What do Sergei Rachmaninoff, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Arthur Rubinstein, Sergei Prokofiev, Marlene Dietrich, Igor Stravinsky, and Tallulah Bankhead have in common?
Once a famous beauty, by the late 1950s Dagmar Godowsky found herself subsisting on caviar, cake, and tales of the past. Typecast as a vamp in the silent-screen era of the early 1920s, she had “hissed her way through a thousand scenes.” She had died by blade, bullet, poison, or strangulation. Yet the demise of silent cinema ended her own film career. Now she performed at the dinner tables of New York’s beau monde. Dagmar Godowsky knew how to busy herself. She always had.
Born in 1897 as the daughter of the pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky—known better for his paraphrases of Liszt’s or Schubert’s pieces than his own—Dagmar grew up in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Los Angeles, and New York. Wherever they made their home, her father—a near-maniacal host—collected celebrities. On an ordinary day, Dagmar claimed, she might return home from school to encounter “Jakob Wassermann, Gerhart Hauptmann, Hermann Sudermann. Thomas Mann. Every Mann.” She inherited not only her father’s seductive charm—her conquests numbered, if not “every man,” plenty of men and women, too—but his wit and skill as a raconteur.
It was her storytelling that lured Sandford Dody. A struggling playwright, Dody became witness to Dagmar’s spiel one night at a party. In a remarkable error of judgment that launched an entire, regrettable career, Dody offered to ghostwrite Dagmar’s autobiography—an endeavor that, he was sure, would be both profitable and easy. It was neither.
Published as First Person Plural in 1958, the memoir takes us from the present day into her childhood, and then back, replete with cameos from the Fitzgeralds, Dorothy Parker, Adolf Hitler, Emperor Franz Josef, and just about all of golden-era Hollywood. Yet even those chapters devoted entirely to her time as an actress, her codependent relationship with her father or her dalliances with Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Rubinstein, and Igor Stravinsky pale in comparison to the madness of the first, which takes us right into the mayhem that is the life of the aging Dagmar Godowsky. The phones are ringing; the miserable old dog bites the handyman; her dress fitter comes in, leaving her “draped in yards of fabric from India, looking like the Taj Mahal camouflaged for an air raid.“ She flutters and stumbles about, dropping names and food all over the place while making dinner appointments and musing on her former glory, her past lovers, and her long-lost figure:
It is my tragedy that the years have deprived me of my bad reputation. At one time, my notoriety assured me of a marvelous evening. Now—Euclid would be fascinated to know—my circle has been squared.
I love life anyway. I enjoy it even when I’m unhappy. I have a million friends from years ago but it is difficult to compete with their grandchildren—and so I see less of them. Of course, there are always admirers and parties and theater.
The phones don’t stop ringing all day. I just loathe them. I have three. One for incoming, one for outgoing, and one for my bedside. I wouldn’t have a moment’s rest if I didn’t have a telephone near my bed. Now I can hold court, read Dostoyevsky and eat sturgeon sandwiches while I watch terrible old movies on television. I am devoted to terrible old movies, and sit like the Empress Carlota in catatonic awe of them. Why shouldn’t I like terrible old movies? Some night I might materialize in one of the monstrosities I made in those dear dead days when I was a vampire, dedicated to the destruction of all men. Now things are different.
I know I should lose weight. I know I should lose at least 50 pounds and every day I pray for the strength to stop eating. It doesn’t come, but I don’t worry. I adore food. Well, when the time comes, the gates of heaven and hell are wide enough for all of us. There is nothing I can do. I gain from everything. Everything, that is, except experience.
But there are compensations. Never in my life could I say “No”; now I am no longer asked. My girth has given me morality. My generous heart and waistline have made me terrifically popular. Fifty pounds ago it was never like this. Everyone is so kind now.
In the evening, there is a party. Of course, she is its life and soul:
A thin-lipped creature with a freckled chest and a lorgnette, irritated by my growing court, waited impatiently for a pause in the repartee. It never came. It never does with me. But she managed to be heard over the crowd like a lunch whistle. “Madame Godowsky, I have heard much about you. Tell me first-hand. How many husbands have you had?“
The room froze into silence.
“Two of my own dear, and several of my friends’.”
Everybody shrieked with laughter. I was myself again. I took off my coat. We got on famously after that. What did it matter how fat I was? Thank God my ankles are still slim. It makes it so much more pleasant for the people sitting at my feet. I had only two there at that moment.“
Reading it on the assumption that Dagmar herself had written it, this first chapter is a brilliant work of insight and self-deprecation; it is all glamour, humility, and loneliness, a nostalgic take on the absurdity of modern life in the new world by an old soul resolutely at home in the old world. It is only knowledge of Dody’s involvement that betrays the despair of those first lines. Where he had thought lurked a life not just performed but reflected upon, there were instant quotables and bon mots aplenty, yet very little in the way of understanding or insight. Indeed, as the deadline for the sample chapter loomed near, he found himself on the verge of breakdown—caught in a vortex of narcissism (Dagmar’s, that is), gâteau, and broken promises.
As Dody wrote in his own 1980 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost:
Dagmar Godowsky was always a spectator at her own life, watching it from a box seat that commanded, by design, a far better view of the theater than the stage. Munching marrons glacées, waving and gossiping about the rest of the audience behind her fan, mopping her upper lip and the base of her throat with a handkerchief which she would impishly drop on some bald head below to attract attention to herself, she added another scene, creating a distraction from her own drama. She recklessly, noisily interrupted her own life with nonsense. Barely following the play, she missed most of the plot and the entire theme. Glancing briefly at the sets and costumes, she retained a few quotable lines and then went on to the important business—to join the laughter and posturing between the acts. Dagmar Godowsky—an original.
Knowing all this, I now had the job of ghosting the life of a woman who hadn’t lived it, who had been given a bowl of cherries at birth and had thrown them all at passersby. I had to get my material from a subject who could barely sustain her interest while yelling fire!”
It wasn’t a life but a toast master’s speech, lovingly delivered at her own testimonial dinner. There was no material, only sequins; no cake, only icing. As for chronology, sequence, or order, these were as unheard of to Dagmar as cause and effect.
Names and places and half-remembered facts were served-up as a mad hors d’oeuvre, a vorspeise, an appetizer, and a promise of more things to come. Would she ever give me any more? I threw names and adjectives around, establishing me (Dagmar, that is) as a colorful, literate, scatterbrained, snobbish, conceited, warm, witty, urbane, obese woman who was resigned to her latter-day sainthood, being both loveable and insightful. Only the last of these descriptors can I reserve as my own contribution.
Insight, as both memoirs show, Dody had in abundance. Nor was it acquired cheaply. He writes at length about the many humiliations he endured at her tiny adipose fingers. In a constant battle for Dody’s (or more likely daddy’s) affection, she would make herself unavailable before deadlines, give too much and then withdraw entirely. “Do you love me?“ she would ask, after refusing to pay him the weekly stipend on which he subsisted while they were working together. He always dodged the question, resentment building, as it is want to, with each of her demands for devotion.
But, in the end, all worked out. Not only do we have the story of Dagmar’s wild life (in an account that seems candid but is, apparently, heavily censored), but also Dody’s memoir. As bad a team as they were, in a sense they were also perfectly matched, at least in terms of wit and humour. Mere months before Dagmar died—on the anniversary of her father’s birth, in 1975—they met again at her birthday, a characteristically rambunctious affair. It would appear that Dody was not able to maintain his resentment:
Despite everything I have written about her, I will always be grateful that at our last meeting—in answer to her madding and persistent question—I found myself shouting with grudging honesty: “Yes! Yes! You lunatic. I do love you.”
Luisa Zielinski lives in Berlin. She is an advisory editor to The Paris Review.