‘Between me and my childhood,’ says Budd Schulberg, ‘is a wall.’ Half-remembered incidents are the loose stones which he must tear away to make a hole big enough to crawl through. There is a Greta Garbo stone (he once pelted her with ripe figs), and stones called Gary Cooper, Freddie March and Sylvia Sidney, but one of the biggest and loosest goes by the name of Clara Bow. Vulgar, gum-chewing, and with a comically nasal Brooklyn accent, the It Girl flashed through his world leaving him dazed with pity and affection. He describes her shooting a scene in which she was required to weep, listening intently to the mood-orchestra (silents were made with the aid of music), and then melting into a grief which was obviously real. She had been brought up in brutalised poverty, and the tune the violins were playing had painful associations. Her downfall after ten dizzy years was only in part because of the coming of sound: she was neither clever nor calculating enough to survive in Hollywood, and in five-year-old Budd, whom she called her secret boyfriend, she recognised a kindred soul.
Little Budd’s presenting symptom was a stammer so bad that often he couldn’t get a word out. His father B.P. Schulberg had a stammer, but this had not prevented his meteoric rise from teenage author of risibly simple ‘photoplays’ to the control of Paramount ten years later. Budd, too, became a success, carving out a distinguished career – best-known for What makes Sammy run? and the screenplay of On the Waterfront – but he spent his childhood partly in desperate flight from his father’s brash world and partly in desperate attempts (journalism and tennis) to win acceptance by it. Bookish and reclusive, he reacted with nervous puritanism to the studio’s sexual licence: he liked Clara Bow for her kindness, and would have been outraged had he known what he learned much later – that Miss Bow, like other Schulberg protégées, had routinely traded favours with her protector. The latter half of Moving Pictures is pervaded by rage at the long-drawn-out marital break-up resulting from a real love-affair between BP (as he was known) and Sylvia Sidney. BP, who went around with pocketfuls of gold coins, was also a compulsive gambler, and needed to pass the fever on. He is recalled coming home from a disastrous night at his club, bursting into the bathroom, and challenging his son to flip for half a dollar, then double or nothing, then raising the ante, then double or nothing, and so on till Budd was a fortune out of pocket. ‘When I looked up at Father-Feodor, and felt him almost trembling with anticipation of the next toss, something within me cracked, and I cried out, “I don’t want to! I don’t want to play any more! Can’t we stop?” ’ Whereupon BP stopped, and apologised.
Dostoevsky, gambler and visionary, had been one of BP’s lifelong passions, and he and his teenage son once tried to put The Eternal Husband into screenplay form. Whether eavesdropping on script conferences, or taking part in pavement debates after ‘sneak’ previews, or arguing the merits of his father’s products, Budd’s childhood was one long intensive course in movie-making. It was also an intensive course in human nature at its most exotic: his book is studded with vignettes. Of ‘Hollywood’s Jewish Himmler’, Louis B. Mayer, getting his way with the aid of simulated heart-attacks so frequent and so thorough that his secretary had to keep water and towel handy. Of a fastidious Central European named Marcel DeSano who successfully cut his first (acclaimed) picture in his head, only shooting the footage necessary for the finished film; he thereafter went into a state of emotional paralysis, and resolved that with a fatal jump from a window. Of tough-guy George Bancroft, for a few years Mr Underworld supreme and then, to his bewilderment, totally eclipsed by Cagney and co as gangster films hit their stride. Of a child-star called Baby Richard Headrick: dunked in a fountain thirty times in an afternoon, shivering and fighting back tears, and with his father standing guard. Schulberg’s detached yet sympathetic gaze seems to have been sharply focused almost since birth, and behind many episodes one senses the presence of the reforming social critic he was later to become.
His mother, a Freudian and a socialist, used to give him 25 cents for each book he read and reported on; he connects her driving ambition for him with the lack of a family tree. ‘We sprang like Minervas from the ghetto brow, barely knowing our grandparents, our great-grandparents lost in the great Russian miasma.’ Schulberg’s maternal grandmother had fled from Cossack persecution at Dvinsk. Flora Solomon, the author of Baku to Baker Street, was brought up in Minsk, a nearby town in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. She, too, had a gambler-philanderer-millionaire for a father, and she too, was impelled by her upbringing to become a socialist, and even to pass on the contagion to her son – Peter Benenson, founder of Amnesty International. Her book moves from the site of her father’s first oilfield to the site of her reforming achievements at Marks and Spencer.
‘What were my qualifications?’ she asks in her foreword. ‘A Russian soul, a Jewish heart, and a British passport.’ The British reader’s heart sinks a little: ‘by herself and Barnet Litvinoff’ seems to imply the indulgence of a grand old lady’s imperious vanity. ‘Russia was untamed and beautiful, disciplined yet ungovernable ...’ What, 229 pages of that? Yes, but she quickly wins the reader over by her courage, her curiosity, her keen sense of irony, and even by her racy, chiaroscuro narrative style. Her father would be worth a biography to himself, provided it gave equal weight to the mistress who disfigured him for life by throwing acid in his face, to his purchase of a Manhattan skyscraper for cash after expropriation by the Russian Revolution, and to his acceptance of a Bolshevik invitation to co-manage his old Lena goldfield. Her two sisters had variegated careers, the younger, Manya Harari, at one point co-founding the Harvill Press. Flora’s husband, a Boys Own Paper sort of chap crippled young by a kick from his horse, was obliquely immortalised by W.H. Auden:
Will you wheel death anywhere
In his invalid chair.
Auden briefly and reluctantly tutored their son, and his nocturnal hospitality to Christopher Isherwood was announced with distaste by the family butler. Her long liaison with the darkly romantic Alexander Kerensky, which began in cloak-and-dagger circumstances in New York, was only one of many points at which her lifeline touched major public events; two of the last (she died a few months ago aged 89) were her help in the exposure of her erstwhile friend Kim Philby, and her survival of the Whisky Echo plane crash at Heathrow in 1968.
In three respects, however, she belongs in her own right to the history books. Taking advantage of her father’s money and of her husband’s position as an administrator in Jerusalem, she worked to help Chaim Weizmann and his colleagues establish the early Jewish state, and at Golda Meir’s request went back after the war to help with the assimilation of the refugees. Taking advantage of her acquaintance with Simon Marks, she bulldozed her way into his business and revolutionised the working conditions of his employees. Taking advantage of her position at M – S, and translating the notion of staff canteens onto a broader canvas, she helped set up the chain of soup kitchens which became Winston Churchill’s ‘British Restaurants’. Ritchie Calder named her the Lady of the Ladle, and Lord Woolton put her recipe for ‘blitz broth’ into large-scale production. All these events are retrospectively gilded with glowing satisfaction, as are the stages in her private transformation from socialite to (privileged) socialist. She dwells with delight on the moment when the jewels her father had given her as a child were transformed into a library in Bethnal Green. She relishes the memory of the day she had to dismiss her domestic staff after her sudden impoverishment during the Depression. ‘It was like general demobilisation after a war.’
Flora Solomon’s quest for a firm on which she might model Simon Marks’s took her to that of her marital cousins in Berlin, the Israels, who treated their employees in what was then a notably enlightened manner. Later she sadly notes the death of ‘the gentle Wilfrid Israel’, shot down over the Bay of Biscay (together with the actor Leslie Howard) while on a ‘mission of Jewish rescue’. That plaintive and fleeting reference swells to majestic grandeur in Wilfrid Israel: German Jewry’s Secret Ambassador. Naomi Shepherd’s biography labours under a severe handicap: while her subject is remembered by many with awe and gratitude, very little documentary evidence of his work remains. Einstein described him as ‘one of the finest and most noble individuals I have personally known’. To the Home Office he is still a non-person, despite the fact that during the first half of the war he was one of the Jewish refugees’ leading spokesmen, as well as being one of the Foreign Office’s chief advisers on how Germany should be reconstructed after the war. Less theatrical than Raoul Wallenberg (hero to the Jews of Budapest), and at the opposite end of the refinement spectrum from Oskar Schindler (saviour of Jews from Krakow), Israel plied his trade as Scarlet Pimpernel through secret rendezvous, with no minutes taken, and all letters destroyed.
Naomi Shepherd’s intricate narrative manages to present both a moving portrait of a life and also a convincing historical case. She argues – though not all historians will agree – that the Nazis’ prime aim was to expel European Jews, and that they fell back on the latter policy only when the former seemed exhausted. Wilfrid Israel vainly tried to din this into his dithering British contacts, and into the sometimes frankly unsympathetic representatives of American Jewry. At a time when the Jewish suicide rate prompted the Mainz authorities to turn off the gas in Jewish houses, the Home Office was behaving in what some rescue-sponsors thought was a deliberately obstructive manner. Many of those sponsors were Quakers.
Once beaten up by the Gestapo, Israel regularly risked death at their hands. He might sensibly have left Germany in 1936, when civic and commercial life for Jews was progressively extinguished, but he chose to fight a long rearguard action, exploiting his contacts and using his wealth to help others to safety. The letters which survive are subtly revelatory: at moments of despair and horror his spelling goes awry, but his thoughts remain measured and practical. As a Zionist believing in the future of agrarian socialism, he kept close links with Weizmann and the early kibbutzniks; he co-founded the Youth Aliya movement through which German-Jewish parents willingly parted with their offspring to let them build the new state; he hoped one day to live there himself, and to realise his first ambition as a sculptor. Naomi Shepherd remarks that ‘to call a man an enigma is subtly to devalue his personality’. The mystery with which Israel was habitually surrounded was forced on him partly by political expediency and partly by his largely sublimated sexual interest in young men. Isherwood took him as the model for Bernhard Landauer, the effete aesthete in Goodbye to Berlin, but later regretted the portrait as unjust. Naomi Shepherd quotes another writer, Peter Vansittart, who first met Israel while walking on Hampstead Heath: ‘Wilfrid was to haunt my imagination; ironical, elusive, obliquely powerful, Merlin without the malice.’
The most colourful figure in The Smiths of Moscow is another millionaire socialist radical, one Savva Morozov, though his connection with the family of the title is limited to the fact that his children and theirs used to play together. The Smiths seem to have been an impressively single-minded lot, a dynasty of Scots boilermakers who throve quietly as Russia’s industrial revolution picked up steam. Harvey Pitcher’s chronicle of three generations is the distillation of a much fuller chronicle kept by Harry Smith, the last boss, who quit in 1917. The trouble with Harry is that he is more interested in boilermaking than in social observation. On the run from the Bolsheviks and sharing a freezing hotel room, he notes with delight that the water in his bedside carafe can sink below zero and still, provided it is kept absolutely motionless, remain liquid. Nice to know, but one can’t help feeling that other things might have been worthier of comment. Mr Pitcher does build up an engaging picture of the sedate and self-contained British colonies in Moscow and St Petersburg, with their curling club, football league, debating society and toytown ecclesiastical controversies, but too many of his stories end with an implicit ‘Phew! That was a narrow squeak!’ Industrial archaeologists, of course, will find his book hard to put down.
The Smiths of Moscow was written because Harry Smith had read a previous book by Mr Pitcher which provoked him to offer the author the run of his compendious archive. Family Secrets, too, was born of the response to an earlier book, and if its purpose is fulfilled it will surely give rise to yet another. In God stand up for bastards (1973) David Leitch addressed the natural mother who had given him away at birth, entreating her to come forward. And she did. They met and became friends. She died, whereupon a sister he had never known rang him up. They met and became friends. A second sister was found to exist, but cannot be traced. Her name, he now knows, was originally Linda Elizabeth Chester; she was born in 1950 in Southport and legally given away. Family Secrets is another attempt to awaken what Leitch calls ‘visceral family connection ... blood calling blood’. He opens his tale with clumsily Chandleresque atmospherics, tricks it out with long and irrelevant digressions, and describes it as ‘more like a novel than a factual account’. Would that it were! The facts, the real people who emerge from the man-made shadows, are pathetically ordinary, give or take the odd quirk or trauma. Desperate for a past, he manages to communicate his own excitement at each discovery, but utterly fails to arouse the reader’s interest in them for themselves. His mother, whose Jewish forbears hailed from Odessa, was a pale, unnaturally withdrawn little survivor; his natural father, long dead, was a lovable rogue. His adoptive parents are the only figures about whom he writes with real sympathy and insight. And they were never part of the mystery.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.