Reviewed by Kim Masters
No one who attended the Walt Disney Co.'s 2004 annual meeting could forget Michael Eisner's sangfroid before a throng of shareholders who were calling for his ouster.
What helped calm Eisner during the storm, we now learn, was writing about the lessons he (supposedly) learned all those years ago at Keewaydin, the Vermont camp where Michael and other Eisner lads before him and after spent many happy summers.
Eisner is a man of powerful charm and if one knew nothing else about him, this valentine to a place that is clearly his Rosebud might win the reader over (though an attempt to bring current interest to the account by following two disadvantaged youngsters transported to Keewaydin—thanks in part to the largesse of the Eisner family—doesn't really work). The account intercuts between Eisner's experience and the experience of Keewaydin campers today, with a healthy salting of lessons learned, along with a sprinkling of Eisner family history. Eisner perhaps unwittingly paints an unflattering portrait of his father, whom he calls Lester instead of Dad, while paying extensive homage to Lester's stand-in, Waboos, longtime Keewaydin director.
Anyone lucky enough to have a happy, hokey place like Keewaydin in his life—a place of simple, steadfastly unchanging charms—can sense Eisner's manifestly genuine love of the experience.
But as it happens, we know quite a lot about Eisner and much of it isn't flattering. [Masters has written and spoken widely and critically about the movie business, Disney and Eisner.—Ed.] So it's hard to stay focused on the Camp text when one's eyes keep rolling. (As when he writes, "Working in business can be another canoe trip.") Eisner tells us the Keewaydin code calls for a camper to be honest, loyal and "willing to help the other fellow." When he then says, "Many of my principles were Keewaydin principles," it's easy to wonder what other Keewaydin alumni might make of that statement.
Eisner seems irresistibly drawn to write. That much came through during the Katzenberg trial (notes from Eisner's previous book—Work in Progress —were the source of his famous "I hate the little midget" quote). It happened again in last year's shareholder suit over the hiring and firing of Ovitz as Disney's president. On the witness stand, Eisner had to explain away his own memos calling his former pal a "psychopath" and a liar, among other things.
Eisner could not stop himself then, and he cannot stop himself now. Camp was delayed last year, in the midst of the Disney drama, and Eisner comments tartly in his prologue that he was distracted by "people who could have used a few summers at camp earlier in their lives."
Perhaps it would have helped if that Keewaydin code had included an admonition to "know thyself." 8-page photo insert. Agent, Irwin Russell . (June)
Kim Masters covers the business of entertainment for NPR and is the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else (HarperCollins).
Release date: 06/01/2005