Fresh out of Yale in 1974, Bewkes wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. For a while, he worked as a researcher at the NBC News documentary unit. But the assignment eventually ended and he was laid off. So he applied to various law and business schools and was accepted by Stanford’s M.B.A. program. Bewkes didn’t throw himself into academics at college, “but when he got to Stanford,” Angell says, “things changed dramatically. Once he decided that he was going to undertake a business career, he became very focused … He came back to New York and was working at Citibank, and [Yale classmate, now horror-movie actor] Bill Moseley and I were always trying to get Jeff to go with us to clubs. We’d all be having dinner, and we’d say, ‘Come with us to the Mudd Club, we’re going to see Talking Heads,’ and Jeff would say, ‘No, I’ve got to be at work in the morning.’ ”
Bewkes bristles at the suggestion that he’s a member of a privileged East Coast elite—preferring to align himself with his father’s salt-of-the-earth forebears who emigrated to New Jersey from the Netherlands in the late-nineteenth century, and to reminisce about a childhood spent hanging out in his German maternal grandfather’s dry-goods store in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. As an undergraduate, he’d argue with classmates like banking heiress Sarah Pillsbury, who would make impassioned assertions for expropriating the ill-gotten gains of evil corporations on behalf of the masses. “Yeah, but if we do that, you’ll still have a beach house, and I don’t have shit,” Bewkes countered—not quite accurately. “So I’d like to get out in the world and get something going here.” (Pillsbury went on to work with Bewkes and HBO on her film And the Band Played On.)
“If I were Jeff, I would shoot myself.”
—Richard Parsons, chairman of Time Warner
The American Lawyer founder Steven Brill, who grew up in Queens and was two years ahead of Jeff at Deerfield and Yale, recalls receiving a pained phone call from Bewkes in 2003 when the Los Angeles Times quoted him about Bewkes’s family: “They were loaded.” “Jeff was really offended by it,” says Brill. “And I guess he should have been. But to a scholarship kid from Far Rockaway—one of the first Jews to attend Deerfield—everybody who lived in Darien was rich.”
“If I were Jeff, I would follow Dick’s advice—I would go ahead and shoot myself.”
—Don Logan, former head of Time Inc.
And it’s hard to escape the fact that “Jeff was empowered by his background,” as Los Angeles gallerist Laurie Frank, a friend from Yale, puts it. “I think Jeff was always being groomed to be a CEO, to be the head of a company like Time Warner.”
“Jeff was always very close to his dad,” says Angell. “And some of his drive comes from his wanting to be acknowledged by him—to be viewed as an equal.”
Good breeding, of course, gets one only so far. “It’s not like they were holding a spot,” says a source close to Bewkes. “You don’t just go from Yale to Stanford busi ness school. You couldn’t go from an entry job at HBO to the head of HBO and Time Warner. You struggle through the mud to get to these places.”
In the late seventies, Bewkes was working in Citibank’s commercial-lending department. He did well enough that his bosses wanted to transfer him to Hong Kong. Instead, in 1979, he found a $20,000-a-year position at Time Inc.’s upstart HBO.
Among his first jobs was sweet-talking hotel chains into subscribing to the movie channel (another product he was sent out to peddle, the family-friendly channel called Take Two populated with G-rated movies, failed). He then became sales director for the launch of Cinemax. From there, he rose smoothly through the ranks—his career nurtured by Michael J. Fuchs, who is widely credited (not least by himself) for taking HBO beyond just some sports and stand-up comedy into an original programming powerhouse. Among Fuchs’s memorable successes were Tales From the Crypt, Dream On, Arli$$, and The Larry Sanders Show. By 1991, Bewkes was HBO’s president and COO, Fuchs’s trusted No. 2, presiding over international expansion, negotiating rights with the Hollywood studios, and enlarging the independent-production business that made shows for the broadcast networks.
Few can match Bewkes’s institutional memory and deep knowledge of Time Warner’s component parts. He was present at the creation, watching them morph into a sprawling global media-and-entertainment empire with 90,000 employees. Bewkes had gained the confidence of a succession of executives who were fierce rivals of one another. They included Time Inc. head Nicholas J. Nicholas, who engineered the 1990 merger with Warner Communications chief Steve Ross; former HBO chief Gerald Levin, who ended up running Time Warner when Ross died ten months after Levin orchestrated the March 1992 ouster of Nicholas (which shocked Bewkes; Nicholas had been a mentor); and Fuchs, Bewkes’s immediate superior, who clashed with Levin while talking himself up as Time Warner’s future CEO, balked at reporting to the new vice-chairman, Ted Turner, and tried to retain his position atop HBO while adding the company’s music division to his domain.