Current Issue #55
This Means War
Fiction:Jim Shepard, Phil Klay, Anthony Doerr, Samantha Hunt, Colum McCann, Matthew Specktor
Williams Farquarsen III had an idea. The senior statesman of American Dream Machine, its architect and president, thought Hollywood ought to belong to its artists. It wasn’t a new idea—Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford had once felt the same—but in the early 1970s its time seemed to have come again. Williams’s earliest plans for ADM centered on how the new agency could wrest power from the studios. This was their pitch: You think Sam Smiligan has your interests at heart? Sam’s old enough to have sucked Louis Mayer’s cock. He takes his vacations with Lew Wasserman. How in God’s name do you expect him to protect you from the studio when he is the studio? It went something like that. Rub enough sand in an actor’s eyes and he’ll come crying. Williams knew what to do. It was easy enough in the beginning to square nurturing a client’s career with servicing her creative vision. But as you grew, as a corporation and as a man, it became harder to see where you stood. Was American Dream Machine a solution, or was it a problem? Did enriching your clients, earning more money for Jack Nicholson or Alan Pakula, increase everyone’s power or diminish your own soul?
By the end of 1979, American Dream Machine was up and running for real. They’d signed Jon Voight on the heels of Coming Home. They had Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek. Will’s partner, Beau Rosenwald, had Gene Hackman, and after a long psychological duel that culminated in an afternoon spent helicopter skiing in the Wasatch Mountains—Williams jetting into Salt Lake on the same plane that would turn around and whisk rival Talented Artists Group operatives back to LA, believing their crown jewel was safe—the agency signed Robert Redford as well. They were shrewd, they were smart, pooling their clients and maintaining their ethos that agenting was a team sport. You find the open man.
The company assumed offices on Century Park East, a sprawling, airborne suite that would’ve been unthinkable in the beginning, when they’d worked out of a converted garage. And for a while, even their blips were successes. Williams represented Streisand for all of about five minutes, but when those minutes were spent commissioning her enormous fee, who cared? She could stay, go. She could come back again if she wanted. If the rumors were true and ADM cut its percentage for one or two important clients, that was all right too. Five percent of Dustin was seventy percent of Ernie Borgnine. They lured a couple agents over from TAG, young and hungry ones who represented Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges. They made a rich deal for Michael Cimino at UA. And the TV department boomed. This was where the real money remained even after the agencies began deferring half their packaging fees, waiting until shows turned a profit before they could collect. So, the men were delighted. They visited psychiatrists and ate their grilled fish and shopped at Jerry Magnin’s and Dick Carroll’s, at Alandales in Beverly Hills, where lackeys handed them spritzers and watched as they fiddled with Zegna ties; they trimmed their beards and schtupped their mistresses and squeezed their lemons over weird and bitter greens. They ate sushi, when it was said to be healthy, or else avoided it when the mercury in fish might—instead—kill you. They went to Charmer’s Market, to Jimmy’s, to Orlando Orsini’s and L’Orangerie; later, to Tony Bill’s place in Venice. They were fed and fat and fucked and fortunate: for a while, at least, they were happy indeed. In six months, Beau gained back half the weight he’d lost, went from 210 all the way back to 250. Why be skinny if you could get it anyway, if the things that were offered you came and came and came and came?
The way it worked now was thus: Williams and Beau each had a twenty-five-percent stake in the agency while the others each had ten. It wasn’t how they dispersed the money; bonuses were all generous and almost equal. But Beau and Will had sunk the most of their own cash into the beginning, had taken the largest risk.
“Linda, did I miss anything?”
Beau strolled in late, after a long weekend in New York. He’d gone to see Marty, check in on Bob. Now he leaned against his assistant’s desk, looked up to see Milt Schildkraut, the head of accounting, approaching from down the hall.
“Davis, this morning. Gene. John Calley.” He and Linda had spoken four times a day while he was gone, rolled calls in his hotel room. Besides getting his trades a day late, he hadn’t missed anything. “Nothing urgent.”
He went into his office, gesturing for Milt to follow. Linda was thick-waisted and black-haired, with the densely waxen complexion of girls he’d known growing up, though she was from Hacienda Heights and not Astoria Boulevard. She was pretty by any regular standard, but since when did that standard pertain here?
“What’s up, Milt?”
“Did you authorize this?” Milt handed him a mimeographed form.
Will’s expenses. Beau squinted at it incuriously. The two men signed off on each other’s expenses—someone had to—but all he saw here were ordinary hotel bills, restaurants. “So what?”
“Who lives in Chicago?”
“Bill Murray lives in Chicago. What are you being such a bean counter about, Milt?”
Outside, Linda squawked, “Left word!”
“Are we in trouble?”
“No, nothing like that,” Milt said. “Nowhere close.”
“Then why worry?” He and Williams shared a number of clients. Certain nervous Nellies like Marty, who needed both hands held and another to yank them off under the table. Beau handled Bill Murray by himself, but so what? “What do you think, they’re creeping behind my back?”
“All right, it isn’t a worry. I just worry when there’s nothing to worry about.”
In the near interior of Beau’s office there was an overstuffed white couch, a glass table with a large bowl of cinnamon jelly beans, a pitcher of ice water, and two cylindrical glasses. Today’s Daily Variety reported on the weekend gross for The Idolmaker, the ratings for “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” the season premiere of Dallas.
Milt slipped the expense report, with which there was nothing wrong, back into its folder.
Morning light fell through the window at the far end, onto Beau’s desk and the leather-backed chair and the various trophies, on the spittoon and an autographed ball from Dusty Baker and Rick Rhoden and Ron Cey resting on a stand. Posters for Midnight Express, Being There. These offices could not have been more different from the old Talented Artists Group ones, being neither cloistered nor clubby; their plate-glass windows faced smog-tinged sky. Such openness was their ideology. It was difficult to imagine anything that could go wrong.
“Beau!” The big man was on his way past his partner’s office later that morning when Will called out. “Come in for a second.”
Williams stood behind his desk. He never sat anymore. He was small and agile, still dressed in his faded jeans and radiant white shirts, still long-haired at the beginning of ’82.
“Where ya been?” Will said. “Sit.”
Beau grunted and remained standing as well. Like everyone else in the company who wasn’t Will, Beau wore a suit by then. American Dream Machine was now a corporation, it behaved like one; on the floor beneath them a phalanx of accountants worked day and night.
“How was New York? You saw Marty?”
“Yep. I saw Belushi too.”
Beau narrowed his eyes. You see, things were becoming complicated. Williams had been best man at Beau’s wedding; they’d carried each other, in different ways, for years. Yet all this balancing of business, the striving to be equal, had its consequences. Once, they’d been such friends. Now they were mainly partners and sharers of information.
Beau equivocated with his hands. Still Italian, still needy, still brilliant (read: nuts) .
Williams laughed. They both did.
“Just so long as people stay hungry for him,” Williams said. “That’s all that matters.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
With or without intimacy, Beau still had a certain ability to read his partner’s mind. He went over to the fridge along the far wall of Williams’s office and twisted the cap off a Ramlösa.
“I’m not sure.”
Their corner offices were identical. Will’s glass dish was full of Hershey’s Kisses instead. Beau slugged the fizzy water and shrugged. “We’re not painting the Sistine Chapel here. Not everything should be Raging Bull.”
Beau wore Italian loafers along with his blue suit. He ran his thumb absently along the margin of his silk tie.
“What’s bugging you, Will?”
Didn’t Beau understand? He’d spent the last Saturday night with Belushi, sucking down rails of cocaine until 4:00 AM. At which point, a trio of hookers came in and ate strawberries off their balls.
“Are you bored, Will?”
“We put together crap movies back at TAG. They were worse, not that anybody remembers.”
“We had an excuse to make bad movies then. We were hungry enough to make anything.”
Beau sat, finally. Over the couch were signed one-sheets for Rollover, Brubaker, Cannery Row. He sipped his water.
“I think you should go to New York,” Williams said.
“I was just in New York.”
“No,” Williams said. “I think you should go . . . for a while.”
Behind him the Century City morning was mild. Sunlight laminated the oil derrick that sat on the edge of the Beverly Hills High campus. Wouldn’t there always be enough to share? Williams fished a tangerine out of a small Chinese bowl.
“We decided when we formed this place,” Beau said. “No New York office.”
“I know.” He peeled the tangerine.
“So are you pushing me out?” Beau smiled. “You know I’ll screw you harder, you son of a bitch.”
Williams smiled back. They weren’t quite serious; there was tenderness inside the aggression.
“This morning I did a deal for Dabney Coleman,” Williams said. He set the peeled tangerine on his desk, which was otherwise empty except for a Cross pen and a phone. “I was pushing his quote, just arguing away with the studio and I thought . . . what am I doing?”
Beau grunted. Dabney Coleman! The skinless tangerine looked small, gelatinous, and vulnerable. Beau understood those moments when you were negotiating and the object suddenly became not to win but to save face with yourself.
“Then I thought, what would Beau do about this?”
“I’d close the deal and complain to my psychiatrist.”
“What else?” Williams looked at him, almost pleading.
“I am not moving back to New York.” Yet Beau cocked his head. I’m listening.
“Just for a year. Half your clients are there. Bob. John. Marty. I’ll let you have Marty all by yourself.”
Beau laughed. “Thanks for that. And what about my people here? Davis.”
“Fuck Davis. Davis isn’t working.” This was true, Davis DeLong’s last picture had been a flop. Eight million total gross for a film in which he played an alcoholic firefighter. “This is about conscience. This is about our soul.”
“Our soul? Are you getting Pentecostal again?”
Now it was Williams’s turn to laugh. These men had one essential thing in common: when they first met at TAG they had recognized each other as kin. Will was a gentleman, and if Beau could never quite be that, they still aspired to a shared condition. Nature had taught this particular beast to know his friends, and if Williams read Shelley —still—and preached negative capability, and Beau continued to pronounce Coriolanus with a weird emphasis on the last two syllables, they were bound yet by love.
“In the beginning we were artists,” Will said. “There were cave paintings.”
“I don’t remember any of Dabney Coleman.” He leaned forward now, his palms on his desk. “It’s not for keeps. We just need a New York presence for a while.”
“A presence.” The fat man fixed him with a leaden stare.
“Yes.” Williams paused. “I know there are reasons you might not want to go. But we need to do this.”
Williams watched him. Was he probing his old friend for weakness, or was he trying to protect him from his own intransigence?
“All right,” Beau repeated. “Fine. I’ll do it, I’ll go.”
“You will?” Williams sounded almost surprised.
“Yep.” Maybe he wanted to get away. “Just for one year.”
“Great. You don’t have to worry, you know.”
“Why would I do that?” Beau roared back. He narrowed his eyes. “What exactly would I have to worry about, Will?”
Williams waved his hand, as if to set Beau at ease. “We’ll take care of everything here, you know. This doesn’t even need to happen until the summer.”
“I’ll be back,” Beau said.
“You’re not even leaving. Your office, Linda: these things stay.” Will turned for a moment to look out his window. “We just need to serve notice of the fact that we’re not prisoners of this place. We’re not just hostages of market forces.”
“We are market forces. How can we be hostages?”
Williams sighed. This was the problem, at its root.
“You’re the only guy who can do this for me, Beau. The only one here I trust.”
Beau stood up and strode over to Will’s desk. He set his palms there, against the black onyx slab that gleamed in the morning sun.
“Only me, huh?” He chortled. “I’ve heard that song before.”
Will’s desk was so clean you could eat off it; so clean it gave back the reflection of his tangerine whole, the orange-bright orb and its shining double, almost more tantalizing than the fruit itself. Will picked it up now and halved it, then handed a portion to his partner.
“What’s this?” Beau said.
“It’s a tithe.”
“A tithe? It’s my fucking company too.”
“I know.” Will smiled. He removed a section from his own half and set it down on the table. “See that there? That’s God’s. That’s the ten percent he takes at birth.”
“And those?” Beau nodded to the ones in Williams’s palm.
“These? These are my own children.” Williams laughed. “I always take less than I give.”
“Beau, we need you to go to London to see Albert Finney.”
“I don’t represent Albert.”
Beau spoke into a squawk box, the speakerphone on his hotel room desk. The others were all in Los Angeles, on this conference call that occurred every Wednesday morning. He was in his slippers and half-moon glasses. Nestled amid the gilt trimmings of the St. Regis—he lived there now—with the King Cole room downstairs. He looked like Scrooge at his ledgers, like Scrooge without greed.
“I know, but he’ll listen to you. Everybody listens to you.”
“Am I your errand boy now, Will?”
“Of course not. For God’s sake, we’re all dying to go to London for some theater.”
“Then do it.” He sipped a glass of tap water. “Albert’s Teddy’s client.”
“Teddy’s got meningitis. He can’t fly.”
“Teddy’s got—what?” Who had that? “My God, is he in the hospital?”
In the distance beyond Will there were other voices. Beau no longer knew everyone, the ranks who swelled in the conference room. A TV agent named Terrence Peterson, a woman named Willa Danks in the book department; there were kids under Skoblow in music, sharp little fuckers. He’d met every one of them repeatedly, yet whenever he got them on the speakerphone, he could never remember their names. Out of the loop. It had always seemed a strange phrase, but now he understood it.
“What does Albert want?”
A fire crackled at the far end of his suite, and the brass spittoon, the one piece of furniture that always came with him, glowed solid beside the mantel.
“What does every actor want?” Williams said. “Albert’s straight, so don’t worry about the other stuff.”
Laughter rippled through the conference room. Rain sizzled against the window and Beau had to remind himself where he was, that the people to whom he was speaking wouldn’t have seen precipitation for weeks.
“Albert’s worried that after Shoot the Moon he should do something sexier.” Williams launched into a litany of the actor’s anxieties, which were uninteresting, those same petty grievances and concerns we all feel, in a way. “He doesn’t want to be typecast. He’s worried that if he does this picture with Attenborough—”
“We’re all typecast.”
“Albert Finney’s not a pretty boy anymore. It’s not 1965. He should take what he can get.”
“I’ve told him that, Beau. Teddy’s tried to get through, but it’s not working.”
Was this working? Soon the meeting would degenerate the way it always did, with people clamoring for gossip, information about plays and restaurants (“What am I eating? Rollie, lemme tell you, I went to Il Mulino the other night . . .”), these things designed to make Beau feel important, as everybody started barking into the phone at once. Maybe they all loved him, and he was just out of his mind. Maybe, just maybe, Beau was only being paranoid..
How Beau loved the handshakes of Englishmen, the plumb way their palms lined up with his and the mellow, recessive way they met his gaze. It was as if even hello was a necessary embarrassment.
“Been a while.”
“Fifteen years. How’s Sally?”
They sat in the afternoon darkness of the bar at the Connaught. Beau asked not after Albert’s wife, but after the man’s long-standing assistant. Then they settled down to discuss anxiety, which was something the two men—like all men—had in common.
“D’you know what I’m talking about here? Teddy doesn’t get it.”
“Of course. Teddy understands too, he’s just calmer than you and me.”
“Well I don’t want calm,” Finney sputtered. “I want an animal in my corner.”
You would hardly have known Beau from the ease he displayed with his clients. This was why they loved him. By himself, in the shower or in his automobile, he was a fanatic. But in these conditions, he was the still point of the turning world. He leaned forward in his leather chair, forearms on his knees.
“We all get older, Albert. Look at me, I’m half as pretty as when we met.”
They drank cowboy martinis, minty gin with muddled lime. It took him a while to talk Teddy’s client off the ledge. Being an agent was just like minding a girl: a long-form seduction in which all the players, for a time at least, kept their clothes on.
“I should go with you,” Finney slurred.
“Albert, we work in teams at ADM. We don’t poach one another’s clients.”
“I want you on mine, then.”
“Fine. I’ll talk to Teddy and see if we can work it out.”
How he loved England. Everything about it, Albert Finney—and he could remember when Albert was a true star, a TAG client who wouldn’t give Beau the time of day—sitting opposite him in a chalk-gray suit. Albert, drunk and malleable. It was midafternoon, and the bar was empty except for two women with their belted overcoats and furled umbrellas, English roses you wanted to marry the moment you closed your eyes.
“Whatever you want, Albert.” Beau picked up his glass and drained the last of his gin, which dripped off the tattered mint sprig at the bottom.
“I want to come with you.”
Of course it didn’t matter who your agent was. Beau could’ve told him that too. You were who you were, and the industry wanted you or didn’t. Most of the time, the industry wanted you and didn’t.
“All right,” Beau reached for the check. The room was beginning to spin. “Whatever you want, Albert, if it’ll make you happy. I’ll talk to Teddy.”
“Beau, what the hell are you doing?” Williams chewed the fat man out, not three days after the latter returned to New York.
“What do you mean?”
Here they were again on the phone, each man trying to control the whole picture, bending the facts according to his need.
“I mean that Albert—”
“Yes, Albert. I saved him.”
It was just the two of them. There was no meeting. Williams was in his car and Beau, like a petulant child, sat exiled in his hotel room.
“He won’t take Teddy’s calls. Says he won’t speak to anyone but you.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” The image of Finney as some lone gunman, a maniac hostaging a roomful of innocents while negotiating with Harry Callahan, came to him. He couldn’t help but smile. “Actors.”
“We represent actors.”
“We represent them together. And you fucked Teddy by taking his client.”
“I ‘took his client’?” Beau smiled at Williams’s rare profanity, too. Uh-oh. “Pardon me, partner, but what about the ethos of this place? He threw himself at me, anyway.”
Beau stood in the middle of the room at the St. Regis, the living area of his suite, where the remains of his late breakfast—coffee, yogurt, muesli, berries—still sat on a glass table with the paper. He was putting into his fireplace at three in the afternoon. He didn’t even golf! Somebody had sent him clubs for Christmas, so here he was teaching himself to do something, out of boredom more than anything.
“Pick up the receiver, Beau. I’m going up Coldwater.”
Williams would’ve been on the way to the Valley for lunch, en route to one of the studios. Beau crossed the room.
“What the fuck, Will? Albert was gonna jump ship. He would’ve gone to another agency.”
“We would’ve survived.”
“But you sent me there to prevent that from happening! ”
“It’s the principle.”
“He’s still our client. He still pays his commissions to us instead of ICM. Wasn’t that the point of my going to England?”
“It’s. The. Principle. Beau, we don’t poach one another’s clients. We don’t do that. We’re a team, here.”
“Listen, you mealy little cocksucker, you tell me to do something, I do it,” Beau roared. “But let’s not forget where this company came from. You needed me!”
What set him off here, Lord knows. No one spoke to Will that way, ever. Beau had never heard his partner raise his voice, not once. Will’s greatest weapon was silence.
“Let’s not get hasty here, Beau.”
“I’m not hasty.” In his hand was still a seven iron. He was just getting used to the feel of these clubs; he needed to amuse himself in that weird city, where he rattled around like a loose tooth. “I’m not hasty, Will.”
“You just cursed at me.”
“I cursed because you started to lecture me on principle. Because you, who sent me to this place to uphold a principle—”
“I sent you?”
“Yes, Will, you sent me. The move to New York was not my idea. It was all about the soul of the company, you’ll recall.”
Men with short memories. The promised year was half over. He’d had enough; you weren’t going to understand yourself any better by returning to your roots. If anything, you were only going to grow stranger, more alienated.
“Fuck it,” Will said. “You’re right.”
“Listen . . . how do you know all this?”
“Excuse me?” Williams’s phone crackled, his voice grew tinny. Beau could imagine just where he was, the bend he’d be rounding near the canyon’s peak.
“If Albert won’t take anybody’s calls, then how do you know all this?”
“I talked to him.”
Reception cut out for a moment. They were forced abruptly into dots and dashes, verbal Morse code.
“—matter, Beau, the thing is—”
“—see the percenta . . . screwing one ano—”
“—all right, it’s all right, the way I fee—”
“Beau? Beau, are you there?”
The connection righted itself. Williams must’ve been over Mulholland by now.
“I’m here. Are we clear, Will?”
“Fine. I’m sorry to have upset you.”
Beau hung up and went back to his clubs. Then he strolled over to the couch and finished breakfast, soft and easy there in his hotel robe. Spooning up blueberry yogurt and muesli.
At Christmas, Beau came home. The offices were closed. The restaurants were empty. The last week of the year, Hollywood is a ghost town, so Beau prowled his old haunts—the valets at Morton’s, at least, remembered him—dining alone, staring glumly at scallops swamped in raspberry coulis. Was he losing his grip?
When the big man waltzed into the conference room on the third of the new year, Williams stood where he always did, at the head of the oval table in his untucked white shirt. He wore black loafers, and the shirt had a red monogrammed falcon on either cuff. This was Williams’s affectation, these bits of flair like a musician’s—a white shirt that cost five hundred dollars—to let everyone know he wasn’t a true prole.
“We want you back, Beau.”
The welcome that met him seemed Japanese, ritualized and tense. Only Will spoke. The fifty-six other agents had all offered handshakes and hugs, but now maintained a ceremonious silence.
“We want you to come home,” Williams repeated. “It’s not necessary to stay in New York. You’ve done your job.”
Beau watched him. This was unexpected. He would go back tomorrow morning, had planned all along to honor his original promise to his partner. That was how he operated.
“I’ve done my job? Gee, thanks, Will.”
He set his briefcase down, the same battered leather rectangle with the solid gold clasps he’d owned since 1967. He scanned the room. He wanted to come home, in his heart. But Williams Farquarsen had somehow caused that heart to secede from him.
“I’d prefer to stay through the spring.”
Or maybe Beau simply hated being told what to do. Around the room the agents sat with their plates, filled with green cubes of honeydew, and luminous columns of water.
“I’ll come in the spring.”
“Come now. We’d prefer it.”
Were these people privy to Will’s perfidy? Or was there such? Perhaps Beau was making a mistake. Outside, the skies were that radiant shade that follows a week’s worth of rainstorms. You could see the white-tipped mountains in the distance.
“I’m sure you’d prefer it,” Beau said. “But I might not.”
“How come? You didn’t want to go in the first place. Marty might be happier knowing you were here to kick a little ass on his behalf.”
“What does it matter? My legs are longer than they look.”
No one else spoke. Once upon a time, these meetings had been genteel anarchy. Beau might belly surf the conference table, be lying on his back when Will came in. What are you, the Venus of Willendorf? You sitting for a portrait, Beau? Running a company was once the most fun they’d ever had.
“I’ll come home in June.” Beau crossed the room, poured himself decaf from a silver thermos.
“Is this about what happened before Christmas, Beau? Because we’re okay there, you know.”
“I know. This has nothing to do with that.”
“What’s it about, then?”
“Freedom. It’s about freedom.”
“Beau—” Teddy Sanders stood up to intercede. Bob Skoblow came forward too.
“I—I think we should b-be cool,” Milt Schildkraut said, and everyone turned since he controlled the purse strings. “We don’t need this argument.”
“There’s no argument,” Williams said. He was calm and level, as bracing as the January light. “All mankind is of one author and is one volume. The same poet said, Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
“So if you want to stay in New York, Beau, stay. Stay and take care of Marty and Bob and we’ll see you in six months. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. ”
Here, as always, Williams had chosen irreconcilable masters. John Donne and Aleister Crowley weren’t exactly the most probable bedfellows. Yet the truth was, Beau never understood Williams even if he could—still—practically read his former best friend’s mind.
“Look, asswipe, I don’t need your permission.”
This wasn’t a contradiction after all. You can read your own mind, but can you understand it?
“I said, you piece of shit, you dog turd, you ratfucking excuse—”
Beau strode forward without raising his voice, so for a moment people thought he was just being himself, the ribald fat man.
“I don’t need your fucking permission.” Then he lifted his voice. “I shit where I wanna shit and eat what I wanna eat and if they happen to be in the same place—”
Bob went for him. Milt too. But before they could get there, Beau lunged at Williams. The latter, who practiced tae kwon do, merely stepped aside. Beau went crashing and clattering into his chair.
“Do you need help?” Will bent down with one hand on the small of his friend’s back. “Do you?”
Beau knelt, panting and embracing the black ergonomic chair. Understand, he was crazy. He had been from the beginning. But understand, too, how strong was his grip on reality. He knew Williams was gaslighting him. Wasn’t he? There was never any need for him in New York, never any need for London or Albert Finney, nor any for him to come home. Wasn’t it clear that when Will visited Chicago, he was sneaking around with Beau’s client? Paranoia does strange things to a man, but even Milt Schildkraut, whose reality hunger was stronger than anyone’s, had seen it. Had Williams paid for John Belushi’s hooker, were those his drugs at the Chateau? You were in deep water if you thought John Belushi was assassinated by anything other than his own lack of impulse control, but you were in deeper water still if you failed to understand the treachery, the ugliest truths to be found upon the human scene. Williams wanted everything for himself. We all do. The fact that he didn’t know it, that his “generous” behavior was secretly a bid for control, might have been dark to Williams, but Beau knew exactly what he was up to. The big man understood ugliness too implicitly. Having been born, after all, with so much of it.
He pushed up off the chair. He turned to face his partner, his tormentor, his—let’s call it what it is—love.
“We’ll get you anything you need,” Will pleaded. “Any kind of treatment at all, we’ll pay for doctors, rehab. Anything.”
Beau opened his mouth. And began to laugh. He just couldn’t help it. In his beautiful salmon-colored shirt, with the sleeves rolled; a pair of John Lobb brogues he’d had made in England; his gold Rolex, which was standard-issue for the better-heeled men in this room.
“You think I need doctors, Will? You think this is something to fix?”
“I think you need something.”
He scanned the room, the faces of the men and women all twisted with shock and horror. How backward that was, truly. Who should’ve appalled whom, here? There was a word for this, one that Williams, certainly, would know: cathexis, catharsis, one of those Aristotelian or analytic terms. But Beau just shook his head.
“I need something. But I won’t find it here.”
He bent down and picked up his briefcase, and then he strolled out, whistling, with his jacket over his shoulder. The elephant, exiting the room.
Poetry:Evie Shockley, Camille Rankine, Victoria Chang, Kathleen Winter, Robin Richardson, Elizabeth Lyons NEW VOICE
A DARK SCRAWL
THE CURRENT ISOLATIONISM
NECESSITY DEFENSE OF INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY
LITTLE ROBIN EXPLAINS GROWING UP
Interview:Janine di Giovanni
“You show up, you’ve got your notebook, and you want to talk to them—families, victims of atrocities—and their stories are so wrenching. It is incredibly frustrating: you leave and they stay behind,” explains war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, who has specialized in covering human rights, warfare, and conflict for more than two decades. She is also the author of five books, most recently the acclaimed Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption. Having reported on over a dozen wars from Palestine, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, Libya, Zimbabwe, Liberia, and elsewhere, she now lives in Paris. She continues to travel and report from war zones, though at a different pace since her son, Luca, was born. Praised as “one of our generation’s finest foreign correspondents” by the Daily Telegraph, di Giovanni publishes regularly in the Times, the New York Times, Granta, Harper’s, the Guardian, Newsweek, and many other places.
Her first four books explore war not only through the grim details of its devastation but also through the compassion and humanity that can arise between people amid terror and destruction. Their titles, which describe di Giovanni’s own front-line journeys literally and metaphorically, are telling: Against the Stranger, The Quick and the Dead, Madness Visible, and The Place at the End of the World: Stories from the Frontline.
Ghosts by Daylight shifts this profound experience as a longtime witness of war into a different, somewhat more terrifying combat zone: daily domestic life in Paris, where she and her then-husband, war correspondent Bruno Girodon, attempt to settle in with their infant son after more than twenty years of war reporting abroad. In Paris, di Giovanni struggles with the chaos of what is new (motherhood and marriage) and what is foreign (city, language, and culture) to try to find a balance between her personal and professional lives and continue to write.
War taught di Giovanni to go into chaos, grapple with it, and write about it. This frenetic and bewildering rhythm remains a part of her life even now; perhaps in some way it is a driving force. In the New York Times article “Life During Wartime” (July 21, 2012) about the events in Syria, di Giovanni writes, “I know about the velocity of war. In all of the wars I have covered—including in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Kosovo—the moments in which everything changes from normal to extremely abnormal share a similar quality. One evening in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 2002, for example, I went to bed after dinner at a lavish French restaurant. When I woke up, there was no telephone service and no radio broadcast in the capital; ‘rebels’ occupied the television station and flares shot through the sky. In my garden I could smell both the scent of mango trees and the smell of burning homes.”
She has the ability to describe a scene—even the most horrific—with precision, empathy, and poetry, to situate it politically and historically and then step back, allowing the story and its participants to come forward and into focus. Concise and lyrical, her writing—be it reportage, interviewing, or memoir—is sensitive and honest, at times haunted and haunting. In her article “Christmas in Sarajevo” for the Sunday Times (December 27, 1992), di Giovanni describes the life of the Susko family: “The one fire a day can only be lit at night and had gone out hours before: the room was freezing. Mario washed quickly with half a cup of cold water and a small bit of soap from a relief packet. He then had a day-old cup of tea and a slice of stale bread. It was the fifth day the family had not had their bread ration. His wife, a former dental technician whose beautiful hands are now scarred from chopping wood for fuel, had already gone out to join the local bread queue. Alexandra was waking up; her job was to go out in search of pieces of wood.”
I first heard di Giovanni speak a few years ago at a conference in Paris and since then I’ve been fascinated by her stories and the poise and dignity she brings to drastic situations, be they personal or political. I met with di Giovanni in early summer at a café near Montparnasse, just down the street from the site of the 1986 terrorist bombing on the rue de Rennes that killed seven people and injured more than fifty others. On the outside of an art nouveau building that now houses a clothing store is a marble plaque remembering the dead—likely the closest I’ll ever get to a war zone. We spent the morning talking on a sunny, crowded terrace, where a relaxed and generous di Giovanni spoke with candor about reportage, perseverance, deaf graffiti artists in Libya, the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, and storytelling—the stuff that holds.
Heather Hartley: You’ve been reporting and covering wars for over two decades. What was the impetus for you to become a war correspondent?
Janine di Giovanni: I never set out to do this. I had no interest in foreign affairs and lived very much in an academic and literary bubble—reading, writing, dreaming of writing a novel. I wanted to be a fiction writer. I was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and went there, but I was so young, in my early twenties, and believed that I hadn’t really lived enough to write a novel. My life experience wasn’t rich enough and I didn’t really want to write a novel about a twentysomething. At that time it was quite popular—Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt—and those novels were great for what they were, but I didn’t want to write about a college student.
One day I picked up a newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, and saw a photograph of a Palestinian being buried alive by an Israeli soldier. It was during the early days of the first intifada, the uprising in Palestine in 1987, and I had no idea about it. Politically, I was very unaware. I knew there was constant war in the Middle East but I didn’t follow it. I didn’t really want to.
I read about people from both sides who were struggling with occupation—being occupied and being occupiers. One thing led to another, I went to Israel, wrote an article that was very emotional, an agent saw it, got me a book deal, and I spent the next three years writing about Israelis and Palestinians and their daily lives. The focus of that first article was an Israeli lawyer who defended Palestinians in military court. I thought that someone who defended the enemy because she believed in justice, righteousness, and honesty was absolutely extraordinary. Somehow I got in touch with her and interviewed her on that very first trip. And then I was hooked by that world; the Middle East gets under your skin.
Then came Bosnia. For the first time, I saw a life that I didn’t know existed—people living lives of unbelievable horror, poverty, restriction, and occupation. I started writing about it and I never stopped after that, because once you start doing that kind of thing, I think it’s very hard for you to go back to real life, to life as it is.
HH: In an article in the Guardian [June 26, 2011], you say, “I never talked about what happened in those places in war reporting, but I wrote about them.” Is reportage a protective barrier for what you see and feel in war?
JG: I think you choose to face what is in the world, like the Houla massacre in Syria [on May 25, 2012], in which one hundred women and children were killed. A friend of mine said, “I don’t even want to think about it.” And I understand that, but there are parts of the world where terrible things are happening and one either chooses to witness and expose it—or not.
HH: And that’s what you do: experience and describe the situation in its intensity or tragedy or poignancy.
JG: A lot of it is investigating, researching, and then exposing the situation. Most of it is based on human-rights work and victims of atrocities—rape victims, victims of ethnic cleansing. These are people who don’t have a voice, because if they did, if they were powerful, this wouldn’t happen to them. I think a lot of times they want to talk to you, because they feel as if they’re lost and no one knows what is happening to them.
HH: Is there a sense of satisfaction for you when you see one of your pieces in print and know that the story is being told? Do you feel that your work has an impact?
JG: Sometimes. I think sometimes you can have an effect. To document and bear witness is what is important. They say that journalism is the first rough draft of history and I feel privileged to be a part of it.
I went back to Sarajevo for the twentieth anniversary of the siege and a friend of mine said to me, “When I first got here in 1992 and saw this awful carnage and destruction, all I could think of was that if humanity is going to destroy itself, then in a sense, I feel privileged to be able to witness it.” It’s a remarkable life and I’m very lucky to have it.
We now live in the age of YouTube and Twitter and there is absolutely no way that people can say, “We didn’t know it happened.” Going back to the Houla massacre, it was documented by people on their iPhones and then the images were uploaded immediately. With Rwanda or Bosnia, we didn’t know. Which is ridiculous, because they did know, but . . .
HH: What are some of the other rewards of reportage?
JG: You get to bring the story to the attention of a wider audience. A story of how brutally people live under oppressive regimes or during wartime. It’s really satisfying to have someone write to you and say, “I had no idea what was happening and thank you for writing this,” or to hear from the people themselves, who say, “Thank you for telling our story.”
I wouldn’t be bold enough to say that what journalists do resonates around the world or that we stop wars or things like that, but there have been journalists whose intervention has affected policy. I suppose what you really want to do is bring media attention to something heinous and horrible, to let the world know what is happening.
HH: I would think that sometimes families see you coming and hope that you could get their story out to the wider world.
JG: Some do, and some don’t want to talk to you. If they don’t want to talk, I don’t force them. Sometimes it’s not the right time to get them to tell the story. I remember being in Iraq and mass graves were being opened. People with family members who had disappeared during the time of Saddam, fifteen or twenty years before, were there with the remains. You have to be sensitive. To know when to stand back and say it’s not the right time.
HH: In your memoir you talk about writing and living in extreme conditions. How do you find the presence of mind to write under that kind of pressure?
JG: You have to find some kind of balance within yourself. You have to know what your needs are. Otherwise I think it is very easy for people who do this to get sucked into the job. For me, it’s my home that grounds me. Even before I was married and had a child, I always tried to have a nest, a place I could come back to, and a strong support system of friends.
I’ve seen a lot of people go down the tubes. They come back from reporting in a war zone and drink too much, they take drugs, to escape from reality, because living in that world is not reality. And it’s very hard to return to the real world.
During the Bosnian war, there were times when I would come back and it was just too hard to talk about. I’d go to cocktail parties in London, where I lived, and some people would ask me, “What’s it like to be shot at?”
HH: I imagine you’ve had that question a lot.
JG: It was just so irrelevant to what it actually was all about. It really wasn’t about me and either you cope with it by writing, which I’ve been lucky enough to do, or it comes out in your nightmares. Undoubtedly it has affected me, but I think that I’ve been lucky to come away unscathed.
HH: What path would you recommend for a novice reporter? In a sense, you taught yourself how to write, through direct experience.
JG: I don’t believe in journalism school. I believe you should use those years to study a foreign language or political science or something like that. Even at Iowa and those kinds of places they give you a desk and once a month you turn up in a workshop and they rip your stuff apart. No one teaches you how to construct a short story or poem.
What I do is narrative nonfiction, long narrative pieces. I’m really not a reporter in the sense of a New York Times reporter of how-what-where-why-when; I’m much more of a descriptive writer who can go somewhere and then write a scene that describes what is happening.
HH: Like your piece in Harper’s, “A Civil Tongue: South Sudan Tries to Learn English” [March 2012].
JG: The language story was a little bit more frivolous because the fighting has stopped. There’s been a cease-fire.
I think it’s important to take a theme and work around it. Use a microstory to tell the larger story. For example, the theme of betrayal, how people have been betrayed, and work around that.
I think that if you’re going to write a straight story about the war in South Sudan, people are going to get bored. People’s attention span, particularly when it comes to obscure wars in Africa, isn’t big. It’s small enough when it comes to Syria or the Middle East, which is exploding right now.
You have to find something that will pull people in. I usually try to focus on people’s stories. Sometimes it’s very tragic.
For the twentieth anniversary of Sarajevo, photographers and writers are putting together a book of work by different journalists from twenty years ago and they want one of my stories about a Catholic family with whom I spent Christmas in 1992. They wanted me to find out what happened to the family. As it turns out, I’m in touch with them all the time. But the details of what happened to them in the twenty years since they managed to get out and leave the war are heartbreaking. [She pauses.] And you realize these are lives, a lifetime.
HH: Tell me a little more about how you compose a narrative like this.
JG: I need an opening. I usually get that and if I have my opening line, then things just kind of flow into each other. I have absolutely no formula other than sometimes someone will say something and I think, “Ah! That’s my opening line!” or sometimes, lying in bed, I think of something that triggers a paragraph or a lead. For instance, I just wrote a long piece for Granta on torture. I wondered why it always upset me to cut my son’s fingernails, why I was unable to do it. Then one night when I could not sleep I remembered that in Iraq I used to see a man who’d had his fingernails ripped out one by one by the Saddam regime. The innocence of my son’s pearly fingernails and the naked, ripped-out flesh of the Iraqi man’s could not be more different. But the memory triggered the opening line. Usually, for me, the beginning and the end come first. It’s the middle that’s harder.
I don’t sketch things out. I don’t use Post-it notes or make an outline. I think rhythm, cadence, and flow are really important. You know when you’ve written a sentence that’s a real clunker.
It’s also quite a solitary thing. I know friends who work for the UN or different NGOs, and they share their reports with each other. They read each other’s work and comment on it, but journalists rarely do. I don’t really want to impose upon someone to read a long piece, but sometimes it’s good to have an outsider read your work. I have a friend who likes to read my work before I send it in. He’s kind of a brutal editor but he catches things that could be considered pompous or self-gratifying or something.
HH: You also have to deal with the element of time and the possibility of rapid change—you often include the phrase “at this time” or “at this writing.” By the time your piece is published, the situation may not have changed at all—or it may be drastically different.
JG: If I worked for a newspaper, the piece would come out right then and that would be it. I’d write it and it would be out the same night or the next morning. I did that at the Times in London for years. You get your story out right away as it’s happening. It’s immediate, but it’s a very stressful pace to keep up.
The best reportage is the stuff that holds, like the work of Martha Gellhorn. I knew her and she was a really tough woman. She’d be furious to know that Nicole Kidman is playing her in the 2012 movie Hemingway & Gellhorn. I could not think of anyone who would annoy her more.
A lot of reportage is storytelling. You need to be a storyteller. When you’re writing reportage, it’s two or three months behind and you somehow have to keep it alive, and that is quite difficult.
HH: Could you talk more about the difficulties in telling someone else’s story? How do you keep your point of view about a particular war or conflict out of your work, or is that even possible?
JG: Objectivity is always important, but for me, it’s virtually nonexistent. You’re meant to be objective. But in fact, if you’re going in to report about victims, like rape victims, and you’re interviewing forty or fifty women from a village who have been raped by paramilitaries, how are you objective? How are you objective on the side of the perpetrators? It’s journalism, so you do have to go to the other side and get a comment.
I usually find that most of the time I’m with the people who are not winning and so they’re usually victims. They’re usually the ones who are underarmed. I’m not really interested in speaking to diplomats or politicians or heads of state. I’ve interviewed them and I have notebooks and notebooks full of stuff that says nothing. You get much more from sitting down and talking to a mother whose son was killed. I think traditionally I’m someone who would probably always side with the underdogs.
In autumn of 2011 I did a piece for Granta on Libya [“In a Land of Silence”] about graffiti artists who in the time of Gaddafi dared to try writing graffiti against him—[if you did that] you were killed. And there was one artist, Kais, who was a legend in Benghazi and who was murdered by the security forces on March 20, 2011. Although Kais himself was not deaf, he inspired a whole tribe of young deaf graffiti artists to go around doing graffiti against the regime. To me, it was the most amazing way to talk about self-expression, freedom, democracy. It was a story I stumbled upon. I think the best work comes out of that—from stumbling on or into something.
HH: How has journalism changed since you began? Where do you see it going?
JG: It is not what it was. There’s not the funding for it. We live in the digital age. People say there will come a day when there are no newspapers and I don’t agree. There will always be a place for print journalism. And there will always be people who would rather hold a newspaper than an iPad or a book rather than a Kindle.
It’s great that people can post on YouTube and Twitter. It also means that anyone can hold up an iPhone and be a photographer in the same way that anyone can send in a tweet or write on Facebook or a blog, and it’s taken away from the craft of journalism and reportage.
A lot of my colleagues and friends are incredibly negative and pessimistic and you can be like that, but I think you just have to be doing your work and sometimes other things to supplement your income. But the news will always be covered. The question is how it will be covered. Will it be twenty-four-hour rolling news like BBC 24 or CNN or MSNBC that gives you two seconds of a story, will it be long-format journalism online, or will it be a blogger telling the story? The Egyptian revolution in 2011 was all told through bloggers. The Arab Spring was all tweeted.
If you’re going to put your head in the sand and say, “I refuse to do this,” then you’re in trouble. You must learn. I had to learn how to use Twitter because all the activists inside Syria and the Middle East are tweeting. I use it completely for that. The activists use it as a way of quickly saying what’s happening because it’s so immediate. It used to be the wire services, but now they can’t get in there. If you want to know what’s going on, you don’t turn on CNN. You look at Twitter and see how many people were killed today.
You have to adapt. Be aware of the changes, but you have to keep doing what you do. If you don’t, you’re closing yourself down to the future, and this is the future.
HH: Reportage, fiction, memoir, and poetry—you’ve worked in all these different forms. Is poetry still a part of your life, as it was in your twenties?
JG: I’ve always read poetry. I love it. I find it very inspiring—Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton. I took Wilfred Owen with me to Bosnia.
Last night I was thinking about that amazing poem by C. P. Cavafy, “Ithaka.” It’s the most incredible, beautiful poem about Odysseus and his journey. It’s about how we spend our lives searching for our Ithaka. It’s the scented markets along the way and the monsters you encounter—that’s life.
Features:Bruce Handy, Michael Helm, Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer
They were fleeting and unlikely collaborators, for lack of a better word. He was a son of Jewish Hollywood royalty, she a Nazi fellow traveler and propagandist. They did have a few things in common, however. Both were talented filmmakers, both produced enduring work, and both would spend the second halves of their lives explaining or denying old moral compromises. Which isn’t to say the debits on their ledgers were equal—far from it.
Both are now household names, at least in households littered with DVDs from the Criterion Collection. But largely forgotten is the 1945 film he helped assemble with, he claimed, her assistance as an involuntary consultant. It remains a key document of the twentieth century and helped send ten war criminals to the gallows, some of them her former friends and/or colleagues. If she felt badly about that, aside from the ways in which she was inconvenienced and her reputation tarnished, I could not find any record of it. For his part, his widow, his fourth wife, told me he never much talked about any of his World War II experiences, like so many men of his generation. Fortunately, he hadn’t always been so reticent.
Budd Schulberg had what used to be called a “good” war; certainly he had an interesting and productive one. He would go on to write screenplays for On the Waterfront (1954) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), but in 1945, at the age of thirty-one, he was best known as the author of the scathing Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run (1941) and for having babysat a declining, bender-prone F. Scott Fitzgerald while they worked together on the screenplay for a dopey college comedy titled Winter Carnival (1939)—an assignment Schulberg would later fictionalize in his third novel, The Disenchanted. (The title is something of a spoiler.) Schulberg was himself a product of Hollywood, the son of B. P. Schulberg, a producer and former executive at Paramount, but Budd moved east after What Makes Sammy Run, which his father had begged him not to publish, rendered him persona non grata in his hometown. He had nerve and didn’t shy away from a fight; with his broad nose and rough features, he even looked pugnacious, though when it came to boxing he was only a fervent fan.
After Pearl Harbor, he was commissioned as a naval lieutenant and in the spring of 1943 joined the Field Photographic Branch of the OSS (precursor to the CIA), under the command of the film director John Ford. Schulberg spent some time with the unit in London during the run-up to D-Day, then followed Allied forces through Belgium and into Germany as part of what he called a “little group” that would sweep into newly liberated towns and ransack the local SS headquarters for documents and other valuable intelligence. He was also given opportunities to put his narrative talents to work for his country. As he explained to an interviewer six decades later, he was assigned to a team that handled spies and saboteurs training to be dropped behind German lines: “I as a writer would work on the cover story, which was very much like writing a story. It was exactly like writing a character in fiction because you would find out what [the agents] really did, and then adjust it to what they would say . . . if they were interrogated.”
As the fighting in Europe drew to a conclusion, Schulberg was sent back to the States, though he remained in uniform, awaiting further assignment. He landed a historic one. The OSS had become involved in organizing the four-power tribunal that would try German war criminals—and there was an abundance of potential defendants—in the city of Nuremberg once the war was over. At Schulberg’s suggestion, he and the photographic unit were tasked with collecting film footage from German sources that could be used as evidence. He flew back to Europe, arriving in Paris on August 9—the day the United States dropped its second atomic bomb, on Nagasaki—only to receive “a cool reception” from the first officer he reported to. “War Crimes apparently not too pop.,” he noted in his diary.
This was no cushy assignment, given Germany’s ominous, chaotic, post-apocalyptic state. Berlin, where Schulberg and his team were headquartered (albeit in nice digs), was “the most miserable, exciting, amoral, war-shocked city in the world,” he wrote to a friend. “From the air it looks like a gigantic honey comb that has been smashed with a hammer—for you peer down into thousands of roofless houses—empty, useless honeycomb cells.” His diary describes visits to the city’s black markets, where he saw one desperate old couple trying to sell their wedding rings and others their coats, even as skies darkened and winter approached. Elsewhere, German women were trading sex with GIs for cigarettes or chocolate, or even less. “Here is the flower of German womanhood,” he wrote, “on its knees, or more accurate on its back, for a crust of bread.”
Schulberg’s unit was rife with Hollywood lifers. His immediate superiors were E. Ray Kellogg, the head of special effects at Paramount and future director of The Green Berets, and Jack Munroe, from Fox Movietone News. One of the unit’s editors was Robert Parrish, who had appeared as a child actor in City Lights and the Our Gang comedies and who would win an Academy Award in 1947 for editing Body and Soul, a John Garfield boxing picture. The staff also boasted an Alsatian editor who had once been on the staff of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of National Enlightenment and Propaganda, but now considered himself a patriotic Frenchman.
The hunt for Nazi film footage took Schulberg back and forth across the country, with forays as well into France and Switzerland. Three times, informants led him to carefully hidden archives that had been secreted away as the Reich collapsed. One was in a granite quarry in the Soviet Zone outside Berlin which had to be entered through a tunnel several hundred yards long. Emerging out of the tunnel into the open-air quarry, as Schulberg would later describe the scene, the unit was “confronted by one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen—burned film and charred film cans stretching for acres in every direction.” He estimated the loss at one million feet of film; the conflagration had been so explosive that film cans were supposedly blown into a nearby village. The local burgomaster blamed the fire on “drunken Russian soldiers,” but Schulberg suspected “an inside job by the Germans.” Twice more the unit arrived at secret archives only to find smoldering ruins.
Three weeks after landing in Europe, Schulberg was despairing, and suspected there might be informants among his own staff. “We are so inadequately prepared to do this evidence job,” he wrote in his diary. He regretted “how amazingly fucked up this war crimes deal is. Nothing about it seems to go right. I’m afraid so far it’s going just as Goebbels would have it go.”
But his mood soon improved. The unit tallied a significant score when it located negatives of German newsreels stashed away in the town of Babelsberg, also a part of the Soviet Zone. The Russian major in charge refused to grant entry until he learned that Schulberg was a part of John Ford’s unit; in civilian life, the major was a film scholar who had written extensively about Ford. He ticked off a long list of the director’s films, then boasted, “Every one of those pictures I have analyzed in my book.” As Schulberg later noted, “He knew the obscure silent films. He knew every damned shot.” The excited Russian asked whether Ford himself would soon be along to take charge. “Oh yes, we expect him over any time now,” Schulberg lied—Ford was actually in Washington, winding down his military service and preparing to release They Were Expendable—and so Schulberg got his film: not only the newsreel footage but also biographical materials on some of the eventual Nuremberg defendants and two key reels of film that showed German troops rounding up Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and later burying them in a mass grave. “If there was any one defining moment” regarding his feelings about the Nazis, he said decades later, the memory of this atrocity film still raw, it was when he realized “that [the Germans] so cold bloodedly wanted to record this instead of [covering it up.]” He described how a cameraman had had the professional presence of mind, obscene in this context, to climb into the grave to get a shot of bodies, including children’s, being tossed in toward him—a reverse angle.
Altogether, the Babelsberg cache would supply upward of ninety percent of the film that Schulberg eventually produced for the first Nuremberg trial. But as important as that find was, Schulberg’s job wasn’t done. As he later confessed, “It didn’t take any genius to think that we ought to talk to Leni Riefenstahl.”
Leni Riefenstahl had suffered setbacks during the war, but was in much better shape than most Germans; befitting her status as the Third Reich’s most celebrated filmmaker and a former Time magazine cover subject, she had not been reduced to selling her winter coat. But fame has its downside, too, and she had been arrested by American troops shortly after Germany’s surrender. Intelligence officers who interviewed her reported that it was “difficult to recognize” the internationally known actress and director in “this aging, seriously ailing woman [who] gives one the impression of a broken human being.” Nevertheless, Riefenstahl insisted under questioning that her Nazi propaganda films were made strictly as aesthetic statements with, to her mind, no political intent. An American intelligence report, noting that her statements “give one the impression of honesty”—a nice hedge, that—concluded: “She is certainly no fanatical National Socialist.” Rather, her “admiration” for Hitler was largely limited to the fact that “his protecting hand insured her artistic activities.” The blind eye she had turned to the Reich’s crimes “did not obviously spring from opportunistic motives, but from the desire to continue dreaming her dream of a life ‘fully dedicated to art’”—an interpretation of her career she would cling to and promote, with varying degrees of success, through many future interviews. In this case it won her her freedom.
Strong-willed, athletic, physically striking, maybe more handsome than beautiful, slightly cross-eyed, she had launched her career as a dancer and then as an actress during the Weimar Republic, ultimately starring in a series of “alpine movies” that mixed nature worship, mysticism, and literal cliff- and glacier-hanging (she did her own stunts, often barefoot). It was a popular genre, steeped in Germany’s national mythology, that might be seen as a loose equivalent to America’s Westerns. Adolf Hitler himself was a fan of her directorial debut, The Blue Light (1932), in which she also starred as a saintly, misunderstood mountain girl who has a religious bond with nature. As a work of narrative it is almost unwatchable, but as a painstakingly crafted act of cinematic self-love, it would remain unrivaled until the advent of Hollywood director-stars such as Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty.
Riefenstahl maneuvered to meet Hitler in 1932, when he was still a rising politician—purely out of curiosity, according to her 1987 memoir, and not at all out of ideological sympathy or as a career move. “He looked natural and uninhibited, like a completely normal person,” she noted with—to her credit—surprise. He expressed his admiration for her work and then pronounced, “Once we come to power, you must make my films.” She supposedly demurred, asserting her lack of interest in his or anyone else’s ideology—her only loyalty being to Art. “I will never make prescribed films,” she told him. “I don’t have the knack for it—I have to have a very personal relationship with my subject matter. Otherwise I can’t be creative.” Moreover, she claimed to have added, “You have racial prejudices . . . How can I work for someone who makes such distinctions among people?”
“I wish the people around me would be as uninhibited as you,” he replied quietly, her account suggesting a note of wistfulness that perhaps only she ever saw in him.
But once Hitler seized power, Riefenstahl overcame her qualms about working for the Nazis, now willing to seek Art in all sorts of unlikely places. With the Führer as a patron—he was widely and probably falsely rumored to be her lover (rumors she didn’t do much to discourage, however, until after the war)—and with Goebbels as what we might now call a “frenemy,” Riefenstahl became one of the Third Reich’s most powerful cultural figures. She’s also one of the few we still remember, for the two feature-length documentaries she directed under Hitler: Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg, a seemingly endless montage of precision goose-stepping, angry speech-making, idolatry, and wholesome Aryan horseplay that is routinely referred to as the greatest propaganda film ever made; and Olympia, her aestheticized chronicle of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where she bossed around athletes, referees, and anyone else who got in her way to produce a two-part film that is both lovely to look at and slightly creepy, a high-toned reminder of Nazi body fetishism.
The outbreak of war in 1939 forced Riefenstahl to abandon the film she had hoped would be her directorial masterpiece: Penthesilea, an elaborate, expensive epic in which she was also set to star as the title character: a savage Amazon queen in love with Achilles. “She could visualize herself on film—naked on horseback, hair streaming in the wind as she plunged into battle, spear in hand. Why not? She was as daring, as bold, as beautiful,” writes one of her biographers, Steven Bach. But that vision dashed, she turned to an allegedly more modest project, Tiefland, a melodrama set in Spain in which she starred as an alluring Gypsy dancing girl and which she struggled to shoot amid wartime shortages, logistical problems, and her own spiraling ambitions—Tiefland was the Third Reich’s Heaven’s Gate—although she did avail herself of one Nazi-era convenience, recruiting several dozen real-life Gypsy extras, including children as young as three months, from a “collection camp” near her Austrian location. (When she was done shooting, the extras, in essence slave laborers, were sent back to the camp and then on to Auschwitz, where most of them died.) She was still in postproduction, scrambling to complete the film, when Germany collapsed in the spring of 1945. Given the circumstances, Bach notes, “Leni’s monomaniacal concern for Tiefland struck even her as ‘absurd and inexplicable.’”
At the end of the war, she was living in the village of Kitzbühel, in the Austrian Tyrol, occupying a three-story, timbered chalet—facing a pretty lake and surrounded by meadows and snowcapped mountains—where she had installed editing and sound-mixing studios for work on Tiefland. But there would be more interruptions. “Leni Riefenstahl Weeps at Losing Austrian Villa,” was the headline in the New York Times two weeks after Germany fell, above an AP report that a U.S. Army division had commandeered her home. “But some of my best friends are Jews,” she had allegedly wailed, by way of protest and to no effect. (Her assertion was not completely untrue: as a younger woman she had had Jewish friends and colleagues, though she dropped them once the Nazis took power.) An effort to trade on her celebrity went nowhere. “Baby, I’ve been going to the movies a long time and I never heard of you,” she was told by a GI whose all-American sass could have been scripted by Preston Sturges. He added: “And now get going. We need this house.”
Riefenstahl would eventually get her chalet back, although she was repeatedly arrested, interrogated, and released—first by U.S. forces, and then by the French, who took over administration of the area. “They thought in prison I was Mrs. Hitler . . . They throw me about and say, ‘You never see the sky,’ and I say, ‘All right—go ahead and kill me,’” she later told the American director George Stevens, with perhaps a spackling of added melodrama. She claimed that this was when she first learned of the death camps and their grim but thorough logistics. Shown “dreadful” atrocity photos by American counterintelligence officers, “I hid my face in my hands; it was too horrifying,” she wrote in her memoir, describing a characteristic reaction. Knowledge of this evil plunged her into existential crisis: “I simply couldn’t imagine that orders of such a vast scope could be carried out without Hitler’s knowledge. Yet how were these cruelties to be reconciled with the indignant words that I heard him speak . . . at the beginning of the war: ‘So long as there are still women and children in Warsaw, there will be no shooting.’” She would resolve the conflict by concluding Hitler had suffered from a “schizophrenic nature.”
Riefenstahl had recovered her equilibrium, and her looks, by the time Schulberg said he found her in the autumn of 1945, possibly in the first week of November, not long before the first Nuremberg trial was scheduled to begin. “She was still really quite beautiful and, if you could forget her connections, really very charming, and I would think that, to many people, very convincing in her intensity about her art, her love of the mountains, and winter sports,” he said years later. “She was really quite a—quite an imposing piece of work.”
This was the first meeting between the two, but Schulberg had played a minor part—an extra in a crowd scene, if you will—in an earlier Riefenstahl drama. In 1938 she had made her first trip to America, ostensibly vacationing as a private citizen, although the visit was paid for by the German government. She was hoping to find an American distributor for Olympia—among her seventeen pieces of luggage she brought along three different cuts of the film, including one with all scenes of Hitler deleted—and hoping as well to hobnob with the powers that be in Hollywood, where German directors before her had found lucrative work (though they tended to be directors who hadn’t enjoyed Hitler’s patronage). She sailed into New York on November 4, hit the Stork Club and the Copacabana, and was pronounced “pretty as a swastika” by Walter Winchell. But there were protests and boycotts organized against her by anti-Nazi organizations, and the playing field tilted even further uphill a week later following the events of Kristallnacht, during which organized mobs throughout Germany beat and arrested thousands of Jews and murdered several hundred more while burning synagogues and looting Jewish businesses. She dismissed as “slander” news reports that, as Bach points out, “no one in Germany was denying.” (Rather, the Reich held the victims financially responsible for all the property damage.)
Riefenstahl left New York for Chicago, and then Detroit, where she received an unsurprisingly warm welcome from Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic car manufacturer and crank publisher, but otherwise was treated like a pariah. Unlike her reception in New York, where her ship had been met by a big, jostling crowd of mostly friendly newsmen and photographers seeking a big story in Hitler’s alleged girlfriend (she and the Führer were “just good friends,” the director had demurred with a giggle), when she stepped off the Super Chief in Hollywood, on November 24, she was greeted by a desultory crowd consisting of the German consul, a staff member from a local German-language newspaper, an American painter who shared her and Hitler’s penchant for the idealized male physique, and the painter’s brother.
“Where is the press?” she demanded, according to her publicist (who defected to the States at the end of her trip and wrote an amusing if sometimes suspect series of articles about her for a Hollywood newspaper).
“But you’re supposed to be here incognito,” she was told.
“Ja, but not so incognito,” she snapped.
The reception went from bad to worse. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League—a Communist-led group that Schulberg, then a party member, was likely part of—took out ads in the trade papers declaring, “There Is No Room in Hollywood for Leni Riefenstahl” while holding demonstrations in front of her hotel, the Garden of Allah, which forced her to relocate to a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. After some hemming and hawing, all of the town’s moguls declined to meet with her—with the exception of Walt Disney, who showed her some sketches for his latest work-in-progress, Fantasia, but then backed out of allowing her to screen Olympia for him, afraid that his unionized projectionists would spread the word and he’d be boycotted. (Decades later she would claim, incorrectly and ungraciously, that Olympia had beaten out Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the then-coveted Mussolini Cup at the 1938 Venice Film Festival.)
Socially, she fared little better. Wrote the gossip columnist Louella Parsons, “If Leni Riefenstahl, said to be Hitler’s girl friend, had any idea of finding [Hollywood] homes open to her, she must have been greatly disappointed. She might be on a desert island, so far as anyone in the film colony is concerned.” The right-wing comedy producer Hal Roach (Laurel and Hardy, the Our Gang shorts) threw a party for Riefenstahl “and asked all the main people in Hollywood to come,” as Schulberg recalled. “And all of the liberal people like Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagan and Dorothy Parker . . . Freddy March . . . there must have been twenty—they were each given a list of ten people to phone and say, ‘Don’t go.’ I had a list myself . . . Only about eight or ten people [attended]—just the extreme right-wing people, like Victor McLaglen . . . Basically, the party was a disaster for her.” Riefenstahl slipped away to Palm Springs, where she did some snubbing of her own, declining to meet with a prominent lawyer who was hoping to persuade her to use her influence with Hitler to ameliorate the mistreatment of Germany’s Jews.
“I hope next time it will be different when I come, yes?” she remarked manfully as she got on the train heading back east, reported Variety under the headline “Nazi Retreat from Hollywood Chilled by Frigid Farewells.”
Bruised but indomitable, seeing herself as a martyr—“Naturally,” she told a German reporter, “I ran into resistance from the Jews”—she returned home to Berlin in February of 1939, where she was debriefed by Goebbels, who noted in his diary: “Leni Riefenstahl reports to me on her trip to America. She gives me an exhaustive description, and one that is far from encouraging. We shall get nowhere there. The Jews rule by terror and bribery. But for how much longer?”
When Schulberg set out to find Riefenstahl in the fall of 1945—with, he would later claim, some kind of a warrant for her arrest—he had already located a copy of Triumph of the Will, portions of which would be shown at the trial. Putting motion pictures into evidence was then a radical notion; the prosecution wanted Riefenstahl to help legitimize their case by formally attesting to her movie’s authenticity. As well, Schulberg and the lawyers wanted her help in identifying some of the officials who had appeared in it as well as in other films. One of the charges against the defendants was conspiracy to commit aggressive war, something akin to a latter-day RICO indictment, so it was essential that the prosecution place the defendants at key events and establish a web of associations and responsibilities, especially among those who were expected to claim they were apolitical military officers or civilians.
Schulberg was also hoping Riefenstahl could point him toward copies of two documentary shorts she had directed for Hitler and Goebbels. Following her trail led him first to her abandoned home in Berlin, where he found “nothing but a lot of dirty laundry,” then Munich, then Salzburg, and finally the chalet in Kitzbühel, where he and his driver arrived in an open-air weapons carrier. Riefenstahl was “sort of hiding in the open,” he would later say. “It wasn’t exactly hiding, but she wasn’t advertising, either, what her address was.”
I should note that, although Schulberg’s account of meeting and arresting Riefenstahl in 1945 would remain fairly consistent through multiple tellings, no one who has looked into it has yet found any corroborating evidence. Given the scattershot nature of the official record from that chaotic time and place, this is not altogether surprising, though Riefenstahl’s absence from books and interviews by other Nuremberg participants is maybe more so. Riefenstahl herself didn’t mention Schulberg or the trial in her memoir (the one that does have her challenging Hitler’s racial beliefs to his face). Historians who have researched the matter believe one has to allow for the possibility that Schulberg embellished his account, or worse. He was, of course, a professional storyteller, as was Riefenstahl. I think his story has the clear ring of truth; it undeniably has the ring of poetry—of poetic justice.
In Kitzbühel, as Schulberg recalled, the chalet door was opened by “a short, nervous, overly polite little fellow,” a majordomo type who didn’t seem too happy to see Schulberg and who, Schulberg later realized—shades of Sunset Boulevard—was in fact Riefenstahl’s recently acquired and soon-to-be-deacquisitioned husband, a former major in the Wehrmacht. Schulberg was assured that Fräulein Riefenstahl would be eager to see him, but ended up cooling his heels in her study. “Marvelous, yes?” the majordomo husband said when he saw Schulberg looking at a book of stills from Tiefland. “Her greatest work. If only she is allowed to finish it.”
Half an hour later—allowing, presumably, for tactical primping—Riefenstahl made her entrance. “She was dressed informally in yellow corduroy slacks with a golden-brown leather jacket that blended prettily with her tanned complexion. She held out her hand to me, prima-donna fashion, and smiled grandly,” Schulberg wrote in “Nazi Pin-Up Girl,” a long and detailed article about their meeting he published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1946. (If he embellished his tale, he took the risk of doing so while it was still fresh in others’ minds.) “She reminded me of I don’t know how many actresses of her age I had met before, fading beauties who try to compensate in grooming, make-up and animation for what they begin to lack in physical appeal.”
Schulberg’s naval uniform was no doubt cause for suspicion during this initial conversation, which seems to have been less an interrogation than a kind of moral jousting match, something akin to the Frost-Nixon interviews. “Frighten her or flatter her” were his marching orders, he wrote, and he initially tried to draw her out, which wasn’t too hard, buttering her up with praise for the artistry of her early pictures before moving onto her Nazi-era oeuvre. “She immediately went into what I called her song and dance,” Schulberg recalled decades later. “She said that, ‘Of course everybody thinks because I made those films that I am a Nazi. I was never a Nazi. I’m a pure film artist. And my only interest in that film’”—Triumph of the Will—“‘was to make a work of art [on] a very interesting subject, which God knows it was.’” He added, probably employing understatement, “She went on like that.”
Hoping to bolster her case that her films transcended politics, and unaware of Schulberg’s civilian line of work, she bragged about the triumphant reception she’d been accorded on her visit to Hollywood—“as an artist.” He let that fib slide but did seize the opportunity to ask some pointed questions, according to his Saturday Evening Post account:
Hadn’t she been aware of the concentration camps?
“I had no idea,” she said, forgetting for the moment where she had found her Tiefland extras. “We never heard.”
Had she really been Hitler’s mistress?
“Of course not. I wasn’t his type. I’m too strong, too positive. He liked soft, cowlike women, like Eva Braun.”
So what made people think she was?
“They were jealous, and they didn’t understand.” She had had Hitler’s ear and could see him alone when it suited her, so people just assumed . . . “But that was purely professional, there was nothing personal about it. He just respected me because I was an artist. The SS and Goebbels hated me because I could go over their heads.” She and Goebbels had feuded over the making of Olympia, and she claimed he had retaliated in a particularly fiendish manner: by denying her publicity in the Reich’s newspapers. A laughable assertion, but one she held to. “He never mentioned me again,” she complained bitterly. “I was even afraid he might put me in a concentration camp.”
Here Schulberg thought he had her: “But would you be afraid of concentration camps? After all, you hadn’t heard of them.”
“Oh, I knew there were some. But I had no idea what they were really like, how terrible they were . . .”
And so it went—and would go, more or less in that vein, for the rest of her life.
“Nazi Pin-Up Girl” ends with Riefenstahl trying to wheedle a precious can of gasoline from Schulberg: “There was something queer about [her] smile; it was intimate and appealing, and yet clearly designing. That must have been the way she looked at Hitler when she wanted him to make Goebbels back down to her.” There Schulberg had her dead to rights.
In subsequent interviews he continued the story: “I had this warrant for her in my pocket. It was like burning a hole in my pocket . . . Finally I took the thing out and said, ‘Miss Riefenstahl, I’m sorry, but I have to take you to Nuremberg.’ And that’s when she screamed, ‘Puppi, Puppi . . . he’s arresting me.’” The little majordomo raced into the room, with Schulberg now realizing he was her husband. “I tried to reassure her,” Schulberg continued. “I said, ‘Look, you’re not being put on trial with Goering and von Ribbentrop, but we do need you as a material witness.’” He took her outside, where his driver and his vehicle awaited. The trip from Kitzbühel to Nuremberg was roughly 150 miles. “She didn’t say anything on the way . . . She was very ticked off—very. And I guess scared.”
At Nuremberg, in Schulberg’s telling, Riefenstahl was put up in a guest house with other witnesses. “Although she wasn’t very happy . . . she did cooperate.” He screened footage that his unit had confiscated, asking her to identify people, places, and events. It’s not clear how long Riefenstahl might have been detained in Nuremberg, but the unit was still editing when the trial opened on November 21. Among the twenty-one defendants on trial for their lives were Hermann Goering, chief of the Luftwaffe and once Hitler’s number two, who had personally called Riefenstahl in 1933 with the news that Hitler had been appointed chancellor; Albert Speer, the architect with whom she had collaborated during the shooting of Triumph of the Will; Julius Streicher, the publisher of the crude, anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, whom Riefenstahl had once enlisted in a royalty dispute with the Jewish screenwriter of The Blue Light; Wilhelm Frick, the minister of the interior; Joachim von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister; and Baldur von Schirach, organizer of the Hitler Youth. All of these men had attended Berlin’s black-tie, military-dress premiere for Olympia, on Hitler’s forty-ninth birthday—described as the single most glittering evening in the Third Reich’s short history. (Goebbels was not on trial, having committed suicide with his wife in Hitler’s bunker after killing their six children.)
Two films would receive less swanky if still memorable premieres in Nuremberg as part of the prosecution’s case. The first, an hour-long compilation of footage mostly taken by Allied camera units that had been with troops that liberated the concentration camps, was screened in court on November 29. The crimes were still fresh, and for many in attendance, this would be the first time they were seeing images that are now an indelible part of the world’s consciousness: emaciated, half-alive men and women in striped pajamas, ovens clogged with bones and charred remains, bulldozers moving aside hillocks of dead bodies. “The film . . . with horror piled on horror and mounting in dreadfulness as it went along, was almost more than anyone could bear,” the New York Times reported. “There were mutters of ‘Oh God—Oh God’ and ‘Why can’t we shoot the swine now?’ from the audience of soldiers, officers, and correspondents . . . It had been too appalling even for tears.”
Lights had been set up along the bar of the defendants’ box so that their faces could be seen in the darkened room. Wilhelm Keitel, military chief of staff, wept. Von Ribbentrop stared into his lap and shook his head. In Schulberg’s view, “the most unexpected reaction of all was that of Hans Frank,” the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, who had once boasted at a year-end celebration in Kraków that thanks to his efficient administration great numbers of “lice and Jews had been eliminated.” When the film ended, Frank was bent over, his face hidden in his hands. As the other defendants filed out of the courtroom (Streicher, who had earlier scoffed at a shot of a human-skin lampshade, was heard muttering, “perhaps in the last days . . .”) Frank had to be forcibly lifted from his seat by guards. “His red wet eyes stood out in his white frightened face,” Schulberg recalled. “Later one of the guards who helped lead him out said to me, ‘How d’ya figure that, huh? A guy like that! He acted like he was gonna pass out.’”
The film that Schulberg devoted most of his time to was titled The Nazi Plan, a nearly four-hour production that illuminated the conspiracy charges with scenes from Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl’s shorter documentaries, and the captured German newsreel footage. In a letter to his wife, James Donovan, a lawyer who served as the liaison between Schulberg’s unit and the prosecution team, wrote that he thought the film “might get an Academy Award . . . It’s terrific.” In another letter he nearly bursts with anticipation: “I don’t know how Goering and the others will be able to stand the sight of themselves at the height of their glory.”
It turned out they could stand the sight very well. After The Nazi Plan was screened on December 11, the New York Times reported that the movie “brought back to [the defendants] memories of a vanished era, and some, including Rudolf Hess”—the Reich’s third-ranking figure until he made a bizarre flight to Scotland in 1941 in an effort to end the war—“were hardly able to restrain themselves from applauding Hitler’s recorded speeches . . . Glorying in scenes of marching men, flying banners, hysterical crowds and a ranting Hitler surrounded by his chieftains, the defendants acted like excited school children seeing their pictures flashed across the screen. They nodded and nudged one another. Hess, whose feet had been tapping in time to the rhythm of blaring bands, occasionally broke into silent handclapping.” Goering laughed at a scene of Hitler mocking Franklin Roosevelt in front of the Reichstag. Von Ribbentrop was overheard gushing, “Can’t you just feel the Fuehrer’s personality?” That evening, he told G. M. Gilbert, one of the prison psychologists assigned to the defendants, “Even with all I know, if Hitler should come to me in this cell now, and say, ‘Do this!’—I would still do it.—Isn’t it amazing?”
Riefenstahl’s films could still work their magic.
For those who worked on it or covered it—and probably for those being judged as well—the ten-month trial, a logistical and procedural morass conducted in four languages, felt interminable. Schulberg, who won two Commendation Ribbons for his work at Nuremberg, had already been home for several months when the individual verdicts were handed down on October 1, 1946. Eleven men were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, including Goering (who would cheat the noose by crushing a hidden cyanide pill in his mouth), Von Ribbentrop, Streicher, and Frank. Seven others, including Speer and Hess, were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms, varying from ten years to life. Three were acquitted: a former president of the Reichsbank, a politician who had helped engineer the deal by which Hitler had become chancellor, and a B-list propagandist.
Though never charged with any war crimes, Riefenstahl would herself be a defendant in four de-Nazification trials and was eventually ruled a Nazi fellow traveler, the fourth out of five levels of culpability. She would spend the rest of her life working to raise the flag of Art and lower the flag of Responsibility. Tiefland was finally completed in 1954, and released to mediocre reviews. Bach describes it as “a kitsch curiosity, as nearly unwatchable as any film ever released by a world class director.” Riefenstahl died, unrepentant, at the age of 101, in 2003.
The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, with its heavily Communist membership, disbanded not long after it had made life “so uncomfortable for Hitler’s ‘girl friend’ Leni Riefenstahl that she left our community,” as the group had bragged in a statement. The sudden ebb in anti-Nazi fervor was thanks to the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact, announced in August 1939, weeks before the outbreak of war. A disillusioned Schulberg would leave the party around this time, but the affiliation came back to haunt him a dozen years later when he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and gave up the names of several other party members, including fellow screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr., Waldo Salt, and Paul Jarrico. Though he claimed to have no regrets and defended his testimony, it would dog his public image for the rest of his life. He died in 2009 at the age of ninety-five.
Riefenstahl had taken exception to her Norma Desmond-ish portrayal in “Nazi Pin-Up Girl,” and she and Schulberg would occasionally snipe at each other across the decades. In a 1973 interview she dismissed him as the leader of a “persisting ‘Hate Leni’ cult.” He responded with a letter in Variety calling her Hitler’s “cinematic eye-and-mouthpiece.” He might have had even more fun at her expense if a 1983 film treatment he cowrote, fictionalizing their meeting, had ever been produced. In The Celluloid Noose, naval lieutenant Ben Sherman tracks down Hedi Rosendahl at her “luxurious chalet in Bavaria.” She shows him her great masterwork, For a Thousand Years, and then, mustering her considerable feminine charms, attempts to seduce him. He almost falls for it, but at the last moment discovers she’s hiding a fugitive SS colonel, Hans Rudiger, in her basement. Gunplay ensues, and the treatment ends with MPs cuffing Hedi as a sadder but wiser Ben washes his hands of her.
“How could you do this to me?” she cries. “I thought you were in love with me.”
“I was on the verge,” he admits. “But Herr Rudiger changed my mind.”
Finally, the mask drops. “You . . . Jew!” she screams as she’s led away. “Jew! Jew! Jew!”
As Schulberg noted in a cover letter attached to the treatment, he had granted himself a bit of “creative elbow room, you might say”—his own salute to Art.
Author’s note: I’d like to thank the many historians, librarians, and researchers who generously helped me with this piece, including: Raye Farr, director of the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Barbara Hall at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library; Jay Satterfield at Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library; and Sandra Schulberg, Budd’s niece, who recently restored the documentary Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today, which was written and directed in 1948 by her father, Stuart Schulberg, for the War Department (and then shelved due to Cold War politics).
Lost & Found:Steve Almond, Ann Hood, Rachel Riederer, Leslie Jamison
The Visit of the Royal Physician, which I cannot stop reading, sometimes even long enough to eat a yogurt, begins like so:
On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.
Why do I find this opening line—an unvarnished statement of fact regarding an obscure historical episode—so thrilling?
Ah, let me count the ways. First, because it contains a potent and nearly invisible irony: the man called upon to heal an ailing monarch winds up murdered by his patient. Second, because the reader naturally ponders how and why this gruesome event transpires and is therefore left in an exquisite state of suspense. Third, because the author, the Swedish novelist Per Olov Enquist, has established a narrative style unburdened by the pervasive modern compulsion to gin up the action by plunging us into frenzied scenes of court intrigue. We get history distilled to its essentials.
When he wants to highlight an event of particular importance, Enquist writes simply, “Here is what happened.” The effect is oddly incantatory.
So. Here is what happens: Struensee is summoned to Denmark because the teenage king has been driven mad by corrupt minders, systematically terrorized “to develop powerlessness and degradation for the purpose of maintaining the influence of the real rulers.”
The German doctor helps stabilize Christian and fosters his interest in the nascent principles of the Enlightenment. Struensee soon acquires enough power to issue edicts on behalf of the king, who prefers to spend his time frolicking like a child.
Two decades before the French Revolution, the “filthy little country” of Denmark becomes an unlikely torch amid the “reactionary darkness” of the church. Struensee sets about abolishing cronyism and torture, funding hospitals, and granting common Danes unprecedented freedoms, including the right to copulate in parks once reserved for nobles.
At the king’s urging, he begins to spend time with the young queen, a lonely and spirited Englishwoman named Caroline Mathilde. Enquist captures the rhythms of their courtship with a delicacy that befits the couple’s perilous circumstances. (It’s a capital offense to touch the queen, let alone bed her.)
If you need proof of just how seductive Enquist’s prose is, check out this scene, in which the pair transform a private reading of Ludvig Holberg’s philosophical tract Moral Thoughts into incredibly hot foreplay:
“Touch my hand,” she said. “Slowly.”
“Your Majesty,” he said. “I’m afraid that . . .”
“Touch it,” she said.
He went on reading, his hand sliding softly over her bare arm. Then she said:
“I think that Holberg is saying that the most forbidden is a boundary.”
“A boundary. And wherever the boundary exists, there is life, and death, and thus the greatest desire.”
His hand moved, and then she took his hand in her own, pressed it to her throat.
“The greatest desire,” she whispered, “exists at the boundary. It’s true. It’s true what Holberg writes.”
“Where is the boundary?” he whispered.
“Find it,” she said.
And then the book fell out of his hand.
Holberg, we hardly knew you!
Struensee enjoys a few months of prosperity. He sits at his desk, issuing humane decrees. He soothes the king. He makes love to the queen and soon impregnates her.
Then it all falls apart. The dowager queen and a canny religious fanatic named Guldberg conspire against Struensee, who lacks the political guile, and the will, to go after his enemies. The military kidnaps the king in the name of purifying the realm, places the queen under house arrest, and imprisons Struensee.
There is no cinematic intervention. Struensee’s reforms are rescinded and he himself is publicly beheaded, drawn, and quartered. Enquist reports these events without sentiment. The book’s hypnotic power resides in his quiet determination to lay bare the tortured inner lives of those embroiled in the drama.
Struensee is revealed as a well-meaning coward, the king as an unloved waif imprisoned by his court, and Guldberg as a self-loathing zealot who converts his illicit sexual impulses into a pious crusade.
The lone figure to emerge from the saga with some semblance of self-knowledge is the queen. “She had felt a unique pleasure when she understood for the first time that she could instill terror,” Enquist writes. “But [Struensee] did not. There was something fundamentally wrong with him. Why was it always the wrong people who were chosen to do good?”
The broader question is whether noble ideas alone are enough to improve the world or whether bloodshed is the necessary price of such improvement.
On the one hand, the novel is a celebration of the “Struensee era.” Even as the royal physician’s head is cleaved from his body and left to lie upon a bloody scaffold in a public square, Enquist assures us that the ideas he advocated will endure in the world.
But the scene that haunts Struensee himself as he awaits his fate tells a more complicated story. Here is what happens: At the height of his influence, the royal physician decides to take the king on a tour of the countryside, so that he can witness the conditions under which his subjects actually live.
At dusk, they happen upon a severely beaten teenage serf seated on a wooden trestle. The king, recalling his own abuse, panics. Struensee jumps out of the coach, hoping to secure a pardon for the boy. But a mob of peasants approaches and he grows frightened. Enquist writes, “Reason, rules, titles, or power had no authority in this wilderness. Here the people were animals. They would tear him limb from limb.” It’s a moment of abject personal revelation. Struensee has only the purest of motives, but deep down he mistrusts the very people he is trying to save.
The lesson is a bitter one. Reason alone will never tame our savage impulses. Moral progress cannot be issued by fiat, or legislated. It must be enforced at the price of our own valor and conscience and flesh.
Consider the case of America, a land born of war, and liberated from the sin of slavery only at the price of half a million lives. Even today, the basic tenets of the Enlightenment—scientific reason, tolerance, justice—are routinely subverted by a democratically elected ruling class, happy to exploit the tribal grievances and paranoid superstitions of an ignorant and indentured population.
And because I am crazy in this particular way, I find it impossible to read about Struensee without thinking of another enlightened neophyte who came to office promising change only to be stymied by the feverish obstruction of his opponents.
Am I suggesting that President Obama will need to declare war on the reactionary forces of our country to enforce sensible economic, social, and environmental policies? Yeah, with considerable sorrow, I am.
But the genius of Enquist’s novel resides ultimately in its ability to locate moral struggle not only within the upheavals of history but also within the private torment of the soul. “Was that what a human being was?” Struensee wonders. “Both opportunity and a black torch?”
The ultimate war is the one inside us.