The Keys To The Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Elseby Kim Masters
Like one of the movie moguls of old, Michael Eisner is a titan -- feared, powerful, and almost magically successful. After rising through ABC television and Paramount Pictures, he awoke the sleeping giant of Disney and sent it stomping across the entertainment landscape. But since the tragic death of Frank Wells in a helicopter crash in 1994, he has lacked -- for
Like one of the movie moguls of old, Michael Eisner is a titan -- feared, powerful, and almost magically successful. After rising through ABC television and Paramount Pictures, he awoke the sleeping giant of Disney and sent it stomping across the entertainment landscape. But since the tragic death of Frank Wells in a helicopter crash in 1994, he has lacked -- for the first time in his career -- a colleague who could temper his personality.
The result, writes Kim Masters, has been a slide into a Nixonian paranoia and isolation. In The Keys to the Kingdom, Masters crafts a gripping account of this larger-than-life story of larger-than-life hubris, combining an insightful analysis of power in Hollywood with a vivid, deeply researched narrative that brings the personalities, the enmities, and the corporate mayhem to life.
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Poor Little Rich Boy
It must have been difficult, even frightening, for a poor little rich boy whose parents wanted so much for him and demanded so much from him. But a boy who had a lively imagination yet a very short attention span did not necessarily possess the qualities that ensure a brilliant academic career. And in fact, Michael Dammann Eisner had to get used to trying hard without always succeeding. The son of a wealthy New York family, he had grown up on Park Avenue, spending weekends in wealthy Bedford Hills at his maternal grandparents' estate.
The Eisners were wealthy but not extravagant, and Michael was inculcated with a sense of thrift bordering on cheapness. His mother constantly admonished him to turn out lights when he left a room. If the family went to dinner and Michael wanted a shrimp cocktail that wasn't included in the prix fixe menu, his father complained that this indulgence was "ridiculous and unnecessary." Early on, Eisner was taught to believe that money was to be taken very seriously. The message that his father drilled into his head was that "you do not spend capital."
For the first three years of Michael's life, his father, Lester, was away flying transport planes in the Second World War. Being the only boy (he had one older sister), Eisner was his mother's young prince and he learned that by being "clever and playful and likable" he could almost always have his way. To the young boy, Lester's return seemed a change for the worse. It wasn't a happy dynamic. A longtime Eisner associate says that his father was weak and vacillating with his wife, but self-righteous and overbearing withothers, including his children. Relentlessly dissatisfied with them, Lester insisted that they call him by his first name. In his mother, Maggie, Michael had a powerful ally. Complain as Lester might, Maggie saw to it that her boy got to savor his a la carte shrimp cocktail.
Eisner says his father was popular, charming, and funny but also recalls that his best friend, John Angelo, was terrified of him." An avid sportsman, Lester was highly competitive and demanded much of his children. When he took them galloping on cross-country rides every weekend, he hardly noticed that they were seared to death. Both children learned to hate and fear riding.
Michael's sister, Margot, liked to figure-skate. Lester pushed her hard and she became a capable little technician, laboring at her performances with such grim determination that she failed to win over the judges in competitions. Her brother knew better how to have his way. "Smile," he told her. "Play the game." It was a natural gift for Michael, but for Margot, it was not.
Michael attended the exclusive Allen-Stevenson School on East Seventyeighth Street, a school known for its children's orchestra. (Eisner played glockenspiel.) He set out each morning dressed in a blue uniform with a blue cap. He was relatively happy there, not because of a love of learning, but because he was one of the best athletes in the relatively small school and got to be quarterback of the football team from the fourth through eighth grades. He found that he liked calling the plays. Academically, he never really distinguished himself much to the unconcealed disappointment of his father. "I wanted to please him, and it was nearly impossible," Eisner said later. The anxious and protective Maggie did her best for her son, even forging his homework for him when he fell behind.
Eisner portrays himself as an insatiably curious child whose father begged for relief from his incessant questions. He also saw himself as having had a fairly adventuresome youth. "'Give me a subway station and I will go,' was my motto as I traveled to Yankee Stadium, to the Polo Grounds, to Madison Square Garden, and to the World's Fair," he later remembered. Certainly, a genuine and enthusiastic curiosity was one of Eisner's most engaging traits. Even so, the disciplined attention needed to shine in school eluded him.
Lester was also perennially dissatisfied with Michael's standards of conduct. Lester held himself out as a rigidly moral man, but even as a child, Michael had learned to "play the angles," as a boarding-school housemaster put it in a letter to his parents. Michael may not have been an academic star, but surely he learned some interesting lessons maneuvering between a constantly discontented, stiff-necked father and an iron-willed mother who helped him cheat at his schoolwork. At some point, clearly, he concluded that his father's standards could not be met-and he didn't intend to try.
Later, Michael would see something of his father, with his strong professions of morality, in Frank Wells. If he saw hypocrisy in either man, Eisner never said so. But the similarity was such that Michael would acknowledge that Wells served as "a governor" to him when he was "tempted to push the boundaries just a little too far."
At dinner in the family home, young Michael was expected to wear a tie and jacket. Similarly attired, he was dispatched to classes at the Viola Wolff dancing school with white-gloved little girls. His parents took him to concerts and Broadway shows starting at a tender age. A Picasso, The Bullfight, lent by an art-collector friend, hung on his bedroom wall. Television was restricted to an hour a day and that only after two hours of reading. Michael broke the rule when his parents went out and gradually absorbed a dream of a humbler, happier life, informed by sitcoms of the fifties The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. When his father returned home and found the television still warm, Michael faced his fury for trying to pull off the deception.
Of course, Eisner was a rich boy in Manhattan (and a Jew if a highly assimilated one who enjoyed his share of unkosher shrimp). His life had little in common with the middle-class, middle Americans portrayed on television. But the Eisners were hardly living as extravagantly as the family's circumstances would have allowed. "Michael had a privileged but not indulged upper-middle-class urban upbringing," says childhood friend Susan Baerwald. "It was not a lot of rich kids running around with expensive toys. Nobody had fancy cars or trappings of wealth."
Meet the Author
Kim Masters, a contributing editor for Time and Vanity Fair and a former reporter for the Washington Post, is coauthor with Nancy Griffin of Hit & Run. She lives in Los Angeles.
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