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.

Nevertheless, Meal insists that the two men are friends. "Are you kidding? While the networks and telephone companies are stumbling around with their pants around their ankles, and Arnold and I alone foresaw the potential of cable? Don't listen to gossip! Arnold and I are buddies that go way back."

When I ask whether he is worried about what promises to be a titanic duel with his friend, he replies, "I'm not afraid of Arnold. I respect him, but I don't fear him. I esteem him, but he doesn't get me apprehensive. No way he even makes me self-conscious!"

He's terrified of Creem. Creem is, like, his nemesis." I am speaking privately with a concerned Dwayne Bern, a veteran of the first titanic Meal-Creem deal and a recipient of some of Meal's greathearted largesse.

"That was in 1989. I'd told Ray I didn't know what to get my kid for his birthday. Next thing I know, there's this big package arriving from Lillian Vernon! Ironically, the same day I hear about the mess with Creem. It was a real tough time for all of us. Just the uncertainty, if nothing else! And I'll tell you something Ray won't discuss. Ray Meal's hair was brownish with orange highlights. The next day it's white!" Bern sighs. "I just hope to hell it isn't all starting up again with this new buyout thing. I mean, you get together two guys who both foresaw the potential of cable, and you get them in a life-and-death conflict of these dimensions..."

When I remark that he looks dejected, Bern explains that he hates what he terms "all this cannibalism." He has clearly been scarred by events that occurred the last time Meal and Creem tangled--in the Forty-Carat CZ Affair, when it took six months for the dust to settle on Wall Street. By the time it did, two venerable brokerage houses had shut their doors for the last time, and Ray Meal had come within a hair of being ousted from the chairmanship and board of directors of the very empire he had built. He had also been indicted on six felony counts.

Despite a rocky start Meal was stung by the public reaction to the news that he had drawn $72 million in salary and bonuses the previous year 1989 had been a banner year for him and for Creem. But no one who foresaw the potential of cable in those days can forget the ludicrous spectacle presented by a trio of television networks craven, and perhaps bloated with complacency as they risked everything to gain ownership of the syndication rights to the long-canceled series Love, American Style. On the West Coast, Meal was taking a much-deserved week off, planning to spend it at his palatial Malibu estate, where, besides gourmet cooking, he and Marlene enjoy skateboarding.

"Those bastards didn't even bother to call a meeting of the full board, for Christ's sake!" I am sitting in a hot tub under an angry red moon with stocky Angelo Imbimbo, Ray Meal's former bodyguard and longtime companion. "One minute everything's fine and dandy. `Glad the old boy's taking some time off!' `Hey, boss, don't worry about a thing!' Next thing you know, it's 'Kweek!'" He makes the familiar throat-cutting gesture. "I thought the mob was bad!" he concludes ruefully. "Course Creem was behind it. He engineered the whole thing. From outside the company!"

"Audacious? Sure, Arnold is audacious," remarks longtime Creem friend Jerry Mathers. "I'd say Arnold is one of the most audacious guys around. And he'd been dreaming of that for a long, long time. Why? Because Arnold Creem had the distribution, but he needed the software. It's a classic business situation. He had the Christian Broadcasting Network; he had the ownership of Hey, Vern, It's Ernest for the next twenty years, along with the much-ballyhooed new series FBI: Female Body Inspectors. Can you blame him if he also wanted the wireless-videophone capacity whereby viewers could call each other up and discuss the show afterward from their cars, actually seeing each other's facial expressions while they talked? Because let's face it otherwise you don't get the nuance!

"Once he could take control of the software, cellular-, and sensi-phone divisions, favorite series characters could appear at Control Panties' five theme parks. Do you wonder Arnold was drooling? But the real jewel in the Control Panties crown was Meal's priceless library of old Laraine Day movies, which would fall right smack into Arnold's lap!" Mathers chuckles. "It was incredible. Control Panties-Raymedia stock fell seventy-five percent over the next thirty days. Meal was desperate to get his hands on some capital. He talked to everybody, he went everywhere. He had three cellular phones in his car! But when all that about Prince Charles came out, he had them all removed. Unfortunately for Ray Meal, though, Creem doesn't like to be pushed, and he has nerves of steel. In other words, Arnold knows how to wait. Well, when it was all over, only the Sultan of Brunei came through for Meal, and it was a disappointing thirty million. For him that's about the same as `Gosh, I'd like to help, but . . .' Meal even went crawling to Sheila Creem to try to get her on his side! Well, everybody knows what happened next. Toto Schultz and All-Butter Candies!"

He felt that the world was changing, becoming the playground of a few media giants. Sure, I wanted in! And by the end of 1989 Ray Meal needed me."

Although Toto Schultz, chairman and CEO of All-Butter Candies, was born into an old moneyed family, you'd never know it to look at his face, which is scarred and thuglike. His Orlon clothes look slept in, and his accent is pure Brooklyn. In contrast, Meal is always impeccably turned out by his Bond Street tailor, his taste in shirts running to sober pinstripes, his shoes generally the loafer or slip-on type, always highly polished and well fitting. He also douses himself liberally with Wild Musk men's cologne before any meeting he deems important.

As for the events leading up to Schultz's decision to make a large infusion of capital into Control Panties-Raymedia, none of the men involved will speak of them in detail. Even Dwayne Bern is afraid. What is known is that after the approach was made by Schultz ($50 million in stock, $25 in cash), Meal had one last, desperate meeting with Creem. He flew into the Silverado Country Club one day in late November for a private meeting with Creem, who keeps an attractive two-bedroom condo on the golf course there. It was on this occasion that Meal presented Creem with the famous Lalique crystal cream pitcher, with the words "To me you're not fat!" etched on one side and "I like you!" on the other.

"Ray was always different that way," muses Tony Imbimbo. "When Gianni Agnelli of Turin turned down his request, Ray didn't just let it go at that. He had a cow's udder sewed onto a monkey and sent it to Agnelli. It's an Italian thing I told him about. He got a big kick out of it. But that's the kind of prank he lovesthe more elaborate the better! Ray has--how can I put it? a big, big heart!" Imbimbo sighs and says, "We have a way of saying it in Italian, but English is such a cold language."

"Another time was when he had Diane Sawyer and a film crew walk onto their boat just as his wife, Marlene, was screaming, 'Chintz headboards, you stupid pansy!' at the captain. I guess she thought he was the decorator." Imbimbo chuckles quietly at the memory. "After that Ray had a little bit more control in the marriage."

I ask Imbimbo about rumors that Meal himself may have an ungovernable temper, and he says he has never heard that. Yet I find many who admit they are terrified.

"I would say I am tough, yes, but not nasty," Meal says when I ask him about this, later on the day of our Los Angeles meeting. "Those who think otherwise may be misinterpreting me."

At this point Meal seems anxious to change the subject. I see a return to childlike, spontaneous joy in his plump features.

"Did you see this? Hey, did you see this?" Meal hands me a large framed photograph of a dark-haired youth. "It's Eric, my love child. I will not name his mother! (Arnold Creem says it was Agnes Moorhead, but it wasn't!) Isn't he great? Just graduated Rutgers!" When I ask what Eric's major was, Meal pauses for thought and then says, "Gymnastics!"

As my afternoon with Meal draws to an end, I ask him what lies ahead. "The merger with Creem. But it's in the lap of the gods. Hey, I think I'll call Dwayne Bern. Want to listen in? We're gonna talk about MachoWorldmundo again. Worldmundo!" he yells joyously.

Kidding aside, at that evening parting Ray Meal for the first time looked his age. I was not to see him again until one and a half years later, on the occasion of his triumphant press conference celebrating Control Panties-Raymedia's first dividend in four years. We gathered in the Capitol rotunda, in Washington, D.C., which had been newly redecorated for the occasion. In a brief statement an ebullient Ray Mealwith Barnabas at his side--thanked his patient stockholders and his wife, Marlene, and announced the retirement of Mr. Toto Schultz from the board of directors of Control Panties-Raymedia Communications. ("Toto," he said, turning to his friend, "it's what the Greeks call fate.") In conclusion he said huskily, "And Arnold, I know you're out there listening. My door is always open. The cool, serene beauty of Laraine Day awaits your viewing. As you know, Marlene and I have built a screening room with every luxury you can think of, including a seat with your name on it, Arnold, dear."

The audience was hushed, as if mindful that here was a demonstration of the giant capacity for love they had heard so much about--perhaps the trait for which Ray Meal will be most remembered. The eyes of a hundred journalists and a thousand more of the merely curious were glued to the portly figure in the trim Bond Street suit, as he mopped his face with a Hermes scarf, handed to him quickly by his wife. He gestured with the scarf and cleared his throat.

"Arnold, think it over one last time! Together we could be, we could be . . . Time Warner! Time Warner without the debt! Thank you, everybody! Thanks for listening!"

Thousands of panty-shaped balloons began their descent from the lofty Capitol dome, as what was probably one of the most hardened, cynical audiences in the history of the world filed out of the august building. Yet these people seemed to me undeniably movedsome were sobbing. So persuasive was Meal's brief statement, so magical was the man himself, that many undoubtedly resolved then and there to write more thoughtfully about Control Panties-Raymedia in the future. Many, perhaps, made a private vow to support in print Control Panties' right to merge with Arnold Creem, in order that, in accordance with their rights as citizens, the American public may watch shows like FBI: Female Body Inspectors.