The billionaire music and media mogul, who once was reported to be the flame and inspiration for the classic Carly Simon hit song, “You’re So Vain,” is still topping the charts of the Fortune Magazine Billionaire’s club. Hollywood’s richest man is the co-founder of record labels Asylum Records, Geffen Records and DGC Records, as well as film studio DreamWorks. I enjoy hearing about the stories of self-made individuals like Geffen.
Born to Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Geffen started his career in the mailroom of talent agency William Morris, where he rose to become an agent. Geffen claims to have learned the basic principles of entrepreneurial skills at his mother’s knee. He made his first million dollars before he was 25 years old. With Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he co-founded DreamWorks, which vaulted him into the stratosphere in 1998, where his personal wealth was reported to be $1 billion.
A medical misdiagnosis of bladder cancer, found four years later, propelled his philanthropic interests to the healthcare community. He has since been a major contributor to medical charities and foundations, and has had several buildings named after him, such as The Geffen Playhouse and The David Geffen School of Medicine, both at UCLA. Long after Geffen dated Marlo Thomas and Cher, he publicly came out as gay. As such, he has also bestowed gifts of $2.5 million to Los Angeles’ AIDS Project, as well as another $2.5 million to New York City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and $1.4 million to AIDS Action in Washington, DC.
There is hope for those of you who do not excel in academia. Upon graduating from high school in 1960, Geffen headed west, not to California, but to the University of Texas at Austin, where he lasted only one semester until he flunked out with poor grades. So much for being book smart. Once back in New York City, he landing a position as an usher at the CBS-TV studio. He loved the business, but knew he did not know how to act. One of the producers jokingly stated that perhaps he should become an agent. That’s when the lightbulb went off. He landed in the mailroom of the William Morris Talent Agency in 1964 for the whopping sum of $55 a week.
Once being promoted to a junior agent at William Morris, Geffen turned his interests to music. He married singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, which led to contacts with other up-and-coming stars such as Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and Janis Joplin. In 1969, Geffen made his first million dollars by selling out the music publishing operation that he had started.
The hit parade doesn’t stop there. After starting Asylum Records in 1970, he was able to sign up some of the hottest artists in the business, including Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and The Eagles. Next came Geffen Records with such artists as Elton John, John Lennon, and Donna Summers. His final segue was into films, where DreamWorks has become a household name.
He currently splits his time between Malibu and New York City.