A Gritty Account of Life as a Famous Hollywood Drug Addict

Jeff Wald with Helen Reddy
Jeff Wald with Helen Reddy
 Nate Cutler/Globe Photos Inc.

I first met Jeff Wald in the early '90s, when Nancy Griffin and I were writing our book, Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood. (Wald had been president of the Guber-Peters Co., so obviously he knew our subjects well.)

Short, barrel-chested and with a gravelly, Bronx-accented voice, Wald regaled us with outrageous stories of his life in the '70s and '80s as the manager of an array of huge stars including Donna Summer, George Carlin, Sylvester Stallone and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Wald was well known in his own right and as the husband and manager of Helen Reddy, whose anthem "I Am Woman" helped define the era.

In Wald's heyday, drug abuse was an accepted and arguably essential lubricant to doing business in Hollywood, where the boundary between work and play often blurs. But Wald stood out in the crowd for his staggering cocaine habit.

Hot-tempered and prone to fisticuffs, Wald told me he once cold-cocked Rod Stewart in a hotel lobby in Hawaii because Stewart had trashed the room that Wald was waiting to occupy. In 1980, Wald was arrested after brandishing a shotgun in front of picketing hotel employees in Tahoe. Wald acknowledges that he thrust the gun into a picketer's mouth; he got 18 months probation and paid a $1,000 fine.

When Wald and Reddy split in 1983, Wald's massive cocaine use was cited as one of the primary causes, and their vicious custody fight over their then-10-year-old son made the cover of People magazine. Among other things, Wald was accused of punching Reddy's boyfriend at the time and attempting to run him over in a silver Maserati.

Nonetheless, Wald maintained key relationships -- and not just with leading figures in Hollywood. Thanks to vigorous fundraising, primarily for Democrats, Wald was close to major politicians including Gov. Jerry Brown (first go-round) and President Ford. He was even on the organizing committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Wald's ride almost ended permanently in 1986, when he was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after an overdose. He wound up at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and he's been clean ever since. (He's also been happily married to wife Deborah for more than 20 years.) At 67, he is now CEO of Aria Multimedia Entertainment, which has produced outsized coffee-table books on Michael Jackson and hip-hop.

For many years now, I have exhorted Wald to write a memoir. He hasn't gotten around to it -- yet -- but recently, with so much chatter about Charlie Sheen, an admitted cocaine user, in the air, I asked him to talk about the impact of drugs on his life and career. Here's his story:

FAST TIMES

I started smoking pot when I was 13, back in the Bronx. My whole neighborhood smoked. Nobody drank in my neighborhood. Mainly I think because we grew up near an Irish bar and found nothing attractive about beating up your wife and vomiting.

I guess I started doing cocaine when I started making money in the music business. I was about 19 or 20. I sold marijuana when I was working in the William Morris mailroom in New York. I was married and had a child, making $55 a week. So I supplemented. I was making about $300 a week selling pot.

I came to California in 1968. I was 24 years old. I was married to [not yet famous] Helen Reddy. Bill Cosby brought me here at his [production and management] company, and we immediately got lucky. Mo Ostin sent Tiny Tim over to us, sort of as a joke. We sent him over to [producer] George Schlatter, George put him on Laugh-In, and they got thousands of pieces of mail. We wound up with a deal at Caesars Palace for 60 grand a week. We went to the Albert Hall in London, and the Beatles presented Tiny Tim live at the Albert Hall, and all the rock royalty was there, and it was just a phenomenal, phenomenal time. We had about an 18-month run.

In the '70s and late '60s and early '80s, [cocaine use] was common. Everybody was doing it. People you wouldn't believe were getting high -- people who were in their 60s and 70s. You could go to the old Spago and see people who were marquee names of one sort or another getting high. It was sort of a bonding thing.

I never hid it. I was pretty blatant about it. The only person I never got high near was [MCA chairman] Lew Wasserman. Just 'cause he was Lew Wasserman, you know? I knew it wouldn't play. Just about anybody else -- senators, governors -- it didn't matter.

It was just very common to get up in the morning and get high. Our housekeepers would roll for Helen and me. There would be 10 joints in the morning next to each breakfast plate, and for me, 3 grams of cocaine. I used to keep the joints in my socks like old bullets, like a bandolero. I was high from the moment I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night. I started getting high at 13 and stayed high until I was 42.

Helen got a record contract at the end of 1970 and had her first hit in '71 with "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar. And then "I Am Woman" came out. Helen had 14 hits -- Top 10s -- and four No. 1s. We were on a nice roll.

But I had George Carlin before that, I had Deep Purple, I had the Turtles. I had a huge management company in the '70s. I had Donna Summer, I had Sylvester Stallone and Chicago, George Carlin, Jim Brolin, Elliott Gould -- so I guess I specialized in Barbra Streisand's husbands, right?

Norman Brokaw [of WMA], who was Helen's agent, and also [President and Mrs. Ford's] agent, called me up and said that Mrs. Ford saw Helen and Carol Burnett on The Carol Burnett Show doing a medley of songs -- would they do it at the White House for a state dinner? And I said to Norman, "Tell them to f--- themselves. The guy pardoned Nixon, f--- him. I ain't doing it, you know? She ain't doing it." I was always so subtle. And two days later, I was in New York with Helen, and the phone rang at the Pierre Hotel, and the operator says it's the White House on the phone. I pick up the phone; no secretary, no nothing, it was Betty Ford, whose voice I recognized instantly. And she said, "Are you the young man who said he wouldn't have his wife perform at the White House? Of course, my husband pardoned Nixon, and you're a Democrat?" I said yes. She said, "Well, my husband is president of all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, and you don't turn down a state dinner, yadda yadda yadda," and she was so gracious that I said, "OK, yes."

I became very friendly with the Fords; voted for him for president. But I was flying, I was getting high in the White House bathroom, I was getting high on the stand at the opening ceremonies of the '84 Olympics.

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

I guess it started about the end of '84 -- it started to go negative on me. I started being abusive. I remember Jim [Brolin] was doing the show Hotel, and we had a meeting set with Aaron Spelling. I got there an hour late, and Aaron was upset, and I got in his face: "I don't give a shit! What are you talking about? I'm an hour late -- big f---ing deal!" And it was behavior like that. I basically got in a thing with Stallone, and blew him off, got in a thing with Donna Summer. So I started blowing these artists away. ... I started staying up all night and sleeping during the day, not waking up and making appointments on time.

After the [1983] divorce, I was living at the beach, I wasn't taking my son to school on time, or if I did get him to school, I'd fall asleep in the parking lot. I was too busy getting high, and getting women, and not paying attention to business.

The summer of '85 we did a European tour with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and David was really at his -- that whole year before we were sort of hiding him in different hotels and stuff, because there were warrants everywhere for him -- for drugs, for gun possession, for everything. I remember in Orange County having to surrender him to the police. They let us do the concert first. And they made both of us walk out into the parking lot with no shoes, no shirt, with our hands up and stuff. I had to escort him because I was guaranteeing he would show up at the thing.

After that we were in Europe. … We had hired a company that would go to Marseilles, pick up cocaine -- now remember, there was a huge crew, I think we had 42 people on the road, so we'd get 100 grams of cocaine at a time. We had a private plane, and we took the seats out of the front of the plane so David could lie down on a mattress, and we had also in the budget -- I think it was $2,500 a night -- for fire damage from his little acetylene torch, for bedspreads, drapes, stuff like that.

So we hired -- wait, I don't want to tell you who it is, because they were a prominent European promoter who provided us with this -- and we would get out of the airport, and there would be a car there and the guy would hand us the cocaine.

When we were in Italy, we had four days off, and we rented the whole hotel at a place called San Felice Circeo, and David was whacked out of his mind, and he had sores on his body. Everybody was really upset that he was going to die. So I went in his room, and I pulled up a chair next to the bed, and I said, "David, you're so talented, you're such a good guy. Why do you want to do this to yourself? You're going to die if you keep doing this." And the whole time talking to him I had my little coke spoon, and I'm taking the residue off his chest and snorting it, whatever had dropped out of his pipe. So there was a sort of lack of reality, shall we say? A lack of owning one's stuff.

[Editor's note: Through his rep, Crosby disputes several elements of Wald's account, particularly the alleged events in Europe, and says the correct version is in his memoirs.]

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