A letter from George Sanders to Brian Aherne, reprinted in the latter's A Dreadful Man. The two men had quarreled after Sanders, fortified by vodka, expressed his low opinion of the acting profession, and when Sanders had to rush off to catch a plane, the argument continued via written correspondence.
December 31st, 1937
I was very happy to receive your angry letter, and I am glad I shook you up a bit. Ask yourself this question: If money (greed); loyalty to theatrical tradition (pernicious exhibitionism); rigid conformity to social convention (masochism), are incompatible with personal happiness--which should be sacrificed?
You talk about the theatre as if it had some cosmic significance. As a matter of fact it is pathetically sublunary; a drab and dusty monument to man's inability to find within himself the resources of his own entertainment. It is usually rather fittingly housed in a dirty old building, whose crumbling walls occasionally resound with perfunctory applause, invariably interpreted by the actor as praise. A sad place, draughty and smelly when empty, hot and sick when full.
I wonder which is the sickest, the audience which seeks to escape its miseries by being transported into a land of make-believe, or the actor who is nurtured in his struggle for personal aggrandisement by the sickness of the audience.
I think perhaps it is the actor, strutting and orating away his youth and his health, alienated from reality, disingenuous in his relationships, a muddle-headed peacock forever chasing after the rainbow of his pathetic narcissism.
My love and best wishes for a happy New Year.
This charming letter is Sanders to the core, from the command of the language to the marvelously tranquil closing--actors are pathetic narcissists, happy New Year!
No wonder Aherne had it framed.
You'll never go broke dissing actors, and indeed no one can bash actors quite like another actor. The Siren wonders, though, what it is about acting that makes some of its best practitioners value it so little. Those who possess genius in other fields usually don't question why they bother. The Siren spent a number of years working for some spectacularly gifted mathematicians, and these gentlemen did not sit around muttering "Oh Christ, I've thought of another theorem. How dreary." Is it the supposed subliteracy and philistinism of so much of Hollywood? Well, in the above letter Sanders was writing to Aherne about the theatre, which is usually taken to be a higher form of acting. Even given that Sanders had a career primarily in film, his lack of regard for acting is still striking. George Gershwin also did most of his work in a popular vein, and to the Siren's knowledge he never wrote letters suggesting that the beautiful melodies that poured out of him were useless.
George Sanders' low opinion of acting appears to have been as authentic as it was frequently expressed. There is a wonderful TCM clip of goddess Angela Lansbury discussing Sanders, in which she remarks on his intellect and says something to the effect of "Acting occupied such a tiny portion of his brain," illustrating said brain portion with a thumb-and-forefinger pinch you might see on a cooking show.
Early in her blogging career the Siren wrote a little piece about Sanders, which you can see here, in which she tried to look at the Sanders image. She read Aherne's book a couple of years later, and it simultaneously supports the vision we all carry of Sanders, and tears it down. Sanders was indeed a supremely intelligent, witty man, writing from Switzerland that news of Aherne's letters brings joy to all Lausanne--"laughter is heard," children skip around gaily, "monks in the monastery of Montchoisi start buggering one another with renewed vigor." Aherne also reprints a long letter Sanders wrote to his parents shortly after arriving in Hollywood, in which he discusses "practises such as jumping into Producers' cars and trying to rub them up the right way," and that part alone is worth tracking the book down.
As is the story about Sanders, confronted by Nigel Bruce at a party during World War II. Bruce demanded to know why Sanders hadn't contributed to the latest British War Relief Whatever. Sanders took a drag on his cigarette and replied with perfect sang-froid, "Because I am a shit." So much for the glories of a united Hollywood war effort. (Gloria has an addendum to the story here.)
Then there's Sanders, determined to rid himself of second wife Zsa Zsa Gabor, arranging to break into her bedroom on Christmas Eve with a detective and a photographer in hopes of catching the Hungarian beauty in flagrante. Sanders climbed through the window. Flashbulbs popped and Zsa Zsa's lover sprang, too late, for the bathroom. Sanders held out a gift and boomed, "Merry Christmas, my dear!" Aherne was fond of Zsa Zsa, and here you can see why, because Zsa Zsa poured champagne for everybody and a good time was had by all. Except the chap cooling his heels in the bathroom. (Probably Porfirio Rubirosa, although Aherne doesn't name him.) When the divorce news was released to the papers Sanders' statement read, "I have been cast aside like a squeezed lemon."
Still, it's obvious that Sanders had a depressive streak that went well beyond any of the usual guff about his alleged Slavic temperament. (Rather confusingly, Sanders was born in Russia of Russian parents, at least one of whom claimed English descent.) X. Trapnel once remarked in the Siren's comments that the distortions of the David Lean Doctor Zhivago were occasioned not by leftist apologetics, but by a "British assumption that Russians are basically sentimental, irrational wogs." Aherne buys into this with his talk of how the Russian part of Sanders predominated, as though that explains anything.
One moment Sanders was witty and urbane, the next monosyllabic and impossible. One of the Siren's aforementioned mathematician bosses was also a dedicated cinephile. One night in the early 1950s the mathematician found, to his delight, that he'd been seated at Sanders' table due to overbooking at a European resort restaurant. Expecting his dinner companion to be rather aloof, what the Siren's old boss got instead was catatonia. Sanders was impeccably polite, but seemed barely able to lift his fork. The actor's All About Eve costars agreed that while playing Addison DeWitt, his energy was low to nil and he was a general wet-blanket. His costar for the great Viaggio in Italia, Ingrid Bergman, became so alarmed by Sanders' panic and gloom on the set that she didn't know whether to send for his psychiatrist or his wife. Eventually Bergman and Rossellini sent for Zsa Zsa; she didn't help.
At times, Sanders' behavior toward women went beyond caddish. Asked why he didn't take first wife Susan out more, he replied, "Oh, I can't bring her. She bores people." Another woman found Sanders bounding out of her bed and out of her life when she casually remarked that she owed a big tax bill. This was a long and eventually depressing theme in Aherne's book; Sanders was obsessed to the point of mania with avoiding taxes. Now you are thinking, well, Siren, so are most of us. True. Aherne himself moved to Switzerland at one point to avoid paying high taxes. Aherne did not, however, set up several corporations of varying degrees of legality, get involved with international swindlers, set up complicated, annual multi-country residence schemes or accept lousy, career-damaging jobs based solely on whether or not he could hide the income. Sanders did all that and more, and his obsession with tax evasion was to have sad consequences toward the end of his life.
His main joy appears to have been his unlikely marriage to Ronald Colman's widow, the former actress Benita Hume, to whom Sanders proposed mere weeks after Colman's death. Much of Aherne's book consists of Benita's letters, which isn't as disappointing as you might think. Aherne at first suspected Sanders was after her money, but Benita was the love of his friend's life. She was quite funny and charming in her own right: "Greer G[arson] was there, she's become no end odd and when she greets you, you have the strong impression that she has just opened a bazaar and I for one fully expected her to give me a nice rosette for the biggest cucumber." Benita also gives a good picture of life with her George, as he complains in a Tel Aviv restaurant that he does not like frankfurters and would like some pork sausages--"You know, PORK." "I sometimes wonder what goes on inside that head," she concludes placidly.
Benita knew what she was getting into. Aherne includes a letter she wrote well before Colman died, in which Benita laughs over the Zsa Zsa-Christmas-detective story that was making the rounds of Hollywood and concludes, "There is something irresistible about a man who cultivates caddishness to such Homeric proportions." So well did Benita seem to understand Sanders that the Siren thinks his "dreadfulness" might have been oddly comforting at times. Benita was diagnosed with breast cancer and came home one day after being informed by a horrifically insensitive doctor that she'd need a double mastectomy. Sanders asked how it went, his wife burst into tears, and when she managed to tell him the news, he sighed with relief: "Oh, is that all? Well, who needs them?"
When Benita died, in 1967, Sanders wrote to Aherne that she wouldn't have wanted mourning: "The mood here is one of gaiety." He stopped in to visit Aherne, played piano, gave singing lessons and seemed in good spirits. Sanders kept it up until, on the way to the airport, Aherne asked him a question about Benita--and "he burst into uncontrollable sobs."
A couple of years later Sanders married the wealthy Magda Gabor--Zsa Zsa's idea, he told Aherne. After only a few days of marriage, Sanders announced he was divorcing her, because he didn't want to ask her for money, and he "couldn't have a normal conversation" with her; Magda had aphasia from a stroke. Not only did Sanders himself have a milder version of the same problem, also from a stroke, he was discussing this with Aherne in front of Magda. When Aherne protested, Sanders admitted affably that Magda was "much the nicest of the Gabors" and came up with the idea that the marriage should be annulled on grounds of his impotence. Which it shortly was.
The marriage to Magda came and went, and things got worse for Sanders. His parts diminished, his drinking increased. Always subject to fits of gloom, he began to slide into despair, showing up at Aherne's place leaning on a cane and insisting that he was dying, whacking the sofa with the cane and groaning, "I can't speak straight and I can't think." Aherne tried to comfort him, saying it was the old age we all face, but Sanders was inconsolable, having just turned down a good part because his stroke-damaged speech would not permit him to do it. Sanders' sister Margaret went to take care of him. One morning she found George had ordered the servants to drag his piano, which he once played every day, into the garden, where Sanders chopped it to pieces with an axe. When Margaret protested, he pushed her away: "I can't play the damned thing any more, so why should I keep it?"
In a final attempt to avoid more taxes, Sanders made the disastrous decision to sell his house in Mallorca, Spain, which he had owned with Benita and which she'd intended to be his well into old age. When Aherne last saw him, in March 1972, just a month before his suicide, Sanders was downing glasses of straight vodka, asking "how many would it take?" (pills) and saying he should never have sold the house: "Everything I do is wrong. I can't do right. I must be crazy!"
The actor tried hard for an acerbic, Sanders-style coda with his famous note: "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck." In reality, the end was as somber as any other suicide. Dan Callahan, in his excellent Bright Lights piece, tells the story even better than Aherne does:
Old, sick, and very tired, Sanders traveled to Barcelona in 1972, took a hotel room, and wrote his famous suicide note before overdosing on pills. This note was gleefully reported after his death, and certainly it remains one of the best of its kind. What is less known is that Sanders wrote a second suicide note, addressed not to the press but to his sister Margaret, the only person who connected him to his Russian childhood and everything he had lost: 'Dearest Margoolinka. Don't be sad. I have only anticipated the inevitable by a few years.' In the end, the entertaining Cad had his say, only to make way for the tender Russian boy behind the mask...
That the first suicide note has passed into immortality, while the gentle farewell to his sister is almost forgotten, is understandable, indeed almost appropriate. Sanders may have despised acting, but like all stars he understood image. "THINK ONLY THIS OF ME," he wrote in one of his last letters to Aherne, "that in some corner of a crummy foreign village there lives, for the time being, that old shit-heel from St. Petersburg--Sanders." Indeed it's much easier to contemplate Sanders being an "old shit-heel" than the melancholy, broken person he was at the end, and it was easier to play parts that way, too.