Clash of the Titans

Ray Meal was worried. A sickly, timid child by nature, on that October afternoon he was facing the biggest battle of his young life. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. He had just one chance, just one weapon that the neighborhood bully of that long-ago Bronx neighborhood did not have: a gun.

"It was incredible. I showed him the gun. That was it!" Laughter bursts anew from the handsomely jowled, middle-aged face of Ray Meal as he remembers his first triumph. Sitting in his quietly opulent Los Angeles office, he is heavily tanned (Meal adores cruising on his yacht, Marlene, named for his second wife and the mother of his six-year-old son, Barnabas), and exudes that kind of radiant physical well-being the New York executive rarely achieves. His gleeful expression is a sign to the visitor that the doughty eight-year-old is still there, unwearied by decades of high-stakes gambling on the knife edge of new entertainment technologies.

"Ironically, I had a chance to hire the guy later on," Meal continues. "He owned a janitorial company he could have quadrupled in size! Unfortunately, his connections . . ." Meal raises his hands, as if to say "What can you do with people like that?" As he does so, gorgeous gold cuff linksa gift from a grateful ex-Attorney General Ed Meese sparkle at his wrists.

Suddenly he gets up and walks over to stand pensively next to one of the thirty-seven floor-to-ceiling windows that were manufactured especially for him in Venice, Italy. He sighs.

"You know, there's a lot of people hurting out there. I'm an old-fashioned liberal Democrat with a capital D, so it hurts me. Here." He gestures toward his heart. "Right here, I mean."

Here is a brief silence, and the hum of traffic becomes audible. Meal, Dwayne Bern, who is a cable-industry analyst at Mincing Barney and a neighbor of Meal's in Malibu, and I are seated in Meal's office, which has stunning views of La Cienega Boulevard. While Meal and Bern resume their discussion of a possible merger with MachoWorldmundo, the Spanish-language news network, I am free to explore the impressive room. The patrician taste of the man is everywhere evident. Items chosen for their value and rarity mingle with mementos of Meal's long business life for example, the group photo of the jury that acquitted him of racketeering in the "Forty-Carat CZ Affair." Still more items are of emotional significance--for example, the simple drawing by Barnabas. The drawing will never be worth any money, and yet he has kept it. Ever watchful, Meal, though deep in a business conversation, perceives my thought. "I keep that because my kid did it! I know, I know," he says affably. "Another guy in my position would have tossed it long ago. But not me. Let's see." He consults his large watch. "Barnabas is out swimming with Cher's kids right now! He's a great kid. You know what he said to me one time? It made me so proud! He said, `Dad, you're important!' I swear to God, those were his exact words. I love that kid. See those hunting prints? I got all of them from Lillian Vernon. I just can't imagine letting someone else choose my things for me. Choosing beautiful objects is for me a form of self-expression!"

Dwayne Bern speaks up. "He is a giant in his capacity for love, yet is a man who can hobnob with the Sultan of Brunei!"

"But they say I tear the wings off flies, Dwayne," Meal says sadly.

"They're trying to knock you off your pedestal, Ray. Jealous!"

I am impressed by this demonstration of something for which Ray Meal has become almost legendary: the loyalty he inspires in those who work for him.

In the fifty-odd years since that October day when an eight-year-old learned a lasting lesson in his fight with the neighborhood bully, Meal has pretty much attained whatever his blunt-fingered hand has reached out to grab--from business empires to the string of well-born women he is known for dressing in a luxury that is astounding even by the standards of this mega-rich milieu. At the same time, his name has become a byword for the kind of openhearted management style that may in the end be our only advantage over the Japanese. Meal considers this openheartedness to be the legacy of his revered father, George, who died in 1955, leaving his son with a profitable foundation-garment business. Its motto, "We Cater to Stouts," has been sentimentally engraved on every sheet of letterhead printed, and in stone on the façade of every building Ray Meal has occupied, since he forged the conglomerate that is now known as Control Panties-Raymedia Communications.

Asked whether he has enjoyed beating out so many competitors, Meal concedes that he has. "Oh, definitely. Very much so."

But now that he is embroiled in controversy, his credit--and his credibility stretched to the limit, the question is, Can Ray Meal win one more?

Over the past six years Meal has made no secret of his desire to control the multimedia programming-and-distribution empire of his longtime nemesis Arnold Creem. Years ago, when Meal and Creem alone foresaw the potential of cable, their faith provided a bond for the two wary entrepreneurial loners--much as if two cowboys had crossed paths on the trail and for one night swapped yarns and slept by the same fire. But all that seems long ago now, and in fact, according to the people around Creem, never happened.

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