In a sense, most of my playwriting life was devoted to
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, although after my first play,
"The Second Man," I had only one success with them—the
adaptation, which they commissioned me to do, of Jean
Giraudoux's "Amphitryon 38." In addition, they appeared in
one original play of mine, "Meteor," and two foreign
adaptations—"The Pirate," based on a play by the German
playwright Ludwig Fulda, and "I Know My Love," adapted from
Marcel Achard's Paris hit "Auprès de Ma Blonde." With the
Lunts, it was not easy to distinguish a hit from a failure,
because whatever they did attracted large audiences. Robert
Sherwood wrote a piece of doggerel that went "If you want a
play to run many a munt, get Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt."
On the road, of course, the Lunts could do no wrong;
business would be good for as long as they cared to tour.
"The Pirate" and "I Know My Love" gave me, and them, great
trouble; my adaptations of these plays didn't stack up. I
went to Paris in 1946 to see Achard's "Auprès de Ma Blonde."
The idea behind this play was a good one—that a very happy
married couple arouse envy and hatred in those around them,
even within their own families. Yvonne Printemps played the
lead. (I was struck by the disparity between our audience
and the French audience when I started to think about what I
would do with the first-act curtain line of Achard's play.
The husband's younger brother falls in love with the heroine
and commits suicide. When she hears the awful news, she
brings the curtain down with the line "O God, why didn't you
make me ugly?" I couldn't imagine a heroine's winning
sympathy with a line like that in America; it seemed a
little self-conscious.) Alexander Korda urged me to adapt
the play; the Theatre Guild got the Lunts for it. What
appealed to Lynn and Alfred was that the play took this
couple from youth to old age, and through the Second World
War. They saw in it a parallel to their own marriage. It ran
the gamut; the Lunts were eager to make the run. Alfred's
performance as the eighty-year-old Bostonian in "I Know My
Love" (I had shifted Achard's play to America) was
remarkable. I remember his walk across the stage during
which he glanced down at a telegram he was carrying without
interrupting his conversation with his son—it was uncannily
convincing. Alfred's details for his performances were often
like the observations of a great novelist. Peter Brook, who
directed the Lunts in the last play they did in New
York—Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "The Visit"—told me a wonderful
story about Alfred, who played a shopkeeper in a small
European town. In one scene, the shopkeeper, down and out,
is sitting on a bench in front of a railroad station. Alfred
asked Brook how it would be if, to convey his sorry state,
he took off one of his shoes and shook some pebbles out of
it. Brook said that that would be fine. After some thought,
Alfred asked, "How many pebbles do you think? Three? Four?"
Lynn told me that in one scene, where the wealthy woman she
played is sitting upstage and overhears a speech in which
the doomed shopkeeper tries to shield himself against the
encroaching suspicion that walls him in, Alfred was so
touching that she could hardly bear to listen to him.
"The Pirate" was a romantic satire set in a tropical realm.
It gave Alfred a chance to walk a tightrope into his lady's
chamber. The wife, Manuela, dreams of the exploits of the
romantic hero, a pirate who dominates the surrounding
waters; it turns out that her fat husband is the pirate. By
the time we got to Philadelphia with this play, the Lunts
and I were at an impasse with it. Sometimes Alfred and I
would battle over a line that I liked better than he did. He
would continue to say it, but he would misread it
intentionally, so that it fell flat. Then he would turn to
me and say, with impish triumph, "See? I told you it
Very few Americans return to their home towns to live after
they have made a great success in life, but Alfred did—to
the improbable habitat of Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, a
village not far from Milwaukee. In Genesee Depot, he and
Lynn have a farm. On one occasion, Alfred sent his mother,
Hattie, to Europe for a holiday. He saw her off on the Queen
Mary. Hattie had a look around the ship. She complained to
Alfred. "I don't see anyone here from the Depot," she said.
The Lunts' Genesee Depot house expresses Alfred and Lynn
entirely—their tastes, their histories. There are porcelain
stoves from Scandinavia, ceilings wonderfully painted by an
artist friend; on the piano, in glass, lies a huge cigar
given to Alfred by Winston Churchill; there is a set of
imaginative drawings made by Alfred for "Macbeth," a
photograph of him in "Meteor" looking very much like Jed
Harris. The only conventional room is the handsome and
up-to-the-minute kitchen, where Alfred experiments endlessly
with what has become his second art—cooking. It is a very
comfortable house to stay in. The meals are often gala, with
a constant obbligato of Lynn's stories and imitations of
Genesee Depot neighbors and of the titled ladies of London.
There are not in the world two people more self-sufficient
than Lynn and Alfred. It has been said of Lynn that by an
act of will she converted herself from a rather awkward,
though interesting-looking, young girl into one of the great
beauties of the stage.
Lynn Fontanne used to say, when I first began writing plays
for the Lunts, that it was really her husband I wrote for.
There may have been something in this, because I was
fascinated by Alfred's style and personality in the first
play I ever saw him in—a comedy called "Banco," which was an
adaptation from the French. He captivated me. He had total
command, not just physically but mentally. You saw his brain
digesting the lines and the situations and finding them
funny. There was glee in his voice, in his expression, in
his gestures. I went to see "Banco" time after time. I found
that Alfred changed his readings—that he changed his
performance—all the time, but that he never changed his
point of view, which was comedic. It was the comedy of
intelligence. He was not always amused by the same things,
so you got different facets at almost ever performance. I
felt that he was a creative actor, and that it would be an
easy step for him to play a creative artist, if you could
write such a part for him. In my first play, I wrote the
part of a writer whose intelligence far transcended his
talent. To get Alfred Lunt for it was a singular stroke of
luck. It was generally admitted by the critics and by the
public that in this play Alfred gave the greatest comedy
performance then visible.
The next play I wrote for him was "Meteor." Charles A.
Beard, in "The Rise of American Civilization," which I was
reading when I wrote this play, dilates on the extraordinary
profusion of millionaires who appeared in the years I was
writing about—the nineteen-twenties. The character was a
young man with "ghetto" vitality, from the meanest
background, who pinned a grandiose name on himself—Raphael
Lord—and persuaded himself that he had the gift of
clairvoyance. There are two actors who by coming onstage can
transmit the suggestion of genius. One is Alfred Lunt; the
other is Laurence Olivier. Ibsen, in "Hedda Gabler," keeps
telling you, through the mouths of his characters, that
Eilert Lövberg, he with the vine leaves in his hair, is a
genius, but Lövberg does nothing to support this claim. Of
all the characters in "Hedda Gabler," he is the dullest. You
feel nothing in Lövberg but mediocrity. Producers worry
about who is going to play Hedda. They should be worried
about who is going to play Lövberg. I have wondered how the
play would seem if Lövberg should be played by Lunt or
The first reading of "Meteor" took place at Ford's Theatre
in Baltimore. The reason for this was that the Lunts were in
the middle of an unusually successful tour in an adaptation
of a comedy by the Viennese playwright Sil-Vara called
"Caprice." After Baltimore, we followed "Caprice" to
Philadelphia and Boston. The "Meteor" rehearsal
tour—sandwiched between the performances of "Caprice"—was as
dolorous as the "Caprice" performances were lightsome. "They
won't like me in 'Meteor,' " said Alfred, referring in his
customary manner to the brigade of hostile critics who
dogged his efforts, its collective will made up in advance
to discredit him. He meant that they wouldn't like "Meteor,"
and here he was as prophetic as Raphael Lord, the character
whose peculiar obsession he was wrestling with every minute
he wasn't playing "Caprice," which "they" received
rapturously eight times a week. I was rewriting all the
time. I wrote reams in the hotel rooms of Baltimore,
Philadelphia, and Boston. There was one thing I was aware of
powerfully: that the climate of the time—the proliferation
of private fortunes, the vision of "success," meaning money
and power, that hung over everything like a canopy—made
Lynn's speeches, which I wrote expressing a humanitarian
point of view, sound prissy and abstract. They couldn't be
got right. One day after the Boston opening, which had been
well received, we were still rehearsing some scenes in the
beloved and now vanished Hollis Street Theatre. The
director, Philip Moeller, burst into tears. The rehearsal
had to be stopped. Afterward, Lawrence Langner, who, like
Moeller, was on the board of the Theatre Guild, said, "If
Phil hadn't broken down, Alfred would have. It was a good
On the day Phil Moeller broke down, I spent the evening in
my room rewriting, in the hope of sparing him other
breakdowns in the future. The Lunts rang me when they got to
the hotel after their performance. I went to their suite for
a light supper. Christmas and the New York opening were both
approaching. Lynn suggested that we take a walk up Beacon
Street to hear the carols. The three of us set out. It was a
mild evening; the Common was covered with snow, but the
streets were navigable. Beacon Street was a few minutes
away. We began to pass the wreath-hung houses; through the
windows we saw Christmas trees being festooned and lit. We
stopped in front of a hospitable window. "How enviable these
people are, with just Christmas and presents, and no play on
their hands!" Lynn said.
"I'd like to get my hands on some of those presents," Alfred
I misunderstood him.
Lynn corrected me. "Alfred means to wrap them," she said.
"He has a wonderful knack for wrapping presents."
We passed groups singing carols. Lynn and Alfred remarked
how much Beacon Street reminded them of London. We walked up
to the State House and then returned to Commonwealth Avenue.
On Commonwealth, Alfred stood still in the middle of the
sidewalk in front of a brightly lit brownstone. "What was
it—the exact point where Phil broke down?" he asked Lynn.
Lynn answered instantly. "It's in our second-act scene where
I say, 'There may be a lot of cant spoken in the name of
altruism. Just the same, there is such a thing as
Alfred picked it up. "'There may be, but I can't pretend to
feel it. Moreover, I see no need for it. I expect to make a
decent place of Ariandos—bathtubs and gardens—but I do it as
an economic measure. I do it because it will save me trouble
and insurrection in the future. I do it because it'll be
pleasanter for me to observe when I go clown there. Most of
all, I do it because it's a terrific job and I'm probably
the only man alive who could pull it off.'"
Lynn and Alfred had forgotten where they were, and were
rehearsing. I moved a bit away from them to give them a
sense of privacy.
Several passersby had joined me and stopped to listen. The
Lunts were so absorbed in each other's readings that they
didn't notice. Alfred was saying, "'Lenin's motive wasn't
altruism but revenge on the Czarists who shot his
brother—the first Utopian who knew how to handle machine
A burly man, alcoholized, in a muffler and with a soft felt
hat pulled down over his eyes, had come up beside me, and
stood listening. When Alfred mentioned Lenin, he began to
splutter. "Who is that guy?" he asked belligerently.
"A friend of mine," I said.
"Well, who is he to shoot his mouth off about the Abe
Lincoln of Russia He's a goddam reactionary!"
Lynn and Alfred didn't like irrelevant conversation while
they were rehearsing. Alfred shot me an imploring look. I
went up to them and suggested that their rooms might be
better for what they were doing. I walked the two
reactionaries toward their hotel.
A light snow had begun to fall. Great flakes were settling
on Lynn's fur coat. "Look at them," she said, showing off
the snowflakes on her sleeve. "How big they are. How soft
and perfect—like buttercups." But Alfred was still
ruminating over his immense plans for Ariandos.
When I got back to the hotel, I was given a message to call
Harold Freedman, my agent. He told me two pieces of news:
Guthrie McClintic, to whom he had given a comedy I had
written called "Brief Moment," wanted to produce and direct
it. Also, Winfield Sheehan, the production head of the Fox
Film Corporation, was in town and wished to sec me. He had a
film proposal that he thought would interest me. Fox had
bought Ferenc Molnár’s "Liliom" and wanted me to write the
screenplay. I asked Harold to make an appointment for me
with Mr. Sheehan two weeks later.
Going to sleep, I began to recall "Brief Moment." I had
written it in a long breath some months before. Unlike
"Meteor," "Brief Moment" presented no special problems: no
one in it had the faculty of clairvoyance or was bloated
with self-belief. Actually, the hero of "Brief Moment" felt
himself a failure. That was a chilling thought, too. I
prayed for sleep, but it eluded me.
Just seven years later, I set to work to adapt Giraudoux's
haunting play "Amphitryon 38" for the Lunts. "Amphitryon 38"
is an ideal comedy. Alkmena's husband, General Amphitryon,
whom she adores, is the square of all time, the essence of
squares. This play requires of the actress who plays Alkmena
the rarest of qualities: radiance. Miss Fontanne had it.
Like all good comedies, "Amphitryon" is in actuality a
tragic play, since comedy is the saving grace that makes
life bearable. A French dictionary beside me, I began.
Giraudoux arose on "une terrasse près
He is laconic; he doesn't say whose terrace, or whose
palace, and, as I had no equipment for furnishing such
places, I was equally laconic. But Alfred got an idea that
changed all that. Terraces in the vicinity of palaces seemed
dull to him, especially since, as Jupiter, be would he on at
the opening. "I want to go up with me and Mercury lying
naked on a cloud and watching Alkmena on earth from there,"
he said. I had never written an "At Rise" on a cloud before,
but when you are working for great stars you adapt yourself.
Besides, I thought it was a thrilling idea. I arose, as
follows, getting a lift myself from the elevation:
A cloud above Olympus. Jupiter and Mercury, his son, are
lounging comfortably on this cloud, their phosphorescent
eyes focussed for the moment on the domesticities of a
terrestrial couple, Alkmena and her husband, General
Amphitryon. Jupiter's long beard is a firework of golden
curls; otherwise he is naked, as is Mercury. They are
lying on their stomachs; they face the terrestrial
audience; their arms and faces are their own; their
backs, legs, and buttocks belong to the scenic designer.
The new "At Rise" necessitated a slight dialogue change
also. I had to improvise a bit for Mercury:
Jupiter, you astonish me. If you're in love with this
mortal, why don't you employ the facilities you have as
a god? Why waste an entire night, ravished with longing,
bouncing about on a cloud, catching at her shadow, when
you might so easily, with your ordinary god-sight, see
her as she is through the walls of her chamber?
We rehearsed "Amphitryon 38" in Chicago, in Baltimore, in
Boston, in Genesee Depot, and in London, where the Lunts
took the playwright Edward Knoblock's house in Cadogan
Square for the summer. They gave me the top floor, and we
rehearsed up there. You couldn't be with the Lunts without
rehearsing. Giraudoux would have been surprised at the
amount of time that was spent in reorchestrating the
harmonics of the dialogue scenes between the two of
them—making the tiniest capillary changes, recanalizing the
flow of the scenes. They had played together so much that
Alfred, who was very musical, knew exactly what he wanted:
the tone and the lift of every second, every diminuendo,
The opening was in San Francisco, and it was fun. I have
never enjoyed an out-of-town opening more. When the curtain
went up on the nude, recumbent gods, a wave of delight swept
over the audience. Alfred, with his long beard and golden
curls, looked like the master of the gods; had Jupiter
caught sight of him, I am sure he would have made up to look
like him. It was a gala evening. In the intermission, I
heard a décolletéed woman say to her companion, with a sigh
of deep satisfaction, "Well, everybody from Burlingame's
here tonight!" A few days later, the Lawrence Langners took
me to see the Eugene O'Neills, who were then living not far
away. I told them how cooperative our opening-night audience
had been. "Oh, yes," O'Neill said. "It's the best audience
in the world. They come to enjoy themselves. Singular
motive, isn't it?" He confronted Mr. and Mrs. Langner. "I
warn you. I don't care what it'll cost you, but from now on
you'll have to open all my plays in San Francisco."
The play opened in New York in November, 1937, at the
Shubert Theatre. Following a rule I had made ten years
before, I didn't go to the New York opening. Not going was
easy; I knew it couldn't come up to the San Francisco
opening. Still, I was told that the audience responded.
Giraudoux, who had a high post in the French Foreign Office,
was on a world tour in his official capacity. He was,
luckily, arriving the next day. I was to take him to the
theatre and introduce him to the Lunts. Giraudoux was tall
and lean, with a narrow face and keen eyes. He was courteous
but somehow formidable. His play had run for a year in
Paris, in a tiny theatre with a few hundred seats. At
eight-thirty on the second night, I walked him into the
auditorium of the Shubert, which was packed. I could see
that he was astonished by the vastness of the theater and by
the crowd. "It's a large room," he said. We stood at the
back and watched the stage for a few minutes. "Is there
another room upstairs?" he asked. I said there was indeed,
and walked him up to the balcony, also packed. I saw that he
couldn't resist the fascination of the packed, suspended
other room. I watched him. He edged cautiously down the
outer aisle till he came opposite the first row. From there
he could see both rooms and their occupants. He ran back up
the steps to rejoin me. He looked disturbed, tense, unhappy.
I asked him what was the matter. His English was not at the
ready. I wondered about this, because I knew that he had, in
his youth, been to Harvard. He asked me what I thought the
receipts at the theatre would come to for the week. I told
him twenty-four thousand dollars, which was capacity for the
Shubert at the price scale then. He looked horrified. He
computed it in francs. "Mais," he said, "c'est
astronomique, c'est . . ." It must have come to millions
in francs. It sounded like it; I had never heard so many
francs. He looked woebegone.
"But aren't you pleased?" I said.
He shook his head. "I shall have difficulty with my income
"But you can deduct this trip as an expense."
He shook his head, looking sadder than ever. He sighed.
"Unfortunately," he said, "my expenses are paid by the
Rehearsals of "The Second Man" in London were starting in
January of 1928—earlier than had been originally planned—and
I arranged to go over for a few months. "Dame" Nellie
Burton, with whom I had stayed when I first visited London,
wrote to tell me regretfully that she couldn't put me up at
40 Half Moon Street just then, because she was full up. The
same day, I got a call from Carl Brandt, the literary agent,
telling me that he had taken a charming little house in
Chester Terrace, in London, and that I would be welcome to
stay in it for my first ten days, since he would be
travelling on the Continent. He was going to London that
night. I was sailing on the Mauretania a week later. He had
to leave London for Berlin on the day of my arrival.
My last week in New York was crowded with casting ideas for
"Serena Blandish," which Jed Harris was producing. That week
was also a time of party-giving—even costume parties. I went
to one given by Mrs. Anna Heifetz, the mother of the
violinist Jascha Heifetz. I had been introduced to the
Heifetz family by my friend Samuel Chotzinoff, formerly
Heifetz's accompanist and by then music critic for the New
York World. The Heifetzes were an entrancing family.
The dominant figure was the mother, Anna. She was a large,
handsome woman, who had piloted the whole family to this
country from St. Petersburg. Jews had not been allowed to
live in St. Petersburg, but Mrs. Heifetz had got a special
dispensation for the family, because her son was enrolled in
the Imperial Conservatory—the star pupil of the famous
violin master Leopold Auer. Mrs. Heifetz's husband, Ruvin,
was a violinist, and had been Jascha's first teacher. He was
an unhappy character, in a perpetual state of resentment. He
disapproved of his daughters' using makeup. He objected to
his wife's spending money—unnecessarily, from his point of
view. He held the opinion that America didn't give enough
thought to the violin. He would stand in the wings at
Carnegie Hall and offer last-minute advice to his impassive
son: "Jaschinka, don't forget what I told you about the
second finger." Jascha had by then played innumerable
concerts in Russia, Europe, and America, and was an
One day, Jascha said to an American newspaperman, "I've made
my own living and supported my family from the time I was
six years old."
"I suppose," said the newspaperman, "that up to then you
were just a parasite."
Anna Heifetz was a remarkable woman—hardheaded, detached,
unsentimental, but full of humor and fun. When she dressed
up to go to a concert or to the opera, she looked like a
duchess, or the way a duchess might like to look. Her
daughters captivated the town. Pauline, as the elder, came
in for most of this attention. Alexander Woollcott was crazy
about Pauline's tawny complexion. Many young men strove to
take her out. She said afterward that they always took her
to prizefights and football games—things she was not really
much interested in. Eventually, Pauline married Samuel
Chotzinoff. Elza was three years younger than Pauline, and
some years later she and I were married.
At the Heifetz costume party, Jascha was a complete and
dashing Mexican officer, Alexander Woollcott a somewhat
excessive cardinal, Charles MacArthur a Paris taxi-driver,
George Gershwin an Italian diplomat, and Helen Hayes a
little schoolgirl, which she was. Josef Hofmann sat in a
corner telling lewd stories. Hofmann's licentiousness was
brought to Mrs. Heifetz's attention. She rose above it. "In
my house," she said, "an artist like Hofmann can speak what
he wants to speak."
In London, I arrived at 43 Chester Terrace just as Carl
Brandt was leaving it for his trip to Berlin. He introduced
me to Miss Abbott, a spinster of about fifty, who would do
for me. I should be, he assured her, much less trouble than
he was. I was quieter. Miss Abbott received this information
with a bobbing skepticism. I found myself alone in the
drawing room, in an armchair in front of the fireplace. It
was a tiny room, with a tiny fireplace, in what seemed to me
the tiniest house I had ever seen. The fire took itself very
seriously; it crackled and fumed as if its responsibilities
were too much for it. Outside of these flourishes, the house
was perfectly still. It was heaven. I don't think I have
ever been happier than I was during the days I spent in that
midget house. Miss Abbott was part of this perfection. She
never spoke; she bobbed and smiled. That first afternoon, I
called up my friend Siegfried Sassoon. There was no reply. I
thought I'd look in on Dame Nellie Burton to see if I could
find out about him. I was already so fond of this minuscule
house that I hated to leave it. On the sidewalk, I took in
Chester Terrace. All the houses on it were tiny, demure. I
became immediately unfaithful to my first love, Half Moon
Street. Nevertheless, I went there.
I found Miss Burton deep in conference with Mr. Fleming, the
Theosophist who rented the rear double. She gave me a
rapturous welcome, laced with lament at being unable to take
me in at this time. Mr. Fleming was reserved; he seemed more
lemony than ever. They asked about my play. When I said that
Noël Coward was to be in it, they were both enthusiastic.
Miss Burton said that she knew and admired Mr. Coward—that
he used to come often when Robbie—Robert Ross—was alive.
Siegfried? Miss Burton thought he had gone to Max Gate to be
with Thomas Hardy "at the end." Hardy had caught a chill a
month before and was dying. The moment of gravity was not
allowed to settle. Miss Burton swept it away in personal
gossip. She had been to an astrologer, a marvelous
diviner—Miss Victoria Sadee. The understanding, the
penetration, of that woman was beyond belief. On Miss
Burton's first visit—imagine, her first—Miss Sadee
had said right out, "Though you are mother to many, you have
"Mr. Fleming could 'ardly believe it when I told him—is it
not so, Edward?" Miss Burton said. Mr. Fleming admitted that
it had seemed to him remarkable. I indicated that I was
myself quite impressed. Miss Burton went on, "The wisdom of
that woman. 'Though you have lived with many men,' she said,
'you are not immoral.' Truer word was never spoken. I asked
'er advice: Should I marry Siegfried? Should I marry Osbert
Sitwell? She advised against it. She was firm. 'You are not
meant,' she said, 'for double 'arness.' While she was sayin'
it, I knew it was the truth. In single 'arness I shall
remain!" Burton crossed her arms and stared defiantly at me
to convey that this was her last word on the subject and to
impress upon me the fact that I must never reopen it, in
case I should be tempted to ignite false hopes in Siegfried
A maid came in to announce that her mistress was wanted on
the telephone. Miss Burton rose at once. "Wouldn't it be a
lark if it was Siegfried?" she said to me as she left the
I was alone with Mr. Fleming. He said nothing; neither did
I. We sat, congealed in silence. I finally ventured a sally.
"Do you know Chester Terrace," I asked, "where I am now
"Only by reputation," said Mr. Fleming charily.
I didn't know what to think. Had Carl Brandt been sold a den
of iniquity? It couldn't be. That dear little street, those
chaste little houses.
Miss Burton returned. She was all smiles. "It is Siegfried,"
she said. "'E 'ad a feeling 'e'd find you 'ere. 'E wants to
speak to you. You remember the phone?"
I did indeed. Siegfried sounded very far away. He was at Max
Gate. As Miss Burton had said, Thomas Hardy was very ill. I
gave him my address and telephone number. He didn't know
when he'd he returning to London. It depended on Mrs. Hardy.
His voice was shadowed, faint. He hung up abruptly.
I returned to the parlor. Miss Burton was triumphant. "'E
was just syin' to me, 'Do you by any chance know—' I said,
'I more than know. 'E's right 'ere.' It was simple as that!"
I invited Miss Burton and Mr. Fleming to my first night, and
got away with becoming speed. Back at 43 Chester Terrace, I
telephoned Noël. He wanted me to come to the Playhouse
Theatre at ten-thirty the next morning to meet the company.
The next morning, at the Playhouse Theatre, I met the
company: Miss Zena Dare, Miss Ursula Jeans, Mr. Raymond
Massey, and Mr. Basil Dean, the producer and director. Noël
was in great form. He'd been, the night before, to the
pantomime, and he did an imitation of Miss Florrie Ford, the
"principal boy." He described her—beyond middle age,
corpulent, and with a garish voice and a garish smile. He
became Miss Ford; he became the principal boy. He sang Miss
Ford's song: "If your fyce wants to smile, well, let it."
Miss Ford's smile was cosmic. Noël "let it" amply before all
of us. Basil Dean had to exert authority to get his little
company going on the reading of the play. I was struck by
the fact that there was no aspect of the theatre that didn't
vitally interest Noël. Anything theatrical engrossed him—Florrie
Ford and the pantomime as much as Shaw or Shakespeare.
I went out front to listen to the first reading. They went
so lickety-split in some of the dialogue that I couldn't
understand them; it was like listening to a play in a
foreign language. Noël must have felt this, because he
called out to me, "We're probably going too fast for you,
but don't worry about the tempo! Our audience will
understand us!" The third act began with Noël, as the
writer, reading some pages he had just written, crushing
them, and throwing them in the wastebasket while he
stigmatized them: "Trash, trash, trash!" After he'd read
this line, he confided to us, "Don't be surprised if there's
a little burst of applause when I say that." Noël was
referring to the fact that the last two plays of his own had
been booed; they had both been disastrous failures.
Presently, the first reading was over. I went to lunch with
Noël and Mr. Dean.
As my diary tells me, the most serious problem was finding a
place to rehearse in that was not too cold. Once, we
rehearsed in a shabby series of rooms over a vegetarian
restaurant. Nothing fazed Noël. He went through that
rehearsal with care and precision, as if the circumstances
were idyllic. I invited him over to Chester Terrace
afterward. I was sure Miss Abbott would provide a cup of
tea. On the way, he began questioning me rather seriously
about my origins and early background. Was my family rich? I
told Noël all—my impoverished childhood in Worcester,
Massachusetts; my father's little grocery store—and it
seemed to provide him with a certain satisfaction. "So you
came from the wrong side of the tracks, too?" he said. "With
no help from anyone? Good!" I felt that if Noël had found
out that my circumstances had been comfortable he would have
been quite disappointed.
We sat before the fire talking shop. I asked Noël whether he
knew the author of "Serena Blandish." I'd had a letter from
her in which she said nice things about my dramatization.
"Enid Bagnold," he said. "Indeed do. Enchanting creature.
You will fall in love with her. She is, unfortunately, at
the moment in love with Jed Harris. He went out to the
country and read your play aloud to her. He's a very good
actor, and the reading did the trick. She's on the hook."
"Well, it's not surprising. Jed has great charm when he
wants to exert it."
"No, not a bit surprising. But mark my words. It'll be the
usual process—first the fever, then the rash."
"Have you quarrelled with Jed?" I asked.
"Not at all. We just don't speak to each other. The truth
is, you know, I am harder and more sophisticated than Jed."
"Does he suspect it?"
"I don't think so. What he is bound to learn is that I can
go all the way from winsome to determined without change of
With his unfailing instinct for an exit line, Noël departed,
leaving me laughing.
Thomas Hardy died on January 11th, a Wednesday, and I spent
the weekend reading the tributes to Hardy in the London
papers. On Saturday, I got a telegram from Siegfried asking
me to meet him at the Reform Club for dinner on Sunday
night. He was changed—thinner and with a look in his eyes
that showed a heightened awareness of the pain of life.
Siegfried explained to me that he'd stayed on at Max Gate
because Mrs. Hardy had asked him to. She would be busy now
with the arrangements for Hardy's funeral, in Westminster
Abbey. He described Hardy's last day, his last hours: how
Siegfried and Mrs. Hardy had taken turns at reading poetry
aloud to him—Browning and Fitzgerald and de la Mare. Hardy's
interest in poetry and literature was unflagging to the end;
shortly before he died, he insisted on sending his check for
dues to the Society of Authors. It was his last chore.
I asked Siegfried how his work was going. He had a poem in
the current London Mercury, he said. Had I seen it?
He would send it to me. I felt that he was under a great
strain, and he told me he had been finding it a terrific
struggle to work, to achieve the solitude necessary for
working. There were, he said, categories of people who lived
for fun. They kept urging him to share their excursions, but
he always refused, and often with nothing to show for it. He
had begun to wonder whether his way of life was not
We were sitting in the club library now. It was very still.
He went on about the terrific struggle within him—to get
"It's what you want," I said. "You'll get it done."
He began to talk about me. "You can become a first-rate
comedy writer—which the world needs—but can you do it with
everybody tearing at you?" He warned me to hoard my time and
my energy—to put it into my work. I was touched and
flattered that he took me so seriously. I responded by
telling him that nothing could prevent his becoming—he
already was—a Name in English poetry. When we parted, I
think we both felt better.
"I've wanted to have this talk with you," he said.
"So have I."
We shook hands on it.
The next day, I went to tea at Hyde Park Gate with Enid
Bagnold. She was in bed, convalescing from an illness. I met
her husband, Sir Roderick Jones, the head of Reuters. Jones
apologized for being there, and said he wouldn't stay. I
tried to make him feel he was not an intruder. Miss Bagnold
wondered how I had come upon her book. I couldn't really
remember, but it had delighted me, so I hadn't been able to
keep my hands off it. I asked her why she hadn't put her
name on it. She said that her father was an Army officer,
retired, and that he had objected to her publishing it; he
was fearful of its effect on the British Army, and even on
Reuters. Jones interjected that he had thought Reuters could
survive it but that his father-m-law hadn't thought so.
Simultaneously with the book, she had started a baby; they
were both finished at the same time. "It was nice to produce
something that I could claim publicly," she said. But it had
also amused her to publish her book anonymously. It was fun
to go to dinner parties and hear her book discussed, with no
one suspecting that the author was sitting right there. H.
G. Wells, who knew the original of Serena, had said that the
trouble with the universe was that there weren't more girls
like Serena in it. At this point, Jones left, saying that he
and his wife were giving a lunch party for me and that we
would therefore meet soon again. Enid, relaxed, told me that
she was completely fascinated by the theatre—that, reading
plays, she actually counted the words on each page to help
catch on to the trick of how playwriting was done. She asked
me whom I'd like to meet at their luncheon party. As a kind
of joke, I recited a list of the great figures in English
literature. We fixed on a place—Sovrani's, a new restaurant
on Jermyn Street. The date was to be the day after my
I began receiving, almost daily, books, novels, and plays
from Elizabeth Bibesco. She was the daughter of Herbert
Asquith, the recent Prime Minister, and was married to
Prince Antoine Bibesco, a Rumanian diplomat. I saw a good
deal of the Bibescos. In later life, I have come to rail
against my ignorance; instead of talking to Bibesco about
plays and movie sales, I should have questioned him about
Marcel Proust, who was a close friend of his. I now have a
handsome edition of Bibesco's correspondence with Proust.
But I was plunged too abruptly into this complex and
sophisticated society. I didn't really know anything about
it; I skated along on thin ice as well as I could. Bibesco
used to come to see me and question me endlessly about the
theatre situation in New York. Once, he asked to read "The
Second Man;" I gave it to him. He asked me whether I would
allow him to make a French adaptation; I said I would. He
was excited and happy, but I felt somehow that I would never
read his adaptation, and I never have. Elizabeth Bibesco was
a wonderful talker and a prolific writer. She talked to me
about the arts; about her girlhood, which she spent
conversing with Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell; and
about American politics, about which she knew a great deal.
"My father," she said once, "is very knowledgeable about the
political situation in Ohio." I always felt a deep malaise
in her; her writing and the fluctuations in her brilliant
and esoteric conversation seemed to lead everywhere but to
self-satisfaction. She took me to dinner at the Savoy once
with her mother, Margot, and her brother Anthony (Puffin),
later the famous film director. I had read Margot's memoirs
in America. She was very pleased that I knew them. Her voice
was soft. She had great natural dignity. Puffin had it, too.
It was only in Elizabeth that I felt pursuit by the Furies.
Elizabeth's kindness was immeasurable; one wished that she
could share in it.
Siegfried gave my social life a steep turn to the left by
taking me to Harold Laski's. Professor Laski lived in a
modest little house in Fulham. It was a gloomy day, but the
gloom was dissipated by Professor Laski's high humor. He was
very fond of Siegfried and had given him lifts in his effort
to find occupations that took more time than writing poetry.
Professor Laski had been in correspondence with Oliver
Wendell Holmes for many years. Mrs. Laski teased him about
it. Smiling, she said to Siegfried and me, "You should see
him when he gets a letter from Justice Holmes. He runs
upstairs into his room with it and shuts the door. He's like
an undergraduate who's just got a letter from his
Laski, to whom pupils came from all over the world (John F.
Kennedy was one of them), started off by telling me about a
countryman of mine. He had him to dinner, and after dinner
they went into the parlor where we I were now sitting.
"Professor Laski, how do you live?" the American had asked.
"Well, you've had dinner, haven't you? Didn't you have
enough?" Laski had replied. He explained to me, "But that's
not what he meant. The son of a great millionaire, he simply
couldn't take in the scale—the house, the absence of
servants, the general penury." Laski was very funny about
He asked Siegfried how he was getting along at the Daily
Herald, where he was literary editor. Laski took an
incisive interest in everything. He later asked Siegfried to
tell us about Hardy's funeral, in the Abbey. Siegfried said
that what he found unforgettable was a meeting between
Kipling and Bernard Shaw, who hated each other. Owing to an
uncertainty about the seating arrangements, they found
themselves facing each other. The person in charge ventured
an introduction. Kipling’s face was purple. He looked at
Shaw with aversion. Still, he was being introduced. "How do
you do, sir?" Kipling managed to sputter out, as if he were
greeting Lucifer. "How do you do, sir?" Shaw replied
Laski was delighted. He went into a brilliant disquisition
on Shaw and Kipling, the Boer War, India, Little England and
Big England—the kind of spiral for which the Professor at
the London School of Economics was famous.
Carl Brandt returned, and I moved to the Park Lane Hotel.
The opening night was January 24th. Carl took me to the
Garrick Club for dinner; then we went to the Playhouse. We
stood at the railing at the back of the orchestra. Carl kept
rattling the change in his pocket. This was an irritation;
it seemed to be in unfair competition with the dialogue. But
things went well, and there was enthusiastic applause at the
end, especially for Noël. I had had a telegram from him
earlier. It read, "Things transcendentally jake. All the
best, Noël." They seemed sufficiently jake at curtain time.
Carl and I went backstage to Noël’s dressing room and
witnessed a minor, controlled spat between him and Tallulah
Bankhead. The notices next morning were satisfactory.
My daybook said, "1:00 P.M., lunch Sovrani's—Sir Roderick
and Lady Jones." When I read this, my heart sank. Why
today—the very day after my opening? How Siegfried would
disapprove. Why did I have to make a lunch appointment for
today? It was characteristic of me, and, having passed
sentence, I appeared at Sovrani's at one. In the foyer I saw
Jones and Enid with a group of about fourteen people. It was
a dreadful moment for me when I realized that Enid had taken
seriously my satiric suggestion that she invite a roster of
stars. I was presented to Arnold Bennett. It was a relief to
meet him. I was fascinated by his seignorial manner of
dress. I was reassured by his good humor, and by his
stutter. Siegfried had given me an instance of its
effectiveness. Bennett had been at a literary evening that
included Aldous Huxley and Hilaire Belloc. They were
discussing a female novelist whose success was stupendous.
They left her not an inch of space to stand on. They
comminuted her on the grounds of psychology, structure, bad
taste, and pretentiousness. They all had their say,
eloquently and in detail. When they were through, Bennett,
who had not uttered a word, said, "I'll tell you the trouble
with that woman. She c-c-c-can't write!"
Bennett now said, "I saw your play last night. The first act
was all right, but then we both know it isn't hard to write
a good first act. The second I thought fell off a bit, and I
was q-q-q-quite p-p-p-pleased. But the third came back a bit
and I was quite a-a-a-annoyed."
I prayed that I would be sitting next to him, and I was. I
knew that he had been on a yachting trip with Otto Kahn in
the Greek islands. I asked him how that was. He told me,
stuttering, "Well, you know, the minute the party got on
board, Mr. Kahn and three others went below and started a
bridge game. I don't play, so I was left to my own devices,
which I didn't mind much. The next morning, it was
beautiful. I went on deck. We approached an island. I asked
the captain what it was. He said Ithaca. My heart missed a
beat. There was nobody to look at it. I made my way below.
There they were, playing bridge. 'Gentlemen,' I said, 'we
are approaching Ithaca!' Mr. Kahn looked up at me for a
moment—only a moment—then back to his hand. 'I double,' he
During lunch, Bennett and I talked mainly about the theatre.
Bennett had finished a play about Don Juan. He thought it
the best play he had ever written; he couldn't understand
the difficulty he had in placing it. He said he would like
me to read it. "What people don't seem to understand is that
my Don Juan isn't just a chippy-chaser," he went on. "He
represents the search for the ideal woman, the perfect
woman." For the rest of the lunch, we talked agreeably of
this and that. About Siegfried—Bennett loved him. Bennett
spoke of his wonderful talent, of his courage and
gentleness. Yes, he would rate Siegfried high among his
favorites. It was a lifesaver to me to have Bennett beside
me. I arranged to read his play. He invited me to Cadogan
Square, where he was living with Dorothy Cheston, whom he
could not marry, because his first wife would not give him a
divorce. Miss Cheston, he told me, was a very fine actress.
I have never been more taken with a man than I was with
Arnold Bennett. There was great kindness there, enormous
good will, enormous charm and common sense. There was also
something very touching—a fatigue in his eyes, a sense that,
successful though he was, he was still aware of not having
the upper hand in life. I was to see a lot of Bennett during
the rest of my stay. I soon went to Cadogan Square to lunch,
and met Miss Cheston. She was strikingly handsome, but I got
from her the sense, which I often get from actresses, that
she felt herself the center of interest. She talked all the
time; Bennett, whom I had come to see and hear, said very
little. She talked mainly about a play in which she had
appeared that fall (Bennett had financed it), about the
difficulties of it, in rehearsal and in production, and how
she had, by will, determination, and natural skill, brought
it off. In summation, she said, "I got the notices." In a
tired echo, I heard Bennett repeat, "Yes, she got the
notices." To this day, when I think of Arnold Bennett, I
hear that tired echo: "Yes, she got the notices."
One thing that impressed me on this visit to London was the
difference between New York and London in what you might
call the cultural and social position of the theatre. During
the run of "The Second Man," it seemed to me that the
actors' dressing rooms were, after each performance, lively
and entertaining social centers, where you could meet the
most brilliant figures in London society. The actors were
casual and accustomed hosts. Of course, Noël was rapidly
becoming something of a social star himself. He rose on one
occasion to the defense of Sibyl Colefax, accused of being a
lion-hunter. "I think it's quite marvellous that Sibyl fills
her house with artists instead of stuffing it with dull
dukes and duchesses," he said. Nevertheless, there were more
of the latter stuffing Noël's dressing room than of the
former. The actors themselves "belonged." Zena Dare, who
played Lynn's part in the play, was the daughter-in-law of
Viscount Esher. Harold Laski had told me about him. Esher,
he said, was a man of very great ability, and had probably
been closer than anyone else, as friend and adviser, to King
Edward VII. Raymond Massey was the younger brother of
Vincent Massey, who later became Governor General of Canada.
Ursula Jeans was very pretty and charming, and didn't need
relatives, though she probably had some. I invited Harold
Laski to the play one night, and looked for him in the lobby
in the intermission. He was talking to two tall and assured
men in white tie; he presented me to one lord and the other.
I didn't catch their names. They continued their
conversation. Finally, Laski, probably feeling that I was
being unduly left out, said to his friends, "Mr. Behrman
wrote the play you are watching." One of them looked down at
me from his great height and said, in the friendliest voice,
"I don't believe it." I recovered from this blow
sufficiently to go back to see Noël after the performance.
In fact, I repeated the incident to Noël and his friends.
Noël said, "Lord Whoever's skepticism is quite justified. I
have a letter from a Miss Burroughs telling me that she
knows perfectly well that I wrote the play mistakenly
attributed to you. Quite ingenious." He picked up the letter
and read from it. "'I think you did well not to put your
name on it. After the reception of your last two plays, you
didn't want to risk another under your own name.'" He put
the letter back. "I quite agree with her, don't you? It was
clever of me."
We all enjoyed this, and went on talking. A very pleasant,
ruddy-faced, bald middle-aged man came in, accompanied by
three ladies. There was a tremor of deference (at least, I
thought so), but the newcomer put up a restraining hand (at
least, I thought so). Noël poured drinks for the new guests.
The genial stranger plunged into a story about his
grandmother. While he was at Eton, he had written to his
grandmother asking whether she could please send him five
pounds for Christmas. He got a peppery letter telling him
that he was developing rather expensive tastes. He wrote
back and said, "Dear Granny, Please don't bother at all
about the five pounds, because I've sold your letter to
another boy for seven pounds." This seemed to go well with
everybody, but I couldn't understand it. The gentleman went
on illustrious names cropped up in his conversation.
Everybody seemed to hang on his words. Finally, he left, and
I, for one, was rather pleased.
I said to Noël, "Who is that man? He seems to be well
At this, I thought Noël would have a paroxysm. "Oh, my God!"
he cried. "Well connected! It's Prince Arthur of Connaught!
Queen Victoria was his grandmother."
Thanks to my friend John Balderston, the London
correspondent of the New York World, this gaffe of
mine received international circulation.
I was going home in a few days, and Siegfried wanted me to
meet his mother. The day before I sailed, we drove down to
Weirleigh. We talked in the car about Arnold Bennett.
Siegfried adored him; he said that to help a friend Bennett,
busy as he was, would set aside anything he was doing. I
told Siegfried I felt a deep malaise in Bennett. Siegfried
had felt it, too. The yachts and the complicated frilled
evening shirts, he felt, had perhaps been too much for him.
"Isn't it sad that writers who in their youth break their
backs to escape the bourgeoisie end up by imitating them?"
he said. "At least, the wealthy ones." I thought of examples
of this at home. We brooded over it.
Siegfried began to talk to me about his mother. She was a
Thornycroft—a member of a family famous in English history
for achievements in the arts and in government. Her brother
Hamo Thornycroft was an eminent sculptor. Siegfried visited
him often and was devoted to him. Next time I came, he would
take me to see him. I asked Siegfried about his father.
Siegfried had known him, but not for long. The marriage to
his mother had broken up early. His father, who died soon
after the breakup, had been a vague, exotic figure to him.
His father's father, who came from Bombay, had been a great
friend of Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales. Siegfried
was deeply conscious of his dual heritage: the Thornycrofts
and the Sassoons.
Weirleigh was an enchanting sixteenth-century village. "You
should see it in the summertime," Siegfried said. Mrs.
Sassoon was sympathetic and gracious. She was very quiet,
but one felt reserves of strength in her. She had always
wished me to come, she said, ever since Siegfried wrote to
her about me from New York. We sat before the fire in the
large, beautifully furnished living room. I wondered how a
room could manage to be at the same time cozy and soberly
distinguished. I took it in at leisure. Here was
tranquillity. I wondered what it must he like to be born in
a house like this, in a village like this, and grow up in
it. How could you fail to be a poet? I said this to
"It's in my own room that I did my poetry," he said. "Come—I
want to show it to you."
I followed him down a narrow, curved passageway into his
simply furnished bedroom. On the desk were neat piles of his
poems, written out in his beautiful handwriting and dated.
There were copies of all his published works, including the
little red volume of his "War Poems"—a copy of which he had
given me in New York—with, on the title page, a list of all
the places where he had given readings. He talked of how he
had come to write one of his war poems. "It was a night in
April that a strange thing happened to me," he said. "I
didn't want to go to bed. I was too restless, but there was
nothing else to do. I had done no work that day—just idled
it away—and that depressed me. Then the odd occurrence—I
heard 'Everyone Sang.' I sat down at that desk and wrote
it out—as if from dictation. It is the most widely
anthologized of my poems."
I knew the poem—a jubilation for the end of the First World
War. Siegfried, rapt, was reciting from memory:
"Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was fill'd with such delight
As prison'd birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of
"Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away. . . O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will
never be done."
When he'd finished, he said, "Just like that. I wrote it
down like that and never changed a word of it."
We were called into the dining room. Dinner was rather a
trial. Siegfried had become very abstracted. I thought he
was still hearing his poem—or was he listening to a new one?
Mrs. Sassoon seemed to be interested in our New York days,
and I told her something about them. While I was talking,
Siegfried's face grew darker and darker. I felt a tension
between him and his mother—the tension of great love with
I asked Mrs. Sassoon whether she knew Burton.
"Indeed I do," she said, "I dote on her. Such a refreshing
personality, don't you think?"
Dinner ended, finally. At ten o'clock, we left. Mrs. Sassoon
asked me please to come again when I returned to England.
Actually, I felt—I don't know what gave me the feeling—that
this particular visit was not successful.
In the car on the way back to London, Siegfried's dark mood
intensified. "Mother liked you very much," he said. "She
made me promise to bring you back."
"I don't feel it was a successful visit," I said. "It seems
to have depressed you."
"It's all those New York stories."
"They remind me of something that you don't know—that I've
never told you."
He didn't answer. He was driving. His eyes were intently on
the road, though there was little traffic.
His answer, when finally it came, startled me. "Edna
Millay," he said. "You remember my meeting with Edna
"Of course," I said. "At her play."
"Yes, but, you know, I saw her several times after that."
"I know you enjoyed seeing her."
"I did. I liked her very much."
My mind raced. What could have happened?
There was an immense interval before Siegfried said anything
more. We were approaching London. Siegfried went on, "A
friend of mine told me. . . . Someone was praising my war
poems—perhaps excessively. Miss Millay said, 'Yes, yes, I
agree. But I wonder whether he would have cared so much if
it were a thousand virgins who had been slaughtered.'"
"I don't believe she said it."
"She did." There was a pause. His cheek muscles were
twitching. He was suffering. "What's the use?" he said.
"What can one do?"
Did he mean against the concentrated malice and venom of the
world? Of even a fellow-poet—a nice creature like Edna
"It couldn't have meant much to you, or you'd have told me,"
I got out at last.
"It meant so much to me that I didn't tell you. It all came
back while you were telling those stories at dinner."
We drew up before the Park Lane.
"I'll call you in the morning," he said. "Good night."
"Good night, Siegfried," I said.
He shook my hand. My heart ached for him.
I went upstairs to my room. I sat on the bed thinking of
him. Everyone sang, I thought, except the poet.
A year or so later, after various delays, "Serena" finally
went into rehearsal, and then we all embarked for
Philadelphia, where we were to open at the Broad Street
Theatre. I don't think that ever again, for me, was the
offstage scenario to be so intense, so complicated, and so
unsolvable as it was in this production. It was a boundless
vortex of misunderstandings, which engendered lifelong
enmities. The end result was a succès
category that fits George Kaufman's famous definition of
satire: something that closes on Saturday night. Though it
was written about beautifully by Brooks Atkinson in the
Times, "Serena" was not a success. The preliminaries,
before we left for Philadelphia, were pleasant. Jed had
engaged David Burton to direct, and the cast was
superlative. I enjoyed very much talking with Constance
Collier. She was looked up to by most actresses as the high
priestess of stage deportment and speech. She knew everybody
in London and Hollywood. Had I then been aware that she had
once been engaged to marry Max Beerbohm, I should certainly
have pursued her more assiduously. But I found that out only
much later. When, eventually, I came to write about Max, I
asked Constance what had happened to their engagement. She
said, "Oh, well, the manager sent me on tour with a very
handsome leading man, and you know how things are in
It was then the custom of the Times to print one
out-of-town review of an incoming show. For Philadelphia,
the Times used the Inquirer, and George
Kaufman, who was then drama editor of the Times, had
no choice but to print the Inquirer's review of
"Serena." It was unfavorable; the other reviews were good.
That George should print the one unfavorable review made Jed
furious, and, in a frenzy of anger, he wrote George a
shaming letter attacking his domestic life. George,
understandably, never forgave Jed for this. Many years
later, embroiled with a pair of musical-comedy producers who
were famous and successful, he described them to me as "Jed
Harris rolled into one."
The antagonist who handled Jed better than anybody else was
the English actor A. E. Matthews. He was well established in
London as a high comedian; he had been playing assured
English gentlemen for so many years that he had come to
believe himself to be one—indeed, he behaved like one. For
"Serena," he had been engaged to play an imperturbable
English butler. Uncomfortable in the part, he wanted to give
it up. Jed decided to take him in hand, and began to coach
him. "Just what Shakespeare did for Burbage," he told Matty.
Matty never contradicted Jed; he simply ignored him. I had
the feeling that somewhere in the back of his mind Matty
wondered why he, who had been so many top-drawer Englishmen,
should pay much attention to Jed, manifestly non-U. One day,
Jed, his temper already exacerbated by George Kaufman, let
go at Matty. In front of the whole company, gathered on the
stage, Jed began to denounce him. Matty looked at Jed in
wonderment for a moment, trying to figure out whom he was
denouncing and what he was so excited about. Then he took up
his walking stick and began an elaborate game of golf to
pass the time. Matty took so much care with his shots that
we began to share his anxiety about the outcome of the game.
Jed lost his audience. The stage of the Broad Street Theatre
was a very large one. Matty played himself off it into the
wings. We watched till his final putt, which was impeccable.
When he came back on-stage, modestly satisfied, he got a
spontaneous hand from the rest of us. Jed remembered then
that he had engaged David Burton to direct the play. He
motioned Burton back on the stage and left the theatre.
By the time we got to New York, the mythology of grievance
had proliferated in the company. Constance Collier said that
Jed had called her at her apartment just as she was leaving
for the first performance at the Morosco Theatre to tell her
that she was playing the part all wrong and that she had no
equipment for it in the first place. Whether Jed had or
hadn't, he had created an atmosphere in which Constance felt
he might have said anything. L'affaire Collier took
precedence over any such trivial matter as whether the play
had got over—which, actually, it never did. It was as if a
rivalry had developed in the company (which was large) to
see who had suffered the most scarifying wound. I feel that
Constance's first-night story gave her the happy conviction
that she was well ahead. I have often thought that the
rivalry kept Jed alive, too. He was, obviously, intensely
One agreeable memory of this play lingers. We were lucky
enough to get the ideal actor to play the part of Lord Ivor
Cream. This was Henry Daniell. He had the most extraordinary
good looks and a naturally melancholy temperament, which
perfectly suited him to play this disillusioned character.
Several times during the New York run, I dropped in at the
Morosco to catch the seduction scene between Ruth Gordon and
Henry Daniell. On one of these occasions, I ran into Noël
Coward, who said that it was the most beautifully staged and
acted scene he had ever seen.
At the time I wrote "Serena Blandish," I was far too
inexperienced to see the enormous, insurmountable
difficulties that the play presented. The Guild, far
shrewder, did see them, and rejected it. Jed Harris, in the
full tide of success, could not imagine that anything he did
would fail; this is a form of lack of imagination that must
he acquired early by anyone who consigns his life to the
theatre. Jed was attracted by the strangeness of the play
and by the fact that the role of Serena seemed to him to
offer an opportunity for Ruth Gordon. I was beguiled by the
vivacity and humor with which the novel was written. Many
years later, my agent, Harold Freedman, told me that he was
sitting beside Gilbert Miller at the opening performance of
my play "Biography" in Princeton. At one point, Miller
whispered to him, "I fed the cloven hoof of literature
here." The cloven hoof was all over "Serena." Maybe that is
why it failed. When I went backstage to see Constance
Collier after the Philadelphia opening, the room was full of
her friends and thick with an atmosphere of euphoria.
Constance embraced inc. "You realize, don't you, that you
have a world success!" I didn't know about the world; what
worried me was New York. I felt that at no point had the
play seized the audience. I went home and to bed, depressed.
From the moment "The Second Man" was produced, I began
getting urgent invitations to come to Hollywood. The
Industry, as it was called, was going through a
revolutionary change—from silence to sound. Soon there would
be great billboards all over Hollywood blazoning an
eccentricity of Greta Garbo's: "GARBO TALKS." The revolution
had a frightening effect on the bosses, including Winfield
Sheehan, the production head of Fox. Sheehan had first tried
to entice me out West by offering me the popular novel
"Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" to work on. I turned the offer
down. Sheehan thought this improvident of me, because the
plan at the time was for Rebecca to be played by his big
star Janet Gaynor. Now he was after me to transfer to the
screen Ferenc Molnár's "Liliom," a play of considerable
quality, which had been a great success at the Theatre
Guild. It later served Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
as the inspiration for their great musical success
"Carousel." Moreover, Winnie had told Harold Freedman that
he wished me to sign a six-month contract then and there, at
a salary of twelve hundred and fifty dollars a week, or he
would get someone else. I was in a strangulatory dilemma. I
had, up to then, tried to follow Bernard Shaw's advice to
young playwrights: "Build up your repertory." That meant,
"Go on writing plays, and don't be diverted by brummagem
side offers. If you write one good play, it will help
support you in your old age." A few years ago, forty years
after the play was first produced, I got a check for eight
hundred dollars for a tour of "The Second Man" in Finland. I
now realize the soundness of Shaw's advice, but to adhere to
it required two qualities, in both of which I was
deficient—courage and self-belief. At that time, all I knew
was that I had written several plays, of which only "The
Second Man" had been successful. In a time of drought, it is
scarcely possible to imagine a time of efflorescence.
I consulted a friend of mine, the playwright Arthur Richman,
who had had much experience of Hollywood. He told me that a
six-month offer was merely an introductory offer, and that I
could never get through in six months—that I might consider
that I was through but no one would agree with me. He told
me to put a heavy price on overtime. I spoke to Freedman
about it, and he added to the contract a provision that I
was to get two thousand dollars a week for time required
beyond the six months. Richman said, "They'll be happier
with you at two thousand than at twelve-fifty. They don't
really believe that a writer they can get for twelve-fifty
can be much good."
The night before my crucial lunch appointment with Sheehan,
I couldn't sleep; I was racked by indecision. Should I make
this change? There was the money. I hadn't made much money
out of "The Second Man;" the Lunts had stayed in it only
seven weeks. The receipts for the rest of that summer were
greatly reduced; the house was usually full of cut-rate
tickets. The few hours of an opening night could demolish
years of work. It was quite possible—in fact, it was quite
likely—that I would never write another successful play.
Here was Winnie Sheehan offering me a trip to the Coast. I
loved trains. I loved travel. Frederick Jackson Turner's
book "The Frontier in American History" had argued that the
frontier was focal in American history. I would cross all
the frontiers. I would cross the Mississippi. I was torn
between the desire to see the Mississippi and the urge to go
back to Woodstock, Vermont, sit myself down at the bridge
table in Room 202, and get involved again in the tense, warm
claustrophobia of a new play . The next day, I went to lunch
with Sheehan, in his suite at the St. Regis.
Sheehan was shortish and fair, with glassy, somewhat
protuberant blue eyes; the head of a great company, he was
benign and assured. We talked about "Liliom." He said that
at the moment of buying it he had thought of me to do the
screenplay. When I spoke of the difficulty of transplanting
Liliom to the celestial regions, he laughed it off. "We'll
give you whatever you want" he said, brushing the Beyond
aside as a difficulty, welcoming it as a glorious
opportunity to display the resources of the Fox Film
Corporation. In those days, the film magnates all talked
that way. They controlled the earth and all the firmament.
While listening to him expound on how he would provide and
appoint the Beyond, I was reminded of a story I had heard
about him—about how he had handled an obstacle during his
previous marriage, showing the resolution he could summon in
a crisis. He and his wife lived in an apartment in the
Savoy-Plaza, furnished by them. He had asked his wife for a
separation agreement, which she was reluctant to grant. He
sent her off on a Saturday afternoon to see a movie. He set
to work with a team of movers, to whom he was giving double
pay, to unfurnish his furnished apartment. When Mrs. Sheehan
returned from the movie, there wasn't a stick of anything
left in the apartment. She couldn't help admiring the speed
and thoroughness of the job. The separation agreement
followed quickly, and then the divorce, whereupon Winnie
married Maria Jeritza, the famous diva.
Winnie offered me enticements. Frank Borzage would direct.
He had directed the great Fox success "Seventh Heaven."
Moreover, Winnie would give me the stars of that very film,
Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. He made it all sound like
a cornucopia that he had gone to great pains to stock
specially for me. Then he shook from the cornucopia still
another tidbit: Sonya Levien, a skilled scenarist, whom all
writers loved. He would put Miss Levien to work with me on "Liliom."
Winnie gave the cornucopia an additional shake: "I've
ordered our transportation man to reserve a compartment for
you on Monday on the Century and the Chief." I knew that the
luxury of the transportation was just a further bait.
Indeed, status was implied by the offered
transportation—whether you got a drawing room, a
compartment, or just a berth. He had another piece of
information, which he regretted to have to impart to me. He
had hoped to produce "Liliom" himself, he was so crazy about
it—had hoped to make it his personal production—but
circumstances over which he had no control rendered that
impossible. He had to remain in New York for conferences
with hankers. But I was to rest assured: the picture would
be taken over—as, indeed, all production at Fox would be—by
his assistant, Mr. Sol Wurtzel, in whom he reposed the
greatest confidence. Very able, very sophisticated. I was
sure that a man who had won Winnie's confidence to that
extent must be an ideal producer to work for.
In the flurry of the next few days, before I started
crossing frontiers, I thought, with a sinking of the heart,
about my friend Hilda Gaige. I had neglected her; the busy
have little time for the unhappy. She had finally divorced
Crosby Gaige and—to the consternation of her friends—married
a man whom she had known for only a short time. This
marriage seemed not to be going well, either. I called and
told her I was going to Hollywood for at least six months,
and asked her to dinner. She said "Fine," and added that she
had been wondering when she was going to hear from me. I
asked whether things were any better with her. "They're
worse," she replied. At dinner, she told me that the
marriage was a complete disaster. There was nothing to do
about it—she had made a sorry mistake, that was all. She was
faced with an economic problem. She was penniless. Had she
seen Gaige? She had spoken to him but hadn't seen him. He
couldn't help her, in any case. He was hard up himself. In
fact, he was working as a consultant to the chief steward at
the Waldorf-Astoria, putting his knowledge of food and wines
to good use. She was, at the moment, trying to put her own
taste in furniture to good use. She had gone into
partnership with an old friend, Ruth Saylor, to start a
decorating business. Mrs. Saylor was trying to raise
capital. She had many well-placed friends, but so far things
were going slowly. Hilda looked at me with her great
"Hilda," I said, "do you remember what you always used to
say to me—how I was living in a rat hole but you prophesied
that I would do well and that you would find me a pleasant
place to live and would furnish it for me?"
"I suppose so," she said vaguely.
"Here is your chance," I said.
She stared at me. Was I joking? In earlier days, she would
have known, but Hilda was not herself tonight. Her gaiety
had vanished. Life had become too painful a chore.
"Look, darling," I said. "When I get back from Hollywood, I
want a place of my own, where I can live and work. I want
you to find it for me—furnish it so that I can just walk
into it when I get back."
She said nothing for a moment. "Can I tell Ruth?"
"Of course. I’ll make you a down payment."
"Our first commission?"
"Exactly. And I'm sure there will be many more. Run along
and call Ruth."
Reassured, she asked the waiter where the telephone was. She
gave me a last look and ran off to the phone. I couldn't
stand the anxiety in her eyes.
She was back in a minute, smiling for the first time that
evening. "Oh, darling, Ruth was so pleased. She says now
we're in business!"
That evening is an illuminated panel in memory. Some of the
objects in the room in which I am writing this—chair, desk,
sofa—were bought for me by Hilda, for the lovely apartment
she found for me, long since given up.
In my compartment on the Century, I watched the Hudson for a
while, thinking of Hilda. I decided to write her a letter. I
rang for the train stenographer—an appurtenance of the
Century, like the red carpet in the station. A young woman
came in, and I began to dictate. "Dearest Hilda," I said, "I
sit here thinking of you . . ." I finished the letter.
The stenographer got up to go. I asked her to wait a minute.
While I had been dictating the letter to Hilda, my mind had
been divided. I had begun to think of another woman, older
than Hilda, who had been in and out of my mind as a possible
subject for a play. She was a successful portrait painter
who had got some of the most famous people in Europe to sit
for her—statesmen, composers, archbishops. I now began
dictating some notes, then a rough outline of the first act.
Dialogue for it began to emerge in freshets. The
stenographer, irritated by so much talk, became restive. I
let her go. The letter to Hilda, she assured me, would be
mailed from Albany; the play notes would he left in my
compartment that evening. I sat thinking, not about Hilda
but about the portrait painter. She was easy to think about.
I took my notebook out of my briefcase and went on making
notes. This play was to be called "Biography." I had already
mentioned the idea to Guthrie McClintic; he was interested.
He thought Laurette Taylor would be fine for it. I hoped for
Ina Claire, but would be happy with Laurette Taylor. I went
in to dinner feeling elated, because after the long drought
it seemed that here was something I could work on, Maybe in
the shadow of the brummagem and the marginal I could
continue to build up my repertory.
On the Chief, out of Chicago, to absolve myself of
contractual guilt for having worked on "Biography," I read "Liliom"
again. I began to be bothered by the last part of it, after
Liliom commits suicide. I knew that Winnie Sheehan had
promised to give me the celestial regions, but that last
part still bothered me, because I have no natural taste or
liking for fantasy. I worried about "Liliom" till we crossed
the Mississippi. Given Molnár's play, I saw no way to avoid
the Beyond. I also saw no way to stop thinking about
"Biography," in spite of what the contract said about
exclusive concentration. Perhaps Sonya Levien, with all her
experience, would know what to do. I began to be grateful to
her before meeting her. I would concentrate on "Liliom" but
think about "Biography."
My first day at the studio was so crowded that I could
neither think nor concentrate. I met everybody in the
cornucopia and some who were not. Sonya Levien came into my
just opened office to welcome me. She was very attractive,
with lustrous black hair and big blue eyes. Sinclair Lewis,
in earlier days, had supposedly wished to marry her. You
could see why. She was warm, overflowing with vitality, an
instant darling. She spoke an engaging pidgin English; she
was constantly saying "That's exactly"—you never knew quite
about what. I told her my "Liliom" worry. She brushed it
aside. She was terribly excited at the idea of working on "Liliom"
with me. She was especially elated that Frank Borzage was to
direct it. She loved Frank Borzage, and so would I. Would I
come with her, for just a few minutes, to the set of a film
she had been working on? It was just being concluded, and
starred the Irish tenor John McCormack. After that, we would
look in on Greta Garbo in "Anna Christie"—also in its last
days—and then we could drop by to say hello to Will Rogers,
who was just starting a new film. I begged off. Too many
high spots for one morning. "That's exactly," said Sonya.
Saying she would be back shortly, she went off to the
McCormack set. The telephone rang. It was Myles Connolly, a
producer at the R.K.O. studio. They had bought the film
rights to "The Second Man" and were now shooting it.
Connolly would like me to come over and have a look. I said
that I'd love to but that I had just arrived and felt I
should meet Mr. Wurtzel first. He understood perfectly. I
asked how things were going. "Come and see for yourself," he
said. I said I'd call him the next day.
I hung up. The phone rang again. A secretary's voice said,
"Mr. Wurtzel for you."
A torrential voice shouted in my ear, "I want you to lunch
with me today, with Will Rogers and your director, Frank
"Fine," I said. "I'd love to."
"Executive dining room at one o'clock!" Wurtzel said.
I said I'd be there. The call was over.
I was quite astonished by my boss's voice. I had seen
photographs of him. He looked young, grave, and scholarly.
His voice sounded not only loud but gravelly and splattered.
At lunch, Will Rogers' voice was also gravelly, but much
lower in key than our host's. I had been told that Rogers,
when he wanted to, could speak perfectly normal and
correct—not lariat-throwing—English. Still, the dialect was
amusing. Rogers was talking about a visit he'd made in
London to Lady Astor. "She set there," he said, "gnawin' on
a cocktail. She'd pressed one on me, but I wanted to be
ahead of her and turned her down." I thought that Rogers was
a shrewd man—that he specialized in keeping ahead of people
and had made a very good thing of it. We became friends. He
always referred to me—I never knew why—as Sad Sam.
Frank Borzage was a big, powerful, silent, gentle man. Sol
Wurtzel was all over the place. I looked for sophistication
in him; Sheehan had promised it to me. I did not find it;
instead, I found something preferable—an engaging candor. "I
read your play in New York," he said to me of "The Second
Man." "Nothing but a lot of goddam phonies in a penthouse."
That afternoon, Sonya invited me to her house for tea. She
wanted me to meet her husband, Carl Hovey, and their
children, Serge and Tamara. Sonya's house was on Rexford
Drive, in Beverly Hills—a commodious, unostentatious house,
such as might belong to a well-to-do legislator in Concord,
New Hampshire. There was lawn in front of it, garden and
trees in the back. In the ample, comfortably furnished
living room, I met Carl Hovey. Sonya turned us over to her
maid, Bertha, and went upstairs to rest a bit after her
strenuous day. Carl Hovey was a tall, good-looking man with
keen blue eyes, and was very outgoing if encouraged. He had
had a career in New York and had started to have one here.
He was a vastly well-read man from a very old New England
family. There is a statue of an ancestor of his in Boston.
He had been the managing editor of the Metropolitan
magazine in New York. Shortly after that folded, in 1924, he
was asked to be the story editor of a big Hollywood
company—a role for which he was eminently suited. It did not
work out, somehow. He lost his job, and had nothing to do.
Sonya, who had a law degree from N.Y.U. and had practiced
briefly as a lawyer in New York before coming to Hollywood
to join Carl, became a screenwriter, and succeeded
brilliantly. The sombre aspect of Carl, the emanation of
defeat, must have been due to the ambiguous position in
which he found himself then. I was curious about the
Metropolitan magazine, which had enjoyed a vaunted
reputation for some years. Carl said that he had engaged the
best writers available: H. G. Wells, Scott Fitzgerald, John
Reed. (Theodore Roosevelt, after he retired from the
Presidency, became a contributing editor of the magazine.)
Sonya came down. I told her that Carl's stories about the
magazine were fascinating. "That's exactly," said Sonya. Her
husband looked at me, smiling. "That's exactly," he
repeated. (Carl made a habit of teasing Sonya about her
English. Sonya, who had been born in Russia, was sensitive
about it. Both Carl and I used to pick up some of her quaint
expressions and mimic her. I think there were times when we
overdid it.) Sonya invited me to stay to dinner. After
dinner, we went into the living room and played
records—Mozart and Ravel. It was a mellow evening. It began
a pattern for the ensuing Hollywood years. Rexford Drive
became a second home to me. The children, Serge and Tamara,
were both delightful. The Hoveys became family. They took in
my friends—especially Oscar Levant.
Sonya and I settled down to work on the "Liliom" script. We
worked either in her house or in my office at the studio. At
first, we had worked in her office, but that proved
impossible. Sonya was immensely popular; her social
involvements were incessant; every writer she had ever
worked with came to her for help. At dinner in her house, or
wherever, I began to feel sorry for Carl. He took a deep
interest in what we were doing, and we aired our
difficulties before him, but ultimately he remained an
outsider. He was so knowledgeable and so resourceful that I
asked Sonya one day how it was that no other studio had
grabbed him to he its story editor.
"He missed his chance," she said dolefully. "You know, he
came here before I did. Story editor for Cecil B. De Mille."
"I don't really know. Somehow, he' couldn't get along with
the people. Too reserved, I think. I think they got the
feeling he was upstaging them."
"But Carl isn't like that at all," I said.
"I know it. I don't understand it."
"Can't you get Sol to take him on?"
"Sol likes Carl very much, but he said to me one day, 'He's
too educated.' I think that's the trouble."
"What does he do all day?" I asked. "How does he kill time?"
"It's lucky that he's a reader," I said.
"I'm not sure," she said. "He reads too much. It's an
opiate." That shocked me a bit. Sonya went on, "There's such
a thing as too much reading."
We left it there. I could see that to some extent Sonya
agreed with the executives. Carl was overeducated. As time
passed, I often heard writers say that they'd much rather
work for hardheaded run-of-the-mill executives than for
those who, like Walter Wanger, had been to college.
When John McCormack finally left for Ireland, Sonya, greatly
relieved, was able to devote her vast energies to the "Liliom"
script. We met daily to work on it. The more deeply I got
involved in it, the more bothered I became about Liliom's
death and transfiguration. I kept pestering Sonya about
this, but she wanted to postpone all worries till we got to
the embankment scene. The embankment scene is the last scene
in which Liliom remains alive. Up to the embankment scene, "Liliom"
is a beautiful play. It has in it all of Molnár's best
qualities: his imagination; his humor; above all, his
compassion for poor and ignorant people. I felt when I got
into the embankment scene, in which Liliom commits suicide,
that I was in exactly the position Molnár must have found
himself' in when he got to it: What to do next? How to
finish it? The rest of the play—the scenes with the kindly
celestial police magistrate—is fantasy. It is fantasy that
I, a confirmed agnostic, could not swallow. It seemed to me
that in these and the return-to-earth scenes Molnár's
imagination slipped into a facile groove. After ten years in
Purgatory, Liliom is sent back to earth to do a good deed
for his daughter. It is obvious that Molnár had fallen in
love with an idea—he makes it obvious in a scene between
Liliom and Louise, his daughter. The idea is that if you are
beaten by someone you love, you literally don't feel it. He
contrives for this to happen between Liliom and his
daughter. Liliom is provoked by her and hits her. The child
is amazed that she doesn't feel it. Her mother repeats the
anesthetic truism she expressed earlier when Liliom beat
her. I couldn't help thinking, It is an encouragement of
flagellation. I expressed these doubts and fears to Sonya;
she postponed consideration of them till we got to the
embankment scene. That was still several months away.
The months went by. We passed the embankment scene and found
ourselves inevitably squirming in the Beyond. I had achieved
with Sol a kind of badgering intimacy. We seemed to be in a
contest in which he tried to discredit me on points of
knowledge, as if I were a savant travelling under false
pretenses. He made me go with him to outlying
towns—Riverside and Fresno—to previews of Fox pictures. You
couldn't really have a conversation with Sol. Remarks
erupted from him without preamble or contextual balance;
they were islands in a stertorous silence. Once, driving to
Riverside, passing a huge clock advertisement—set, as they
all were, at three o'clock—he suddenly barked at me, "Do you
know why all these clocks are set for three o'clock?"
I said I had no idea. I could tell that this confession of
ignorance pleased him.
"There's a hell of a lot of things you don't know—I suppose
you know that"
"Yes, I do," I said. "Why are they set for three o'clock?"
"It's the hour Lincoln died," he said, and that closed that
field of inquiry.
I had been to Sol's house several times for dinner with
Sonya and Carl. He lived in a small Renaissance palace in
Bel Air. Sol's wife, Marian, I greatly liked—very
good-looking, warm, and humorous. She painted. She had
commissioned a young artist protégé of hers to do a series
of murals, in the living room and dining room, of her family
in medieval costume. She herself was made to look like
Isabella d'Este; Sol, deprived of his glasses and cigar, was
powerfully recognizable in parti-colored doublet and hose.
I made other friends during this period—Samuel Hoffenstein,
the poet, and Ernst Lubitsch. These I cherished. They were
never in a quest to expose me; they were just delightful
friends. I have never had better times with anyone than I
had with them. The friendship with these two lasted as long
as they did.
Finally, after about six months, the great day arrived. We
sent the finished script to Sol. A few days later, in my
hotel room, I found a three-year contract, which at the
start gave me a raise to two thousand dollars a week. From
there the salary kept ascending. I sat at the desk and made
a rough estimate of what it would come to if I signed it and
fulfilled its terms. I stared at the result. It came to
about half a million dollars.
The next day, I went to Sol's office and turned it down.
Sol made no fuss. "We'll talk about it in New York," he
said. "I have to go there. I think I'll go with you."
We went together on the Chief. Sonya and Carl saw us off.
She was elated. She thought it was a great compliment to me
that Sol had chosen me as a travelling companion.
On arriving, I went to Woodstock, Vermont, where I finished
the first draft of "Biography." By doing this, I avoided the
blandishments of Winfield Sheehan and Sol. I was in constant
correspondence with Sonya, who kept me informed about all
the current gossip in the studio. She was working on a
screen treatment of the immensely popular play "Lightnin',"
for Will Rogers. She wrote me that Rogers came upon a story
outline I had drafted with a long word in it. The minute he
spotted that, he said, "That's a Behrman. Wrap it up and
send it to the Theatre Guild. Also my best to Sad Sam."
Some time after my first immersion, with "Liliom," I signed
other shortterm contracts with Fox and began to be sent out
on loan to other companies—chiefly to
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—for quick jobs. The first of these was
to rewrite the script of "Queen Christina," for Greta Garbo.
It was to be directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who was unhappy
with the script he had, and wanted it completely rewritten.
He had already begun the filming. The set, the Queen's
palace in Stockholm, was up; the snow had been piled around
it. I was to keep a day ahead of the shooting. There had
been a great to-do about the casting of the leading man.
Laurence Olivier, who would have been ideal for it, was
tapped and rejected. He still does a hilarious imitation of
the executive who peered at him, put his finger to Olivier's
face, and said, "What am I going to do about this actor's
uuuuug-ly face?" It was decided, finally, to take a chance
on John Gilbert. Miss Garbo had had a romantic attachment to
him when she first came to Hollywood. This, from the
executives' point of view, was all to the good. Gilbert was
signed up. While the film was rolling, Gilbert would
disappear for a day or two—he drank. This stopped
everything. The delays were tremendously costly.
In those days, Miss Garbo and Salka Viertel, her friend and
adviser, used to drop in for a cup of tea in a house I had
rented in Beverly Hills. One day when Garbo couldn't work,
because the leading man had not shown up, my guests were in
a state. I complained to Garbo, "How could you have ever got
mixed up with a fellow like that?" It was a rhetorical
question; I expected no answer. But I got one. Garbo
meditated; it was a considered reply, as if she were making
an effort to explain it to herself. Very slowly, in her
cello voice, she said, "I was lonely—and I couldn't speak
The "Christina" film was a success all over the world.
Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, in her book of
memoirs "Twenty Letters to a Friend," recalls seeing the
film in Russia and being "tremendously impressed." No one
could have been less like the actual Queen Christina than
Garbo. But she was thrilling as a symbol: a queen, and
beautiful, who spoke up for peace. She was a modest queen;
the aristocratic quality that Garbo brought to all her
performances was lambent in this one. You wouldn't know from
this film that the French philosopher Descartes, who had
come to Stockholm to educate Christina, died in her court of
the cold and the awful hours.
I became, in some sort, a Garbo specialist (as I later had
the reputation of being, in some sort, a Lunt specialist,
having written five plays for Alfred and Lynn). I came out
to Hollywood again to work for David Selznick on the script
of "Anna Karenina." worked again with Salka Viertel, who
collaborated on all of Garbo's films. Getting this film
ready to preview took an unconscionable time—far beyond my
contract time. But finally the happy day arrived. I drove
out with Mr. and Mrs. Selznick, Mrs. Viertel, and Miss Garbo
to Riverside for the preview. The delicacy and distinction
of Garbo's performance affected me, as they did the
audience; I felt, as I always did watching her, that she was
the most patrician artist in the world. Mr. and Mrs.
Selznick were pleased. But on the way home, in the car, Miss
Garbo sat silent. She spoke once, in reply to a query from
Selznick as to how she felt. "Oh," she said, "if once, if
only once, I could see a preview and come home feeling
satisfied!" None of us could get anything more from her than
The next day, the retakes began. I had long outstayed my
time. I was dying to get back to New York; Hilda had been
slowly, painstakingly furnishing a charming apartment for me
at 815 Park Avenue, and I had just received a telegram
saying that it was ready and that she had found a French
couple to look after me. A day was finally set when Mr.
Selznick said I could go. I was to leave on a Sunday, and
Sonya gave a farewell party for me at her house the night
before. Many people came, including George Kaufman, who was
by then a screenwriter. In the morning, Mr. Selznick called
me early. He said he had been talking to Miss Garbo; she was
unhappy about several points in the film and insisted that I
remain to fix them. He was sorry, but he could not let me go
for at least another week. It was like being told after
weeks in a hospital that you could leave on a certain day,
and then, at the last minute, having the promise revoked. I
met Selznick at the studio at nine on Monday morning. We
were walking to the commissary for a cup of coffee. George
Kaufman was walking in the opposite direction. He had said
farewell to me on Saturday night. His face showed no
surprise. "Oh?" he said. "Forgotten but not gone."
Some years later, I repeated this story to Arthur
Schlesinger, Jr. Eras went by. I was in Detroit for the road
tour of a play of mine when I got a call from him inviting
me to a small dinner party at the White House which the John
F. Kennedy's were giving for Isaiah Berlin. After dinner,
Schlesinger asked me to tell the Kaufman story. The
President was greatly amused. Later, when he bade me good
night, he said, "Thank you very much for that line of
"It's not mine—it's George Kaufman's," I told him.
He said, "Whoever said it, it will come in very handy to me
in the corridors of the White House."
Presently, I came back to Hollywood on another Garbo
project—the film that became "Ninotchka." On this picture, I
worked with Gottfried Reinhardt. The basis for the film was
a first-rate satiric idea, but Gottfried and I made slow
headway with it. The producer had a felicitous inspiration;
he took the story away from Gottfried and me and gave it to
Ernst Lubitsch, who began to work on it with his celebrated
writing team of Charlie Brackett and Billy Wilder. I had a
talk about it with Ernst; he said he would switch the whole
thing through a device that he knew would seem to me a
cliché—jewels. "The nice thing about jewels," he said with a
happy grin, "is that they are photogenic."
I returned to New York. When I saw "Ninotchka" announced, I
went, the first day, to see it. I was astonished and
delighted; I saw Miss Garbo doing what she had never done
before—giving a first-rate high-comedy performance. I wired
Ernst to tell him my pleasure in it, and, when 1 came to
Hollywood again, telephoned him on arrival, then went at
once to see him. I told him that he had opened a new vista
for Garbo. She could play comedy; she must. He said he had
several ideas for her along this line but the difficulty was
that he couldn't get her on the telephone. I spoke to Salka
Viertel about this. She told me that Garbo had really not
been happy on the set with Ernst. There was no Stimmung
there, Garbo said. It was never patched up.
The late thirties and early forties were a halcyon period in
Hollywood. There were few places in America where you could
go out to dinner with Harpo and Groucho Marx, the Franz
Werfels, Leopold Stokowski, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham,
and George and Ira Gershwin. In Harpo Marx's living room you
encountered high art: four full-length oil paintings by four
great masters of the Renaissance, museum-lit, magnificently
framed, with gold plates accommodatingly supplying the names
of the painters—Tintoretto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci,
and Michelangelo. The painters outdid themselves in rivalry;
they were ahead of their times. Each concentrated on one of
the Marx brothers, all four of whom were painted in
magnificent Renaissance costumes as doges of Venice. Groucho
was a rather sinister doge; you didn't feel you would go to
him to help you out of a jam. Harpo, on the other hand, had
the quality of wild serenity that he had in life—the quality
that endeared him to so many friends and to the public. A
guest once complimented Harpo on these paintings, saying
they were wonderful. Harpo said, "They'd better be. They
cost me five thousand dollars."
The last time I saw the sinister doge, Groucho, he told me a
Goldwyn story. Harpo, after his retirement from films, moved
to Palm Springs, with his wife and children. He seldom came
to Hollywood. Every time Groucho encountered Sam Goldwyn at
a party, Goldwyn singled him out and impaled him with a
stock question: "Tell me, how is Harpo?" Groucho imitated
perfectly Goldwyn's high-pitched, somewhat strangulated
voice. These confrontations went on for fifteen years.
Groucho knew that Harpo had always been Goldwyn's favorite.
The last time Goldwyn subjected him to the standard query,
Groucho rebelled. "Look here, Sam, every time you meet me
you ask me how Harpo is," Groucho said. "This has been going
on for fifteen years. For God's sake, why don't you, for
once, ask me how I am?"
"Someday I will," said Goldwyn patiently. "But just now,
tell me, how is Harpo?"
I once shared a house with Harpo in Beverly Hills. He always
took guests up to show them his library. His library
consisted of two books, affectionately inscribed to him by
their authors: "Saint Joan," by Bernard Shaw, and "Of Human
Bondage," by W. S. Maugham. Every once in a while, Harpo
would dreamily express his intention of someday, when things
were quieter, reading his library.
An élite corps existed in Hollywood that outsiders were
unlikely to know about. This was a select professional group
known as "the trainers." They upheld "the cult of the
body"—a necessary religion for the stars, of course, but the
executives, producers, and Name Writers were acolytes, too,
and as impassioned as the stars. There were gymnasiums and
sauna baths in all the studios, yet the chosen had them in
their homes. Lubitsch had a gymnasium in his house and a
personal trainer who came at eight o'clock each morning to
exercise him. I had a trainer. His name was Bolt. The writer
Sidney Howard had Bolt, too. Sidney was very funny about
him. "Well," he would say when we met for dinner, "what
flatteries did Bolt hang around your neck today?" On
arrival, you signed up one of these trainers for the length
of your stay, to come so many times a week. Once you had
signed him up, you felt you had done enough for hygiene. You
were then faced with the excruciating problem of avoiding
him. How many unwanted engagements we made in order not to
be home when the trainers arrived, with their hideous gear—a
folded massage table and a black bag full of rubbing
unguents. They would put you through painful gymnastic
exercises in grotesque positions and would make you run
around the garden. It was horrible. But they were also
purveyors of intimate studio gossip, since they tended the
executives when the executives were, presumably, off guard.
They knew the dissolving rating of each writer. Sidney
Howard said that our Bolt was a liar and a sycophant. He
enjoyed drawing him out to test his perfidy. Bolt always
gave him a good report on my studio standing, because he
knew that Sidney and I were close friends, and once I was
able to tell Sidney that Bolt had told me Sam Goldwyn was so
pleased with Mr. Howard that he had ordered a Cord roadster
to give him as a present. The following week, the Cord was
delivered at Sidney's door. Bolt rose in our estimation. "If
only the s.o.b. didn't exercise us?" groaned Sidney.
A memorable—an unprecedented—event took place one day in
1936, which thrilled and excited us: Ernst Lubitsch was made
the production head of Paramount. Nothing like that had ever
happened before. We all felt exalted by proxy, because
Lubitsch was one of us: he had great camaraderie with
writers and was one himself, as those who worked with him
knew; he was unselfish, and glad to let whatever writer he
was collaborating with write up his ideas. I was so excited
that day, and so busy calling up Lubitsch to congratulate
him and others to celebrate the news, that I forgot that it
was my day with Bolt. There he was, with his massage table,
which he instantly began to set up. Bolt was stirred up,
too; Lubitsch's trainer, Kip, was his closest friend. "Kip
must be happy," I said.
"Very happy," said Bolt. "Kip loves Mr. Lubitsch."
Months passed. I had gone back to New York and then returned
to Hollywood to do some rewrites. When I had been there a
few weeks, my phone rang, early in the morning. It was
Lubitsch. He was in a state. "Vot you think?" he asked.
"What's the matter?"
"I am no longer head of Paramount."
"So early in the morning? What are you talking about?"
"But is true. And how do you think I find out? Hour ago—from
my trainer. He comes in usual this morning. He is something
sad. He say, 'Good morning, Mr. Lubitsch.' I say 'Good
morning, Keep. Something is not good with you?' He reaches
out his hand to me to shake. I shake. 'I am verry sorry to
have to tell you bad news,' he say. 'For God's sake, Keep,'
I say, 'vot are you talking?' He say, 'I hate to be the
first to tell you—you are no longer the head of Paramount.'
I say he is crazy. He say, 'No, is true.' I ask him how it
is true, and he say last night he massages front office and
they are all saying it. So I call front office, and, yes, it
is true. They are vaiting for me to come in to tell me. From
my trainer I have to find it out. Verry funny. You do not
think it is verry funny? Don't tell yet. It is so funny I
vant to tell. From my trainer I find it out. Is not funny?"
He hung up.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was run in those days by a triumvirate:
Bernie Hyman, who was a producer; Benny Thau, who was an
executive without portfolio; and, of course, Louis B. Mayer.
When it was asked exactly what Thau did, Herman Mankiewicz,
the screenwriter, said that his assignment was to watch from
a third-floor window of the Thalberg Building and to report
at once to his colleagues the approach of the north wind,
which they all somehow felt was in the offing. Bernie Hyman
was an amiable fellow with a streak of stubbornness. He
would read a scene and say it lacked "zip." He was affected
by the opinion of the last person he had talked with. Sam
Hoffenstein said of him that he was like a glass of water
without the glass. He also said that Bernie was like Dr.
Jekyll in the uncapturable moment before he metamorphosed
into Mr. Hyde. I knew Bernie's secretaries and had the run
of his opulent office. When he was late for a lunch date, I
used to wander into his office, sit at his desk, and look
over his memoranda. Once, I saw "Miss Harlow called. She was
very anxious to talk to you." I wrote on the memo, "Why is
she no longer anxious?" Another memorandum interested me
more—a sheet of yellow paper headed "Writers Available." It
was a macabre list: playwrights who had written one success
twenty years ago and had not been heard from since,
novelists whose novels you could not remember. But then I
saw a name that gave me a turn—Scott Fitzgerald. It made me
angry. To be on a list of the available in Hollywood was to
be on a death list. When Bernie came in, I let him have it
on Scott. "He's easily one of our greatest writers," I said.
"Maybe he is," said Bernie, unruffled, "but he's slow."
I expressed myself on Scott to other producers. I got the
same reaction from all of them: he was slow.
Louis B. Mayer, the chief of the triumvirate, was a man of
extraordinary shrewdness, and even, as far as the industry
was concerned, of vision. He was incorrigibly histrionic and
put on a great show. Sometimes it slipped his mind what role
he was playing—whether the benevolent autocrat, the
humanitarian concerned for the well-being of everyone except
his enemies, the sentimentalist, or the religious leader.
His relationship with God was intimate and confidential; he
spoke for Him as well as for himself—they thought along the
same lines. He sat behind his circular desk in his regal
office surrounded by large, silver-framed photographs of
another triumvirate, which bounded his spiritual and
political horizons: Cardinal Spellman, Herbert Hoover, and
Douglas MacArthur. He called me up one morning and asked me
to write a speech for him to deliver at a St. Patrick's Day
celebration in San Francisco. I did what I could. I tried to
make it entertaining. L.B. was not pleased; he quickly
rejected it. "It is not what they expect from me," he said.
I gathered that from him they expected the solemn and the
lofty. To show that he had no hard feelings, he invited me
to lunch in the executive dining room—an accolade that had
never been extended to me before. Every producer on the lot
was there. L.B. sat at the head of the table. The seat
beside him, reserved for Eddie Mannix, the studio's general
manager, was empty—Eddie was late. It caused concern and
speculation. Where was Mannix? "It's not like Eddie," said
L.B. But he ordered lunch to be served. Suddenly, Eddie
appeared. His face was flushed; he was very angry. He had
just heard the music for a trailer and had had a fight with
the arrangers. The music was so complicated—so full of "fil-fals,"
he said—that he couldn't hear the melody. He begged to be
allowed to hear the melody. But the arrangers would not
remove a single fil-fal. He bared his heart to L.B. He
couldn't have asked for a more compassionate sympathizer.
Mannix was very loud, L.B. very quiet. "Listen, Eddie," L.B.
said. "Do you think I run the studio? Do you think you run
the studio? Oh, no, Eddie. The arrangers—they run the
studio." L.B. spread his hands in a votive gesture; his
voice was prayerful. "I go down on my knees to 'em, I beg 'em,
I pray to 'em, 'Please let me hear the melody.' But they
won't—they stick to the fil-fals. Counterpoint, they call
But the effect of this on Mannix was not sedative. He threw
his napkin on the table. "Well, God damn it," he shouted,
"either counterpoint leaves the studio or I leave the
In the thirties, Hollywood attracted many artists who had
come to America as refugees from Germany and Austria. In the
early forties, three escapees from the Nazi death trap
changed the color and tone of my life and, after agonizing
tribulations, gave me a successful play. The three were
Franz Werfel, the novelist, poet, and playwright; Oscar
Karlweis, the Viennese actor; and one Samuel L. Jacobowsky,
whom I was never to meet, but whose destiny and foibles
engrossed me, on and off, for three years.
For some time, Ernst Lubitsch had been urging the executives
in Hollywood to bring Max Reinhardt to the United States.
Lubitsch had been a member of Reinhardt's company during
Reinhardt's great days in Berlin, where he had been the
reigning lord and had run four theatres. Another refugee,
the novelist and playwright Bruno Frank, in an access of
nostalgia, told me what it was like to see a Reinhardt
production in Berlin. He remembered a performance of
Galsworthy's "Loyalties" in one of Reinhardt's theatres, the
Kammerspielhaus. "It was like chamber music," he said. "The
theatre was small and exquisite. You sat in armchairs. The
performance was flawless. You sat there in thrall to the
world Reinhardt had created."
Max arrived in 1934, took a palatial house, and reigned like
a king in exile. Several years later, he invited me to
dinner to meet the Franz Werfels. Max was unchanged after
all he had been through, his charm and humor undiluted. It
is no more possible to convey in writing the nature of a
man's charm than it is to convey in writing the effect of
music; in Max some elements were the resonance and timbre of
his speaking voice, his laugh, his easy manner, his
presence, his looks. Max's charm was proverbial, a
trademark. His wife was gracious and withdrawn. I told Max
how much I was looking forward to meeting the Werfels. I was
a friend of Ben Huebsch, Werfel's publisher, and Ben had
been in great distress about Werfel. There had been a story
in the press that Werfel had been captured by the Nazis.
Efforts to reach him, even through the Red Cross, had been
unavailing. Max said it was nice to find out that the
newspapers were fallible. The dinner guests began to arrive;
there were ten altogether, among them Lubitsch and the
Alma Mahler Werfel was a large blond woman with violet eyes;
she could be safely described as statuesque. Her husband was
small; she towered over him, her expression grave, immobile,
calmly observant. Werfel was mercurial, chubby, round-faced,
hair brushed straight back, beginning to recede. His eyes,
behind thick glasses, were on the alert for humor; he made
fun of almost everything, including himself. On his escape
through France, he had found himself in Lourdes; he made a
vow there that if he ever came out of it alive he would
write a novel dedicated to the saint of Lourdes. He did—"The
Song of Bernadette." It became a best-seller, and was filmed
in Hollywood while he was there. I sat next to Frau Alma
Mahler Werfel at dinner. She made no bones about it—she
could take an interest only in what she called "productive"
men. Her first husband, Gustav Mahler, had been so
spectacularly productive that she would have thought it
sacrilege, on his death, to extinguish his name, so she kept
it, and attached Werfel's to it when, after an intervening
marriage to the eminent architect Walter Gropius, she
married Werfel. It exalted Werfel to be a successor to as
great a man as Gustav Mahler. Werfel was intensely musical.
He worshipped Mahler. He carried his scores around. He knew
them by heart.
Sitting across from Frau Alma was Charlie Brackett, one of
Hollywood's most successful writers, looking very tidy in
his dinner jacket. Alma was staring at him. She asked me who
I said, "Charles Bracken."
"He is Aryan?" she asked.
"No doubt about it," I said.
"Write me down his name."
I did—on my place card. I saw her lips move as she learned
Charlie's name. She picked up her handbag from the floor,
opened it, and shoved the Aryan's name inside it for future
I teased Charlie about this for a long time; I prophesied a
union between him and Alma.
"Do you think I am productive enough?" Charlie asked
"Leave that to Alma. Of course, you realize you will be just
a number in a series."
"Oh, that'll be fine with me. I'll he Charlie Mahler Gropius
Werfel Brackett—all four of us productive."
It was a jolly dinner party. Werfel dominated it. He kept
the table in a roar of laughter, oddly, by describing
details of his escape through France—a time during which he
was in danger of losing his life at any moment, day or
night. Here, at Max Reinhardt's, talking an ersatz English,
was Werfel, being funny about it. I had met many refugees,
great and small, and from all of them I had heard accounts
of their experiences. But Werfel's was something new in
horror stories. Talking with a gusto undiminished by the
idiosyncrasies of English syntax, his eyes alight with
enjoyment, Werfel kept the table spellbound for well over an
hour. He conveyed what it meant to be in France in that
summer after its fall, to be a step ahead of the Nazis: the
frantic crowds in front of the consulates, the concentration
of consciousness in one acrid grain of desire—to get a stamp
on a piece of paper. Werfel told with the utmost zest the
story of an overworked consular official, besieged by a
frantic crowd outside, and lost, himself, in a mountain of
visas waiting to be stamped, who suddenly went mad, lunged
at the mass of visas as though they were his jailers, and
destroyed them—ripped them to pieces and hurled them into
the fireplace. An incident he observed during his own escape
from Paris had amused Werfel. It involved Samuel L.
Jacobowsky, a Polish Jewish businessman who in his
prosperous days had found time for literature and chamber
music. He buys a car from a rascally chauffeur. He can't
drive, but he trusts to luck to find somebody who can. An
anti-Semitic Polish colonel, a cavalry officer, happens
along; he has a military mission to the South of France. The
idea of travelling with Jacobowsky revolts him, but he has
to get away from the Germans and here is a car. His aide
beside him, he takes the wheel. Jacobowsky is allowed to
occupy the back seat. To Jacobowsky's horror, instead of
heading south the colonel heads north, where the Germans
are, to pick up his sweetheart, a French girl.
I was seized by this anecdote. It had a peculiar
compactness—I felt there was a play in it. Werfel went on
weaving his farcical extravaganza—for when the conventions
of property, of justice, of the division between life and
death are all held in abeyance by an arbitrary God, the
habits based on these conventions evidently jumble into
farce. I kept thinking, Two men in an ambivalent
relationship, two men from the opposite ends of the earth,
though they are countrymen—opposites physically,
spiritually, mentally held together during flight by a
common enemy and a vehicle. They hate each other. They part.
They find they miss each other.
After dinner, in the living room, I took Werfel aside. I
told him that I had been fascinated by his story of the
Polish refugee and the reactionary cavalry officer. I
thought there might be a play in it—a beautiful comedy. It
seemed simple and natural.
Werfel was delighted. "Do you think so?" he said.
"Yes," I said. "You must write it."
"No, you must write it," he said.
I began to work on the Jacobowsky play with enthusiasm. I
wrote the "Scene": "The subterranean laundry of the Hôtel
Mon Repos et de la Rose. It is evening on the 13th of June,
1940. There has been an air-raid alert and the laundry of
MADAME BOUFFIER's fourth-class establishment is doing
service as an air-raid shelter." I got an idea—that
Jacobowsky entertains the Colonel's girl, Marianne, by
making her laugh. Whenever the Colonel comes upon them, she
is laughing. It drives him crazy. I devised a scene in which
the Colonel tries to emulate Jacobowsky, to make Marianne
laugh. The Colonel's attempt is pitiful, since he hasn't a
grain of humor. I enjoyed developing this idea. I felt it
I saw a great deal more of the Werfels. Alma Mahler Werfel
endlessly fascinated me. My brother-in-law Samuel Chotzinoff
told me that he had worshipped Mahler and had never missed
one of his concerts when he conducted the Philharmonic in
Carnegie Hall. In the greenroom once, he had beheld Alma. He
said she was the most ravishingly beautiful creature he had
ever seen. I repeated this to Alma. She nodded emphatically
and said, "I was!
A scene in the Werfels' tiny living room returns after
thirty years to solace me. Arnold Schoenberg was present. He
had the most intense eyes and gaze I have ever seen in
anyone. You felt that there were immensities behind the
tightly drawn yellowish skin of his skull-like head. Alma
sat beside me on the sofa, Werfel facing her, Schoenberg,
withdrawn, on the other side of Alma. Alma had chosen to
narrate her life story. Werfel and Schoenberg listened as if
it were all new to them. I actually was a fresh audience for
Alma. She was sorry that I had never seen their new house in
Vienna—"black and white marble"—and wished to give me an
insight into the life she led in Vienna when she was married
to Mahler. She called to her maid, who was clearing the
table in the dining room, "Marie! Bring in Beethoven's
hair." The maid left her task and disappeared, returning a
moment later with a little gold box. Alma opened it to show
me: there was a wisp of brownish hair in it. Alma explained,
"Given to Mahler by the Vienna Opera when he left to conduct
the New York Philharmonic." Schoenberg asked if he might
take the box for a moment; he sat staring at his
predecessor's hair, lost in reverie. Alma went on with the
star-studded narrative of her conquests. There was, for
example, the case of the painter Oskar Kokoschka. He was so
in love with her that he had a life-size mannequin made of
her to take with him on his travels. When something in one
of her letters displeased him, he would stick a pin in the
mannequin. "Childish, no?" But Alma didn't wait for my
opinion. "Alban Berg . . . 'Wozzeck'—dedicated to me . . .
Gropius . . ." She went on and on, till she came to Werfel;
she included him in her list as if he weren't there.
Finally, looking straight at her husband, she made a grand
summation. "But," she said, "the most interesting
personality I have known was Mahler." Werfel nodded
fervently. He would have been the last person in the world
to contradict an authority so eminent or to pretend to rival
a genius whose memory he held in awed reverence.
(This is the second part of a three-part article.)