Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

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.

Along the way, Geffen shares a bed with Marlo Thomas, a house with Joni Mitchell, and a hot tub with Cher and John Lennon. In one memorable scene, he brings his professional-diver boyfriend to the Oval Office, to advise President Clinton on how to spin the press.

King also goes into great detail about Geffen’s colorful feuds and battles – with Steve Ross, Ahmet Ertegun, Mike Ovitz, Michael Eisner, Don Henley, Phil Spector, Donna Summer, Clive Davis, Neil Young, Madonna, Sandy Gallin, Barry Diller, and countless others. At one point, he recounts an incident in which Geffen picked a tactical fight with Warner music legend Mo Ostin – to ensure that Ostin would be safely out of the way when a deal was struck – by inviting Ostin’s wife, Evelyn, to the Ivy and coolly informing her over lunch that her husband didn’t love her.

But even Ostin came back into the fold. He now works for Geffen at DreamWorks. “That’s what’s so fascinating,” says King. “One moment he repels people, and the next moment he draws them in. There’s a magic about this guy that’s irresistible,” King says. “I found it seductive, too.”

King says that during the course of nearly 300 interviews, he found that “even those people who call themselves David’s closest friends would at some point look at me and say, ‘I guess I should tell you about the time David and I didn’t speak.’ Everybody had a story like that.” Even Tom King.

In the beginning, the Geffen-King partnership seemed, in true Hollywood fashion, to be the start of a beautiful relationship. King, then a 32-year-old reporter who’d worked his way up from the “monitor desk” (the equivalent of the mail room) at the Wall Street Journal, had a $700,000 advance to immerse himself in an object of his own obsession. “I’d been intrigued by Geffen and his life and his career for a long time,” says King. “And being a gay man myself, I knew him from that perspective, too. He was certainly one of the most, if not the most, famous gay men in America.”

King grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the local Quaker Oats plant made the whole town smell like cereal. His parents both worked as public-school teachers. He remembers spending fourth-grade recess writing scripts for Love, American Style. At the same age Geffen was scamming CBS Records, Tom was staging plays in his basement and saving up his paper-route money to see A Chorus Line on Broadway.

In 1986, after graduating from the University of Iowa with a journalism degree, he landed an entry-level job at the Wall Street Journal. His debut page-one story was a first-person account of performing as an extra in a production of Sleeping Beauty. His parents still have the printing plate for that story hung up in their house. He quickly made a name for himself at the Journal, which put him on the entertainment beat and transferred him to Los Angeles in 1991.

It was almost a year later when he first encountered David Geffen at a party in Los Angeles. “You know, one of these parties,” says King, “that are mobbed by the middle-aged – it’s charitable to call them that – but the middle-aged moguls and the pretty mail-room boys who want to be producers.”

Not long after, King called Geffen on a story, and the mogul ended up becoming, as he had for many journalists, an invaluable source. But it wasn’t until early 1996 that the reporter entertained the notion of actually writing a book on the guy. “Ugh,” Geffen groaned when King ran the idea by him, “I don’t want anybody writing a book about me,” abruptly ending the conversation.

Over the years, Geffen had not only fended off other prospective biographers but also managed to get books killed, including a memoir by a former boyfriend and Steven Gaines’s bio on his pal Calvin Klein. In 1989, while still in the closet (sort of), Geffen even got Random House to excise several passages from Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men that implied he was gay.

King refused to give up. In the spring of 1996, he set up a meeting with Geffen at his Malibu home to try sell him on the idea. “I told him I envisioned a serious book marketed by a first-rate publisher,” remembers King. This time, Geffen was intrigued. His friends say that two things about the young writer appealed to him: that King was gay and that he worked for the Wall Street Journal. “I figured he understood, he was gay,” he told a friend. Geffen also came to think that if Tom King wrote a book on him, maybe there wouldn’t be another one.

King argues that at some level, Geffen wanted to see himself immortalized in print. “I really think,” says King, “he had been sitting in his house in Malibu for many years waiting for the right person to knock on the door and say, ‘Let me write your life story.’ ” Actually, King adds, Geffen was waiting for Pulitzer Prize-winning Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro. “But Bob Caro never came. And I did.”

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.”

A year after their split, at a party honoring Ertegun, King tried to break the impasse at the cocktail hour, asking Geffen if they could start speaking again. Geffen reamed him out. “You will get nothing from me!” Geffen shouted at him. “I’ve seen the letters you’ve written to people. You’re looking for every feud I’ve ever had!” King tried a few more times. When he came up with the title, he faxed him with the news. When Random House began distributing fifteen of the early manuscript pages last May, King thought it wise to send Geffen a copy. “I figured someone who got it would fax it to him, anyway.”

By then, Geffen had moved into the fabled Jack Warner house, to which King had never been invited. King got Geffen on the phone. “I said, ‘Where should I send it?’ And he shouted out to his secretary, ‘What’s the address here?’ I was, like, okay, you paid $47.5 million and you don’t know the address?” In any event, Geffen seemed “delighted” that he would finally see some of the book.

After reading the fifteen pages, Geffen called King and told him there were two things he wanted to correct (both dealing with the specifics of Cher’s cars). King took this as a positive sign. “Oh, by the way,” Geffen added, “Your book’s not very good.” “Well, the president of Random House disagrees,” King replied.

In early October, King had the long-awaited manuscript delivered in a box to Geffen’s home. He heard nothing for three weeks, so he faxed him a note, telling him he had about another week or so to bring any factual errors to King’s attention. On the day of Geffen’s deadline, October 29, 1999, the fax at King’s house churned out a one-paragraph letter.

Dear Tom,

Your long and tedious book is absolutely riddled with factual misstatements and unwarranted editorial comments. Listing them all would take far more time than I am prepared to devote to the matter. Let’s just leave it that much of the book is fiction.

Very truly yours,

David Geffen

“When I first heard he was unhappy with the book, I wasn’t sure I should believe it,” King says. “He’s such a Machiavellian character, I wasn’t entirely certain he wasn’t putting on an act.”

Geffen’s friends insist it is no act and claim he has gotten increasingly depressed as the buzz around the book intensifies. On good days, he refers to King as Kitty Kelley. On bad days, he’s taken to quoting Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” the poem his mother, Batya, framed and hung over his bed in Brooklyn: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools … you’ll be a man, my son.”

It is one irony of the battle that King’s homosexuality, which was originally a selling point to Geffen, is now being used as a weapon against him. One of his close friends reports that “people like Calvin Klein called up David and said that was his big mistake – letting a queen write the book.” Geffen himself complained to friends that he ended up with Woogie as his biographer, referring to the Chris Elliott character in There’s Something About Mary, who pretends to be Ben Stiller’s friend but ends up trying to steal his woman. “This is a guy who tried to meet every guy that I’ve ever fucked!” Geffen told one pal.

But Geffen’s friends say that in the end, he is less outraged by revelations of his conquests than he is about his depiction as an unscrupulous businessperson. He has told friends that when he read the manuscript he became physically ill, and the book became an issue during his frequent visits to his shrink. He also began apologizing to all the people he was quoted saying terrible things about. He called David Crosby to apologize for calling him a drug-addled loser. He wanted Steve Ross’s widow, Courtney, to know it wasn’t true that he said bad things about Steve while he was dying. But his first call was to Ahmet Ertegun, who complained to King that Geffen had spread rumors that he was an anti-Semite. Sources say Ertegun denied making the statements until Geffen pointed out that King probably taped the interview. “I never thought he was an anti-Semite!” Geffen later fumed. “I think he’s a prick. It’s a very different thing.”

Even as he privately rants over King’s “betrayal,” Geffen has steadfastly declined to comment publicly on the book, telling friends he refuses to give it any more attention. Behind the scenes, however, he and his team have mounted an impressive effort to discredit it. A few weeks ago he called Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine, who had hired Tom King at the Journal, and lobbied him to kill the People excerpt. Geffen also had a phone conversation with Journal entertainment reporter Laura Landro. “What I told her,” Geffen has bragged, “is what a dishonest scumbag I think Tom King is.”

King isn’t buying all the drama. “I wouldn’t be surprised if David secretly wants the book out there,” he says. “I really think that as angry as he reportedly is, his face is gonna be on a billboard on Sunset, and everybody, hopefully, is gonna be talking about it.” (“David doesn’t need a billboard on Sunset,” counters his spokesperson, Press. “He was in an American Express ad, you know what I’m saying?”)

Still, sources claim that representatives of DreamWorks have called various networks, trying to persuade them not to give airtime to the biographer. Typically, Geffen has vowed that King will come to regret his betrayal. At the very least, he has told friends, King will never write another book in this town again.

That might be wishful thinking. Last week, before a single book appeared in stores, The Operator had already climbed to No. 20 on the Amazon list.

King, who sets out on his book tour this week, is back to work at the Journal, writing a weekly column about Hollywood. So far, being Geffen’s No. 1 enemy hasn’t hindered his job. “If anything, I get my calls returned faster,” he says. “At the end of the day,” says one of King’s colleagues, “Who cares what David Geffen thinks of him? He’s a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. What’s the worst thing that could happen to Tom? He won’t get a contract at DreamWorks?”

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?