Book review by Neville L. Johnson, Johnson & Johnson LLP, Beverly Hills, CA
Los Angeles Lawyer September 2013
GREGSON BAUTZER, the legendary entertainment attorney and superb legal strategist, is the deserving subject of a new biography. During his heyday from the 1940s through the 1980s, Bautzer built and maintained a stellar law practice that set the standard for entertainment law. Bautzer also commanded an impressive client list in the business arena. Howard Hughes, Kirk Kerkorian, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, and many more sought Bautzer as their legal representative.
While business biographies are often dreary and tedious, and few people really care about the legal squabbles of yesteryear, this book is engaging because it concerns Bautzer who was a rambunctious, dashing, dapper, and charming rake as well as a brilliant attorney, and a bad boy who was attractive to women. Bautzer could and did seduce them, including many clients. Bautzer’s romances provide interesting gossip because they are intertwined with legal cases involving names that are still widely remembered.
The attorney had style, which he assiduously perfected. For example, he borrowed $5,000 (in 1936, enough to buy a house) to spend on clothing and meals at top restaurants where he could be seen, woo potential clients, and promote himself. The undergraduate debate champion and law school graduate from USC aggressively charmed and pursued Hollywood. His career is a handbook on how to grow a practice. Bautzer marketed himself tirelessly, all the while having a good time oiling, maintaining, and testing the star-making machinery of the motion picture industry. He solved problems for talent and studios alike.
He was not without his faults. His alcoholism got him into much trouble because he was belligerent when soused. For example, Bautzer once challenged Humphrey Bogart to fisticuffs. Bogart deftly dealt with the drunk Bautzer by suggesting that he step out side first as the star would be noticed if he preceded him, then Bogart did not follow. Instead, he had a laugh with Bautzer after the latter returned, and the two became friends. Bautzer’s addiction to alcohol, however, had no apparent effect on the quality or amount of his work until the final years of his life, but by then he was winding down his practice.
Although Bautzer’s labors as an attorney involved much more than an office and a desk, many other great Hollywood attorneys worked behind the scenes at Bautzer’s firm. Students of the legal history of Southern California will recognize the names of his proteges, including Patricia Glaser, Terry Christiansen, Louis “Skip” Miller, and Ernest Del. A theme in Gladstone’s biography is how Bautzer cultivated power. He socialized with Hollywood’ top dogs in entertainment, business, and politics. His friends—often poker buddies—ran the studios. No one since has maintained a more impressive client list, and certainly not for four decades. One example of his clout concerns a producer who could not get 5,000 troops for a movie. Bautzcr got the troops, probably with the help of his good friend, Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
Howard Hughes relied heavily upon Bautzer, who helped Hughes take over Las Vegas. Bautzer’s services to Hughes went beyond law to include serving as paymaster to Hughes’s many girlfriends, who were often aspiring actresses. (Hughes owned RKO Pictures.) Bautzer also dealt with issues relating to the Spruce Goose airplane, until Bautzer resigned after refusing to cross an ethical line as Hughes wished. Reclusive Kirk Kerkorian heard of the famous lawyer who represented Howard Hughes, however, and Bautzer helped Kerkorian grow his business and acquire MGM more than once. As was typical for Bautzer, he was also good friends with his client, and they palled around Europe on Kerkorian’s DC-9. Bautzer married his fourth wife in the air on that jet, presided over by Judge Mariana Phaelzer, his former law partner.
Gladstone, the author of this biography, is an entertainment attorney at Lionsgate Entertainment. He must be lauded for not only mining the usual sources (books, newspaper articles, and lawsuits of public record) but also obtaining the cooperation of people who knew Bautzer. Many were willing to waive attorney-client privilege to provide a complete story. Gladstone gained the confidences of Bautzer’s third wife (former actress Dana Wynter), son, former secretary, and many former clients and colleagues.
Bautzer emerges as a loyal friend with a big heart and a ladies’ man still admired by his former wives and lovers. Bautzer was also a ruggedly handsome athlete who won tennis tournaments, a tremendous lawyer, and, when he needed to be, a righteous professional capa ble of staring down not only the mobster Bugsy Siegel, who threatened him over a Las Vegas matter, but also Joan Crawford, Hollywood is poorer without Greg Bautzer.
Neville L. Johnson is a founding partner of entertainment law firm Johnson & Johnson LLP in Beverly Hills and the author of The John Wooden Pyramid of Success.