The first thing I ever heard Stanley Donen say was “If I can’t get the Duke of Marlborough, will the Duke of Westminster do?” It was a spring morning in 1964. I was climbing the steps to his office in Hamilton Place, in London’s West End. He was, I gathered, talking to his (third) wife, Adelle, a legendary beauty, socialite, and ex-lover of Frank Sinatra’s. Stanley told me some years later that when Frank heard that she was going to marry Stanley, he sent Adelle a telegram saying “NOT HIM.” Time proved it would have been kinder to send Stanley one, saying “NOT HER.”
The climb to Stanley’s Hamilton Place office took me up past a row of framed posters of the movies Stanley had already directed, from On the Town (with Sinatra) and Singing in the Rain, to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Pajama Game and the picture that Stanley would later describe as “my only hit,” Charade, with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. By the time I shook his hand, he was already a renowned figure. He had just turned 40. I was 32. I had written one British movie (and a few books). Stanley died in February at the age of 94. What the obituaries did not say, or could not say, is that Stanley was the most emotionally capacious man I have encountered in the course of a five-decade career writing for the movies.
I got to meet Stanley because I had been contracted to work for 17 weeks, at a salary I could scarcely believe ($2,000 a week), for the writer-producer Norman Panama. Like Stanley, he had moved to London from Hollywood where, a lot of them thought, it was all over with the movies due to the advent of television. The script I was contracted to co-write was called What Makes Tommy Run? and slated to star Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. At the end of my first day with the perfectly nice Mr. Panama and a kosher lunch, I went home and was sick: shame, not food poisoning. I knew exactly what made me want to run. My wife, whom I call Beetle (she had shining black hair), said I should just quit. I said, “Do that, I’ll never work in the movies again.” She said, “So?”
I went back to Panama in the morning and stammered my excuses, expecting to be held to the 17 weeks like Hercules to his 12 labors. Norman smiled. “Listen, if you don’t want to do something, why do it? Thank God, we didn’t waste any more time, yours or mine.”
I said, “I realize very well that I’ll never work again in the movies—”
Norman said, “That’s for you to decide. But I’ll tell you something. I was at a party last night and I told Stanley Donen you were working with me and he said, ‘How in hell did you find him? I loved his movie.’” That movie, Nothing but the Best, directed by Clive Donner, had just opened to very good reviews, but no queues around the block. “So,” Norman said, “why don’t I give Stanley a call and tell him you’re…free?”
When I was sitting in his office, Stanley said, “I loved your picture. They all say it was the director, but I know it was the writer. How do we find something to do together?”
I said, “Well, I do have one idea, it came when we were driving down to the South of France last year and I said to my wife, ‘Imagine if we overtook ourselves as we were 12 years ago, hitchhiking.’ And she said, ‘Might make a good movie.’ The idea keeps growing in my mind. The journey goes in a straight line in space and back and forth in time, intercutting with other trips in the course of their marriage…”
Stanley said, “Sounds great. How do we do it?”
I said, “We don’t. I do. I’ve discovered that I just can’t work with other people in the room. If you want to do it—I thought of the title Two for the Road—you give me some money and I go away and write a script.”
Stanley said, “Last time I did that, I never saw the guy again.”
I said, “That won’t happen with me. I promise. But it’s your decision.”
He said, “Will you write me a few pages maybe? So I can… Think Audrey Hepburn would be a good idea?”
“Was she ever a bad one?”
I typed a quick outline, 10 pages, sketching what would happen on the five, six, seven different trips that would be cut together to make the movie, and Stanley commissioned a screenplay. He sent the pages to Audrey, who said she enjoyed them, but she had just made a movie called Paris When It Sizzles, which also had some kind of interrupted narrative, and it had not been a hit, so she passed, as they say. Stanley said, “I told her we were going ahead anyway.” Then he played me a new long-playing record of the comedy routines of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
When the deal was set, Beetle and I and our two children set off in our new light-blue Mercedes down the old, narrow Routes Nationales to Nice, then on to Rome. We rented an apartment in Vigna Clara, and I bought a bundle of lined cards on which I wrote the scenes, based on our life together but never exactly, and laid them on the marble floor and then arranged and rearranged them until I had an order that seemed to tell the disjointed story in an amusing, surprising way. The movie seemed to cut and write itself. I parceled it up and sent it to Stanley.
A few nights later, the telephone rang. “Freddie? I just read it. It’s going to be the best thing I ever did. I would have called you halfway through, but I thought that would look silly. I know Audrey said no last time, but I’m going to send it to her again.”
This time, she said yes. Would we come to Burgenstock, in the Swiss mountains, and talk to her? We would; we did. Audrey didn’t have anything she wanted to say about the script except that she loved it. Maybe she wanted company. Her marriage with Mel Ferrer was not going well. The way she called him “Melchior” said it all. Audrey hoped we might get Paul Newman to be in the movie with her.
Stanley and I went back down to Zurich, and he said, “Let’s go buy some watches.” I had never before heard anyone propose to buy a plurality of watches. When we went to the airport, there was thick fog. People disappeared as they walked across to their flights. I said, “What do we do if there’s a crash and then they call our flight?”
Stanley said, “We go take it. Ever hear of two planes in a row crashing on takeoff?”
Nothing crashed. I flew back to Rome on Cloud Seven. Stanley said he’d call me when he had a studio, which was not right away. Despite his recent hit and Audrey’s unique quality, the script was said to be too original for its own good. Finally, Dick Zanuck and David Brown at Fox said yes, please. (David was one of the nicest men ever to have a distinguished career in the biz.)
Paul Newman passed on Two for the Road because, he said, it was a director’s picture, not an actor’s. Stanley dared to cast Albert Finney, who had scowled and charmed his way through some English movies about working-class lives. The shooting went without a hitch, which reminds me: Stanley told me, after the movie opened, that he had had a call with congratulations from Alfred Hitchcock. “Wow!” I said. Stanley said, “The thing that really impressed him was that we made the whole thing without travelling matte.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“It was all done on location,” Stanley explained. “No back projection in the studio the way he always did things.”
“And that was it?”
“Take your bouquets when you can,” Stanley said. “Who knows when there’ll be another one?”
On one of my solo trips to L.A., I went to a buffet party given by George and Joan Axelrod. I was surprised to see Gregory Peck sitting alone at a table and took my chance to talk to an idol. After a while, he said, in his ponderous way, “You’re a friend of Stanley Donen’s, aren’t you?” “I certainly am.” “Then maybe you could explain something. When I was making Arabesque in London, I had a lot of suits made for me by Huntsman’s, and it was agreed in the contract that, when shooting was over, I would have them sent to me. They didn’t come until after I’d written to Stanley several times, and when they did, they were all jumbled together in one big, very unsuitable box.” “Doesn’t sound like Stanley,” I said. Greg said, “Why would he do a thing like that?”
When I mentioned it to Stanley, he said, “I’ll tell you exactly why. When we were shooting Arabesque, Greg was due to be paid $50,000 every week he was in England. There was going to be a period of three weeks when he wasn’t wanted on the set, during which he promised to leave England. He rented a house in London and, when the time came for him to go away, he came to me and said they were so happy there, was it OK if they didn’t leave the country? ‘As long as you don’t expect to be paid, of course.’ He said of course he didn’t. When we finished shooting, his agent sent a bill for $150,000 on account of the weeks he wasn’t on the set, but he was in England. Greg said he was sorry, but business was business. So he got his money, and then he asked for the Huntsman suits. I ordered a big plywood box and we threw them in there and then we jumped up and down on them until we could nail down the lid.” Maybe it wasn’t surprising that Greg was sitting alone at the Axelrods’ party.
One night in the early 1970s, Stanley and his then live-in lady gave a dinner party. Beetle couldn’t come because one of our children was sick. The other guests were Stanley Kubrick and his wife, an amateur painter, and Lord Goodman, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s shyster extraordinaire. We might have talked about many interesting things, but we didn’t.
After we’d eaten, we played the silly game in which everybody in turns says something that he or she has never done. If any of the others have done it, a token forfeit gets paid (a matchstick in our case). Stanley Donen said he had never taken public transport in London. Stanley Kubrick said he had never had any clothes made to measure. Lord Goodman capped them with “I’ve never taken legal advice.”
Stanley Donen and I never made another movie, though not for want of trying. With the advent of Steven Spielberg and Marty Scorsese and who all else, Hollywood recovered its nerve, never its style. London’s Americans went back to California. The beautiful Adelle had turned into a hypochondriac shrew no amount of ducal company would satisfy. When she sued Stanley for divorce, she had her lawyer make all kinds of nasty allegations about his personal habits. That they were false would not stop them ruining his reputation if they were uttered in court. Stanley was ulcered with dread.
He had a chauffeur called Hickey whom he had always treated with courteous generosity. One day, when Stanley was looking particularly jaundiced, Hickey said, “Mr. Donen, forgive me for saying this, but do you know where I’ve been driving Mrs. Donen quite regularly over the years, when you were…busy?”
Husbands are often the last people to know. Hickey volunteered to give evidence of Adelle’s many amorous rendezvous. A friendly, publicity-free settlement was promptly arranged.
In the early 1970s, Stanley left London for 300 Stone Canyon, Bel Air. He took Hickey (and the Rolls Royce) with him. Back in Los Angeles, he resumed life with many old friends and, quite soon, his fourth wife, Yvette Mimieux, 20 years younger than he, a new dream come true. He bought one of the first computers. Its machinery filled a whole room. When Beetle and I flew in, in 1975, Stanley had just finished shooting Lucky Lady, which was not proving the hit everyone had hoped. He met us wearing an enamel lapel badge with “I love Barry Lyndon” on it.
Kubrick’s new movie had had a bad press in the United States. Stanley Donen thought it was great, and he let people know. This was not common. The only director I ever heard Kubrick admire was the prolific Pole Krzysztof Kieslowski. Billy Wilder swore by Lubitsch and that was it. Stanley Donen was the least jealous film person I ever met. He even liked his friends’ successes. Then again, I remember when we were leaving a hit movie he had hated, he called out to the long line of waiting people, “Save your pennies!”
On one occasion he told me about, he was called by some executives, at Columbia, I think, who begged him to help them. A famous director had made a movie for them and they were very, very worried about it. If they sent a car, late at night, so the director would never know, would he come to the studio, see the director’s cut-so-far and tell them what he thought should or could be done to give it a chance at the box office? “Why not?” Stanley said. So the car came and they went to a dark building at the back of the lot and ran the picture. When the lights came up, the executives looked at Stanley: “What do you think? Is there anything you can…?”
Stanley said, “I liked it.”
Beetle and I flew many times to L.A., sometimes on promising projects, sometimes because, yes, it was tempting to dine, very well, with one devil or another. Stanley was always the first person I called. “Freddie! You’re here!” When Hickey got sick, Stanley got him the best possible treatment, but he died. The Rolls Royce disappeared. Next time we saw him, Stanley picked us up at the Beverley Wilshire driving a modest Cadillac. “How do you like my Jew canoe?” he asked us.
We saw him a few times with Yvette, more without. After his 1984 sex comedy Blame It on Rio flopped, she decided that she didn’t want to be married after all. Stanley was hurt, not bitter. He never complained about the law of the hotter ticket. He had had several wives and many women (the 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor among them), and now he had to find another. He always said that he figured Beetle—“a chic lady,” he called her—and I had “cracked it.” We love each other. That can work.
When Yvette left him, Billy and Audrey Wilder and the Huycks (Willard and Gloria) kept him afloat until, seemingly by chance, he met a young woman called Pam. She claimed, after consenting to a date, not to have known—until people kept saying hullo to him—that Stanley had to be “famous or something.” With gallant optimism, he proposed to marry her and did, at the mansion and then some of his ex-wife Yvette and her new multi-millionaire husband, Howard Ruby. Guys with bulging armpits checked the guests. Howard Ruby had enemies, it seemed.
It was maybe the ultimate Hollywood wedding. I was one of five best men, among them his son Josh, Charade writer Peter Stone, and Dudley Moore, who had starred in Stanley’s ’60s comedy Bedazzled. As we sat down to lunch at tables on the wide terrace, a slow plane, hired by one of the hundred and more guests, flew overhead trailing good luck stanley and pam. That evening, there was a more intimate dinner party at Sardi’s, a dozen or so close friends. Walter Matthau, who hadn’t been at the wedding, turned up with his whiter-than-white wife (she took all day to get her blanched makeup just right). After the nice speeches, Matthau leaned down the table toward Stanley and said, “What’re you going to do when the money runs out, Stanley?” That night, Dudley played the piano with sentimental wit and the quickest fingers ever. Not long afterwards he was stricken by motor neurone disease.
In the early 1960s, Matthau had played a minor part in Charade. Stanley, always polite, went to meet him at Charles de Gaulle airport. On the way into Paris, Matthau said, “You know I should be playing the Cary Grant part, don’t you?” Stanley laughed. Matthau didn’t. A few years later, he was a big star. But he was never Cary Grant. Stanley told us how one day Cary was asked to a charity event to which, he was warned, entry was forbidden to anyone not carrying a ticket. Cary forgot his. Head down over her list, the lady at the desk said, “Then you can’t come in.” Cary said, “I’m Cary Grant.” She looked up and said, “You don’t look like Cary Grant.” Cary said, “Nobody does.”
After the 1985 flop of Blame It on Rio, Stanley only ever got to make one more movie, a cheapo on television. He moved to New York, where he had started as a 16-year-old hoofer fresh out of South Carolina and the tight provincial Jewish life that he never wanted to go back to.
He didn’t talk about his family too much. He did tell me how, on one occasion, the telephone rang and his secretary said, “Mrs. Donen for you.” Stanley said, “Darling?” There was an accusing pause that said it all. “Mother!”
When he and Pam parted, amicably, he took up with Elaine May, whose record he had played for me 30 years earlier. They lived happily unmarried ever after. Stanley invited Beetle and me to come and see them in Paris in 2012 when he was being fêted by some French cinéphiles. No longer rich, always generous, he put us up in a suite at the Hôtel Lutetia, once Gestapo headquarters. Living well was the best revenge, dancing on their graves even better. We drank Champagne and Stanley said, “We’re here because we love each other.” No one said we would never see each other again, but we knew it was so.
He made a lotta lotta movies. Some will never be forgotten, and some, in the biz, is a lot. Some will never be remembered (Deep in My Heart, Staircase, and a few others, and so what?). Several of his movies were nominated for Oscars, but he didn’t receive one until 1998, when he was 74. He danced with joy as no other recipient ever did, or will. Then he thanked all the people he’d worked with, writers especially, me included.
There was only one Stanley Donen, only one Audrey Hepburn. Both were dancers. W.B. Yeats asked how we can know “the dancer from the dance.” The world can be cruel and very, very nasty, and both Audrey and Stanley knew it, but that’s not what their dance was about. Audrey’s father was a Belgian Fascist. Stanley’s was called Mordecai Moses Donen and managed a store in Columbia, South Carolina. Stanley’s mother was a Cohen. Jewishness was a given with Stanley, but nothing to talk about or to make movies about, jokes maybe, if they were good ones. Thanks to show business, he became an unmitigated 100 percent American American, as maybe no one will again. He danced the dream, ignored the pain, as dancers have to. He jumped with pleasure into the melting pot and celebrated what men and women had in common—comedy, music, romance. He knew about the dark side, but he wasn’t putting a foot in it: He didn’t do war, he didn’t do issues, he didn’t do grudges. He made all the movies he could. Great, good, or bad, they all had the leaven of love for life, its absurdity, its diversity, and they all illustrate what we have in common: the chance to do all the dancing we can before the music stops.