Brooklyn boy strikes Hollywood gold

Jerry Weintraub

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Jewish Light

“When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories From A Persuasive Man”

By Jerry Weintraub with Rich Cohen

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Twelve, 280 pp., $25.99

Jerry Weintraub has been a talent agent and manager, impresario, sometime actor, movie producer, and philanthropist. He has promoted dozens of celebrities including Elvis, Sinatra, the Led Zeppelin band and Olympic skater, Dorothy Hamill. He “cooked” John Denver’s career “from scratch.” He produced the cult classic, “Diner,” the “Ocean’s . . .”  and “The Karate Kid” movies. 

Weintraub has played golf and tennis with George H. W. Bush and he has danced with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. At Leonid Brezhnev’s funeral, Weintraub sat “ringside” near Castro, Qaddafi and Arafat. With Rich Cohen, who writes for Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and who has authored several non-fiction books, including “Israel is Real” and “Tough Jews,” Weintraub has written a cocky and entrancing memoir, “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I Am Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man.” (The flamboyant title belies the book’s intelligence and street-wise wit.)

Weintraub, now 72, graduated from high school, served in the Air Force (during peace-time) and then had “grunt jobs” in New York City. Soon, he was an up-and-coming junior agent at MCA, the influential, bi-coastal, talent agency run by Lew Wasserman, but then decided to strike out on his own. “Ready to make the small thing big, the big thing huge,” he represented all comers: animal acts, magicians, hypnotists, and bar room musicians. 

Then he met Jane Morgan, his senior by 17 years (of which Weintraub politely omits mention). Morgan became his most important client, his second wife and his finishing school. She was a lovely blonde from a Mayflower family (based in Kennebunkport, Me.) with a “huge career” as a “saloon-song” singer. It was through Morgan that he met George Bush and show-biz luminaries such as Tony Bennett, Johnny Carson and Walter Winchell. Morgan transformed his career, because “if you have people who will open the door for you…you can make a pitch.”

Weintraub made his decisive, big break at 26. By placid persistence, he convinced Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, to let “the King” perform in a series of large-size arenas. It was a three-week tour. At the end of it, Weintraub was suddenly a millionaire. 

A story of the very first play date on that Elvis tour showcases Weintraub’s gift for creative improvisation. He compensated the sheriff at the Miami county jail to have several dozen prisoners un-install and then re-install 5,000 bolted seats and store them under a tarp in the parking lot between the matinee and evening show; Weintraub had promised Presley that he would never sing to empty seats. Much later, he showed another kind of adaptability-to the new economics of film production. Weintraub produced “Oh, God!” for two million dollars and then convinced Warner Bros. to spend an unprecedented, five million on TV advertising to draw in an audience from fans of the movie’s star, John Denver.

Weintraub freely admits to being a Yom Kippur Jew. However, he has repeatedly used his influence for Jewish (and other charitable) causes. Thirty years ago, he had a mystical connection with Rabbi Schneerson, “as godly as any man who ever lived.” Since then, the Hollywood mogul has raised millions of dollars for the Lubavitcher Hasidim by booking name-brand performers such as Bob Dylan and staging the annual Chabad telethon.

Weintraub expresses a sentimental appreciation for the secure and comfortable home his parents made for him and a younger brother. He credits his father, who owned a wholesale jewelry business, with first lessons in “how to attract a crowd” through promotion and packaging. Still Weintraub boasts that he was “born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx” meaning far from the milieu in which he became a colossus.

Jerry Weintraub is the quintessential, self-made American whose story has inspiration for Everyman-even without Weintraub’s genius for taking profitable risks, attracting mentors “again and again” through sheer likeability and spinning a network of friends and colleagues worldwide.

Jerry Weintraub (along with writing partner Rob Cohen) will be the keynote speaker at the 32nd annual Jewish Book Festival at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7. For tickets and more information about the book festival, call 314-442-3299 or go to www.stljewishbookfestival.org.