Legendary film producer Jerry Weintraub recalls life lessons that helped him become the person he is in "When I Stop Talking You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man."
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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."
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 cold-water 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.
About three years ago, after Ocean's Thirteen premiered, the people who run Grauman's said they wanted the stars of the film—Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, George Clooney—to put their prints in the cement. Clooney said, "Look, we'll do it, but Jerry has to do it, too." As a rule, Grauman's only honors actors, but they really wanted these guys, so they relented. As I was putting my hands in the cement, I looked up and saw the very window in the Roosevelt Hotel from which, all those years ago, I had looked out at Hollywood. While I was thinking about this—how strange to return to the same place, only now on the other side of the glass—I noticed the men next to me, my friends, were laughing.
A few days earlier, Clooney had called Pitt and Damon and said, "You know how when you go to Grauman's the footprints always look so small? Well, you don't want a kid out there, years from now, saying, 'Oh, God, look at Brad Pitt and Matt Damon—they had baby feet!' Tell you what. I'll pick us up size fourteen shoes, three pairs. Jerry? Oh, well, let's not mention it to Jerry." So these friends of mine have clown shoes, while I'm the guy with the tiny feet on the walk of fame. And you know what they say about small feet.
My father drove us all over LA. One night, we waited in front of a spot on Sunset Boulevard where the stars showed themselves. I think it was Ciro's. You have to understand what it was like back then. There were few cars on Sunset, no high-rises. It was still woods and wilderness, cactus fronds from the last joint all the way to the ocean. Beverly Hills was a country town. The clubs on Sunset sat in the middle of all that wilderness like a string of pearls. This was before TV, before anything. It was olden times, when the studio bosses, in need of publicity, would scheme their way into the news, which usually meant dressing their stars in finery and sending them, in matching couples, before the flashbulbs along the red carpets of Sunset.
So we stood in front of Ciro's, with the sun going down. The cars rolled up and the stars walked the carpet, frozen in the light of the flash, pop, pop, pop. The door opened and I caught a glimpse of smoke and swells and bubbles, a look inside the genie bottle. (I thought I had died and gone to heaven.) Standing out there, on the wrong side of the rope, seeing the stars disappear into the velvet interior—well, if that doesn't make you ambitious, nothing will.
I remember Joan Crawford coming out with her head down, throwing her arms up, turning it on, slipping into her car, a boat of a thing. There was a boyfriend, but she was driving. I remember Mickey Cohen, too, the gangster who ran the underworld. He was a pug of a guy, rough looking but shedding more wattage than any of the film stars. Mickey was shot soon after. (He recovered.) My father showed me the story in the paper. As I read the story, I imagined the strutting strongman, grinning in the paparazzi flash. That was Hollywood to me—starlets and gangsters, glamour and menace and a snubnose .38 going blam blam blam.
There was a guy named Delmer Daves, a fascinating guy, a movie guy, a writer and director and producer, who started in the business as a prop boy on a silent called Covered Wagon. I won't go into tremendous detail about Delmer Daves, except to say he was a Stanford-educated lawyer, lived with the Hopi Indians, made a half dozen classic films, and was interested in jewelry, which is how he came to know my father. When he heard we were in LA, he invited us to lunch at the Fox studio. I remember the day vividly. Driving to the gate, the guard checking the list for "Weintraub," the thrill of being on that list, our name among the names of actors and movie people. The lot was a hubbub of activity—these were the days of the old studio system, when everything important happened on those few acres. It was a circus, with extras in cowboy hats and chaps and conquistador helmets and spurs, starlets in gowns, cameras and microphones and the machinery of show business. And the sets, little glimpses of Paris and New York, alleys and stoops rebuilt to the smallest detail—the street lamp, the park bench, the window from which your mother calls—so perfect beneath the clean, Pacific sky.
We ate in the commissary. Daves talked with my father. Everywhere I looked, I saw stars. At one table, Betty Grable was in costume, killing time as the cameras were moved for the next shot. She wore a sheer dress, and, of course, my eyes went straight to those beautiful legs. She was eating a sandwich, drinking a soda. I could not take my eyes off her. As she was -eating and drinking, and as I was watching, she belched. It might sound like nothing, but to me it came as an epiphany. Those beautiful legs. And she belched! It upset me, and elated me, too. It meant these big stars were just people, normal human beings. It meant I could live here someday, be one of them. I told Betty Grable about this years later, that my career was made possible by her belch—I don't think it thrilled her. She smiled and said, "Well, Jerry, I'm glad I could help."
My father took us to Beverly Hills so we could see where the movie stars lived. It was nothing then, just a sleepy little town, as I said, filled with mom-and-pop stores. We went through the roads above Sunset Boulevard, where mansions clung to the cliffs. In my memory, every house is midcentury Spanish with porticos and overlooks and guest cabanas and side porches where the desert wind blows through the Joshua trees and cypress. I live in one of these houses now. I've had it remodeled, but you can still see the bones of old Beverly Hills. (Imagine a madcap silent screen star wandering in the halls, getting drunk on champagne, wrecking her coupe then calling the studio head to keep it out of the papers.) I bought it in the early 1970s, in a moment of success. It is just the sort of place I imagined an old-time studio great might live, Harry Cohn, David O. Selznick, or Irving Thalberg. It's where I'm writing these pages, telling these stories, each on its own an anecdote, but together the life of the kid with a dream looking back when the dream has come true.
I graduated from P.S. 70 a few weeks before the trip, and had brought along my autograph book, which is what we had instead of a yearbook. I waved it at every celebrity I met—on the carpet at Ciro's, on the Fox Lot, in Beverly Hills. I carried it to the doors of several mansions. Just walked right up and rang the bell. (If you tried this today, you'd be "neutralized," a burlap sack would be thrown over your head and you'd be hurried off to a secret location.) I still have that old autograph book. It's like something from another age, small, green, filled with signatures—some from teachers, some from classmates, some from movie stars. -Carmen Miranda, Bette Davis, Paul Douglas, each of whom added a few words of encouragement. "Keep going, Jerry!" "You'll make it, Jerry!" "You'll be great, Jerry!" Years later, when I met some of these people again, I showed them the book. And they laughed. Betty Grable wanted to take a pen and add, "You're welcome for the belch, Jerry." I told her not to do it. You really shouldn't tamper with a historical document.
From the book When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead Copyright (c) 2010 by Jerry Weintraub. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved