July 23, 2012
David Geffen: prickly and terse about his Judaism
David Geffen, the notoriously press shy billionaire Hollywood mogul, stared at me as if I had asked him to yank out a tooth. The setting was PBS’ summer 2012 press tour on July 22, where he was promoting the American Masters documentary, “Inventing David Geffen.” I queried how his Jewish background had influenced his marked commitment to philanthropy.
The 69-year-old music and movie industry maverick brusquely replied that his parents had met in Palestine, his mother had arrived in the United States in 1931, and that his parents “were socialists…I was bar mitzvahed, but we didn’t have much of a religious life at all. Does that not answer your question?” he added, icily. When I pressed him further, he snapped, “My parents were poor. They weren’t into philanthropy.” And also: “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Just then, Susan Lacy, the creator of the American Masters series and the filmmaker behind “Inventing David Geffen,” mentioned a story she wanted to tell about Geffen’s mother, Batya. “She wants me to talk about how my mother’s family was killed. Let’s not,” Geffen said. Lacy managed to get in that the perpetrators had been the Nazis, before Geffen cut her off and moved to other questions – a number of which he also dismissed.
He refused to discuss whether he had lived with songstress Joni Mitchell; when someone asked about the trend of billionaires buying newspapers, he said only, “I hope they make a lot of money. What can I tell you? I have no feeling about what other people do.” Someone else asked if Geffen had any new ideas for the music industry: “I have no ideas. None whatsoever,” he replied. You had to wonder why Geffen agreed to fly in from his yacht on Sardinia to attend the conference at all; Lacy later told me that she had begged him to do so. “He’s shy and I think he was nervous,” she said of his tense demeanor during the Q&A. (To be fair, it seemed to me that a number of the journalists present had not watched the documentary.)
After the press conference, I met with Lacy, 63, who did get Geffen to open up significantly about numerous subjects in her fine documentary – including the gay mogul’s torrid heterosexual relationship with Cher.
Lacy said she very much wanted to interview Geffen about his family’s wartime experience, in part because her own father’s German family had died in the Shoah. “Growing up I was obsessed, and I still am obsessed, with the Holocaust,” she said. “I had nightmares for a long, long time; I would see the Nazis coming to get everybody. It had such a profound impact on me, that I thought it might also have had an impact on David.” Was the subject too painful for Geffen? “Whether it was or not, he wouldn’t talk about it, and I respected that,” Lacy said. “I got him to talk about almost everything [else],” she added.
Lacy had learned a bit about the Geffens’ experience from other sources: “David’s mother, I think, had gone out of town, when the Nazis were marching into that part of Russia; and as they were coming the townspeople rounded up her whole family and shot them,” Lacy said. “David’s mother ended up going to Palestine and didn’t know for a very long time what had happened to her family; but there was a sister who also survived who [told her]. And when his mother got the news, she had a bit of a breakdown for six months, when David was a little boy. And David just doesn’t like to talk about it; for one reason or another he’s uncomfortable. I tried really hard, because my own parents emigrated here from Germany, and a lot of our family didn’t make it.”
Geffen apparently discussed the issue more in depth with author Tom King of “The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood” (2000); it’s a biography Geffen initially endorsed before abruptly canceling further interviews, King writes in the introduction to his book.
The biography recounts how Geffen’s mother, Batya, worried when her parents did not answer letters she mailed from New York to their home in Tiraspol, Ukraine. After the war, Batya’s sister, Deena, phoned from the Soviet Union with unsettling news: “I am the only one alive. Everyone else is dead,” she said. Most of their relatives had been shot in the September 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, the enormous ravine outside Kiev that had become an infamous execution site. According to King’s biography, Batya did not tell David and his older brother about the tragedy, but repressing the news eventually led her to have a nervous breakdown, requiring her to spend months in the psychiatric unit at Kings County Hospital.
“Batya’s hospitalization…proved to have an injurious effect upon David, who was forced to endure the sneers of the neighborhood kids, who knew that his mother had been sent away,” King writes. “The children also chided him about his out-of-work dad; when they asked what his father did for a living, David made up stories to save face.”
Of Geffen’s Jewish identity, Lacy said, his family members “were Jews, and everybody in his Brooklyn neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian; that’s the only thing he really talks about. He’s culturally Jewish but he’s not [religious], which is true of a lot of people. I don’t think growing up being Jewish was particularly an unusual thing in his neighborhood, but I think being a young boy who was sneaking away to go to Broadway [shows]—that probably was harder for him.”
Geffen’s mother, who eventually recovered from her breakdown, proved to be a huge influence on her son, Lacy continued. The owner of a corset shop, she would frequently attempt to bargain with salespeople, even at Bloomingdale’s, of all places. “That’s how David learned about negotiating,” Lacy said. “He learned a lot from his mother, who basically had to keep the roof over their heads and the food on the table because his father didn’t really work…All David will ever say is he didn’t look up to his father because his mother had to work so hard and his father didn’t. As he says [in the documentary], ‘I had a lot of judgment about these things in those days.’ I’m sure he wishes he could rewrite some of that.”
“Inventing David Geffen” will air on PBS stations in November.