Hollywood, Power, and the Law: The Case of Greg Bautzer

By Frank GruberSeptember 14, 2013

Hollywood, Power, and the Law: The Case of Greg Bautzer

The Man Who Seduced Hollywood by James Gladstone

B. JAMES GLADSTONE, the head of business and legal affairs for Lionsgate Entertainment — and as such one of today’s top entertainment lawyers — has written a biography of famed Hollywood attorney Greg Bautzer. Bautzer was much more than a lawyer in Hollywood: he was Hollywood exemplified, a self-made man who lived his life in Technicolor. He romanced the most beautiful women of Hollywood by night, while representing his headline-grabbing clients 24/7.

The book’s title, The Man Who Seduced Hollywood: The Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer, Tinseltown's Most Powerful Lawyer, gives us, like a movie trailer, a lot of the story, and the photo on the cover, of Lana Turner looking dreamily into Bautzer’s eyes, is truly worth a thousands words.

Gladstone tells quite a tale, one not likely to come our way again (not least because of changes in the rules of practice that prohibit sexual relationships with clients). In the 1930s and 1940s (with time out for four years in the service during World War II) Bautzer established his reputation as a trial lawyer. His idol was Jerry Giesler, Los Angeles’s most famous criminal defense lawyer. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, Bautzer became an important entertainment business and corporate lawyer, in particular through his representation of Howard Hughes and later Kirk Kerkorian, and co-founded one of the more important Century City law firms of the era.

Through it all he was an alcoholic who when drunk picked fights with strangers.

It’s a great story and the book is a good read, yet the last three words of the title raise a question: was Bautzer Hollywood’s most powerful lawyer? And, for that matter, what did it mean — what does it mean — to be a powerful lawyer in Hollywood?

Gregson Edward Bautzer was born in 1911 in San Pedro, then, as the new Port of Los Angeles, a bustling, booming town. Bautzer’s father participated in that boom; he had been the postmaster in San Pedro, but about the time Bautzer was born he enrolled in law school and subsequently developed a thriving local practice. Bautzer’s mother was a schoolteacher (and later a school principal).

The Bautzers prospered, but when Bautzer was 10, his father, just 45, died of a heart attack after a car accident. He left a family in suddenly straitened economic circumstances, but also a professional legacy: his son Greg always wanted to be a lawyer.

Bautzer brought to that ambition considerable gifts. In high school he was a champion orator, and at the University of Southern California he captained the debate team. He participated in international debate and rhetoric tournaments (including one in Oxford, England, where, drunk, he got into fistfight with a professor and was sent home).

Bautzer graduated from USC in 1932; in an interesting coincidence, he received his BA on the same day that his mother received a masters degree in education. According to Gladstone, Bautzer was always proud of his mother’s professional accomplishments as a teacher and school principal and credited her with his scholastic achievements.

At USC, Bautzer came into contact with a class of society above that of San Pedro. In 1935, while he was in law school, he married Marion Jahns, the daughter of an industrialist (the Jahnses made pistons), but the marriage was over by 1937. (Marion seemed to have a good eye for power brokers; she remarried in 1938 and her second husband, James D. Garibaldi, like Bautzer an attorney, became a judge and member of the California Assembly and then a top lobbyist in Sacramento.) Though brief, Bautzer’s marriage to Marion was important to him because, according to Gladstone, when Bautzer graduated from law school in 1936 it’s likely that his in-laws loaned him $5,000 to open his own office. According to Bautzer, he used the money to buy “the best wardrobe in town”; Bautzer believed that to be successful one had to look the part, and looking good was one of his great strengths.

From the start Bautzer wanted to practice in the entertainment industry, which was unusual at the time for a socially connected WASP graduating from USC. At that time, none of the establishment law firms in Los Angeles had significant entertainment practices; the movie business was looked down upon. Jewish lawyers — whom those firms would not hire — dominated entertainment practice.

To establish himself in Hollywood, Bautzer rented his first office in the Equitable Building at Hollywood and Vine, and he would eat lunch at the Brown Derby across the street from his office. At night he was a regular in the famous Hollywood nightclubs of the time, such as the Cinegrill and Cafe Trocadero. Bautzer also worked hard; in an interview with The New York Times decades later, he recounted how in those days he kept his office open until 10 at night, hoping that new clients might wander in.

Gladstone quotes statements from Bautzer making it plain that romance was not the only reason Bautzer dated beautiful actresses: he wanted to gain the attention of gossip columnists who could give him the publicity he wanted to build his legal practice. Good-looking, smart, undeniably charming, and an excellent dancer to boot, the columnists declared Bautzer Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor.

Over the years, aside from many casual relationships, Bautzer was romantically linked, often for serious, years-long relationships, with such stars as Lana Turner, Dorothy Lamour, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, and Jane Wyman. He ultimately married actress Dana Wynter and settled down for a bit in the 1960s, had a son, and later divorced.

Bautzer assiduously courted the power brokers in the industry — something that could take place at high-stakes poker games as well as restaurants and nightclubs. Bautzer was not only a good dancer but also a good card player, and he liked gambling, especially with Hollywood moguls he could impress. Bautzer’s two most important mentors were both gamblers: Billy Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, and Joe Schenck, chairman of Twentieth Century-Fox. They took a liking to the young lawyer and helped him obtain clients. (Wilkerson also became a client when he began the development of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas; Bautzer represented him in negotiations with his financiers, who turned out to be fronts for mafia money, which led ultimately to the involvement of Bugsy Siegel. The rest is history, but Gladstone adds details about Bautzer facing down Siegel at a crucial moment, allowing Wilkerson to escape with his money and his life.)

With all of Bautzer’s dancing and card playing (not to mention tennis, as he was an excellent tennis player, too) it’s tempting to suspect that when it came to law, Bautzer was a lightweight, but there were early cases that showed how serious he was. Most impressive to me was a case in 1940 involving Warner Bros. Notwithstanding the young lawyer’s desire to curry favor with the studios, he sued Warner Bros. and its police chief for having locked up two union officials for several days during a strike in 1937. At trial, up against a judge who blatantly favored the defendants, Bautzer was able to persuade a jury to award damages to the plaintiffs. After the judge overruled the verdicts, Bautzer appealed and won in a decision published by the Court of Appeal.

In Gladstone’s book, the Warner Bros. case offers a tantalizing hint into Bautzer’s complicated relationship with the politics of the time, a relationship I wish Gladstone had explored further. From the 1930s through the 1950s, first the labor politics of Hollywood, and then the Blacklist, which to a degree morphed out of the battles over unionization, were truly important in the history of Hollywood. In the 1950s, Bautzer represented Howard Hughes, one of the fiercest anti-communists, who owned RKO studio. As Gladstone mentions in passing, RKO and the Writers Guild went to court when Hughes refused to give a writing credit to Paul Jarrico for the movie, The Las Vegas Story. Hughes claimed that Jarrico violated the morals clause in his contract by “taking the Fifth” when he was asked in a HUAC hearing whether he was a member of the Communist Party. (Personal aside — I knew Jarrico, who sued Hughes over the credit, and to the day he died Jarrico took great pride in having been the last litigant to get Hughes to testify under oath.)

Apparently Bautzer was willing in the 1950s to buck the tide; according to Hollywood historian Mary Mallory, writing in historian Larry Harnisch’s Daily Mirror website, in 1951 Bautzer, representing Jose Ferrer, prepared to sue Ward Bond for defamation because Bond pressured the California Teachers Association to deny an award to Ferrer, alleging that Ferrer had Communist leanings. Although Gladstone recounts another case where Bautzer advised his client Wilkerson to retract an accusation made in the Hollywood Reporter that Myrna Loy was a Communist, Gladstone spends little time on Bautzer’s politics, considering them not to be important.

Much of Bautzer’s practice during these years would not today be considered entertainment law. Bautzer was primarily a trial lawyer, and divorce was at the center of his practice into the 1950s. In the days before “no-fault” divorce, divorces went to trial. Divorce cases involving celebrities were the media’s bread and butter.

Bautzer gradually developed a business practice alongside his litigation practice, and his representation of Howard Hughes, then the richest man in the world, was crucial. While Bautzer seems to have known Hughes (possibly through friendships with two men who served as procurers for Hughes) for a few years before representing him, he first represented Hughes in 1952 in contract litigation involving the actress Jean Simmons. By the end of that year, Hughes had Bautzer on a monthly retainer, and Bautzer and his firm represented Hughes in Bautzer’s first major corporate transaction, an attempted sale of RKO. It’s instructive that ultimately that deal fell apart (with Hughes pocketing $1.25 million) when it came to light that the “investors” buying the studio had ties to the mob; Gladstone believes that Hughes knew this all along and leaked the information to scuttle the deal, but that Bautzer didn’t.

It’s unquestionable, though, that Bautzer had many dealings with Sidney Korshak, the “labor lawyer” known to be Hollywood’s connection to mob interests, and who had been involved in the stillborn 1952 RKO deal. (The story about how Bautzer “introduced” himself to Korshak, as recounted by Gladstone from an interview Korshak gave publicist Henry Rogers, is alone worth the price of the book.) While Bautzer and Korshak had many business ventures together and did each other many favors over the years, in Hollywood history perhaps their biggest collective impact was on their joint promotion of the career of Robert Evans, including his elevation to head of production at Paramount Pictures during the studio’s heyday in the 1970s.

Bautzer ultimately determined that corporate law was more lucrative than divorce law, and moved his practice in that direction. He also realized that in a small firm he could do well as an advisor to wheelers and dealers like Hughes, but that there were even more fees in the day-in, day-out legal work for the businesses those entrepreneurs ran. In a deal facilitated by Korshak, Bautzer merged his firm with a larger firm led by Democratic Party leader Eugene Wyman to form the prestigious firm known colloquially as “Wyman Bautzer” (there were various other name partners over the years).

Which brings us to the question: was Greg Bautzer “Tinseltown’s Most Powerful Lawyer”?

First, a word about me: like Greg Bautzer, I practice entertainment law, but, as a sole practitioner representing independent filmmakers from an office in Santa Monica, I will admit to being one of the least powerful lawyers in the industry. Nonetheless, I began practicing entertainment law a while back — in 1980 — and I feel like I have had a good seat from which to observe the business.

In 1980, when I joined the motion picture department of the longtime entertainment firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp (MS&K), the Wyman Bautzer firm, though well respected for many aspects of its practice, was not considered in the highest tier of entertainment firms.

My recollection, which I have run by several lawyers who practiced then, including two who began practicing in the 1950s and knew Bautzer, was that, in addition to MS&K, the most important entertainment firms at that time and for the prior decades were the Kaplan, Livingston firm, the Gang, Tyre firm, Loeb & Loeb, and Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman. (I’m not including here the then-nascent firms that later became among the most important entertainment firms, such as what was then known as Pollock, Rigrod & Bloom, or the Ziffren, Brittenham firm.) The individual lawyers who had the most prestige were Leon Kaplan, Martin Gang, and Eddie Rubin.

That doesn’t mean that Bautzer wasn’t a hugely successful lawyer, but success and power in the entertainment law field mean two different things. Bautzer was successful and famous for representing two of the most flamboyant dealmakers in the history of Hollywood, Howard Hughes and Kirk Kerkorian. But, for all of their buying and selling of RKO and MGM and their assets, did Hughes and Kerkorian wield significant power within Hollywood? Both RKO and MGM were far from the center of Hollywood power when the two financiers were involved with the companies, and their machinations, which no doubt produced much in the way of legal fees, ran the studios into irrelevancy.

While Bautzer was representing Hughes in his RKO deals, the studio itself, along with Columbia Studios, was represented by MS&K. True legal power within the industry was represented by MS&K’s Mendel Silberberg, who was, according to one of the lawyers I spoke to who practiced in the 1950s, the “consigliere” to all the studio heads. It was Silberberg who attended the Waldorf Conference where the studios agreed to go along with the blacklist, and Silberberg was the lawyer who advised them to do so.

Or consider Leon Kaplan, who practiced entertainment law over the same decades as Bautzer. His representation of Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin when they took over United Artists, and then his representation of so many of the independent production companies that produced pictures for UA, put him closer to the center of the industry than Bautzer, despite his representation of Hughes or Kerkorian. At its height, the Kaplan, Livingston firm was possibly the largest amalgamation of entertainment lawyers ever assembled in one office.

All such reckonings aside, one can argue that the success of an entertainment lawyer is rarely associated with real power in the entertainment industry. Real Hollywood power is consolidated in the major media companies, while the most lucrative work for entertainment lawyers, and certainly the most exciting and newsworthy, has to do with representing the talent, making deals with the studios, or representing independent producers. Sure, it’s exciting representing celebrities, but you don’t have to be a Marxist to know that in any employer-employee relationship power resides with capital, and although representing the Dino De Laurentiises of the world can be well paid and exciting, the big decisions that determine capital investment by the studios, and their parent companies, and as such the future of entertainment, are not made at the Cannes Film Festival. Arguably the most powerful lawyers in Hollywood are the unheralded ones who head up the studios’ departments of business affairs.

One impact Bautzer likely had, however, was in the practice of entertainment law itself. Bautzer was entrepreneurial in a way that lawyers traditionally were not, and his success inspired a new generation of lawyers to be more aggressive about making money. The norm today is that the most successful entertainment lawyers charge percentage fees (like agents and managers), and if they represent successful clients, they can have a big upside. When I joined MS&K in 1980, that firm had a policy against percentage billing for two reasons: one lofty, because it was considered unethical to join one’s economic interests to those of the client, and the other practical, because the conventional wisdom was that once a successful client realized how much money he was paying on percentage, his or her business manager would suggest switching to a lawyer who billed hourly.

I remember attending, perhaps 15 years ago, a Beverly Hills Bar Association event where several older entertainment lawyers talked about the old days. One of them made the comment that, back then, “lawyers drove Oldsmobiles and clients drove Cadillacs; now all lawyers want to drive Mercedes.”

Bautzer was never an Oldsmobile-type guy — it was Cadillac all the way (including those that Joan Crawford gave him). Even as a young lawyer, he must have been doing well, because he lived for about 10 years at the Hotel Bel-Air Hotel (and it seems highly unlikely that he had any money other than that which he earned). Bautzer was entrepreneurial as a lawyer in a way that was ahead of his time, but which presaged ours.

Which brings up a final point. As satisfying and informative to read as this biography of Greg Bautzer is — and it is — the gap in every biography of a lawyer is that the lawyer’s client files are private and off limits to the biographer. Oh, for a look at those files.


Frank Gruber is an entertainment lawyer, local activist, and columnist.

LARB Contributor

Frank Gruber is an entertainment lawyer, local activist, and columnist. He is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal.


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