It was perfect, really, that David Geffen chose Halloween as the day to pull the plug on Tom King. His biographer was putting on his costume for the night -- King was going as, of all things, Abraham Lincoln -- when the phone rang in his home in the Hollywood Hills. With his fake black beard half glued on and two woman friends waiting (one was going as Hillary, the other as Jackie O., natch), King listened to a familiar voice lashing out at him on the telephone. Tom, it's over.
For the previous fifteen months, from the time the Wall Street Journal reporter had scored a much-hyped deal with Random House to write Geffen's biography, life had been filled with high drama. The ballistic phone calls. What the fuck are you doing, Tom? The hysterical requests. You promised you wouldn't call my brother, Tom. The double-agent interviews (even Geffen's enemies were reporting to him on King's line of questioning, some providing tapes and faxes). Geffen had declared, Tom, it's over! several times since his surprising decision to cooperate with his biographer. But on Halloween 1997, King knew it was for real.
"He wasn't yelling that day, for one thing," recalls King, a soft-spoken 35-year-old whose manner is still much more Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he began, than Hollywood, where he ended up. "In fact, he sounded kind of rational. He was saying, you know, 'Why should I cooperate with a book that may offend me?' "
This week, as King's book, The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood, finally hits bookstores, Geffen is beyond offended. He's furious, with King "and with himself," says Terry Press, his right-hand person at DreamWorks. Splashy excerpts in the Wall Street Journal and People have done little to improve his mood. The way Geffen -- one of the most feared and powerful men in Hollywood -- sees it, Tom King seduced him, wooed him with "promises and lies," then went about blithely assassinating his character in 688 pages.
King sees it differently, depicting Geffen (as he does in the book) as an insecure control freak who sought to manipulate every aspect of his public image and blew up when he discovered that he couldn't. But the contretemps between Geffen and King goes beyond the usual journalist-screws-subject story. At a time when powerful subjects routinely quash books before they are even written, King won Geffen over by convincing the mogul that his cooperation would ensure a "fair and accurate" portrait of his life. Is his largely unflattering portrayal a betrayal of their deal? Or is it simply good journalism?
"There's a magic about him that's irresistible," King says. "I found it seductive, too."
Controversy over The Operator has been fueled by the fact that very few people have read it. Random House circulated only a handful of galleys and didn't send out review copies until the last minute, though photocopied manuscripts have been circulating throughout Hollywood. While King's book is a meticulously reported and often fascinating account of Geffen's Zelig-like presence in American pop culture, a bodice-ripper it isn't. King seems to hold back intentionally when it comes to anything intimate, including Geffen's much-speculated-about sex life. (Geffen's comment about his relationship with Cher -- "I fucked her countless times" -- is, alas, as detailed as it gets.) King is more focused on the melodramas of his business dealings, especially an ongoing pattern in Geffen's life of forging powerful relationships, then sabotaging them, or at the very least getting supremely pissed at his closest friends.
King has Geffen operating as early as Chapter 2, but only because Chapter 1 focuses on his parents: a domineering mother (who makes her living selling bras) and a "henpecked" father whom Geffen despises. His mother, Batya, who worships the son she called King David, suffers a nervous breakdown, and the school nurse diagnoses David as having an "emotional problem." Still in elementary school, Geffen commits mail fraud by joining the CBS Record Club approximately 50 times, filling out membership forms under different names. By high school, he's bribing his teacher with Broadway-show tickets.
To King, Geffen's childhood dramas are a blueprint for his career, which begins when Geffen lies his way into a mail-room job at William Morris. The book details how Geffen's uncanny eye for talent launches the career of everyone from the Eagles and Jackson Browne to Tom Cruise and Guns N' Roses, and finally results in enormous stakes in movies, music and Broadway.