We gave it a B-
In many ways, the late Steve Ross was the Donald Trump of the entertainment industry — a man who’s been described as a brilliant deal-maker, world-class schmoozer, starry-eyed social climber, and sometime patron of the arts; part genius, part salesman, and 100 percent Grade A, government-inspected ham. By the time he succumbed to prostate cancer in 1992 at age 65, the Brooklyn-born Ross had parlayed an interest in his former father-in-law’s Manhattan funeral home into Time Warner (parent company of Entertainment Weekly), the largest media and entertainment conglomerate in the world.
At Ross’ funeral, Steven Spielberg, Beverly Sills, and Barbra Streisand, among others, spoke of his personal warmth and generosity. Yet according to Connie Bruck’s Master of the Game: Steve Ross and the Creation of Time Warner, there were strong hints of Mob ties in his past (”We own Kinney,” a gangster named ”Fat” Tony Salerno once bragged on an FBI surveillance tape about the company that gave Ross his start). And at the time of his death, Ross was still hurt and confused by the anger generated by reports of the $78.2 million he had received in 1990 (realized through capital gains on his stock options) as a result of the Time Warner merger. Ross was, in short, one of the quintessential American business figures of the ’80s, and as such a seemingly perfect subject for the talented Bruck — author of The Predators’ Ball, the 1988 best-seller about the rise and fall of junk-bond king Michael Milken.
As a researcher and explicator of complex legal and economic issues, Bruck has few peers. She shows she can also be a witty stylist with an acid touch and a fine instinct for telling detail. Her chapter on the sudden rise and meteoric fall of Warner’s Atari video games division, for example, is a case study in corporate folly. Ironically, it may have been Ross’s $23 million deal with Steven Spielberg for the rights to market an E.T. video game that finally did in Atari. Given four or five weeks’ development time instead of the usual six months, the game flopped. Bruck seems to suggest that Ross’ absurdly generous video-game contract did win Spielberg’s gratitude. ”Steve’s viewpoint was ‘So what if I overpay by $22 million?,”’ a former Warner executive told Bruck. ”How can you compare that to the value of a relationship with Spielberg? And I think he was dead right.” Bruck notes that gestures like seeing to it that Spielberg and his then wife Amy Irving had embroidered bath-robes and individually engraved stationery in their Paris hotel room helped too, burnishing Ross’ reputation for grandiose generosity. Unfailingly achieved, Bruck points out, with corporate money — never his own.
For all its virtues, however, Master of the Game has two glaring faults. Bruck devotes long chapters to minute dissections of 30-year-old stock offerings and a 20-year-old securities-fraud scandal whose dramatic impact would be far more evident at a fraction of that length. And she never convincingly penetrates Ross’ character and personality, much less his ultimate significance as a characteristic American type — a self-created enigma like Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby or a fast-talking rogue out of a Saul Bellow or Philip Roth novel. He remains elusive: part huckster, part visionary. Strictly for MBAs. B-