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Whose Life Is It, Anyway?


Geffen's well-known propensity for killing books would have scared off most publishers. But King had secured more than Geffen's promise of cooperation: He had Geffen's agreement in writing. In a three-page letter he addressed to Tom King on June 25, 1996, exactly a month before the book was sold, Geffen spelled out "the basic terms and conditions of our agreement." It's a remarkable letter, in which Geffen virtually pledges a kind of unilateral disarmament. He vows "to make myself available to you for at least four hours of interviews . . . to provide you with a list of persons, including family members, business associates, friends and acquaintances . . . and make available to you certain business documents and personal effects including photographs.

"While I cannot dictate that others speak to you, I agree in general to encourage them to do so, and will make no efforts to discourage anyone from speaking to you. . . . In essence, I am allowing it to be written without presenting any of the obstacles I have at my disposal." In return, Geffen insisted that King allow him to read the manuscript before galley proofs.

With letter in hand, King went about selling his book. The proposal went up for auction on July 25, 1996, and eleven publishers battled over it. That day, King signed a deal with Random House, where he would be edited by Ann Godoff, now the publishing house's president. Godoff confirms that Geffen's cooperation was essential. "We were brought a package that indicated he was going to cooperate. Without that, I don't know that I would have been as enamored of the project."

After the auction, king called his subject with the good news. Geffen immediately asked him how much he would be paid. "I said, 'David, I'm from Iowa, we don't talk about those kinds of things.' But he basically beat it out of me."

Geffen wasn't impressed. As King later learned, he "wondered if I could have gotten a million dollars. Or if another writer would have been able to get a million dollars. It was all about his ego and measuring his own worth -- how much a book on him was worth."

For the first few months, Geffen called "constantly," recalls King. "I mean, all the time. And David gets up a lot earlier than I do, so a lot of times it was a wake-up call." Without even "Hi, it's David," he'd "just start in, brainstorming names of people who he thought would be good to interview. One day, I knew he had his address book out and was just going page by page, because he gave me about 50 names in alphabetical order." He even authorized his childhood psychiatrist to talk.

Geffen's green light was crucial in getting people to cooperate. Whether it was Cher, Tom Cruise, or Geffen's cousin in St. Louis, it was always the same drill: They'd check with David first, then call back, astounded that he told them that they could actually talk.

Geffen's first "real freak-out" on King was the day he called his biographer as King was headed to Encino to interview Geffen's estranged older brother, Mitchell, a retired attorney. King told him where he was headed, as he usually did. Tom, you can't interview my brother! You agreed not to interview my brother! (King says he never agreed to that.) And finally, We can call this whole thing off right now.

But the next day, it was like nothing had happened. Same wake-up call, no mention of brother Mitchell -- who, in fact, had spilled his guts. But by then, Geffen's calls were becoming less helpful and "more like fishing expeditions," says King. "He was really calling me to find out what people had said in the interviews that I'd conducted since his last phone call."

Things were getting testy. Once, King returned from an interview to hear the phone ringing -- it was Geffen, furious about a question he'd just found out had been asked. "It blew my mind," says King, "that someone could have already downloaded the entire contents of my interview before I even got home."

This went on for fifteen months, through 200 interviews, until the final, eerily calm call on Halloween. King remembers feeling two things as he stood there in his Honest Abe outfit. The first was disappointment over the questions he'd never be able to ask Geffen. The second was relief.

Geffen was relieved, too. the final break between the two men was spurred by a number of things, including a secretly recorded tape of an interview that one of King's sources helpfully forwarded to Geffen. But what really put him over the edge was the dinner parties. As an associate of Geffen's describes it, "Tom did a really stupid thing. He went to these gay dinner parties in New York and basically announced that David wasn't going to like the book. Of course it got back to David. That whole queeny dinner thing in New York, to think that Tom could talk to any gay businessperson and that they would not know David, was very shortsighted."

After Halloween 1997, Geffen barely spoke to Tom King again, but he didn't prevent King from doing another 100 interviews over the next eighteen months. His secretary, Priscila, continued to cheerfully supply Tom with phone numbers. "He made an agreement," says Terry Press. "Unlike what you read in the book, David is a man of his word."

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