Over his 50-year career, Michael Levine has arranged deals for books, screen and business – but none hit home like a Holocaust memoir released in English this month
By ROBERT SARNER, The Times of Israel, January 24, 2022
TORONTO — Over the past 50 years, Canadian “super-agent” Michael Levine has helped bring hundreds of fiction and non-fiction books into the world. None, though, have had as much personal connection for him as one published earlier this month.
Titled “The Cigar Factory of Isay Rottenberg: The Hidden History of a Jewish Entrepreneur in Nazi Germany,” it’s about a Dutch relative who, until recently, Levine didn’t even know existed.
A few years ago, Levine learned he was related to a family in Holland, where two distant cousins had written “The Cigar Factory,” a national bestseller there. Through the book, Levine discovered that 55 of his distant relatives perished in the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis. The story’s poignancy and unexpected link to his extended family led him to have it published in English.
“Until this book, I wasn’t aware that the Holocaust had directly touched our family,” Levine told The Times of Israel in a recent interview in his downtown Toronto office. “One of the key questions in life is, ‘Who am I?’ I’ve always loved history, so knowing where I came from and where I belonged has always been interesting to me.”
Books comprise only part of Levine’s career as an entertainment lawyer, executive producer and chairman of a top literary agency. Showing little sign of slowing down at age 78, he’s adding to his formidable track record forged as a consummate dealmaker. Levine currently represents many of Canada’s leading cultural, media, political and business figures in projects that include films, live theater, TV, ballet and podcasts.
He cited several of his current projects in quick succession — handling a contract for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper’s memoirs; being an executive producer on the first movie of Sacha Trudeau, brother of Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau; selling the rights to Indigenous author David Robertson’s latest work to a Hollywood actress and closing the deal with Disney; and crafting a deal between Indigenous author Tanya Talaga and Hillary and Chelsea Clinton for a documentary film.
“I’m busier than ever,” Levine said, adding that just a month earlier, a younger friend who’d been chief legal counsel to IBM before retiring dropped dead on the golf course a few days after they met for lunch. “I’m convinced the more active you’ve been in your lifetime, the more dangerous it is to retire.”
Spotlight or shadows?
Levine said he generally avoids the spotlight, preferring to be “the man in the shadows.” This didn’t prevent him from dropping names; over the course of the hour-plus interview, he mentioned nearly 60 prominent people he has associated with, including Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Pierre Trudeau, Adam Gopnick, Malcolm Gladwell, Mordecai Richler, Sir Martin Gilbert, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.
“Michael came out of the womb name-dropping,” former CBC journalist Hana Gartner once told the Globe and Mail newspaper. “I’m sure he was a strange and precocious baby.”
If Levine takes umbrage at such comments, he doesn’t show it.
“Hana said that lovingly,” Levine said with a smile. “Look, name-dropping is an occupational risk when you deal in the world I deal in, which often involves interacting with celebrities. It can sound arrogant, which isn’t my intention.”
When it comes to names, Levine has more than 6,000 on his personal contact list. With a knack for keeping track of most of them in his head, he’s been referred to as a “human switchboard.”
In his nature
Central to his success is his gift for dealing with a wide range of personalities, including those with inflated egos and artistic temperaments.
“Humor, patience and being a good listener are key,” said Levine. “I listen a lot and I just try to steer people when they’re acting against their own self-interest. One of my favorite books is Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The March of Folly’ about how nations operate against their own self-interest. I can’t tell you how many human beings, even extremely intelligent ones, act against their own self-interest. Part of my job is to minimize that possibility for my clients.”
Toronto-based Michael Hirsh, a leading figure in the international cartoon and animation industry, has worked with Levine several times since they met 30 years ago.
“In Canada, where Michael has long been the most connected person representing top talent and major politicians, he’s unique in his ability to function as a powerbroker connecting all parties in a deal,” said Hirsh, who recently retained Levine as his agent to secure a publishing deal for his memoirs.
“Michael has encouraged me to write my memoirs for many years,” said Hirsh. “He’s extremely helpful and a supportive sounding board to test my thoughts about my story and how best to tell it.”
Levine’s insight into human behavior serves him well.
“I think the most important Jewish profession is psychiatry,” said Levine. “When I started my work, my second client was a man named Robert Ramsay, who to this day remains one of my closest friends. The first week I was in practice, he printed up a business card for me that said, ‘Michael A. Levine, Psychiatrist at Law.’” If there’s any explanation to my success, it’s that I’m pretty nonjudgmental.”
A long journey
Born in Toronto during World War II, Levine felt the sting of prejudice while growing up in what was then a parochial, predominantly white, Protestant city.
“Toronto was still quite toxic with antisemitism,” said Levine. “As a young man, I was told the things I couldn’t do — the clubs I couldn’t belong to, the law firms I couldn’t join, and other restrictions. My determination was, I’m going to change this, I’m not going to live this way.”
At an early age, a cousin made a lasting impression on Levine. Allan Levine was a reform rabbi extremely active in the fight for Black civil rights in the United States. He was friends with Martin Luther King Jr., and they were arrested together during a protest march in Mississippi.
“Allan was a seminal figure for me,” said Levine. “The inspiration of this very liberal cousin combined with personally experiencing antisemitism affected my whole life.”
Levine attended the University of Toronto, where he received his BA in political science and economics in 1965 followed by a law degree three years later. He and his first wife then spent a year in Tanzania doing international aid work. After returning from Africa to Toronto, Levine’s interest in Canadian culture led him to the then-emerging field of entertainment law. He spent much of his career as a partner at Goodmans LLP, one of Canada’s top law firms.
Today, Levine is chairman of Westwood Creative Artists (WCA), Canada’s leading literary agency. His office in the historic Chelsea Shop building across the street from his alma mater’s main library is lined with shelves upon shelves of books by WCA clients. The agency represents 420 writers and also negotiates film, TV and multimedia rights for their intellectual properties.
Levine has initiated many Jewish-related projects including “A Coat of Many Colours: Two Centuries of Jewish Life in Canada,” a museum exhibition and companion book. Sponsored by his friend and client Charles Bronfman, the exhibition was shown at Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum in 1993.
Jewish statehood and Canadian colonization
Levine, who’s been to Israel eight times, first traveled there with Bronfman nearly 35 years ago.
“I found it diverse, complex, charming and safe in a kind of emotional safeness because I’m a student of history,” said Levine. “For example, I made a film with Barry Avrich based on Sir Martin Gilbert’s ‘Churchill and the Jews.’ Churchill was largely responsible for the creation of the State of Israel against the wishes of the British establishment. In my visits there, I’ve become very enamored of Israel.”
He credits his good health and boundless energy to regularly working out, playing tennis, and the satisfaction he derives from his work and family life — the children from their first marriages have provided Levine and his second wife with a combined 14 grandchildren.
Levine has a deep affinity for Canada’s Indigenous community, working with many of its writers, some of whom have become close personal friends, while drawing attention to the persecution First Nations, Metis and Inuit have suffered for centuries.
“In many ways, my values are strongly reflected in Indigenous values,” said Levine. “The indigenous storytelling history, the way they communicate, their attitude to the land, the way they forgive; when you study them, they’re brilliant. We as a nation in Canada missed it. We didn’t understand how valuable these people were.”
“We’ve been so tone-deaf to Indigenous values and how they were victims of colonization by a very arrogant group of people,” he added. “I’ve likened it to Hitler’s eugenics. We were the role models for apartheid. We were just as bad as the Nazis except we murdered the Indigenous people more slowly.”
Just ahead of the publishing of “The Cigar Factory,” Levine was hopeful it would be well received, citing as one reason the book’s protagonist, Isay Rottenberg — a compelling figure who showed great courage and resilience in standing up to the Nazis to keep his successful cigar factory in Germany open, and later in his fight for restitution of the facility after it was confiscated.
Equally captivating for Levine is how the book’s co-authors, both journalists, recount their journey of discovery about their heroic grandfather about whom they knew little at the outset. Levine likened the story of their quest to uncover Rottenberg’s life to a first-class mystery thriller.
In the process, they shine a light on Rottenberg’s family history, which Levine found intriguing as it introduced him to ancestors he wasn’t previously aware of.
“It gave me a much deeper sense of my identity,” said Levine. “My hope for the book is that it will acquaint my multiple cousins around the world with a piece of their heritage and act as a metaphor for other immigrant groups and their families dispersed around the globe. We all have lost roots and, sadly, so many people find themselves within a serious ethnic divide.”