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 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.

Spiegel operated as he always had. He stole six plots from six different Hungarian playwrights, reasoning they could not sue him until the war was over, and put together an anthology film called Tales of Manhattan, with Charles Boyer, Ginger Rogers, Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, and others. His modus operandi was to use one star name to attract another, and then to go back and use the second name to get the first. He bought a house in the Beverly Hills flats, a quasi brothel that insured his social standing. “He’d give a dinner party,” Walter Wanger remembered, “and if you didn’t take the young lady on your right upstairs between the soup and the entrée, you were considered a homosexual.”

The movies he made were forgettable, his private extravagance memorable. Five hundred people regularly attended his New Year’s Eve parties; the gin rummy games went on around the clock, with girls available if any of the players wanted to take a break. “He operated on the edge of a financial precipice better than anyone I ever saw,” Talli Wyler, wife of director William Wyler said. “I don’t know how he did it, but there was always a feeling of lavishness about Sam.” Willy Wyler and Billy Wilder, boon companions, refused to work with him, each employing the nice Hollywood casuistry that friendship with him was too important to be sacrificed to the strains inherent in the making of a movie. He married a young actress named Lynn Baggett, who would sometimes show up at his parties naked under a mink coat, claiming her husband did not give her enough money to buy clothes. His creditors went unpaid, and he reverted to his old habit of passing bad paper. Once again he faced deportation proceedings, on this occasion to Mexico, his last port of entry. This time, however, he had friends, and the fix was in. In hearings redolent of payoff and bribery, Spiegel’s past convictions were expunged, and he was placed high on the Polish quota for legal entry into the United States, which brought with it the right to apply for future citizenship.

In 1949 Spiegel formed Horizon Pictures in partnership with John Huston, an old friend from the days when both were down and out in London. The company was so inadequately financed that they called it Shit Creek Productions; in keeping with that name, Spiegel mortgaged his house in order to scrape together $25,000 seed money for a picture based on C.S. Forester’s novel The African Queen. “A story of two old people going up and down a river,” Alexander Korda said when he declined to participate in the project. “You will be bankrupt.” Spiegel and Huston convinced Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to star in the picture, and then when the financing got shaky, Spiegel was able to renegotiate their contracts so that most of their fees were deferred.

Once The African Queen company got to the Ruki River location in the Belgian Congo, where most of the picture was shot, Spiegel had little to do with the production beyond laying on the odd caviar and champagne supper for his principals and arranging for the crew to have expenses paid in the local currency. Huston simply did not want him on the set. In fact it was with Huston in the Belgian Congo that a pattern developed that carried over to all the rest of Spiegel’s pictures: he worked best with strong directors. He made four very good pictures, and they were directed by three tough customers—Huston, Elia Kazan, who did On the Waterfront, and David Lean, who directed both The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, men who would ban him from the set, and bully him as he tried to bully them.

The African Queen made S.P. Eagle rich, and after stumbling with Melba, his interest was next piqued by On the Waterfront, a Budd Schulberg script about union racketeering on the New York and New Jersey docks that had been around for some time with no takers; Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures was only interested in the subject if Communists were substituted for gangsters. For nearly a year, Spiegel hectored Schulberg and Kazan into rewriting the screenplay again and again, all the while trying to line up the money, which was hard to come by because of his insistence that the picture be shot on actual locations on the New York waterfront. Spiegel’s most important contribution to Waterfront, however, was convincing Marlon Brando to star in the picture. This was the time of congressional hearings on Communist infiltration of the film business, and Kazan and Schulberg had each purged himself as a friendly witness. Kazan’s naming of names had soured his friendship with Brando, whom he had directed on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire. At three o’clock one morning, Spiegel brought them together in a West Side delicatessen, after first counseling Brando: “Professional is one thing, politics is another. Separate them.” The actor and the director made their peace and the picture was shot. For his production of Waterfront, Spiegel won his first Oscar, but more importantly, he was now so respectable that he could bury S.P. Eagle and disinter the name Sam Spiegel.

The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia were in what was now seen as the Spiegel tradition—pictures with difficult and almost ostentatiously uncommercial subject matter, set in remote locations, and burdened with what seemed insurmountable logistical hardships. Yet somehow he and David Lean, who treated each other, as an observer noted, “with respect and animosity,” made them work. It took eight months and $250,000 to build the 90-foot high, 425-foot-long bridge in Kwai; forty-five elephants dragged 1,500 trees through the jungles of Ceylon to the bridge site. “There is no story in Kwai without a bridge,” Spiegel said, “and the bridge acquires meaning only when it is destroyed. So you build the bridge to illustrate your point. The question of a quarter of a million dollars is only a number on your cost sheet.”

For Spiegel, the cost sheet was no longer a problem. He now had a yacht, bank accounts in various tax havens far from the prying eyes of the IRS and the Inland Revenue, an art collection begun with four Van Goghs, and an FBI dossier, presumably because he used two blacklisted screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, on the script of The Bridge on the River Kwai. “Spiegel has in the past [DELETED],” his FBI file read, “although it was never definitely determined that he was acting as an espionage agent for the Russians.” His work was essentially done before and after the film was made, fighting with his writers over the script, fighting with his directors over the cut. During the shooting of Lawrence, he stayed off Aqaba on the Malahne, a Galician Jew who could now entertain King Hussein of Jordan aboard ship. This ancient mariner, however, was aware of certain proprieties that still had to be observed with the Hashemite king. When an unschooled guest on the Malahne asked Hussein to explain Ramadan, Spiegel quickly interrupted (in the version I always heard), “Dot’s our Lent.”

After Lawrence, Spiegel rarely functioned successfully. He and Lean had an acrimonious falling out, and his mania for control now meant he used numerous writers on a single script and constantly interfered with the production; strong directors like Mike Nichols pulled out of pictures rather than put up with his meddling. “Truthfully, I would rather make a bad picture and make it my way, than make a good picture and make it your way,” Spiegel told a friend. There was a charm and dignity in his hubris, but bad pictures had become the rule, a sybaritic life his last major production. Spiegel married again, but he was now in his sixties. The girls came and went: “Ann, Brigid, Charlotte, Dagmar, Eugenie, Francesca, Gretchen, Heather….” With women as well as collaborators he could be capricious and cruel, and a relationship with him was often not without cost. Lynn Baggett committed suicide and another girl I knew, a fifteen-year-old hillbilly from Tennessee, later tried to kill herself by breaking all the glassware in her apartment and running over the shards, naked and barefoot; in London, years later, she succeeded with pills.

With the English actress Ann Pennington he had a son, Adam; he adored the child, although he admitted he had little gift for fatherhood, and by her account made the mother’s life miserable. In his eighties, he produced Betrayal from the play by Harold Pinter. Told it was a small picture, he replied: “Is it, really? Do you worry in a painting about the size of the canvas?” When he was eighty-two he took a nineteen-year-old mistress, and would spend Thanksgivings with her parents in upstate New York; Sinclair does not record the parents’ reaction to their daughter’s liaison with a man old enough to be their grandfather. “I believe in mortality,” Spiegel said around this time, “but not in inflicting it on myself.” Finally, on New Year’s Eve, 1985, he died, alone, in a bathtub on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. “Give him the kiss of life,” the attending physician allegedly said to Peter Ustinov, who was also staying at the resort. “Alive or dead,” Ustinov allegedly replied, “I would not kiss Sam Spiegel.” After Spiegel’s death, Ann Pennington said, “I feel so relieved, I will never hear his voice on the phone again.”

Sinclair’s string of anecdotes is slight, only 162 pages long, twenty of which are taken up with index, acknowledgements, and bibliography, and it reads as if it were written during a coffee break. For the popular biographer, a motion picture producer is not the ideal subject. “A producer,” Mike Nichols once said about one of his, “comes on the set and says, ‘I don’t like the shoes.’ ” What a producer in fact does is keep a project rolling until it reaches the stage when there is so much money involved that the financing organization would find it prohibitively costly to pull out. In this initial stage, the producer must also say no to the writers, do it over, do it over (usually for free). “Producers don’t really like to think of themselves as glorified personnel managers, though that’s what they usually are,” Larry McMurtry has written. “They want to be allowed to participate in the creative act. Keeping a writer handy to talk to every few days convinces them that they are, in fact, participating—it may, at the same time, drive the writer crazy.” *

None of this is inherently dramatic. It is difficult to make a libertine, especially an octogenarian libertine, interesting; as the saying goes, you had to be there. To understand the beauty of what Sam Spiegel did it would be necessary to understand the tax codes of the world’s condominium governments. If such understanding were forthcoming, it might also be necessary to agree with the assessment of producer Gottfried Reinhardt: “Spiegel was a congenital crook.”

What Sam Spiegel did, he did with a certain gorgeous flair. To know him, even slightly, was to appreciate the combination of quickness and comic sentimentality that Sinclair only sporadically suggests. With the exception of On the Waterfront, his most successful pictures were not entirely to my taste. They were in every sense a producer’s pictures, so well prepared that the spark of spontaneity was doused. Spiegel belonged to another generation, and when one looks at the pygmies at large in Hollywood today, one can agree with the sentiment expressed by Arthur Schlesinger at Spiegel’s funeral in New York, early in 1986. “Sam Spiegel,” he said, “was the last of the giants.”

This Issue

March 17, 1988