Many years ago my old friend Irving (“Swifty”) Lazar liked to begin his day by calling New York book editors from his poolside breakfast table in Beverly Hills and trolling through a list of movie stars who might, if offered enough money up front, consent to write a memoir, or at least let some poor schlub of a ghostwriter write it for them. Towards the end of the list, if he hadn’t got any nibbles for Gene Kelly or Glenn Ford, he would always say, in desperation, “Alright, alright, already, you’re not in a buying mood, I can tell that—but how about Tony Curtis, kiddo?”
Everybody always said “no” to Tony Curtis—he was a movie star, sure; he had appeared in eighty-eight movies, okay; he had slept with practically every woman in Hollywood, true (except Joan Collins, he makes it clear somewhat gracelessly in his book; Grace Kelly, with whom he only got a chance to neck; and Marlene Dietrich, because he won’t sleep with women old enough to be his mother). But somehow nobody took Curtis seriously—he had slipped from boyish charm into bloated middle age, apparently without any transition, and his wonderful work in a few great motion pictures like Sweet Smell of Success and Some Like It Hot, was heavily outweighed by awful pictures in which he appeared to be playing a caricature of himself or somebody else. He was therefore more famous than anything else for pronouncing the line “Yonder lies the castle of my fodda,” in a strong New York accent, while co-starring in a desert costume clonker called Son of Ali Baba with Piper Laurie. (The studio offered him $30,000 to marry Piper Laurie, he says, but he turned the offer down, and married Janet Leigh instead).
Lazar would always respond to a “no” by telling the story of how the young Bernie Schwartz went to Hollywood for a screen test, and on a visit back to New York to promote a movie saw his old pal and fellow New York stage actor Walter Matthau standing on Broadway in the rain, rolled down the window of the studio limo, and shouted out, “Walter, it’s me, Bernie! I went to Hollywood, they changed my name to Tony Curtis, I made a couple of movies, I fucked Yvonne de Carlo!”
Since this was the only tempting morsel Lazar had to offer, it is a relief to note that this story does indeed appear in Tony Curtis’s memoir, American Prince. But sad to relate, Curtis doesn’t tell it with anything liked the verve that Lazar did—in fact there is a curious flatness to the whole book, as if the “ghost,” Peter Golenbock, lost interest early on in the proceedings, or perhaps Curtis did. It is, in fact, exactly the book that publishers feared they would get when they said “no” to Lazar all those years ago—essentially a long list of the pictures Tony Curtis made and the women he slept with, the only news in it being the fact that the line he is famous for is misquoted. It read, Curtis points out irritably, “Yonder in the valley of the sun is my father’s castle,” apparently unaware that the whole point of the story is his pronunciation of the word “father,” not the exact line.
Tony Curtis was dressed in a black velvet suit of rompers, like the costume worn by the Little Lord Fauntleroy, only in size XL, with a long black scarf draped around his neck, like Dracula.
In fact one problem of the book is that Tony Curtis takes himself more seriously than the reader is likely to, and lacks a gift for irony, or even, strange for an actor and an enthusiastic painter, an eye for detail. Even his affair with the young Marilyn Monroe seems curiously listless and perfunctory, and his account of the making of Some Like it Hot is chiefly remarkable only for his not altogether convincing attempt to get around the fact that he compared kissing Marilyn Monroe to kissing Hitler—a remark, which, when it got back to Marilyn, caused her enormous distress.
The difficulty is not that this book is short on “kiss and tell”—on the contrary, it’s full of it—but that most of what Curtis has to tell is either ungracious or apparently written on automatic pilot.
I am not surprised by this, since at one point, Lazar persuaded me to have lunch with Tony Curtis, who was then in New York briefly. “A waste of time and money,” my boss Dick Snyder told me, but always the optimist, I went ahead. I waited for a long time in the Four Seasons Grill Room for Curtis to appear, but when he did the sight of him brought a moment of silence to the room, as he shuffled unsteadily up the stairs. He was dressed in a black velvet suit of rompers, like the costume worn by the Little Lord Fauntleroy, only in size XL, with a long black scarf draped around his neck, like Dracula. His feet were shod in the smallest pair of patent leather slippers I had ever seen—his feet were apparently even smaller than Lazar’s, which was saying something. It wasn’t the fact that he was a star that caused people all over the Grill Room to stare and hold their breath—these were people used to stars—it was the sheer strangeness of his appearance, and the fact that the features somehow stuck in the dough of his face were faintly familiar, so that people said, “Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that------?” while others said, “I thought he was dead.”
• Tony Curtis Dead at 85He was not, as it turned out, but he seemed heavily sedated, as if prepared for major surgery, and I was not able to get out of him any news or tidbit which might have convinced Dick Snyder, except the Yvonne De Carlo story, which Lazar had already told me. When I got back to the office, late, because Curtis seemed to have difficulty reading the menu so it took forever to order, Snyder stuck his head in my office and asked how it had gone. I shook my head. “I told you so,” he said. “There’s nothing there. Call Swifty and tell him to forget about it.”
Well, as it turns out there is something there, lots of names, lots of pals from the old Ratpack days, lots women, lots of marriages, lots of children, a frank account of Curtis’s cocaine addiction (at one point he tried to sail through H. M. Customs on landing at Heathrow with a .38 revolver and a bag of marijuana in his luggage). But the spirit, the anger, the determination to tell his side of the story that marked, say, Kirk Douglas’s memoir, are all lacking. The book ought to be fun, the stories of high jinks on and off the set are there, but instead of being high-spirited and outrageous they are somehow dull and boring; there is more than enough shtupping, but Curtis (or perhaps his ghost Golenblock) isn’t able to make it seem sexy and exciting and fun, indeed it seems thrown in as if somebody had said, “It needs more shtupping, if it’s going to sell.” But that’s not what it needed, really. It needed a certain good humored grace, and an earthy appreciation for a good life well lived (and to hell with what other people say or think), and the sense that in old age the author at last knows who he or she really is...When you think about it, just the qualities that Joan Collins showed in her memoir, and which led Tony Curtis to call her “a cunt” on the set of The Persuaders. (He didn’t like Shelley Winters, either, but it has to be said that her memoirs were a lot gutsier and funnier than his.)
That’s really the problem with the book. The one thing a movie star memoir has to be is fun—it doesn’t have to be true (few of them are that), or fair to ex-wives or husbands or old lovers (few of them are that either), but it does need to be fun, to lift us out of the humdrum problems of our own life for a few hours, and, alas, American Prince is no fun at all.
It seems Dick Snyder was right again.