Sam Spiegel: The Incredible Life and Times of Hollywood's Most Iconoclastic Producer, the Miracle Worker Who Went from Penniless Re

by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni
ISBN: 068483619X

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Sam Spiegel
by Keith Garebian

His third wife summarized him by quoting Churchill's line about Soviet Russia: "A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Certainly much about him was mysterious, for he deliberately let you know only fragments of his life. He perpetuated his mother's deception that the family were Austrian Jews with German culture. He became famous in Hollywood as S.P. Eagle, producer of Tales of Manhattan and The African Queen. He threw fabulous New Year's Eve parties, though he was teased mercilessly by friends like Billy Wilder, Anatole Litvak, and John Huston. He insisted on his name above the titles of his movies, and he drove many directors, writers, and actors wild with his relentless interference and nagging. He would feign heart attacks in order to make his partners feel guilty or sympathetic, and though he sought only the best talent, he could be a tough negotiator. He paid Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif slave wages after they had become international stars in Lawrence of Arabia, and he persuaded Maurice Jarre to score that film for only $2,000, then discouraged him from attending the Oscars so that he could collect the Best Score award himself.
Some acquaintances thought of him as another Gatsby, for despite the signs of material success-chauffeured Rolls Royce, villa in the South of France, luxury motorized yacht with teak floors and Panama flag, Park Avenue penthouse, and table at the Connaught in London-he spun several fictions about himself in order to conceal things in his past. He did, it is true, escape on the last train from Berlin when Hitler came to power, but he was deliberately evasive about his origins because his Galitzianer roots forced associations with poverty and Jewish orthodoxy. In the United States in the late twenties-after years of criminal fraud and prison sentences in Europe-he made up false stories of his earlier careers and how he had slipped into America. He got away with most of his fictions because he looked respectable and had exquisite manners when required. Sam Spiegel had chutzpah in spades, which enabled him to live out of suitcases, make all the right appearances in the right places to be noticed, use women as stepping stones to greater fortune, and turn the world into his playpen. As a crook, he was egalitarian: he stole from both the rich and the poor.
Though Spiegel gave posterity some great movies, winning three Best Picture Oscars (On The Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) within the space of eight years, and really cared about the quality of his films (even going as far as hiring politically blacklisted writers), his greatest feat of invention was himself-or the paradoxes and anomalies of his self. His biographer makes this invention the core of her massively intriguing, richly detailed book, a work that centres on his personality but which manages to capture a sense of his time and place. Her book digs into Spiegel's family history to lay bare his humble roots, and it shows how the iconoclastic producer went from penniless refugee in Poland to youthful Zionist hero, from notorious swindler to ruthless but brilliant Hollywood "fixer." Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni looks closely at the producer's family roots, finding in his mother (whom he adored) rather than his father, Simon (whom he never mentioned in public), the key to his psyche. Like her, Sam was bossy and manipulative. He talked his way into Universal Studios in Berlin to become an agent, though like Wilder, Wyler, Litvak, and others, he had to flee eventually. One of his memorable epigrams became: "But for the grace of God, I would have been a bar of soap."
In time, he became articulate in nine languages and could write Hebrew and Sanskrit. This sophistication was countered by an expertise in shady business dealings, which made it necessary for him to keep re-inventing himself to escape stigma. He was also totally unpredictable, given to both childish or elaborate pranks as well as to merciless exploitation. With few exceptions-these were Brando, O'Toole, Grant, Peck, Douglas, and Nicholson-he had little respect for actors, and not much more for writers. He was similarly callous with his wives and lovers, refusing to make a serious commitment even after vows were exchanged. He mentioned marriage to Betty Benson (who became his second spouse), but was caught the next afternoon in bed with two women. His third wife, a sexy, sweet but dumb Texan, went to wholesale ruin after their divorce, but he did nothing to help her.
The cast of characters in this biography is huge and colorful (including Brando, Sinatra, Nicholson, Lean, Huston, et cetera), and the biographer traces all of Spiegel's disasters, successes, romances, friendships, and scandals through anecdotes and episodes which would make in themselves a hugely entertaining television series. Though she has a personal link to her subject-Spiegel was a "treasured friend" of her mother and step-father and Cavassoni began her career as a co-assistant on Spiegel's Betrayal in 1982-she leaves no stone unturned in her research and presentation. The producer's "Spiegelettes" (starlets who were part of his casting couch) and "Spiegelese" (lies and criminal conduct) are given full play, and Spiegel is often caught in embarrassing situations and in his numerous contradictions. Consequently, even though he is ultimately characterized as a crafty seducer of almost anybody, he is also seen as a bastard who (in Kate Hepburn's words) was nothing more than "a pig in a silk suit who [sent] flowers."

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