In Off Menu, Edward White serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
Within the shifted reality of an Alfred Hitchcock movie there is no steady fact of existence that cannot be undermined. The ambiguity extends even to food and drink. In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman’s heroine is poisoned in her own home by a cup of coffee, while homebodies in The Man Who Knew Too Much feel discomfort in foreign lands because of the exotic food they are fed. In mid-twentieth-century America, nothing could be more wholesome and nourishing than a glass of milk—except when it’s handed to an unwitting guest at the Bates Motel as part of her final meal.
In his private life, Hitchcock felt the same unease about comestibles. He adored food and the experience of dining but resented the impact that consumption had on his body: “I’m simply one of those unfortunates who can accidentally swallow a cashew nut and put on thirty pounds right away,” he explained. Of the various aspects of Hitchcock’s identity that I wrote about for my book The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock, it was his existence as a self-described “fat man” that most revealed him as a cultural figure ahead of his time. Hitchcock being Hitchcock—an expert self-mythologizer—he turned his anguish about his appearance into a joke and then exploited its potential for publicity. Though he made his love of food a prominent part of his reputation, he also shared his dissatisfaction with his body image in a way that no male celebrity had ever done, posing for photographs that charted the progression of his weight loss and expressing the pain of counting calories.
As with so much else in his life, Hitchcock’s accomplice in this peculiar gastronomic odyssey was Alma Reville, his wife, best friend, longest-serving creative collaborator, and, to quote Hitchcock, “as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen.” Their partnership began in the mid-’20s, when Reville worked as Hitchcock’s assistant director on the silent films that launched him to fame in his native Britain. For the next fifty years, she was his steel girder, lending her talents to scriptwriting, casting, editing, and promotion, in both official and unofficial capacities. And at their residences in England and America, it was Reville’s exceptional cooking that made their home a living extension of the Hitchcock screen universe, a place of sensory stimulation, both earthly and transporting.
At the height of Hitchcock’s fame, in the fifties and sixties, Reville combined the culinary traditions of France, Britain, and the United States in her kitchen, an embodiment of the kind of sophisticated American domestic cook that Julia Child communicated through her books and TV shows. Yet in an ironic subtext worthy of a Hitchcock classic, Reville’s cooking also represented something of the emotional complexity that attended being married to the Master of Suspense. Though Reville gave Hitchcock his Proustian flashes of home with Yorkshire puddings and Sunday roasts, and bolstered his idea of himself as a man of taste and discernment with classic French dishes, she was also the one who filled the Hitchcock home with the food that Alfred found so hard to resist.
For Alma, however, food never had a dark side. To the woman who was known by many as “Mrs. Hitchcock,” cooking became a means of creative expression separate from that of the Hitchcock juggernaut, a project to which she contributed so much for so long, but which also underscored the lost potential of her own adventures in film.
When Hitchcock communicated the mythology of his childhood, he did so through a string of emotionally intense memories, many of which were connected to food: the smell and taste of the biscuits from the local bakery; the fish, fruits, and vegetables that were sold in his father’s shops; the comfort he gained from eating cold cuts alone at night in the family kitchen. Unlike Hitchcock, Alma Reville rarely spoke about her past; her daughter and granddaughters attest that she had a genuine aversion to talking about herself. Consequently, quite where her passion for cooking came from is unclear, though we do know rather a lot about how she fell in love with cinema.
She was born in Nottingham, England, on August 14, 1899, a day after her future husband was born in Essex, a hundred miles south. Her family moved to London when her father took a job in the wardrobe department of Twickenham Film Studios, a hub of British moviemaking during the silent era. As a teenager, Reville gained experience in various aspects of film production, including on D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World. As she entered her twenties, she was mostly involved in editing (or “cutting”) and continuity, and she pursued both with self-confidence and obvious ambition. At age twenty-three, she wrote a piece for a trade paper in which she framed herself as an artist—“the art of cutting is Art indeed”—and an expert in her field, asserting that movies would be greatly enhanced if “Mr. Producer would give just a little more forethought to the cutting and continuity of his production before commencing it.”
Reville believed in the magical properties of cinema, its capacity to transform the quotidian into the fantastical. It was a feeling she shared with Hitchcock, with whom she first worked on films directed by Graham Cutts in the early twenties. When Hitchcock was given the chance to direct a feature film, he hired Reville as his assistant, and they married not long after, in 1926. For a few years, she wrote scripts for non-Hitchcock films, including Nine Till Six, a movie with an all-female cast that engaged with the working lives of ordinary British women. But in the main, her talents were absorbed into the project of Alfred Hitchcock.
One wonders how things might have gone had she been given the opportunities that were laid at her husband’s feet. Then as now, female film directors were a rarity. In 1929, puffed up by his early successes, Hitchcock told a journalist that women were unsuited to being film directors because of their narrow experience of life. To support his argument, he said that Reville found “some of the more unwieldy departments of film producing were difficult for her to control.” In such an environment, when even her husband publicly expressed doubts about her ability to direct, avenues to nurture her cinematic talents were clearly limited.
From their earliest days together, Hitchcock made his partnership with Reville a pillar of his distinctive, self-framed reputation as a pioneering modern genius who was also devoted to traditional family life. He wrote articles about fraught filming experiences in which he was soothed by his Alma, a sunny-natured dynamo of “four-foot-eleven in stockings” who never ceased to tell him he was “the snake’s hips and the cat’s pyjamas.” In a publicity piece for the 1930 movie Murder! he revealed that the film was “the product of the Hitchcock combination—Mr. and Mrs.,” who cowrote their script about murder, cross-dressing, and miscegenation in bourgeois middle England. On several occasions, journalists were invited into their homes, which one writer described as “imbued with the atmosphere of the Middle Ages, together with all the comforts of these Modern days.” This is a perfect summation of the way in which Alfred and Alma presented themselves: young fogies at the cutting edge, their marriage—like Hitchcock’s films—simultaneously traditional and innovative.
The home was the hub of the Hitchcock operation, and the hub of the home was the dining table. Mealtimes were when Hitchcock worked through creative problems, formed relationships, and indulged his need to perform and entertain. Reville facilitated all those things. Charles Bennett, the writer of Hitchcock thrillers such as The 39 Steps, had a fractious relationship with the director, and alleged that Reville’s contribution to Hitchcock’s work has been greatly overstated. But even he conceded that “one advantage of working with Hitchcock was the wonderful food when Alma cooked.” This was in the thirties, so the “wonderful food” Bennett sampled likely included traditional English dishes dense in sleep-inducing carbohydrate—steak-and-kidney pudding, spotted dick—and a few French dishes, such as coq au vin and bouillabaisse. By this point in their lives, the couple had traveled Europe and eaten at the best restaurants. Reville incorporated foreign flavors and techniques into her home cooking, just as Alfred hoovered up filmmaking influences from Germany, Russia, America, and elsewhere. Over the years, some of Reville’s best dishes worked their way into Hitchcock’s films. Her quiche lorraine, for example, made an appearance in To Catch a Thief, its delicate golden pastry made by the hands of a character who had once strangled a Nazi to death—an impish inside joke, perhaps, about the diminutive Reville’s hidden strengths, or maybe another sign of Hitchcock’s unease with gastronomic pleasure.
Hitchcock maintained that he did his best work when he made movies for audiences to enjoy. Reville appears to have adopted a similar attitude in the kitchen. She ate like a bird but loved to cook for others, and once the family permanently relocated from London to Los Angeles, in 1939, her cooking became an even more important part of their social and professional existence. For those lucky enough to be invited, Hitchcock dinner parties became something of a Hollywood institution. Ingrid Bergman was one of many who recorded the pleasure of eating Reville’s menus, which were always topped off with a delicious dessert; Hitchcock’s greatest weakness was ice cream, which Reville believed prevented him from staying his desired weight, though it was clear to most that his heavy drinking was as much to blame.
Although they gained a reputation for eschewing traditional Hollywood ostentation, the couple spent great sums on importing wine from France and ingredients from Britain that they couldn’t do without: oysters and sole from Kent, beef from Jersey and Scotland. Even in informal settings, the food at the their table was divine. Herbert Coleman, a long-serving Hitchcock employee, recalled staying over one weekend and being treated to a working brunch of champagne, lobster, and “perfectly broiled” cuts of beef. Largely thanks to Reville, eating was a joyous experience at the Hitchcock residence, no matter what the bill of fare. When Frederick Knott, the writer of Dial M for Murder, came to visit, he took a blurry photograph of Grace Kelly beaming as she chomped into a hamburger, a most unfamiliar pose for a woman Hitchcock dubbed “the snow princess.”
After a decade in Hollywood, the Alfred and Alma’s marriage appeared to go through a period of turbulence, which coincided—and perhaps precipitated—Reville’s decision to step back from her husband’s filmmaking, just as the Hitchcock “brand” expanded. With the launch of his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955, he became a mainstream celebrity, his cultural reach extended even further by magazines, children’s books, and music albums that all bore his name. This coincided with a golden run of movies, including North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. As Hitchcock bounded from success to success, Reville’s creative energies were invested more fully into cooking. In a biography of her mother published in 2003, Pat Hitchcock includes several of Reville’s favorite recipes and dinner party menus circa 1960. English dishes such as veal and ham pie sit alongside poulet vallée d’auge, a delicious chicken dish from Normandy, cooked with apples, calvados, and cream. These are as revealing of the couple’s cultural orientation as any of the films they made—and like the Hitchcock filmography, Reville’s cookbook was flavored with the taste of the United States. For example, she often served vichyssoise, a spin on French cuisine believed to have been invented for American diners in the kitchen of the Ritz-Carlton in New York. Similarly, though her recipe for sole mousse is rooted in French tradition, fish mousses of this kind were wildly popular in wealthy American homes in the fifties and sixties.
To complement Reville’s creativity, in the early sixties the couple spent a reputed $65,000 on a total renovation of the kitchen in their Bel Air home. To quote one who saw it, they had “invented conveniences, made push-button windows and screens, put drawers on wheels and contemporary art on the walls,” and installed a huge walk-in refrigerator, as well as a giant wine cellar. When the work was finished, reporters were invited to survey the changes. The resulting articles reflected the way Hitchcock’s ambitious use of design and technology had been reported in the publicity campaigns for such films as Lifeboat, Rope, and Rear Window. They were also an update of the pieces about the couple that British publications had run thirty-odd years earlier: Alfred and Alma were once again profiled as homely but eccentric connoisseurs, an ordinary husband-and-wife team engaged in an extraordinary creative pursuit.
The historian Jan Olsson has pointed out that these new personae as the Francophile sophisticates next door dovetailed the concurrent transformation of Hitchcock’s reputation from pot-boiling storyteller to serious artist. But they also chimed with a broader shift in American popular culture. Julia Child’s The French Chef aired the same year the articles about the new kitchen were published, a time when the popular media was exploring what France could teach Americans about cooking and eating. Indeed, the May 12, 1958, issue of Life magazine contains a lengthy feature called “French Lesson in Innards,” which challenged its readers’ “unthinking prejudice” by revealing the various wonderful ways that offal is used in the “grand tradition” of French cuisine. In the middle of the feature runs a vibrant half-page advertisement for Vertigo, released that very week in U.S. cinemas. Directly opposite the ad is a recipe for cold tongue with horseradish, a dish listed in Pat Hitchcock’s book as something her mother occasionally prepared for weekend lunches. Reville might have had the recipe in her repertoire for many years. But it’s also possible that she picked it up from this magazine, one in which she and Hitchcock appeared many times over the decades, and which they both regularly read.
The articles about the new kitchen all framed it as Hitchcock’s project; one named Reville as “his sous chef.” This was nonsense: the kitchen and the creativity that took place therein belonged to Alma Reville. Hitchcock filled his movies with food, and built his social and working life around it. But when it came to cooking Reville was clearly the creative driving force. When Hitchcock’s career was at its peak, he and Reville would speak most afternoons to finalize dinner arrangements for that evening. He might, as Pat Hitchcock recalls, take the trouble to pair the food with the best wine from his cellar, and wash the dishes once the meal was finished, but that was the extent of his involvement. In his enthusiastic consumption and fulsome praise of her culinary endeavors across a half century of married life, it was he who served as “continuity” to Reville, whose acts of creativity rounded off every day in the Hitchcock universe and put art into the domestic routine of the world’s most renowned filmmaker.
Long after she had given up her formal, credited duties on Hitchcock’s movies, Reville remained his most valued collaborator. In late 1964, Hitchcock worked with Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate, on a made-for-TV movie designed to promote the work of the World Health Organization. The script, which tells the story of a frenzied attempt to quash a lethal viral pandemic, feels spookily topical in 2021, but at the time Hitchcock was not at all impressed, and he withdrew from the project. The death knell was sounded when Hitchcock wrote Condon to say that Reville had read the script and “her only comment to me was that she has just read Infinity of Mirrors [Condon’s most recent novel] and thought it was so beautifully written and asked me why the script could not have the same quality.” As far as Hitchcock was concerned, his wife was still the ultimate arbiter on what would make a good Hitchcock script.
In 1972, Reville’s creativity in the kitchen turned up in parodic form in Frenzy, Hitchcock’s penultimate movie, in which a Scotland Yard detective endures his wife’s hideous attempts at cordon bleu cuisine—a humorous inversion of the situation at Hitchcock’s home, though some critics would have us believe that the gag reflects the director’s inner resentment of food and the woman who cooked it for him. After Frenzy, ill health stymied the couple’s creative output in film and food. In 1976, Hitchcock told a relative in England of his worry for Reville, who had been severely debilitated by the effects of a stroke. Tellingly, it was through their daily menu—so much blander and more mundane that it used to be—that he expressed their unhappiness:
Lunch usually consists of a sandwich of thin bread, one we enjoy most is a roast beef spread, and we always keep a ham. She has a toast breakfast, afternoon tea with a chocolate biscuit and then dinner. If Pat doesn’t provide it, I go out and with the help of the day nurse usually prepare something like a fillet steak or half a chicken, which is easy to handle … This is a very sad letter, but there’s little else I can tell you. Naturally, she never leaves the house, but I try to take her out one night a week to our favorite restaurant, but manoeuvring her is quite a business.
Hitchcock died, age eighty, on April 29, 1980. Alma—who died on July 6, 1982—struggled to comprehend the loss and spent the remaining two years of her life believing he was still with her. But in their final years together, there had still been glimpses of how things used to be—the old partnership, odd, unequal, and unbreakable, surging to the fore. David Freeman, the writer of Hitchcock’s final, unmade film, was at the director’s home on the day in 1979 when Hitchcock acted out the script to his wife. Freeman was amazed to see the doleful, immobile old man he had come to know become suddenly animated, gesticulating and switching voices, performing each of the characters. Reville was rapt. “It was like watching two people on a first date that was going really well,” recalls Freeman. “I think he wanted to show her how clever he was, and more importantly that there was hope, a future.” The old Alfred—or, to be more exact, the younger one—was back, and Alma couldn’t have been happier.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. His latest book, The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense, was published this week by W. W. Norton. Read earlier installments of Off Menu.