Jerry Levin Swans On A Blue Note

Jerry Levin strolled onto the stage of Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre--the site of AOL Time Warner's annual meeting last week--for his final bow as CEO. Many music legends, like B. B. King and Muddy Waters, have played there, and Levin, wanting to capture the moment, said it was his last opportunity to indulge a longstanding fantasy of becoming a great blues singer. His timing was perfect--since many investors in the audience were feeling pretty blue themselves. They've seen AOL's stock sink in value by billions of dollars in the year since AOL acquired Time Warner. "I know the frustration you feel now is real," Levin said to the crowd. "Have faith in this company." Ending his short speech, he said he would just "fade away, an old CEO."

And Levin was quickly gone from the theater. But he won't be forgotten any time soon. Yes, he can point to many successes during 30 years of presiding over Time Inc., Time Warner and, finally, AOL Time Warner. He'd led the launch of HBO, initiated the acquisition of Turner Broadcasting and supported a successful expansion of cable operations. But Levin, who declined an interview request, also mistakenly dismissed a number of able executives, created a dizzyingly complex corporate structure and pushed the acquisition of Time Warner by AOL, which used its inflated stock as currency just as the dot-com bubble was bursting.

So in the months since he abruptly announced his retirement, employees of the old Time Warner have grumbled bitterly about Levin's last big deal. They've seen pay and 401(k) portfolios shrink along with AOL's stock price. Their anger only deepened after Levin's lavishly decorated New York apartment was recently featured in Architectural Digest. "It was as if he was saying, 'I got mine, and you're on your own'," said one senior executive. Criticism like that should give Levin plenty of material if he wants to sing the blues.