Peter Bogdanovich gave his first direction of the day: “Alexa, play ‘But Not for Me.’”
“They’re writing songs of love / but not for me / A lucky star’s above / but not for me … ”
He began singing along in a surprisingly deep, chesty baritone.
“With love to lead the way / I’ve found more clouds of gray / Than any Russian play / Could guarantee.”
He kvells over Ira’s lyrics. “Isn’t that just pure genius?” His eyes glisten.
It was my sentimental education, my time spent working with Peter Bogdanovich on an original screenplay, Our Love Is Here to Stay, over much of the past year. Like Moss Hart’s wonderful autobiography, Act One, in which the playwright describes his apprenticeship with George S. Kaufman, our collaboration was an unanticipated joy.
It got going with a phone call. “What do you think about a movie about the Gershwin brothers?” he said.
“S’wonderful,” I said. It was an inspired idea, and I loved it for another reason, closer to home: the first book I had written with the writer Nancy Schoenberger was a biography of Oscar Levant.
Oscar, the celebrated pianist and wit, had been one of George’s and Ira’s closest friends. After George’s death, he became the foremost interpreter of Gershwin’s music for piano and orchestra. His recording of Rhapsody in Blue was for 10 years one of the best-selling records in America. Oscar had become so closely identified with the Gershwins and George’s music that he played himself in the rather hagiographic movie made of George’s life, Rhapsody in Blue (1945).
The idea was perfect for Peter, combining many of his obsessions: classic film, the fabulous music of the 1930s (by way of the Gershwin brothers), a love story (George and Ira’s, in fact). And there was plenty of drama in the difficult making of Porgy and Bess. With Peter seated at the head of a long wooden table in their apartment and Louise perched in a captain’s chair just behind him, we wrote and re-wrote that screenplay, guided by Peter’s genius and his nearly six decades of experience in the screen trade. That’s how I spent much of the 2021 coronavirus year.
The idea to write a movie about the Gershwin brothers was originally Louise Stratten’s. Louise was Peter’s second wife, from whom he was divorced in 2001 yet who remained Peter’s longtime companion, his sometime producer, and his co-author on a handful of screenplays. Louise is the younger sister of Dorothy Stratten, who was viciously murdered by her ex-husband in the summer of 1980 after taking up with Peter, and whose death has haunted Peter ever since.
Even now, after all that clouded history, Louise and Peter seemed inseparable, still in love. Often, when we were working, he would lean back, stretch out his arm, and reach for her hand. “She’s a great girl,” he once told me. “She saved my life, that’s for sure.”
While I stayed off and on at the Chateau Marmont, that other monument to film history, we worked mostly in Louise and Peter’s duplex apartment in Toluca Lake. Not far away was Bob Hope’s former house. We worked in Peter’s ground-floor office, watched over by an outsize photo of Marilyn Monroe. The window looked out onto a courtyard, the blinds pulled up so his beloved cats could stare immovably out of the window. (Peter frequently changed the names of his cats. While I was there, one was named Whitey Bulger; the other, Anderson Cooper.)
Behind the table in the office was a long file cabinet full of the typed 5,316 index cards he’d made from 1952, when he was 12, to 1970 with his reactions to all the films he had seen. Like Martin Scorsese, Peter had spent his youth going to the movies. He kept his notes to see if his opinion of those movies had changed over the years, or if he had changed. “Wes Anderson wants me to publish them as a book,” he said.
Once we were well into our story, Peter propped a big bulletin board on a chair in the office. It had every scene of the movie written out on his trusty cards so that, as he put it, “I can see the whole picture from beginning to end.” It was the highest compliment whenever we’d go over a scene, read it out loud, and he would say, “It plays.” Sometimes he’d move the cards around, and suddenly the scene would play.
I realized he liked working there because it resembled nothing so much as a writer’s bungalow on the old Paramount lot. Or maybe that’s just how I felt about it, or imagined it, or, probably more truthfully, wanted it to be.
It had been a breathtaking run for the wunderkind. “At twenty-seven, [he was] the second unit director of The Wild Angels,” wrote Harold Hayes, Bogdanovich’s editor at Esquire, where Peter had a column. At 29, the producer-director of Targets; at 31, the director of The Last Picture Show, and a feature-length documentary, Directed by John Ford; at 31½ came the brilliant 15-minute compression of the Chaplin oeuvre for Chaplin’s special Oscar presentation; at 32, What’s Up, Doc?; at 33, Paper Moon.
Peter was one of the cadre of directors who came out of B-movie king Roger Corman’s stable in the l960s, along with William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese. He collaborated with Samuel Fuller on his first picture, Targets, with Larry McMurtry on the film version of McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show, with Buck Henry on What’s Up, Doc?, with Paul Theroux and Howard Sackler on Saint Jack, and with Joe David Brown on Paper Moon, based on Brown’s novel, Addie Pray.
Like his idol Orson Welles, however, the enormous promise of Peter’s early career stalled. First, there were the movies that he turned down: The Godfather, Catch-22, and The Exorcist, to name three. “I take credit for creating Coppola’s career, and Friedkin’s, because I turned down The Godfather and The Exorcist,” Peter wryly commented. “I don’t like those kinds of movies. I didn’t want to do The Godfather. I didn’t want to do a Mafia story.” He didn’t seem to have a whiff of regret over this. Something tells me that if given the chance to do it all over again, he would still have turned them down.
Some critics felt that his 1971 divorce from production designer and screenwriter Polly Platt, whom he married in 1962, hindered his career; they credited her with creating the authentic look of movies such as The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. (She was the first female art director accepted into the Art Directors Guild.)
Fast-forward to the year 2000: Peter, then aged 60, was cast by David Chase as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, Dr. Melfi’s dour psychiatrist in HBO’s phenomenal series The Sopranos. In 2003, Quentin Tarantino paid a sly tribute to Peter when he asked him to be the voice of the D.J. in Kill Bill.
Behind the table in the office was a long file cabinet full of the typed 5,316 index cards he’d made from 1952, when he was 12, to 1970 with his reactions to all the films he had seen.
Noah Baumbach chose Peter’s marvelous 1979 film, Saint Jack, to run at the Metrograph, a revival house in New York, and brought audiences to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to view his 1981 comedy, They All Laughed. (Peter’s last feature film, She’s Funny That Way, released in 2014, was executive-produced by Baumbach and Wes Anderson.) And in 2018, Peter released The Great Buster: A Celebration, an affecting and affectionate documentary about Buster Keaton, the sorrowful-faced comic genius of silent films.
The completed final edit of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which Peter oversaw, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018. (The movie was shot by Welles in the 1970s but remained unedited for 40 years. Welles had made Peter promise to “finish the movie, if anything should happen to me.”) Peter considered his relationship with Welles the most meaningful of his life, after his relationship with his father.
In 1999, I wrote an epistolary novel called Sinatraland, the story of Finkie Finkelstein, a window-shade salesman from Fort Lee, New Jersey. Finkie was a late bloomer, and when he finally came into his own, in the 1970s, his idea of sophistication was the already superannuated Rat Pack. Finkie tries putting together his own pack of swinging rats, even going so far as to cast his family’s maid’s husband as Sammy Davis Jr. to his Frank. Finkie was the most clueless suburbanite in all of the Garden State. The book is made up of Finkie’s unanswered letters to his hero, Sinatra.
Sinatraland was published in 1999 by Peter Mayer’s Overlook Press. I thought at the time the company’s name would probably prove prophetic, at least as far as my novel was concerned, but then a phone call came from a woman named Britt Allcroft. She was from the U.K. but had been in Toronto on business when she happened to clap eyes on a copy.
She loved this well-intentioned, clueless, mid-century American guy (Finkie, not me), and she wanted to make Sinatraland into a movie. We agreed to meet at a corner table in the dining room of the Carlyle hotel, where she was staying. She told me a bit about herself, her work, how she had bought the rights to Wilbert Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine and adapted it for TV, with Ringo Starr and then Alec Baldwin as the Shining Town Stationmaster. It was a huge success, but I could see that Thomas the Tank Engine was not going to find much common cause with Frank and Jilly Rizzo or with Finkie’s mistress, an Angie Dickinson lookalike from South America.
The thing that got my heart beating was when Britt said she was going to ask Peter Bogdanovich to direct. That’s when the goldfish started swimming in my head, and I let the revolving doors of the Carlyle take me for a spin a few times before I floated back downtown to work on my Oscar-acceptance speech.
Peter signed on, and he soon hired Chris Trumbo, son of the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, to adapt the book. Chris was only 10 when his father went to prison for 11 months for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dalton’s richly successful career (Roman Holiday, 30 Seconds over Tokyo) was blown up by HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist. After prison, the family moved to Mexico, where they lived among other Hollywood exiles, all victims of that dark time. Peter, for whom Hollywood history was a living, breathing thing, was proud that he had brought a Trumbo into the fold, and Chris wrote a terrific screenplay. We were on our way!
Peter had another wonderful idea. Not long after Robert Downey Jr. was released from prison on a drug charge, Peter was adamant that he’d make a great Finkie. I remember a funny moment in a magazine profile of Downey around that time in which he’s celebrating the birthday of his son, Indio, when the phone rings. He tells his guests, “I have to get this. I have to speak to a legend.” The legend on the other end of the line was Peter. A patron saint of second chances, Peter was one of the first directors to offer Downey a starring role after his arrest, a temporary setback that didn’t faze Peter at all. “Christ, even Mitchum went to the clink,” he said.
At the time of our first meeting, Peter was living in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not terribly far from 15 West 67th Street, where he had spent the first 13 years of his life. (Later, his parents moved to 90th and Riverside Drive, close to where George and Ira had their adjoining penthouses.)
“I take credit for creating Coppola’s career, and Friedkin’s, because I turned down The Godfather and The Exorcist.”
To meet Peter then was to feel the weight of American cinematic history. After all, when he moved to Hollywood in the 1960s to “get into pictures,” the great directors were still alive—Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, George Cukor—as well as actors such as Cary Grant, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.
I recall that still-boyish face with Clark Kent glasses greeting me at the door. If I hadn’t recognized him, the bandanna/cravat worn around his neck would have given him away. (Peter adopted the look while filming The Last Picture Show in Archer City, Texas, but the idea may have begun as early as 1964, when Peter traveled to Monument Valley to interview John Ford. Ford not only wore a kerchief but chewed on it during tense moments while filming Cheyenne Autumn.)
After dinner at a vegan place on the Upper West Side—years before such places were common—we walked back to his apartment, with its long dark foyer, and I sat on the couch while he went in search of a diary he’d kept during the 60s and early 70s.
Diary in hand, he began turning the pages, looking for some branch upon which to alight. Finally, he read a passage about watching The Magnificent Ambersons on TV with its magnificent director, Orson Welles:
“The experience of watching two or three scenes was overwhelming. Orson was deeply moved—and to tears almost—looking at the cuts that had been made. It must have been terribly painful. After the snow scene we turned it off because it was clearly too much for him. I’ve never seen him react that way. It could break your heart. We talked about the butchering of the film—and other things—his feeling of hopelessness about [producer] Bert [Schneider]—at one point he came out with, ‘You’ve got to get me a job making a picture.’ It made me feel so awful to be working myself when he isn’t. We didn’t leave until midnight—God, it was a fascinating evening, but it was also emotionally very painful. Seeing a man suffer like that … ”
Peter then read an entry about watching the 1970 Oscars with Cybill Shepherd, his then partner and the star of The Last Picture Show, Daisy Miller, and At Long Last Love:
“Thursday, April 15 … it’s Oscar night—and Cybill and I watched. I got terrifically depressed—Orson’s segment was particularly bitter to me—I cried—I think the bitterest tears since my dear father died. They gave OW an Oscar 20 years too late … ”
It was all very exciting, except when it wasn’t. The Thomas the Tank Engine lady drove Peter out of his mind, and her notes gave poor Chris Trumbo the kind of bad dreams he said he hadn’t had since they sent his father to jail. So it all fell apart.
But it hadn’t really, for Sinatraland begat the Gershwin movie. It took almost 20 years, but it was worth the wait in gold. It had brought me to Peter’s front door, literally.
Surrounded by Women
At 82, Peter was frailer than I remembered, though straight as the cane he occasionally carried for balance. He came downstairs in a beautiful red-and-white checked shirt and a blue neckerchief knotted in front of his open collar, closely shaved, his hair slicked back. When he was running on all cylinders—if he’d slept well or if a piece of good news happened to land like a white feather at his feet—the work would go well. Though he did have his Sheridan Whiteside moments. “Where the hell are we in this goddamned thing?” he’d suddenly bellow. I knew not to come up with any big ideas that day.
Often, before getting down to work, Peter would pick out something from Robert Graves, usually a passage from The White Goddess, for me to read. Peter was a devotee of this seminal, confounding work about mythology, poetry, and the Celtic goddess Druantia, an aspect of the moon goddess and a muse to poets. You might say that Peter had been in love with three “goddesses” in his day—Cybill Shepherd, Dorothy Stratten, and Louise. In fact, he made a pilgrimage to Robert Graves’s home not long after Dorothy’s brutal murder, only to find that the great man had taken a vow of silence.
“I went to Majorca,” he recalled. “Robert was there, but he wasn’t speaking. The family took me in. They were so kind to me, like I was a wounded bird.” Peter stayed on, comforted by Graves’s family, and found a way to deal with his unspeakable grief. As a kind of tribute, Peter later published a Celtic calendar derived from Graves’s work.
Graves’s philosophy rested on a belief in an ancient matriarchy, an idea Peter embraced. After all, Peter was surrounded by women. His knowledgeable assistant, Kristina Palleschi, sat at the far end of the table in her Yankees hat. Louise sat with us, and living in the house for a time was Nelly Hoogstraten, Louise’s mother, who would pass in and out of the room on her way to the kitchen. “That’s a beautiful sweater, Nelly,” I said once, and she answered without missing a beat, “I’ll sell it to you,” in just the faintest Dutch accent. (This cheerful, pixilated woman who had lost so much had the mischievous smile of a Disney fairy godmother.) Peter seemed blissfully at their mercy.
And then there was his first marriage, to production designer Polly Platt, who passed away in 2011, with whom he had two daughters, Antonia and Sashy. Peter, in fact, was a kind of auteur of ardor, and he would occasionally weep at the tenderer moments in our screenplay in progress.
It’s little wonder that he was as marvelous a director of actresses as George Cukor or tough guy Howard Hawks. Just take another look at Cloris Leachman in his groundbreaking—and heartbreaking—The Last Picture Show. She won an Academy Award for her role as a lonely wife in love with a teenage boy, who knows her days of romance are over. Tatum O’Neal made history as the youngest actress to win an Academy Award for her tart, winsome portrayal of Addie in Paper Moon. Cybill Shepherd, Barbra Streisand, Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan, Cher, Audrey Hepburn in her last starring role—all shone under Peter’s direction.
Peter sat at the other end of the table, with me in the middle. The books we needed—Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions; Oscar Levant’s Memoirs of an Amnesiac; my and Nancy’s biography of Levant, A Talent for Genius; and various Gershwin biographies—were piled high between us.
There was one other ritual I forgot to mention. After Kristina kindly picked me up at the Chateau and drove us to Toluca Lake each day, we’d stop off at Starbucks to bring back a latte for Nelly, a K-pop drink for Louise, and a chocolate-chip cookie for Peter. It was as much a part of our working day as reading from Robert Graves. In fact, the Graves wouldn’t have worked without the cookie, and the cookie wouldn’t have been as sweet without Graves.
Last July, I’d missed Peter’s 82nd-birthday gathering, so I tried to make up for it by inviting him and Louise to dinner at Musso & Frank. The menu at Musso Frank, as it’s usually called, hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1919, when the movies began (they still serve Charlie Chaplin’s favorite, grilled lamb kidneys). Neither have the waiters in their crisp red jackets, a point brought home in the popular Netflix series The Kominsky Method, which included many scenes in the restaurant’s worn, red-leather booths.
Years ago, I remember sitting in an almost empty Musso’s; the only other diner was Jonathan Winters, brooding over his cream of tomato soup. But since it was renovated and reopened in 2015, the restaurant’s been booming. The hunting-lodge mural still encircles the room. The long mahogany bar, where Humphrey Bogart used to drink with Dashiell Hammett, still stands. Ditto the back room where Raymond Chandler worked on The Big Sleep, nursing his drinks. But a younger generation has discovered Musso Frank, and we needed a reservation to get in.
I got there early, the first to arrive. Nervousness can do that. Luckily, Peter’s name meant something to the maître d’, who led me to the table. Peter and Louise suddenly appeared at the back of the restaurant, so I shot up out of the booth to greet them.
“Lay on, Macduff,” Peter said, putting his hand on my shoulder, “and damn’d be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’” Those are Macbeth’s last words, meaning, “go for it, Macduff, let’s fight to the death.” As good a greeting as any.
We all settled into what the waiter had told me was Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite booth. Hitchcock, in fact, was much on Peter’s mind, as he’d just finished his first podcast in a series talking about a few of the legendary directors he’d tape-recorded in the 60s and 70s, when he was in his 20s and 30s. The idea was to make use of those tapes as if the director were sitting there at the table.
The podcast on Hitchcock was recorded with Guillermo del Toro, the brilliant director of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, and the recent remake of Nightmare Alley. It would be followed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out) discussing Orson Welles with Peter, Quentin Tarantino joining him to discuss the long, amazing career of Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz, and Ronald Reagan’s last movie, The Killers), and Ken Burns sitting down to talk about John Ford.
After ordering, we talked about the day’s work, but the conversation took a darker turn when Louise told a story I’d never heard before, about the day her sister was murdered. She recalled putting on a pair of Dorothy’s ballet flats while her sister was showering. Dorothy objected, promising her, “We’ll go shopping after I stop by to see Paul [Snider], and I’ll buy you a pair of your own Capezios.” The two left Peter’s home in Bel Air, where they were both staying, and started toward Snider’s apartment. But on their way, Louise had a strange feeling that she didn’t want to go. She asked Dorothy to turn around and take her back to Peter’s, where she would play with Peter’s two daughters in their pool.
“If I’d gone with her, maybe he wouldn’t have killed her,” Louise said.
“Or maybe he would have killed you too,” Peter answered.
Just the thought that he might have lost both sisters chilled him. I noticed that he was always telling Louise to be careful, to come back soon, even if she was just going out to the store, and that he was in a better frame of mind and more eager to work when L.B., as he called her, was around. Losing her, as he had lost Dorothy, would be the one unbearable thing.
After our dinner was over, Peter and Louise drove me back to the Chateau. (Louise always did the driving.) It was a strange night in some ways. Because of the coronavirus, the Chateau felt eerily deserted, some of its famous enchantment temporarily dimmed.
“We’ll come to you to work tomorrow,” Peter said as I bounded out of the car. Despite all those early-morning film shoots, Peter reverted to theater actors’ hours whenever he could. “The director gets up at dawn,” he once explained, “but the theater actor sleeps in.”
Cybill Shepherd, Barbra Streisand, Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan, Cher, Audrey Hepburn in her last starring role—all shone under Peter’s direction.
The only times it became hard to work with Peter was when I reminded myself of how much in awe I was of him and all the movie history in the room with us. Whenever I came up with an idea, or a line, or a piece of business that I could tell by his expression thumped along like a freshly blown flat tire, I was reminded of the actor Moss Hart describes in Act One who had to be “rouse[d] … from the depths of his seat, where he had sunk so low that only the top of his hat was visible.”
Throughout the process, Peter often e-mailed or texted me to discuss ideas and plans, and sometimes just to calm me down:
…I see from your emails that you need a touch of Preminger (Otto). Directing Jean Seberg—her first film—he would on occasion walk over to her, bring his face close to her face, and he would bellow loudly: “Relax!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
This is not our first rodeo. We’re right on schedule. All is well. Let’s talk on Tuesday, after we’ve read it through again. We’re real close.
Much love, as ever,
It gladdened my heart to receive his text of June 26:
We both loved our day today! Excited about reading the script on Monday. We are getting close.
Have a wonderful weekend. It is a joy to be working with you.
All the best, and love,
PB and LB xx
Near the end of our work together, Louise texted me: “Peter thought maybe George tells Ira that he had a dream that he died. Something to the effect that he was always afraid to die, but because of the time with the Gullahs he got closer to … the Gods and the dream seemed so wonderful…. He continued making the best music…. Basically, that music changed his life …”
To make our movie, Peter knew he would need something like an understudy, for insurance purposes, “in case anything happened to me.” Peter had performed a similar service for not just Welles but also his great friend John Cassavetes, one of the people whose absence he continued to mourn. Peter floated a few names for possible alternate directors, but sadly we didn’t get that far.
Peter was a great mimic, and when he was up to it and feeling good about our progress, he took particular joy in doing the voices of some of the master directors he’d known, commenting on the work we were doing: Hitch explaining the difference between mystery and suspense, Orson telling us to pick up the pace and get to the very essence of a scene. “You can do that with just a look,” Welles’s voice boomed out of Peter’s slender frame.
When he was in the mood, the worktable became a kind of proscenium, a stage for the actor in Peter. After all, he’d studied with Stella Adler when he was still in his teens. There was a black-and-white photograph he kept, framed on the long desk, of a very young Master Bogdanovich in short pants, maybe eight or nine, standing with his parents seated on either side. Peter recalled that when his folks would have small dinner parties, they would ask Peter to recite poems he had memorized, such as Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven”; Whitman’s lament for the murdered Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!”; and Robert W. Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”
I will miss the gentle chaos of that household, the You Can’t Take It with You–inspired lunacy of the place: Peter’s two cats jumping onto the worktable and dipping a paw into Peter’s meds; Cindy, the chihuahua, with her high bark whenever the FedEx man walked by (“Shut up, Cindy!,” Peter would bark back); Rosa, his housekeeper, in the next room preparing Peter’s modest lunch, usually tuna fish with crackers; Nelly in the living room watching the Florida condo collapse on a giant flat-screen TV.
And the phones! Peter’s, Louise’s, Kristina’s, taking calls from Cybill, Jeff Bridges, a documentary filmmaker from Kiev, Bryan Cranston about a part in a future “picture,” as Peter always called the movies—his one-word homage to the great directors who raised him.
Then Came the Movies
Peter was so excited about the prospect of being back in the director’s chair. He began to talk about how the Gershwin picture had to be shot in black-and-white. “You know what I say about black-and-white, don’t you?” he said to me. “It’s the actor’s friend, because every performance looks better in black-and-white. Name me a great performance in color.” He reminded me that Orson Welles had first suggested Peter shoot The Last Picture Show in black-and-white.
After the news of Peter’s death came, I spoke with Kristina, Peter and Louise’s assistant, who had been with us for most of that Gershwin year. She said that Our Love Is Here to Stay was now Peter’s The Other Side of the Wind. Now, Kristina said, “someone will have to come along and make Peter’s movie.”
I find that I now think about some of the scenes we wrote in a much different way. For example, there’s a scene in which George explains to his brother how the one thing he needs above all else in the world is time—time for all the projects he has planned, all the music he’s bursting to write. Well, Peter had plans, too. Besides the podcasts and our screenplay, with Louise he’d been adapting his 1984 book about Dorothy Stratten, The Killing of the Unicorn, into a limited TV series. It was his final account of Dorothy’s life, their love affair, and its shattering ending. “You know what my favorite scene is?” he later said of our script. “Where George tells Ira, all he wants out of life is more life.”
In his landmark monographs, books, and film-series programming, Peter laid the cornerstone for the idea of the Hollywood auteur. As Richard Brody wrote last week in his appreciation of Peter in The New Yorker, “It’s hard to imagine how peculiar that idea seemed then, how controversial it was, at a time when most prominent critics made a hard-and-fast distinction between art films made in Europe (or independently in the U.S.) and commercial films made in Hollywood.” Peter was an appreciator of the great masters of the movies, even more so than Quentin Tarantino, in whose guesthouse Peter lived for a time. He was always generous about what he knew, and he’d hoped to see his books Who the Devil Made It and Who the Hell’s in It reissued as a boxed set.
Peter was a great mimic, and when he was up to it and feeling good about our progress, he took particular joy in doing the voices of some of the master directors he’d known.
Though a devotee of Hollywood, Peter was painfully aware of how the movie business eats its young and forgets its elders. One afternoon, Turner Classic Movies—which Peter and Louise kept running all day long like a stock-market ticker tape—was showing Otto Preminger’s Exodus. When a young Sal Mineo appeared on-screen, tears sprang to Peter’s eyes. “He was such a sensitive and gentle person,” Peter said of his friend, adding—a director to the end—“he was very good in it.”
Peter also told me the story of what happened to the director Allan Dwan, the subject of Peter’s first book, who had begun working in the movies “around the time of the invention of the electric light,” as Orson Welles once said. Peter had great respect for Dwan, who, Peter claimed, had discovered Carole Lombard, Shirley Temple, and the six-year-old Natalie Wood, and he turned a member of his crew with a weakness for poking around makeup kits and false noses into Lon Chaney Jr.
Age was very much on Peter’s mind when he told the story of first visiting Dwan. Peter said he was always surprised that these directors could be found in the phone book. As he wrote in Who the Devil Made It, “When I looked him up … Dwan was already in his eighties, living in a small house out near Van Nuys Boulevard. I wouldn’t know until after he died—in 1981 at the age of ninety-six—that the house actually didn’t belong to him, but rather to the woman I had always thought was his live-in assistant and housekeeper … his own money had run out … Just off the freeway in the San Fernando Valley, in a tiny living room, sat the movies’ last pioneer.” Peter could write like an angel about these overlooked, forgotten men.
He admired good film writing wherever he found it. When Air Mail asked him last year to review David Thomson’s new book, A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors, Peter quickly agreed. It must have hurt him, however, to read a sentence in his own entry that read, “By the late 1970s, he was over,” dismissing the last four decades of Peter’s work. Yet he put his own ego aside to praise Thomson.
Someone someday may come along and breathe life into our Gershwin story, imbue it with Peter’s spirit, but for me, it was never just about the screenplay, as these things are in the laps of the gods anyway. It was always about the pleasure of his company, the pure joy of the work.
To paraphrase W. H. Auden, Peter has now become his admirers—not just all of us who love his movies, but a younger generation of filmmakers who recognize Peter’s lifelong devotion to the art they all shared. As Peter once said, “I was born. And then came the movies.”
There’s a line in our screenplay I’d given to Oscar Levant, George Gershwin’s acolyte, even though it was actually written by the novelist John O’Hara. Upon hearing the news of Gershwin’s sudden death at the age of 38, O’Hara had written, “They tell me George Gershwin is dead, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” We ended up leaving it out, but I thought of O’Hara’s words when the sad news about Peter reached me: They tell me Peter Bogdanovich is dead, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. Previously a contributing writer for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends