Dyslexics in Love: Cher and David Geffen (and their success stories)
Dr. Stanton Peele, founder, Life Process Program
How many superstars can you name who discovered they were dyslexic as adults? Here are two: my, these two dyslexics have been unbelievably successful for the last half century.
Geffen on the Rise (despite dyslexia)
In 2012, PBS did as part of its “American Masters” series “Inventing David Geffen” (available on Netflix). Without telling the entire Geffen story, he is arguably the most successful popular media creator in history, counting his record labels, Asylum and Geffen, and his movie company Dreamworks. One way to measure success is wealth.
I’ll just mention that UCLA’s medical school is named the David Geffen School of Medicine, based on his $300 million gifts to the school. Nobody thinks that this has tapped Geffen out. Forbes estimates his wealth at $10+ billion. In 2020 Geffen sold his Beverly Hills estate to Jeff Bezos for $165 million, a price believed to be the highest ever paid for a home in a California real estate transaction.
In the meantime, Geffen has perhaps the most storied private are collection in the world, worth well over a $billion, Geffen regularly sells individual paintings in the $200-300 million range to other billionaires, You can see how hard it is for him to reduce his nest egg despite his gifts to UCLA.
Geffen, however, didn’t pop out of the box instantly as a mega media maven. He was a poor student, graduating near the bottom of his high school class in Brooklyn in 1960. (He grew up in Borough Park, an orthodox Jewish community right next to where I now live.) In the documentary Geffen says they didn’t know about dyslexia when he was a kid, or else they would have realized that he was dyslexic. What this proves is, no matter how much of a genius you show yourself to be, you are still defensive that people thought you were dumb in high school.
He got a job in the mail-room of the William Morris Talent Agency — and the rest is history. To what was his success due? His mother was an immigrant entrepreneur who had the gift of gab, which Geffen shared. And as artists like David Cosby, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and scores of record executives — many of whom he outmaneuvered — rush to say: Geffen could see into the future, recognize talent, and structure deals that garnered great rewards from these gifts. Oh, he also had a ton of chutzpah.
Geffen in Love
One dilemma for Geffen was acknowledging that he was gay. As Forbes writes:
Geffen was initially defensive about his sexuality. During the 1970s he fell in love with Cher and spent 18 months in a relationship with her, a time he referred to as “the greatest high I had ever experienced”. Eventually, Cher left him for Gregg Allman. Geffen eventually came out as gay in 1992.
Okay, so Cher left him for Greg Allman precipitating one of two severe breakdowns Geffen had in his life. The first occurred when Laura Nyro — whose career Geffen nurtured like a helicopter mother— left Geffen. Geffen had released her first albums, sold her songs to be recorded by other prominent artists, and negotiated a contract for Nyro with Columbia Records.
When Geffen created Asylum Records, he announced that Nyro was to be the label’s first, anchor artist. Instead, Nyro re-signed with Columbia. Geffen was devastated, saying that he cried for months. (He was not romantically involved with Nyro, so far as anyone knows.)
Cher’s Upbringing, Dyslexia and Career
Cher was raised by a single mom who was a minor actress. Her father was a truck driver with gambling and drug issues. Her parents divorced when Cher was 10 months old. Her mother then married an actor whom she divorced — he also had drinking issues — when Cher was nine. She then married a prosperous banker whom Cher liked.
She liked him as a “good-natured man who turned belligerent when he drank too much”. Holt (her mother) remarried and divorced several more times, and she moved her family around the country.They often had little money, and Cher recounted having had to use rubber bands to hold her shoes together. At one point, her mother left Cher at an orphanage for several weeks. Although they met every day, both found the experience traumatic.
Okay, so Cher was officially traumatized. But here’s how she reacted.
Fascinated by film stars, Cher’s role model was Audrey Hepburn, particularly due to her role in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Cher began to take after the unconventional outfits and behavior of Hepburn’s character. She was also inspired by Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn. She was disappointed by the absence of dark-haired Hollywood actresses whom she could emulate. She had wanted to be famous since childhood but felt unattractive and untalented, later commenting, “I couldn’t think of anything that I could do … I didn’t think I’d be a singer or dancer. I just thought, well, I’ll be famous. That was my goal.”
After Holt married bank manager Gilbert LaPiere, who adopted Cher and her sister, he enrolled them at a wealthy private school.
The school’s upper-class environment presented a challenge for Cher; biographer Connie Berman wrote, “[she] stood out from the others in both her striking appearance and outgoing personality.” A former classmate commented, “I’ll never forget seeing Cher for the first time. She was so special … She was like a movie star, right then and there … She said she was going to be a movie star and we knew she would.” Despite not being an excellent student, Cher was intelligent and creative, according to Berman. She earned high grades, excelling in French and English classes. [This justifies a diagnosis of dyslexia — a learning disorder?]
Okay, here it comes:
As an adult, she discovered that she had dyslexia. Cher’s unconventional behavior stood out: she performed songs for students during the lunch hours and surprised peers when she wore a midriff-baring top. She later recalled, “I was never really in school. I was always thinking about when I was grown up and famous.”
Okay, let’s jump ahead.
Having sold 100 million records, Cher is one of the world’s best-selling music artists. Her achievements include a Grammy Award, an Emmy Award, an Academy Award, three Golden Globe Awards, a Cannes Film Festival award, the Billboard Icon Award, and awards from the Kennedy Center Honors and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. She is the only artist to date to have a number-one single on a Billboard chart in six consecutive decades, from the 1960s to the 2010s. Her 2002–2005 Living Proof: The Farewell Tour became one of the highest-grossing concert tours of all time, earning $250 million.
At one point in the Geffen documentary, Cher says about their affair: “His friends thought I was too dumb for him. My friends thought he was too square.” She laughs.
But they were both dyslexic! (Isn’t there a dating App for that?)
Dyslexics in Love
So we’ve established that dyslexics can become Über famous and successful, and to act like geniuses. What about their love lives?
Cher went on to marry and divorce Greg Allman in the 1970s (now that was dumb). As far as we know, Cher has not had an enduring intimate partnership for the large majority of her adult life since then.
The same for Geffen. The documentary neither mentions nor shows any intimate partners (other than Cher and Nyro, whatever that was). Geffen has never been married.
So can’t dyslexics have adult intimate relationships? All of us dyslexics want to know.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy this episode of our weekly podcast about Temple Grandin – a woman with autism who grew to do incredible things for our world.
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