Jim Mahoney was one of Hollywood’s go-to guys. He spent 60+ years in public relations, guiding the public images of Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Christie Brinkley, Peggy Lee, and hundreds more.
He was on the front lines when Frank Sinatra Jr. was kidnapped, and was at the party at Peter Lawford’s house the night Marilyn Monroe died. He was also there with the Rat Pack in Las Vegas.
Now age 95, Mahoney has captured all of that in a memoir, Get Mahoney!: A Hollywood Insider’s Memoir. “Get Mahoney!” was the phrase often used when stars and their handlers knew trouble was brewing and needed to keep their names out of the press. Mahoney was good at his job, and frequently referred to himself as a better “suppress” agent than press agent.
“It was about ‘taming the lion’ – both the press and the clients themselves,” Mahoney said. That sometimes involved making arrangements with the authorities and media to keep the dirt neatly swept under the carpet.
The full book is available here.
Mahoney answered some Deadline questions about his long career in the Hollywood trenches.
DEADLINE: Who was your most difficult client, and why?
Jim Mahoney – Steve McQueen, no question. At times he could be a great guy, and in fact, I’m godfather to one of his kids, so there’s no disrespect meant. We helped create his image of “Mr. Cool” and I helped him get his big break to move from TV to movies when I was handling him, and recommended Steve to Frank (Sinatra) when Frank was recasting Never So Few. Steve is one of the only clients I ever fired when I had finally had enough. We did a heck of a job making sure the media and his fans never knew how irrational or what a challenge he could be – for directors, producers, studio heads, co-stars, and of course, for his publicist.
In those days much of our work was to “create” news. As an example, I had a producer client, Martin (Marty) Ransohoff and his company, Filmways, (The Americanization of Emily, The Sandpiper). Marty was producing “Cincinnati Kid” in 1965 with McQueen at MGM, where Marty had a three-picture deal. Over lunch with Marty one day, I came up with a column item that complimented three of my clients all at once. The item was that Marty was prepping a remake of the MGM classic, Boomtown, a Clark Gable/Spencer Tracy buddy movie. But the remake would feature James Garner, another client of mine, and McQueen, and would be produced by Marty.
It was a perfect trifecta item – nobody had to lift a finger and it would scream headlines. Louella Parsons loved it because it featured major A-list box-office stars, and plus, she was a sucker for anything “Gable.” She ran it as the lead item in her column, one of the biggest in the Hearst newspaper chain. The headline read, “Garner and McQueen in Remake of MGM Classic ‘Boomtown.’” I went to bed that night feeling pretty satisfied with myself, thinking I’d hit one out of the park. About ten o’clock that night my wife, Pat, and I were awakened by the phone. She answered and said it was Steve. My ego got to me, and I thought he’d called to compliment me on my brilliance. He started with, “Who the hell cleared that BS in Parson’s column!”
He continued ranting and after what seemed like an eternity of his raving, I broke in, saying, “I did, you asshole.” He paused for a second, then yelled, “You son-of-a-bitch! You’ll never get it. My name ALWAYS comes first!” and hung up. No matter how big the item, or how far the reach, he couldn’t see beyond the fact that Garner’s name was mentioned first. It may sound petty, but it was one of hundreds of similar nonsensical battles I had with him. I could go on, but you get the point.
DEADLINE: Who was your easiest?
Jim Mahoney – Probably Bob Newhart. Bob was and remains to this day a great friend. We played golf at Bel Air Country Club and at the Crosby Pro-Am together, and our kids all went to school together. He’s godfather to my youngest. He was never a problem, and he was always employed – from his breakout Number One/Grammy Award-winning comedy LP, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, to his Las Vegas stand-up engagements and multi-award-winning TV series (plural), he was a dream client. Our biggest challenge with Bob was the iron fist his manager wielded. This should be a collaborative business, but all too often, it’s a competition between the manager, the agent, and the PR people. Sometimes even the secretary.
I recall an opportunity when we secured his first appearance as a guest on The David Letterman Show. We were told by his manager, “No way. Letterman will chew Bob up!” We had to respect management, and in retrospect I should have talked to Bob about it directly. But I don’t know if that would have changed anything anyway, his manager was very influential. We had to turn it down. In later years, when Bob eventually guested on the show, David proved to be a huge fan. He couldn’t have been more respectful and gracious. Bob was (and is) a groundbreaking talent and a true gentleman, and any comedian, David Letterman or otherwise, would respect that. In all honesty, Bob probably had a harder time putting up with me that I ever did with him. He gave me a very kind quote for the cover of my book.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest scandal you covered up?
Jim Mahoney – The first that comes to mind was an unpleasant episode while we were handling a very popular husband and wife musical duo who shared a meteoric recording career and later a hugely successful television show. There was an incident involving a “third party” and a collector gun displayed in a case at their home, but for any more detail I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book… It was a challenge keeping that out one of the columns. But we did.
DEADLINE: Is the entertainment press more gullible or less gullible than before?
Jim Mahoney – I don’t think I’d use the word “gullible.” But the press in the old days were definitely more cooperative and willing to look past the occasional indiscretion for everyone’s mutual benefit. It wasn’t that we were pulling the wool over their eyes, but we had a working relationship with them, a give-and-take, if you will.
Now, with TMZ and all of the celebrity media outlets these days, it seems like the press is more focused on catching someone doing something illicit and being the first to run with it. The pressure wasn’t as high and the money so large back then. In my day we got a lot done, but also seemed to have a lot of fun doing it. I’m sure they’re still having fun out there and maybe I’m just too far removed these days, but it does seem at times that the current media and entertainment business take themselves a bit too seriously. As one of my favorite clients (George C. Scott) used to say, “All we’re really doing here is playing make believe.” We’re not curing cancer.
DEADLINE: How did your way of doing business change over the years?
Jim Mahoney – When starting out at MGM, the most important break or “hit” you could get was for the names of your clients to appear in national columns like Hedda Hopper, Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson, Louella Parsons, and the Herald Express’ Harrison Carrol, who I worked for as a stringer for a couple years. There were also local columnists, like Shirly Eder (Detroit Free Press), Herb Caen (San Francisco Chronicle) and Cindy Adams (New York Post). They were hugely influential, and everybody read them. They could make or break a movie debut. Creativity always counted, but you also needed a sense of timing, and a “gut instinct” about what was news. Relationships never hurt… They could prove critical. There was the LA Times Calendar section, People magazine, TV Guide, Rolling Stone, USA Today… Major breaks and covers were hugely influential on peoples’ tastes and habits. Eventually, columns gave way to television, and the advent of “60 Minutes,” CNN’s “Larry King Live,” “Entertainment Tonight,”“Extra,” the network morning shows, and, of course, a Barbara Walter’s special was huge. Now it’s social media, and I don’t presume to know much about that, except that it’s necessary. Fortunately, there are now pros that specialize in those things.
DEADLINE: Tell us how cigars with Fidel Castro happened?
Jim Mahoney – My company was representing what, at the time, was the biggest tour operator in the world, and I was invited on a trip for some of their top agents to tour the Caribbean and visit some of the priciest locations to see their operation. To start it off, as an example, our first night was at Mar-a-Lago. We stopped at St. Barts, St. Thomas, and a few other destinations, and finally landed in Havana, where we’d been invited to what was formerly the Presidential Palace belonging to Batista (now the Museum of Revolution), where Castro would be speaking that evening.
So I’m sitting there listening to Castro speak, which was in Spanish (I don’t understand a word) so I excused myself to the lobby, which was like a huge reception hall filled with beautiful paintings. I asked a guard (heavily armed guards were everywhere) if it would be ok to smoke a cigar while I enjoyed the artwork. I remember his response was, “Sir, you’re in Cuba, you can smoke a cigar in church in this country…”. I laughed and turned to light up and take a stroll. Twenty minutes or so later I heard voices behind me and turned to see Fidel himself approaching me along with his entourage. In perfect English he asked me, “Is that one of our cigars?” I said, “Yes” and he asked me which ones I like best… Ironically, I’d been in a cigar store earlier that day and learned from the store owner that while most people thought Castro smoked Cohiba, el Presedente actually enjoyed an exclusive brand called Trinidad and that they made a special cigar especially for him. Under pressure and staring one of the world’s most notorious Communist dictators in the eye, when he asked me, “Which of our cigars do you like the best,” I froze and went totally blank. All I could muster was, “The ones you smoke…” He knew I was traveling with the tour group and then he very graciously turned to one of his handlers and told him to have a couple of boxes of his best for me to take with me when we left the following day.
DEADLINE: Did you have a go-to nightclub or restaurant that guaranteed you’d get a client some press?
Jim Mahoney – To get press, yes, there was always the “hot spots” of our day… At various times it was Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills, or Martoni’s, Mocambo, Ciro’s, or the Villa Capri in Hollywood, or one of the places owned by some of the stars themselves, like Puccini’s (Sinatra) or Dino’s Lodge (Dean Martin’s). Of course one of the best was Chasen’s. There was always paparazzi hanging out in front, so that was an automatic score.
Conversely, we had a few hole-in-the-walls where I knew they’d be safe from prying eyes… Some of those hide-outs were Chez Jay in Santa Monica (still there), when hardly anyone lived west of Sepulveda, the Holiday House (now Geoffrey’s) in Malibu, and the La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes. It had beautiful rooms and a view of glittering lights all the way up the coast. I would suggest clients go to those places whenever I knew they wanted to be discreet. There’s a story in the book about when I once caught Gary Cooper sitting at Martoni’s in Hollywood one night with Anita Ekberg (not his wife). I asked him if I could have a word with him privately and I subtly suggested he leave and find a quieter place to “dine.” He literally asked me, “Where the hell can I go and not be recognized?” This happened before my PR agency days. At the time, I was press (working for the Herald Express) and could have written about it in my column, but Cooper was an All-American leading man. In those days, you just didn’t ruin a guy’s career like that. It was part of that “give and take.” We developed a rapport after that and became very good friends and golf buddies. He was a great guy.
DEADLINE: Tell us about your relationship with Paul Wasserman, your business partner.
Jim Mahoney – Wasso was complicated. There were two Paul Wasserman’s, maybe three, or even four… There was the Paul we all met in the ’60s, the black suit, thin black tie, very strait-laced and conservative guy. He came from a strict L.A. Jewish upbringing. I hired him when he was an Associated Press (AP) movie reporter, and a very good one. He came to work for me and we complemented each other. He was soon handling movies for Jack Nicholson (Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces), hanging out with the fast crowd, and representing many of them.
A short time later, he was handling some of the biggest movies and documentaries ever (Star Wars and The Last Waltz) and the biggest recording artists in the industry, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and eventually U2 and dozens more.
He was brilliant as many of his clients, and the media will attest and everyone loved him – especially his quirky sense of humor. There’s a true story about him camping outside Mick Jagger’s hotel room all night once with Bob Hilburn (LA Times pop music critic) to hold Jagger to his word to do a sit-down with the reporter.
Jagger eventually had to leave the room, and he did the interview… And Hilburn never forgot it. Wasso was very old-school and didn’t back down to his clients when he didn’t have to. He had demons, though, and he fell into some very bad habits and hard times. He had a drug problem. But he also had very loyal and deep friendships. When that drug problem landed him in the hospital while he was on the road with a client, I flew to New Orleans to see him. The doctors said he probably wouldn’t be alive when I arrived, but I went anyway. When I got there two of his closest friends/clients were standing vigil outside his hospital room – Lou Adler and Jack Nicholson.
After leaving our partnership and going out on his own, at some point he cracked. He started “conning” friends and even some clients into schemes he’d concocted to make himself the kind of money he thought he deserved – closer to the kind of money his clients all made. It was a Ponzi scheme. He was selling shares to a nonexistent company set up to collect percentages of his client’s films (most notably Nicholson’s Batman) without any of his clients’ knowledge, and promising huge returns. He was eventually caught and went to jail for it. He died a broken man. It was very sad. I never knew about his drug problems, or maybe I was too busy to notice (or didn’t want to see it).
But at some point, he cleaned up and later became a huge AA devotee. He went to several meetings every day and helped a lot of people get off drugs themselves after he’d finally gotten himself clean. At his funeral, a handful of them told the room that if it hadn’t been for Wasso, they wouldn’t be alive today. That spoke volumes about the man and reminded many of us what a great guy he really was. It was very healthy to hear it. He lived an amazing but very troubled life. I wish I’d have known and could have helped him more. I was one of the few (that I know of) who visited him in jail, and when I did, I asked him why he never tried to sell me on any of his cons. He told me, “You’d have known I was full of shit”. We both laughed. I guarantee you he had a really good book inside him too… probably better than mine.
DEADLINE: Tell us a Sinatra story we haven’t heard.
Jim Mahoney – Probably the most interesting is Chapter One in the book, I call it “Taken.” I go into greater detail in the book, but for now, it opens with me receiving a phone call telling me that Frank Jr. had been kidnapped from a Lake Tahoe hotel where he’d been performing. There was a terrible snowstorm and Reno was as close to Tahoe as we could get, and we were led to believe Jr. must still in Tahoe. Frank was on his way to the Mapes hotel in Reno, where he was setting up camp, and wanted me to meet him there to wait for the kidnappers to call. We were in that hotel room for days. Frank was a client, but had also become a close friend, and his son had been kidnapped. He designated me as the point person to answer all calls. The FBI were in and out of the room constantly, setting up surveillance and recording devices, and I was doing everything I could to keep Frank calm – which was no easy task. Phone calls from everyone you can imagine were coming in offering help. But those kind of gestures were, for the most part, wasting time and phone-line space for when and if the kidnappers would call.
At one point, I answered a call and the voice on the other end said, “The Director would like to speak to Mr. Sinatra,” which struck a chord with me, realizing how big of a national crime story this had become. I had J. Edgar Hoover’s office on the line. As I placed the call on hold and started down the hall towards where Frank was, the other phone rang so I picked it up and asked who was calling. The voice on the other end said, “Just tell him it’s Momo… he’ll know who it is.” Anyone who knew anything in those says knew “Momo” was Sam Giancana, the most powerful and feared mob boss in the country. I asked him to hold as well, and went directly to Frank, and told him “Line one is J. Edgar Hoover and the other is Giancana,” and then, “Who do you want first?” “I’ll talk to Momo,” Frank said, “Tell Hoover I’ll call him back.” The chapter goes on to talk about the kidnapper’s eventual call, gathering the cash for the ransom cash, and “the drop”.
DEADLINE: If you could go back and change a story that’s been oft-repeated and isn’t true, what would it be?
Jim Mahoney – It’s not one story, per-se, but I would say that the relationship between Frank and the mob was usually, and wrongfully, overblown. No one would deny that entertainers in those days – and maybe Frank in particular – had to have a relationship with the mob. The mob owned the hotels and the clubs where they entertained, not to mention the studios where they worked and the banks that financed them. They had to interact, but they weren’t close friends. Uniquely in Frank’s case, he had them to thank for keeping him afloat during what he regarded as “The Dark Ages,” the early 1950s, before From Here to Eternity, when he couldn’t get arrested. He’d lost his Columbia Records recording contract and was playing to less than half-houses in many of his concerts. Guys like Giancana kept him busy playing their clubs, like the Villa Venice in Chicago. The gangsters sought out Frank and Dean and the others far more than the other way around. But Frank was always loyal and knew he owed them, like I mentioned earlier, when Giancana called to offer help with Jr’s kidnapping… Frank wisely chose to work closely with the FBI, but his “friends” were always there offering help. Frank grew up with a lot of tough guys from his hood. He had childhood friends who grew up to be really bad guys… There’s no question, I met a lot of them. But he knew it was best to keep it as private as he could. He did so many good things that he’s not credited with. I know about so much charity work he did privately that could make up a whole other book.
DEADLINE: If you were starting out in the business today, how would you approach things?
Jim Mahoney – In all honesty, I might lean more toward management than PR. Managers had a better time sharing in their client’s success and even partnering in their projects. At one point in the ’60s I was invited to join Lou Adler and Pierre Cossette in a management arrangement (respectively, they were handling the Mamas and the Pap,as and Ann-Margret, not bad). But I felt too confident with my PR business to risk it so I said no. Many of the people that, worked for me over the years went on to very successful careers in the agency, studio, and network businesses. But for some reason that just never interested me. I truly loved what I did, and made a pretty good living doing it. On the other hand if we’re talking about something other than the entertainment industry, I couldn’t have gone wrong following my father into his line of work. He had a successful building and interior decorating business – Gable was his client and how I got into the business. My dad never wanted for work, even during the Depression. My brother Jay did, and became a hugely successful contractor and developer in Newport Beach.
DEADLINE: If you had a time machine and could return to an event or year, what would it be and why?
Jim Mahoney – The year Frank helped me go into business for myself, 1959. It’s exhilarating just thinking about it. I’d been at Rogers & Cowan for years and never received an increase in salary or a bonus, and I was handling about a dozen of their biggest clients and had just weathered the Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher break up… It was the “divorce of the century.” I was exhausted, but also underpaid. I’d approached Warren half-a-dozen times about a raise, and he always said, “I’ll talk with Henry”. He never did, so one day I walked into Warren’s office and just quit. I had no plan, but I was fed up. That night I went to dinner at Dino’s Lodge with Dean’s manager, Maury Samuels. The restaurant wasn’t an R&C client, and Maury (a close friend) insisted it be my first client. The next morning I was in Frank’s office, not to steal him as a client (I promised Warren I’d never do that) but I felt I owed it to tell him first, since he was the one to encourage me into PR and away from the newspaper business in the first place. He said, “Where are you gonna office?” He knew right away that I hadn’t even thought about that, and I said so. He said, “I’ve got an office at the William Morris Agency that I never use. It’s yours for as long as you want…”. He then called someone (to this day I have no idea who) to say that he wanted me to represent the restaurant he owned, Puccini’s, a hot spot on Beverly Drive (also not an R&C client). I now had two of the hottest restaurants in town as clients… Finally Frank invited Pat and I to dinner that night to celebrate. As I was leaving his office he called after me and said, “One more thing. Take out ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter announcing your new business and location and send me the bill.” I got home and excitedly told my wife Pat what had happened, and the phone rang. It was Peter Lawford, who was Frank’s good friend and partner in Puccini’s and who’d become a good friend of mine. He said “I’ve been trying to tell you forever to go out on your own… I’m without representation so let’s have lunch and talk.” “Where?” I said, and he said, “I’ll see you at Romanoff’s at 1…”
Things were happening fast and it never slowed down, for the next 50+ years.