Spiegel: The Man Behind the Pictures
The first thing I did when I picked up Spiegel: The Man Behind the Pictures, Andrew Sinclair’s biography of film producer Sam Spiegel, was look in the index, where I found a listing I was hoping not to find: “Dunne, John Gregory, 131.” Immediately I went to page 131:
Diana Phipps was also at a dinner on the Malahne [Spiegel’s yacht] with the writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, when Spiegel declared, “I believe I have led the most dissolute life of the four of us.” None of the others disagreed.
In fact, I have never been on the Malahne, and knew Sam Spiegel but slightly, at the very end of his life, and saw him only in the company of others who knew him better. The dinner took place not on Spiegel’s five-hundred-ton yacht in the Mediterranean but on a Georgian square in London, on a freezing wet spring night, with one of the four people present nursing a high fever and wondering how to get out of a USIA tour to Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone scheduled to begin at the end of the week. What Sam actually said was that he had led a more “profligate” life than anyone else at the table, “profligate” being a more evocative and ambiguous word than “dissolute,” and even then one had to hear him say it.
His dimensions were that of an altar votive candle, half-melted, the flesh cascading from him like cooled wax; his voice came from his esophagus, a low rumble, like thunder on the horizon, and when he referred to his “profligate life,” drawing the phrase out for what seemed an eternity, it conjured up priapic adventures that boggled the imagination—daily doubles, quinellas, and pick-six combinations.
My point here is that Spiegel is a genre book, belonging to what I can only call the literature of anecdote. Anecdotes are factoids of questionable provenance, burnished to a high gloss, often set in gilded venues and populated with familiar names as background atmosphere, purged of ambiguity in the interest of keeping the narrative flowing smoothly. Spiegel’s allowing to his own profligacy plays better on the Malahne, anchored off the Riviera, with its paneled dining saloon, its seven staterooms, its crew of twenty-three, and an annual operating cost, in port, of $150,000 a year, than it does on a cold night in London. I might add that when I tell this story (I was not interviewed by Andrew Sinclair), I always say that I answered, “You don’t think you’re going to get an argument, do you, Sam?” But I am not sure I actually said this, or just wish I had said it, or indeed added it later. All anecdote, whether biographical or autobiographical, is essentially self-aggrandizing, allowing the teller to bask in his own created, or someone else’s reflected, glory; showing an appreciation of his status or his closeness to the glorified, or how he triumphed, or whatever it is in his interest to demonstrate.
It is with these caveats that one must approach Spiegel. Stories attached themselves to Sam Spiegel the way lint clings to a cheap suit, most of them begging for the qualifying adverb “allegedly,” none of them, in Spiegel, getting it. “If you woke up in a motel with a dead whore who’d been stabbed, who would you call?” Billy Wilder once allegedly asked, and then he answered, “Sam Spiegel.” Otto Preminger, who in 1935 fled from Austria with Spiegel, and later fell out with him, once allegedly warned: “Don’t turn your back on him, or your hair will be stolen.” Once, strolling on a London street with a doxy, Spiegel was allegedly kicked in the rear by a passerby. Without looking around or breaking stride, he allegedly said, “The check is in the mail.”
Winner of three Academy Awards, the producer of The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia, the producer as well of Melba, When I Grow Up, The Happening, and many other pictures he preferred to forget he was ever associated with, Sam Spiegel belonged to the now nearly vanished generation of middle European buccaneers washed up on the Hollywood shore. He was born, in 1901, in Jaroslaw, a Galician market town near the Russian border, the black sheep second son of a tobacco merchant (his elder brother, Shalom Spiegel, a Talmudic scholar, later became the only person in whom Sam ever seemed to take an unequivocal pride). World War I cut short his childhood; German and Russian armies ranged over Galicia, and at war’s end, Poland’s Marshal Pilsudski tried to cut a deal with the Russian Whites. The Red armies counter-attacked, and with anarchy in the ascendancy and pogroms in Pinsk and Lvov and Wilno, the family Spiegel decamped from Jaroslaw for the Vienna ghetto.
In Vienna, Samuel Spiegel honed what became the habit of a lifetime, the almost daily reinvention of his past. In later years, he would claim a Vienna university degree, but in fact, says Sinclair, this was not true. He learned on his own “to avoid war and taxes, to disbelieve governments and stability, to trust only in money and himself.” From Austria, Spiegel migrated to Palestine, where he dug ditches and sewer lines in a kibbutz, characteristically upgrading his labors, in a press release when he was rich and famous, to that of a drainage expert who reclaimed land in the desert and assisted in the exploitation of the Dead Sea. He married, and then abandoned his wife and daughter, returning to Poland, where he recast himself once again, this time as a stock promoter and cotton broker.
Armed only with charm and a talent for languages—he was ultimately conversant in nine—Spiegel took on the world, leaving behind a trail of bad checks, which kept him more or less constantly peripatetic. In California, sound had come to the movie business, and when Spiegel failed as a cotton broker in San Francisco, his language skills won him a job at MGM as a scout for European plays and books that might make film properties; in subsequent publicity, he naturally dolled up his first film job with the claim that he had been discovered at Berkeley as a lecturer in European drama. But his paper trail ultimately caught up with him, and in 1929 he was sentenced to nine months for passing a worthless check; he served five and was deported to Poland.
In 1930, Spiegel surfaced in Berlin as a factotum in the picture business, part panderer, part promoter, part PR man, a dubber, cutter, and translator of pictures for the European market. In time he became a minor producer, but fled Germany for Vienna the day of the Reichstag fire. How he left, and under what circumstances, is unclear. In one version, he claimed to have been warned by his barber, a part-time storm trooper, that he would be picked up if he returned home; he went from his shave to the Bahnhof, where he caught a train to Vienna. In another version, the barber drove his Cord coupe and his clothes to Vienna; and in still a third, he left with the actor Oscar Homolka, arriving in the Austrian capital, after changing trains to avoid detection, with a toothbrush, four marks, and a script that he hoped Homolka would star in. However he arrived, Spiegel’s escape would subsequently elicit from him the same comment: “These are the accidents of history that prevent you from becoming a lampshade.”
Spiegel stayed in Vienna long enough to have an affair with Hedy Lamarr, but then in 1935, a few months after Austrian Nazis assassinated Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in an abortive Putsch, he headed for Paris with Preminger. Typically the accounts of this journey differ with the teller. The only fact not in dispute is that Preminger had a bankroll worth seven thousand dollars, which he was forbidden to take from the country because of Austria’s stringent restrictions on the export of currency. Since he was paying for the trip—Spiegel was, as usual, broke—Preminger insisted that Spiegel carry the cash in his coat and run the risk of arrest if it were discovered. At the border, in Spiegel’s version, he was indeed searched, and then released. Once safely across the frontier in Switzerland, Preminger demanded to know where the money was. Spiegel said he had slipped it back into Preminger’s own pocket without his knowing it. I once wrote a screenplay for Preminger, and in his account of the story—a staple in his repertoire—it was he who had been strip-searched, but he had succeeded in secretly stashing the money back in Spiegel’s coat on the not unreasonable grounds that Spiegel would only look innocent if he did not know he was carrying it.
In Paris there were too few movie jobs for the refugee Jews who were competing for them, and those who were there had better credentials than Spiegel. With little more than the clothes on his back, Spiegel took himself to London, where his claim that he had worked for anti-Nazi youth groups won him the sponsorship of a Jewish film producer. He managed to produce a picture with Buster Keaton, then down on his luck and a drunk. But once again Spiegel financed his extravagances with bad checks, this time adding a little theft and forgery to the mix. He failed to show up for his trial at the Old Bailey, deciding to give a champagne and caviar party at the Dorchester Hotel instead. When the police arrived to cart him to his prior engagement, he departed stylishly. “Ladies and gentlemen, please continue to be my guests,” he announced to the assembled group. “I am temporarily the guest of His Majesty’s Government.”
Spiegel was sentenced to three months in jail and deported. He seemed to have a past and no future. England and the United States were now closed to him, and a Europe heading for war with Nazi Germany was no place for a Jew. As always, his instinct was to keep moving. He hocked the signed first editions of the collected works of Bernard Shaw lent him by a friend, and with the proceeds bought himself a ticket to Mexico. There he indulged in still more financial chicanery, earning himself yet another brief stay in the pokey. When he got out, he slipped across the border at Laredo under an assumed name, and made his way to Los Angeles. The date was September 1939; whatever else might happen, Spiegel this time could not be deported to Poland.
He was thirty-eight, with no papers and no prospects, living on the dole provided by other more successful middle European Jews in Hollywood. The founders of the movie business, a generation older than the refugees from Hitler, came from what one wag called the Almanach de Ghetto—Louis B. Mayer and the Schenk brothers from Minsk, Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) from Warsaw, Lewis J. Zeleznik (later Selznick, father of Myron and David O.) from Kiev, the Warner brothers from Krasmaskhilz; “Poland to polo in one generation,” it was said of these pioneers. Spiegel’s first priority was a name, and the three-time jailbird had the wit to stick with the bird motif, converting Spiegel into “S.P. Eagle.” Darryl Zanuck claimed he would next change it to E.A. Gull, while others claimed to be S.P. Eechless at his gall. But what the joke meant was that Sam Spiegel had arrived—that as S.P. Eagle he was finally a player.