SUCCESS AND FAILURE have been the obsessions of the American writer Budd Schulberg, and the themes of all his work. “Success in all its seasons is something I really lived with,” says the novelist and screenwriter and boxing columnist. “I didn’t have to create it. It was really imposed on me. I saw it happen over and over again.”
The four seasons are the spring of early success, the full summer flowering of success, the waning of popularity in autumn, and the hard, cold winter of forgetting. Schul-berg created the calendar to describe the lives and fates of great American writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald in his youth, Sinclair Lewis as a literary tower at middle age, John Stein-beck’s premature loss of popularity, and the commercial failure of Herman Melville.
It’s winter at his home in Westhampton Beach, New York. Beyond the large glass window the grasses of the salt marsh have turned gray and a cold wind pleats the water. But it’s not cold inside. He hasn’t forgotten anything, and he’s not a failure. He’s 92 years old. His hair is white. He needs two canes to walk. His hearing needs help. But he still remembers everything and he still has opinions.
“Yes! Yes!” he dives into a subject. “Writers, I’ve always been interested in writers. Juan Rulfo, Mexican writer, one of the best. I moved to Mexico in 1959. Lived there quite a few years.” His sentences are short, and they repeat, and repeat, circling round the subject. “It was during that period living there I both read and met Rulfo.”
He’s talking about the author of the Mexi-can classic Pedro Paramo. “It’s a wonderful book. The Mexicans are so much more undemanding about their writers. If Rulfo wrote that one book, that’s all he wants to write. That’s fine with them. In our country, they get back at you if you write one very good book. Then they want to know what’s next. What’s next? What’s next? What do you have on the fire? I get asked that over and over again. What do you have on the fire now? It’s a very American, immediate, super-practical approach to literature. You have to keep adding something, and adding something, and writing something new. Nobody asked Rulfo what he’s got on the fire. Here they want you to do more and more.”
Schulberg is still writing, more and more, lots on the fire. His desk in an office over the garage of his home is covered with stacks of new work. He’s got a screenplay about the life of boxer Joe Louis that he’s working over with director Spike Lee. John Moores, businessman, philanthropist and owner of a baseball team, is financing a new musical production of Schulberg’s play A Face in the Crowd, for Broadway. Steven Berkoff is planning a revival of On the Waterfront for the London stage. Schulberg is updating The Four Seasons of Success, his book on American writers, with an additional profile of the screenwriter John O’Hara. When he’s done with that, he will pick up the second volume of his memoirs. He’s got a hundred pages done already, says Schulberg, pointing one of his canes toward a pile of paper.
“I just need the time to get on it,” he says, “Finish the rest of it. Just the time.” He’s been saying that for 25 years, since the publication of the first volume, Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince. Although the book is about Budd Schulberg, the figure who dominates the narrative is his father, the early American screenwriter and movie executive B.P. Schulberg: “A writer with a facile, retentive mind, a flair for showmanship, and a sense of his own worth as a literate diamond in the murky field of illiteracy, he had come to the right business at the right moment, when it was growing out of its funky nickelodeon phase.”
B.P. Schulberg wrote his first photoplay in 1912, when movies were still being produced by Thomas Alva Edison, and ran for eight minutes, at the very most. He started out with Adolf Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company at $30 a week. Famous Players became Famous Players-Lasky which became Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky which became Paramount, where B.P. Schul-berg became head of production in 1928.
“Every picture of him is the same,” he says and points to a photograph on the wall in which B.P. Schulberg stands with his legs somewhat apart, hands in the pockets of his three-piece suit, wearing a hat, gazing confidently at the camera, the picture of a successful man. “You see that, the way he looks. He always looked like that.”
Budd Schulberg grew up in the 1920s in Hollywood, when it was still a small town in which his father ruled over the lives of actors who could be spectacularly successful one minute and forgotten the next. “When I was a kid, I used to think about these big stars,” he says now. “The poor things. They’d feel so big and so important and they didn’t have a clue as to what life had in store for them. They all imagined it going on that way forever and ever. Remember John Gilbert, with Garbo. My God! There was nobody bigger. Locked himself in his house. Drank himself to death. So the shifting of the seasons came to me naturally. I just saw it over and over and over again. It happened to everybody, to my own father.”
By 1928, B.P. Schulberg inhabited an office the size of a swimming pool, with stained glass windows, and a place among the few at the top of the movie business. “All the so-called moguls would play poker together once a week, the four or five big shots. They used to say that one bad word there, it was the kiss of death. They could really destroy people’s careers over a poker game. That was the way it was then.” The game eventually ruined his father.
The Hollywood big shots gambled for high stakes, ranked by how much money they could afford to lose. B.P. Schulberg was making $11,000 a week, in the middle of the Great Depression. But he was a very bad card player. “Outrageous gambler. I remember coming down in the morning, getting ready for school, and my father had been gambling all night, just lost $20,000 in a game at home and this is in the Depression, early 1930s. God, how much money he lost.”
Years later, Budd Schulberg was in Ensenada, Mexico, just across the border from California, famous for its casinos. “I went to this bar. I was drinking and when I asked for my check, the bartender pointed to a little fellow at the other end of the bar. “He paid your check for you.’ I looked over and it’s a total stranger. I’ve never seen this man before. Why would he pick up my check? So I went over and asked him and his answer was that he had been a dealer in the casino and my father used to come in on weekend. Sometimes he’d play all night and into the morning. Sometimes when people win a lot they tip the dealer, $500 or something. ‘But your father lost a lot and then tipped me, so I figure the least I can do is pay your tab. Your father tipped me so many times that I saved the money and opened an import-export shop.’”
Schulberg speaks with a stammer that he’s had all his life, an inheritance from his father. At times it has completely stymied him. But it also made him a good listener. He was listening when people didn’t realize he was listening. He liked to go to the Stanley Rose Book Store on Hollywood Boulevard, where the writers attracted to Hollywood from the East would congregate: Robert Benchley, John O’Hara, Nathaniel West, Alexander Woolcott, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald. “When they had enough cabbage in the bank, back to the maple-shadowed New England farmhouse they would go,” he says of them. “Ah, then they would write as their own men once again.” Some did. Fitzgerald didn’t.
Schulberg had just graduated from Dart-mouth College and returned to work in Hollywood in 1939 when he met Fitzgerald again. They were both working at the Goldwyn Studio as writers and they were put together to make a screenplay out of Dartmouth’s annual Winter Carnival. First, they talked about the idea. They talked about it for months. Then the studio insisted that they actually go to Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival. Along the way, in New York, Fitzgerald disappeared into a series of bars. The young Schulberg fished him out and onto the train to Dartmouth. On the train, Fitzgerald found the bar car.
“When we got off the train, he sort of fell over and lost everything. Things were falling out of his pockets and I was scooping things up,” Schulberg says and points up to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Social Security card, framed on the wall. “Years later, I mean twenty years later, I find the damn thing in a bag. How did I have this? And by that time he had died, so I had it framed.”
“I remember all these people, all of them. I really have a very good memory. Still do. Sometimes they were worse, the ones who succeeded.” At the age of 27 he wrote about all the sycophants he watched cosying up to his powerful fathers. He boiled them all down into one man. “A little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran,” Schulberg wrote in 1941 in What Makes Sammy Run? From the moment the narrator meets the copy boy, he knows that Glick will succeed and he knows that he doesn’t like him. “I guess I’ve always been afraid of people who can be agile without grace.”
“I invented a word in the English language there. I wasn’t trying to. But that’s what happened,” Schulberg says now. “You see newspapers talking about the ‘Sammys’ hanging around a star or the ‘Sammys’ hanging around outside Madison Square Garden.’ That’s Sammy Glick.”
Glick succeeded by thinking always of himself. “What’s good for Sammy Glick is right.” He stole the work of colleagues, flattered superiors, betrayed friends, lied and cheated with everyone. He had an eye for other people’s talent, which he used to his benefit. These too were people who Schul-berg knew well, people who knew how to write or direct, but didn’t know how to play Hollywood’s brand of politics. “It’s queer to think how many little guys there are like that, with more ability than push, sucked in by one wave and hurled out by the next, for every Sammy Glick who slips through and over the waves like a porpoise.”
Sammy, of course, succeeded magnificently, married the boss’ daughter and took over the studio from his mentor. Schulberg called his creation the personification of a nation: “It was America, all the glory and the opportunity, the push and the speed, the grind of gears and the crap.”
Before he died, Fitzgerald read a draft of Schulberg’s novel. He told him that the book was very good, that he had caught the real feeling of Hollywood, that he would write a bit of praise for the book jacket, and that Schulberg would be persona non grata in Hollywood the day it was published. “The trick is to have such a success that they can’t bury you,” Fitzgerald told him. “If it’s a flop they can banish you. But if you have a critical and commercial success, you can live without them.”
Schulberg had a critical and commercial success with What Makes Sammy Run? Reviewers fell hard for the book. Readers put it on the bestseller list for months. The money poured in, and the fame. But Holly-wood hated the novel. His father begged him not to publish it. “I still got that letter. He said Budd, he said, I beg you not to publish it. One thing, you’ll never work here again. It will hurt me and your mother’s agency business. Put it aside. Write something else.”
His parents’ careers survived, but not his warm welcome in Hollywood. Sam Goldwyn called him a “traitor.” Louis B. Mayer told Schul-berg’s father, “How could you let your own flesh and blood write that book? You know what we should do? We should deport him!”
John Wayne, who believed that Hollywood was the true reflection of America, was deeply offended by What Makes Sammy Run? He denounced the book and its author at every opportunity. Decades after its publication, Schulberg was sailing into Puerto Val-larta on a perfect night: friends, wife, margaritas and sunset combined with the beauty of the Mexican coast. His wife told him to turn around. There was the Duke sailing in at the same time. The mayor of the town, delighted with such high profile guests, gave a dinner in honor of the two. In the middle of the meal, Schulberg felt a hand on his shoulder: “How about you ’n’ me settlin’ this once ’n’ for all? I’ll be back at midnight, an’ I’ll be waiting’ for ya!”
Schulberg thought this was a good opportunity to practise his boxing skills. But the fight on the beach turned messy. Both of the contestants were drinking tequila for most of the night. When the climactic punch-up came, neither could disentangle themselves from Schulberg’s wife, actress Geraldine Brooks, who threw herself between the two men.
The book was made into a play for television in 1959 in the days when the networks didn’t routinely keep copies of their live broadcasts. Only half of it survived as a kine-scope at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York until the spring of 2005 when the Library of Congress checked its stacks and found the other half, also a kinescope. The director Delbert Mann, already famous for his production of Marty, got Sammy Glick right. Played by Broadway actor Larry Bly-den, he was ambitious, dishonest, driven, a little bit sexy and feral: “I didn’t have to read no books to find out about Darwin. I learned about that on the streets – survival of the fittest.”
The production was all done in one day. “It was like a miracle. Very limited budget, I guess,” Schulberg says. “It’s hard to believe. They just raced from scene to scene. In the end it was a two-hour show. How did they do it? Amazing.” Mann and Schulberg, who wrote the teleplay with his brother Stuart, preserved the ending – in which Sammy is himself Sammy-ed by his dishonest, adulterous wife – and goes even further. When asked what makes him run, Glick turns on the questioner and asks instead, “What makes all the rest of you run after me?”
But when the production went to Broadway as a musical in 1964, the producers couldn’t bring themselves to let Sammy be Sammy. According to New York Herald Tribune dramatic critic Walter Kerr, “It starts out as a hardheaded, mean-minded musical about a whizz of a kid on the make… and then it cheats. Every so often, every too often, it grabs hold of the very things it means to be satirical about and uses them to make it cozy and cute.” Tom Cruise toyed with the idea of playing Sammy “just for a moment or two,” according to Schulberg. “That’s what I heard. He was considering it. If Sammy could be a little nicer.”
Now Ben Stiller wants to play the part. “In fact, he even got Dreamworks to buy it. So they own it now. My very, very strong feeling is they will never do it. Maybe I’ve got a persecution complex, but I’m not sure they did-n’t buy it just to kill it.” It seems that sixty years after it was published, Hollywood still isn’t prepared to see itself the way everyone else has seen them for nearly a century. “Steven Spielberg said that he would rather not do it thought it reflected too badly on Hollywood and he thought they shouldn’t make a film that exposes Hollywood that way.”
Schulberg managed to offend just about everyone with Sammy Glick. The old conservative establishment of Hollywood, always bigger than the left, also opposed the book because they thought it was anti-Semitic. Rumours persist that Goebbels bought half a million copies of the novel and used it as anti-Semitic propaganda. While Schulberg thought it portrayed “the free enterprise system at its meanest, brass-knuckled, kick-in-the-groin dirtiest,” the Communist party cells in Hollywood and their leaders thought that it wasn’t constructive, hadn’t considered the real class struggle. Besides, Schulberg hadn’t consulted the Party about the story or asked for their permission to write it. “The feeling was that this was a destructive idea: that it was much too individualistic; that it didn’t begin to show what were called the
progressive forces in Hollywood.”
Schulberg’s less known work was recently shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes, a film by Christian DeLage, had its premiere on a cold night in January to a sold-out audience. Director John Ford shot the whole of the Nurem-berg trials. William Dono-van, head of the Office of Strategic Services, had asked him to record the historic Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal, and to provide the visual evidence for the trial as well. Ford gave that job to Schulberg.
There had never been such a trial before. It was meant to bring twenty-four of the most important leaders of Nazi Germany – Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Albert Speer, among others-to justice. But it was also meant to be theatre. Nuremberg was chosen because the city had been the setting for Nazi spectacles. The courtroom was broken into small states. On one side were the defendants and their counsel, on another, the prosecutors. The judges lined the front of the room, and to the side were the ranks of press tables where reporters composed stories for newspapers throughout the world. It was Schulberg’s job to make the horror of what the Nazis did perfectly clear to all attending.
The Allied forces had yet to find much of the footage of Nazi atrocities which became available later. So Schulberg enlisted German film editors who had worked with the SS film units, who told him that, under the direction of their superiors, they had made films documenting German atrocities. Most were an hour or more. Occasionally they would get a request for short, twenty-minute films. These were a favorite of Hitler and Himmler and others like them was to run these for entertainment after dinner. They were called “desserts.”
The editors also told Schulberg that the films had been hidden in mountain vaults. By the time that Schulberg got them, the cans of film had been burned. It happened so many times, that he began to think that the same people who were giving him sites were also tipping off Germans to destroy the evidence.
Schulberg kept looking. “We looked everywhere we could for film that might be usable. In a basement we found a dozen cans. We started to run them. The Nazis had filmed the entire trial of the plotters who tried to assassinate Hitler on the 20th of July, 1944. The judge would scream at them, like Hitler, hysterical.”
The helpful SS film editors told them that they had seen film of the execution of the July 20th plotters, hung alive on meat hooks. Schulberg traced the film to Switzerland. “I went to Bern, spread the word that I was willing to pay whoever had that film. Someone came to me and I offered $2,500. He said, ‘Oh, no, there was someone who would pay more.’ I went up to $3,500 and eventually to $5,000. The man said no, ‘I’ve sold it to someone who’s paying much much more than that, someone in Spain.’”
But Schulberg and his company of filmmakers found over ten million feet of film of the Nazi party’s rise to power and what they had done with that power. He’d been given special instructions to get close-ups of high Nazi officials. But he didn’t know the officials well enough to identify him. So he found out where Leni Riefenstahl was living, drove up to her chalet on a lake in Bavaria and arrested her. “She gave me the usual song and dance. She said, ‘Of course, you know, I’m really so misunderstood. I’m not political.’”
The film he made was four hours long, all of it pure horror. Each concentration camp had its allotted time on the screen. Gray, grainy, but undelible footage of the overworked, the beaten, the starving, the gassed and the piles of dead was repeated over and over again. Schulberg had wanted to put lights on the defendants while they watched the film, but the chief judge refused. “I think he really wanted to be fair in every way. Bending over backward, he was, I think, so no one would say that we weren’t fair to them.”
Schulberg was political. Like many members of his generation, he was attracted by socialism and communism. In the years before the Second World War, he had joined a communist cell in Hollywood. He left when fellow members denounced him for writing What Makes Sammy Run?, for not seeking their guidance, and for not accepting their criticism. The cell member who spoke out most strongly against the book was Richard Collins, who named Schulberg as a member of the Communist Party to the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1951.
Schulberg sent a telegram to the committee reading, in part, “My opposition to communists and Soviet dictatorship is a matter of record. I will cooperate with you in any way.” He named ten fellow screenwriters. “They had all been named. There wasn’t much new I could add.” To this day, he doesn’t regret it. Though he has committed a sin without pardon to the old left, Schulberg is unrepentant. “They think I support the black list. I think they support the death list,” he told Victor Navasky for his book, Naming Names, citing the mass executions and imprisonment of citizens in the Soviet Union.
It is widely assumed that Schulberg’s masterpiece, the screenplay for On the Waterfront is his apologia for testifying before HUAC. The belief is strengthened by Schul-berg’s partner on the project, stage and film director Elia Kazan, who also named names to HUAC. The script’s storyline seems to confirm the conclusion: a powerful, corrupt body, the International Longshoreman’s Association, keeps its members under tight control until a few lone voices speak out and break the power of the union. The difficulty with this scenario is that the inspiration for the film came before the HUAC hearings.
In the summer of 1947, Schulberg was working on a novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Disenchanted on his farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His father was living in a cottage on the grounds. Every day, the New York Sun newspaper was running a series of daily articles by Malcolm Johnson about corruption on the waterfront in New York.
It was, said Schulberg, better than anything he could make up. “The greatest harbour in America, all nine hundred piers and nine hundred million dollars of it, from Brooklyn to the Jersey shore, was revealed as an outlaw frontier run by labour racketeers who used the union as a front for every type of criminal activity: systematic pilferage, shakedowns and extortions, kickbacks from the daily wages of the dockworkers who had to shape up for their jobs every four hours.”
Schulberg clipped the articles every morning and put them in a file. When his novel was finished, he went to the editor of the New York Times and asked if he could do some reporting of his own. Malcolm Johnson, rather than objecting to the competition, helped him with contacts, particularly Father John Corridan, the Hell’s Kitchen priest who denounced the unions for their corruption and was so memorably played by Karl Malden in the film.
Schulberg spent three years on the waterfront before beginning the script. He took his story directly from what he had seen and heard himself. “One thing you do in writing dialogue is that you make up as little of it as you can. You listen as much as you can. I simply wrote down what they were actually saying,” he says. It was, in many ways, more like a documentary. The shape-up, in which men had to compete with one another for a chance to work that day, was true to the common practice of the day.
Goldwyn Studios made the film, but they weren’t excited about it. Hollywood has long been opposed to films with a purpose. Sam Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” So the film had a small budget, about $800,000, and was shot in just thirty-seven days on the docks of Hobo-ken, New Jersey. The publicity department advertised it with the unlikely line: “A story as warm and moving as Going My Way – but with brass knuckles!”
But On the Waterfront took the field at the 1954 Academy Awards with eight Oscars: best picture for Sam Goldwyn, best director for Elia Kazan, best actor for Brando, best supporting actress for Eve Marie Saint , best art direction, best cinematography, best editing, and best screenplay for Budd Schul-berg. It was sweet vindication for Schulberg and Kazan. An even greater reward was the waterfront reform that followed the film. “When the shape-up was finally banned soon after, it meant more to us, honest to God, than all those Oscars.”
Schulberg’s been writing on boxing since he first started writing about anything. A collection of his finest pieces were recently published in Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage, including thirteen pieces from the Sun-day Herald. “Why I write for them?” he says. “I started writing for the Herald because they asked me. They called and asked me to write about boxing for them. And I said yes, yes I would do that.”
All the young Jews in the 1930s identified with the Great Benny Leonard, he says, “very much the same way the blacks saw Ali as a symbol of their independence and their ability to rise up and that’s the way the young Jews felt about Benny Leonard. And my father took me to see the famous fight with his Irish rival Richie Mitchell. When we got there, this huge guard, he had to be six feet, said, ‘For Christ’s sake you can’t bring that kid in here.’ So my father had to take me all the way home. I was crying all the way home. It was the first fight I didn’t see. But late that night, my father sat on the edge of my bed and he described this fight so vividly that I still feel as if I’ve seen it. My father described it in such detail I felt I’d seen it. And in a way I have seen it, through my father’s eyes.”
Among fight fans, Schulberg is best remembered not for On the Waterfront, but for The Harder They Fall, the novel and movie that exposed the immoral brutality of fight managers. The boxer in the film, an Argen-tine giant named Primo Moreno, is clearly based on the Italian Primo Carnero, who was put through a series of fixed fights by his managers. Then they put him up against Max Baer and Joe Louis, and made a fortune by betting on the winners. Carnera was left battered, beaten and broke.
The most devastating sequence in Schul-berg’s film isn’t the duped boxer taking a beating, it’s the newspaper reporter’s interview with an ex-fighter on skid row, a boxer who once made millions, for others, who can neither speak nor feed himself.
There is no more dramatic distinction between success and failure than the boxing business. Even when fighters succeed, they can’t avoid failing. “Look at Holyfield now,” says Schulberg. “He won the heavyweight championship three times and now he’s about 44 and sitting pretty with honours and he’s still trying to fight and he still talks about winning the title for a fourth time and he’s lost all the skills and everybody can see it but him he can’t see it. He won’t stop until he practically gets killed.”
Schulberg is working on a screenplay about the great fighter Joe Louis with director Spike Lee. “Directors all have a niche, in the eyes of the money people in films,” says Schulberg, who would know. “They have a sense of how much each director can get for a movie. Spike is good for thirty to forty million. Where Scorsese may be good for eight million. So if Spike asks for eight milllion to make a film he’s in trouble.”
This is an $80 million film, because it contains the great twin themes of success and failure. “It covers the entire long career of Joe Louis. We follow him from the upward climb and triumph and then we follow him down the downward spiral. He suffered so much, same as the actors.”
Although Joe Louis made propaganda films for the government during the Second World War and donated proceeds from fights to war bonds, the Internal Revenue Service hounded him for taxes for the rest of his life. “I never understood why the IRS didn’t say, Jesus, we shouldn’t be doing this to him. When his mother died and left $600 to him, the IRS grabbed that money. They grabbed everything. When he was broke and wrestling for 500 bucks the IRS would go to the box office and grab that money. They took his estate when he died that he was going to leave to his children. He got a very very unfair deal. Jesus.”
Schulberg continues to write about boxing, faithfully following the game that has so few fans anymore. It hasn’t lost his appeal. He writes in Ringside: “Only in boxing is there one defining night when history is made and dreams and careers go rattling down like bowling pins. To the tenth and last frame. Game over. Only this isn’t bowling. This is one night that may decide how you will be remembered. Take a bow, you’re the champion of the world! Or – Get lost, ya bum!”
RINGSIDE: A TREASURY OF BOXING REPORTAGE
Ivan R Dee, Inc, £12.60
pp368, ISBN 1566637074