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From ‘Mailroom’ to the Top Rung

by Amy Klein

April 30, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Oh, to be a young American Jew, the son of new immigrants, coming of age in the '30s, '40s and '50s. While some of your peers followed their parents into the shmatte business, and others struggled to gain admission to medical or law school, you shlepped to Hollywood with a dollar and a dream.

With any luck -- OK, to be honest, connections -- you landed yourself a low-level job at a movie studio mailroom, and after putting in years of sucking up, schmoozing, hustling, schvitzing and scrambling, you ran the agency.

"At William Morris I had the feeling that the traditions of the company came straight down a tube, right into an in-basket in the mailroom, and that they contained all the instructions for how I was going to comport my professional life," Ron Mardigan, a William Morris former senior vice president of Motion Picture Literary, West Coast, tells author David Rensin in "The Mailroom: Hollywood's History from the Bottom Up."

"It was just tradition," Mardigan said of the mailroom culture. "Somehow, what the guy before you did, you did. If you could change it to improve it a little bit, okay, but there were certain rules of behavior -- ethics, honesty -- and lines you didn't cross. It was very much like lessons from your parents,"

The tradition began in 1912, Rensin writes, when 14-year-old Abe Lastfogel was hired as an office boy at William Morris. The son of a Russian immigrant from the tenements of the Lower East Side in New York, Lastfogel became Morris' personal secretary and, in 1930, inherited the business with William Morris Jr., a figurehead president who retired in 1952, leaving it all to the scrappy hustler who began in the mailroom.

Through more than 250 interviews -- 150 of which appear in the book -- Rensin documents the well-known industry myth of the mailroom, from 1937 to 1999. Like a gripping Hollywood movie, he seamlessly weaves together the disparate voices to read as if they were sitting in the same room. He divides the chapters by years at various agencies, from William Morris to MCA, ICM, to UTA and Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to Endeavor. It's not a name-dropping book exactly, because he has all the big names of the business telling their stories directly: from Lou Weiss to Bernie Brillstein to Bob Shapiro to Barry Diller to Ron Meyer, Michael Ovitz and David Geffen, "The Mailroom," -- which has been optioned by HBO for a documentary, possible series and theatrical movie -- gets the agents, the managers, the producers, the moguls, the brokers of the business to give the real dirt on their climb (clawing) to success.

Sifting through the names, "The Mailroom" also reads like a Jewish "Who's Who in Hollywood," giving evidence to all those who claim that "Jews run Hollywood."

And they did -- in the beginning. But what's the surprise? Historically, Jews have served as brokers of another sort since the Middle Ages, when they acted as moneylenders to Christians and Muslims prohibited from doing so themselves. The 20th century was no different, as they became talent brokers.

Denied entry into WASPY fields such advertising and banking, ambitious business-minded Jews were particularly attracted to the nascent, anarchic entertainment industry.

Take Stan Rosenfeld, a Jew from Oklahoma City (who came from the same block as publicist and manager Jay Bernstein and Columbia Pictures President Alan Hirschfeld) came to California in 1962 after the stock market dived, unemploying him as a stock underwriter. He considered law school, then advertising.

"But they were difficult to get into if you were Jewish," Rosenfeld said. "I sent out resumes anyway; got a couple of calls. During one interview, the guy suggested I try a theatrical agency."

He began in William Morris' training program and eventually became the owner and president of Stan Rosenfeld and Associates, the leading Public Relations agency in the industry.

In the beginning, Rensin writes, not being Jewish was a detriment. Culture and connections played a big part of the game in Hollywood.

"William Morris was very Jewish," Mardigan said in the book. "I'm not, so I had to learn all the Yiddish stuff and become sort of baptized in that world. I'm joking about that of course ... but it was not unimportant to get the culture."

But it wasn't only about connections.

"I hadn't gotten it because he'd been at my bar mitzvah and knew my family," said Bob Shapiro, who got started in the William Morris mailroom and later became president of worldwide production at Warner Bros. (he's currently a producer). "I never forgot the day I started in the mailroom. [Phil Weltman] had said, 'Forget your father, this is you. You want this? You have to perform.'"

But the Jewish culture was always infulential in the business, even through the '80s.

"I'd learned that [Michael] Ovitz was about style over content, appearances were everything," said David "Doc" O'Conner, who began in CAA mailroom and eventually made managing director and partner at CAA. "The concept was totally alien to me personally, and Ovitz knew it. He would give me sh-- that it was the difference between Jews and gentiles. He would say, 'You're the f---- -- goyim and you don't get it.' He would make a lot of our cultural differences on a daily basis."

Speaking of Ovitz (who sealed his own coffin last summer by accusing Hollywood of being run by a "Gay Mafia"), Rensin doesn't believe there was a Jewish cabal running Hollywood.

"I think that a lot of people in early show business were Jewish and I think they just sort of drew from their own pool -- the neighborhood kids in the mailroom," Rensin told The Journal at an interview at -- where else? -- Cantor's Deli. "I just think they related better."

Although Rensin calls the Jewish saturation of the business "happenstance," he says that what connected everyone in the business -- both Jews and non-Jews -- was "an addiction to ambition."

Rensin believes his dishy insider book is not one about Jews, or even about Hollywood, but about human ambition applicable to everyone.

"Everybody has to start somewhere ... so it's just a look behind the scenes at the rich and famous doing very famous things."

Rensin himself started his writing career at the Cal State Northridge University newspaper, which he attended in the late '60s. Soon he began writing about music for Rolling Stone and other music magazines, and also wrote bios for record companies. "My greatest accomplishment is that I never had job," Rensin said, meaning that he was always a freelancer. He later branched out of music, interviewing celebs from Cindy Crawford to Bill Gates to Shirely MacLaine to Bryan Gumble. What came across in most of his pieces was the subjects themselves. "Editors would expect me to turn write a paragraph of description or explanation and a one-line quote, and I would turn in one line of explanation and then [the rest] quotes."

His style perfectly explains "The Mailroom," which is prefaced by Rensin's introduction but otherwise uninterrupted by the author. "I always liked what one person said more than giving my opinions." Rensin's ability to allow his subjects' voice to come through paid off when he co-wrote comedian Tim Allen's autobiography, "Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man," which became a bestseller; Rensin went on to co-write books with Chris Rock, Garry Shandling and Yanni, among others.

He came up with the idea "The Mailroom," when he was co-writing showbiz legend Bernie Brillstein's memoir, "Where Did I Go Right?" and with Brillstein's help, he put together the proposal.

Despite his self-effacing demeanor, with this latest book, Rensin has gained access to the greatest legends of show business. In fact, his own unorthodox success is not unlike those moguls from the mailroom: Rensin's mother was born in Vienna, and his father in Berlin; in New York Rensin Sr. worked for his father at a clothing store in Harlem until he went to school to become an engineer, and moved the family from the East Coast to the San Fernando Valley in 1964, when Rensin was 14.

In his climb to success, however, Rensin does not tread on the heels of others, as do most of the subjects in "The Mailroom." Although we primarily hear about the success stories here, not about the dropouts, the failures, even the suicides -- the ones who never made it out of the mailroom, it's what the successful people did to make it to the top that makes this book so compelling. But this is not a history book, it's a how-to book for anyone who wants to make it, especially in Hollywood.

Things haven't changed all that much, Rensin said.

"I do think that it's still the same, there are some differences, but I think there's still a mailroom -- it's a way of coming out of the crowd into focus...they will either make it or they won't."

David Rensin will talk and sign books on May 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble at the Grove, 189 Grove Drive. For more information, call (323) 525-0270

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