The Last Days Of Jay Moloney

Looking back, Jay Moloney's meteoric track through Hollywood can be described as a shining arc that began in June 1983, when he got a summer job at Creative Artists Agency, and ended last week when he hanged himself in the bathroom of his house on Mulholland Drive. Moloney was 35--a former boy wonder who got his break as the protege of CAA founder Michael Ovitz and who then became a superagent in his own right, handling megastars like Steven Spielberg, David Letterman and Leonardo DiCaprio. He was making $2 million a year when he was 30 years old. But by his own admission, Moloney in 1995 began a bitter romance with cocaine that was to ruin his life. "Everyone knew he was falling back into drugs," said producer Barry Josephson, one of Moloney's closest friends. "He had lost every battle before. He was afraid he was going to lose this one, too."

In Hollywood, where money and power can be as ephemeral as celebrity itself, the spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall of James David Moloney inevitably was seen by some as yet another example of the dangers of life in the fast lane. Moloney's name is now being added to a list of drug casualties that includes John Belushi, River Phoenix and Chris Farley. His relationship with Ovitz, for years the most powerful agent in Hollywood, lent cachet to the tragedy; so did his high-profile role as a leader of the Young Turks who took over CAA in 1995, when Ovitz left to become president of Disney. Moloney can be seen and perhaps romanticized as a victim of the film industry's cutthroat tribal culture. "Hollywood exacerbated the problem," says producer Peter Guber, another old friend. "The pressure here, the way rejection happens in the spotlight--it's a very destabilizing environment."

But like many who knew the dead man well, Guber doesn't believe Hollywood was the real cause of Moloney's problems. "I don't know what drove him, what his demons were, but I don't think it had anything to do with Hollywood," Guber says. "He would have had the same demons if he lived anywhere." One friend says Moloney was clinically depressed; another says he had been diagnosed as manic-depressive. Everyone agrees he was a driven, manipulative and secretive personality, and he seems to have compartmentalized his life. That was particularly true of his drug use, which seems for the most part to have been solitary rather than stereotypical Tinseltown partying. NEWSWEEK's sources say Moloney was a coke user who dabbled in heroin and other drugs, but that he typically used drugs alone at home, during lonely binges that could last for days. He tried repeatedly to get off drugs, going into rehab programs at least a dozen times in five years. He spent time on a kibbutz in Israel and in self-imposed exile at a friend's villa in the British Virgin Islands, trying to quit. Nothing worked, and friends say he made a number of suicide attempts before his death last week. "There weren't any fun, high times with this," one friend says. "It was all horrible--he suffered."

But his ascendancy was memorable. Moloney was a showbiz kid--his father an actor, scriptwriter and agent--who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and Malibu, Calif. Jay was still in elementary school when his parents' marriage fell apart, and he moved to Oregon with his mother after the divorce. By the time he came back to L.A., in 1983, he was a sandy-haired six-footer with a mesmerizing personality. He showed up at CAA, then fast becoming the hottest agency in Hollywood under Ovitz and Ron Meyer, and talked his way into a job as an assistant to an assistant to an assistant. "He was like a sponge," Ovitz said at a memorial service. "He would take it all in and then give it back out with his wit and his charm and his wonderful ability to manipulate. You knew he was doing it and you just didn't care."

Ovitz took him on as a protege and Moloney began his ascent. At 21 he was recognized as a rising star and as the ringleader of CAA's Young Turks--David O'Connor, Kevin Huvane, Richard Lovett and Bryan Lourd. They worked hard and played hard, although CAA, under Ovitz, was well known in Hollywood for its cult-like corporate ethos and its abstemious attitude toward alcohol and drugs. They were the nucleus of a big group of young couples who vacationed together, and Moloney was always the impresario. They went up the Amazon and down the Snake River, they went biking and hot-air ballooning and sailing. Moloney, one of the hottest bachelors in town, dated actresses Jennifer Grey, Sherilyn Fenn and Gina Gershon.

Then Ovitz left CAA for Disney. The Young Turks were furious but Moloney, his friends agree, was hurt, as if he had been abandoned by a loved one. In a confessional article in Premiere magazine in 1997, Moloney described how he started to binge on cocaine, missing work at the very time the Young Turks were taking control of CAA. Ovitz left the company in August and Moloney was named a managing director that same month. But it didn't last. Faced with an ultimatum from his partners, Moloney went into treatment, but quickly fell off the wagon and started rehab all over again. On and off drugs through the spring of 1996, he was pushing the limits at CAA. In July a group of Moloney's closest friends invaded his house during one of his binges and told him this was the end. "We all love you, and we want you to get well," Ovitz said. "But you will never see the people in this room again unless... you stop doing drugs."

This ultimatum was only a bluff, and it didn't work. Unable to control his addiction, Moloney finally was forced out of CAA. Last May, after yet another attempt at rehab, he got a job as president of Paradise Music and Entertainment, a production company headed by Jesse Dylan, a son of Bob Dylan. But he was back on cocaine very quickly and in September he was asked to resign. His girlfriend, Ginger Williams, moved out, and Moloney was spiraling downward. Last weekend he celebrated his 35th birthday with a small group of friends, and on Sunday, had brunch with Josephson. Moloney talked about going back into treatment and he sounded optimistic. On Tuesday morning Ben Taylor, son of singer James Taylor, knocked on Moloney's door and got no answer. Taylor forced the door, went through the house and found Moloney in the shower. He had hanged himself with a noose made of belts.

At the memorial service last week a saddened group of Hollywood luminaries coped with the loss in different ways. Comedian Bill Murray tried humor: "There are so many people sitting here today who I would so much rather be eulogizing." Ovitz tried poetry, calling Moloney "a passing comet" who "lit up our lives." Everybody cried, remembering Moloney for his talent and generosity--and as a tormented man who happened to live in Hollywood.