As a restaurant critic, Jay Weston, 82, spends most nights eating at some of L.A.’s hottest restaurants – his favorite is friend Wolfgang Puck’s Spago. But Weston wasn’t always an expert on the local restaurant scene. He began his career as a publicist in New York and then began producing films, notably 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues.” Weston’s third career as a restaurant critic grew from his efforts to save a Chinese food restaurant from closing in the early 1980s. At the time, he wrote a letter to some of his movie industry friends and told them to come to the eatery, which he said served some of the best Chinese food in town. That effort turned him into something of a go-to guy for restaurant suggestions among his entertainment industry pals, so he decided to make a business out of it and launched Jay Weston’s Restaurant Newsletter. These days, the thrice-divorced Weston publishes the newsletter while continuing his producing efforts. Weston recently sat down with the Business Journal at his Beverly Hills home office and discussed how he got Al Pacino into “The Godfather,” the making of “Lady Sings the Blues” and the squirrel monkeys he used to bring to the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Question: What best describes you?
Answer: Food, femme and film. I love food, I love beautiful women and I love making movies.
How did you go from making movies to writing about restaurants?
In 1981, my then-wife and I went to the Beverly Center to see a movie and there was a Chinese restaurant called Hop Woo. It was great Chinese food and I’m a Chinese food addict. So I wrote a letter to 100 friends such as Ray Stark saying you have to help me keep this restaurant alive.
The idea of a newsletter about restaurants grew from there?
Then people started calling and saying where else should I be going to eat and I wrote another letter, three pages, to the same list. Suddenly, I started getting people saying, “Can I subscribe to your newsletter?” I said, “You can.” I started sending out a newsletter and now it goes to almost 35,000 people, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, Jeff Katzenberg. It goes to celebrities, doctors, lawyers and foodies.
What’s your restaurant review process like?
I eat out four nights a week. I have a review partner and we order the whole menu and lots of forks, and we taste the food and talk about it, and I write the review. I do everything from burger joints to Wolfgang Puck’s WP24.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Spago. I judge a restaurant like a triangle: service, ambiance and food. Spago to me is the perfect triangle. I love the menu, I love the patio and I love the food.
Have you thought about creating a website for the newsletter?
I don’t want to do that, I don’t want my newsletter on a website. It cheapens it to me. I want a hard copy that people subscribe to, get in the mail, collect it and read it at their leisure.
But you write a blog for the Huffington Post.
Two years ago, (Huffington Post Senior Editor) Willow Bay called me and said, “My husband and I get your newsletter. Would you like to write for Huffington?” It’s given me a whole other life.
What’s the biggest challenge for you now?
Building the newsletter, continuing to do Huffington Post and finding how to make it all work financially. I don’t know how I can do it. I spend so much time on Huffington and they don’t pay for the articles.
Are you still making movies?
I optioned the rights to the book “Ecotopia.” It’s about Northern California, Oregon and Washington breaking off from the rest of the United States and setting up an ecologically sound country run by women, and the corrupt, environmentally unsound United States tries to get Ecotopia back. I could never get a good script on it until about three months ago, when a guy I’ve been working with in San Francisco came up with one.
How are you making money these days?
I make money from ads in the newsletter and from investments. But it’s a struggle. I don’t have a huge amount of money.
What about the movies you’ve made?
“Lady Sings the Blues” is the only movie that keeps throwing off profits.
How did you get into the business?
I was in the publicity business for many years and one of my clients was Cinerama the movie company. I got more involved in production and I loved it. Then I decided to make my own movies. But first, I did a Broadway show called “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” with Al Pacino.
Al Pacino was in the show?
He was an off-Broadway actor, and I said, “Come and audition tomorrow.” He walked on stage and the moment he opened his mouth, I knew I wanted him in my show. He won the Tony Award that year and thanked me. And then I got him the “Godfather” role.
I called Francis Coppola, whom I knew, and said, “This guy could play the role of Sonny.” He went to see Coppola and then he rang the doorbell on my Central Park West office and said, “Do you have 25 cents for a bus to go uptown?” And he said, “I got the role of Michael.” I said, “You are supposed to get the role of Sonny.” He said, “No, they gave me the role of Michael.” Years later, I went to a premiere of a movie that Al was in and he embraced me and said to my date, “I wouldn’t be here without this guy.”
What was the first movie you made?
“For Love of Ivy” with Sydney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln, the first major studio movie to star two black leads. I remember sitting on location once and there were 72 trucks on the street and I thought, “What have I done?” Not a lot of people saw it, but it was a great accomplishment.
Was it challenging to get into the movie business?
I was living in New York, so it was very difficult to get into the movie business. I was just persistent. I never quit and kept after it and eventually it worked.
But you were traveling between New York and Los Angeles?
I came out here once a month for 10 years and I would stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel with two squirrel monkeys in a Louis Vuitton carrier. They’d set up a cage in my suite. It was legendary that once a month, my monkeys would be at the Beverly Hills Hotel. People would come to see them and see me.
How did you get monkeys?
I brought home a five-day-old monkey from Florida. Then, for 11 years I had two monkeys in my apartment in New York. I had a room built with lights and trees, and had a maid who did nothing but clean up after the monkeys. They would sit in the window of my office all day.
You eventually moved to Los Angeles.
I moved out in 1971 to make “Lady Sings the Blues.” I got divorced because my then-wife didn’t want to move to California. I had a 26-room duplex apartment on Central Park. It had a ballroom and everything. I said to my soon to be ex-wife, “You can have the apartment and that will be our settlement.” She sold it immediately for $3 million.
You now have three ex-wives.
An Irish one, a German one and a Jewish one. The first one was just a short marriage. The second was a long, lovely marriage to a German model but she didn’t want to move to California when I came out to do “Lady Sings the Blues” so we separated very friendly. The third was for 20 years and we are still best of friends.
Tell me about making “Lady Sings the Blues.”
I met Billie Holiday in 1958 at the Newport Jazz Festival. She said to me, “Some guy just wrote a biography of me called ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ And most of it’s true, but a lot of it isn’t.” I read the book and I said to her agent, “I want to make a movie out of it.” He said, “Give me $5,000 and I’ll think about it.” So I gave him $5,000 and it took 13 years and many $5,000 payments to keep the rights because everybody wanted it.
How did you convince Diana Ross to star?
I wanted Diana Ross to do it because she said in a Look magazine interview that she had wanted to play Billie Holiday. I finally went to see her and her manager said, “No way, she won’t play a black junkie.” After two or three turn-downs, I went back with the director, Sidney Furie, and she ended up in the movie. Then I got Billy Dee Williams. I had seen him years before off-Broadway and I said, “If I ever make this movie, I’d like you to play her husband.”
What gets you excited about a movie project?
When I think there is a world audience for it and I will be proud to sit in the back of the theater on opening night and say, “My name is on that.”
What’s the most significant movie you’ve ever made?
“Lady Sings the Blues,” because it was an accomplishment to make. It got nominated for Academy Awards.
Tell me about your parents.
My mother was a jazz pianist. She liked to stand at the piano and play jazz music with a cigarette in her mouth and a glass of whisky on the piano. I have a great memory of my mother. She was a stepmother, but we were close.
What about your father?
My father was in the garment business. He was what they call a woolen jobber, he would bring bulks of woolen fabric to the manufacturing lofts and they would make pants and shirts out of it. I used to go down and help him carry the big loads into his clients.
Any other memories of your father?
My father was a blue-collar man who had no real education. But he took me to the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday for years. We’d stand in the back if we couldn’t get seats.
Did you think about going into the garment business?
My father wanted me to be a doctor. I went into pre-med at NYU. I was going to be a doctor. I took a class at night at NYU on publicity because I had read a book about it, and the moment I took the class I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be involved in something exciting.
Why did you change your name?
I got a job at a publicity firm for $25 a week working for a man named Hal Saltzman. My name at that time was Jay Weinstein and he said to me, “We have too many Jewish names in the business. You’ve got to change your name if you want to keep your job.” I changed my name to Jay Weston and my brother changed his name to Stan Weston.
What was your first publicity job?
Larry and Preston Tisch were my first clients, who went on to great fame with the Loews hotels. They had a hotel in Asbury Park, N.J., and I arranged a stunt at Christmas time for Santa Claus to drive across the bridge into the hotel. Santa Claus’ sledge fell into the river and he almost drowned. The Associated Press picked it up and it ran all over the world, and they gave me a $100 bonus.
Do you plan on retiring soon?
No, there’s no such thing as retirement, as long as physically I’m in great shape. I’m more excited now as to where Huffington is taking me with my newsletter. People read my Huffington articles and I get advertisers and subscribers. I have so many things lined up there are never enough hours in a day.
COMPANY: Jay Weston’s Restaurant Newsletter
BORN: Brooklyn, N.Y.; 1929
EDUCATION: B.A., New York University.
CAREER TURNING POINTS: Producing “Lady Sings the Blues,” starting his newsletter, writing for the Huffington Post.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Sidney Poitier. “I really appreciate the way he’s matured into an interesting man.” Nicolas Reisini, chief executive at Cinerama who led the company’s international growth. Maurice Dolfuss, board member at Cinerama who took Weston on his first trip to Paris.
PERSONAL: Lives in Beverly Hills; divorced.
INTERESTS: Writing, politics.
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