The Believer

Jerry and Laurie Ann Levin outside Moonview Sanctuary in Santa Monica, California.Photo: Amanda Marsalis

Jerry Levin sits in a sunlight-splashed room in Santa Monica, California, overlooking a courtyard fountain and a weeping willow. He wears a droopy sweater in a muted tone and a pair of comfortable sneakers. He nibbles an organic vegan lunch that’s been prepared for us by the chef here at Moonview Sanctuary.

“We want you to enjoy the meal,” Levin says to me, “without any pressure with respect to the article that you have to write.” I tell him it’s difficult for me to hang loose when I’m doing my job. “That’s the way I used to treat business meals,” he says. “There would be food, but I never enjoyed it.”

Gerald Levin was once chairman and CEO of Time Warner. He oversaw 90,000 employees. He served as a director of the New York Stock Exchange and was a member of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. He was perhaps the most powerful media executive in the world.

Today, Levin is presiding director of Moonview Sanctuary, a “holistic healing institute” with a full-time staff of fewer than twenty people. Just down the hall from us is a yoga room with an extremely large gong. Another room holds tribal hand drums, Tibetan bowls, and traditional gamelan instruments—all used in ceremonial “men’s circles” led by Moonview clinicians. There’s a massage and acupuncture room. A chiropractic room. A room where Moonview clients can work on their “journaling.” In the hallway is a marble Buddha statue, posed in a mudra representing service and protection. The statue was a gift from Levin to his wife, Laurie, who is Moonview’s founder and CEO.

Levin first met Dr. Laurie Perlman in June 2002. Musing on his future plans in a CNN interview with Lou Dobbs, Levin had said he hoped to bring “the poetry” back into his life. Laurie saw the quote, and its delicate sentiment struck a chord with her. She called Levin to request a meeting, and for reasons he still can’t fully explain, he gave her half an hour the next Monday morning.

“I don’t know why I was compelled to meet with her,” he says between slow, careful bites of tofu. “It seemed like it was coming so far out of left field. At first I thought she was asking for an investment, and that would have turned me off immediately. But she was smart enough not to say that—even if she had that in mind.”

Levin, 68, sports an off-and-on gray beard and a California tan these days, but back then, he was a pale, clean-shaven executive. About a month prior to his meeting with Laurie, he’d retired from Time Warner, after ten years as its CEO, in the wake of a devastating misstep: the ill-fated merger with AOL, which he’d eagerly spearheaded and which had essentially vaporized $200 billion of shareholder money. The stock was down 70 percent since the deal. Exiled to a temporary office, he was preparing to depart in shame from the company he’d worked at for over 30 years and ran for ten.

“You could hunt elk in this office, it was so big,” says Laurie. Laurie is a blonde 54-year-old. She’s quick to smile, and there’s something girlish in the way she flops down for a chat on the overstuffed couch in her office. She spent 25 years in the entertainment industry—first as an agent at CAA (her bio says she scouted and signed Madonna and Michael Keaton) and later as the head of her own film-production company—before she changed gears and entered an unaccredited, three-year psychology program at Ryokan College in Los Angeles. Upon getting her degree, she developed a plan to create a “temple of transformation, about self-love and inner peace,” which would cater to people in the public eye. Why did she feel that Gerald Levin might help her launch a boutique wellness clinic? “Because who better would understand the need to have a safe place to take a tumble in private,” she says.

To prepare for her meeting with Levin, Laurie consulted an unusual confidant. “Before we met, I Googled Jerry’s info and started to pull up the articles around Jonathan and his murder,” she says. In 1997, Levin experienced the worst tragedy imaginable for a parent. His 31-year-old son, Jonathan, who’d chosen to work as an English teacher at a public high school in the Bronx, was brutally robbed, tortured, and killed in his Upper West Side apartment by a former student and an accomplice. They bound Jonathan with duct tape, cut him with a knife until he revealed his ATM number, went outside to withdraw $800 from his bank account, then returned and shot him in the head.

Inside Moonview Sanctuary From left, the office of Moonview's medical director; a marble Buddha statue in a hallway that was a gift from Jerry Levin to his wife, Laurie.Photo: Misha Erwitt

“I meditated and got myself into a place where I was very relaxed and awake,” says Laurie. “You remain empty to receive the answer, and you see what comes through. And Jon talked to me. I thought he was preparing me for the meeting. But he was also preparing me for Jerry’s and my relationship, though I didn’t know it at the time.”

She did not mention to Levin, at this initial meeting, that she’d spoken with his dead son. But six months later, the two of them went to dinner at Michael’s, and the mood became more intimate. Laurie decided this was a good moment to discuss what she calls “soul communion.”

“Normally, it would have offended me,” says Levin. “Particularly when anyone mentioned my son, I would just shut down. But without knowing why, from an emotional point of view, I received this as being real. It was so far beyond my own belief system, yet in an intuitive flash it seemed so real to me and so believable. So I was drawn to that.”

He was drawn to Laurie too. It was on this night that Levin says he first realized they would be “partners in love.” They began to talk on the phone eight hours a day. Soon after (though he says his marriage had long been dying of its own accord), Levin asked his wife of 32 years for a divorce.

Although they won’t disclose Moonview Sanctuary’s revenue, Laurie and Jerry say it’s very close to breaking even. And it’s been successful enough that they’re now actively seeking to open a second branch in New York. Laurie has already bought furnishings for a New York Moonview. She spent several days in Bali choosing them, and they’re now waiting in storage. “She’s got some extraordinary pieces in,” says Jerry with pride. They’re looking for about 8,000 square feet somewhere in Manhattan. At one point, they had a deal on a space in Chelsea, but it fell through.

“The need is enormous there,” says Jerry. “The wellness stuff is there—Chopra has a center right in Manhattan. But on the high end right now, people get sent to Pennsylvania, to Tucson, to Promises.”

Whatever business potential it might hold for Moonview, for Levin a return to New York is a weighty move. It was only five years ago that he fled Manhattan. “The merger drove him to reinvent himself because it was such a public failure,” says a former colleague, who knew and worked with Levin for many years. “After that, he left his job, his industry, his city, and his marriage.”

How does one recover from a failure like that—as Laurie puts it, “a tumble”? As a CEO, Levin says, “I had the arrogance of power. The ability to do things, to fly anywhere, and whether I was being written about positively or negatively, it didn’t matter because I was always written about. That suffuses into your identity.” If and when he comes back now, it will be on far humbler terms. Among the old Time Warner guard, there are embers of resentment that flame at the mention of Jerry Levin. Of course, much of the animosity stems from the AOL merger. (There’s a feeling that Levin has never really apologized for his role in the debacle, and former co-workers left holding ravaged pensions harbor a particularly acute rage.) But the antipathy goes deeper: Levin’s climb up the corporate ladder left him with a fair number of enemies.

A former attorney at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Levin got his start with Time Inc. at HBO. One might even say on HBO: Levin was the first person to appear on the network, welcoming viewers when it launched with a hockey game in 1972. Three years later, in a brilliant move, he pushed to have the channel distributed over satellite. The world’s first satellite-TV broadcast was the live HBO telecast of the Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” boxing match. The accomplishment drove up Time Inc. stock and forged Levin’s reputation as a media-industry seer. Levin was Time Inc.’s (and later Time Warner’s, after the 1990 merger with Warner Communications that he helped negotiate) eggheaded “resident genius”—aided by a perceived facility for quickly grasping the possibilities of new technology.

By the end of 1998, Levin’s vision seemed golden. His was the biggest and best-regarded media conglomerate in the country, prompting the New York Times to refer to “the wonderful world of Time Warner.” The stock shot up 61 percent over a twelve-month period. With hits like ER and Friends, Warner Bros.’s TV division was throwing off billions. And Levin’s $12 billion acquisition of Ted Turner’s cable networks and 2 million new cable subscribers—at a time when the cable industry was thought to be on the wane—were proving to be shrewd, forward-looking moves. And so, in January 2000, when Levin believed wholeheartedly that then-hot America Online would be the savior of his “old media” behemoth, he kept some of his top managers in the dark about the deal, rather than seek their counsel. Levin traded 55 percent of Time Warner in exchange for AOL stock. Then the Internet bubble burst.

Expanding the Empire Levin was the CEO of Time Warner from 1992 to 2002, years in which it grew into the biggest media company in the world. From left, Levin and Ted Turner announcing Time Warner's acquisition of Turner Broadcasting in 1995; a tieless Levin, with AOL's Steve Case, announcing the AOL-Time Warner merger in 2000.Photo: From left, Maiman Rick/Corbis Sygma; Mike Segar/Reuters/Corbis

On his way to the top, Levin honed a gift for boardroom machination. He was, as a former colleague puts it, “a corporate killer.” Michael Fuchs is an especially disgruntled victim. For a long time, he was the head of HBO, then moved to run Warner Music. Until Levin fired him. Fuchs still holds a grudge, frequently trashing Levin in public, most recently in a charity-event speech at HBO last month.

“No one has ever left a company more disliked than he was,” Fuchs tells me. “He didn’t have one friend in the company. Or one friend outside the company. Nor has anyone left such a powerful company in worse shape. He killed everyone in the way of keeping or getting his job. We called him Caligula.”

Levin now explains his infighting as a perhaps misguided pursuit of what was best for the company—not just in business terms but in terms of its obligations to society at large. “I thought I had a handle on both the financial and philosophical interests of the company,” he says, “and that I had a destiny to fulfill. I saw deficiency in others to understand the larger purpose of the enterprise”—Time Warner—“and to pull it off. That was my rationalization for what might seem like very severe and competitive behavior.”

In the view of a former Time Warner insider, Levin’s new incarnation is right out of his standard playbook: When under fire, retreat to an ethereal, philosophical plane. “At the start, Jerry didn’t have a typical CEO image, and he was competing with the Malones and Turners and Redstones. So he took on the image of the visionary to compete in that world.”

At the very least, it has always been true that Gerald Levin sees things that others don’t.

Levin is involved with every single client who comes through Moonview. He sits in on all the practitioners’ meetings, where the healing approaches are planned. And he joins in every men’s ceremonial drumming circle. “It’s using a ritual, archetypal setting to get at the most fundamental questions of life,” he says. “Instead of a male hierarchy, it becomes almost feminine in its openness. Normally, you’re defended, calculating, with an agenda. Here, it melts away. Each session is particular to the individual and to the group, depending on what’s needed. Does somebody need a rite of passage? Does somebody need an understanding of love? Ultimately, we’re trying to break down male culture.”

Though he is in no way trained or licensed, Levin also offers himself for one-on-one conversations with both male and female clients, using his own story as a jumping-off point. “I feel I’m open and have nerve endings now to understand people,” he says. “And I’m not limited by professional boundaries—which is very helpful. This is a temple of transformation, and I’m the poster boy.”

I am sitting in a room at Moonview Sanctuary, gripping a small round object in each fist. These objects have wires trailing from them, and the wires attach to a machine in front of me. The objects vibrate against my palms, in alternating bursts every second or so—left fist, right fist, again and again. Meanwhile, my eyes follow a small red light at the top of the machine. It blinks a path from left to right, right to left, in sync with the buzzing. The overall effect is disorientation: My brain feels mildly weirded out.

This is eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. It’s been found to help victims of post-traumatic-stress disorder. “I’m fascinated by EMDR,” says Levin. “It’s a recent phenomenon, but I actually have a shaman’s artifact used hundreds of years ago where the medicine man would go like this”—Levin waves a bony finger back and forth in front of my face, looking into my eyes with his—“and get people into a state. All these open up the psychological things that are imprisoned in your body, and that I find fascinating.”

In addition to EMDR, Moonview offers neurofeedback “brain painting.” In this treatment, your brain is connected to a computer through electrodes. When you’ve aligned your brain waves in a healthy distribution, gentle music plays, and the computer’s monitor shows you a video of a pretty green island in an empty ocean. When your brain waves get off track, the music goes silent and the video abruptly stops. The idea is to train your mind, over time, to lock into that optimum wave state.

There’s also equine therapy. Moonview brings you out to a stable in Malibu, where you attempt to clean a horse’s back hoof without its kicking your ribs into pulp. (“It’s about finding attunement with another living being,” says Gaetano Vaccaro, Moonview’s deputy clinical director.) Most recently, Laurie and Jerry have been exploring a therapy called “holotropic breathwork”—a hypnotic technique using rhythmic breathing and music. “Jerry and I have both done it,” says Laurie. “There’s nothing here we don’t try ourselves.”

For treatments like these (plus the men’s circles, the acupuncture, the standard talk therapy, and everything else on offer), Moonview’s clients pay a single flat rate of $175,000 per year, or lesser fees for shorter periods. Cases are actively managed by a team of ten to twelve practitioners, who meet frequently to discuss the best course of treatment.

The sky-high price and L.A. setting tend to attract a clientele stocked disproportionately with celebrities and Hollywood players. About 50 percent of Moonview’s clients are dealing with some sort of addiction problem—alcohol, drugs, sex—and to cater to this crowd, Moonview guarantees absolute privacy and confidentiality. The facility is located in a nondescript office complex in Santa Monica. A celebrity can be driven into an underground parking garage, ushered into a private elevator, and led into Moonview’s offices entirely out of sight.

Inside Moonview’s corridors, the discretion is maintained. Group sessions (like the drum circles) don’t involve multiple clients in a circle with one staff member—instead, it’s multiple staff members with a single client. The staff also coordinates client movements to ensure there are no random encounters in the hallways. When I was given a tour, staff members peeked around every corner before signaling that it was okay for me to follow. Laurie emphasizes that this degree of personal service is what distinguishes Moonview, where the programs are “all designed for the uniqueness of you.” I get the sense that she views herself as a sort of social activist, bettering humanity one fragile, wealthy soul at a time.

“Moonview is a temple of transformation, and I’m the poster boy,” says Jerry Levin. “Ultimately, we’re trying to break down male culture.”

Many of Moonview’s treatments are in and of themselves fairly mainstream and widely practiced, including EMDR, though Harvard psychology professor Richard J. McNally feels the lights and buzzers of the machine are (almost literally) “bells and whistles.” He says that no convincing evidence has demonstrated that the eye movements the machine induces have any effect. As for equine therapy, McNally had never heard of it. When I described it to him, his response was a chuckling “Ooookaaaay.”

Gerald Levin believed in cable television. He believed in AOL. Today, he believes in his wife. I’ve seen Jerry and Laurie smooch in the hallways of Moonview, and their body language is all giddy adoration. The most recent time I spoke to them, over the phone, they’d just returned from a vacation in Kauai, where she hiked, he jogged, and they meditated together every morning and night. “It’s hard to fight when you meditate together,” says Laurie. I ask Laurie what attracted her to Jerry. “First of all, I’m stroking his head as I answer,” she says. “You can write that. To answer your question: I love the generosity of his wisdom and the patience with which he listens.”

I then put the question to Jerry. “I love the profound nature of our relationship,” he says, “which is constantly searching, aspiring, and questioning together. Laurie radiates a light that makes you feel warm and inspired at the same time.”

I’ve sensed only genuine love and devotion between them, but it’s clear to me that their relationship could be construed by some as distasteful, or perhaps even sinister. Cast in the coldest, most cynical terms: Laurie sought a meeting with a wealthy man and, after laying a bit of groundwork, told him she’d communicated with his tragically murdered son. The wealthy man believed—no doubt wanted to believe—in her supernatural tale, and within months, he became both her lover and her business partner.

Jerry and Laurie view this as a “narrow” and ridiculous interpretation of what really happened. Jerry has emphasized to me repeatedly that their relationship is “the most unusual thing. Other people like to put things in a familiar category, but this relationship is unique.” Laurie dismisses the notion that their love was built on a foundation of grief. “Jon had been dead five years when we met,” she points out. “It wasn’t about the resolution of grief. It was about the inspiration of a new perspective: that we are eternal.”

Despite Jerry’s protestations about how “unique” these circumstances were, I was struck by something odd that happened in the midst of one of my interviews with Laurie. She suddenly interrupted the conversation. “Is there a connection that you have with Ian Schrager?” she asked. I told her I’d spoken to the hotelier once for a story. Oh, and I’ve stayed in his hotels on occasion. “So you have spoken to him, and he’s someone you’ve connected with,” she nodded, latching onto an inflated notion of our relationship. “I think you’re a link to help me get to him. I’ve been trying to get in touch with Ian because if Moonview expands, I felt like we could do something as a partnership.”

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.”

Moonview has in some cases done “end of life” work with its clients, preparing them emotionally and spiritually for their own deaths. In certain situations, Laurie will also delve into “soul communion”—assisting a client in contacting someone who is dead. She uses the same technique she employed to speak with Levin’s deceased son. “My life’s mission has been proving that we are eternal,” says Laurie. “That we don’t die and that we graduate to a guidance realm.”

Laurie is also writing a book, and attempting to file a patent, regarding “the way a corporation or an endeavor can be founded using ‘the other side’ as your partners. You’re bringing in souls past and present.” As Jerry describes it, “Organizations can consult the guidance of an unseen realm. The metaphor is that it gives off into the ether, and it’s always there, like a television signal. Everything that’s ever been broadcast is somewhere out there.” Laurie says that during the planning stages for Moonview, she personally consulted Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. She says Moonview as a whole consulted “Christ, Buddha, and doctors who’ve made breakthroughs.”

“This isn’t like writing a letter to Santa,” she says. “These souls are operative all the time, but we have to invite them in. This is built into the fabric of Moonview. We consult parts of the unseen world in everything we do.”

“The founding of Moonview has been inspired by—to use a word everyone is comfortable with—angels who died,” says Jerry. “This is not The Secret, this is not What the Bleep, it’s not something for Oprah—not to demean anything. This is a very profound understanding that’s there to help people.”

Laurie consistently refers to Moonview as a “temple,” and the ultimate role of any religion—be it Judaism, Christianity, Scientology, or soul communion—is to provide its faithful with some sort of reassuring template for processing death. It’s easy to see why Levin was drawn to Laurie: She offered a soothing answer to the eternal question. More important, she gave Levin his son back.

“If I didn’t have this traumatic call,” says Levin, “I probably would have gone down some conventional path, I guess. I like to think that there was something inside of me and that everything here just brought it out. I always thought I was a little unusual for being a CEO. But I think what you’re getting now is the real me. I think everything that’s happened to me was meant to happen. I don’t live with regret, and I’m not into do-overs.”

He gazes out the window, and speaks once more in that measured incantation of his. “I wouldn’t redo anything, actually,” he says.

The Believer