“I’d like to put you all at ease,” said Rabbi Uri D. Herscher, founder of the Skirball Cultural Center in the opening moments of a memorial tribute to the late Edie Wasserman, who died last August at age 95. “I’ll not be repeating my high holiday sermon today.”
One week after Yom Kippur, Herscher called upon the 400-plus crowd gathered at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Oct. 14 to “celebrate the immortality of memory” and pay tribute to a woman oft referred to as Hollywood’s “first lady,” the wife of legendary movie mogul Lew Wasserman, who died in 2002. Among those in attendance were Bill and Hillary Clinton, House Minority leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), former California governor Gray Davis and numerous Hollywood heads-of-state, including Michael Eisner, the former chief of the Walt Disney Company, Frank Mancuso, former chairman of Paramount Pictures, CBS chief Les Moonves and Universal Studios topper Ron Meyer.
Though she realized her own power through marriage, Edie Wasserman was no ordinary wife.
Remembered as forceful, feisty, witty and wise, a larger-than-life personality with magnetic appeal, Wasserman was portrayed by those who knew her as the consummate philanthropist and a champion of Democratic politics. Speaking to the ethos of his grandparents’ lifelong commitment to causes, Casey Wasserman, 50, quoted the former UCLA Basketball coach John Wooden, who said, “’You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who can never repay you’—that was Poppie and that was Edie,” he said.
But while Lew had the high-profile position of prestige as studio chief of MCA (now Universal), Edie was often referred to behind-the-scenes as “The General.” According to those who eulogized her – among them the actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who was the Wasserman’s goddaughter, Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Pelosi and the Clintons—it was Edie who called the shots. She raised more than $100 million for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, endowed scholarship funds at both UCLA and CalArts, was instrumental in the development of Cedars Sinai hospital and most recently named the Edie and Lew Wasserman Building at UCLA, a six-story, 100,000-square-foot eye research center designed by architect Richard Meier which will also house neurosurgery and urologic oncology departments.
On the political side, Edie and Lew were the go-to Democratic donors in Hollywood. They were known for hosting lavish and exclusive fundraising parties that established firm ties between Washington and Hollywood; nearly every major political figure to come out of the Democratic party in the past three decades had dinner with Edie and Lew.
On her first visit to the Wasserman estate in 1981, Nancy Pelosi, the then-chair of the California Democratic Party was told by a friend, “Abandon your suits—you’ve got to dress for Edye.” Praising the Wassermans as “a great American family,“ Pelosi drew on the similarities between politics and entertainment. “One thing that politics and the movie business have in common is that we’re both in the American dream business,” she said. “Both entertainment and politics use their imaginations to lift spirits and bring ladders of inspiration and opportunity to people.”
The Wassermans were also early supporters of the Clintons, who in addition to their in-person appearance, delivered funny, heartfelt tributes that bespoke not only a political relationship, but also friendship.
In the 1980s, when Bill was Governor of Arkansas, he had the idea that movie production could bring attention and revenue to the state, so he called Lew and asked for a meeting. “He was probably so aghast that some red-necked kid would do that, so he said ‘yes.’” Clinton joked that he was terrified of both Wassermans and remembered calling Hillary after the meeting to say, “I think I was on a fool’s errand but they made me like it.”
In 1992, when Bill was running for president, the Wassermans hosted a dinner for him. As always, Edie sat him strategically – between Rupert Murdoch and Tom Cruise. “Consider this your introduction to Judeo-Scientology,” she told him.
“Edie Wasserman proved it was possible for people well into their 90s to be sexy,” Clinton said. Even in old age, she could “cause people to have a crush on her,” he said. “There was something magical about her.” Bill said he believes her ability to live so long and well came from “a remarkable blend of mind and heart.”
But Hillary, who captivated the crowd with her regal elegance, appreciated Edie Wasserman for an entirely different reason. “She was sparkly, gritty, graceful and gracious,” she said. “Her life mirrored the story of women in 20th century America. She kept one foot planted firmly in the world of her husband, but kept the other foot firmly in how it really happened.”
“People didn’t privately call her ‘the general’ for nothing,” Hillary continued. Her strength was that “she focused on a few things and did them very well. She didn’t expend her energy in every direction – she harnessed it. ”
“I was personally very touched about how excited and committed she was to my presidential campaign. She really did understand what a historic campaign that was – an African American and a woman. She told me, “It would have been a great movie.”
As Jamie Lee Curtis put it, “[Edie and Lew] were the end of an era. And the world is way better because of them.”