The Most Powerful Person in Hollywood Without a Studio
By Chris YogerstNovember 11, 2018
Hollywood Godfather by W. R. Wilkerson III
These are the words of Billy Wilkerson, the founder and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, who would work around the clock to either suppress or publish career-threatening stories. Known by some as the “Hollywood Godfather,” Wilkerson was likely praised more out of fear than respect. After all, this was the mobster-affiliated man who encouraged the federal investigation into communist activities in Hollywood that resulted in a decades-long blacklist.
Wilkerson is a character who shows up in many histories of Hollywood, largely in a supporting role. The new biography, Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson, explores the life and intentions of arguably the most influential person in Hollywood from the 1930s through the 1950s. Wilkerson’s son, W. R. Wilkerson III, authored this biography of his father with a respectable distance from the subject and he pulls few punches.
The decades-long process of completing this project is nearly as interesting and engaging as the story of Billy himself. W. R. first got the idea to research his father while attending college. As he gathered information, his family grew wary of what he would expose. One day, his house was burgled, and whoever broke in had stolen all his notes.
But W. R. continued to glean information from his father’s trusted secretary, George Kennedy, who had helped his boss incinerate a majority of papers and records from The Hollywood Reporter offices. Dealing with a lifetime of difficult experiences, both personal and professional, Kennedy would commit suicide in 1991. His body would be found next to a photo of Wilkerson, whose life was a model of scrappiness.
Billy Wilkerson was born in Nashville on September 29, 1890. He inherited his father’s obsession with gambling and his mother’s devotion to Catholicism. After toying with careers in medicine and the church, Wilkerson took a job as a film producer in 1912 at Lubin Manufacturing Company in New York City in an early era of hostile competition. Rivals could be wiped out by the flick of a match: entire warehouses of silent films went to ashes. The arsonists of those days did incalculable damage to film history.
Wilkerson also got a taste of bootlegging, and would eventually run his own speakeasy with the help of distributor Joe Kennedy and Jimmy Walker, the dandyish mayor of New York City who nevertheless practiced “broken nose politics” that set the stage for Wilkerson’s approach to Hollywood.
Wilkerson took a film he produced and screened it for every studio in Hollywood. No one was impressed, and Wilkerson found himself shut out of the industry — something he wrongfully blamed on the Jewish moguls. Taking the sour grapes approach he changed his angle to attacking the industry via The Hollywood Reporter, founded in 1930. Wilkerson’s association with gangster Johnny Rosselli came in handy here, as The Hollywood Reporter got scoops by stealing documents from studios.
Wilkerson fed as much food to the power elite as he did gossip, founding trendy boîtes like Café Trocadero and Ciro’s, where inebriated actors and producers were primed to spill information. Owning restaurants would also allow Wilkerson to host high-stakes poker games in the back room, which also maintained his underworld connections along with the studio chiefs. Wilkerson made key alliances with Warner Bros.’s director Raoul Walsh, 20th Century Fox head of publicity Harry Brand, MGM’s head of publicity Howard Strickling, and MGM’s “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg.
One of Wilkerson’s most inscrutable confidants was the eccentric aviator Howard Hughes. The two met at one of Wilkerson’s restaurants, but Hughes would also call meetings arranged for the middle of the night. This friendship, while strange, allowed Hughes to filter any reference of himself out of The Hollywood Reporter.
The most widely known story of Wilkerson is his discovery of actress Lana Turner. Wilkerson frequented Currie’s Ice Cream, a block away from the Hollywood High School, where he enjoyed eyeing young women. As George Kennedy confirmed, Wilkerson’s agenda was never physical; he was not the “casting couch” type. Actor Errol Flynn, on the other hand, frequented the local high schools to ogle the young women. Wilkerson would utter “jailbait” under his breath when he saw Flynn scoping the prospects. One day at Currie’s, Wilkerson spotted Lana Turner and helped her find a producer.
By the 1940s, Wilkerson found himself embedded with gangsters in hotel and casino ventures in Las Vegas. Still a sleepy desert town, Las Vegas was the site many Los Angeles gangsters decided to set up new enterprises. Wilkerson saw a casino investment as a way to hedge his own losses. If he lost a big bet at his own casino, he would ultimately be getting his own money back. There were also plans to have the first air-conditioned hotel attached to his gambling palace. This grand vision would be called the Flamingo, which still stands on the Las Vegas strip. Wilkerson oversaw construction and sought to keep the mob connections only peripherally involved.
One day, two of Wilkerson’s mob investors, Moe Sedway and Gus Greenbaum, brought in a boisterous, well-dressed young man named Bugsy Siegel. Kennedy remembered meeting Siegel, noting of the gangster’s charisma that “he could charm the wrappings off a mummy.” Wilkerson would eventually, though reluctantly, partner with Bugsy Siegel. The business relationship was tempestuous to the point of death threats. As the project grew, Siegel began to take credit for all of Wilkerson’s ideas. When challenged, the mobster would fly into fits of rage. Miraculously, Wilkerson was able to convince Siegel to buy him out of the project.
As a Catholic, Wilkerson saw communists as a threat to both politics and religion in the United States. After a conversation with Howard Hughes, the aviator agreed to mine his government contacts to find out who the FBI was watching in Hollywood. Hughes delivered the names, but before Wilkerson published them, he went to confession. As Kennedy tells it, Wilkerson saw Father Cornelius J. McCoy, who responded, “Castrate those commie sons of bitches, Billy!” On July 8, 1946, an “exposé” was published in The Hollywood Reporter. The names featured were some who would eventually become the Hollywood Ten.
Though most power players in Hollywood did not subscribe to far-left ideology, studios were not happy with Wilkerson’s column. Both Columbia’s Harry Cohn and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer — a staunch Republican — called Wilkerson to complain. The moguls were upset because painting Hollywood with the brush of communism would not help the box office. The Hollywood Reporter’s work emboldened Senator Joseph McCarthy to start his own investigation, and he even phoned Wilkerson to congratulate him on a job well done. Wilkerson never showed any signs of regret.
Hollywood Godfather provides sensational detail about the secret dealings and vengeful agenda of Billy Wilkerson. With decades worth of interviews, Hollywood Godfather is an honest biography that draws information from a wide range of personalities and debunks regurgitated legends. Wilkerson became the most powerful person in Hollywood without a studio, making his moves from behind a typewriter or in back rooms at his restaurants.
Those who truly hold power are not always living in the open for all to see. Behind the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, Wilkerson was the invisible force behind some of the industry’s greatest successes and controversies.
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication, department of arts and humanities, at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
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