Review of Sam Spiegel

by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni

Simon & Schuster 2003  464 pp. 30.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 

Sam Spiegel was a scoundrel, a greedy, compulsive womanizing liar who, along the way produced The African Queen, On the Waterfront, Suddenly, Last Summer, and The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni’s meticulously researched, even-handed Sam Spiegel serves up the warts, the brilliant successes, and, many, many more warts.

            Let’s hear from the gifted screenwriter Budd Schulberg: “I really wanted to murder him.  I seriously considered it.”  Or, how about the esteemed Dalton Trumbo, conversing with Mr. Spiegel: “Listen, I have a gun and I will shoot you if I don’t get my money today.”

            Born in 1901 in Galicia, now part of southeast Poland, Spiegel was an assimilated Ashkenazi Jew who spoke nine languages, was courtly toward the wives of his friends, and dressed in bespoke tailoring: “he looked respectable and had exquisite manners.”  Indeed, solvent or not, he lived like a millionaire all his life, which provoked police interest on several continents. 

By his mid-thirties he had been imprisoned in two different countries, and expelled from France, mostly for non-payment of bills and check fraud. (One of the book’s special treats is his 1928 American mug shot, taken in San Francisco.)  Spiegel generally allowed others in his debt to go unpaid while he slept in his suite at the George V in Paris or sailed the Mediterranean in his yacht, the Malahne, offering sumptuous hospitality to royalty, movie stars, and an ever-changing cast of nubile young women.

            “Spiegel was only capable of conducting his affairs through misinformation,” a modus operandi with its own name: Spiegelese.  As his third wife relates, “He would prefer to climb a tree than tell the truth.”  Of course, in Hollywood, such business practices netted him three best picture Oscars in eight years (a record unrivaled among producers), a total of 25 Oscars for his movies, and, in 1964, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.

            Spiegel began his producing career in 1933 in Berlin, but didn’t have his first major success until his arrival in what Brecht called “the marketplace of lies,” Hollywood.  There he produced Tales of Manhattan, based on a story idea of apparently questionable legal provenance.  His career took off with the 1951 production of The African Queen, and reached its peak in 1962 with Lawrence of Arabia.  From then, it was a long, slow slide until his last, critically well-received film, Betrayal (1982).

            A megalomaniac of enormous charisma (possessing what Billy Wilder called “velvet octopus arms”), Spiegel charmed women into bed and men into film contracts that invariably benefited the producer.  Even those betrayed by him, however, testified to his gifted story sense, “as close to an artist as a producer could get,” in the words of Mike Nichols.

            “Spiegel’s brilliance lay in always recognizing his customer,” whether that be a business partner, a conquest, or a movie audience.  Concerned equally with an actress’ shoes, unseen beneath her gown, Elizabeth Taylor’s clingy bathing suit in Suddenly, Last Summer; or how to properly film Marlon Brando’s nose in On the Waterfront, Spiegel’s sense for both the narrative and visual qualities of film were unrivalled. 

            In telling her story, Fraser-Cavassoni wisely refrains from attempting to psychoanalyze her subject.  Such were the enormous contradictions in Spiegel’s personality that she seems to have adopted the reaction of most of his friends, a form of bemused, distanced, head-shaking wonder.

Daughter to British MP Sir Hugh Fraser and Antonia Fraser, stepdaughter to playwright Harold Pinter, the author worked with Spiegel on Betrayal and seems to have possessed both the social entrée and necessary doggedness for this, her own superb production, seven years in the making.  Fraser-Cavassoni’s Sam Spiegel makes you happy you saw his movies, and happier you never did business with him.