Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Love Song of Samuel Hoffenstein: Coda



THIS, via the ever-obliging Yojimboen, is Samuel Hoffenstein. Pretty much exactly how one feels he should look.

The response to the Siren's first piece on Hoffenstein was delightful. Particularly touching was how, spurred no doubt by the deep feelings engendered by "Maid of Gotham" and "The Shropshire Lad's Cousin," people went and found out stuff. Longtime Siren commenter Jeff Gee pointed out (as the Siren should have) that the Internet Archive has a nice selection of his poetry. Jeff also mentioned that David Cairns of Shadowplay already had a Hoffenstein tag going.

The wonderfully named T. Migratorius came up with a map of Hoffenstein's Manhattan migrations:

FWIW, since he was so elusive, I thought I would look him up on Ancestry.com. Not much there, but some New York locales in his history may make the Siren feel even a bit closer to him.

Ancestry has his June 1917 WW I draft registration card showing him, at the age of 26, employed in "theatrical publicity" and officing at the Eltinge Theater. (I looked it up. It was at 236 West 42nd Street and "now survives as the facade and lobby of the AMC 42nd Street Movie multiplex." Yes, just part of the theater was moved to a new location.)

His entry in the 1930 Census shows him living at an apartment house at 501 Lexington Ave. (now the Hotel Roger Smith) with a wife, Edith. Edith was roughly 7 years Samuel's junior and born in Oklahoma. One wonders how they met.

In the 1940 Census, the last before his death, he was living on Thayer Avenue in Los Angeles, alone with two servants.

What about Edith? The only other thing I found for her was a passenger list from 3/18/31 showing her as a Los Angeles resident traveling from Agua Caliente, Mexico to San Diego. A Mexican divorce, perhaps?

The Siren should have guessed there was an Edith, somewhere.

I've been in love a dozen times,
And fashioned several thousand rhymes;
For love I've suffered much, indeed,
And rhyming makes my spirit bleed;
And yet, I have unhappy times
When I am out of love and rhymes.

Whereupon Samuel Wilson came up with the denouement:

Google News Archive sources indicate a 1938 divorce, Edith citing mental cruelty. A UPI article quoted a poem reportedly written after their honeymoon and dedicated to Edith:

When you're away I'm restless, lonely,
Wretched, bored, dejected.
Only here's the rub, my darling dear.
I feel the same when you're here.

The Siren didn't intend to crowdsource Hoffenstein, but she is glad she did.

And she herself has further findings of a Hoffenstein nature. The Siren was walking through her living room when she glanced up at a shelf filled with books placed there solely for the beauty of their spines. And immediately the air around the Siren turned blue with her curses, because she realized: "@#$%, I've @#$%ing forgotten Salka Viertel."



Salka truly deserves her own post one day, so the Siren will keep this brief. The book is The Kindness of Strangers, Viertel's memoir, which the Siren hasn't re-read in years. Born Salomea Steuemann in Sambor, now part of Ukraine, Salka grew up in a well-to-do and cultivated Jewish family. She married the director and screenwriter Berthold Viertel, whose writing credits include Murnau's Four Devils and City Girl. She had three sons, including Peter Viertel of White Hunter, Black Heart fame. (Peter also married Deborah Kerr, thereby becoming the envy of the world.) Salka moved to California with her family in 1928 for a four-year stay that wound up lasting the rest of her life. She met Greta Garbo and they became friends, perhaps more than friends. She wrote movies for Garbo that included Queen Christina, Anna Karenina and Conquest, and Salka even had a part in Anna Christie. She also co-wrote Deep Valley, a very fine movie.

Salka's home in Santa Monica became a magnet for the European expat community. As the Nazis gained more and more power, Salka tried to help people get out. The glitter and genius of the people surrounding Viertel was astonishing. To read this memoir is to encounter casual sentences like, "It is unpardonable of me not to remember on what occasion I was introduced to Thomas Mann." If you were a European-born intellectual in Los Angeles in the 1930s, you knew Salka Viertel.

So you see why the Siren's first action on taking The Kindness of Strangers down from her shelf was to gently hit herself in the head with it.

If the book has a major flaw, it's the lack of an index, so the Siren flipped to the Hollywood chapters, and way towards the back, in seconds, here's what was found.

I no longer saw those who still represented glamorous Hollywood. Ernst Lubitsch and Sam Hoffenstein died that same year. Embittered, disgusted with Hollywood, post-war Germany, and the whole world, Sam rarely left his house. From time to time he would ask two or three intimate friends for dinner, usually a young screenwriter Elisabeth Reinhardt (no relation to Max) and me. The evening would start with martinis, of which Sam took too many; then he made us laugh with his outrageous blasphemies, uproarious improvisations and solemn Hebrew incantations. Then, invariably, he would become 'Swiftian,' aggressive and bitter, and abused everyone and everything. One morning Elisabeth rang me, in tears. Sam had phoned her at four in the morning, asking her to come; he was alone and feeling ill. When she arrived he was slumped at the telephone, dead. It was a great loss for us all.

"After so many deaths the last/ Is only the locking of an empty house," Hoffenstein wrote in Pencil in the Air. We still don't know his cause of death, but it seems heartbreak became literal. Viertel, who writes of how the Holocaust survivors she met haunted her, and whose own brother was murdered by the Nazis, understood.

If there's one unassailable fact that the Siren has discovered about Hoffenstein, who remains mysterious to her, it's that his humor was hard-won. The best wit is never the product of a light mind; it's a conscious choice made by someone who sees things with harrowing clarity:

Talent in evil
Ends on the gallows,
But genius in evil,
Avoids the shallows,
Rides currents high and free
And fashions heroes for humanity.

The Siren didn't want a death scene to be her last glimpse of a man she had taken to heart. Stubbornly she scanned each page in The Kindness of Strangers, hindered not only by the lack of an index but by Viertel's habit of referring to everybody by their given name; do you realize how many people were named "Sam" in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s?

There's only a handful of other mentions. Viertel quotes Hoffenstein's opening "Proem" from Pencil in the Air: "Wherever I go/ I go too/ And spoil everything." And this, from shortly after she met him:

Often I wondered how this Chassidic soul landed in Hollywood, but he made a lot of money. Hoffenstein's two volumes of verse, one called In Praise of Practically Nothing [sic], had had great success and become very popular. Today, I am afraid, not many people remember them. Expressing himself in exquisite English, slightly tinged with an Irish brogue, he would surprise one by bursting into a YIddish song or Kol Nidre and other Hebrew prayers. When intoxicated, he would improvise for hours in verse which, unfortunately, he forgot next day.

Kindness of Strangers was published in 1969, so alas, Hoffenstein was already becoming obscure by then. And it seems possible that his ode to Gloria Stuart's "Goose with Kirschwasser Aspic" was forgotten once he sobered up the next day:

I won't get up tomorrow,
Or go to bed tonight,
Unless I know the red wine
Is standing by the white.

Oh, I want the red wine,
And I want the white,
Or I'll sleep with my clothes on
Until I look a sight
.

That bit is from another Edna St. Vincent Millay parody; Edna really got it in the neck from Hoffenstein. But did you spot the real mystery?

"Irish brogue."

Irish WHAT? Where did he pick that up, in Oklahoma when he met Edith? Although it does shed some light on "You've Got to See Mamma Every Night or You Can't See Mama at All (Mr. John Millington Synge interprets an American theme)".



The Siren has saved the best for last. It may, in fact, be the best picture she will ever get of what it meant to be Samuel Hoffenstein, or any other screenwriter, in Hollywood.

Viertel met him when she was working on a script for Garbo then called Marie Walewska, the story of the affair between Napoleon and a Polish countess. It later became Conquest. Viertel's script, co-written with S.N. Behrman (another brilliant "Sam") had run aground with MGM producer Bernard S. Hyman, who didn't like it and wanted it rewritten. Hyman called Viertel into a meeting.

'What do you think of Sam Hoffenstein?' he asked.

'Very highly. I love his poetry.'

'He is reading your and Behrman's script.'

A few hours later Hoffenstein burst into my office waving the blue-bound script and shouting: 'This is the best screenplay I've ever read. It's brilliant--I could not put it down! Congratulations! Where is Behrman? I must send him a telegram.'

Gottfried heard his shouting and came in. [Gottfried Reinhardt, son of Max, was Hyman's assistant and like most other European expats was a friend of Viertel's.] Hoffenstein repeated what he had said to me, adding more flattering adjectives and suggesting that we all go to Hyman. We had to tell him that not a word of the screenplay should be changed. I said that as I was involved it would be much better if he and Gottfried went alone. Ten minutes later Goldie, Hyman's blond secretary, called and said I should come to his office.

Bernie was sitting behind his desk, two girls in white uniforms attending to him, one to give him a manicure, the other a scalp treatment. He looked gloomy. 'Sam says he likes the script as it is.' Not reacting to Bernie's statement, I asked the girl who was rubbing his scalp if she could grow hair on bald spots. 'Positively, yes' she said. Bernie, now more cheerful, launched into a long explanation. He had not said 'Positively no.' He admitted that there were some good scenes and lines in the script, but it had 'no heart.' It was sophisticated and cold. It did not make you cry. When 'that man' was all alone on St. Helena--he meant Elba--waiting for 'his Empress,' and Marie arrived instead of her, 'this should bring tears into everyone's eyes.' I said that what we wanted to show was Napoleon's growing megalomania, his ruthless use of the Polish Legions without any intention of restituting their country, and Marie's disillusionment with the man she worshiped, her realization that he was an egotistical monster but whom she could not cease loving.

'If you want to feel sorry for Napoleon then let Garbo play him,' suggested Hoffenstein.

But Bernie said sternly: 'I want this film to be the best Garbo ever made,' and went off to lunch in the executive dining room.

Hoffenstein, Gottfried and I left the studio and drove to the 'Little Gipsy,' a Hungarian restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. After two martinis we felt much better and were more inclined to listen to Gottfried's analysis of Bernie's psyche. There was no use resisting: the script would be rewritten even if William Shakespeare had been its author. It was imperative for Bernie's ego to start from scratch, because that way he could get used to the story and the characters, and this always took a great length of time. 'For you and Sam and Salka,' he went on, 'it will be leisurely work, pleasant, because you like each other and Bernie is a nice man. I am sure that you can save many scenes from the Behrman script, as in the course of time Bernie will become convinced that everything has been invented under his guidance. This may seem cynical to you and a waste of money, but that's not your responsibility. The more Bernie spends, the closer he is to becoming an executive. On the other hand, if you refuse the assignment, somebody else, much less scrupulous, will tear down Berhman's and Salka's script, and suggest another story, which Garbo will reject, and we'll have to start all over again!'

'Gottfried is right,' said Hoffenstein, and called for the wine list.


17 comments:

Lemora said...

Thank you for your Hoffenstein Coda. I love to read and make up Limericks, and I've really enjoyed reading his and the ones about him sent in by others. Now, I have to read Salka Viertel's memoir and watch "Laura" again, for about the sixth time.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, thanks too for this bounty.
A side note on Salka Viertel: she was also the sister of the great pianist, teacher, and Schoenberg acolyte Eduard Steuermann who not only played in the first performance of Pierrot Lunaire, but also premiered Schoenberg's piano concerto, which Oscar Levant had inadvertently commissioned. The awkward episode is described in Memoirs of an Amnesiac.

The Siren said...

Thanks Lemora! I had forgotten what a good book "Kindness of Strangers" is; I definitely recommend it and it isn't hard to find through the usual 2nd-hand channels.

XT, yes! She discusses Edward quite a bit, as well as Schoenberg, Brecht and a long episode with Eisenstein. I don't remember her mentioning Oscar Levant though, which is interesting. Anyway, definitely a subject for a future post. I found out that Donna Rifkind is writing a book about Viertel. Much of the stuff on the Web is very concerned with whether or not she had a lesbian relationship with Garbo, which frankly isn't as interesting to me as other parts of her social life.

Vanwall said...

I'm hoping for a coda coda, it's so much fun reading your Hoffenstein opus!

mas82730 said...

Jeez, Garbo could have played Napoleon -- they were the same height. Hoffenstein's wisecrack is hilarious. Thanks.

The Siren said...

The other irony being that Garbo probably WANTED to play Napoleon...

agnieszka said...

"The other irony being that Garbo probably WANTED to play Napoleon"

Why not? Sarah Bernhardt played Napoleon II (the Zeppo of the Napoleons) in Rostand's l'Aiglon.

The Siren said...

Why not indeed! I adore Boyer and he isn't bad in the part, despite a hairstyle that makes me shudder to recall it. But Sam was right--you'd have felt sorrier for Garbo, and probably believed her conquering Europe more too.

yojimboen said...

Hair today, gone tomorrow...

yojimboen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yojimboen said...

This is positively the last time I’m recommending this book.

Dietrich, Garbo, Bankhead (and Salka Viertel on every 2nd page almost). I regret that le demi monde Sapphique may be inherently less interesting to, shall we say, the distaff half of civilization than the… other half. Let’s lay it to rest (figuratively), and just accept that men – delightful, mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging men are much more fascinated than women with the phenomenon of one lady ‘doing’ another lady.
There’s a blindingly simple reason: We agree with both of ‘em.

This must be the tenth time I’ve cajoled fellow kaffee-klatchers to read “The Girls.” It’s trashy as trashy can be, but why should that stop anyone? The Hollywood of ‘lady-chums’ in the past was a foreign country:
They did things differently there.


Lemora said...

Oh, yojimboen, I just read a lengthy summary of this book by Herself, Diana McClelland. I've been debating whether or not to bother with it. Another one, "Hollywood Lesbians," (which may not be as "good" as "The Girls") had this approach: A verbatim conversation from 1933 between, say, Mercedes de Acosta and Marlene Dietrich, is repeated, with a detailed description of the china pattern they're eating breakfast off of, and their negligees. Either someone has a hell of an eidetic memory; or the author recorded it all back in 1958, before everybody got dementia (with the proviso that publication would occur when everybody was safely dead;) or, the most likely version: The author is making it all up. The dead cannot sue. A warning bell sounded, for me, when Ms. McClelland named Ms. Dietrich's "trusted friend," David Bret, in whom she "confided" in her extremely old age. Uh Oh. I love a trashy, gossipy read as much as the next person, but Mr. Bret's books --I've skimmed two at a book store-- made me want to take a scalding hot bath. Immediately. (Sometimes, I wish the dead COULD sue!) Maybe I'll check out "The Girls" from my local library. I mean, you have actually recommended it!

yojimboen said...

Just in: Deanna Durbin dead at 91.

NYT Obit

X. Trapnel said...

Sad, but another DD is alive at 96. Today is her birthday. Bon anniversaire!

Lemora said...

Oh dear. I believe I have confused "Hollywood Lesbians" with "The Sewing Circle." In the former, the author attempts to badger Dame Judith Anderson, Barbara Stanwyck, and others into spilling the beans on themselves and peers. In the latter, a different author (with the same agenda) concocts detailed scenes, complete with dialog.

Lemora said...

Oh damn, of all the rotten luck to be laid up with a nasty cold. "Laura" is playing in all its Big Screen Spendor at the local Paramount Theatre, an art deco palace built in 1925, and worthy of it. This is tomorrow night, May 10, and it's only five dollars to get in! Parking in the rear lot is very cheap. Anyone reading this who lives in the Bay Area should go! I wish I felt well enough to!

Donna Rifkind said...

I've made an index for "Kindness," Farran, and you can find Sam Hoffenstein on pp. 186, 213-15, 217, 223, 226, 242, 275, 302-3. She loved him so much. He would make a great subject for a biography.