Friday, May 29, 2020

Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson

Hollywood Godfather
The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson
by W.R. Wilkerson III
Chicago Review Press
352 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9781613736609
September 2018

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"All his life Billy was in love with the impossible." — Joe Pasternak

Billy Wilkerson’s biggest dream was to be his own boss. He accomplished that in spades when he founded The Hollywood Reporter in 1930. The first issue ran September 3rd of that year and up until the day he died Wilkerson would be heavily involved in the day-to-day operations and would write 8,320 daily editorials himself. His success with The Hollywood Reporter came from constant innovation, aggressive tactics to sell ad space and the shrewd buildup of influence. At one time, Billy Wilkerson was the most powerful man in the entertainment industry.

A medical school drop out, Wilkerson transitioned to film and wore many hats in his early days in the industry. He worked in sales, marketing promotion, film criticism and journalism, all of which gave him wisdom and experience to make The Hollywood Reporter a success. In New Jersey he owned a Nickelodeon and a luxe theater. He eventually moved to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. He worked with his friend Joe Pasternak and with actor El Brendel on a film project called Help Yourself. He shopped it around but no one bit. Hollywood had rejected Wilkerson and it hurt. Badly. He exacted revenge in a monumental way by going after the studio moguls with the first daily trade paper for the film industry.

Wilkerson went on to have other business ventures including the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and the Cafe Trocadero and Ciro in Hollywood. Many of his business ventures were innovative but ultimately failed him financially or personally. Wilkerson was tight-fisted with money and very demanding of his employees. He was a devout Catholic but also a man of many vices. He was a reckless gambler and had a severe Coca Cola addiction that ruined his health. Wilkerson was vehemently anti-communist and used his power, his connections with Howard Hughes and the public platform of The Hollywood Reporter to take down perceived communists in the industry. He could be very cruel, was unapologetic about his actions and used his mob connections to his advantage. The only thing that could truly be admired about Wilkerson is his business acumen and innovation. He was always thinking on his feet.

"The most successful figures in the entertainment industry... shared a sense of determination, an ability to weather massive misfortune." - W.R. Wilkerson III
Billy Wilkerson and his son W.R. Wilkerson III - Photo Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Billy Wilkerson: Photo Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Hollywood Godfather: The Life and Crimes of Billy Wilkerson effectively chronicles the life of a difficult man who had a profound influence on the film industry in its early days. The biography is written by Wilkerson's son. I'm always a bit cautious about biographies written by family members. However, while reading the book I kept forgetting that the book was written by Wilkerson’s son. It felt very unbiased and thorough. The author leaves no stone unturned and is not afraid to explore the ugly side of his father's life story. And there was plenty of dirt to dig up. Perhaps the most shocking was Wilkerson's involvement with the Hollywood Blacklist. Even after the fact, Wilkerson was unapologetic about what he had done.

This biography offers a comprehensive look at Wilkerson's life and career, with a particular focus on the later, and his dealings with close friends including Joe Schenck, Joe Pasternak, Greg Bautzer (his lawyer), Howard Hughes, Johnny Rosselli (a mobster) and Lana Turner. The author conducted extensive interviews with his father’s right hand man George Kennedy who helped supply much of the information found in the book. Many people refused to be interviewed and it's a testament to the author's efforts that he pursued as many avenues and angles as he could to offer such a thorough biography.

 Thank you to Chicago Review Press for a copy of Hollywood Godfather for review.

Please note that this book review is not an entry into my summer reading challenge.

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