How I will miss Michael Eisner—my Moby Dick, my Great White. In a world where the studios are run by suits, Eisner was an executive who carried himself like a Hollywood mogul. He didn't own Disney but, by God, he acted as though he did. The judge in that shareholder case in Delaware put it best: Eisner's conduct was "imperial" and "Machiavellian." He had acted as "the omnipotent and infallible monarch of his personal Magic Kingdom." You just don't get media barons like that any more.
Eisner was once considered a kind of genius, but his image has been tarnished of late by his costly fights with former friends and associates. What's easy to forget is how engaging he was. Colder than Walt's supposedly frozen corpse, he could also be mesmerizing: quick, funny, slightly off-the-wall ... and potentially lethal.
I first met Eisner in 1986. In those days, he had a wonderful, avuncular P.R. man—the late Erwin Okun—who made sure Eisner knew enough about a journalist to flatter him or her into a state of near senselessness. Before that first meeting, Okun learned that I liked Jane Austen. Almost as soon as I sat down in the chair, Eisner told me he was re-reading Pride and Prejudice in my honor. "Quick," I wanted to say. "What's Darcy's first name?" (Answer: Fitzwilliam.)
Soon after the interview, an envelope arrived at my office (then at the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley). Inside was a pamphlet, "The Jane Austen Map of England," and a red-ink note written in Eisner's boyish scrawl.
Dear 'Janeite' Kim,
I thought you would enjoy the Jane Austen Map of England as I start my abandonment of Romanticism (goodbye Hawthorne, Melville, Dumas and even good old Emily Bronte) toward realism and order and discipline. And I've already read 100 pages of Pride and Prejudice.
Yes, I was cynical of this gesture. What harried assistant had really tracked down the Jane Austen Map of England? Did he or she also supply an executive summary of the major themes of English literature? Yet, the fact that I kept the note shows how effective it was. And looking back, I realize that it underscores a point in which Eisner took considerable pride. "I was an English major!" the note screams. "Unlike those schmucks David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and even Barry Diller—one of the few people who actually intimidates me on God's earth—I have a college diploma!"
Eisner made spectacular use of such notes—usually composed on narrow "buck slips" with the Disney logo on top. A journalist at a business magazine once told me that Eisner (or someone) slipped one under his door at home one afternoon. I have another that I particularly like. It arrived after the premiere party for The Lion King at the National Zoo in Washington. It was 1994 and the shit was about to hit the fan at Disney, as Katzenberg was a nanosecond away from getting the ax as studio chief. I saw Eisner at the party after the screening but barely had a chance to nod in his direction. Here's the note:
I ran out on Thursday night. I did not get a chance to say goodnight—
Goodnight, it was nice seeing you.
With the death of Erwin Okun, such niceties vanished—at least for me. Even so, Eisner flourished as Disney's commander in chief. A friend once told me about a fund-raiser at the late Hollywood emperor Lew Wasserman's house. Everyone was waiting for the president (that would have been Bill Clinton) to arrive. Sitting among the expectant guests was Jane Eisner. When there was a sudden bustle outside, someone said, "That must be the president!" At which point Jane supposedly chimed in, "Or my husband."
Eventually, the façade of imperial command cracked. Eisner's shortcomings became exposed as the team that had helped him transform Disney dropped away. The executive group was like the Beatles: Eisner and his patrician No. 2 man, Frank Wells, were John and Paul. The annoying but effective Katzenberg and the unsung Okun were Ringo and George. That version of the Beatles broke up in 1994, Disney's annus horribilis. Wells died in a helicopter crash, Okun was carried off suddenly by illness, and Eisner tossed out Katzenberg on his round, black ear.