Commentary Magazine


Remembering Sam Spiegel

Sam Spiegel died just a few years ago and a biography of him, already out, deals with the big parties he gave in the 40′s at his house in Beverly Hills. Spiegel didn’t own the house; I think it wasn’t even rented to him but loaned. The streets up there are named after trees—Maple, Elm, Palm—and Spiegel’s house was on the 600 block, not one of the better blocks, on the south corner of his tree-named street and Carmelita Avenue. It wasn’t really much of a house, no mansion, a modest two-or three-bedroom house. There was a gloomy, empty-looking playroom in the semi-basement, but stemming off the playroom was Spiegel’s larder, or pantry, a large-sized cool room stocked with cheeses and all kinds of delicatessen specialties, salamis hanging on strings from the ceiling.

I was at the house mostly in the daytime. John Huston, who died last year, and I were writing a script for Spiegel, who was then a producer for Twentieth Century-Fox. This was the spring right after Pearl Harbor; Huston was in uniform, in the army, but had worked out a dispensation in an irregular military arrangement there is no point in going into. We would meet at Spiegel’s house and after a late breakfast or lunch there, John and I would play gin rummy at the table in the dining room. Gin was the game everyone played in those days. Spiegel would lecture us sternly, shaming us for being indoors all day when, he said, we should be out in the sun enjoying the bountiful spring weather, and then, after scolding us, would draw up a chair and kibitz, always at Huston’s side of the table, giving him tips and telling him which cards to play. I resented this and protested, no match for the two of them, and in the end lost heavily—well, $700. (Huston never saw a cent of it; he wasn’t a good gin player, either. “Make the check out to Toler,” he said when we settled up, only partly reducing his gambling debt to the other fellow.)

We were pretty young in those days, Spiegel strangely too, only six and eight years ahead of us, but he was old in manner and looks, European, broad-chested and overweight, with his stately, ponderous tread and bearing. He took a paternalistic stance with us, and Huston delighted in tormenting him. One day, late in the afternoon, after Spiegel had spent hours in vain trying to track us down, Huston got a girl to say she was calling from the county morgue, that there had been a terrible accident, a car smash, two young men, and would Spiegel help identify them, that a car from the coroner’s office was on its way to pick him up. Huston and I drove to Carmelita Avenue and parked cater-cornered across from Spiegel’s house. He was already out on the sidewalk. He had in those days an elderly, patient, resigned German police dog he was devoted to, and the two of them were walking together up and down the street in front of the house, Spiegel rubbing his face with his hand and suffering until he saw us in the parked car. He broke down completely, out of relief that we were alive and from the cruelty of what he had been put through. He upbraided Huston right there out in the open on the street, shouting and threatening and actually crying. These people weren’t as unfeeling as they have been depicted. They had their vulnerable, human side. The director Jean Negulesco, in his memoir Things I Did and Things I Think I Did, tells the story of Samuel Goldwyn, another hard-hitter, who couldn’t sleep one night, vexed by a casting problem that obstinately refused to be solved. Goldwyn tossed and turned, suddenly got the notion that Spiegel was the one man to save him, hurriedly phoned him and started to outline his problem and what he wanted. “Do you know what time it is?” Spiegel said. “Frances, Spiegel wants to know what time it is,” Goldwyn said to his wife.

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The script Huston and I were writing for Spiegel was based on The Russian People, a Theatre Guild play which the studio had bought. The project was destined to fail. The screenplay was eventually shelved and our work was all for nothing, but we didn’t know it at the time. Those things happened. Not long after the false telephone call from the morgue, Huston and I went traveling to Washington, Huston ostensibly, and I believe actually, summoned to the Capitol on some military chore, so we were again out of reach. We were still under contract to the studio, obligated to work on the script while we were traveling, but when we arrived in Washington, Fox’s man there, a Mr. Moreno (whose name I unaccountably remember after all the years) was unable to find hotel space for us. Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century-Fox, was also in the city, but he had gone up to New York, and Moreno said we could temporarily use Zanuck’s quarters in the hotel while he was away.

Zanuck’s suite was wonderful, ideal for entertaining. Washington in the early months of the war was alive with people and excitement, and Huston soon had a nonstop party going—all sorts of Hollywood friends now in town in army and navy officer uniforms, New York City playwrights in high government war-information agencies, handsome Secret Service agents, unattached ladies, husbands and wives too, one of the latter of whom proved to be the cause of a worrisome crisis in the early morning hours. She had fallen asleep unnoticed on a couch, had had a good deal to drink, was disheveled and worn, and long overdue at home. The trouble was she had been in an intense domestic argument with her husband earlier in the evening. The husband was in one of the government jobs that required him to have a revolver on him at all times, and there was no telling what he might think or do if he walked in and found his wife in a state of disarray among us. “God, what a mess, am I glad I’m not here,” the playwright Charles MacArthur, also in uniform, a major in the army, one of the guests at the party, said.

In the midst of the disorder, the door opened wide and Zanuck with his entourage marched in, startled and confounded by the sight of all the people in his suite. He was in a bad mood to begin with. He had been before a congressional committee all morning and on the day before—that was why he was in Washington. The studio had made a documentary film for the government as a matter of courtesy, under cost, for a total charge of $60,000 or so, and the Congressmen had been all over Zanuck, questioning the studio’s figures, looking for graft, and making all kinds of insinuations. “They think I’m Jewish,” Zanuck said, aggrieved.

I don’t think it was Zanuck’s displeasure with us at the hotel or the expense account Huston turned in, but when we returned to Los Angeles after another week or ten days, we were informed the picture was canceled and our unit was disbanded. Spiegel lost his job and, of course, so did I. Ten years later, in 1952, when I was at another studio, the McCarthy people dug up The Russian People against me and started to go to work. Someone told them the subversive organization I was involved with in this enterprise was Twentieth Century-Fox. This confused them and I heard no more.

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In 1962, I was with Spiegel again, doing a script for him, this time abroad. Robert Parrish, the director on this assignment, and I were asked one day to fly down from London and meet Sam at the Ritz in Madrid. They were shooting a number of sequences of Lawrence of Arabia on location in the south of Spain, using the desert regions there for Arabia, and Sam was in the country to keep an eye on the proceedings. But the truth was he was really there hunting for his yacht—the captain had a way of sailing Sam’s yacht up some dark, obscure river in Portugal and staying hidden there. This was after On the Waterfront, The African Queen, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Sam’s other successes, but he was still being pestered and put upon. The Ritz, in 1962, was a firmly restricted hotel, not against Jews, against actors.

Sam was sitting ensconced at a library table, reading a Spanish newspaper. There had been a disaster in the States and Parrish and I naturally wanted to know the details. Sam sat us down at the table with him and read out the newspaper account, translating from the Spanish as he went along. That is the image I retain in my mind of him—in his shirt-sleeves, tranquil, at peace, reading out the newspaper account for Parrish and me.

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