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1. FROM KRAKOW TO VIENNA
On June 22, 1906, in the Galician village of Sucha Beskidzka, south of Krakow, Eugenia Wilder went into labor with her second child. Her husband, Max, ran a small cafe at the Sucha railroad station, one of several along the Vienna-Lemberg line. The Wilders didn't live in Sucha, a tiny nothing of a town. They were there because Max was checking up on business, his wife and infant son, Willie, in tow. They didn't live much of anywhere, really, though Krakow was more or less their home base. Max was trying to work his fledgling business into something sustainable, and he and his young family had to spend a few days here and a few days there while Max nursed the business along. At the end of June, there happened to be Sucha Beskidzka, where Genia gave birth to another boy. She and Max named him Samuel.
The Wilders were German-speaking Jews living among Poles and Gypsies in an absurdly overstretched empire run by a dynasty of Roman Catholic Austrians. (After young Samuel grew up and became a famous film director in Hollywood, the world forgot that he and his family used to pronounce their name in German, too. It didn't start out sounding like the comparative form of wild. Billy's name used to rhyme with builder, however accented the rhyme may have been. And it began with the sound of a v.) Galicia was poor, peasant country with scattered dirt farms and isolated villages; the locals spoke Polish. The Hapsburgs, seated in imperial splendor well on the other side of the Carpathians, had pocketed an immense swath of land north of the mountains when Poland was partitioned in the late eighteenth century. They called their new trophy Galicia, a Latinate corruption of Halicz, the title of an ancient Hungarian duchy. Along with their vast new territory, the Hapsburgs took on a huge number of new subjects--Poles, Ruthenes, Silesians, Gypsies, Ukrainians, and Jews, the latter constituting about 9 percent of Galicia's population. Some of the Jews spoke German; some spoke Polish; most knew Yiddish. It was a destitute area, agrarian and superstitious, and outside of Krakow there was little in the way of education and culture. Vestiges of an old szlachta, or gentry, survived, but even the landowners were in tatters. As one historian describes them, "In Galicia even the szlachta was poor."
Eugenia's middle-class mother had imagined better things for her daughter than this, but then she'd probably imagined a more suitable match than Max Wilder. In the eyes of his wife's family, Max was a bit of a peasant himself. Like Genia, he was not a dirt-poor Galician. He was, however, a Galician. Max was from Stanislawczyk, much farther to the east, in the part of Galicia dominated by Ruthenes, and the farther east one hailed from, the further down the scale he was thought to be. Across the mountains to the southwest, in Vienna, the social ideals of which Genia's German-speaking family had adopted, anyone from Galicia was suspect. Max, like many Galician Jews, aspired early on to leave his eastern Galician heritage behind him. He'd been named Hersch Mendel Wilder at birth, late in the spring of 1872, but he soon adopted the regal name Maximilian--to make himself more of an Austro-Hungarian, to fit in with a better class of people. A tall, good-looking young man with clear brown eyes, who tried earnestly to shed the mud and sweat of eastern Galicia in favor of the more dignified and sophisticated west, Max affected a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache to go along with the emperor's dead brother's first name.
Max Wilder had been working as a headwaiter in a Krakow restaurant when he met Eugenia Dittler, a dark-haired, energetic, quick-witted girl in her late teens. She was from Zakopane, a small mountain town ninety kilometers south of Krakow. Her mother owned and operated a resort hotel, the Zent'al, in nearby Nowy Targ, which was the next-to-the-last stop on the railway line that took people into the mountains for some beneficial high-altitude air. The hotel was small, consisting of only nine rooms and a single bathroom, but it was reasonably successful, and Genia's mother had reason to be proud of it. Genia herself was no simple peasant girl from the mountains. By the time she turned up at Max's restaurant, she'd already spent five or six years in New York City, where she had lived with her uncle, a jeweler named Reich, and his family on Madison Avenue. Genia's extended holiday in America was part of her mother's ongoing effort to raise her standing in life, to expose her to a more refined world than the one into which she was born. Why she went back to Zakopane is unclear. Her father was dead, her mother had remarried a man named Baldinger (who proceeded to widow her a second time), and Genia, having tasted a better future, set her heart on finding her way back to the United States, where she thought she could really get somewhere.
She married Max in 1903 when the railway cafe idea seemed a good bet: from Vienna through Pressburg, Brunn, Mahrisch-Ostrau, Krakow, and Lemberg, came a steady flow of customers. The couple trouped from town to town, managing the growing chain of little snack bars, and in 1904 they had their first child. By the end of June 1906, they were an itinerant family of four.
Following Jewish custom, the baby, Samuel, was named for someone dead. He and his brother, Wilhelm, were each given the name of a deceased grandfather--Max's father was a Wilhelm, Genia's was a Samuel--but Genia had little intention of saddling yet another son with a moribund past. So she began calling him Billie, after Buffalo Bill. He may have been born in a dust speck of a Galician outpost, but Billie was her American boy.
Wilder's only memories of Galicia were of his grandmother, the last observant Orthodox Jew in his family. He visited her in the mountains every summer. He slept in her bedroom with her, and Wilder remembered that every night before going to sleep, his grandmother checked under the beds to make sure there weren't any burglars lying in wait.
Nowy Targ was a remote village in a severe, unforgiving land, and Jews weren't held in the highest regard. Most Galician peasants lived in one-room huts with earthen floors. Barnyard animals strolled in and out at will. Being middle class, the Wilders were outsiders already. Being Jewish, they were set doubly apart from their Polish neighbors. Violence against Jews was scarcely unheard of in these parts--"The Jew will buy the entire countryside, and you'll be working on your knees," a peasant newspaper Zwiazek Chlopski in western Galicia had written only a few years earlier. "Shun the Jews. Pull yourselves together. Save every penny and learn." In 1898, there was a wave of anti-Jewish tumult in western Galicia, with mobs setting fire to Jewish-owned businesses, attacking Jewish houses with rocks, assaulting synagogues during Friday night services. Maybe Billie's grandmother knew what she was talking about.
The critic and historian Verlyn Klinkenborg reports that "Lion Phillimore, a traveler who toured the Carpathians about 1911, remarked of the Poles that `their only oppressor was their own will-lessness. It was a blight lying on the face of the country.'" It was with this very population that young Billie Wilder saw his first business opportunities. Even as a child, Billie developed the skills necessary to parlay other people's ignorance into personal gain. He became a pool shark.
The Wilders settled in Krakow. With two young children and an ambitious wife, it became increasingly difficult for Max to manage all of his little businesses, so he consolidated his resources and opened a four-story hotel and restaurant at the base of Wawel Castle near Jagiellonian University, Poland's oldest educational institution. He called his venture Hotel City, giving it an English name to make it seem all the more twentieth-century. In addition to its guest rooms, Hotel City featured a full-service restaurant, an outdoor terrace, and a gaming room with billiards as well as tables for card playing. Max dressed for work in a cutaway and striped trousers. Billie dressed in children's play clothes and played the role of an average five- or six-year-old, but only as long as it took for him to snooker strangers into playing three-cushion billiards. The regulars set up the bets with each hapless newcomer. Tiny Billie did the rest, with the adult winners paying the child off in candy. (Stories like this led his second wife, Audrey, to remark, "Long before Billy Wilder was Billy Wilder, he behaved like Billy Wilder.")
Always a fast learner, Billie moved on to outright thievery and was soon enjoying the easy money to be gained by swiping the waiters' tips off the tables when nobody was looking. Then the waiters caught him. "They beat the shit out of me," Wilder recalled. Upon seeing his child being thrashed by his own staff, Max became enraged and demanded to know why the waiters were pummeling the boy. They informed him that his son was a crook, after which Max beat Billie himself for good measure. "I learned many things about human nature," Wilder once said of his life at Hotel City--"none of them favorable."
Max's power over Billie didn't last very long. There comes a point when sons see their fathers as being, having been, or on the road to becoming pathetic, and they discover with a nasty jolt their own fate--to carry on the tradition themselves. Wilder's epiphany came early on when he found out that Max had been nothing more glorious than a waiter at the time of his parents' marriage. It was one of the great disheartening jolts of his childhood. Billie uncovered the drab fact on Max and Genia's marriage certificate, which listed the groom's profession. He was jarred, amazed, and more than a little disgusted.
Krakow was the ancient capital of Poland, a center of learning and culture where Jews could mix more readily with the Poles than they could in the countryside. After all, the Jew and the Pole shared a common pessimism, a joint appreciation of the brutal fact that nothing was ever likely to come of anything. At the time, this was especially true in regard to the institutions of government. Hardly anyone respected the imperial bureaucracy in Vienna, where, in classic Viennese fashion, scandal after scandal had succeeded in whittling away the mammoth empire's confidence in its leaders. Franz Josef still cut an impressive figure, and his subjects continued to mourn the late Empress Elisabeth's assassination. ("Sisi" was knifed to death in 1898 by a meddling anarchist--an ugly, gratuitous murder.) But the empire itself was increasingly the object of ironic contempt. Everyone knew that the never-ending territories of greater Austria-Hungary were desperately bloated, profoundly unrelated, and utterly unmanageable, and fewer and fewer people took anything related to the Hapsburgs with quite the same degree of seriousness and respect they once would have granted willingly. The Hapsburgs' institutions still stood and functioned; they were powerful but hollow. Government buildings were inscribed "K. u. K."--Kaiserlich und Koniglich, Imperial and Royal--leading the acerbic writer Robert Musil to coin the name Kakania to describe Austro-Hungarian society. As no one failed to notice, Kakania meant more than just Kaiserlich und Koniglich. The Hapsburg's fine empire had degenerated into kakaland.
Still, the existence of Austria-Hungary as a political entity was, as the old expression had it, good for the Jews. Franz Josef himself was excellent in this regard. The anti-Semitic Karl Lueger had to be elected mayor of Vienna five times before the emperor allowed him to take office. For the Jews in outlying provinces, there was an important practical consequence of Franz Josef's friendliness: as long as the emperor kept his empire alive, the Jews could get out of Galicia, Between 1891 and 1914, 320,000 Jews emigrated from Austria-Hungary to the United States; 85 percent of these Jews were from Galicia. The Jewish population of Vienna rose as well. In 1880 Jews made up 18 percent of the population in the capital; by 1910 it was 23 percent, with most of the newcomers arriving from Galicia. The exodus was motivated to some degree by fear, but it was also driven by hunger--mercantile, social, financial ambitions. In the words of the historian William O. McCagg, "This was flight upwards as well as out."
The Wilders liked to think of themselves as moving up in the world, Genia in particular. She saw a wider, richer future than the one she inhabited. Her dream of America never left her, and she instilled it in her sons. She and Max were newspaper readers--keen on current events but more or less disinterested in fiction. Billie's aunt, however, introduced the boys to the works of Mann, Dumas, and Zola, and their uncle steered them toward Zionism. Genia's tastes veered more toward popular culture--specifically, anything to do with America. She had been to Coney Island as a child. Now, as a young mother stuck in an outback of the empire, she loved to tell her two boys about the bizarre sculptures of aborigines that lurked outside the doors of cigar shops--big, imposing, expressionless chiefs holding tomahawks and wearing headdresses and war paint. Once, in New York, she had gotten hopelessly lost and only found her way back home when she recognized the familiar wooden savage on the corner.
From his mother, young Billie learned to tell a tale. You begin with the plausible and move on from there; when the actual event pales, you change it. And you never tell the same story twice. As told by Wilder, his life was a series of themes and variations, with heavy accent on the variations and little attention paid to inconsistencies. No one knows, for example, when his family moved from Krakow to Vienna. None of his biographers agree, least of all Billy. According to the entertainment writer Maurice Zolotow (who conducted extensive interviews with Wilder in the mid-1970s), the Wilders left for Vienna when World War I broke out and Krakow was evacuated. Wilder later reported that he "was brought as a kid of two and a half years old to Vienna, and I went there to grammar school, and then to high school." In the late 1980s, Wilder spent several months recounting his life with a German writer, Hellmuth Karasek, at which time he revealed that he and his parents had moved to Vienna in 1910. Another writer, Kevin Lally, took his information in large measure from Karasek and agreed that by 1910 the Wilder family owned a house in Vienna's First District. But according to Lally, the family shifted back and forth between Vienna and Krakow until 1914, at which time they moved to Vienna permanently.
None of these stories seems to be true. According to an array of hotel registration forms unearthed by a particularly dogged Austrian journalist and film historian named Andreas Hutter, Max Wilder made a number of business trips to Vienna between 1910 and 1916. Over and over, Max stayed in hotels. (He favored the Hotel Dungl on Gluckgasse.) Unless Genia kept throwing her husband out, how likely is it that Billie's father would have paid for all these hotel rooms if he already had an apartment in the center of town? These records have convinced Hutter that the Wilders actually lived in Vienna no earlier than 1916, two years after the war began.
The precise time of the Wilders' move to Vienna was probably not as crucial to the course of Billy's life as the migration's effect on the boy, the war's impact on his family, and the ringing novelty of his new life in the heart of a crumbling empire. Wilder recalled the day the war began, a scorching August day in 1914. The family was still in Krakow. Wilder remembered his father cutting off the cafe band to announce the assassination of Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In this version, the Wilder family set off for Vienna quickly in a rented horse-drawn carriage because the trains were too crowded. Never mind that the assassination occurred on June 30, not in August, and the fact that it took another month before war was declared.
Wilder never chronicled this migration as a single set of recordable facts. He also recalled spending the summer of 1914 with his grandmother. It was still an unusually hot season, he remembered, and he liked to spend his time sitting inside her cool, dark room in a Thonet rocking chair. In this version, it was Grandmother Baldinger who found the horse and carriage that set them on course toward Vienna, and as they packed their belongings onto the carriage, Billie, then eight years old, demanded that they take the rocking chair along with them. His grandmother put the problem to him tersely: she made him choose between the chair or the grandmother. Billie picked the chair. The old lady swatted him.
Whenever the Wilders actually left Krakow, the turmoil of wartime spelled the end of Hotel City. Max lost his business, and when the Wilders arrived in Vienna he had to start virtually from scratch yet again. The family did, however, have enough money to afford a nice middle-class apartment at Fleischmarkt 7 in the First District. Dominated by the immense Stephansdom, the crowning symbol of Viennese Catholicism, the First District is the heart and lungs of the city. In fact, deep in Stephansdom's crypt lie urns containing the disembodied guts of various Hapsburgs. One could scarcely be closer to the empire's bowels than to live only a few blocks north on Fleischmarkt. Next door to the Wilders' was an old inn, the Griechenbeisl, with its exterior sculpture of the legendary Viennese bagpiper who'd passed out in a drunken stupor during the plague of 1679 and been hurled into the plague pit, where he awoke, startled and surrounded by rotting corpses. He responded by playing a little tune on his bagpipes, a resurrection commemorated by the sculpture.
A few blocks in the other direction on Fleischmarkt lay the old Jewish district, the Judenplatz, and the narrow streets surrounding it. Regarded in the most positive light, the area had been populated by Jews since the thirteenth century. On the other hand, the Jews of Vienna had become so successful by the fifteenth century that they were all thrown out, except for the three hundred people the Viennese burned alive in 1421. At Judenplatz z, a memorial plaque commemorates this triumph. Commissioned in 1491, the relief depicts the Baptism of Christ in the river Jordan, the stream that cleans away evil. As the Latin text of the relief tells us, the evil in question was personified by the Jews, whom the Viennese rightly punished for their misdeeds by incinerating them. By the early twentieth century, the Jews had returned to the Judenplatz, but it was no longer a strict ghetto. They were integrated into the rest of Vienna, or so they thought.
Ornate, courtly, formal beyond caricature, religious, cosmopolitan, and stretched and torn by the first global war--this was the Vienna into which the Wilder family moved and the neighborhood in which they lived. Max had new business opportunities, Genia had a good address, and Willie and Billie had the streets of Vienna to prowl. (Willie was now eleven, Billie ten.) They were practically within spitting distance of the ancient emperor, Franz Josef, who fortunately managed to die soon thereafter, thus providing Billie with an imperial spectacle the likes of which he had never imagined. It was rainy and cold on November 21, 1916, the day of the funeral. Franz Josef died eleven days earlier at eighty-seven years, sixty-eight years of which had been spent on the throne. Knowing that no impresarios in the world could put on a better show than the Hapsburgs, Max took his sons to the second floor of the Cafe Edison on the Ringstrasse to watch the funeral cortege. Wilder recalled that his father stood him on a marble table near the window. They waited a very long time, but eventually the procession appeared, everyone dressed in black. One by one, Max introduced the players: the German crown prince; the Bavarians; the Saxons; the Bulgarians; the Turks. Finally came the coffin of Franz Josef, followed by the new emperor, Karl, and his wife, Zita.
One aspect of the spectacle made a particularly vivid impression on young Billie: "Amid all of the black splendor there was one point of white--a bright, radiant phenomenon: a figure of light signaling the future in all of the darkness." Crown Prince Otto, more or less Billie's age, was clad in pristine, fairy-tale white, his helmet topped by a feather. "He was my dream prince," Wilder later recalled. "I became one with him, I took his place." It was a magic moment of the sort that can only occur as a delusion. It goes without saying that Billie Wilder was not the crown prince of the Hapsburgs, but the harsher fact was that he wasn't even an Austrian, the fact of which no Austrian could lose sight. Billie was a Jew from Poland. He was an immigrant, one of the many thousand foreign Jews who crammed themselves into Vienna as war refugees. Austria was--and still is--a Roman Catholic country, and a deeply conservative one at that. Its citizens, subjects of a rigid empire, were--and to some extent still are--obsessed with social standing. Wilder's low position in Austrian society would bother him for the rest of his life. He was just another Polish Jew, and neither he nor they would ever let him forget it.
In 1860, there were about 6,200 Jews in Vienna. By 1870 there were 40,200. By 1900 there were 147,000. The rich ones built great mansions on the Ringstrasse--the Wertheims, the Todescos, the Epsteins, the Ephrussis. There were Rothschilds living in a French-style palace on the Heugasse. Industrialist-financier Karl Wittgenstein lived in splendor, raising a family of rich overachievers that included Ludwig, a philosopher, and Paul, a one-armed concert pianist. Jews achieved fame in less monetary ways as well. Theodor Herzl, though born in Budapest, lived and worked in Vienna. Sigmund Freud lived on the Berggasse. In the formerly anti-Semitic areas of Josefstadt and Neubau, rising young Jews like Stefan Zweig were beginning to settle--perhaps because the Second and Ninth Districts had too many other Jews. Most of the new immigrants from Galicia, meanwhile, lived in poverty in the areas of Leopoldstadt and Brigittenau. Billie and his family were far luckier. They had a First District address and all the amenities that went along with a middle-class lifestyle. The lobby of their apartment building was graced with tasteful blue tile work, and while the apartment itself wasn't grand, it was clean, bright, and comfortable. But the Wilders still weren't Viennese.
In the fall of 1916, Billie's parents sent him to his first Viennese school--the PrivatRealgymnasium Juranek, a public school. Most of the boys at Juranek were recent immigrants from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Romania. According to Wilder, this grammar school was "actually more of a franchise of the foreign legion, suited for slightly retarded or hard to handle students." But unlike the other kids, Billie had his auslandisch difficulties built directly into his own name. In German, a Wilder is an uncouth foreigner, a barbarian. (In a slightly different sense, a Wilder is also a lunatic. "Er tobt wie ein Wilder" means "He was raving like a psycho.") Billie may not have been the incorrigible, unruly child he likes to paint himself as being, but the Juranek was without doubt not one of Vienna's finest academies for boys.
All the elements of Billie's adult personality were in place at ten, though they still took an awkward, childlike form: he was restless, easily bored, prone to pranks; a quick and incisive reader; a dicey student who excelled when he cared to and defaulted when he didn't. He hated math and science, a fact reflected in his grades, but he loved history (a fact not reflected by his grades). He liked literature and languages, too--German and Latin were his strongest areas. "At the age of ten we had a choice of two of the dead languages," he recalled. "Greek or Latin. I chose Latin." When he was thirteen the boys were asked to choose between English and French: "I chose French, naturally--la langue diplomatique." It was a disaster. Young Billie Wilder appeared to have only the weakest ability to speak a foreign language.
By 1917, the war was going very badly, at least as far as the Austrians were concerned, and Vienna was spiraling downward into a state of near-extreme deprivation. Like many youths his age--and many adults, too--Billie was pressed into service cleaning streets, shoveling snow, and collecting garbage. Max was in the reserves doing guard duty, while Genia worked with the Austrian Red Cross. Billie got used to waiting on food ration lines. He would return home with three potatoes. Still, Willie and Billie had an easier time of it than the adults. "We were flexible," Wilder recalled. "You'd go out to the country and grab a couple of eggs and things like that. You went into the swapping business--I'll give you my watch for a half a ham, or whatever." At the time, of course, he blamed the English. The little soldier of the Central Powers proudly wore a lapel button inscribed Gott Strafe England ("God Punishes England").
On the day the war ended, November 11, 1918, Billie was in school. As he walked home to Fleischmarkt he watched mobs forming in the streets--looting, pulling down royal statues, tearing down any K. u. K. insignia they could find. Austrian soldiers, faced with the escalating chaos, quickly changed into civilian clothing to avoid being attacked.
The empire was no more. From being the seat of a multinational, imperial conglomerate of 56 million people, Austria was reduced to a single small country of 7 million. Three million of those 7 million people were now living in Vienna. What had once been a sophisticated world capital had suddenly become a cramped backwater, and the infamous cynicism of the Viennese now had catastrophic recent history to back itself up. The sense of irony Wilder gained, the bemused bitterness on which he built his life's work, no doubt found its roots in the heart of a twelve-year-old who watched, at close range, as an empire fell into dust and, thanks to the all-but-pointless war, took countless lives with it.
By the age of fifteen, Billie Wilder was tough--a redheaded, wiry, muscular kid who stood at five foot ten and liked to show off his strength. He played soccer; he skated; he skied; he played hockey; he rode a bike. He stole a motorcycle--a Zundapp--and rode around Vienna until he ran out of gas. He is said to have moved on to stealing cars, though this is a bit suspect. In any event, young Billie was periodically truant from school, and he was well on the way to earning a solid reputation as a delinquent. He saw his first Egon Schiele nude while in grammar school--"pornography, we called it"--and on at least one occasion he blamed the possession of this Schiele reproduction for getting him thrown out of one school and dispatched to the foreign legion.
That detail is improbable. More plausible, though perhaps only in degree, is the story of the first whore in Billie's life. She's said to have lived near the family's apartment on Fleischmarkt, and she gave young Billy some small change to take care of her hideous dachshund while she was busy with a customer. The vile dog had a temper, barking and biting whenever it pleased, and one day the police showed up while the whore was tricking, arresting her and leaving Billie with the dog. How he got rid of it is anyone's guess.
Sex, nature's way of torturing teenage boys, was now beginning to work its rotten charms on Billie. There is the beloved story about a chum whose father walked in on him while he was jerking off and announced that if he did it fifty more times he'd die. Terrified, the boy ceased the practice--but only for the following day or two, at which point he just couldn't take it anymore and stroked again to full fruition. Shadowed by a sense of his own impending doom, the boy began marking off each session on a sheet of paper, tabulating his orgasms like a World War I dogfighter putting notches on his plane, except of course that in his case he was his own victim. At first, Wilder said, the boy beat off only twice a week, then only once a week. Finally, he hit the forty-nine mark. According to Wilder, "He wrote a farewell note to his parents about how he had fought against it; now he would be going to his death, and he asked their forgiveness." Sliding the letter under his parents' bedroom door, he returned to his room and masturbated himself to death--not the death of body and soul, but the death of his belief in his father: "And from then on, he never believed another word his father told him." The boys' room of the PrivatRealgymnasium Juranek was set ablaze by the tale.
Billie's own family life was troubled in ways both typical and particular. The twenty-four-volume standard edition of the collected works of Sigmund Freud attests to the daily derangement of Viennese family life in the early twentieth century, a quiet frenzy of deceit, repression, and melancholia from which the Wilders were hardly immune. Max was always on the make with some failed business scheme. He imported Swiss watches but knew nothing about them. The business failed. He bought a trout hatchery. His knowledge of the spawning habits of fish was equally limited, and the business collapsed. Max was, as Wilder described him later, "a dreamer and adventurer who searched his whole life after something without exactly knowing what it was." He played a powerful role in Billie's life: Max's son knew with increasing self-assurance that his father was really very weak.
Deceit was no stranger to the household. Wilder tells the story of the time he was playing soccer after school--with rocks, one of which went crashing through the window of a neighborhood shop. Billie, always enterprising, quickly struck a deal with the shopkeeper. If Billie paid for the damage, the owner would keep it a secret from his parents. Billie then explained to Max and Genia with great earnestness and enthusiasm that he was going to learn typing and stenographic skills at school--for a small fee. Thrilled with Billie's newfound interest in schoolwork, they were only too glad to give the boy the money he needed, and Billie successfully faked them out by refraining from rock-soccer during the time he was supposed to be getting his typing lessons. Then one Sunday, Max had some business work to do, and since it was Sunday his secretary wasn't available. After taking shorthand (meaningless doodles), Billie was asked to type the correspondence. A guilty look, a glance of paternal disappointment, but no punishment; by that point Billie was observant enough to understand that Max often went to the racetrack instead of his office. A workable family dynamic: if the son didn't rat on the father, the father wouldn't rat on the son.
There was a much more serious bit of information about Max that Billie supposedly kept from his mother as well. It is a tale of such stupefying deception and backdoor domestic intrigue that the offhand way Wilder discusses it is all the more pathological. Wilder told Hellmuth Karasek that one day he accidentally found in the mail an invitation, addressed to his father, from a boarding school. It seems that Max was being invited to a party for one of his sons--a third son, one Genia didn't know about. There was something bothersome about this, said the adult Billy, so he took the invitation out of the mail and gave it to his father later on the sly. Max looked at Billie, Billie looked at Max. No one said a word, and that is the end of the story. None of the volumes of material written about and by Billy Wilder ever mentions his half-brother again.
Less extreme tales of Billie's teenage years depict Billie dumping out a bottle of his father's best wine in order to get the deposit on the bottle, and conspiring with a friend to steal some valuable stamps from a decrepit and half-blind philatelist. "But he was not as old and not half as blind as we had believed, and he caught us," Wilder remembered, though he was quick to note that he and his friend escaped before the old man could call the cops.
Distant from his father and treating his mother with filial bemusement, Billie does not appear to have been terribly close to his brother, either. In the hundreds of interviews Wilder gave over the years, Willie's name hardly ever surfaces. Of anyone in his family, he got along best with Genia's brother, David Baldinger, who trained as an engineer and fought in Haller's Army during the war in an effort to gain independence for Poland. Baldinger then moved to Lodz and, later, Israel. Uncle David steered Billie away from Wagner toward Greek and Jewish classics--the Maccabees, Bar Kokhba, maybe Oedipus.... When his uncle realized that Billie was still a lot more interested in Austro-German and American popular culture he was very disappointed, though he and Wilder stayed in touch even after Baldinger moved to Israel.
Judah Maccabee may have sparked the heroic dreams of Jewish boys for thousands of years, but for daring, glamour, and heroism, Douglas Fairbanks held a more intense appeal to Billie Wilder. Once World War I was over, American movies came flooding into Vienna, and Billie began spending an increasing amount of time in darkened theaters. The Wiener Urania was a regular hangout, as was the Rotenturm Kino, located only a block or two from Fleischmarkt. Whenever Billie failed to show up at home, Genia would send Willie out to find him. The Rotenturm Kino was one of the first places he looked. Watching films may have been the only time Billie sat still.
Wilder has said that he liked to watch Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and William S. Hart, and to a certain degree he probably did, but it was Fairbanks who really did it for him. Fairbanks wasn't just handsome and heroic. He was funny--a dashing, romantic leading man who was as much a master of the subtle smile as of a sword or knife. Billie found in the cinema what countless other restless, drifting adolescent boys have found: a better version of themselves in a better vision of the world.
This was especially true in postwar Vienna, where Billie, despite his street smarts and ingratiating personality, was still very much an outsider. Anthony Heilbut, the historian of the Austro-German Diaspora in America, makes the point that many of the German and Austrian Jews forced out of their countries by the Nazis had a particularly visceral love of popular culture, and he links this appreciation of movies, sports, and popular music to their nature as outsiders. He quotes the politician Walther Rathenau (Jewish, gay, and, in 1922, assassinated) as observing that early in the life of every German Jew there comes a signal moment when "he realizes he is a second-class citizen." The Wilders' realization became concrete in 1920. The empire's collapse left certain practical matters to be resolved, not least of which was the question of citizenship. After 1918, residents of the old empire were given two options: they could become citizens of whatever new country had been fashioned from the former crown land in which they had lived, or, if they spoke German or Hungarian, they could become citizens of the new republics of Austria or Hungary. Max Wilder chose the latter course, and in 1920 he applied for Austrian citizenship. His request was summarily denied.
The Official response he received is chilling in its bureaucratic clarity. August 20, 1920: "The claim of acknowledgment of Austrian nationality is dismissed because Mr. Max Wilder was not able to bring proof that he belongs to the German majority of the population of Austria according to race and language." The Wilders may have spoken German, but they would never be German, nor would they be Austrian.
Movies were a visceral link to a better, more egalitarian world. There were social benefits as well. Billie, increasingly obsessed with sex, fell hard for a girl named Greta, whom he met while playing tennis in the park. Wilder was still almost completely inexperienced, so he asked his friend Egon for advice, Egon having claimed to have earned a case of the clap at the age of eleven. (It was later revealed to have been measles.) Egon gave Billie some wise advice: take her to the movies. And when the lights go down, go for it. Cleverly, Billie took Greta to a film called Storms of Passion starring Asta Nielsen, and at an opportune moment, he reached between her legs. Greta, startled, screamed so loud that the lights were turned on throughout the theater; when an usher found them, Billie's hand was pinned between Greta's bony knees.
It was a shame that something so simple would turn out to be such a disaster, though Billie, of course, would eventually earn millions of dollars and six Academy Awards chronicling people's sexual catastrophes. For the time being, however, he was a ripe teenage boy with too much energy and too few chances. At school he sat looking out the window for hours--years, actually--trying to peer into the windows of the fleabag across the street, a crummy lodging house of the sort the Viennese called a "hotel by the hour." Billie was fascinated by the Hotel Stadion--its appeal was obviously more intense than math or geography--and he spent much of his school day getting to know the Stadion's cast of characters and their habits. Billie noticed, for example, that nobody ever carried a suitcase in; they weren't staying long enough to need supplies. Soon Billie was an expert at who was who, which ones were the working girls, and which of their clients were married--they were the nervous ones. He reported: "I thought to myself `Patience, patience. Right after graduation I'll go to the hotel with "Red Fritzi" or whatever her first name was.' And so it happened. A couple of days after graduation, I went to her. We negotiated quickly over the price and marched into the hotel and straight to the front desk where I, with the sangfroid of an experienced Casanova, registered us as Mr. and Mrs. Finsterbusch," which supposedly was the name of Billie's French teacher.
For a man who went on to write any number of films that dealt either directly or indirectly with prostitution, this was literally a seminal event. If it actually happened, it took place in July of 1924. More certain is the fact that Billie took his Matura, or exit exam, from the PrivatRealgymnasium Juranek on July 4. He passed. Billie Wilder got B's in German and Latin and a surprising A in math, but he nearly flunked French. After eight years of school in Vienna, Billie Wilder still had little facility with foreign languages.
The Wilder family, meanwhile, was heading into rougher financial waters. The circumstances aren't entirely clear, but Max's inability to keep a business running led to the family's having to move out of their Fleischmarkt apartment and relocate in the distant Nineteenth District, where they found an even smaller place at Billrothstrasse 15. Willie had already moved out--he was living in London--and Billie was ready to be on his own as well. He may have spent the summer on Billrothstrasse, but by fall he was ready to go to work and live on his own.
In regard to his college education, Wilder claimed to have entered the University of Vienna to study law and to have dropped out after a single semester, but there is no record of Samuel Wilder's ever having matriculated at the University of Vienna, let alone attending it. (And the Austrians, like their German brothers and sisters, are adept at keeping records.)
Wilder's tale involves Genia's long-standing wish for Billie to become a lawyer and Billie's failure to comply, and it is compounded in the Zolotow version by an ill-fated romance with a whore. Zolotow finds in Wilder's putative decision to drop out of college the seeds of his entire psychopathology, a theory that enraged Wilder no end. Wilder made the mistake of telling Zolotow about a girl he'd been interested in--a girl named Ilse. She worked at a record store on the Ringstrasse, the story goes, and Wilder, who was becoming interested to the point of obsession in American jazz, is said to have taken her on dates to the dance halls on Karntnerstrasse. He wrote poetry to Ilse and even dreamed of marrying her and moving to the United States and starting a family. Zolotow reports that Billie registered for the university and began attending classes in September, information evidently supplied by Wilder himself. By December, the story has it, Billie quit school, stopped seeing Ilse, and moved out of his parents' apartment. Willie Wilder, interviewed by Zolotow, said that he had no idea what happened to change Billie's life in this way, and Zolotow concludes that it was all because Billie discovered Ilse was turning tricks on the side. The revelation allegedly caused him to fall into despair and abandon his studies, destroying his faith in all women as an extra measure of drama. It is Ilse, Zolotow concludes, who lies behind every hard-bitten, lying, cheating slut in Billy Wilder's film career.
"No! Bullshit! Total bullshit!" was Wilder's emphatic response to Zolotow's theory. "My God!" he told critics Joseph McBride and Todd McCarthy in a 1979 interview. "In my youth in Vienna, sex was far less prevalent. I never slept with a hooker in my high school days, (a) because I couldn't afford it, and (b) because I was scared shitless. In those days, the idea of gonorrhea and the fear which it struck--no kid would have." Wilder's explanation, of course, stands in thorough contradiction to the Red Fritzi-l'affaire Finsterbusch tale he told a decade later. While one can well understand Wilder's fury at seeing his life and work reduced to a failed romance with a Viennese whore, it is a conclusion he wrought himself, having supplied Zolotow with all the raw material.
In any case, Wilder himself admitted to Andreas Hutter that in fact he never studied law.
What he did do was to begin learning a few words of English by memorizing the lyrics to the latest jazz hits, though he had no idea what the words actually meant. Music, not Ilse, was Billie's real passion. Nothing was more appealing to the excitable, fidgeting eighteen-year-old than the rhythmic agitations of American jazz. Vienna was just beginning to bring in jazz records--perhaps to the very store in which the possibly fictitious Ilse worked--and Billie started collecting them. He snapped up Paul Whiteman's "Japanese Sandman" when it came out and anything else he could find. He was rapidly becoming a proficient dancer as well. What better way was there to burn up all that excess energy and meet girls at the same time? But what on earth was he going to do for a job?
|PART ONE 1906-1933|
|1. From Krakow to Vienna||3|
|2. Daredevil Reporter||18|
|3. Just a Gigolo||31|
|4. In the Fog of the Metropolis||49|
|5. Taking Off||64|
|PART TWO 1934-1941|
|7. To Hollywood||101|
|9. Heil Darling!||131|
|10. Ball of Fire||158|
|PART THREE 1941-1950|
|11. Mr. Director||171|
|12. Double Indemnity||193|
|17. Sunset Boulevard||283|
|PART FOUR 1951-1956|
|18. Ace in the Hole||309|
|PART FIVE 1957-1961|
|22. In the Afternoon||387|
|23. Some Like It Hot||408|
|24. The Apartment||428|
|PART SIX 1961-1970|
|25. Selling It||453|
|26. Kiss Me, Stupid||478|
|PART SEVEN 1971-1998|
|29. Love and Death||533|
|31. "Nice Working with You"||565|
|32. In Turnaround||576|