‘The Check Is in the Mail’

Spiegel: The Man Behind the Pictures

by Andrew Sinclair
Little Brown, 162 pp., $17.95

Sam Spiegel
Sam Spiegel; drawing by David Levine

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…

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