Book Review: Fun While It Lasted: My Rise and Fall in the Land of Fame and Fortune by Bruce McNall.
Few have experienced the meteoric rise and spectacular crash that Bruce McNall has.
Like Steve Jobs, McNall has succeeded in three hypercompetitive fields: ancient coin-collecting, professional sports (LA Kings, horse-racing and Canadian football) and films (e.g., WarGames). (For Jobs, it was computers, music and movies). Unlike Jobs, McNall was a “guest” of the federal government following felony convictions.
Fun While it Lasted explores how both happened—the rise and fall. (p. vii.) The answer to one, however, helps answer the other. For the rise, McNall demonstrated an extraordinary skill to make the most of personal connections. The Hunts, Sy Weintraub, Wayne Gretzky, John Candy, David Geffen, Michael Eisner, and Dr. Jerry Buss, among many others, helped catapult McNall to the top of these fields. So pervasive the name-dropping, an alternative title that might have worked would be a play on the Garth Brooks song, “Friends in High Places”. Indeed, the index for Fun While It Lasted reads like a Who’s Who list.
Similarly, for the fall, “The hunger that was my need to please, achieve, and impress began when I was a boy with a silent, often rejecting father who could not recognize me as a good and worthwhile child. That original, deep-seated need to get his approval came to define my life. Because I failed to recognize what it truly was—a need to be loved—that desire was never satisfied. Instead, it drove me to achieve at impossible levels. And it is when we try to achieve the impossible that we start cutting corners, breaking rules, breaking laws.” (p. 287.)
Because McNall traveled in elite circles, his book provides unusual or surprising behind-the-scenes insights. For example, regarding professional sports, he explains what happened when he bought an interest in the Kings hockey team from Dr. Jerry Buss (also the Lakers’ owner). “With the last signature, I held out the check for the $3 million. Jerry took it, but held it out for just a split second before one of the bankers rudely snatched it out of his hand. Jerry looked at them—his face the picture of disgust—rose, and then quickly left. Not knowing Jerry’s true financial condition, I was taken aback by what happened. Obviously Jerry was so shaky financially that the bank insisted on receiving he check immediately. It might have even been the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. But given the condition of my own accounts, and the fact that my seemingly solid empire was held together by little more than the force of my personality, I could hardly pass judgment on him. We were, in many ways, the same: men whose public images of wealth and power exceed private reality.” (p. 124.)
Regarding the film industry, McNall explains that the easier path to success in film is not in front of the camera but behind it. He reveals the “open secret” in Hollywood that you can garner a producing credit simply by fronting enough cash. He points out how many are seduced by the allure of “The Business”, but for the most part, it’s a loser’s game (monetarily speaking).
On the flipside, McNall exposes what federal prison is like. At first, it appears that his stay in a camp outside Lompoc is going to be relatively easy. It takes a turn for the worse however, including a stint in solitary confinement. Moreover, McNall gets transferred, notwithstanding his “white-collar” crimes, to a higher security prison in Michigan. He shaves off time by enrolling in a substance abuse program there (even while conceding that he didn’t really turn to drinks or drugs when his world caved in). One gets the impression he manipulated things in prison too. Nevertheless, McNall reports the program allowed him beneficial self-examination, from which this book sprouted.
McNall is complex; the book follows him through the triumphs and travails of his multi-faceted, complicated life. Few have traveled such a path—one that is so vertical and horizontal. As a result, it makes for a remarkably unique memoir.