On a pissy night in Munich earlier this week, I was checking in with my oldest daughter, who lives in Los Angeles, about the fires that have been raging through the hills down from Mulholland Drive, when I got a text from a New York Times reporter asking me if I had heard anything about the death of Robert Evans. I figured that the reporter had contacted me because of my longtime friendship with Bob.
He could have called any number of people who knew Bob better than I did, including Ali MacGraw, his glorious ex-wife; Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, his fellow travelers through the libertine 1970s; and Peter Bart, who had been Bob’s No. 2 back when he was production chief at Paramount Pictures during a creative époque that resulted in films like The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Rosemary’s Baby, among other classics. Then there is the person who may have known Bob best, Alan Selka, his longtime (and, at times, long-suffering) butler. Still, I knew Bob pretty well. And the word of his death filled me with an enormous sense of loss.
Peter Bart introduced us almost 30 years ago at a dinner at Mr. Chow’s in Beverly Hills. It was difficult not to fall for Bob’s charm and attention. He wrote the book on seduction. (In fact, somewhere among his papers is a manuscript for a book he wrote on seduction.) From that evening at Mr. Chow’s on, rare was the trip to Los Angeles that didn’t include dinner with Bob and, in later years, a few hours with him at his home on Woodland, a couple of blocks up from the Beverly Hills Hotel.
The word of his death filled me with an enormous sense of loss.
Bob lived in one of John Woolf’s classic Hollywood Regency gems. It wasn’t big, but it was dramatic, with Woolf’s signature double-height entry doors. Back when Bob was a little more flush, Alan would light dozens upon dozens of round burgundy candles and put on a fire. Even in the summer. Bob liked to stage the set. He had a screening room on the other side of a perfectly oval pool that was the center of his creative and social life. The screening room burned down in 2003. Bob was fine, but the loss destroyed him, inasmuch as all his memories, both physical and otherwise, had been in that room. Often when I was there, Alan would enter and announce, “Mr. Evans, Mr. Nicholson is on the line.” “Irish!,” Bob would growl when he grabbed the phone. Nobody in the room actually believed that Nicholson had called at that particular moment. But, as I say, Bob liked to stage things.
One of the last times I visited him, I went with another Evans pal, Tom Freston—who often played tennis on Bob’s courts. He wasn’t that mobile, so we spent the afternoon on Bob’s bed, a legendary landing site that by then he rarely ventured far from. He was surrounded by scripts—Bob never stopped trying to produce films—and mementos, including a photo his old friend Helmut Newton had shot of two Evans assistants attending to each other naked on the grounds of the property. Bob and Tom and I stretched out on the fur throw over the bed. Tom and I did so gingerly. That fur had been a fixture of the bed for an eternity and had had stories all its own. My guess is that if you had passed a UV light over it, it would have illuminated the night sky. Once, when Bob was showing me and a friend his hot tub out back, the water appeared to be moving. And it wasn’t on. It was a bit like seeing the eddy where life began.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I was driving to my friends Mitch Glazer and Kelly Lynch’s house in Lone Pine in the high desert, a few hours’ drive north of Los Angeles. We took separate cars, and at their suggestion I listened to Bob’s narration of his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture. The book told the tale of his rise and fall and semi-rise again. It was the story of a handsome rake who went from a failed acting career to the top of the film business as one of the most successful studio executives ever, and then spiraled down in a swirling pool of cocaine and scandal.
My guess is that if you had passed a UV light over the bed, it would have illuminated the night sky.
As I drove out through the desert, Bob’s voice—like the sound of honey running through a long wooden tube—was my co-pilot. By the end of it I thought it might make the narration for a documentary. I have no idea why this notion came into my head. I had never made a documentary before or even considered such a thing. But a year or so later, I found myself sitting in Bob’s living room with directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein trying to figure out how we were going to turn Bob’s life into the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture.
The day we were to show the final cut to him, I picked Bob up and we drove to the studio. We were going to screen it for him in one of the small projection rooms on the Paramount lot, where Bob still maintained an office. His suite was marked by Beverly Hills Hotel–style lettering that said, The Robert Evans Company. The offices and Bob’s annual stipend were granted in most part because Bob had shown Sumner Redstone, who by that time owned the studio, professional courtesy—and presumably a good time—when Redstone was nothing but a Northeastern rube with a theater chain and a hankering to make connections in Hollywood.
At the studio gate, the guard, who had been there when Bob ran the place, greeted him with a “Welcome back, Mr. Evans!” I could see that Bob was touched. Like many other moments during my time with him over the decades—what with the ever loyal butler, the once grand house falling into disrepair, the tales of past glories, the imminent comeback—it was a true Norma Desmond moment. We showed the film to Bob, and when the lights came up, I noticed a tear in his eye.
Imitation of Life
Whether the tear was a real one or not is up for discussion. Bob saw the world as he wanted it to be, not how it was. And stagecraft was always a part of his Evansness. I went over to his office on the Paramount lot a couple of years after the documentary had come out. During the assembly of archival footage for the film, Brett had asked me if I could track down a copy of Life magazine with Bob on the cover that had appeared in the footage. I had worked at the magazine years before and put in a call to its photo archivist. After a few days, she called and reported that she couldn’t find any cover with Bob on it. We moved on, but I was disappointed with the result.
The walls of Bob’s office were covered in framed photos, mementos, and other such ephemera of bygone ages, films, romances, triumphs, and wives. As I was waiting for him to freshen up in the bathroom, I noticed a framed cover of Life across the room. And it had Bob’s face on it. I went over to record the issue date for future reference. And then I realized why the magazine’s archivist couldn’t locate the cover.
The framed image was just a black-and-white photo of Bob with the red Life logo glued at the top left and the red bar with the price and date glued along the bottom. That was the thing about Bob. This make-believe cover had been up on the wall so long that to him it had become an actual Life cover. It made me so sad I wanted to hug him. But I didn’t—I didn’t want to break the dream or his memory or just the moment, and so we locked up the office and went off to have lunch somewhere.
The Kid Stays in the Picture was shown at the Palais des Festivals—the Cannes festival’s black-tie Circus Maximus. The film was well received and, in Bob’s later telling, the audience gave him a 15-minute standing ovation. (In truth, it was about two minutes—which in itself is an eternity standing ovation–wise.) But who was I to correct Bob’s version? Few of his friends wanted to, either. The thing is, people tended to overlook all of Bob’s fabulist memories because he had an incredible reservoir of goodwill around him.
Sue Mengers, the first female super-agent and a great friend of both of ours, could be withering in her assessment of the Hollywood establishment. (Entering an event at one of the city’s better hotels, she took one look at the crowd and whispered to her husband: “Schindler’s B-List.”) But in all the time I knew Sue, she never had a bad word to say about Bob. They were at the top of their professions at pretty much the same time and fought constantly over everyone and everything. But she had huge respect, and if not love, at least enduring like for him. In fact, not once in all the years I knew him did I ever hear a story from anyone about Bob screwing someone over, or of him using his position to unfair advantage in a negotiation.
Entering an event at one of the city’s better hotels, she took one look at the crowd and whispered to her husband: “Schindler’s B-List.”
He was a gentleman, a rogue, a charmer, and a man of grand and often debilitating passions. He’s gone and so have so many of the film business’s outsize personalities like Sue Mengers and Jerry Weintraub. It was people like them, and not the movies, that gave Hollywood its air of raffish glamour and pizzazz.
The Magic Tosches
Before I leave, I must say a few words about another friend who died a little less than a week before Bob. He didn’t have the John Woolf house in Beverly Hills. He didn’t have the string of epic Hollywood hits. He wasn’t married seven times. And he wasn’t famous to the wider world. But to a more narrow world—one that cared about music and writing and how words fell onto the paper and in which order they fell—this man was a somebody. Bob was older than you expected when he died at 89—something of a miracle, given his lifestyle. They should donate his heart to the Smithsonian, not to mention another body part or two. This other friend, the one who preceded him by a week, was 69—although he looked older, more traveled, and wiser than his years would have suggested. His name was Nick Tosches.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, I used to eat at the same table at the same restaurant maybe four nights a week. It was a tiny Italian art-world hangout on Sixth Avenue in the Village. The food was good, but not as good as the prices would indicate. Patti Smith was there many nights. So were Fran Lebowitz and Leo Castelli—although not together. The table I ate at was on the left as you came in the door. On the right was an identical table, and maybe three out of the four nights I ate there, another diner took the table across from mine.
With his weary eyes and modified ducktail haircut, the other diner had the handsome, dissolute look of a French rock star. What Johnny Hallyday should have looked like if he hadn’t had work done. I didn’t know the other diner, and I didn’t know who he was. He sometimes ate with a friend. But often as not, he just ate alone. We nodded to each other every night and went about our business.
With his weary eyes and modified ducktail haircut, the other diner had the handsome, dissolute look of a French rock star.
At Vanity Fair in the mid-90s, I decided that I wanted to do a story on Sidney Korshak, who had been the Chicago Mob’s man in Hollywood for the past four decades. He was a ghost of a figure. There was little on paper and few people actually knew him. (Although I later learned that he was a great pal of Bob’s and had given Dani Janssen away when she married the actor David Janssen.) All in, and so the legend went, Korshak was more powerful than anyone in Hollywood. Ray Stark once told me he had a union problem on one of the films he was producing.
He made a call to Korshak, and the next day the problem was history. I just had to find the right writer for the story. As it happens, I had recently read Nick Tosches’s book on Dean Martin. If you haven’t read it, do so. It’s a masterpiece—and incidentally, it’s a book that Marty Scorsese has always wanted to turn into a movie. I called Tosches up and asked if he would be at all interested in doing the Korshak story for me. He said he would, and we agreed on a length and a price.
I didn’t hear a word from him for a year. Then one day a thick envelope arrived at the Vanity Fair offices. It was Nick’s piece. It was 17,000 words—one of the longest manuscripts I had read up to that point. But it was an epic opera of corruption and power in the film business. It was unlike anything I had ever read. I called Nick immediately. He got on the phone and I told him not only how much I admired and indeed loved his story, but that I was going to pay him twice the agreed-upon amount. He thanked me and gave me the address where to send the check. I recognized it as the address of the Italian restaurant I went to so many times every week.
“This is a restaurant,” I said. “Yeah, yeah,” he replied. “I get my mail delivered there.” I thought for a moment, and said, “Wait, are you the fellow at the table to the right of the door?” He said he was. I told him that I had no idea. He said he knew who I was, but that since I was generally eating with my family, or friends, or both, he just never wanted to bother me. That was Nick. And that was Bob. They’re gone. And characters, like character itself, are in short supply these days.