Edie Wasserman Remembered
With her husband, Lew Wasserman, she ruled Hollywood for six decades, playing host to stars and presidents while raising a family -- and millions for charity.
They were "as close to royalty as anyone ever gets in this country," Steven Spielberg says of the late studio mogul Lew Wasserman and his loyal and supportive wife, Edie. Their marriage, which lasted nearly 66 years until Lew's death in 2002, made them Hollywood's reigning power couple long before the notion of power couples was in vogue. And though Edie worked tirelessly on behalf of her husband, she carved out her own identity as well. Her death Aug. 18 at age 95 in Beverly Hills marked the passing of one of Los Angeles' most influential philanthropists.
The couple met in Cleveland, where she was born Edith Beckerman, the daughter of a lawyer with showbiz connections, and where Lew began booking bands for the Music Corporation of America. Shortly after their marriage in 1936, they moved to Los Angeles, and as MCA grew into the most powerful talent agency of its era, Edie assisted Lew in his rise to president of the company and then, after it took over Universal in the '60s, chairman/CEO of MCA Universal.
Lew would eventually become known as the last mogul, the kind of commanding studio chief who no longer exists. And Edie was widely recognized as the power behind his throne. "She was his partner in every sense of the word," says former Chris-Craft chairman Herb Siegel. "He trusted her instincts, especially about people." Former MCA exec Jay Kanter adds: "People confided in Edie. They would use her as a sounding board, and she could convey those thoughts to Lew in another way."
Edie and her friends Janet Leigh, Polly Bergen and Rosemary Clooney dubbed themselves Hollywood wives, but hers was not a life of extravagance. She cared for her daughter, Lynne, and two grandchildren, Casey Wasserman and Carol Leif. She welcomed everyone from stars to presidents into her home. Lifelong Democrats, the Wassermans were stalwart backers of Lyndon Johnson and supporters of Bill Clinton. Since Lew also had been Ronald Reagan's agent, Edie maintained an across-the-aisle friendship with Nancy Reagan.
While Lew worked at running Hollywood, Edie worked at fundraising. She became a leader in supporting the Music Center, CalArts, Cedars-Sinai and the Motion Picture & Television Fund, which operates a retirement home for industry workers. "Lew made me a lot of money when he was my agent," says Kirk Douglas. "And Edie made sure I gave a lot of it away." Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of the MPTF's board, says, "There's no way to describe the force of Edie's passion for the fund."
While Edie was on the board, the MPTF raised more than $100 million. In 1998, the Fund's Woodland Hills site was named after the Wassermans. "She never thought it was embarrassing to ask for money because she believed in the cause," says Sherry Lansing. "And she never took no for an answer."
Casey, who is now on the MPTF board and also heads the Wasserman Foundation with its roughly $200 million in assets, says: "What she loved most about the organization was that it had a direct and immediate effect on people. What she enjoyed most was being on the committee where they reviewed cases and tried to work through the long waiting list. That was personal and direct."
Just last month, Edie was approached about being photographed for The Hollywood Reporter's philanthropy issue. Always direct, she declined. "I know I sound good on the phone," she said. "But I'm not feeling that well. If you want, use an old photo. There's plenty of them." Thankfully, it was not just a well-photgraphed life, but a well-lived one as well.
REFLECTIONS ON HER LEGACY
42nd President of the United States
"Edie was a force of nature. Even in her 90s, she was beautiful, wise, witty and a dignified dynamo. She could move mountains for a cause she believed in and convince almost anyone else to help her. I will always treasure every visit and phone call we shared and will always be grateful for her gift of friendship and her infectious spirit, a legacy that will live on through her family and friends."
CEO, the Sherry Lansing Foundation
"What always struck me was her honesty and directness. There was an authenticity that permeated every conversation. There was no affectation. To have accumulated that much success and power and still be authentic and direct and honest is a wonderful thing."
Former president, MCA
"The first thing that comes to my mind about Edie is the time I came to pick Lew up and I was holding a cigar. She handed me my head. She hated cigars. And she let me know how she felt. As for the personal relationship between Lew and Edie, it was not something that was flagrantly displayed. He would very rarely say 'Edie says' or 'Edie thinks.' It was private, and it lasted an awfully long time."
Producer/director and former dean of UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
"We used to have lunch about once a month at Tanino's in Westwood. She liked the food, and she liked the fact that it was a straight shot from the car to the table. Her candor was really remarkable, especially in a town filled with people who have no desire to tell you directly what they really feel. If you didn't want to hear an honest opinion, this was not the woman to ask. We'd talk about show business, politics -- she knew every president. She was very proud of the fact that Lew's picture was the only one Lyndon Johnson had in his private office. There wouldn't be a Lew without Edie, I can tell you that."
DreamWorks Animation CEO and chairman of the board of the Motion Picture & Television Fund
"Twenty years ago, when Lew and Edie took me and [my wife] Marilyn to the campus for the first time and 'asked' me to get involved, it was the furthest thing from my mind. But saying no to either of them individually was difficult -- saying no to them as a couple was impossible. There is no way to describe the force of Edie's passion for the fund, other than through the countless number of people it has helped due to her energy and compassion in her service to it. The best way we can honor her memory is for all of us to continue our support of this special charity that does so much for the members of an industry that was Lew and Edie's life."