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Odd Man In

A Life

by Elia Kazan
Knopf, 848 pp., $24.95

The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets

with an introduction by William Gibson
Grove Press, 369 pp., $22.50

If manners can be said to serve as the mask of self-interest, then charming manners require that one create the illusion of interest in others. Most show-business people are determined to be charming, but whatever Elia Kazan’s appeal in person (and from his own mouth one hears of much loyalty, many friendships), Kazan, as author, is ill-mannered, self-serving, and charmless. Now seventy-eight, Kazan has apparently kept note, through a long and very busy life, of every longing, slight, setback, and disappointment—and also of every rose of satisfaction. In A Life, he recalls some momentary defeat fifty-five years ago with the fresh outrage of unearned rebuff; he recounts a moment at a young actress’s side as happily as a kid at camp who scores with a pretty girl on the first day of the summer.

Absurdly garrulous, and often coarse to the point of moral unconsciousness, Kazan tells so much—airing other people’s critical opinions of his behavior as well as his own self-explanations and doubts—that he almost asks us to catch him fibbing, evading. He may be an egotist, but he is not vain, and his autobiography, for all its loutish demand on our patience, is also a soulful portrait of a man flailing about in a thicket of desire and guilt. Admitting his weaknesses and miseries, Kazan can be touching—a man longing to be a hero but uneasily aware that he may be a clown.

The book is not so much written as compiled. What makes it unusual, however, is Kazan’s apparent conviction that rawness is itself a virtue. “After my family returned to New York to get the kids back to school [they had been visiting him on location], I bunked with a gentle, generous young woman who’d recently given birth; when we made love, her milk was all over my chest.” A man of no ordinary foolishness wrote that awful sentence: the milk on his chest is both a badge of triumph and a challenge to the squeamish. Though of less artistic interest, A Life has the same pressured, slightly embarrassing emotional charge as Kazan’s movies. The book offers the comic spectacle of an insatiable and shameless man. Part of the comedy is that while Kazan often sees himself as an artist driving for fulfillment, the reader is constantly amazed by, and sometimes admiring of, Kazan’s astonishingly adroit careerism.

A Life is wonderfully instructive as an account of an American on the make. A powerful figure for years in both theater and film, Kazan was always watching, keeping his opinion to himself, charging in, winning or taking a beating, then, without much hesitation, picking himself up and moving on. He attained great success while remaining personally invulnerable—invisible almost—until the House Committee on Un-American Activities forced him, in 1952, to show his hand. He betrayed himself and others on that occasion, but then, in an astounding turnaround, used the ugly new cast of his personality to create his first distinctive work in the movies.

Assertive and crestfallen, he openly craves our approval. Early on, pulling at our sympathy, Kazan establishes the myth of himself. His people were Anatolian Greeks—that is, Greeks living in Turkey, and, like Jews under the czar, fearful, conciliatory, and cunning. The men, trying to “pass,” spoke Turkish and wore the Mohammedan fez; they depended on the mercy of their masters, accepting humiliation as a necessity of survival. The way out was emigration to America. Kazan’s uncle, Avraam Elia “Joe” Kazanjioglou, whose story Kazan later told in America America, went first, establishing the family rug business in New York. Later his father, Yiorgos “George” Kazan, followed, and sent for his family. At the age of four, just beforeWorld War I, Kazan was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

According to Kazan, his father was a censorious and aloof man who never read a book. (Kazan says he has hated only two people in his life; the other person was…Tallulah Bankhead.) Fighting to establish himself in the face of his father’s contempt, he became a crafty and calculating Anatolian in his own house. The odds against victory were steep. At his father’s Fifth Avenue rug store, where Kazan was forced to work during summer vacations, George Kazan would praise to his customers the size of his nephew’s—not his son’s—penis. This indignity compounded a more serious worry. At the age of fourteen, he tells us, he contracted mumps, and the infection settled into his scrotum; by the end of the disease, one testicle had withered and died. He was short, bowlegged, he had a big nose and a big rump. He had one ball. At school, and later at Williams College, which he attended against his father’s wishes, he lusted after girls, but only in secret.

Reading of this dolorous childhood in the way Kazan partly intends it to be read—as a warrant for later revenge—one grows a little suspicious. He tells us, for instance, that his problems with girls at school and college led to a desire to “score” that could be satisfied in later years only by pursuing the same type of blond, beautiful woman—generically, shiksas—that he had earlier failed with, or by taking women away from other men, particularly from good-looking actors or successful screenwriters. (In the case of Marilyn Monroe, however, he sounds pleased to have passed her on to his friend Arthur Miller and to have slept with her while she was considering Joe DiMaggio’s proposal.)

But revenge can hardly account for all the fun he had. The book offers a proud and happy accounting of many quick boffs in limousines and hotels and dressing rooms (on the floor, before the matinee) as well as much lolling by swimming pools and within the breezecaressed bungalows of Beverly Hills. Less a great sinner than a garden-variety cad, Kazan made a habit, for decades, of exploiting his power over young actresses. A few years after college, he married an accomplished girl from a good Yankee family, Molly Day Thacher, who seems to have assured him of his sexual powers and his sense of his worth as a person, but his pursuit of young actresses never stopped; in fact, it increased. That some of the bundling may have been just for the fun of it, he doesn’t admit. In his own eyes, he was a loser and an outcast screwing his way into the winner’s circle.

After two years at the Yale Drama School, he left, dissatisfied, in 1932. “A saturnine young man of uncertain race,” he was given a tryout by the revolutionary company that Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg had recently formed in New York, the Group Theater. He loved the Group’s left-bohemian seriousness and informality, and he stayed within its orbit until the end of the decade. But judging by his account, one finds it hard to believe that after the first couple of years he put much faith in the company’s charged sense of purpose. From Harold Clurman’s sensitive history of the Group, The Fervent Years (1945), one gets a clearer and more impassioned idea of the strenuous ethical project Kazan had joined and of the mixed naiveté and belief that made the experience so intoxicating.

Falling, at first, under Strasberg’s spell, Kazan quickly developed reservations about the great teacher’s dictatorial and self-protecting way of imposing the “Method” on young actors, and he seems to have been interested less in the visions of the effusive Clurman than in impressing him with his own abilities. Here was a brilliant family with two disapproving fathers: he had to break into it. He was initially deemed untalented as an actor but was admitted to the permanent company when it became clear that he could set lights and build or repair anything backstage, a facility that earned him the nickname “Gadget,” or “Gadge.” From the beginning, he despised the name for what it revealed of his willingness to make himself useful to others. Amiable and compliant on the surface, he developed what can be amiability’s internal echoes—anger, self-disgust, resentment.

His temperament, perhaps, would have led him to join a right-wing political movement. But in New York he was surrounded by left-wing actors and intellectuals. And so he visited dye plants in Paterson, went to the new Soviet films, and in the summer of 1934 joined the Communist party, becoming a member of a secret cell of actors within the Group. What can now be scarcely understood is that in 1934 Party membership could advance a young man’s career in the theater. Kazan insists now that he was not then—or ever—genuinely political in his interests or instincts; and one can see that Party discipline was alien to a young man of his tumultuous ambition.

A theater person looking for a role, onstage and off, he found one in Clifford Odets’s early plays, with their expansive atmosphere of outrage, revolt, and hot assent, all of it rendered in an inflated rhetorical style crossed with the comically rumpled street slang of lower-middle-class Jews. The high-minded sentiment of Odets’s plays fired Kazan with the yearning for an American reality “not printed on dollar bills.”

Kazan’s part in that warming cultural moment is now tainted with a sickening irony. For it was no other than Gadget who ran on stage at the end of Waiting for Lefty to announce that Lefty had been murdered, rousing the actors (and then the audience) to their cry of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” His appearance caused New Masses to dub him “Proletarian Thunderbolt,” and there he is, clenched fists upraised, on the cover of the latest paperback edition of The Fervent Years,1 standing among some of the actors he named to the HUAC seventeen years later. Irony, however, is not within Kazan’s temperamental range. Blandly, he recounts the opening-night triumph. “Oh, the balcony, the people in cheap seats, how they cheered!… That was the dream all of us in the Group had—to be embraced that way by a theatreful of people.” The memory of applause effaces everything else.

Despite the initial low estimate of his talents, Kazan succeeded as an actor. Playing gangsters and tough guys, he became a cult favorite, and even impressed Stark Young, the most discriminating critic of the time. But the value of acting for him, Kazan says, was that onstage he could drop the feigned sweetness and docility and express instead the anger he was feeling inside. A 1935 photograph is revealing of the public Kazan. The eyes have a liquid pathos, almost heartbreaking. He has a high forehead and a long and narrow face, its melancholy attenuation softened by a large nose and sensual mouth. It is a face as homely and plaintive as that of a young Talmudic scholar. Only much later, after many triumphs, did he become an imposing figure—big-chested, white-haired, and powerful.

The young go-getter was noticed. In 1935, after the success of Odets’s Awake and Sing!, V.J. Jerome, the Party’s cultural commissar (and a fixture in memoirs of the period), called the Thunderbolt to the Twelfth Street headquarters and urged him to convey the Party’s wishes to the cell—that it try to take over the entire Group Theater. Kazan carried the message back but voted against the takeover. He was then browbeaten and humiliated before the cell by an organizer from Detroit brought in for the occasion—Lefty had arrived after all. Outraged, Kazan broke ranks and quit the Party. He now presents the episode as a violation of the highest principle: “The Man from Detroit had been sent to stop the most dangerous thing the Party had to cope with: people thinking for themselves.”

  1. 1

    Da Capo Press, 1983.

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