Long before the award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and director Billy Wilder spelled his first name with a y, in faithful adherence to the ways of his adopted homeland, he was known—and widely published, in Berlin and Vienna—as Billie Wilder. At birth, on June 22, 1906, in a small Galician town called Sucha, less than twenty miles northwest of Kraków, he was given the name Samuel in memory of his maternal grandfather. His mother, Eugenia, however, preferred the name Billie. She had already taken to calling her first son, Wilhelm, two years Billie’s senior, Willie. As a young girl, Eugenia had crossed the Atlantic and lived in New York City for several years with a jeweler uncle in his Madison Avenue apartment. At some point during that formative stay, she caught a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West touring show, and her affection for the exotic name stuck, even without the y, as did her intense, infectious love for all things American. “Billie was her American boy,” insists Ed Sikov in On Sunset Boulevard, his definitive biography of the internationally acclaimed writer and director.
Wilder spent the first years of his life in Kraków, where his father, the Galician-born Max (né Hersch Mendel), had started his career in the restaurant world as a waiter and then, after Billie’s birth, as the manager of a small chain of railway cafés along the Vienna-to-Lemberg line. When this gambit lost steam, Max opened a hotel and restaurant known as Hotel City in the heart of Kraków, not far from the Wawel Castle. A hyperactive child, known for flitting about with bursts of speed and energy, Billie was prone to troublemaking: he developed an early habit of swiping tips left on the tables at his father’s hotel restaurant and for snookering unsuspecting guests at the pool table. After all, he was the rightful bearer of a last name that conjures up, in both German and English, a devilish assortment of idiomatic expressions suggestive of a feral beast, a wild man, even a lunatic. “Long before Billy Wilder was Billy Wilder,” his second wife, Audrey, once remarked, “he behaved like Billy Wilder.” Read More