The Golden West: An Interview with Daniel Fuchs
July 16, 2014 | by Aram Saroyan
In early 1989, I telephoned Daniel Fuchs (1909–93), then in his eightieth year, in Los Angeles to ask about the possibility of interviewing him for The Paris Review. The novelist and screenwriter—heralded for his Williamsburg Trilogy of the 1930s (Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company) and Love Me or Leave Me, for which he won an Academy Award—was cordial and open, but stipulated that he preferred to have the questions sent to him; he would mail back his answers. I sent the questions, twenty-seven of them, to Fuchs that February, and at first there appeared to be clear sailing—the writer said he would soon have something.
At the same time, Fuchs expressed a concern about the handling of the copyright when the interview was printed, and over the next several weeks it became increasingly difficult to allay or understand his fears. Although I’d assured him the rights would revert immediately to him upon publication, he remained concerned, asking for a signed warranty from George Plimpton. When this wasn’t quickly sent—owing to office delays rather than any disinclination—the writer grew vehement, and then abusive. Reluctantly I let go of the idea of seeing through an interview with Fuchs, whose work remains too much of a secret to this day.
A year or so after Fuch’s death in 1995, having been informed that the writer’s papers were in Special Collections at the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University, I phoned Dr. Howard Gotlieb, the Special Collections librarian, to ask if, by any chance, there was an interview circa 1989 among the papers. Indeed there was. Fuchs had constructed an interview that, while based on my questions, departs from them in unexpected and telling ways. It amounts to a late work by the distinguished, if unexpectedly irascible, “magician,” as John Updike once pronounced him.
You have been identified by Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and others as one of three Jewish novelists of the 1930s whose work has survived a half century now, the other two being Henry Roth and Nathanael West. Would you comment on the literary climate of the thirties?
Survived, rediscovered—a peculiar occurrence. A man sits in a room writing novels. Nothing happens. The books don’t sell—four hundred apiece, the last one a few more. There are scattered reviews. Then thirty years later, suddenly, the books are brought out, again and again, acclaimed. A small-sized mystery. Of course, I’m talking only of my own books. Call It Sleep and Nathanael West’s work attracted attention from the start and were well known all along.
Did you read Call It Sleep when it came out?
With pleasure and pangs of jealousy.
Nathaniel West went to Hollywood and wrote B movies and worked on his last novel, The Day of the Locust, which in its final sentence seems to indicate that the protagonist has succumbed to the furies around him in Hollywood and gone mad. Henry Roth moved to rural Maine and hasn’t, as of now, published another novel. You gave up a literary career for several decades to write movies. Is there a common thread in all this?
No, I don’t think so. West kept working on his own material up to the end, while he was doing the pictures at Republic. Roth had his own reasons. I liked it in Hollywood and stayed on. I found the life most agreeable. Mordecai Richler went out of his way, in a book review, to say I bragged about the money I made in Hollywood. Actually, I never made a great deal of money in the movies. Sixty thousand dollars a year was about the best I could do, if Richler doesn’t mind my saying so. In fact, I went nearly broke, had to sell my house, and then an amazing thing happened, another one of those mysteries. A benefactor, a character out of a Molnár play—I can’t say his name, he once asked me never to bother him or intrude—stepped forward. He’s been watching out for us over the past number of years and we’re quite comfortable. I guess I mention all this to get a rise out of Richler. Hollywood strikes a nerve in some people.
If Summer in Williamsburg was a more or less straightforward, realistic novel, Blenholt has a softer, more poetic essence that throws space and time slightly off-kilter. And yet, Low Company, the final novel in your Williamsburg Trilogy, seems to sweep the mist away and go right back to the hard, realistic concentration on characters and plot. What would you say were the influences that acted on your writing? What did you read?
Almost everything. There wasn’t much else in those days—no television, no radio. There was, in the beginning, the crystal sets. Do you know about them—the wire coils shellacked around a ten-inch cardboard cylinder, the cat’s whisker? You got the hookup out of the New York Sun. You made your own crystal set and at night listened to the society bands playing at the Manhattan hotel roof gardens. When I was still in high school, I read probably all of Chekhov’s short stories, those gray, sad sketches. I wrote a whole bunch of them, in imitation. At New York City College, I came across the Menorah Journal, a handsome magazine printed on good, thick paper, and it was there that I first heard about Isaac Babel and read one or two of his stories, in a wonderful translation, never again approached, by someone whose name I don’t remember. Babel bowled me over. Before I knew it, I had written a story very much like his Odessa tales. It was published, one of my first, in Story. I imitated Joyce—the story “Little Cloud” in Dubliners. Mine was called “A Clean, Quiet House.” You copy, whether you know it or not. When I wrote for Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, I generally followed Hemingway. That’s permissible. The only outright plagiarism I’m aware of ever having committed was of a line in a short story by Ralph Manheim. I couldn’t resist it. I stole the line, turned it upside down, and made it mine. It was a wonderful story. I read it sixty years ago, in transition, and still remember it.
But what really worked on me was vaudeville. Back in the old Williamsburg days, there was a theater, The Republic, just a few blocks from my home, on Grand Street Extension. It played five vaudeville acts and the feature picture. I got over there every chance I had. It was all new to me, and enchanted me—a lasting effect. The stories of mine that appeared in The New Yorker are vaudeville—virtuoso mimicries and performed entertainments.
Your stories have a lyric quality that, as I said, made me think of Chekhov, had he been a resident of Brooklyn or Hollywood. John Updike, in a review, says he thinks of you as “a natural … a poet who never has to strain for a poetic effect.” And at the same time, there is Fuchs the hard-minded realist, the breadwinner—thirty years in the studios. That’s a peculiar combination.
You are what you’re required to be. You’re different people, depending on the people you’re confronted with. When I first came to Hollywood, for one reason or another, they thought I was the bookish type, inexperienced in the ways of the world, and that’s the part I played for them—the wide-eyed newcomer. I kept it up, off and on, and for a long time after I was here.
How was it when you first came out to Hollywood?
They heard I had been a schoolteacher—that must have made an impression on them. We were young then, my wife looking even younger, which indeed she was. Mark Hellinger turned me over to Mushy Callahan, to smarten me up and show me the world. Hellinger was a whimsical man. He pulled all kinds of stunts. Mushy Callahan was an ex-welterweight champ. I think I have the division right. He was technical advisor on the fight pictures and ran the studio gym room. Mushy turned out to be a whole lot more inexperienced than I ever was. He was a saint, spic-and-span and shining, always with a happy smile on his scrubbed face. He took me down to the Hollywood fight-club back rooms, where the fighters dressed and got ready, and to the other dungeons, but in the main we racketed around and had a great, merry time together. His real name was Morris Abramowitz, something like that, although I think that was it exactly. He got hit in the face by a horse when he was a newsboy on the Los Angeles streets. His nose was flattened. He looked like a prizefighter, everyone thought he was a prizefighter, so eventually he had to go in for it, and became very good at it, the champ. I genuinely liked these men and admired them as doers, and, now that I’m talking about it, I see the answer—the warm feeling I had for them shook them up and touched them, and they went easy on me.
My father’s favorite Goldwyn line, delivered with a heavy old-country accent—“The great sculptor Epstein has made a bust of my wife’s hand.”
Goldwyn had his own sense of humor. They say, of course, that he knew what he was doing when he came out with those Goldwynisms, that they weren’t all accidental. He was, I thought, a handsome man, fairly tall, beautifully dressed—such suits, shoes and ties. He had, at times, a pixie charm. “You know what day it is today?” he said to us at lunch—we used to sit with him in his studio’s dining room while he held forth. None of us knew. “It’s George Bernard Shaw’s birthday,” he said. He wanted us, after lunch, to go back to our rooms, to stop work in homage and take the day off, to read Shaw, each of us a different play. Goldwyn discoursed on Shaw that afternoon—his fame, his plays, in every country in the world a hit. Goldwyn had gone over to England and sought out the playwright at his home in the country, trying—with no success at all—to talk him into letting him have the rights to Pygmalion. This was long before My Fair Lady.
“Never trust a vegetarian,” Goldwyn said. “Not one of them is honest. In the middle of the night, when nobody is looking and everybody is asleep, they go down to the kitchen and take a piece of chicken out of the refrigerator and eat. They do this all the time.”
How long were you at Warners?
About three years before the war, World War II, and another year or so after, maybe more.
Would you say something about what it was like during those years and who were some of the people at Warners with you when you were there?
Each studio seemed to pick up a coloration, or style, of its own, and was known for it. Warners was supposed to be hard-driving, speedy. They played softball at Paramount and had refrigerators in the writers’ buildings. Metro was the top, the Bank of England—the posh English writers, Joe Pasternak’s talented Hungarians, the Broadway playwrights in New York City. I don’t remember what Twentieth Century Fox or Columbia’s designations were, but they each had one. Fox played softball versus Paramount. Columbia, on Gower Street, was identified with Gulch, the Gower Gulch—cowboys and extras waiting on the sidewalk outside the studio. We had a pretty good collection at Warners—Raoul Walsh, Hellinger, W. R. Burnett, Huston, Irwin Shaw, Faulkner, Frederick Faust, Al Bezzerides, the marvelous Epstein brothers. The Epsteins were the leaders, the main troublemakers. They worked up complicated jokes and excitements. In one stretch they had four smashes in a row, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy—my favorite—The Strawberry Blonde, and Four Daughters. They couldn’t seem to miss. Nobody believed they could miss. At one time they were trying to get out of their contract with Jack Warner. They read a heap of stuff out of the morning paper to their secretary. She turned it in, and the word came back from the front office—the boys have done it again!
What about William Faulkner? Did you get to know him?
I worked with him. Jerry Wald put me in with him. How this came about—Wald was the locomotive on the lot. He made a good number of pictures we know turned out. He was afraid Faulkner would be too literary or artistic for the job, so he teamed me up with him to show him the ropes and educate him. So, in effect, I was doing for Faulkner what Mushy was supposed to do for me.
Intimidating. I couldn’t get close. It was my fault. He would walk down the studio path, erect, wearing a tight, blue, double-breasted blazer with brass buttons, always, alas, the same blue jacket, looking straight ahead of him, not a flicker on his face. There was a silent, secret tumult going on in that man. I’m positive I was right about that. Al Bezzerides took him over. Al took care of him, drove him around—Faulkner had no car—and helped to get him settled in the horrible motel room he lived in while he worked at Warners. The motel was on the Cahuenga Pass, right alongside the steaming traffic. Al urged me to cotton to Faulkner and be friends with him. Al was big and hearty and loving—as he still is—and could get along with anybody. I was from Brooklyn and Faulkner from Oxford, Mississippi, and I was devastated by the paralyzing awe I had for his novels and short stories. I didn’t know how to talk to him. One Saturday after work—people used to work half days on Saturdays—I drove Faulkner to the factory district in downtown Los Angeles. He was having something made up to order, a suitcase—it was for a present for somebody—but he couldn’t get it done the way he wanted. I think the trouble was with the monogram. The initials weren’t satisfactory. Faulkner and the workmen couldn’t understand each other. The workmen finally got it through that they didn’t do the monogram in that section, that we had to go over to another part of the factory, to have the initials removed and the proper ones applied. We were high up in the lofts of the buildings and it was a maze. The workrooms in this factory cut through the walls to the adjoining buildings and we wandered from point to point in that great space. We couldn’t find the monogram department and none of the workmen would tell us. They didn’t know what we wanted. It became nightmarish. It finally got to me and, I’m ashamed to say, I bolted and left Faulkner high and dry—one of those things you later force yourself not to think about.
The assignment for Faulkner and me was to do some rewriting on a picture that was already shooting. Raoul Walsh was the director. The time was short and Walsh did most of the rewriting himself before Faulkner and I could really get it. The picture was based on one of Eric Ambler’s spy thrillers, Background to Danger.
Can you say something about the making of a movie as you experienced it firsthand?
What impressed me about the people on the set was the intensity with which they worked. In the late afternoons, which was when I would go down there, it seemed a mood came over them—a group of people huddled in the barn of the sound stage, lost in what they were doing, oblivious to the world. On one of the early sessions, I watched Joan Leslie and had to smile, entranced by the way she gathered herself together, the way she drove herself in the impersonation of the part—this when she was hardly out of her teens or perhaps still in them. They were artists or talented people—the photographers, set designers, editors, and others whose names you see on the credit lists. They worked with the assiduity and worry of artists, putting in the effort to secure the effect needed by the story, to go further than that and enhance the story, and not mar it.
In the early session I referred to, the scene—played by Leslie and Ida Lupino—takes place in the grimy kitchen of their home in the steel-making city the two sisters live in and want with all their hearts to escape. The griminess of the setting was essential, it was what the script called for, but I felt it would repel the audience just as it depressed me, and I said something of this to our cameraman, who was James Wong Howe. “I’ll do something. You’ll see,” he said. What he did, I saw later, was to produce a softness. The kitchen was still there, but hidden and not there. The black-and-white glossiness centered instead on Lupino and Leslie, casting a vagary over their faces and bodies, making them beautiful and their desire poignant—which is as good an example as I can find to show what I mean, and which may relate to why movie-makers object to colorization. James Agee, in his review of the picture for The Nation, gave special attention to the photography and praised it.
Can you compare the movie-making process with the process you know as a novelist?
The moviemaker has to hold the whole line of the story in his mind—just as the good novelist holds the whole novel in his head—but the chore with the movie is much more onerous since we shoot in fragments, out of continuity, and the balance and values go flying and can get lost. The Hard Way was particularly troublesome because the story is average, with no strong central line to follow—Lupino strives and struggles for Leslie, wrecks Leslie, wrecks Leslie’s husband, Jack Carson, and, in the end, herself and her hopes. The story is aimless, witless, an accident in the making, and would take us nowhere—except for the providential presence of Dennis Morgan in the cast. This is an enigma to me, a story-telling mystery. Morgan has nothing to do whatsoever with the plot. He is in no way involved in the triangle. He is ever the bystander, sometimes uttering a rueful word of warning to his vaudeville-partner Carson, most often just looking on with understanding and forgiveness as the human drama unfolds itself. And yet, he controls the picture. What is it? Morgan makes you believe that he is part of the milieu, but you know he doesn’t belong there, that some warp of fortune has put him in with these people and that he is superior to them. And it is, I think, the innate grace and courtesy in this cool, elegant actor—the thing that was born in him—that gives the picture its point, its meaning and sorrow.
Your Hollywood novel, West of the Rockies, may be the most intimate account ever written of the inner Hollywood. The gritty realism of the book is all the more remarkable for being focused at the very center of the dream-making machinery. Would you comment on how it was you took up novel writing again after so long a hiatus?
I turned to the novel again because I thought it was a great story. I had had it with me for many years and finally decided to write it.
Were there particular stars behind the figure of Adele Hogue?
Yes and no. I never knew many movie actresses but I knew people who did and I’ve heard the stories. These actresses are vigorous people. There is so much, so much to be had, and when it slips away from them, the breakdowns can be absorbing. The truth is Hogue is based on a man I knew, a screenwriter, now thirty years dead. He was a paraplegic—polio. His boat, which he kept at Newport Beach and ran down to Ensenada and LaPaz, was his legs. His apartment, or hideaway, was fitted out as a ship’s cabin. When the movie-writing jobs failed him and he lost his yacht, the apartment, the Lincoln Continentals, he would not stand for it and took his life. There was no contest in my screenwriter friend, so I turned him into Adele Hogue, and worked up a licorice-bitter story of Claris, the man who sought to use her or was compelled by Hogue to use her.
Having recently read both The Apathetic Bookie Joint, your collected stories, and West of the Rockies, I see a heightened sense of dramatic economy in your later writing. Were you able to use your screenwriting experience to advantage in your later prose? Would you comment on the difference in writing for the two mediums?
I don’t know about these literary theories and am no good talking about them. Do they do any good? Does anybody benefit from them? Half the time I think we don’t really know what we’re talking about. There is the line, the storyline, the line of action, the run, the continuity, the plot, the mystery of form, the razzle-dazzle from beginning to end—it’s the same in movies or the novel. I wrote in an account some years ago that I thought a good story was so hard to come by that you didn’t really write it, that it existed—that it was out there, and you found it. I once said to a famous editor—he has more books dedicated to him than any man I know, living or dead—that I thought a good story was a matter of luck. He dusted me off, said I was speaking nonsense. Of course, he was right. But maybe there is room for my idea too. When Irwin Shaw came out with that sun-splashed piece of wizardry, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” and I asked him about it, he was honestly taken aback. He was honestly puzzled. His words, as I can recall them, were, “I don’t know. I write the story. If it’s no good, then I write another.” Joseph Mankiewicz, whose work I respect, said in an interview that the most electrifying thing happens in the movie house when you give them the truth. I know what he meant. I have been there. Of course, he didn’t mean the word “truth” literally. He meant the indivisible, the stab, the catch at the heart, the indefinable. You know when you have it. It has sometimes happened to me, and at night when I can’t sleep, I will recite the story to myself, passage after passage, word after word.
Are you currently writing?
Better than ever. I’ve got hold of it. I smile and you think I’m kidding, but I’m completely serious.
Aram Saroyan is a poet, novelist, biographer, memoirist, and playwright; he is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts poetry awards, one of them for his controversial one-word poem “lighght.”