The Operator

David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood
By Thomas R. King


ISBN: 0-7679-0757-4

Chapter One


The Roxy had its grand opening on September 20, 1973. It was to be a major success and broke Doug Weston's monopolistic hold on the Los Angeles club scene. It was quite an achievement for a man who was only thirty years old.

But on that night, something happened to Geffen that was far more important than any business deal he had ever consummated. He found true love, but one that would eventually almost crush him.

The Roxy's partners were besieged with requests for tickets to the sold-out opening with headliner Neil Young. "I made more enemies today than in my whole life," Geffen told the Los Angeles Times. Geffen's own group that night included Bob and Sara Dylan and Robbie and Dominique Robertson.

Although Neil Young had demanded that the majority of the tickets be made available to the general public, the crowd gathered that night included some of the biggest stars in the record business. Geffen stood outside and greeted Elton John and Carole King as they arrived amid a flurry of flashbulbs.

One glitch sent the Roxy partners into a momentary panic that afternoon: Nils Lofgren, the opening act, developed laryngitis. Lou Adler hooked his clients Cheech & Chong, and Geffen pulled in Graham Nash to open the show instead.

Geffen, with the Dylans and the Robertsons, had an early dinner before heading to the Roxy, well in advance of the nine o'clock curtain. The club had a capacity of only a few hundred, and it was indeed the kind of place where the performers were nearly on top of the audience. Geffen and his group took their seats at a table right in front of the stage. As the club filled up and the last few people squeezed inside, the temperature in the room rose to an uncomfortable level.

Just after Neil Young started his set, something magical happened to Geffen. Cher, wearing a straw cowboy hat with a big feather in it, stepped into the club. Seeing an empty seat at Geffen's table, she asked the group if she could join them. Geffen looked up and stared into her eyes. To him, it seemed as though violins, not electric guitars, had started to play. Suddenly, he could not concentrate on Young's performance.

Geffen had met Cher more than ten years previously at Phil Spector's studio, where she was a backup performer. As her star ascended, he had once tried unsuccessfully to convince her to record a Jackson Browne song. But tonight he was seeing her in a different light, and love was in the air.

Sonny Bono and Cher were at that moment the most popular TV couple in America, thanks to the success of their CBS variety series, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Now in its third season, the show was a ratings powerhouse, and the couple was wowing viewers with silly sketches and rollicking renditions of their saccharine hit "I Got You Babe." They broke box-office records when they played Las Vegas and had earlier that year appeared on the Academy Awards. Cher's sultry solo hit "Half-Breed" was leaping up the pop-music charts, and tonight she was out on the town without Bono.

At a break in the set, Dylan pointed to Cher's hat. "Can you get me one of those?" he asked dryly. A man who worked backstage approached the table and addressed Dylan and Robertson. "Hey, Neil's backstage, if you guys want to come back and hang out, you'd be welcome," he said.

In fairly standard fashion, Dylan, expressionless, offered up a non sequitur that he thought was funny: "No thanks, we just ate," he said. Geffen howled with laughter. A look of confusion fell over the man's face as he backed uncomfortably away from the table. The break was soon over, and Geffen and Cher did not have much of an opportunity to talk. But he scribbled down his address and asked her to join him for dinner the next night. David Geffen was going to have a date with Cher.

Geffen had not previously made much of an impression on Cher, twenty-seven. She did not know who he was or what he did for a living. She did not even know that he was one of the owners of the Roxy.

Cher drove a white Porsche Daytona that had been customized with her name in large red script on the driver's door. The next evening, as she pulled out the slip of paper with Geffen's address on it, she was surprised to see that his house was just a couple of blocks from where she and Bono lived.

"How can he live around the corner from me?" Cher thought to herself. "I live in the richest section of Los Angeles. What's he doing here?" Sonny and Cher lived in a gated mansion at the end of Carolwood Drive in Holmby Hills, a swank enclave of Los Angeles that borders Beverly Hills. The couple had bought the fifty-four-room estate, a fixture on maps of the stars' homes, from actor Tony Curtis a few years earlier.

After Cher rang the bell, Geffen opened the door with a telephone in hand. "Oh, hi," he said. "Oh, God, I didn't get a chance to take a shower. I'm on the phone.... Come in."

After a moment, Lou Adler arrived, and soon joined Cher and Geffen in the dining room. Geffen was funny, Cher thought, and she laughed at his jokes. Adler soon excused himself to check on things at the Roxy.

After dinner, Geffen and Cher retired to the living room. There, America's beloved TV comedienne opened up her heart and spilled a host of painful secrets she had been keeping for months. Her marriage to Sonny Bono, she said, was in tatters. On television, Sonny and Cher appeared to be the perfect couple. Off camera, however, they were barely civil to each other. They had moved into separate wings of the Carolwood house and now exchanged few words.

Cher told Geffen that Bono was a dictator who had made her life a living hell. He had destabilized her to the point that she could hardly eat or sleep. She was anemic and had been driven so hard by the grind of TV tapings, Las Vegas engagements, and recording sessions that she frequently fell ill. From time to time, the exhaustion forced her to be hospitalized.

It had all gone sour starting with a blowup at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas ten months earlier. One night after their act, Cher told Bono that she was in love with their guitar player, Bill Hamm. Bono freaked out as Cher informed him she wanted out of their marriage. He convinced her that the two were bonded inextricably in a highly profitable business. It made sense, he told her, to keep up the facade of a happy marriage if only for the sake of their bank accounts.

Cher's only escape was to shop, and it was an art she had perfected. It was the only time, she told Geffen, that Bono allowed her to go out unsupervised. She had now grown fed up with the charade and wanted a divorce.

Cher told Geffen about the treasure of her life, her four-year-old daughter, Chastity. Sonny and Cher now took Chas, as they called her, onstage each week during the closing moments of their TV program to sing "I Got You Babe." Cher told Geffen she worried about the impact the split would have on the little girl.

That Cher showed Geffen her most vulnerable side made him comfortable in sharing his deepest secrets with her, too. He told her about the sexual encounters he had had with men and how he was struggling with his sexual identity. He hastily added that his relationships with men had been about sex and nothing more. He was afraid of the opposite sex, he told Cher, but said that he believed a relationship with a woman would offer him the best chance to find true love. Cher had been surrounded by gay men her entire professional life, and Geffen's confessions left her unfazed.

"What is it that you do?" Cher finally asked Geffen. "I am the chairman of ElektraAsylum Records," he told her. "Oh, well, you don't look like it," she said. "You just look like a little schlepper."

Geffen was charming, offsetting his usual braggadocio with vulnerability. The two stayed up well into the night, talking and laughing and exchanging the stories of their lives. Geffen told her he had become a millionaire more than five years earlier. He told her that he thought he had accomplished everything he had wanted to achieve, but that somehow the money and the fame was unfulfilling.

"I'm not alone anymore," Cher thought to herself. She had never known anyone in her life who made her feel so comfortable.

As Cher was about to say good night, Joni Mitchell walked in. Geffen had not told Cher that he had a roommate, so the appearance of another music-industry superstar surprised her. Mitchell and Cher worked at near-opposite ends of the music industry, but for each it was kind of a thrill to meet the other. They chatted a while longer, and then Cher returned home.

During his therapy session the next day, Geffen made a startling admission to Dr. Grotjahn. "I think I am in love with Cher," he said.

That night, Geffen asked Cher to go with him to Robbie Robertson's house in Malibu. Geffen was still trying to sign Bob Dylan and the Band to ElektraAsylum, and he thought having her along might be an asset.

Cher left her car at Geffen's house, and he did the driving. On the way, they stopped for gas. As they sat in the car, Geffen said, "I told my therapist today that I think I am in love with you." Cher was quiet. "Oh," was all she could manage, thinking to herself, "All right. This is a different wrinkle."

At the Robertsons' house, Robbie was puzzled as Geffen pulled him aside and enthusiastically told him that he was infatuated with Cher. Geffen had been candid with Robertson about his liaisons with men. In fact, when he had come to visit him and Dominique in Woodstock, Geffen had dragged them to a gay bar. "This is very interesting," Robertson told his wife, "that at this stage in his life he is taking this position."

Despite her attraction to him, Cher was not ready to consummate her relationship with Geffen. As they pulled into the driveway at Geffen's house, they each fumbled about, trying to figure out what to do next. Cher did not want to go inside, concerned that Geffen might make a pass at her. But she had left a jacket in the house and had to fetch it. She bolted inside, grabbed her coat, ran back out to her car, gave Geffen a peck on the cheek, and drove home.

Within a couple of days, Geffen and Cher were seeing each other every night, and soon the relationship extended into the bedroom. The two began what was Geffen's first fully functional heterosexual relationship. Years later, after he became Hollywood's most famous openly gay executive, many doubted whether the stories of his sexual relationship with Cher were true.

"I fucked her countless times," he has said. Cher has commented, "I was the first person to share his bed and to share his life. People don't believe that, or they don't want to believe it, or they don't understand how it could be. But we were really crazy about each other." Sonny Bono, who was having an affair with a woman named Connie Foreman, became incensed when he learned that Cher had taken a new lover. He forbade her to return to the house on Carolwood Drive. Cher charged that Bono, along with their lawyer, Irwin Spiegel, worked to keep her hands off any of the couple's money. Their company, Cher Enterprises, had a bank account with millions of dollars in it. But soon the woman for whom the venture was named could not withdraw a single penny.

"You need a lawyer," Geffen told Cher. "I have a lawyer," Cher said. "Irwin Spiegel." "No, no, no," he said. "He's Sonny's lawyer. You need your own lawyer. I'm going to set all this stuff up for you. You need to be taken care of."

Geffen found Cher's total helplessness irresistible. As he had with Laura Nyro years before, Geffen quickly got lost in Cher's problems and set about trying to solve them. He eagerly assumed a role he was comfortable playing and expertly qualified to perform: manager.

Geffen began managing all things, big and small, in her life. He rented an odd little house for her, where she could begin a life apart from Bono, at the north end of Carbon Beach, just a few houses north of where he planned to build his own house. He even made sure her car was always filled with gas, despite the gas-shortage crisis. (Linda Loddengaard knew which gas stations had the shortest lines, and she sent the mailroom boy to fill up Cher's Porsche.) To help Cher cope with the many changes in her personal life, Geffen even arranged for her to begin seeing Dr. Grotjahn.

Geffen flew into a rage as he looked over Sonny and Cher's performance contracts. He learned that Cher Enterprises was controlled by Bono and Spiegel; Cher did not even have a vote in the affairs of the company. In truth, Cher had not shown much interest in such matters and had instead focused her attentions on the costumes and wigs she wore on their TV show.

But now that Cher wanted out of the contracts, the agreements merited attention. Bono and Spiegel had broad powers to set the schedule and force Cher to perform. The contracts also gave Bono the right to require Cher to work for Cher Enterprises exclusively. "You can't work under this contract!" Geffen screamed. "It's like slave labor!"

Cher told Geffen that performing on the TV show was fun and that she would like to continue doing it. It was not the best situation to work with Bono, she said, but it was tolerable. She was just relieved not to sleep with him anymore.

Geffen told Cher that she had to demand that Bono tear down Cher Enterprises. There could be no deal, Geffen said, unless Bono agreed to start anew with contracts that gave Sonny and Cher equal votes in setting the agenda and freedom to do outside projects. Just that month, Bono and Spiegel had boxed Cher into a slew of new entertainment commitments. They set Las Vegas dates at the Sahara in January and February and at Caesars Palace in June. She also was committed to play Harrah's in Lake Tahoe in March and on the Music Fair Theaters circuit in April, May, and September.

Geffen hired Milton A. "Mickey" Rudin, a fierce Hollywood attorney known for the work he had done for Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball. He told Rudin that Cher never meaningfully assented to the terms of the contract. He also maintained there was an obvious conflict of interest with Spiegel representing both Bonos, now that their marriage was collapsing.

Rudin fired off a letter to Spiegel informing him that he was now representing Cher and that Spiegel's legal services would no longer be required. But Bono refused to acknowledge Rudin's demands. He did not believe Cher would walk away from the show-business empire he felt he had created for her.

With Bono balking at a restructuring, Geffen told Cher she did not have a choice: She had no money and had to begin legal proceedings against Bono in order to win back her fair share. Rudin contacted Cher's agents at the William Morris Agency and instructed them that no further Sonny and Cher commitments were to be made. Geffen also told Rudin to cancel the performance engagements that had been set up by Spiegel and Bono.

Geffen thought Cher's record contracts were also a disaster. Given that it was Cher's solo hits that were making the most money ("Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves" was the biggest-selling single in the history of MCA Records), Geffen could not believe that the receipts were being shared equally by Sonny and Cher.

Cher told Geffen that she had just begun work on a new solo album, Dark Lady, for MCA. To produce it, Bono had hired Snuff Garrett, an old neighbor of the Bonos who had produced many of their biggest hits. The first number Cher recorded was the album's title track, a trashy tune about a jilted dame whose fortune-teller is fooling around with her man. Geffen cringed as he listened to a tape of the song Cher brought to his house one night. "Oh, sweetheart, this is just awful," he said.

"Dave, I know. I'm really embarrassed," Cher responded. "But I think it's going to be a big hit. What can I tell you?"

Hit or flop, Geffen thought it was the wrong material. He suggested she refuse to finish the other songs on the album. Geffen envisioned making Cher a classier act, singing the songs of the singer-songwriters he represented, such as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.

Cher's eyes grew wide as Geffen explained that changing her act in turn would burnish her image and prepare her for a segue into the movies. From his days at the William Morris Agency, he knew Tony Fantozzi, the agent who now headed the Sonny and Cher account there. He said he would talk to Fantozzi and ask him to begin developing some film ideas.

Geffen advised Cher to finish the current season of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour at CBS. If she could make it through the final episodes, he told her, he would arrange to get her a solo TV show. Cher was excited about Geffen's plans. To celebrate her split from Bono, Cher got a tattoo of a butterfly on her behind. She was ready for a future without Bono and with Geffen.

The stock price of Warner Communications remained abysmally low. Wall Street analysts were skeptical of the music group's earning potential and were still confused by the company's strategy of acquiring cable-TV operators.


Excerpted from The Operator by Thomas R. King Excerpted by permission.
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