sporting the new tie, attached to a rubber band which went
around underneath my collar, I went to visit an old acquaintance
whose good opinion I sought — a comedian named Don Barclay,
who had been friendly to each of our troupe when he headlined
with us in England. He was in a new show and greeted me warmly
in his dressing room, but said nothing about my clever new tie.
So eventually, and rather casually I thought, I got the
conversation around to style trends, and in particular my jazz
bow and what did he think of it? Don Barclay looked at it with
benign concentration, then slowly reached over and pulled it
away from my neck and let it snap back. We both burst out
laughing, and that was the last time I wore the tie; but Don and
I have been friends ever since. Years later we worked together,
as comedian and straight man, through long Army, USO and
hospital tours, during which we often couldn’t find a clean
shirt, much less a fashionable tie.
After a few jobless weeks my
savings were spent, and I began nibbling into the emergency
money put aside for return passage to England. Eating, for such
a ravenous appetite, was a bit of a problem; but fortunately,
being a tall dark-blue-suited young bachelor who wouldn’t
arrive wearing brown shoes, fall off the chair, or drink from a
finger bowl, I was often invited at the last minute to round out
the guests at dinner tables on which were some fine spreads.
One evening a young man named
Marks whose father, I believe, conceived the idea of daylight
saving time, invited me to dine at his family’s home on Park
Avenue. I was asked to call for Lucrezia Bori, the Metropolitan
Opera lyric soprano, who was the rage of New York at that time.
Although I felt only awkwardly
adequate as her escort, she treated me as if I were a
sought-after, mature man-about-town, and carefully requested
that we walk to the party along Park Avenue, because the
exercise, she said, would be good for us.
In every way it was a fine,
fateful evening. At the dinner I met a man named George Tilyew.
We exchanged the “and-what-line-of-business-are-you-in?”
genialities, and he told me he had offices at Coney Island in
Steeplechase Park, which I gathered his family owned, operated,
leased or managed; I wasn’t fully listening at that point
because my mind, always alert to the possibility of a job, was
wondering how best to benefit from the introduction.
Steeplechase? Hmmmm! An amusement park, wasn’t it?
I remembered seeing a man
walking on stilts along Broadway advertising something or other,
and heard myself suggesting to Mr. Tilyew that perhaps I could
do the same for him. He agreed that perhaps I could. I said,
yes, well, perhaps I could advertise Steeplechase Park by
walking up and down in front of the place. I didn’t care to
invade that other fellow’s stilt-walking territory and risk
getting my comeuppance or, rather, comedownance. Mr. Tilyew said
yes, perhaps I could, it might be a fine idea, and would I see
him at his office whenever convenient? Would I?
Leaving the party, Miss Bori
again suggested that we walk, this time because the cool evening
breeze would be relaxing, she said; and with a job in
tomorrow’s offing, and pride in my companion, I felt confident
and protective. A seldom feeling.
It wasn’t until years later,
when that dear Lucrezia Bori lunched with me at Paramount
Studios in Hollywood, that I learned she had correctly guessed
that the cost of cab fares would have busted me for the week.
The most famous, the most
talented are, I’ve always found, the most considerate.
Humility and greatness become part of each other, and a
delightful old story suddenly comes to mind to illustrate the
point. A headwaiter was asked how he managed to seat
satisfactorily the celebrities that frequented his restaurant,
and he replied, “Oh, I never bother about it. Usually those
who matter don’t mind. And those who mind don’t
I’ve known so many celebrities
throughout my life. So many renowned, colorful people who have
been good to me, tolerant of me and helpful to me, and I wish to
acquaint you with some of their names, not merely in a burst of
immodesty or name-dropping, but because I’m proud of having
known them and look forward to seeing what I write about them. I
shall relish dropping their names and trust they’ll often drop
mine. Aside from those mentioned elsewhere in my story —
because I never mention people who’ve shown me unfriendliness
— they include:
Noel Coward: whose success
as actor, playwright, director, and composer-lyricist, was so
remarkable that it attracted my youthful, but pitiable,
emulation. In the late 1920's I’d wavered between imitating
two older English actors, of the natural, relaxed school, Sir
Gerald DuMaurier and A. E. Matthews, and was seriously
considering being Jack Buchanan and Ronald Squire as well; but
Noel Coward’s performance in Private Lives narrowed the
field, and many a musical-comedy road company was afflicted with
my breezy new gestures and puzzling accent. Still, everyone has
to start somewhere and, in a way, everything starts with
pretense. One pretends to do something, or copy someone
or some teacher, until it can be done confidently and easily in
what becomes one’s own manner. I doubt if Noel was
flattered by my mimicry, but we’ve remained friends over the
years. I lunched with him recently in my home town of Bristol.
Joseph Von Sternberg: the director of Marlene Dietrich, Herbert
Marshall and me in Blonde Venus . In 1932. The first
morning of shooting he suddenly stopped everything, grabbed a
comb, and parted my hair on the wrong side, where it’s been
ever since. He bemoaned, berated and beseeched me to relax, but
it was years before I could move at ease before a camera. Years
before I could stop my right eyebrow from lifting — a sure
sign of inner defenses and tensions, to be seen in many actors
and actresses. Some transfer it to a twitching stiffened elbow.
And Marlene Dietrich: who smilingly accepted my immaturity and
inexperience with comforting patience.
Irene M. Selznick: daughter of an industrial pioneer, Louis B.
Mayer; proud producer of two grown sons, and of Tennessee
Williams’s splendid stage play A Streetcar Named Desire ,
which brought Marlon Brando such unforgettable acclaim. Irene
has listened to some pretty deep confidences of mine and, merely
by listening, unreproachful and unshocked, has helped more than
she can know. Irene has perception and integrity and, together
with many other of her friends, I’ve been a moderate investor
in each of the plays she’s produced in New York; they include Bell,
Book and Candle, The Chalk Garden, and The Complaisant Lover .
And, whenever possible, I’ve flown East to attend each opening
night with her; we sit in the back row, where my nervousness and
concern for everyone in the cast seems to put her serenely at
Countess Dorothy di Frasso: a friend for over 20 years. A friend
whose rare ability to laugh at herself so often dispelled my own
gloom. Although I had previously dined with Barbara Hutton on
the Normandie in 1938, it was Dorothy who reintroduced us, when
she and Barbara returned from a visit to Honolulu.
Dorothy’s escapades were
the gossip’s delight, and her palatial Villa Madama in Rome
was the scene of indescribably lavish parties. The Villa Madama,
the classic site of so many Hubert Robert paintings, was taken
over by Mussolini’s Fascisti government for Hitler’s use
during the war. In light of events to come, it was Dorothy’s
haunting grief that she didn’t arrange to leave a time bomb in
the place before departing to live in America. She died in her
sleep in 1954 — on a train returning to Los Angeles from Las
Vegas, where she had visited Marlene Dietrich. It was my unhappy
mission to accompany her body to New York for the funeral and a
gathering of those who, like myself, would miss her amusing
presence and the loyalty of her friendship.
Merle Oberlon: who, propelled by my cowardly insistence and her
own irresistible sense of the romantic, approached Betsy Drake
on the deck of the Queen Mary and introduced herself;
then, while I hid in the nearest companionway, she invited Betsy
on my behalf to join us at lunch. That was how, in 1947, I met
the dear wife who recently divorced me.
Frederick Lonsdale: the fey, wise and humor-filled playwright,
author of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and may other
successes, who spent years of his life crossing by ship between
London and New York and who, like me, was deeply attracted to
Betsy when we all met on the Queen Mary. In fact, had
Freddy been 20 years younger, I would certainly have lost her to
him. Until his death in 1954 he was probably my closest friend.
Sir Alexander Korda: the imaginative power behind the forming of
London Films. A man of old-world charm and an amused regard of
life. He sometimes stayed with me at my home in Bel Air and I
with him at Claridge’s in London.
During the early years of
transoceanic flying, Alex and I crossed the Atlantic many times
and, accustomed to the unreliability of planes’ heating
systems in those days, we learned to bring along heavy sweaters.
On one trip, in 1946, after comfortably settling ourselves, we
both began fumbling around in our airplane bags beneath the
seats, and simultaneously came up, grinningly pleased with
ourselves, holding two identical pairs of brown fleece-lined
zipper-fronted slipper boots we’d bought at Abercrombie &
Fitch as a surprise for each other. We had four pairs between
Cole Porter: probably the world’s best known living
composer of contemporary music; about whom the film Night and
Day was made in 1945, and whose life I so ineptly portrayed,
with little understanding of such extraordinary talent or the
graciousness of its possessor. Although Cole must have sensed my
lack of insight, he appeared genuinely pleased about the
picture, and frequently invited me to his home and many
entertaining parties there. His welcoming smile, seldom absent
from his face, still remains fresh in my memory; yet I’ve
never properly voiced my appreciation to him, nor the extent of
Ingrid Bergman: a fascinating, full-blooded yet temperate woman
who has the courage to live in accord with her needs, and
strength enough to accept and benefit by the consequences of her
beliefs in an inhibited, critical and frightened society. Ingrid
needs no uninvited busybody to proclaim her debts; she knows and
pays them herself. I commend her highly to you.
A few years ago I visited Ingrid
and her husband, Lars Schmidt, at their comfortable house in the
country outside Paris, and, hearing them discuss a wish to
purchase an old, curved, unvarnished wooden cabinet to fit into
a particular corner, I decided to try to find one as a surprise
present. Two years later I saw the perfect piece in a Chelsea
shop window in London, and put in a call to Ingrid to see if she
had bought one by then, and happily learned she hadn’t; but
while I was sitting out the incredible time it takes to reach
the continental operator, and the usual hours of delay on
European calls, the dealer sold the cabinet to some man who
sauntered in off the street. What about that? I have never
effectively explained to Ingrid why she and Lars haven’t
received that perfect cabinet I told her I’d found.
Clifford Odets: who wrote and directed the film version of None
But the Lonely Heart with Ethel Barrymore, Barry Fitzgerald and
me. The film received many awards, none of which were as
meaningful as the reward of Clifford’s lasting friendship. I
enjoy his stentorian convictions and the courage he has to
emphatically proclaim his everchanging beliefs. A stimulating,
Peggy Lee and Judy Garland: each of whom touches me deeply. They
move me strangely, not only by their songs but by their
presence. When I am with them, I feel content and happily at
ease without need for oral communication.