David Geffen's daring act of forgery that led to a Hollywood fortune

David Geffen, determined to land his first job in Hollywood, forged a university degree. But a gift for spotting talent made him a millionaire by his mid-20s.

Hollywood lore has it that when David Geffen got his first job in the mail room at the William Morris talent agency in New York, he lied about having a degree, says the FT. When a letter from UCLA arrived casting doubt on his claim, he intercepted it, steamed it open and swapped the contents for a forgery. "It was a daring act and had he been caught he would have been fired." Yet his later achievements suggest that not even rejection from William Morris would have derailed his path to success.

Having conquered the music industry, produced a string of Broadway shows and launched the independent film studio DreamWorks SKG, the 66-year-old the richest man in Hollywood, says Forbes is now bent on owning a newspaper. An attempt to acquire the Los Angeles Times failed (he was beaten by Sam Zell, who went on to lose a fortune on the paper). Now he's gunning for The New York Times. If he succeeds, says The Observer, "it would represent a dramatic home-coming for a boy who left New York when he was barely out of his teens".

As a child, Geffen dreamed of becoming another Louis B Mayer, says the LA Times. But what were his chances? The son of Polish and Russian immigrants who worked in the rag trade, "he was just this scrawny Jewish kid from Brooklyn", who liked movies, slept on a couch in his parents' flat and was "an easy target" for bullies.

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Having scraped through high school, he got his real education at William Morris, where he recalls learning "to read the room... I took mental notes on everything". An extraordinary gift for spotting talent made him a millionaire by his mid-20s, having launched and swiftly sold his first music publishing company.

But it was the establishment of Asylum Records, credited with turning California into "the centre of the pop universe", that really put Geffen on the map, says The Observer. He signed artists including The Eagles and Neil Young and enjoyed a long romance with Cher, coming out later as a gay man. "It was the greatest ride," he says. "Artistically, financially, fulfilling dreams and aspirations. It was thrilling."

The revels came to an abrupt end when he was misdiagnosed with cancer in 1977: it was some years before he discovered the death sentence was false. He returned to the fray with Geffen Records in the 1980s, striking grunge gold with Nirvana; then moved into movie moguldom, setting up DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994.

Geffen is a man of extremes. He is said to have vomited after reading an unflattering profile of himself in Esquire. Some have likened him "to an intoxicating drug", writes his biographer. "The high was indescribable, despite the fact that it would likely be followed by a wicked hangover." You can say that again, says the LA Times. Geffen's career has been characterised by "brute competitiveness and acts of cruelty" witness "the body count of those he targeted for public relations assassination". Ultimately, though, he doesn't care what anyone thinks, says the FT. "I was ambitious. Some people thought: who is this guy? He didn't go to college. He's short and ordinary-looking. How dare he!"

Will he get his hands on The New York Times?

"A loss-making, old-technology newspaper would seem an odd vehicle for a colourful California showbusiness mogul," says The Observer. But those close to Geffen claim he has an almost romantic attachment to the 'Grey Lady'. Still, wrenching it from the Ochs-Sulzberger family, who have held the paper since 1896, may be tough.

Geffen's route was to approach Harbinger Capital, the hedge fund run by Philip Falcone, which has accumulated a 19% stake in The New York Times Company. Last week he was rebuffed. But even if he manages to persuade Falcone to sell, he has competition from Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu, who recently lent the group $250m.

"We're not selling The New York Times," Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the clubbable fourth-generation chairman of the company has repeatedly stated, says The Independent. But opinion is split on whether the family will see out the storm. The Ochs-Selzbergers control 89% of the 'super' voting shares. And unlike the Bancrofts (the family vanquished by Rupert Murdoch at The Wall Street Journal), they are a close-knit tribe with a hands-on stewardship of the paper. Sulzberger's son has just started as a cub reporter.

However, while the young Sulzbergers might be inculcated with "the spirit of serving", says The Guardian, the family stands accused of getting the paper into one hell of a mess: it is currently carrying $1bn in debt. And even The New York Times itself reports that Geffen worth $6bn plus, according to Forbes is settling in for a lengthy siege. One more brush with bankruptcy and the Grey Lady could fall into his hands.