Armchair Access

Most Hollywood salons are hosted by A-list players who seek to do good. And they don’t mind a bit if you know it

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Illustration by Maurice Vellekoop

Deep inside film mogul Peter Guber’s cavernous Bel-Air “home office,” Deepak Chopra was holding court. Celebrity litigator Gloria Allred sat rapt at the New Age guru’s feet, her fuchsia blazer a beacon. Not far away, Rosanna Arquette shared a leather ottoman with a clutch of friends. Guber’s yogi wife, Tara, sat on the floor next to them, stroking her dog, as Vidal Sassoon and Marla Maples looked on.

“When you try to understand consciousness, it’s your consciousness trying to understand consciousness,” the 62-year-old Chopra said, the black and white gems on his glasses glinting in the light. “Now here’s something I’d like you all to try: As you’re listening to me, I want you to listen to the one who is listening.” The room went silent. He waited a beat. “That,” he said, a wry smile on his lips, “is your soul.”

As Chopra spoke, Guber listened, too, though whether he heard his own soul was not entirely clear. Perched on the arm of his sofa, just inches away from a life-size Batman statue, a giant poster for his 1978 movie, Midnight Express, and a trophy case the length of two Escalades, the studio chief turned producer seemed pleased with the turnout. But he blanched at the suggestion that his party was a salon.

“I don’t have salons,” he said, gesturing above the heads of his white-shirted waitstaff. “I just have friends over.”

Salons—variously described as “gatherings,” “cafés,” “a speaker series,” or “lively dinner parties”—are all the rage with Hollywood’s glittering class. It’s a wonder it’s taken so long. Even before Gertrude Stein famously hosted great writers and artists at her Paris apartment, a successful salon always combined two of the entertainment industry’s favorite things: performance and self-promotion.

To their credit, some of Hollywood’s richest and most powerful use these soirees to try to spark social change. Melting glaciers, the suffering in Darfur, and the illegal diamond trade in Sierra Leone are just a few of the causes célèbres that have incubated in salons hosted by filmmakers and actors. Salons have helped launch best-sellers and have raised phenomenal sums of money (a single evening in Beverly Hills in 2008 funneled $11 million to the Obama campaign)—all by putting what one frequent attendee has called “the pulpit of fame” to good use.

But when it comes to what motivates the hosts, altruism often competes with a baser urge: an unquenchable thirst for validation. Self-consciously overpaid and intellectually insecure, many in Hollywood’s most lavish office suites yearn to be taken seriously. Like beautiful women who want it known they have brains, too, these purveyors of pop culture seek to rid themselves of the taint of frivolity that clings to their work. Particularly in this economic climate, when self-sacrifice is de rigueur, everyone wants to be seen as socially conscious.

Which is what makes salons here so much more than high-minded cocktail hours. For many, they seem the most direct route to obtaining something that cannot be measured in box office metrics or Nielsen ratings: gravitas.

It’s not just about ego. In ways both big and small, hosting a well-attended salon can improve one’s position in Hollywood’s cruel pecking order. A movie producer with a salon isn’t merely a movie producer; he’s a safe haven for Iranian dissidents seeking sanctuary. A trophy wife isn’t simply a “former actress”; she’s a catalyst for social change. Perhaps as important, a salon endows its host with the power to invite others into this rarefied air. Or, as the case may be, to disinvite them.

For example, Guber’s publicist, Howard Bragman, promoted the Chopra event. Bragman invited me (along with a couple of women’s magazine editors and a crowd of swells). I accepted, saying I would write about it. Guber declined to be interviewed beforehand, so I contacted those I knew would attend, beginning with Chopra himself. That’s when the trouble started.

“Mr. Guber appreciates you reaching out,” Bragman wrote me in an e-mail, ignoring that it was he who’d first reached out to me. “But, as I made clear, he does not wish to be included in the story as an interview subject, as a topic of discussion or in any other manner. His events at his home are private events we have not publicized. You were invited as a guest. However, based on this morning’s e-mail to Mr. Chopra and your aggressively reaching out to find out about other salons he has held, I can’t in good conscience offer you attendance to the Salon.”

Ah, conscience. How Hollywood loves to invoke it. But when I responded that invitation or no invitation, I would still be writing about Guber’s salons, things changed. On the eve of the event, Guber called me to say I was welcome after all. There had been a “miscommunication,” he said, adding, “I have no interest in a dialogue between the media and me. I stay completely out of the light.”

Herein lies the tension that runs like a current beneath a Hollywood salon. In this town nothing matters unless it garners attention. Everything is illuminated by the klieg lights of conspicuous consumption and reflected glory. But salon hosting demands a more nuanced approach. Since the goal is to do good while appearing selfless, it can be difficult to find a way to have your light and bask in not having it, too.

That, apparently, is what publicists are for. “There’s a sort of a pride in not publicizing these,” Bragman, the publicist, explained. He wanted me to understand “that they’re purely intellectual exercises and not promotional exercises.”

To be sure, there is an element of damned if they do, damned if they don’t about this. Most Hollywood people aren’t dummies. It takes a lot of brains to run a trillion-dollar industry. But the term Hollywood intellectual is often seen as an oxymoron. That leaves well-intentioned moguls and machers feeling frustrated that their efforts to participate in—and fund—public debate can result in ridicule.

Johanna Blakley, the deputy director of the Norman Lear Center, which studies the intersection of Hollywood and politics, says actors who become spokespeople for issues that far exceed their areas of expertise are partly to blame. “This is one thing that troubles the entertainment industry,” she says. “As a whole, they get stereotyped as if they were all actors. And those are just the most visible in the industry.” 

Mike and Irena Medavoy have managed to navigate these shark-filled waters better than most. He is a former studio chief who has long been involved in politics (he was the cofinance chair of Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign). She is an ex-model and onetime QVC fixture who came to serve as a national finance chair of then Senator Obama’s presidential campaign. Then, as now, she was a consummate hostess. For years they threw regular salons at their vast Beverly Park home, where Irena likes to say they’d “dictate and start policy.” Guests of honor included former Mexican president Vicente Fox and President Obama, who’d been there before. Cheryl Tiegs, the model, still swoons when she remembers meeting Obama before he became commander in chief. “Are you kidding? I sat six feet away!” she recalls. With enough crudités comes access, it seems.

“It’s an advantage we have over other people who are not in our category,” says Mike Medavoy, who first earned cachet at United Artists in the 1970s, when the studio released a series of now-classic films (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall). In May his book about the media’s effect on foreign policy during the Iraq war was published. “We can play in a lot of different fields. Show business is a kind of magnet to people.”

Heather Thomas, an actress (she appeared in the ’80s TV series The Fall Guy), a sometime novelist (her 2008 book, Trophies, is out in paperback), and the wife of heavy hitter entertainment attorney Skip Brittenham, is another salon impresario. She says without qualification that thanks to her monthly meetings—she’s held 40 so far, with progressive activists and the wealthy do-gooders who support them—“we won the 2006 election” and “were instrumental in helping take down Bush.”

Architect and environmental designer Cynthia Hirschhorn and her husband, Charles Hirschhorn (who coproduced films such as Bull Durham and Herbie Fully Loaded), aren’t yet courting world leaders in their living room. But give them time. Three years ago Hirschhorn had her family’s ranch-style home torn down so she could build something bigger, more Mediterranean, more suitable for entertaining. The new salon room was a focal point of the design. When the house was nearly done, she started pursuing UCLA’s chair of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. Richard Jackson, who once ranked as the highest environmental health official in the United States.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Jackson was the speaker at the Hirschhorns’ first salon. It was a low-key, celebrity-free affair: A handful of architects and several other friends sipped red wine and nibbled homemade cookies laid out on the kitchen island.

At the appointed hour everyone moved into the spacious living room. Jackson took his place in the center, under vaulted ceilings, and began to talk. Americans are dying as a result of epidemics that come from disastrous urban planning, he said. There are too few trees, scarce public transit, failed political leadership. Jackson didn’t say it, but he might as well have: We need to scrap everything and start over from scratch. (It was hard not to think that the Hirschhorns had done just that with their house.) “What really matters to people is where they live,” he was saying, as a crowd of Ingrid Bergman pop art portraits peered over his shoulder in varying shades of neon. “It’s the built environment that really controls people’s lives.”

The next morning Hirschhorn was still excited by what had taken place. “It was intense, wasn’t it?” she said. Jackson’s talk had inspired her to think big, about how one connected person could effect change. But before she got carried away with the idea of launching a cultural transformation, Hirschhorn stopped herself. “I really don’t want it to sound like it’s about me,” she said. “The best part of it is when it’s not about ego but about sharing.”

A prime example of that spirit is the Everychild Foundation, which can draw a direct line from its salons to bona fide results. Jacqueline Jacobs Caster, a former real estate lawyer who spent years in urban redevelopment at Disney, founded the group a decade ago. Charity balls weren’t her thing, she said, but she wanted to give back and do good. So she gathered some of her wealthy friends to identify one worthy project to which each woman would donate $5,000 annually. Today her foundation gives away $1 million a year, and members include Hirschhorn (whose salon was an Everychild event), former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing, and model-actress Amber Valletta.

Together they’ve paid for mobile dental clinics, funded community centers in gang-plagued neighborhoods, and helped build housing for “aged out” foster kids. They’ve raised the money with member dues, but it is at the salons that they nurture their inner wonk. California legislator Henry Waxman and former Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Roy Romer have been speakers. “Sometimes when you hear these people in person, it ends up being very disheartening, because you realize the true magnitude of the problem and you can sense their frustration in trying to combat the issue,” says Caster. “But we don’t just assemble to say ‘Let’s get educated.’ We assemble to get educated and see what we can do with it.”

Guber’s congregations have a slightly different aim. To hear him tell it, they are his “acts of generosity”—gifts to interesting thinkers (who, like Chopra, usually have books to sell). Last summer he hosted Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson discussing his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. In 2004, during the Bush 43 era, a talk about terrorism led by conservative author David Frum somehow prompted Suzanne Somers’s husband, Alan Hamel, to compare Bill Maher’s opposition to the Iraq war to the American isolationism that Hamel said caused the death of 6 million Jews. (Maher, who told everyone he was “half Jewish,” walked out. But not before inviting Frum to appear on his HBO talk show.)

By comparison, Guber’s salon was tame. Chopra spoke for 30 minutes about mind-over-body living, the importance of sponta—neity, and doing less to accomplish more. When he set down the microphone, a dozen guests lined up to speak with him as servers passed trays of hot fudge pudding cakes and pink lolli-pops filled with strawberry cheesecake.

One excited woman at the front of the line told Chopra of her decision to “do nothing” that afternoon, despite her overbooked schedule. She made idleness sound like a revolutionary act. “It felt,” she exclaimed, “so good!”

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