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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:
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  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.]
In December 1985, I went to Stallone’s wedding to Brigitte Nielsen, and I actually went on his honeymoon to Hawaii with him, came back, and two weeks later overdosed on Jan. 25, 1986. I was supposed to have breakfast with Ali MacGraw at Patrick’s Roadhouse, and my son came in to wake me up and tell me I was going to be late. He couldn’t wake me up. My head was swollen, and he called Ali. She said: “Call 911. I’ll be right there.” She came there about the same time as the ambulance took me to Cedars-Sinai.
I lived in Malibu, in the Colony at the time. I’d gone to sleep with a headache; I think I’d taken 20 Advil or something, Tylenol, whatever I’d taken, and I didn’t wake up. Woke up for a minute in the ambulance, waved goodbye to everybody in the Colony.
I had an infection behind my eyes — you can see the scars where they literally had to remove the eyes to get at the infection. I had pus the size of a fist behind my eye, just about to eat my brain.
I underwent seven hours of surgery and stayed unconscious for almost three days. [Joseph] Sugarman, who’s a great doctor, who’s one of those responsible for saving my life, said I was circling the drain. I actually woke up in time to see the Challenger explode, that’s the first thing I remember.
I had metal tubes coming out of my eyes. I remember Jane Fonda coming over — I think she was doing needlepoint or something — she came over with her son Troy, who was about my son’s age, about 11 years old, and I’m laying in the bed pontificating to him about how disgusting doing drugs is, and Jane said to me, “Want to see disgusting?” And she held a mirror up to my face.
I spent 17 days at Cedars-Sinai. David Geffen and Carrie Fisher took me to my first AA meeting, which was in the building at Cedars-Sinai. It was basically a meeting for gay alcoholics. I’d never been to an AA meeting. They took me down there in a wheelchair. … It was an act of kindness that they did that.
I didn’t pay much attention to the meeting. I wanted to get out of there. I was in the hospital for 17 days. On the 16th day, I guess my son and Ali and my older daughter organized an intervention. There were about 30 people in my room. [Producer] Leonard Goldberg was there, Jane Fonda was there, Ali MacGraw was there, the DA’s office was there, Irving and Shelli Azoff and [producer] Julia Phillips — which was hilarious — and they were telling me to go to Betty Ford. It was a full house, but I was pissed off and humiliated and embarrassed, basically cursing them all out.
Norm Brokaw stayed after everybody left and said, “Why don’t you want to go?” I said, “I can’t make phone calls there. It’ll ruin my business.” He said, “There’s no phones at Hillside Memorial, either.” And that clicked.
When I went to Betty Ford, I had an eye patch because one of the eyes hadn’t healed. The first two weeks, I laid on top of the bed so I didn’t have to make it. When speakers talked about being sober, I thought, “How boring.”
Mary Tyler Moore’s mother was there, and Mary came to visit her. I saw Mary in the lobby, and I didn’t want her to see me. And she yelled at me: “I saw you! It’s good enough for America’s sweetheart to be here, but you’re ashamed?”
You don’t see your own behavior because it’s denial, as they say. Denial is a very big part of any addiction. At Betty Ford, I was telling them: “Well, I was pretty blatant, but my kids didn’t know I was getting high. They knew I smoked grass, but I wasn’t doing coke in front of them.” And as soon as I said that, my counselor Dan pulled out a letter that my older daughter had written, endorsed by my son, about how they knew I was getting high. I was telling them I had powdered sugar from doughnuts on my nose, or whatever. It was crazy.
After two weeks, Betty Ford called me in, and I said, “I’ve only got two weeks left.” She said, “You’re going to start your four weeks now.” I was f—ing furious. I said, “Why?” She said, “Because you’re suffering from terminal uniqueness.” I went back to my room and thought about it. I was going to leave, but I said maybe I’ll just stay. If she didn’t keep me the extra two weeks, I wouldn’t have made it.
Mrs. Ford didn’t care that I had a movie opening, or a client, this or that. You had to be there, I think, it was a week or two weeks before you could make one phone call.
It was very weird when I got out of Betty Ford. I’d never driven a car sober in my life, and I had all this free time at traffic lights. Before, at traffic lights, I could get the little vial out, I could unscrew it, I could do a one and one, wipe my nose in the mirror, put it back in my pocket, and the light would change. Now I went to traffic lights and thought, “Well, maybe I’ll set my radio stations now.” Now I had all this time to kill.
It left a big space in my time — scoring drugs, cleaning drugs, doing drugs, and then there was the women part of it. I’d never had sex sober. Thanks to a friend of mine who came down to Betty Ford after I’d been sober three weeks, that worked. But I had to meet a whole different kind of woman eventually.
Either you died or you got clean, there was no middle ground. My generation of people who started getting high in the ’60s and ’70s and into the ’80s, I would say 99 percent are sober, clean, not doing anything. Going to the gym or eating organic foods.
When I got out in ’86, it was pretty much still in full swing. I stayed in the house for a couple of weeks because I was sort of embarrassed. It’s amazing — I wasn’t embarrassed getting high, but I was embarrassed getting sober because I guess in sobriety, I looked back at all my bad behavior.
The first AA meeting I went to [after rehab] was on Rodeo in Beverly Hills, and that was also a good place for singles, and I was single at the time. I’ll never forget walking in there, and I wore a sweatshirt with a hood and sunglasses so nobody recognized me, and I was about to sit down, and Richard Dreyfuss stood on a chair and he said, “Wald, we’ve been waiting for you.”
About six months into my sobriety, I’d gone to a meeting with James Brolin, a business meeting. And we got out of the meeting, we’re standing by the elevator, and he’s looking at me and looking at me and finally he says, “If you keep being so nice, you’re going to f— up my career,” because I was bending over backward to be Mr. Nice Guy after being sort of an arrogant prick.
So I had to find a balance, because it was scary, because I thought a lot of my creativity came from the pot and a lot of my energy and — well, my arrogance too — and my drive came from the cocaine. Because I could be awake 20 hours or more, and I was pretty aggressive.
I was dating [American Graffiti actress] Candy Clark, and she was very helpful in helping me clean up my finances. I had gone out with her a couple of times, and this was the weekend she was going to sleep over, and she got there, and I was really depressed because I had a bunch of minor outstanding lawsuits. … But she said, “Do you have any pictures of yourself as a child? I don’t really know you.” And I said, “They’re in the drawer over there.”
So she opened up this drawer, and she pulled out an envelope, and in the envelope were Israeli bearer bonds that were made out just for me, that I had bought at Lew Wasserman’s house during the Six Day War, and they’re all mature, all the coupons were intact. It came to almost $400,000. And there was a stock certificate made out to me and Helen from a company I’d never heard of, the Mining Company of Australia, that we’d gotten as a gift, and that was another couple hundred grand.
HOLLYWOOD AND DRUGS
Most of us come from backgrounds with no money. So from having nothing and being another person out there, all of a sudden — because money in this country is worshipped — you become royalty. And it opens doors, so you get the table in the restaurant or you go to the head of the line or you don’t go in line; you go around the back of Disneyland or something like that. So you have a false sense of yourself and that you can get away with anything, and then most of the people around you — you’re paying them salaries, so they’re not telling you anything.
There’s no such thing as an old drug addict — except for one, and I don’t know how he does it. All of us from the ’60s who hung out together during those days, we talk about him because he’s still a friend, and he’s hilariously funny and he’s quirky and successful. Huge star. God bless him. My son and I did an intervention about four weeks ago, and the guy threw us out of his house, starting breaking things. I felt terrible. I was there with his family, and I brought a professional interventionist with us, and it didn’t work. But I’m proud to say, some of the people I’ve helped have stayed sober. One of them was a big producer and his wife — they literally had guns at each other’s heads when I went over to their house; they were really coked out of their brains.
I’m 25 years sober now. I never thought I could do that. And I don’t miss it. I’m married now, 20 years, to the same person. I’m actually faithful. I’ve got a great kid; I pay attention. I’m present. I’ve got a good relationship with my older children. God bless them for being so tolerant.
He always did his job when he was screwed up, which is amazing. So did I for a long time. But I don’t think he’s learned how to live sober. He doesn’t have anything to hold on to; he doesn’t have people around him who are sober who are encouraging him, at least nobody he respects. I hate the Drew Pinskys and all the pundits, the expert psychologists, who have never met him and are trying to psychoanalyze him and talk about him. I don’t think that is helpful on any level.
I think he is now, a couple of weeks into sobriety, really seeing: “Oh boy, I really screwed that up. How am I going to make $1.2 million a week, or an episode? How am I going to replace that? How am I going to keep my stardom? What’s going to happen next to me?” Because I was worried that nobody was going to talk to me, or do anything with me. Terribly worried.
I remember two people I’ll never forget as long as I live: Stan Kamen, who was head of the William Morris motion picture agency, invited me to go to lunch when I came out of rehab. I said, “Why would you want to be seen with me?” Because I’d been all over the Enquirer and People. And Teddy Kennedy was the other one. Teddy Kennedy came to town and said, “Let’s go to lunch.” And I said, “What are you, stupid? You want to end your f—ing career with me?” He said: “You’re my friend. You were always there when I needed something. Let’s go to lunch.”
“His pillow, by morning, had blood spots”: In their words, Wald’s ex-wife, Helen Reddy, and producer/tell-all author Julia Phillips paint a portrait of the man
From Helen Reddy’s 2006 memoir, The Woman I Am
“There have been many moments of blinding truth in my life. One was during the dying days of my second marriage. Despite all the denials, it was obvious to me that my husband still had a cocaine problem. He had been treated before for his addiction, but his behavior indicated that he was still using — as did his pillow, which, by morning, had blood spots, bone fragments and gristle from his nose embedded in it. … I had often been threatened that if I ever left my husband/manager, he would “badmouth me out of the business.” [In fact] several of my performing contracts were canceled, and one promoter told me he couldn’t book me in case a certain someone “came after him with a shotgun.”
From the Julia Phillips 1991 memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (she died in 2002)
“Mr. Wald is not great-looking to begin with and this operation he had two days ago is wreaking havoc with his face. For starters they have pinned his left eye pretty much back onto his face; I can see that it is held together with the kind of pins you use to do up a hem — with little colored balls at the end to make them easier to remove. Just now he is sporting orange and blue, which give a Modern Art cast to his head. … Even in the hospital, post near-Death, Mr. Wald can dominate a conversation. Outside of Marty Scorsese, Mr. Wald is the only extremely short man I know who can exude a constant aura of power. … Even with his face pinned together and a morphine drip in his arm, he is smoking furiously and telling me about someone who is about to have a new asshole ripped. Mr. Wald is always ripping someone a new asshole or tearing off someone’s head to shit in his neck.”
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