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Sam Spiegel

Sam Spiegel

by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni

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The incredible life and times of Hollywood's most iconoclastic producer, the miracle worker who went from penniless refugee to show biz legend, and made possible The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, not to speak of many more, including movies as distinct as Suddenly, Last Summer; Nicholas and


The incredible life and times of Hollywood's most iconoclastic producer, the miracle worker who went from penniless refugee to show biz legend, and made possible The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, not to speak of many more, including movies as distinct as Suddenly, Last Summer; Nicholas and Alexandra; The Last Tycoon; and Betrayal; all of them sharing the unique vision that earned Spiegel twenty-five Oscars: star-filled, bigger-than-life, conceived on a vast scale, intensely dramatic, and overwhelmingly ambitious.

In this rich and brilliant biography, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, who had the advantage of knowing and working for Spiegel, brings into sharp focus a Hollywood legend who was at once crafty, unscrupulous, mendacious, and equally capable of great charm and petty meanness, who was sentimental and ruthless, a shrewd judge of talent, a gambler on a colossal scale, a man of almost unique artistic vision and courage who was, in the final analysis, that most elusive and rare of movie producers, a genius.

The story of a how a Jewish refugee without a penny to his name managed to produce several of the greatest films of all time is alone worth telling, but Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni has done more; she has drawn the definitive portrait of the man himself — the elusive, witty, cynical adventurer who, like so many refugees, was able to live, succeed, and raise money everywhere, but who was at home nowhere. Spiegel surrounded himself with luxury and beautiful women but remained a loner despite his countless friends.

Spiegel was mysterious about his origins, prompting Arthur Miller to refer tohim as "The Great Gatsby." In reality, he was born of middle-class Jewish parents in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Raised in Jaroslav, in western Galicia, Spiegel left home in his late teens and quickly became a hero of the Hashomer Hatzair, a Zionist youth movement.

Step by step, with immense research and a vast number of interviews, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni recreates the world of Sam Spiegel's childhood and youth, separating often self-serving fiction from fact. She follows Spiegel's dramatic flight from the Nazis in Berlin, a prison sentence in London, problems with the police in Paris and Mexico City, and finally his arrival in Los Angeles. In America his career languished for a time, though he acquired a reputation for being a supreme "fixer," a brilliant luftmensh on the fringes of Hollywood power, the ultimate party-giver who knew everybody's secrets and was always quick to charm women and take advantage of men. Billy Wilder called him "a modern day Robin Hood, who steals from the rich and steals from the poor."

With a brilliant sense of time and place and a deep understanding of Spiegel's complex personality, Fraser-Cavassoni traces his disasters, successes, romances, friendships, and tangled finances in a narrative that is rich with colorful Spiegel stories, scandals, and bon mots.

The cast of characters in Spiegel's life includes Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Robert De Niro, Barry Diller, David Geffen, Katharine Hepburn, John Huston, Elia Kazan, David Lean, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Mike Nichols, Harold Pinter, Otto Preminger, Elizabeth Taylor, Gore Vidal, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Darryl F. Zanuck, bevies of beautiful women, three wives, countless members of high society, and, most important, Sam Spiegel himself — the last of the great independent film producers who, in the swashbuckling tradition of David O. Selznick and Sam Goldwyn, operated alone, aimed high, and believed, above all, in their own star.

More than a major book about the movie business, Sam Spiegel is an intricate and engrossing biography, comparable in its richness, depth, and attention to detail to A. Scott Berg's acclaimed biography of Samuel Goldwyn. It is a marvelous, once-in-a-lifetime reading experience and an astonishing debut for Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni.

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
Fraser-Cavassoni's descriptions of Spiegel suggest a lovable con man who managed to beat the system. He was known for committing several instances of forgery, immigration fraud, check kiting, congenital lying, bad debts, car theft and pimping. He served short jail sentences in San Francisco and England . Doing business with him was thankless, because he cheated everyone. Nor was he more compassionate with members of his family. — Robert W. Cort
The New York Times
When Sam Spiegel devotes chapters to its subject's greatest hits, like "On the Waterfront," "The African Queen" and "Suddenly, Last Summer," Ms. Fraser-Cavassoni is on well-trod terrain. Many accounts and memoirs already describe these projects, yet they are cast in a different light when the emphasis shifts to Spiegel. Kevin Brownlow, the definitive Lean biographer, is one of many to have dismissed Spiegel as a meddling vulgarian, but this book makes a case for his creative acumen. Memos exchanged by Lean and Spiegel — Spartan and Maharajah, respectively — reveal articulate, evenly matched combatants engaged in a creative tug of war. — Janet Maslin
Publishers Weekly
Spiegel (1903-1985) won three Oscars for producing, as the subtitle coyly mentions, a series of memorable films; he is also the sole producer to win the best picture Oscar three times within eight years. The resourceful Spiegel arrived in the U.S. from Austria in 1927 as a bogus diplomat, bouncing checks and serving jail time. In Berlin, he worked with Universal Studios' German film office. Fleeing Nazis, he moved on to London, Paris and Mexico, always encountering problems with the law. Back in the U.S. in 1939, he established himself in Hollywood with Tales of Manhattan (1942) and The Stranger (1946). Accused of "sharklike behavior," Spiegel was a hardened wheeler-dealer who "walked in without a penny and made himself into something." By the end of his life, he'd banked millions, acquired a priceless art collection and entertained the century's most glamorous figures. Fraser-Cavassoni writes for Harper's Bazaar's French edition and worked on Spiegel's final film, Betrayal (1983). To separate facts from apocryphal accounts, she conducted some 200 interviews over seven years. Although she often questions Spiegel's exaggerated anecdotes, Fraser-Cavassoni views Spiegel as "the last of the great showmen," possessed by a "demonlike pursuit for quality." Working from Spiegel's private and professional papers, she also explored dozens of archives, reflected in more than 90 pages of notes, a filmography and bibliography. The result is a fantastic biography on the rise of one of Hollywood's most flamboyant personalities. Photos not seen by PW. (Apr. 8) Forecast: The author's connections with upscale fashion glossies, the book's snazzy jacket and blurbs from Billy Wilder, David Geffen, Andr Leon Talley and others will create plenty of buzz for this hefty tome. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Although film producer Sam Spiegel's name is not as well remembered as those of David O. Selznick or Sam Goldwyn, he won 35 Oscars (e.g., The African Queen, On the Waterfront) and created two of the great movie spectacles of all time (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia). The author, a production assistant on Spiegel's last film, attempts to unravel the mysteries around this "extraordinary survivor." Always a wheeler-dealer, Spiegel gave contradictory accounts of his origins, and early days in Europe and Palestine. He had a knack for being in the right place at the right time and, by schmoozing and using, quickly mastered Hollywood's power game. The author vividly recounts the tumultuous location shoot of The African Queen and details Spiegel's working and personal relationships. Spiegel's extravagant lifestyle and kinky sex life also receives attention: a prostitute once stole several Oscars from Spiegel's home. In the end, Spiegel's career was doomed by a Hollywood that no longer wanted his epic style of moviemaking. In the absence of an autobiography, this book is a valuable look at a colorful, iconoclastic, not always admirable man and a vanished Hollywood. Recommended for large public and academic film collections.-Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Superb bio of the high living, larger-than-life film producer, spellbindingly detailed by Harper’s Bazaar European editor Fraser-Cavassoni. The author, who in 1982 worked as an assistant on Sam Spiegel’s production of Betrayal (written by her stepfather, Harold Pinter), was so intrigued by his flamboyant personality and reticence about his past that she made it her business to track down his origins. Born in western Galicia (now southeastern Poland) in 1901, Spiegel preferred to gloss over his humble Jewish roots; when asked his birthplace, he’d usually name Vienna. (In fact, he had attended the University of Vienna.) He emigrated to Palestine, married, and seven years later abandoned wife and daughter to sail for San Francisco. He returned to Berlin and Vienna to cut his producing teeth on several films and in 1939 came back to the US, hitting his stride a few years later as producer of Tales of Manhattan in 1942 and Orson Welles’s The Stranger in 1946. At one point, Spiegel had so many creditors that he changed his name to S.P. Eagle. Still, though, often penniless, he gave fantastic parties—his New Year’s Eve bashes were legendary—attended by all the big stars and directors. He produced many of the classic films of the 1950s and ’60s: The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. He also infuriated three wives with his penchant for young girls, top fashion models, young actresses, and high-class prostitutes; he was known to interrupt business meetings to arrange his sex life. Meanwhile, his relentless methods and empty promises as a producer prompted Hollywood to invent the words "Spiegelese" and "to Spiegel." A sublime cast ofcharacters—John Huston, David Lean, Marlon Brando, Peter O’Toole, Faye Dunaway, Bogey and Bacall, Warren Beatty, Mike Nichols, Elia Kazan—adds to the fun. It even seems right that Spiegel died on New Year’s Eve in 1985. Sheer heaven for movie buffs.

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Little, Brown Book Group
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5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.50(d)

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Sam Spiegel

The Incredible Life and Times of Hollywood's Most Iconoclastic Producer, the Miracle Worker Who Went from Penniless Refugee to Showbiz Legend, and Made Possible The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia



The Academy Awards, March 26, 1958. There was a hush in the auditorium as Gary Cooper struggled with the envelope. Cooper paused, broke into one of his shy, charismatic smiles and announced: "Sam Spiegel for The Bridge on the River Kwai." A loud round of applause broke out in the RKO Pantages Theatre, while certain heads turned toward the film producer.

Once again, three years after gaining his first Oscar as the producer of On the Waterfront, Spiegel had won for best picture. A further five years on, he would repeat his Academy Award experience with Lawrence of Arabia. All three triumphs were financed by Columbia, and led to Spiegel becoming the studio's uncrowned prince. "Uncrowned because it would have been too expensive if he was crowned," said the producer Charles Schneer.

Spiegel had a face that stood out in a crowd. "In profile, he looked like a Roman emperor," said director Fred Zinnemann. His black hair was oiled and swept back behind large ears, showing a high forehead and a forceful, prominent nose. The eyebrows, more arched to the right than the left, indicated a mixture of wisdom and humor, while a sparse line of eyelashes, curled and pushed back to his heavy lids, betrayed a certain old-world vanity and charm. Yet his dark brown eyes, which usually twinkled, were still that night.

He knew better than to make an awkward rush for the stage. Like a portly eagle preparing for flight, Spiegel murmured something to his beautiful, much younger wife, and rose sedately. Immaculately dressed, with a white handkerchief in his tuxedo pocket, Spiegel's physique was hardly breathtaking; the fifty-seven-year-old stood at five foot nine, weighed over two hundred pounds, and was rotund with short, skinny legs, yet he was noted for his "nutty elegance."

As he walked to the stage, while the orchestra played the picture's "Colonel Bogey" theme music, a friend in the crowd caught him unaware, and he smiled. He nervously licked his top lip. Spiegel was tense, but the moment Cooper presented him with the gilded statue, his face creased into its familiar dimples and smile. His joy - like a schoolboy being awarded the most important sports day prize - was overwhelming.

"The soundstages of Hollywood have been extended in recent years to the farthest corners of the world," Spiegel began. "No land is inviolate to the glare of our camera. Yet it is fitting and proper that people the world over are waiting for a decision which only you in this community are able to render..."

As his resonant voice continued, he pronounced every syllable, giving authority and pace to his words. The tradition in those days was that of one-line speeches during the awards ceremony, but, as always, Spiegel - a rogue elephant - set his own tone. Also, typically, the Eastern European producer was awash in intrigue, which that night concerned the authorship of his film's screenplay.

Pierre Boulle, who had written The Bridge over the River Kwai, the novel on which the picture had been based, was credited, and earlier in the ceremony, when the film won for best screenplay, Kim Novak collected Boulle's award. Breathy and mermaidlike in a tight sequined dress, the actress said that her boss, the late Harry Cohn, was "very proud" of the film.

In fact, the legendary studio head had not been. The picture was to put Columbia back in the black, but when first hearing of the project, Cohn had picked up the telephone and shouted, "How can you idiots in the New York office give a crook like Sam Spiegel two million dollars and let him go to some place like Ceylon?"

Nevertheless, the burning question in many people's minds that night was, "How the hell could a Frenchman write this script?" A month before the Oscars, gossip columnists such as Hedda Hopper had bandied about the names of two blacklisted writers - Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Was it just a coincidence that the theme music from High Noon was played at Cooper's entrance? High Noon happened to be the film that had earned the actor's last Oscar, but it was also Foreman's last credited film for Hollywood before becoming a victim of the McCarthy era. Or was it a nod from producer Jerry Wald, responsible for that evening's entertainment, to show that he was in the know about the film's dubious credit?

Backstage, speculation soared. When asked about the authorship of the screenplay, David Lean, who had directed the film, said: "That's the $64,000 question." He admitted that an American writer had worked on the screenplay, but he declined to mention his name "because none of his material was used." However, Spiegel was more of a hard-nosed businessman about the affair and continued to lie through his teeth, insisting to all the newspapers that "neither Michael Wilson nor anyone else worked on our version." Boulle had been credited, he said, "because it was taken directly from his contribution - the book."

His behavior may seem shocking, and has become one of the many black marks held against Spiegel by many, but he had his reasons for being careful. Columbia Studios, which had backed The Bridge on the River Kwai financially, refused to have anything to do with a blacklisted writer. They were nervous about the picture from the outset, thinking it was too "male-orientated" to do business. There had even been talk about whether or not it was to have an Oscar campaign. Clearly, any mention of Foreman or Wilson would have threatened the film's release.

Spiegel was well tuned to the ways of Hollywood. He personally loathed the town, dismissing it as "a factory in the sun," but he had spent twelve years living there, and he knew the studio system. It had taken time for Spiegel to prove himself professionally. He was a late, late bloomer, at least twenty years behind his fellow émigrés, who included Anatole Litvak, Otto Preminger, and Billy Wilder. According to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, he was the "perfect example of the producer who walked in without a penny and made himself into something...and made increasingly better films as he became wealthier."

Material success had come to Spiegel in his mid-fifties, by which time he had a reputation for being a hardened wheeler-dealer. In his opinion, there were no rules for his profession. "It's really a negative that makes you a success," he remarked. His maverick attitude allowed him to manage his one-time partner John Huston, as well as work with equally demanding but gifted directors such as Julien Duvivier, Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan, David Lean, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Arthur Penn. Not all their films were successes, but the best were to make up the pride of the Spiegel legacy: The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Lawrence of Arabia.

There was also Spiegel's Academy Award track record - he remains the only sole producer to win the best picture Oscar three times and, incredibly, he did it within a space of eight years. (It took the producer Saul Zaentz three decades to win his three best picture Academy Awards and he shared his first.) Spiegel is also the first to have had two films - On the Waterfront and Lawrence of Arabia - in the top ten of the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best films. In today's motion picture industry, it's impossible to think of Spiegel's equivalent. As Kevin Brownlow, the distinguished film historian, director, and editor, points out, "Nowadays, several producers are credited for the job that Spiegel did on his own. If you look at posters, you will often see six or seven."

Spiegel was driven. "You must feel that unless you make this picture you won't be able to sleep," he advised. There was also the producer's refusal to compromise. "Once you make...the slightest concession to demands by those lacking your devotion, you lose the purity of what you intended." Spiegel described each film as a love affair. "And if a love affair is going to work, there must be no consideration for the past or the future." It explained why emotions around his productions were so volatile. The feelings of directors and writers toward their producer swung like a pendulum from admiration to fury.

Like the best Dickensian characters, Spiegel was extreme. Although he could be accused of sharklike behavior and an appalling ruthlessness, he was also recognized for his exquisite manners and his eine kleine aufmerksamkeit, a German expression meaning the little gesture or courtesy. Honoring a financial agreement remained a problem, to such a point that Billy Wilder used to say that Spiegel was "a modern day Robin Hood, who steals from the rich and steals from the poor." Yet, there was always a certain panache to him, like being in the presence of a nobleman and a gangster.

"Why did I love Sam so much?" asked director Mike Nichols, who attempted to work with him on two pictures. "I suppose in the end it was his intelligence plus this gift of making you happy that he should have the advantage."

There was also the producer's courage. "Nothing fazed him," said Kazan. "When he went to Africa with John Huston, he was this fat Jewish fella who didn't have a gun....He had a lot of guts."

It was Spiegel's choice of subject matter that made an impression on Mankiewicz - "conflicts between human beings, not between...supernatural forces, and Sam felt that very keenly." The director questioned whether the producer was a perfectionist, but recognized that he "was insistent on getting the best possible work out of people."

Occasionally, Spiegel's demonlike pursuit for quality pushed his employees over the edge, like Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of On the Waterfront, who when asked why he was shaving at five in the morning, replied, "to kill Sam Spiegel."

There was also the stubbornness. David Geffen recalled the producer as having "his feet in concrete" when he wanted something. As a result, his methods could be staggeringly manipulative. During the making of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean had had to contend with Spiegel's fake heart attacks. Afterward, there was even a new expression in the film community: to Spiegel - meaning to soothe, cajole, or con another; a talking-out-of, a sleight-of-mouth operation. Both Barry Diller and Mike Nichols recalled his "Jewish mother tactics," while it was Spiegel's quick wit that struck Harold Pinter. The producer was complaining about the American audience not being able to understand a certain line in Betrayal, the film of Pinter's play. "Fuck the Middle West!" cried the exasperated playwright. "Do you want to fuck the whole of the Middle West?" Spiegel shot back.

Sometimes, the tales concerning the producer were exaggerated, or just plain apocryphal, while he rarely corrected what he heard, because, as the last of the great showmen, he recognized the power of myth.

By the end of his life, Spiegel's pictures had collected thirty-five Oscars, he had personally made millions and acquired a priceless art collection, as well as having entertained some of the most glamorous people of the last century, including Gianni and Marella Agnelli, King Farouk, Greta Garbo, Sir James Goldsmith, Jackie Onassis, and Babe Paley. Yet who really knew Sam Spiegel and why did Arthur Miller call him "The Great Gatsby"?

The producer's personal life was deeply divided. The compartmentalizing was "obsessive." "His left-hand friends never knew what his right-hand friends were doing, or even who they were," said Kathleen Parrish, the wife of director Robert Parrish. "You never knew everything about Sam ever. You just knew little fragments that he wanted you to know."

Lord Weidenfeld, who published the autobiographies of many celebrities, once approached the producer about writing his memoirs, but Spiegel dismissed the idea as "maledictory." He refused to be a prisoner of his past. Let others dwell on their memories; the producer preferred to look forward, and hopefully upward. "He always struck me as a man with no native tongue who came from a cloudy place in the Balkans," said the writer James Goldman. Indeed, when asked about his birthplace by Annette Hohenlohe, an Austrian aristocrat, Spiegel replied, "I can't remember."

Of course, the film producer had a few stories that harked back to a different era, the set pieces he liked to bring out: his escape on the last train from Berlin when Hitler came to power, his escape from Vienna with Otto Preminger. The first was true, while the second was a bit exaggerated, though both stories gave credence to Spiegel's much repeated remark, "But for the grace of God, I would have been a lamp shade."

I heard all the differing versions of the escape stories, but I was personally more intrigued by the tales behind S. P. Eagle - Spiegel's professional nom de plume during the 1940s and 1950s. Whenever I tried to pinpoint him on the name change, the already hard-of-hearing eighty-year-old became very deaf indeed. Sam, or "Mr. Spieeegel," which was how Garbo pronounced his name, was my first employer. As a result, I have always felt a little blessed, since I thought he was fantastic - for all his faults.

I worked as a company assistant on Betrayal, his last film. It was at the beginning of the 1980s and he had lost his clout as a film producer, yet the mystery, the magic, and the mischief still remained. (But when had they ever left?) Sam, whose presence filled a room as soon as he entered it. Sam, with his rich mittel-European accent, curly eyelashes, and padded step, was the embodiment of his Dream Merchant lifestyle - the Mason blue Phantom Six Rolls-Royce with his chauffeur, Ken, at the wheel; his boat, Malahne, with her teak floors and Panama flag; Mas d'Horizon, his villa in the South of France, with the lingering al fresco lunches; the Park Avenue penthouse apartment; his table at the Connaught...There was also Sam in his Dover Street office, with Francis Bacon's painting - Pope no. 3 - screaming behind his broad shoulders. Politically correct? He would have been appalled by the expression. "Sam had a gift for living - good food and very young girls," said the agent Robert Lantz. "But he was never embarrassing. He had great style and dignity."

Over lunch, Sam would tell me stories - though never about himself - tales such as the one when a Dutch aristocrat sought his advice about her elfinlike daughter Audrey. Naturally, it was Miss Hepburn. "She was wearing a silly black costume with little white feathers on her behind, but it was obvious that she was going to have a career. And I told her mother to let her continue." During such lunches, he was always respectful and never laid a hand on me.

Apparently, this was not the way he treated everyone, but my experience of being with Sam felt like sinking into the softest alpaca blanket - pleasure and protection. Armies of Young Turks could have tried the fortress's walls and all he had to do was turn his majestic head in their direction, cock an eyebrow, and the invaders would wither away.


Excerpted from Sam Spiegel by Fraser-Cavassoni , Natasha Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, currently the European Editor for Harper's Bazaar, and formerly a staff member and journalist at Women's Wear Daily and W magazine, began her career as the company assistant on Spiegel's production of Betrayal in 1982. She lives in Paris with her husband and two daughters.

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