In this highly readable memoir, Gordon tells a engrossing insider’s story of what it was like to be blacklisted and how he and others continued to work uncredited behind the scenes, writing and producing many box office hits of the era.
Series: Texas Film and Media Studies, Thomas Schatz, Editor
The Hollywood blacklist, which began in the late 1940s and ran well into the 1960s, ended or curtailed the careers of hundreds of people accused of having ties to the Communist Party. Bernard Gordon was one of them. In this highly readable memoir, he tells a engrossing insider's story of what it was like to be blacklisted and how he and others continued to work uncredited behind the scenes, writing and producing many box office hits of the era.
Gordon describes how the blacklist cut short his screenwriting career in Hollywood and forced him to work in Europe. Ironically, though, his is a success story that includes the films El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, The Thin Red Line, Krakatoa East of Java, Day of the Triffids, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Horror Express, and many others. He recounts the making of many movies for which he was the writer and/or producer, with wonderful anecdotes about stars such as Charlton Heston, David Niven, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, and James Mason; directors Nicholas Ray, Frank Capra, and Anthony Mann; and the producer-studio head team of Philip Yordan and Samuel Bronston.
A Choice Outstanding Academic Book
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
In 1960, when I began working in Madrid on Triffids, my deal was with Yordan's personal company, Security Pictures, Inc., which did pay my salary and deposited the money in my bank in Los Angeles. My work with Yordan at the time was totally separate from any Bronston operation. It appeared to me and everyone else there that the hotel expenses for people like myself and the Sekelys, who were also working for Yordan, were nonetheless assumed by Bronston, who was not a man to niggle over a $100,000 here or there, especially since these costs were paid for in Spanish pesetas of which there seemed to be an unending supply. Today Yordan assures me that the expenses for people working on Security Pictures projects were, in fact, paid for by Security Pictures. However that may be, secretaries, typewriters, of fice supplies, and peseta cash expense money were all paid through Bronston. It is possible, no doubt, that proper bookkeeping could have assigned such expenses back to Security.
In any event, by the time I reported for work in Madrid on Triffids, the film King of Kings was already in the can and ready for distribution. Hopes were high for a blockbuster success that would put Bronston in business forever, and no one seemed inclined to worry about matters like the $50,000 bill it was rumored had been run up at the Hilton. Of course, none of this concerned me. My expenses in Madrid were paid by someone, and my only concern was to turn out pages for a new version of Yordan's proiect, Triffids. During the first week I managed to get through the 30 pages of script—the quota I'd set myself if I was to turn out 120 pages in four weeks. I still had no notion how I would end the story, but I had to leave that problem for later.
The Day of the Triffids tells of a series of events that first blinds almost everyone on earth and later begins populating the earth with deadly three-legged plants ("triffids") that roam about freely, attacking the helpless, sightless humans who remain alive. The story concerns the few people who, for logical reasons, have escaped being blinded and who must contend with the proliferating and unstoppable plants. Well, it doesn't sound like much. But it's science fiction. For me, the problem of the book was that the story meanders through many episodes and never comes to a meaningful end. The good guys among the survivors simply hole up in a defensive place and devote their energy to fighting off the plants and hoping for the best. This doesn't provide the happy or hopeful ending Hollywood demanded.
Writing a screenplay from an existing novel can be at once easier and more diffficult than working on an original story. It's easier because the books may contain good character and situation material to be mined instead of invented. It is more diffficult because the natural continuity of the novel may have to be abandoned, great stretches of story omitted, characters lost, and a new pattern imposed on the story. On a more meaningful level, of course, a good novel is a creation of words, not of visual images; so a film, no matter how good, however faithful to the novel, can never capture the special magic of the author's words. But such elevated concerns were not my problem for my four-week assignment on Triffids. There were other practical complicating factors. Yordan had plans to use foreign characters from France and Spain, unlike the strictly British principals of the book. This meant moving the story out of England and across France and Spain, where, for reasons of budget, it would make sense to shoot some of the film. Good reasons had to be invented for all this. My biggest problem, though, was a moral one. How could I give some meaning to the story? Would this be merely a meaningless succession of actions and adventures, or could I make some point about life, society, humanity? It may sound pretentious to attempt to supply such meaning to just another sci-fi picture, but science fiction does have a long and honorable history of commenting on our world and where our planet may be headed. I felt Wyndam's book was too good in terms of its characters and its writing to be dismissed as humanly meaningless, but I couldn't dig any meaning out of the book.
Fortunately I chanced on a story in a newspaper or Time magazine about William Faulkner's speech to the Nobel Committee when he received the prize for literature. I paraphrase this poorly, but in essence he said that mankind will have a way of triumphing over all odds, that at the end, when the sun has grown cold and its last rays are touching the peak of our highest mountain, even then, a human being will be there representing all mankind, representing the triumph of mankind. I clipped this piece, pinned it to the wall I faced as I wrote, and typed away at the script. It gave me the clue I needed about how to end the story.
I turned the first batch in to the director, Steve Sekely, a man of about sixty with an assertive wife who always seemed to be present. Though they more or less approved of my work, Sekely, like so many directors, wanted to pick away at the details, but I didn't have time for that if I was to complete a draft in the time I had. I made this clear to Sekely and, in effect, declined to discuss anything with him and the producer unless major story problems arose.
On my first Sunday, after about a week on the job, I felt I needed a few hours' break. Irving suggested we rent a car and drive out to a rural town about fifty miles from Madrid to visit an old chapel he'd heard about and have an al fresco lunch. Even the best available rental cars were old-model Fiats, manufactured in Spain under license. These were called SEATs (pronounced say-at). It was an adventure to climb into this hoary antique and take off, but fun. On the highway, about an hour north of Madrid, a couple of Guardia Civil hailed us peremptorily by waving their rifles in our direction, signaling us to stop. Given our political history, Irving and I were instantly nervous. What could these rural cops possibly know about our radical background or our thoughts about Franco? If that wasn't it, why were we being stopped?
Even with my primitive Spanish, I quickly understood. They were friendly and were merely asking us for a ride to their barracks less than a mile up the road. They climbed into the rear of the car, settled their rifles, and expressed their gratitude for our help. In a few minutes we reached their destination, were thanked again with true Spanish courtesy after they got out of the car. Then Irving and I were on our way, laughing at ourselves and our knee-jerk reaction to fascist authority. Our concern was not quite as ludicrous as it then seemed. Early on, I heard that the local police were keeping their eye on Irving, obviously for political reasons. And if on him, why not on me? Much later I personally came to know that the CIA actively followed Americans (some Americans) in Spain, occasionally annoying the Spanish authorities, who considered this interference in their domestic affairs.
A few days later I learned that Yordan was returning to Madrid. I moved out of his suite and into one of my own, not much different, and then I bumped into him in the hallway. He told me he had read my first thirty pages and liked them. "Keep going."
Life there was deluxe—Hollywood in Madrid. After only a few days on the job, a man came around from the studio and handed me a bundle of Spanish pesetas worth $200—my weekly expense allowance. I really didn't need them for anything more than the Paris Herald Tribune. The fine dining room was at our disposal for three excellent meals a day, or as many more as we might like—all we did was write in the tip and sign the check. It was summertime, and they served meals in a great central garden courtyard with a good musical combo. Even the harpist was pretty.
Though I was feverishly turning out pages, I kept hearing bits about life in Madrid. These fascinated me. One of the stories was about a uniquely Spanish bordello, a fine roof-garden with music, dancing, good food, and some of the loveliest women in the world. The Marques de Riscal, on the street of that name, was renowned as a place where women of good breeding could be met. Patrons could politely ask the woman of their choice to have a drink. She might agree or decline. If the drinks went well, she might agree to dance with you. So, drinking, dancing, even eating, you might pass an evening together, get acquainted, decide whether you enjoyed each other's company. Then, at the end of such a pleasant evening, you could ask her to spend the night at your place or hers. She might say yes. She might say no. Furthermore, it was said some of these young women would have along with them their duenna to keep a sharp eye on the proceedings. Could this be for real? I was determined not to leave Madrid without checking this out. But I couldn't find a soul in the whole damned company who had been there or was interested in going.
Finally, on a Saturday night, I took my courage in hand, got into a taxi, and asked for the Marques de Riscal. Except for the very minor foray in Acapulco with Charles Vidor, I had never been in a bordello of any kind in any country, and, apart from the unbelievable stories I'd heard, I had no idea what to expect or how I was supposed to comport myself. The taxi let me out in front of what looked like just another apartment house. In the lobby I found an elevator to the roof-garden. The elevator seemed to be hammered together from pieces of an old aluminum airplane fuselage, but the aged uniformed operator appeared to trust it as it rose shakily up six or seven stories.
I emerged with several other clients and found myself in a crowded anteroom that also served as a stand-up bar. On this Saturday night the place was crowded and jumping. The music boomed from the large adjoining room that was full of tables where people ate and drank. The dance floor was jammed and the band kept a good beat. I walked to the main room's entrance and saw dozens of attractive, well-dressed young women interacting with the equally well-dressed crowd of Spanish men. True, the fake palms were dusty, but the Marques de Riscal seemed much as advertised. I stood in the entrance, relieved to see that there wasn't an empty table in sight, not even a single seat. Waiters raced around the room, but no one bothered about me. I was not going to have to test my courage or my Spanish any further. I could leave in good conscience and not label myself a coward. After taking in the colorful scene for a few minutes, I relaxed, turned back to the elevator. As I waited for it to arrive, a handsome middle-aged man with thick white hair joined me.
"How do you like this place?" he asked in perfect English. He was American and had recognized that I was too.
I smiled. "My first time here. I wasn't even able to find a seat."
My new friend was shocked. He couldn't permit this to happen to a fellow American. "Come with me." He grabbed my arm and virtually pulled me into the big room to a table already crowded with half a dozen men. "My friend is here for the first time. He couldn't find a seat." A chair was immediately found for me, and I was a member of the party. They were different nationalities, but all understood English.
One of the men insisted on ordering me a whiskey. In those days when you ordered Scotch whiskey in Spain it came in a tall "gin and tonic" tumbler half-full of whiskey. They didn't seem to distinguish between wine and distilled spirits. My host, who had ordered the drink for me, was about fifty, dark-haired, less than five feet tall, and voluble. He came from Romania, bore some kind of title, was married to a titled Spanish lady, and he absolutely loved the Riscal. He glanced admiringly at the various young women who were seated, or dancing, or circulating.
"I come here every week," he confided, "and I've been in love with every one of those girls." I wondered about his titled wife. But what did I know about titled wives? "When you see one you like—anyone," he said, "I'll get you together with her. No problem."
I was overwhelmed by the hospitality, but extremely apprehensive. I had not come here with the idea of leaving with a woman. How would I get out of it? I took another gulp of the huge Scotch, offered to return the favor and buy drinks, but they would have none of it. I was their guest. Seeing that I was undecided, my Romanian friend began describing the fine points of various girls, all of whom he had known. Then he had an inspiration. He pointed out a couple of pretty women across the room. "You see those two over there? They're sisters. I know the older one very well. The younger one is here for the first time," he said, gleefully, "and you're here for the first time. Why don't I get the two of you together?" He seemed delighted with this prospect.
I am not proud to confess that I finally made some lame excuse and skulked out of there alone. I probably did irreparable damage to the reputation of American manhood. But, though I didn't see or recognize any duennas, I did find that the Riscal deserved its splendid reputation.
Though trained as a radical to frown on the exploitation of women who were forced to sell their bodies in order to survive, I failed to respond as my comrades would have approved. I found the Riscal a fun pace where even the well-dressed, available women seemed to be enjoying themselves. Maybe it was all an act. Or perhaps it was an ancient practice in this traditional land where, even in the smallest town, according to Cervantes in Don Quixote, the local pub or inn was also a gathering place for the men, who openly socialized with the one or more ladies who would take them upstairs for a go. The men included the mayor and the police and any other men of greater or lesser importance who came to eat, drink, and be merry. There was nothing clandestine, nothing illegal or shameful. It seemed to be the natural and native form of entertainment before people had television to watch. Could the pleasant atmosphere of the Riscal derive from such a tradition? Whatever the answer, I was enjoying living in a different culture.
Now, in 1960, only two years after my first visit, when the country had seemed cold and gray, much was changing. Eisenhower had made a deal with Franco to establish major air force and naval bases on Spanish territory. Just outside of Madrid one of the greatest American air bases in Europe was sited at Torrejón. The thousands of servicemen who worked there needed living space, schools for their children, restaurants, and recreation. A new section of Madrid had risen, with modern apartment houses for the airmen who chose to live off-base with and without their families. The area was dubbed "Korea" by the Spanish, who were, of course, aware of our military action in that country. The main street of "Korea" was named "Dr. Fleming," after the man who had discovered penicillin, which the Spanish regarded as one of the great scientific discoveries of all times, because toreadors gored by the horns of a bull were not so likely to die of infection. Penicillin cured them.
Bronston was not the only American producer who had discovered the advantages of filmmaking in Spain. Alexander the Great, directed by Robert Rossen, with Richard Burton, Fredric March, and many more stars, was produced in 1956. This picture may have set the tone for the big historical epics that could be turned out so economically in Spain. There followed a veritable flood of greater and lesser films like Patton, The Hunting Party, Son of a Gunfighter, Doctor Zhivago, The Hill with Sean Connery, Travels with My Aunt with Maggie Smith—many with major American and British stars, and all financed by American companies like United Artists, MGM, and others. All of this certainly constituted "runaway production" and signaled the very end of the era when the major Hollywood studios were the site of all the important filmmaking.
Then the Italians landed, too. After the international success of A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone bought a stretch of land down in Almeria province where the landscape nicely matched the American Southwest. He built a permanent set that he used for spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood or that he rented to other producers, mostly Americans, for their Westerns. It's interesting that it was frequently cheaper for Americans to come over to Spain with cast and much of their crew than to work in their own backyard at home.
In addition, American films completely dominated the screens in Madrid. Down on the Gran Via, which was the Broadway of the city, all the film palaces featured American films. The only concession to the Spanish was that the films could not be exhibited in English with Spanish subtitles. This was strictly prohibited, so they were all dubbed. This, of course, did give some business and income to the local sound studios for dubbing, but that was trivial.
Along with the filmmaking (and the dollars that brought in) and the film exhibiting (and the dollars that took out), the Americanization of this old culture had really begun. Coca-Cola and Marlboro billboards dominated the landscape. American music was even more ubiquitous. American food was slower in coming. There were only two small Mexican restaurants in Madrid, patronized almost exclusively by our servicemen. Spaniards hated Mexican food. Though there was only one Chinese restaurant in Madrid in 1960, ten years later there were dozens. Was this, too, a form of Americanization? I thought so.
As I continued to work on Triffids, I turned in pages each week and Yordan generally approved of them. He gave me only one serious criticism about a scene where the heavy confronts the hero with a gun. I had to get out of the scene with the hero on top or the film would be over prematurely. I'd written that they tussled, that the hero got control of the gun, turned it against the villain, and survived to fight another day. Yordan said, "You can't get out of such a situation by having the hero just knock the gun out of the other man's hand. You have to come up with an idea, something clever that the hero does to turn the situation around, or you'll lose the audience." I don't recall now what clever idea I finally came up with, but I have always remembered that good advice. I've sneered at many action films since, when the writer, not having the advantage of Yordan's counsel, settled for merely knocking the gun away.
As I was finishing the assignment, Yordan grew impatient—not with me, for he was pleased with the script—he needed more writing help and wanted to use me or at least pick my brains. He even got me together with Tony Mann, the director who was struggling with El Cid. But that didn't work out. I thought Mann's story suggestions were unworkable and we didn't get along. With less than a week to go before I had to return to Paris, I was introduced to a new associate.
Sheldon Reynolds had had a successful career in France producing a detective series for American television, Foreign Intrigue, which followed the adventures of an American private eye who always wore the same trench coat as he wandered from city to city around the continent, chasing down bad guys. Apart from any virtues the scripts may have had, the package was wildly successful because it permitted the exploitation of what were then still-exotic European locations for the American public, and all at bargain-basement prices, using strong American dollars to pay for everything in Europe. The series, started in 1954, had run its course by 1960, and Reynolds wanted to do something more substantial—direct a feature film. He had persuaded someone close to Yordan that the project should be a film about the pirate Captain Kidd. Apparently, the deal was a go if Yordan would agree to produce.
Shelley Reynolds arrived in Madrid gung-ho to get started, but he didn't have a story, much less a script. Yordan didn't consider him equipped to write a feature film script. When I turned in my final pages of Triffids, Yordan asked me to spend a day with Shelley to see if we could come up with a story about the pirate. The Triffids script was barely on the shelf when I was into Captain Kidd.
Shelley and I hit it off instantly. He was slender, handsome, amiable, sophisticated, and more than ready to embrace me as the experienced writer who would make his whole project go. We kicked story ideas around for a couple of days until Shelley insisted that we had it licked and wanted to run over and tell the story to Yordan. I said I thought we were still far from having a suitable story for a script and declined to tell it to the boss. Shelley went anyway. Not long afterwards, I got a message that Yordan wanted to see me at breakfast in a small private dining room.
"You should have known better than try to sell me that garbage," Yordan said. "I thought you were smarter than that." He was referring to the story that Shelley had rushed in to sell him.
I could only tell him the truth. "I agree with you. I told Shelley and refused to go with him." Though this was true, I thought it sounded like a cop out. "But I shouldn't have let Shelley go. I should have stopped him. It's my fault."
Later that day Irving told me that Yordan had been impressed with my honesty and sense of responsibility. That evening we were all sitting in the great, circular, marble hotel lobby where waiters carried drinks from the bar out to the ample sofas and easy chairs. This was my last evening in Madrid. Tomorrow I was flying back to Paris.
Yordan turned to me. "You want to stay here and work with me?"
I tried to sound casual and matter-of-fact. "Sure."
Yordan got right to the point. "What do you want?"
I told him I'd have to return to Paris, settle up with the Tour de France people who were expecting me, square it with the people who had originally sent me to Paris, and that I'd have to have a deal for enough time to make it worthwhile to bring my family over.
He nodded thoughtfully. "Okay," he said.
I was hardly prepared for this. "Okay?"
"Write it out," I finally managed.
He glanced around the lobby. "Write it out where?"
I offered him the back of one of the bar bills lying on the table. "Write it on this."
"I don't have a pen."
I produced a pen and handed it to him.
"Real writers don't walk around with pens in their pocket," he sniffed. "When are you leaving?"
"Tomorrow morning. Ten o'clock flight."
"I'll see you in the morning."
Next morning I woke up early and anxious. I packed and ordered room service. I didn't dare to leave my room. Less than an hour to go. No word. Irving came in. He was planning to go with me to the airport, and he was eager to know if I'd heard from Yordan. We waited. The time to leave was coming closer every minute. Finally, when I had about given up, Yordan called. "Come on down here."
When I entered his room, there were no preliminaries. "You sure you know what you want?"
I was prepared. I told him I would have to have a six-month contract that would pay me $1,250 a week (the same as I'd been earning for my four weeks on Triffids), and I wanted another $250 per week for expenses for living abroad with my family; I needed two round-trip tickets for my wife and daughter; he would have to agree to reimburse all the expenses I had incurred on my original trip to Paris, to be paid to the people who had sent me there. This amounted to a couple of thousand dollars. Finally, it had to be written into the agreement between us that it was contingent on my being released from my Tour de France commitment. He didn't haggle. He'd had time to think this over and was prepared to deal.
"Sit down," he said, indicating his desk with the special typewriter which, because of his impaired vision, typed very large characters. "Type it out."
I sat and hesitantly began to peck away. He became impatient, pushed me away, sat at the machine and typed a paragraph that effectively included all the terms and conditions agreed upon. Still, it was only a single paragraph on a flimsy sheet of paper. Was it real? Was it enforceable? I had no idea.
"I'll get in touch as soon as I work things out in Paris."
He nodded. Before I could dash out to make my plane, he loaded me down with a full-size guitar in a case and a sealed envelope to be delivered in Paris to his ex-wife, who was staying with their son at an apartment he kept at the Prince de Galle hotel. I raced off without even a handshake. Eventually I learned that Yordan was unhappy when he made deals that involved spending money—his own money. But I was off and flying in more ways than one.
I had to get another opinion from someone about whether the scrap of paper I had from Yordan was meaningful—and binding. As soon as I got back to Paris and the Hotel Regina, I called my good old friend, Paul Jarrico. Like other blacklisted friends, Paul and his wife, Sylvia, were living in Paris. Their apartment on the Rue de Rivoli was close to my hotel. During some of the meanest days of the blacklist, Paul had been the producer of the film Salt of the Earth, a project conceived by a group of blacklisted men and women who decided to continue their filmmaking careers independently of Hollywood by producing a film created entirely by blacklisted artists. Salt of the Earth was a story of a mining strike in the Southwest and of the development of union consciousness and feminist consciousness by the men and women who participated in it. Roy Brewer of the IATSE forbade any of his union members to work on the film; laboratories refused to process film or rent out editing rooms, sound studios, equipment. The Mexican actress, the lead, was deported while the film was in progress. The filmmakers were attacked in Congress. Vigilante action was initiated at the location sites, and shots were fired at the car of one of the lead actors.
Despite this, when the film was previewed in New York, both the New York Times and Time magazine gave it excellent notices. But the studios joined to threaten distributors that they would withhold future product if the distributor handled the film. Personally, I recall having to see the film on Hollywood Boulevard in a theater that had been rented (four-walled) by the production company. So bitter was the attack that when the producers appealed to progressive individuals for "loans" to help complete the film, even good left-wing people were fearful of attaching their names to such loans. One friend asked my permission to use my name as a front for the loan. Freedom of expression? Freedom to dissent? In the Land of the Free? Not always.
From his new base in Paris, Paul, always resourceful, was racing around Europe scaring up writing jobs wherever possible. I met Paul for coffee, showed him the "contract," and asked his opinion. Paul had a good deal more experience than I with studio contracts and film business in general after his experience with Salt of the Earth. He studied the one-paragraph agreement and opined that it was clear enough and a deal was a deal, even without all the usual boilerplate.
When I got back to my hotel room, I telephoned Alex Singer in New York and explained the situation. I told him I would see that he and his partner were reimbursed for every dollar they'd spent on this trip for me, that I would send them all of my typed research and give them full right and title to my idea of a film on the Tour de France. Alex and his partner agreed to release me from any further obligation.
I called Jean and brought her up to date on what was happening. But I urged her to sit tight until I returned to Madrid, made sure that there were no last-minute hitches, and had actually obtained the tickets for her and Ellen. Yordan had said that we would all be moving to Paris, where we'd be working. All that had to be planned and dates set before I could tell Jean what to expect.
I called my contact at L'Equipe to announce that I was back in town and to find out if the race to Tours was still on as scheduled. Even though I had no plan to go through with the project, I thought it might be useful to have the experience and, perhaps, get back to it later. The race was scheduled for Sunday, two days off; we arranged to meet at the journal's office early that morning.
This left me with one more chore: deliver the guitar for Yordan's son and the envelope to his ex-wife at the Prince de Galles. The ex-wife was the actress Marilyn Nash, who had been Chaplin's love interest in Monsieur Verdoux. I was curious to meet her. I found that she was still a great beauty, rattling around in Yordan's spacious suite, alone except for the son, Danny, who was then off with friends. Marilyn had been touring Europe with her present husband, a doctor from some small town in central California, but he had gone back home to his practice and Marilyn was due to follow soon. Since I had time on my hands before the Sunday race, I asked her if she'd like to have dinner with me, and she accepted. I can still remember the succulent blanquette de veau and the great tarte Tatin (a kind of open apple pie which doesn't even come close to describing that marvel of French pastry). Most of all, I recall the effect of this gorgeous, tall woman sweeping in on my arm, wearing a mink coat that looked much too expensive to have come from an ophthalmologist in a small California town. After dinner we made our way to Harry's American Bar and found ourselves downstairs in a room that was full of revelers, most of them Americans, lustily singing the lyrics to the show tunes banged out on a piano. I guess it was corny, but with good food and enough wine and cognac, the mood was so relaxed that even I began singing, though I could never carry a tune. When the place closed down, we left reluctantly.
The taxi took us back to her hotel. I asked the driver to wait while I walked her to the elevator. Dubiously, he looked after me and the lady and the great mink coat. I suppose he'd seen us sitting close together in the back of the cab. When I came back and got into the car, he asked me incredulously if I really was not going in with the woman. I smiled and shook my head. My French wasn't very good, but I could certainly follow him when he muttered sympathetically, "Quel dommage." I asked him to take me to the Regina. He hesitated, as if certain something else was called for. Then he asked me if I'd like him to drive me to an hôtel privé. I'd never heard that expression before but I knew what he meant. I declined.
Sunday, October 1, was sunny but chilly. I found myself in a convertible Peugeot with the top down, sharing the ride with several officials of the race. Cyclists, working in teams, sped along the highway to Tours. The trip to Tours took several hours. By the time we arrived, I was windblown and worn out from trying to follow the explanations in French. I suppose the cyclists were tired too. I wasn't prepared for the rain when it arrived and became separated from my friends in the town of Tours, but I found the railroad station and took a warm train back to Paris, glad not to have to return in the Peugeot.
Back in Madrid, while we were waiting for Shelley to return from Rome, Yordan threw another task at me. The Bronston organization had decided to get Sophia Loren to play the lead in El Cid. She had read the script and complained that she had no love scenes to play, and had turned down the assignment. They were in a hurry to insert some love scenes into the script to woo her back. I returned to my typewriter. The love scenes I wrote for Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston were forwarded to Rome and did the trick. Sophia agreed to do the picture. Though my contribution was important, I never asked for credit on the film because the twenty-odd pages I wrote were not sufficient by Guild standards to entitle me to a screen credit.
I called Jean. Yordan had informed me that we would be moving to Paris by the end of October. He was buying an apartment there. Shelley would be there, and I was to tell my wife to meet me there. He promised to arrange for his accountant in Los Angeles to send the two first-class round-trip tickets, Los Angeles, Paris, Los Angeles, to Jean. I was finally satisfied that the deal was real. I suggested to Jean that she arrange for a friend to live in our home as caretaker while we were in Europe. For how long? I had no idea. At least six months. I urged her to take $1,000 and buy herself a new wardrobe and, of course, get Ellen's school records so that she could be enrolled in a school in Paris. (In those days, $1,000 was a lot of money to me and could actually buy some nice clothing.) Jean was pleased that I would be earning good money for at least twenty-six weeks, but I don't think she was thrilled about the need to pack up and head for Europe again, and she was worried about how upsetting this would be for Ellen.
While I was working on El Cid, I kept hearing about a woman living in a penthouse suite at the hotel who was becoming increasingly annoyed that I hadn't bothered to pay a call on her. Her name was Clem, and she'd been Yordan's personal secretary for some fifteen years, following him around from studio to studio, typing up his scripts.
I didn't understand why I should be involved with her or why she should care, but the whispers became insistent, and I was urged by people like Irving Lerner and Lou Brandt, also long-time associates of Yordan, to go up and pay my respects. I finally called the woman, saying I'd like to come up and get acquainted.
My visit coincided with an afternoon salon that Clem evidently hosted fairly regularly. In the large penthouse living room, six or seven middle-aged women, both Spanish and expatriate, were sipping sherry and nibbling cookies. Clem was a small, shriveled woman in her fifties who could only walk with the help of a couple of canes. She evidently had suffered from childhood polio. Since she, and Yordan, had been in Madrid for many months, the room was filled with personal decorative items and seemed more like a living room than a hotel room—except for the large IBM typewriter that dominated the decor.
I introduced myself, accepted some sherry, and tried to join in the conversation. After a short, uncomfortable time, I tried to make my escape with the usual phrases about "back to work, you know," but Clem virtually ordered me to stay. She wanted some time with me alone. When the others were gone, she graciously offered, since I was a man alone in Madrid, to fix me up with one of the women or some other woman. I smiled politely and swallowed. Then she got to the point. She waved at the typewriter and told me flat out that she wrote all of Yordan's scripts. She clearly said "wrote," not typed. I figured she was just a crazy old lady. Whether there was any truth in this, it seemed to me that she was sizing me up, because, from what she'd heard, I was now the one who was doing Yordan's writing. Later, when I discussed this with some of Yordan's old associates, they were careful to mind what they said, but what came out was something like this: Yordan was good at coming up with ideas, scenes, the material of drama, and, of course, dialogue. But he was impatient about writing the "long, dull" paragraphs of description that went with the action. Maybe he depended on Clem to "English" the scripts, as the saying used to go in Hollywood.
I don't have any idea whether Clem wrote anything, but I do know that when I was finally leaving, she hit me up for some money. She told me that Yordan wouldn't let her have any Spanish money, that she was stuck up here in a hotel room and couldn't afford to get out, didn't even have pesetas for a taxi. Could I lend her a few thousand pesetas? Feeling creepy, I emptied my pocket of about $20 worth of pesetas and made my escape.
This led to one of the very few times Yordan attacked me. Shortly after my visit to Clem, he and I were alone in a hotel elevator. Angrily, he demanded if it was true that I had given Clem some pesetas. Startled at his tone, I said that yes I had. He barked at me, "Don't ever do that again." He went on to explain that his arrangement with her was that his accountant deposited her entire salary in dollars in her California bank, from which she wrote checks to support a useless adult son who lived in San Francisco; further, like everyone else here, she got a decent peseta allowance, and I had no business getting involved. My promise to him was heartfelt. I had no wish to be further involved with Clem.
Next thing I heard, Clem was gone. I have no idea what arrangements, if any, Yordan may have made for her termination, but I always felt slightly guilty that my appearance on the scene may have precipitated her departure.
Yordan was now ready for his move. Shelley Reynolds and the Captain Kidd project were also moved to Paris along with me and a number of other Yordan personnel. Yordan would be making his headquarters in the French capital.
At last everything was settled. Jean had the tickets. She and Ellen were to arrive in Paris via TWA on October 29. It would be exactly two years since my birthday in Stuttgart when we had picked up the Mercedes. Hoping to make Ellen's arrival more festive, I went to downtown Madrid and found a handsome Spanish leather saddle that would be her very own when she started to ride horses in France, as she surely would. Of course I was very happy with all of this. It seemed that at least so far as I personally was concerned, the blacklist was over.
When I arrived in Paris, the customs men at the airport were curious about the large, unwieldy box I carried. I showed the saddle to them and explained that it was for ma fille. They acted amused, as if I'd said it was for my lady friend. Maybe they misunderstood my French. In any event, daughter or girlfriend, they were happy to oblige and waved me through. Back at the Hotel Regina, I got two adjoining rooms with a connecting door and carefully settled the saddle across the brass railing at the foot of what would be Ellen's bed. The following day I reached Orly in plenty of time but found myself waiting hour after hour for the plane to arrive. I could find out nothing about the reason for the delay. When Jean and Ellen finally dragged in, I learned what they'd been through.
The flight, due to set down at Montreal on the way from Los Angeles, lost its brakes and was diverted to New York, which had the longest runways. The passengers were alerted, and the New York runway was prepared with fire engines, foam machines, and all the emergency paraphernalia for a crash landing. Passengers were instructed how to settle themselves and prepare for the worst. Jean had evidently been wonderful with twelve-year-old Ellen. Without arousing any panic, she had instructed Ellen to be sure, if there were a crash, to head directly for the escape chute and get out of the plane without waiting for Jean or worrying about her. But there was no crash. The plane had skidded safely to a stop, but they were delayed further when they had to switch to another plane before heading for Paris.
It was a letdown that Ellen did not pay much attention to her saddle when she first saw it, but she had been too excited by all the events. When she went to bed that night, she pulled the saddle under the covers and slept with it close. Fortunately, I had a few days to help get things started for the family in Paris, because Shelley was in Rome and Yordan hadn't yet come in from Madrid. Shelley had arranged for me to use his Alfa Romeo convertible while he was gone, so I was able to drive Jean and Ellen around in style. It was now early November 1960. Many of the expatriates gathered one evening in the living room of the Jarricos' apartment on the Rue de Rivoli, just a few steps away from our hotel. We were there to listen to the radio and the reports of the American election. Of course, we were all bitterly opposed to Nixon and were delighted when he lost to Kennedy by a squeak. Or was the election rigged in Chicago? We knew nothing then about that and wouldn't have cared. Nixon was the enemy. Kennedy was young, handsome, forward-looking, we believed, and made good speeches about "what you can do for your country." Maybe Camelot was about to happen. Though, to be sure, we had our reservations when Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson as his vice president for purely political and tactical reasons.
It turned out that we were only half-right about Johnson, who, when he got his chance, turned out to be one of our better presidents on domestic matters, and might have turned out good altogether if he hadn't been trapped in the Vietnam War, to which Kennedy had first committed our fighting men. Much closer to us at the time was a sense that, with Eisenhower gone and Joe McCarthy finished after the Senate hearings, the political atmosphere in the country was improving. Whatever else, and regardless of his father's nasty history, Kennedy was scarcely a rabid right winger. Could there be light at the end of the tunnel? A time when the blacklist would be behind us?
When I got back to work on the Captain Kidd script, it was up to Jean to find us a place to live and arrange for Ellen's school. We decided to enroll her at the English School of Paris, because the Wilsons' daughters, who were just about Ellen's age, were both pupils there, and we figured that it would be best for Ellen to start school with some friends of her own. But classes had already begun for the year, and the school was quite a distance outside of Paris. Jean managed to get around, get Ellen settled in the school, then try to find us a house or apartment. She had no French, and the burden was considerable. I was working under my new contract, and although everyone was kind and helpful, I still had to spend my days at work with Shelley.
Jean finally settled for a crazy house in the suburb of Vaucresson, about twenty minutes outside of Paris and ten minutes from Versailles. This had the advantage of being close to Ellen's school. The house was on a substantial piece of land with mulberry trees, a decaying tennis court, and even a gatehouse lived in by an old Russian retainer who watched after the property and stoked the furnace. The house had been put together over a long period of time from old bits of houses acquired here and there—a door or two, a window, a stairway that went up at an odd angle. The windows didn't fit quite tightly, so the interior was protected from the wind with billowing sheets of plastic. The kitchen was downstairs; for no known reason, another one was upstairs. The bedrooms were anything but square. Though it did suggest an elf's dwelling from a Grimms' fairy tale, it hung together with undeniable charm. It certainly gave us the feeling that we were not living in Los Angeles or the Bronx.
Jean went into Versailles and registered with employment agencies for household help. This was a vexing chore and seemed to be getting nowhere. But one day, quite independently of the agencies, a woman appeared, told us that she'd heard we needed a bonne, and that she had decided she would be it. We didn't seem to have any choice in the matter. Marat was about fifty, built on a five-by-five chassis. She came from Brittany, had firm opinions about everything, and certainly knew how to run a household. She was also a splendid cook. But Marat did not take well to criticism or instruction. When we had our first big party on Thanksgiving for all of our American friends, Marat was in the kitchen preparing a feast. After an hour passed beyond the scheduled dinnertime, Jean finally got up the courage to go into the kitchen to inquire. Marat coolly explained that it was still early and indicated the kitchen clock, which had stopped. Jean told Marat the right time. Enraged, Marat seized the clock and flung it down onto the tiled kitchen floor, shattering it. Jean, hampered by the language problem, didn't know how to cope. Neither did I, but I suggested Jean give Marat her own wristwatch as a peace offering. Dinner was finally served. Late but good.
Apart from these homely developments, I had to write. I had arranged a fine workroom upstairs in one of the bedrooms. A table, typewriter, and a working fireplace. But I frequently drove into town and worked on Captain Kidd with Shelley in his hotel suite.
Yordan finally bought an apartment of considerable splendor in Paris. Once belonging to the Guggenheim family, it had also been a home-away-from-home for the German naval command during the war. In 1960 an apartment of this stature could be bought for $150,000; today, it would be worth millions (of dollars). Right at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, at the foot of Avenue Victor Hugo, it was on two levels; the entry hall looked down a grand staircase into an enormous two-story living room. Upstairs, the master suite was accompanied by an incredible bathroom that featured gold plumbing fixtures and a green Italian-tiled tub. Below these chambers, and around them, swarmed a warren of smaller rooms and hallways that Yordan eventually used for staff offfices for writers and associates of all kinds. Fortunately, I was spared this indignity and was favored with a fine office at an hôtel particulier near the Champs Elysées. Once a fine private mansion, it was now transformed into the office building of a French film distribution company with which Yordan began to work.
At this time political affairs were heating up in France. De Gaulle had definitely committed to leaving Algeria. The French army were adamant opponents of this and threatened to rebel against their old general. There was a serious alarm that the army, based in Algeria, with its guns, tanks, and planes, would stage a coup by flying into Paris and taking over the government. Early one morning, Marat woke us with news from the radio that de Gaulle had called on the citizens of Paris to collect arms—which would be distributed among them—and to prepare to resist an invasion. We listened to the radio ourselves and could only understand a few of his words when he called on the citoyens de Paris."Aidez moi! Aidez moi!" The other citizens were urged to stay home, stay off the streets. I didn't think I was called on to collect a rifle, so decided to stay home. When I called Yordan and told him why I wouldn't be coming into Paris that morning, he could only grumble that any excuse served to keep people away from work. In truth, I can't recall in all the years I was to spend with him ever hearing him express any interest in anything political or, indeed, in anything other than the project or projects currently engaging him.
The invasion didn't occur. The scare was over temporarily, though for several more years the diehards in France engaged in terrorist tactics, planting plastique bombs aimed at left-wing Frenchman who favored severing the colonial connection with Algeria. A number of my left-wing French friends were targets for these bombs. But for us it was work as usual, turning out pages on Captain Kidd.
Yordan and Shelley were pleased with the way the script was going. In fact, it was going so well that Shelley, in early December, persuaded Yordan to let us both drive up to St. Moritz where Shelley had an apartment. Shelley wanted to ski and he promised that we would work as hard as ever up there to turn out pages. We took off in his Alfa Romeo. Jean and Ellen were decently settled in Vaucresson, where Marat had things under control. Ellen had connected with the local riding stable, and Jean had many friends from our Hollywood colony. I felt guilty at leaving them but was able to live with it.
Shelley and I had scarcely unloaded our bags in his St. Moritz apartment when he insisted we go over to the Palace Hotel to pay our respects to Cappy, whom I had never met. Cappy was Phil Yordan's second ex-wife and another beauty. She had only recently divorced Phil and had quickly married a Mr. Badrutt, who was the principal owner of the Palace Hotel. It's no exaggeration to say that this was the premiere resort hotel of Switzerland. Everyone from the Shah of Iran to the Opel motor heir stayed at the Palace when in St. Moritz. It boasted that the concierge staff was so well trained that any guest who ever stayed there might come back years later and the staffwould know all of the guest's preferences—room, food, service, and what have you. I never got a chance to check out this charming legend. But I did finally get to meet Cappy, another legend.
One story about her sounds apocryphal but isn't. A friend of mine was present when Cappy was asked, at a Hollywood party, "If there were one thing you wanted more than anything else in the world, one thing, what would that be?" Without hesitation, Cappy (then Mrs. Yordan) replied, as if it were a single word, "fursandjewels." Now Cappy was queen of one of the great hotels of the world. She had plenty of furs, quite a few jewels, and she presided over the Palace as though it were her private palace and the guests were all her invités. Yordan had never quite reconciled to the divorce, and I learned that many of his absences, from Madrid and Paris, early on, had been in vain pursuit of Cappy, who had finally turned him away and married Badrutt, heir to one of the great properties and traditions of Switzerland.
Cappy greeted Shelley and me regally, asked after Phil, then sent us on our way because she was about to go skiing in her very latest and most beautiful ski outfit. Shelley and I actually turned out some script pages. Shelley was a night owl who sat up half the night, banging out pages that he would proudly show me in the morning. Whatever his other talents, he wasn't much of a writer, and I usually had to explain why we couldn't use his pages as I set about rewriting them. Shelley was an avid skier and was out on the slopes much of the day anyway while I stayed in and wrote.
I did find time to enjoy some skiing. Determined to make me a good skier, Shelley introduced me to his ski professional, who gave private lessons for a reasonable hourly fee. Soon I was up on the slopes, trying the man's patience with my clumsy efforts. But I did feel I was making progress. The ski slopes were crowded with brightly clad, skillful skiers in a perpetual holiday atmosphere. These were mostly people who didn't have to wait for holidays or a vacation to get away. Even with a professional skimeister, the few days at St. Moritz were not suffficient to turn me into a confident athlete on the snow, but we had to get back to Paris. Subsequently, there were other trips to St. Moritz and Jean, too, got to enjoy the Palace Hotel.
As an unreconstructed red, I was troubled by the Swiss. At that time I knew nothing about the Swiss banks grabbing and holding the money and property of German Jews. But I did know that they had been only too ready to turn fleeing Jews back to Hitler rather than admit them into their own squeaky-clean country. Besides, from top to bottom they all seemed so determined to be the perfect hosts for the free-spending visitors. It wasn't natural. And I had heard that, despite appearances, the working class was poorly paid and lived in less elegant quarters than the Palace Hotel. I knew that they used unpasteurized milk and that their toilets, like the German toilets, were constructed so that whatever was deposited in them was protected from the flush of water so that it could be scooped up and used for night soil. Even so, feeling guilty as hell, I had to admit that I enjoyed feeling rich, feeling like one of the top dogs. Well, not the "top"— after all, the Shah and the Opel heir were still in nearby rooms.
By now Yordan was commuting back and forth from Paris to Madrid and sometimes to London or Rome. El Cid was shooting in Madrid, and though Tony Mann seemed to be in control, Yordan was involved with many problems of casting and distribution. On one trip back from Madrid, he brought Merlyn and installed her at Boulevard Suchet. Merlyn was nineteen or twenty, with a great body and no education. She was from somewhere in the American Deep South, claimed her father was the captain of a shrimp boat, but more likely he was another sailor or dockworker. She had originally come to Madrid as the girlfriend of a company attorney, then returned with him to New York, where, though a young man, he died. Merlyn decided she liked the looks of things in Madrid and arranged to get back. Irving, always the gofer, was delegated to meet her plane. He told me that the first thing she said at the airport was, "Who's the most important man here?" So far as Irving was concerned, Yordan was the most important man, and that's what he told her. Yordan, recently divorced, was at loose ends. In no time at all, the two had paired up.
Merlyn was tall, extremely buxom, and very pretty. In order to be somewhat discreet, Yordan put her up downtown at the Madrid Palace Hotel instead of with the rest of us at the Hilton. When I delivered script pages for Yordan to their Palace suite, Merlyn confided to me that Phil was a great and considerate lover; she gave me astonishing details. A pretty and complaisant girl to sleep with was one thing, but it surprised me that Yordan would get this involved with a girl who was so young, who had clearly been around the block in more ways than one, and who was so ignorant that she didn't know who Charlie Chaplin was. That really threw me.
Installed in my fine offfices on Rue Dumont d'Urville, I had other things to think about, and I had to finish Captain Kidd. When pages were sent to Yordan, he almost invariably approved. In retrospect, I think he was so busy with other projects he didn't pay much attention to our script. I finally finished a draft, turned it in, and waited with the usual writer's anxiety for reaction from the boss.
Meanwhile, back in America, Joe Steinberg was trying to arrange a distribution pickup or some kind of deal on the Philippine script I'd written. He sent me a copy, which I showed to Phil, who sat down then and there, held the script within inches of his face, quickly turned the pages, then looked up, and said he thought it was quite good. I was very annoyed at what I felt was a cavalier treatment. "You can't possibly read it that fast and know what's there," I complained.
He shook his head. "I read it and I know what's there."
"Then what do you think of the character of Maria?" I asked. There was no such character, and I wanted to trap him in a lie.
"There's no Maria in this script," he snapped.
I had to conclude that he had read and digested the script. What I wanted from him was help getting the film made—I hoped he'd want to take over—but he wasn't interested. However, he did want to know what my deal had been with Steinberg. When I told him that I'd been paid only $5,000 but had five percent of the producer's gross, he exploded angrily. It was altogether unreasonable, he insisted, to get a piece of the producer's gross. Even movie stars never got that. He was genuinely incensed that I had made a deal so unfavorable to a producer. I was amused and comforted by the thought that I had made a good deal for myself. I also gave the script to Shelley to read. He was very enthusiastic and began to think in terms of getting involved in a production.
Captain Kidd was put aside while Yordan sought opinions from half a dozen other hangers-on who inhabited his cellar warren. Meanwhile, he wanted me to get involved in another project. He had gotten into the habit of asking me along on his lengthy walks, which led, very pleasantly, along the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, down past the Auteuil racetrack, and back up Boulevard Suchet to his place. On these walks, we talked mostly about his obsession: what picture to make next. Because his deal with Bronston called for him to be paid $400,000 for each film he initiated, he had to come up with the story (or project) and the script.
On our walks he explained that television had changed the film business; now we needed "must see" pictures, films that could get an audience out of their living rooms and into the movie theaters—big, important, promotable films, not just another story. He was thinking of films like Kwai, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia. We batted ideas around. I came up with a suggestion that didn't seem "must see," but I had a notion that might make an unusual film. The idea was to do a circus picture—not the standard story of the girl trapeze artist and the lion tamer—but one that would have a free form—the great circus moving all around the world wherever a colorful site could lend itself to a unique and daring stunt. I was thinking of the aerialist Blondin walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. We could use film to convey great and unforgettable images to an audience.
Nick Ray had a deal for a second picture with Bronston and was pressing Yordan to come up with a project. He liked the circus idea, and I was set to work developing a treatment. When Nick came to Paris I became involved with him in story conferences. Nick was a tall, well-built man of about fifty with thick iron-gray hair and a curiously hesitant manner of speech. A friend of his said, "If you telephone Nick Ray and no one answers, that's Nick." He had been a hippie product during the pre-hippie days in the forties, a serious abuser of alcohol, and even of drugs before drugs were fashionable. But he was talented and liked by almost everyone. He had scored big with Rebel without a Cause, and, though Yordan had received no credit for that film, they had apparently worked together on it. Yordan had also been credited with the script for Johnny Guitar, another of Nick's successes. Despite his physical bulk and unquestioned accomplishments, Nick was an insecure man who needed to lean on someone like Yordan. By now I was deep into a treatment for the circus story and I delivered pages for Nick to read. He liked them and he and I hit it off well. I had the impression that Yordan wanted me to cement a relationship with Nick to relieve some of the demands Yordan felt he carried. I spent long hours at the hotel and enjoyed fine dinners with Nick.
Things were going so well that Yordan began talking to me of altering our deal so that I would become his "story editor," in charge of developing all scripts. He offered a further promise—that at least one picture a year would be mine to produce in participation with him as a half-owner of the film. That sounded grand to me, of course, and it motivated me to work harder.
Back from the States, Arnaud d'Usseau was put to work on a script project that, like many others of Yordan's, was based on a story or script he'd owned for a long time. I also found a couple of American writers who were living in Paris and eager for work at the short pay Yordan offered. Without any official change of title, I did become a sort of story editor who was consulted on all scripts.
I continued to work on the circus story and kept an eye on the other projects in progress. Yordan commuted back and forth to Madrid. Shelley continued to try to raise the money to produce Captain Kidd, though Yordan seemed to have lost interest in it. Joe Steinberg kept me informed of his efforts to finance our Philippine film, with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood getting hot and then cold. I heard less and less about the grand prospects for King of Kings, which received rotten notices in the press and seemed destined to become a flop. But it was onward and upward for Bronston and Yordan. El Cid was being shot, and other projects were needed.
My initial six-month contract with Yordan was due to expire on April 10, 1961. I kept reminding him of this and asking for a new deal. As usual, he put me off for weeks. Other matters always seemed more pressing, including word from Shelley that he had concluded a deal with Cinemiracle to produce Captain Kidd. Finally, on April 1, Yordan signed a new deal with me that guaranteed another year of employment at $1,500 a week and stipulated that I would produce one film a year as a full partner. These films I was to produce were not the Bronston films, but like Triffids and other scripts we were working on, they were Yordan's personal projects, financed by him with money from Hollywood studios and distributors. By now I was beginning to understand something about Yordan's "promises," like his initial promise to send for me from Los Angeles "in six weeks." He is a man who means what he says when he says it. But who can help it if circumstances change? At the time I liked the sound of becoming a producer but didn't take it too seriously, just so long as he didn't try to use that to bargain away my salary. Almost invariably, the way he liked to work with writers and anyone else was to offer them "expense money" for now and a promise of participation in profits—eventually. Except for myself, everyone else in Paris working for him at the time was stuck with such a deal. So I was skeptical. However, in some curious ways, it did eventually work out that I would become a producer for him.
Just before signing me up for another year, Yordan returned from Madrid, saying the deal for the circus picture had been set with Bronston. Everything was going so well that Yordan set off for Nice to discuss deals with some people at the Cannes festival. He arranged for me to leave Paris a day or two later and meet him in Rome. I had told my old friend and collaborator, my almost-brother, Julian, everything I was doing in Madrid and Paris. In Rome he met my plane and took me to the Grand Hotel where Yordan was staying and where he'd reserved a room for me. I would have preferred staying with Julian, who had an apartment in an old palazzo in Rome's centro historico district, but I was there on business and was expected to be with Yordan. However, Julian and Yordan met and hit it off nicely, which was one of my hopes.
The next day, Yordan and I met with Nick Ray, who had a lovely home in a nearby suburb. We lunched with Tony Mann and Michael Waszynski, Bronston's line producer. I took advantage of the extravagant meal at the top restaurant in Rome to order something I had never before tasted: wild boar. I found it tough and salty. I couldn't eat it and had to send it back. The brass from Madrid were in for a wrap party for El Cid. Some of the film had been shot in Rome, just a token to qualify for the Italian nationality that conferred considerable financial advantages. That afternoon, at a stage at the studio, Julian and I enjoyed the wine and hors d'oeuvres, staying close to Yordan, who was never at his best in a crowd and did not want to be left standing idly while everyone gathered around the stars, Heston and Sophia Loren. Heston had been sweet-talked into attending with a gift of a tax-free Jaguar.
In the hours we had alone together in Rome, Yordan and I walked the sunny, pleasant streets, and he unburdened himself to me about his problem. Should he marry Merlyn? Or should he make an effort to get back together with Cappy, who might be willing? I was not about to advise him. But I tried to be helpful, urging him to think long and hard, consult his true feelings, and not act on impulse. Maybe I was trying to convey that either choice might be a mistake.
On the way back from Rome we stopped at Nice to take in the Cannes Film Festival. Somehow, we were able to get rooms at the Carlton Hotel, the unoffficial headquarters for all the wheeling and dealing. Yordan was busy using his many contacts from Hollywood, London, Rome, Madrid. He didn't like me to be idle when on payroll, so I was supposed to be thinking up a project suitable for Merlyn. Cast her as a star? Sure. Can she act? Sure. I let it go without inquiring whether she'd ever even tried to act. But I did worry whether my first film as a producer with Yordan would be one starring Merlyn.
Evenings we went to the casino. When I entered, they asked me if I had a membership. I said I'd gotten some kind of card there several years before (when Jean and Ellen and I had landed there after our voyage on the Cristoforo Colombo). They pulled out their card file, and there I was. Yordan and Shelley were impressed by the world traveler and gambler status I now seemed to enjoy.
Throughout that first year in Paris, my first year with Yordan, the French factions opposed to De Gaulle continued to set off plastique bombs all around the city, battling to preserve the French presence in Algeria. We, the expatriate film community, were acquainted with some of the left-wing people who were actually targeted and wounded by these bombs.
Despite the major political turmoil around us, I continued to work away at the script for the circus film, but it wasn't all hard work. Jean and I, and sometimes Ellen, took in the Louvre, the Musee de l'Homme, Versailles, Fontainbleu, and spent many Sundays with friends who had a place in the country. We also visited frequently with Michael and Zelma Wilson, had dinners with them and the Jarricos in Paris. Some nights we took in the Folies Bergères, the Blue Note Cafe, and the Crazy Horse Saloon.
Yordan took Merlyn on his regular trips to Madrid. After one of these he told me they had been married. There was no public announcement and nothing much had been said to anyone. Jean and I wondered how to respond. We knew that a party to celebrate the occasion would give Yordan a fit. But we had to do something, and finally decided on a wedding gift.
What do you get the boss who has everything and really doesn't seem to be delighted with his new status as a thrice-married man? An inexpensive, token gift wasn't right, but neither was anything showy or extravagant. We finally decided to just go for it and to hell with the consequences. At the fine Jensen silver and jewelry shop, we selected a lovely Jensen-designed sterling silver coffee service—pot, sugar, creamer, and tray. Not large, but good. The whole set cost some $600, which wasn't peanuts at that time.
When we presented the nicely boxed gift to the bride and groom, Yordan was polite but even more subdued than I expected. Merlyn was delighted with the silver toy.
The reason for Yordan's restrained reception became clear a month or two later when he told me that he hadn't really tied the knot, only announced this to shut Merlyn up. And now he had decided to ship her home to the States and put an end to the farce. He also admitted to me that Cappy was coming to town and he was still uncertain about where he stood with her. He wanted Merlyn out of the apartment until he could complete arrangements for her final exit. Would Jean and I let her stay with us in Vaucresson until it was time for her to leave?
Yordan had frequently dined with us and treated our place as a home away from home. He liked Jean and she liked him. He seemed to admire the stable rel?:onship we had. We had been married almost fifteen years, and he found Jean a solid citizen—dignified, independent, warm, but not gushing toward him. He liked her cooking. Whenever it was necessary, he'd send his car and chauffeur to pick her up to get her to the doctor or bring her back from the airport or railroad station when, as was demanded every three months, she and Ellen had to leave France, then re-enter to keep their tourist status. My own situation was kept clear because of my frequent trips in and out of France with Yordan.
Yordan's car and chauffeur delivered Merlyn and all her baggage to our place. We couldn't help noting that prominent among the goodies she was taking back with her to some little Louisiana fishing port was the Jensen silver service we had gifted her for her "wedding." We had prepared a bedroom for her and explained the situation to Marat, just so our bonne would not throw a fit at the appearance of a guest.
Jean, for all her goodwill, became impatient when Merlyn demanded that Marat iron her clothes, even her undies. Jean told her that we did not have upstairs and downstairs maids, that Maratwas too busy with her other chores, and that Merlyn could just get to the ironing board herself. Things got dicey when Yordan arrived the night before Merlyn was due to fly home. He said he was taking her out to dinner. My premonition was right. They didn't come back. All bets were off, and Merlyn resumed her place at Boulevard Suchet.
I worked on several projects while waiting for the completed circus script to be studied in Madrid, after which it would either be approved or I would be asked to make changes. Yordan was busy trying to get financing for Triffids. King of Kings seemed to have been forgotten, despite Bronston's effort to get the Vatican to endorse it. My Philippine film was finally shooting in and around Manila with Irving Lerner directing. Joe Steinberg had assembled a good cast: Van Heflin, Rita Moreno, and James MacArthur. Having failed to get a distribution deal or pick-up, they had decided to go on spec with full financing by Joe's brother, Harry Stonehill, who was truly a big-time operator in those latitudes.
After a winter in Vaucresson, Jean and I decided to move into Paris. We found a splendid apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement just a few blocks' walk from my of fice and also close to Yordan's apartment on Boulevard Suchet. The apartment belonged to Count and Mme. de Bearn, who were evidently having marital problems. It was completely furnished with the very best pieces, including good antiques, Wedgwood china, and cupboards full of the best crystal. One of the possessions that particularly impressed me was a large chest of sterling silver flatware, so heavy that it could scarcely be lifted, which contained two dozen place settings that seemed too precious to use. The paintings on the walls were of museum quality, and there was a unique, original crayon portrait of Napoleon casually placed on an end table. It had been a gift from Napoleon to an ancestor who had been a lady-in-waiting for Napoleon and Josephine. A large, heavy, sterling silver box for cigarettes sat on the coffee table.
We worried about losing items like this and protested to Mme. de Bearn that they shouldn't be left with tenants. "But that's why you're paying so much rent," she replied. How much? It came to slightly less than $500 per month. Those were the days!
During that first year, on one of my frequent trips back and forth between Paris and Madrid with Yordan, he blew up at all of the niggling about the Triffids script, especially from the director, Sekely. Yordan was busy concentrating on making the deals to finance and distribute the Bronston product and was too preoccupied to pay much attention to Triffids. He finally decided to call a halt to what he considered the unproductive stalling of his director and producer. Yordan was occupying an enormous one-of-a-kind suite that featured a very large circular central living room with a pair of bedrooms on either side. He busied himself setting a long table in the middle of the living area with three chairs on one side and a single facing chair. He placed a Triffids script at each place. Next he put on a snapbrim felt hat I'd never seen him wear before, and, with a severe frown on his face, he managed to look very much like a 1930s Chicago gangster.
When all this was arranged, he said, "Don't you worry about what you're going to see. Just do what I tell you." He called for Lou Brandt and Steve Sekely and while we waited, asked me to be seated in the middle of the three chairs.
When they arrived, he didn't bother with a polite greeting, just instructed them in a commanding tone. "You," to Sekely, "sit there on Bernie's right, and you," to Brandt, "sit down on his other side." They sat as ordered and Yordan took the seat across the table facing us all.
"Now, Bernie is going to turn through the pages of the new scenes he's written so you can see them. These are absolutely the last changes that are going to be made. So the two of you turn through the pages with him and read them. And that will be that."
"Go ahead," he ordered me. I proceeded to do my part. The other two were clearly too intimidated to open their mouths. Even I, knowing I was part of an act, felt a chilling apprehension. Just to make certain there was no misunderstanding, Yordan emphasized, "I don't want any questions or comments. Just read the new scenes." When I was through with my part and closed the script, he said to the others, "That's all. You can go." Without a word, they slouched out.
When the door closed, Yordan pulled off the dated hat and shrugged but didn't smile. "Sometimes you have to do these things."
"You certainly had me convinced," I said sincerely enough.
"The two of them: sitting on their asses, living it up around here and piddling with the script." He shook his head. "What do they know about scripts?"
"I never knew you were an actor."
Now he permitted himself an easier look. "I had a little experience at the Pasadena Playhouse way back."
As it turned out, Yordan's display of authority accomplished little because he fired Brandt and hired another producer, one who knew exactly how to take orders—Bernie Glasser—who had worked with him on some television projects in Hollywood. Yordan rounded up a couple of stars, Howard Keel and Nicole Maurey, who though not exactly shining lights in the firmament, were good enough to carry the picture for the $800,000 budget that Yordan raised by selling the U.S. rights to Allied Artists for $400,000 and the rest of the world to Rank of London for $400,000. One of the sweeteners in the deal for Rank was that the film would be produced as a British quota film, entitling it to the considerable financial benefits of the Eady Plan, which Britain used to encourage local production.
As a result of this "nationalization" of the film, we had to spend most of the budget in England and hire much of the above- the-line talent from England, which determined the casting. A Britisher, George Pitcher, was paid and named as producer, although, to the best of my knowledge, he had nothing to do with making the film. Glasser, who did produce it, never got credit.
My script had assumed production in Spain. I now tortured it into a shape that permitted filming in England. That did not help the final result. Filming began at the Pinewood Studios at the edge of London, and, on one of my periodic trips, I went out to the studio and watched some of my work being filmed.
Some months later Yordan returned from a trip to London to tell me he was in trouble with Triffids. The completed film had been screened for Allied Artists and for Rank; they had rejected it. Actually, Yordan didn't have any legal obligation to please them, since they had no approval clauses in their deal, but he didn't want to blow his relationships with these important film people. There were always possible deals in the future. Steve Broidy, head of Allied Artists, was an old friend of Yordan's. He had recommended Yordan bring to London a fine Hollywood film editor who would go through the footage and see how much could be salvaged.
Though Yordan blamed the producer and the director for the problems, I believed the real trouble came from Yordan's unwillingness or inability to spend the money required to shoot the major action sequences that had been planned for Spain. He had been constrained by the need to spend most of the money in England in order to benefit from the Eady Plan. Whatever the reasons, Yordan followed Broidy's advice, sent to Hollywood for Lester Sansom, a real pro, and nervously waited in a Soho delicatessen while Sansom ran the film through a moviola, marked the bad sections with a grease pencil, then timed what was left—the good sections. Yordan was called back to the cutting room. The bad news: there were only fifty-seven minutes of good film. Contractually, Yordan needed a ninety-minute feature-length film. Someone had to find or add close to thirty minutes.
Apart from the cost of doing this, the other problem was that the cast—principals and all other actors—were long gone. They could not be brought back without spending a fortune. It would be cheaper to scrap the whole film. Back with me in Madrid, Yordan had already figured out in principle what had to be done. We would write and film another complete story that was related to the basic plot but independent of it, a story with different characters, therefore, different and cheaper actors. What kind of story? I was stumped. The whole idea overwhelmed me. Not Yordan. A few days later he came to me with his solution. We would do a story of two people isolated in a lighthouse, just two characters who had somehow escaped the destruction of most of the rest of the world, and we would interleave their story with the one that was already shot. I liked it.
I had to find two characters, put them in a lighthouse, figure out why they hadn't gone blind like everyone else, make them interesting enough to watch for thirty minutes, and figure out how their affairs would intersect those of the original story. Relieved of my other chores, I set to work, and soon I had twenty-five pages I liked. I gave them to Yordan. He read them and rejected them.
"Why?" I demanded angrily. "That's a good story."
"It's too good," he retorted. "Your characters are too sophisticated, have psychological problems. They don't fit in with the others in the rest of the picture." I thought he was dead wrong, but shrugged and walked away from it.
Yordan had a British writer available. After all, the original novel was a British classic; the location of our lighthouse would be somewhere on the British coast and would have British characters and actors. Yordan would get Jon Manchip-White to write the new lighthouse sequence. A day later Jon came to my room with some script pages in hand. "I didn't think Yordan could write," he said.
"What are you getting at?"
"I just read a sequence he wrote and it's really damned good." He handed me some script pages.
I glanced at them and laughed. Of course, they were the pages of my lighthouse sequence. "Did he tell you he'd written them?"
Jon nodded. I explained that they were my pages and that I had just received the most sincere compliment from one writer to another. Then I marched in to see Yordan and waved my pages at him.
He shrugged. "What's the difference who wrote them?"
Maybe that's the way he really felt. Maybe he never told Jon he'd written them. Maybe Jon just assumed he had. In any event, those were the pages that were shot, and many people have told me, since the film has become a cult favorite, that they like the lighthouse story best.
Getting the lighthouse story into work meant starting up a full production in London. Yordan had to pull it together there and find the money to pay for the new shoot. He somehow managed all this, then announced that he was sending me to London to take charge of filming the lighthouse sequence.
Characteristically, he didn't bother to tell the Triffids producer, Bernie Glasser, who was in London, that I would be arriving to take over. On some unconscious level, Yordan worked on the principle that the more people he had doing the same job (writers, directors, producers, lawyers, accountants), the more likely someone would come up with a good result. It was up to me to handle Glasser in London.
I started out by renting a large two-bedroom suite in the modern wing of the Grosvenor House Hotel. I needed two bedrooms because Jean and Ellen would be coming from Los Angeles to join me in London on their way back to Paris. The very large and impressive sitting room was necessary because I would be using it as my office for casting and for interviewing directors and actors. Glasser may have been impressed with the suite, which should have announced my real authority, but he was understandably balky about cooperating with me. I needed him. He knew his way around the London film scene. I knew nothing, no one. I faced a dilemma when he as much as told me to drop dead. I knew that he wouldn't want to totally tear up his relationship with Yordan, but I had been sent to London to solve problems, not to call Madrid and toss the problem back to Yordan.
I invited Glasser to dinner, had a heart-to-heart with him, reasoning that it would be bad for both of us if I had to call Madrid and complain to Yordan. He understood. We got along fine after that and went to work considering suitable directors and performers. Maude Spector, the leading casting director in London, was not much help. She couldn't help turning up her nose at this job of finding two inexpensive actors and a very inexpensive director who wouldn't even get a credit on what she considered a minor film. She didn't know that this was my entry into a higher state of filmmaking, and she became very impatient with me when I was choosy and insisted on interviewing a number of people. Once again, the threat I didn't have to voice was that Yordan and Bronston were behind me.
Jean and Ellen arrived from California. We had a happy reunion in the suite, which was a great upgrade from the rooms we had occupied in the same hotel several years before. Jean and I had a week together (except for actors, actresses, and directors) and were able to enjoy my elevated status while recalling the days of selling plastic and chasing scofflaw drivers.
I was fortunate to find Freddie Francis, who was one of Britain's leading lighting (first) cameramen. His ambition was to become a director. He had already directed a couple of low-budget films. He read the script of the lighthouse story we were preparing to shoot, liked it, and agreed to work for a modest fee, with the understanding that he would receive director credit only for the lighthouse portion, not for the full film. He was an absolutely delightful man who cooperated in every way and was able to steer us to some actors he knew. With his help, we found Janette Scott, who had a reputation for being the best screamer around. We ran a couple of her films, and it was true. Also, she was attractive, a good actress, and agreeable. We found Kieron Moore who was a good-looking, virile actor who had made several British horror films.
With these two lined up, we rented a stage at Shepperton Studios on the outskirts of London and planned the interior of the lighthouse set. I was dubious about it, however, because the downstairs floor area, virtually the only place for playing out the personal scenes, seemed too small to permit the camera angles needed, especially when the massed trifffids started breaking down the walls to get at our humans, but Freddie Francis assured me that it would be fine. Since he was one of the world's best cameramen, I subsided. He turned out to be perfectly right.
Other matters did not go as well. I'd heard that working with British film crews could be vexing, that they insisted on the strictest rules for defining the function of each union category. If an electrician picked up a wrench that only a grip could touch, work stopped, a grievance hearing was held, untold time lost. Time is a lot of money on a film set. As an old left-wing union man, I tended to discount these stories as antiunion grousing by producers. What I had heard turned out not only to be true, but true in spades. We were an American company shooting in Britain, and we could feel palpable resentment against us. I well understood the feeling among British filmmakers who were forced to struggle to keep their own industry alive while the theaters were full of American imports. Naively, I'd thought that since we were over here employing the British, they'd see we were the good guys working here instead of in Hollywood. Not so. Americans were the enemy.
The special effects were hard to achieve. To carry out my concept that seawater destroyed the triffids, we had to find a system where spraying the monsters with seawater, as from a fire hose, caused them to go up in smoke or steam and dissolve harmlessly. The special-effects people were maddeningly lackadaisical in their approach. Try one trick one day. Wait until the next day to try another. The triffids were men dressed up in costumes that made them look like bark-covered plants with moveable limbs. The object was to cover the exterior of these mobile, treelike brutes with some substance that would react appropriately when in contact with water or whatever was sprayed at them.
We all tried to come up with suggestions. I recalled from elementary chemistry that phosphorous reacted this way to water. Whether this idea was helpful or not, I don't know. I doubt it. What I remember most keenly was that one day, in the midst of this costly struggle to find a workable system, the chief special-effects man was inexplicably absent and all work ground to a halt. After frantic efforts to find him, we learned that he had decided to report to the Motor Vehicle Bureau to renew his driver's license, so hadn't bothered to report to work or even to inform us that he wasn't coming. This seemed an act of sheer hostility, and my impulse was to fire him on the spot. It was frustrating that I couldn't even consider that. There was no one around to replace him, and satisfying my fury only would have cost us dearly. Finally an excellent effect was achieved, and we were able to shoot the sequence to everyone's satisfaction.
After this, we worked in editing rooms rented in Soho, in the heart of London. Putting the new footage together and intercutting it with the old was in the competent hands of Les Sansom. But this was all unoffficial. We had to keep the British film editor on to satisfy the demands of the Eady Plan. Additional work consisted of sending a crew out to the furthest reaches of Lands End for an exterior shot of a real lighthouse to establish an authentic feel for our own interior construction. Much as I enjoyed the post-production work, Yordan felt that it was now in capable hands. He wanted me back in Paris for more writing chores.
On November 28, 1962, Yordan called me from London to say he had just run Triffids and thought it was terrific. Two weeks later he called to tell me that Rank had accepted Triffids with enthusiasm, and it was a foregone conclusion that Allied Artists would also accept it. When I approached Yordan for writer credit on the film, he said he had to deny me because the original deals with Allied and Rank called for him to be the screenwriter. Thirty years later, Universal Pictures in Hollywood was considering a remake of Day of the Triffids; they requested clarification of the writing credit on the existing film. At that time I got Yordan to sign a letter to Universal acknowledging that I was the sole and proper author of the script and originally had been denied credit only because of the political circumstances that existed at the time of the production.
“Gordon's story is one of triumphing over adversity, as he managed to make a decent living and live a rather exotic life peopled with colourful characters, while maintaining his moral integrity. It's an inspiring, fascinating read.”