meals in the same residential college. To the callow underclassmen of Yale’s Pierson College, Bewkes was a somewhat romantic figure of countercultural élan—a tad scruffy and artistic-looking in a battered leather jacket and definitely more successful with the opposite sex than we were.

Vietnam was winding down, and Bewkes escaped military service when the draft was discontinued in the nick of time. His closest friends had been on track to become journalists, filmmakers, painters. Instead of summering at his family’s place on Nantucket after his junior year, he got a job, thanks to his father, as Diana Rigg’s chauffeur.

During spring break the following year, Bewkes and friends flew down to Haiti, where Heyward Isham, the father of fellow Yalie Chris Isham (now the D.C. bureau chief of CBS News), had recently taken up residence as U.S. ambassador. In the coastal town of Jacmel, Bewkes and classmate Leslie Redlich, a San Francisco shipping heiress (nowadays a journalist better known by her married name, Leslie Cockburn), danced the night away in an authentic voodoo ceremony, resisting the impulse to enter a full-on trance with the young women whirling around them. In Haiti, Bewkes acquired a horrible blue-and-white patchwork suit, which he only occasionally wore to classes, and the Creole nickname “Bo Bo Boulet,” loosely translated as “Let’s get it on,” according to another classmate, New York artist Jimmy Angell, the grandson of Yale’s fourteenth president, James Rowland Angell.

It was, and remains, a tight-knit group. Another of Bewkes’s college friends, campus rock star Walter Parkes (who fronted the popular New Haven band the Rockets), eventually became the production chief of DreamWorks Animation SKG as well as one of the producers of the Oscar-winning film Gladiator. Parkes’s Yale girlfriend, Peggy Brim, became a television journalist after graduation and was a top aide to ABC News president Roone Arledge. She and Bewkes eventually married, and they divide their time between Manhattan and Greenwich, Connecticut, raising their blended family of three children. (Bewkes’s first marriage ended in divorce.)

When I ran into Bewkes in April 2002 at a Washington screening of The Gathering Storm, an original HBO movie about Winston Churchill in the years before World War II, I barely recognized him.

“You’ve cleaned up well,” I said.

“I got off the drugs,” he joked.

Decades later, Bewkes reveled in spinning tales of his dissolute youth to his colleagues. “He likes to tell the bohemian stories,” says a friend. “It’s how he wants to be characterized—as a person who is different from what the résumé says.” But the résumé probably told the real story.


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