Saturday, June 12, 2010

Affable careerism, chutzpah and good connections

Producer and impresario Jerry Weintraub recounts his steady rise.



When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man. Jerry Weintraub, Rich Cohen. 12/Grand Central. 291 pages.

Though generally wary of CEO memoirs for their patently self-aggrandizing bonhomie and vacuous, shameless — and endless — self-promotion, I'll occasionally take a look-see. In the case of this one, the subject is less a CEO and more of a show biz entrepreneur and personality. As a businessperson, he shook up the status quo and reinvented his chosen profession. Plus, his collaborator, Rich Cohen, is a veteran author whose tale of his own dysfunctional family, Sweet and Low, focusing on his artificial sweetener-inventing grandfather, is one of my all-time faves. Cohen's other books, profiling Hebrew shtarkers, gangsters and warriors, made him an ideal scribe for Weintraub's rambling tale.

Curious, star-struck (after a family trip to Hollywood) and not at all academically-inclined, a young Jerry Weintraub first sought and created opportunities for income generation in his Bronx neighborhood, joined the Air Force and found a few more odd jobs, then refused to go into the family business upon discharge. Weintraub's mercantile talent manifested itself in making connections and then building upon them. He became a talent manager, agent — whatever it took — then met and married star singer Jane Morgan, who became his entr'e to the world outside his New York show biz circle.

As a businessman, one of Weintraub's biggest innovations was the creation of the modern concert tour in the 1960s. He signed a big act, Elvis Presley, the revived king of rock 'n' roll, and set up a national tour of large arenas throughout the country, bypassing local concert promoters. This was pretty much unheard of during those pre-Live Nation days when local and regional hegemonies ruled.

Thus began Weintraub's close relationship with the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' manager, who's portrayed rather generously herein. Somewhat less so, perhaps deservedly, is Weintraub client John Denver, a bland singer-songwriter turned into a superstar by the impresario.

After achieving great success, the restless troubadour fired his manager and his career tanked. A lesson? Perhaps. A professional relationship with Frank ("Call me Francis'') Sinatra was also instructive and lucrative.

But Weintraub soon tired of dealing with musicians and their egos and opted, instead, to move to the more sedate and professional setting of Hollywood, producing a string of mostly successful films (from Nashville to the Ocean's 11, 12   13 movies) and briefly heading a studio, albeit less successfully.

His personal story threads through the career recap, surprisingly becoming pals with the elder George Bush, whom he met after being refused entrance as a Jew at a tennis club near the Bush summer home. He also became buds with industrialist Armand Hammer and other colorful characters as he wended effortlessly and untroubled through the milieus of politics and show biz without any discernible philosophical conflicts. On the spiritual side, Weintraub was attracted to the Orthodox Lubavitchers, and video footage of him with another former client, Bob Dylan, at their annual fundraising telethon is a Youtube staple.

The book is slightly gossipy but mostly discreet, though Weintraub's current coupling, with a woman who's not his wife (though he's still married) brought admiring inquiries from no less an Über-womanizer than Warren Beatty, the author unabashedly recounts.

It's hard to come away with any hard lessons from Weintraub's book, other than that relentlessly affable careerism, large dollops of chutzpah and good connections can be enough to make a successful career  and a fairly entertaining autobiography.

Originally published in The Miami Herald

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