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Authors: Jerry Weintraub,Rich Cohen

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When I Stop Talking You

BOOK: When I Stop Talking You
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When I Stop Talking You
Jerry Weintraub
Rich Cohen

Here is the story of Jerry Weintraub: the self-made, Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised impresario, Hollywood producer, legendary deal maker, and friend of politicians and stars. No matter where nature has placed him-the club rooms of Brooklyn, the Mafia dives of New York 's Lower East Side, the wilds of Alaska, or the hills of Hollywood -he has found a way to put on a show and sell tickets at the door. "All life was a theater and I wanted to put it up on a stage," he writes. "I wanted to set the world under a marquee that read: 'Jerry Weintraub Presents.'"

In WHEN I STOP TALKING, YOU'LL KNOW I'M DEAD, we follow Weintraub from his first great success at age twenty-six with Elvis Presley, whom he took on the road with the help of Colonel Tom Parker; to the immortal days with Sinatra and Rat Pack glory; to his crowning hits as a movie producer, starting with Robert Altman and Nashville, continuing with Oh, God!, The Karate Kid movies, and Diner, among others, and summiting with Steven Soderbergh and Ocean's Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen.

Along the way, we'll watch as Jerry moves from the poker tables of Palm Springs (the games went on for days), to the power rooms of Hollywood, to the halls of the White House, to Red Square in Moscow and the Great Palace in Beijing-all the while counseling potentates, poets, and kings, with clients and confidants like George Clooney, Bruce Willis, George H. W. Bush, Armand Hammer, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, John Denver, Bobby Fischer…well, the list goes on forever.

And of course, the story is not yet over…as the old-timers say, "The best is yet to come."

As Weintraub says, "When I stop talking, you'll know I'm dead."

With wit, wisdom, and the cool confidence that has colored his remarkable career, Jerry chronicles a quintessentially American journey, one marked by luck, love, and improvisation. The stories he tells and the lessons we learn are essential, not just for those who love movies and music, but for businessmen, entrepreneurs, artists… everyone.

Jerry Weintraub, Rich Cohen

 

When I Stop Talking You'll Know I'm Dead

To Rose and Sam Weintraub,

without whom none of this

would have been possible, and

of course, Jane and Susie.

 

12/24/76

There once was a kid with a dream

Whose vision was clear and supreme

He formed Management Three

And quick as can be

The dream became one with his scheme

First there was Denver and eventually Frank

Followed by Dorothy & Neil

His Rep. it did grow

And as we all know

Others came wanting to deal

He was man of the year,

"The Wiz of the Biz,"

And accolades too many to count

The dream and the scheme

Turned to bread and to cream

Success it continued to mount

The end of this rhyme is near.

Weintraub is really a dear.

When he's needed most

No more gracious a host,

No more generous a man is there-

With much love and appreciation,

Bob Dylan

Introduction

This book is not the story of my entire life, nor is it the catalogue of my every adventure. It is not meant to exhaust every era nor chronicle every detail. It is instead a tour of just those select moments of hilarity or epiphany-at home and in the office, in the bedroom, studio, and arena-that pushed me this way or that and gave my life direction. The crucial hours, that's what I am after. I also mean it as a chronicle and tribute to some of the great figures of my time, the few I influenced and the many who influenced me. I have been fortunate to have known more than a couple of great people and to have worked with more than a couple of great artists. The story of these people, men and women, is the story of my age, and I consider myself fortunate to have been born in the right nation with the right parents at the right moment. In short, this book, if it is working, should read less like a text than like a conversation, a late-night talk in which a man who likes to talk and happens to have been alive a long time and had his nose in everything tells you of the high points, the grand moments, and the stunning incidents when everything was sharp and clear. I sometimes think a person is a kind of memory machine. You collect, and sort, and remember, then you tell. Looking back-and telling is nothing but looking back-I have come away with a profound sense of humility. I suppose this comes from recognizing my life as a pattern, a cohesive collection of incidents whose author I cannot quite discern. In other words, the more I live, the more amazed I am by living. And maybe that's right. As G-D says in an old book, "What you have been given is yours to understand, but the rest belongs to me."

The Star of Ardaban

I have a philosophy of life, but I don't live by it and never could practice it. Now, at seventy-two, I realize every minute doing one thing is a minute not doing something else, every choice is another choice not made, another path grown over and lost. If asked my philosophy, it would be simply this: Savor life, don't press too hard, don't worry too much. Or as the old-timers say, "Enjoy." But, as I said, I never could live by this philosophy and was, in fact, out working, hustling, trading, scheming, and making a buck as soon as I was old enough to leave my parents' house.

When I was ten, Robert Mitchum was arrested in the coldwater flat across the street from our apartment in the Bronx. I remember Robert Mitchum as the husky, sleepy-eyed actor who played all those noirish roles that told you there was something not so squeaky clean in Bing Crosby's America, but Mitchum got those parts only after the arrest, in which he was caught in bed with two girls in the middle of the day smoking dope. No small scandal. In those days, merely staying in bed till 9:00 A.M. was considered suspicious. It would have been the end of his career if not for some genius movie producer who realized all that public disgust could be harnessed by repackaging the actor into a dark, interesting, complicated character.

When the story broke, the parents in my neighborhood went wild. The schanda! This matinee idol picks our block to engage in his immorality? The yentas went up and down the street, wailing. One of the mothers on Jerome Avenue grabbed me by the collar and said, "Jerry, you're the younger generation, an American boy, what do you think of this actor with his chippies and his Mexican cigarette?"

I smiled with my hand out, because I had just made a delivery and was waiting for a tip. "I'll never see another one of his movies," I told her. "He has shamed not just our neighborhood, but all of the Bronx."

Then, to tease her, I said, "And did you hear? He's Jewish!"

"No! It can't be, you're joking."

"No joke. My brother Melvyn says they pulled tefillin and a prayer book out of that dirty little room."

"Oh, God, I'm going to faint!"

"Not yet," I said, waving my hand. And the purse came out, followed by a few well-circulated nickels.

Of course, I wasn't really disgusted by Robert Mitchum's behavior. I was awed. What did I think? I applauded the man. In bed with two women in the middle of the day? That's the dream! That's Hollywood!

I was born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx. When people ask where I'm from, I always say Brooklyn, though I spent only my earliest years in the borough. Brooklyn because when you hear the Bronx you think baseball, vacant lots, tenement fires, whereas, when you hear Brooklyn, you think guys. In my oldest memories, I am on the street, with a roving pack of kids. We hung out beneath the Jerome Avenue El, where the shadows made complicated patterns. The sidewalks were lined with Irish and Italian bars. On my way to school, I would see the drunks at their stools, having their first shots of the day. We stayed out there for hours, talking about what we wanted. We played stickball and stoopball, the Spalding bounding off the third step of the brownstone, arcing against the beams of the elevated. When a train went by, it rained sparks. If you listened to us, you would not have understood half of it, everything being in nicknames, slang, and code. My brother Melvyn was (and is) my best friend, two years younger, not a resentful bone in his body, though he had to pay for my sins in school: Mel Weintraub? Jerry's brother? You sit in back and keep your mouth shut.

The neighborhood was bounded by big roads to the south and the Hudson River to the west, with a distant view of the Palisades. Manhattan was just a twenty-minute subway ride, but a light-year, away. At night, when the IRT train went over Jerome Avenue, its windows aglow, I dreamed of going to the city. I was impatient to see the world. Now and then, tired of gray days in the classroom, I cut school and instead caught a train to Times Square, where I sat through two features and a floor show at the Roxy or the Paramount or one of the other grand show palaces. The velvet curtains, the plush aisles, the stars and stage sets and glamour-this is where I fell in love with movies. Back to Bataan with Robert Taylor; Pursued with Robert Mitchum; Here Comes Mr. Jordan with Robert Montgomery; Fort Apache with John Wayne; The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend with Betty Grable, with that body and those legs, each insured for a million dollars by Lloyd's of London. This was not a theater; it was a synagogue. Everything I wanted was up on the screen.

There is nothing better than coming out of a movie on a summer night when the sun is still in the sky. I would take the train back to 174th Street and wander through the neighborhood, past the Chinese laundry, druggist, newsstand, smoke shop, deli, with scenes from the movie flickering in my mind-gun battles, chases, immortal bits of dialogue. I'll get you, you dirty rat. I would toss off my coat as I came in the door, overwhelmed by the smells from the kitchen, where my mother was cooking one of her great Eastern European dishes. It gave me so much, just knowing she was back there, at home, worrying and waiting; a sense of security; a sense that the world has order, and will continue tomorrow as it is today.

When I was very young, we lived in an apartment house at 47 Featherbed Lane. Later, when my father made some money, we moved to a place on the Grand Concourse. Once a month, the landlord drove up in his Cadillac to collect the rent. There were very few cars on the streets in those days, the causeways and lanes being left to hooligans and mothers and rollicking kids. Which made the arrival of the landlord, this scary man in the long black car, as dramatic as a scene in a movie. I mean, there we were, out playing ball, when all of a sudden, here it comes, shiny and metallic black, a block long, with the landlord inside. He was a German and spoke with an accent. We could see him through the glass, with his account books and change purse, puffed up with this huge, godly ability to collect and reject and toss you out of your house. He may have been the nicest man in the world, but we feared him. At the first glint of his grille, we ran into our homes and hid under our beds.

We lived on the second floor because my mother was afraid of heights. I spent hours on the fire escape watching the traffic, the people in the street. I had relatives all over the neighborhood. I used to lie awake after bedtime, listening to my uncles tell stories about the legendary gonifs and bootleggers who ran the Bronx long ago. I had one grandfather who was a communist. He used to stand on a soap box in Union Square decrying the fat cats and was arrested once a week. I had another grandfather who was a union organizer. He wore a suit and a tie and smoked a cigar. All my relatives talked all the time but it was always the same story: the old country, the crossing, the struggle, the dream.

My mother's name was Rose. She had reddish-brown hair and looked Irish. (I used to tell people my real name was O'Hara, that Weintraub had been invented for business purposes.) She grew up in Brooklyn, where she had been as cloistered as any of the nuns at St. Mary's. I don't think she had been anywhere or done anything before she met my father. Like a lot of the Jewish women of that era, she went straight from the house of her parents to the house of her husband. The first time she ate a lobster-I remember my father bringing the forbidden sea monsters into the house-she tried to crack the shell and sent a claw sailing across the room. What did she care about delicacies? Protecting us, keeping us from the suffering of the world, that was her task. She did not want us to know about the existence of hospitals, let alone mortuaries. If I had a relative who suddenly stopped coming to the apartment and I asked, "Where is Uncle Dave?" She would say, "Dave went on a trip." Then, three years would go by and I would ask, "What happened to Uncle Dave?" And she'd say, "Oh, Uncle Dave died years ago."

She was a beautiful woman, with all the magical powers we boys attribute to our mothers: She was always there, watching and praising, supporting, loving, beaming. She was parochial, scared of a lot of things, but fought through her fear for our sake. She was afraid of heights, as I said. She was also afraid of cars, airplanes, restaurants, basically the whole world beyond New York City. Her struggle-the battle between her fear and her desire to raise sons who were without fear-was dramatized on a trip we took out West, when my father decided we should take the tourist train to the top of Pike's Peak in Colorado. We got our tickets, took our seats, and around and around we went, up Jacob's Ladder to heaven. My mother was smiling and nodding the entire way, but her knuckles were white and tears streamed down her face. It said something about human will, or about a mother's love, or maybe it was really about the stubbornness of my father, who said, "We're doing this, and that is all there is to it."

His name was Samuel, and he was the perfect match for my mother. Where she was parochial and nervous (most comfortable inside the apartment), he was worldly and sophisticated (most comfortable out in the world). He was a salesman, and had been on the road since he was fourteen. She worked as a secretary in his office. He had crossed the country a half dozen times before they met, had friends in dozens of states, was welcomed everywhere he went. He used to return from trips with stories and souvenirs. Postcards, trinkets, tchotchkes-the romance of these things lingered in the apartment. If I caused him trouble later on, if I banged into him while trying to get free-and believe me, I was a big, mischievous pain in the ass-my father can blame himself. He was the one who filled me with dreams of the greater world. I simply wanted to see what he had seen.

My father was in the jewelry business. He bought and sold gems. Following years of struggle, he started to do okay after World War II, when refugees began to arrive from Europe, many with a stash of jewels they needed to sell. My father began as a kind of middleman, but ultimately built a thriving business.

I remember him leaving for India, Paris, Ceylon. He would hunt the markets and bazaars for rubies, sapphires, diamonds. He had a beautiful suitcase and was a fantastic packer, shirts and pants folded into special compartments, pockets for papers, pockets for notebooks and cigars. He would hug Melvyn before he left, then say, "Take care of them, Jerry. You're the man of the house now."

When I was eight years old, my father returned from a trip with the largest star sapphire in the world. It was a piece of junk, picked up from a secondhand dealer. He polished it, then did something that made an impression on me. He named it. He called it "The Star of Ardaban." Why give a name to this old piece of nothing? Because it's not the gem a person buys. It's the story behind the gem. It's the romance. He had a special case made for the Star of Ardaban, the sort of case you might carry handcuffed to your wrist. He took a trip, traveling with the Star of Ardaban across the country. In each town, he was met at the train station by armed guards, a Brinks truck, and a local reporter. A few days later, after the story appeared in the local paper, he would invite all the jewelers to his hotel room to look at the Star of Ardaban. Then, as they were examining the Star of Ardaban, he was selling them everything else in his jewelry case. At the end of the tour, he donated the Star to the Smithsonian. It's there to this day.

This is a Bible story in my family, a foundational myth-it explains everything you need to know about my father's business and about my own. Though he was selling rubies and sapphires and I am selling Clooney, Pitt, and Damon, the trick is the same: packaging. You might have the greatest talent in the world, but it doesn't matter if you can't sell it. Am I Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway? No. I can't write a novel. I can't write a play. I can't write a song. But I can help the artist get that book or song or play noticed by the public. And that's packaging. When you dig through all the craziness of my life, you'll see that I'm just a guy from the Bronx who knows how to attract a crowd. I can get people to notice the sapphire, so it's not lying in a cellar where it might be found in a hundred years, long after the man who mined it has died. That is my talent. If I had been around with Van Gogh or Melville, they would not have had to wait so long for fame.

When I was nine, my father took us to California. He wanted to show me and my brother the world outside the Bronx, and he wanted my mother to see Hollywood. She was crazy for the movies, one of those ladies you would see in an empty theater on the Grand Concourse, a box of tissues on her lap, weeping. (She named my brother not after some long-lost shtetl-dwelling ancestor but for one of her favorite actors, Melvyn Douglas, a star of Captains Courageous.) We loaded up the car and crossed the George Washington Bridge into America. Route 22 to 15, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois. I pressed my face to the window, watching the towns go by. We slept in motels, ate in diners, visited tourist traps. I saw cowboys, horses, and distant peaks white in the smoky freight-yard dawn. I was a baby but already felt the pull of forces greater than myself, older even than my grandparents, a feeling that is with me even when I am alone. We stopped in Las Vegas. This was soon after the war. The town was nothing, a desert nowhere in which midcentury hoodlums were sketching plans for palaces. I would later spend much of my life there, with Elvis, Sinatra, the Colonel, put on so many shows and ink so many deals, and here I was, years earlier, ghosting through this nothing place. I was a child and Vegas was a child, but we would grow up, and meet again.

We arrived in LA at dawn. My father was driving, window open, sleeves rolled back. "Jerry, wake up-you're gonna want to see this." I opened my eyes as we came over the hill. I could see the buildings of downtown, the hills behind them, the ocean behind that. The light was so pure it was white, catching the tops of the towers, which glowed in the sun. It would be great if you could preserve the first vision of a place that would become important to you, but later experience gets tangled up with memory until what came later changes what came before. You can never really save anything. We stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, across from Grauman's Chinese Theater, where the stars have their hand and footprints in cement. I spent an afternoon there, measuring myself against Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, all of whom, for whatever reason, had surprisingly small feet.

BOOK: When I Stop Talking You
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