Friday, October 24, 2014

Part Two: Famous People

I note now, with mild surprise, that in Part One all my famous people were part-time or full-time poets. Here now are others of a different sort. Take. for example, that fine actor and genuine character, Werner Klemperer. We shared many interests, but none more divertingly than miniature golf, which he played with maniacal assiduity, leaving Philip Bosco, me, and our respective wives far behind in dedication. He was full of anecdotes, some of them about his famous father, the conductor Otto Klemperer, whose toughness he inherited. He had many good sides to him, among others calling my attention to that lovely and wonderful singer, Angelika Kirchschlager, whom I met all too briefly backstage, but whose recitals and records have been a special joy. Colonel Klink, as most people (inadequately) knew him, was very fond of pretty women, which cannot be said of all actors. I spoke at his memorial service, and it was the only time I teared up in public.

I have known several stage and screen actors and directors, and one of my great thrills was when, as I was entering a theater and he was coming out of it, Max von Sydow warmly greeted me by my name, even though we had never met before. But, of course, my most important Swede was Ingmar Bergman, whom I continue to consider the greatest filmmaker ever. He agreed, for my book about him, to a long interview, which is in the book, “Ingmar Bergman Directs,” and is fairly often quoted. We interrupted our talk for lunch at the Swedish Film Industry commissary, where the food was mediocre, but conversation terrific. During our afternoon session, Bergman ate some of his beloved jam of lingonberries (aka mountain cranberries), which I too came to relish and can heartily recommend to all. It was wonderful that when I told him that there was no room for me at the Strand Hotel, he made a brief phone call and, presto, there was room.

The only other time I met Bergman was when he was filming “Fanny and Alexander,” and scads of journalists wanted to interview him, yet he refused all but me. In a studio room, he, Erland Josephson and I had a marvelous time together, and he even took me to see a spectacular set for the movie. Would to heaven that I had kept some notes. On other occasions I had the pleasure of meeting some of his fabled leading ladies. I took Bibi Andersson to see a Bergman stage production of Strindberg’s “Dream Play,” and had a fine time with her afterwards at the Opera Bar. I sat with Ingrid Thulin on a long bus ride. Gunnel Lindblom tried to get me in her clutches, but by that time she was over the hill, and I resisted.

I had a nice lunch in New York with Liv Ullman, but with her press agent as chaperone it was less than intimate. I did have the impertinence, however, to ask her how she could have gotten involved with such a repulsive and reprehensible fellow as Henry Kissinger, which she smilingly sloughed off. Leaving that hotel dining room, I came up at another table against the splendid actor Peter Finch, and said foolishly that I probably should rather have interviewed him, which he heartily corroborated.

Many years later, after a film she directed, I again joined Liv, and I had the pleasure of a very warm session with her and her leading actress, the magnificent Lena Andre, for a tribute to whom I was much later briefly filmed, even though I refused to pretend kneeling before her, she not being there  anyway. I also had the fun of squiring around Harriet Andersson at the Telluride Festival, and introducing her to the audience. What a gracious and smart lady she proved.

I had a good time with other famous Swedes. There were jolly hours with Vilgot Sjoman, for whose “I Am Curious” films I testified at two Ohio trials. Very charming too was Bo Widerberg, the “Elvira Madison” director, on whose Moviola I had my then girlfriend write, in perfect Swedish, “Edited by Patricia Marx.” But I became particularly fond of stage and film director Johan Bergenstrahle, a superb film of whose I tried vainly to get shown in America. I met Johan at a Wisconsin University lakeside Swedish Film Fortnight, at which I spoke about Bergman. Johan was delightful, as was his eccentric wife (I think that’s what she was.) I met him again in Stockholm, much later, on a pleasant bar night, when he sadly confided in me that his beautiful mistress had aged enough for her posterior to become flabby. What was he to do about it? Damned if I can recall how I advised him, but later, in New York, I got a letter from him saying (in his wonderful, large handwriting) that I had been right and most helpful “after all.”

Also by that Wisconsin lake, I met the novelist Per Olov Enquist, who was the life of the party there. How different he was, years later, when his play, “The Night of the Tribades,” about Strindberg’s unhappy love life, was briefly on Broadway, and I took him to lunch. His moroseness was probably caused by the play doing poorly. But why in hell did he have to use the puzzling synonym “tribades,” when the obvious term, “lesbians,” could have brought in crowds? I have been most friendly with that very great director, Jan Troell, whose two fabulous films about Swedish émigrés in America were unfortunately severely cut by Warner Brothers--and his perhaps greatest film, “Here Is Your Life,” not shown at all. We had a good time at the Cannes Film Festival, where he snapped pictures of me and my then girlfriend, which he promised to send me and never did. I met him again in New York, when I took him to a Thai dinner, a cuisine unknown to him but that he hugely enjoyed. Again he promised to send me those pictures, as well as new ones he took, but never so much as a letter from him, which, I am told, is typical.

My best Swedish friend, however, was Per Wastberg, distinguished novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, with whom and the first of his four wives, we had wonderful times at Harvard and all around Cambridge. Also a leading journalist and for a while head of the Nobel Literature Prize committee (now merely a member), he was a young man exuding erudition, intelligence and accomplishment, and I saw him again in Sweden, where at the time he owned an ancient but wonderful farmhouse. It was there that I received a phone call from America, telling me that Claus von Bulow, who had won away from me the affection of Alexandra Isles, was found guilty of attempted uxoricide. That was in sophisticated Newport; the clever lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, and the blue-collar jury in unsophisticated Providence (where, as Alexandra told me, the jurors didn’t know the meaning of the word “mistress”) got the judgment reversed. More recently, Per and I have corresponded again, and I can affirm that the Stationery of the Swedish Academy is impressive.

At a Pen Club conference, I accosted the celebrated Pablo Neruda, and got him to sign a volume of his poetry. He wrote something absolutely charming in it, but that book, alas, has strayed from my possession. This was the conference at which Toni Morrison complimented me on my dashing overcoat, for which, if nothing else, she deserved the Nobel Prize. At Seattle, where I was teaching, I got the visiting South African, Roy Campbell, to write something nice in a book of his. What a grand fellow he was, a riot with tales about the army, which to find him some employment, had him go clocking, in pursuit by army vehicle, the speed of various animals, the ostrich being most struthiously troublesome and hilarious. A poet and prose writer this who should be better known.

I did better with German-language writers about whom I wrote , in Part One, and with sundry cineasts and actors. I have written elsewhere about my adventures at the Tehran Film Festival, where I was a delegate along with Otto Preminger and Paul Mazursky, the actresses Sally Kellerman and Brenda Vaccaro, and a couple of others. Because the likable Farhad Diba was my student at M.I.T., his cousin the Empress (or Shah’s wife) provided me with a limousine in which I could give rides to my less favored colleagues.

Back in New York, some of us visited the Iranian Embassy to the U.N. where the ambassador, a former film critic in France, gave parties well attended because the caviar came in an enormous bowl and one could gorge oneself on it. I got to talk to a personable young man who told me he had one good teacher at M.I.T., and I said I had one good student. It turned out he had been that student, and I that teacher. I am sorry we lost touch when he and his wife moved to London. The Ambassador and I had violent disagreements about movies, but at least he, unlike his brother the Iranian prime minister, did not get shot when the Shah was ousted.

I was for a while very friendly with Maximilian Schell, a good actor and not bad film director. I had given a movie of his an enthusiastic review, and we became pals. But as soon as I reviewed his next movie unfavorably, the friendship was off. Not so with the marvelous Australian director, Bruce Beresford, a film of his I was one of two perhaps only people impressed by at the Berlin Film Festival, which started a wonderful friendship, wherein I am allowed to be perfectly sour about some of his lesser movies. ”Black Robe,” “Tender Mercies” and “Breaker Morant,” however, are masterpieces, and his Introduction to the book l“John Simon on Film” is formidable, too.

I got to know some French filmmakers well, especially the extremely charming Jean-Jacques Annaud, who told me one of the funniest true stories I ever heard about a  decrepit, wheezing lion who all night stalked a tent in which he (Annaud, not the lion) and his girlfriend were trying to sleep.  I was even better friends with Bertrand Tavernier, one of our finest directors, whose first film, “The Clockmaker,” I had given a rave review to in New York magazine. This started a long and beautiful friendship, which covered some of his splendid films, and involved jolly visits in Paris, New York and Telluride, but has somehow lapsed latterly--possibly, I am sorry to say, because I no longer write about movies.

Another enthusiastic review, this for the irresistible Lina Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties,” had New York magazine send me to Rome and a long, loving reportage about Lina, which got her the sobriquet Saint Lina of New York from Italian journalists who were not overfond of her. She, her delightful husband, the set and costume designer Enrico Job, and her amazing chief actor, Giancarlo Giannini, became fast friends of mine and I enjoyed nothing more than the frequent visits to her in Rome for which she lavishly provided. This after many years, during which she always wanted my opinions about her work, has come to an end, and not because, strong woman she is, she resented some of my candid criticisms that could have her get up early next morning and reedit one of her films. Very amusing was the time when Giancarlo, during one of his visits to New York, insisted on our walking about the city arm in arm, natural in Italy but, at least at that time, not so in America.

Through Lina, I met other Italian celebrities. At a dinner chez Marcello Mastroianni, lovely man, we were shown the discolored places on his wall where had hung pictures he had to sell to pay taxes (one by the splendid Renzo Vespignani), and I met another guest, the great Vittorio Gassman, who later in New York left a message on my answering machine to the effect that “We All Loved Each Other So Much,” which other movie reviewers adored, was indeed, as I wrote, piddling. The only other time my answering machine was so honored was when Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston and I had been the only attendees at a Paramount screening of which we all made deservedly vitriolic fun. Jack’s message was that he indeed thought the movie (in which neither he nor Anjelica acted) rubbish, but that I, please, please, was not to let his opinion become known.

Of the Italian cinema, I also met the gifted director Franco Rosi, who, in a café on the Via Veneto, rebuked me for not buying my then girlfriend flowers from an itinerant vendor, which he, however, did buy for her. There were in those days some of the most gorgeous Italian actresses after whom I duly lusted, but the only ones I got to meet were Mariangela Melato and Monica Vitti, after whom I didn’t. Many years later, at the Spoleto Festival, I caught glimpses of Sophia Loren, but never met her either. I did get to meet there the somewhat less alluring Gian Carlo Menotti, who smilingly remarked that I was a tough critic (but, luckily, in print, not of him).

I have, however, had a lifelong friendship with the fine composer and writer Ned Rorem, which started under funny circumstances. We were both waiting for a plane to Columbia, South Carolina, and a birthday celebration for James Dickey, when I asked him, God knows why in French, where the men’s room was (no reflection on his sexual predilections, only that he had been waiting longer). He directed me, but always later on claimed that I had used the wrong French word for toilet, whereas I claimed to have used the right one. This became quite a flash point for further debates. We have shared a strong taste for modern French music, and have written admiringly about each other, with him contributing an elegant Introduction to “John Simon on Music.” I think what especially endeared me to him was, when we were collaborating on his piece for the leading homosexual publication in defense of me against wrongful accusations of homophobia, my jacket was hanging on a chair and his bichon frise peed on it, which I took without the slightest offense.

I see now that this piece has gotten very long, and that a third installment is in order. Kindly bear with me.


  1. Delightful, insightful anecdotes. Perhaps Mr. Simon should undertake that autobiography, after all.

    (By the way: Liv Ullmann, not Ullman.)

  2. Elvira MADIGAN, not Madison.

  3. Give us some stuff on fellow critics: Macdonald, Kael, Sarris, Reed, Farber, Gilliatt, Sontag, Crowther, V. Young, Charles Thomas Samuels, Kauffmann, etc.

  4. Dreyer was greater than Bergman. That Simon couldn't see this shows he's of a literary than cinematic sensibility.

  5. A pleasure to read. Thank you, sir.

  6. Although Mr. Simon is not a fan of baroque opera, this piece on the White House castrato program, dating back to 1798, is a fascinating read:,37396/

    1. Who's NOT a fan of baroque opera? I. . .like it a lot.