Saturday, March 15, 2008

Elmer Rice's Autobiography

Elmer Rice, “Minority Report”

Intelligent, interesting, well-written book by a deep-dyed liberal—playwright of Adding Machine, Street Scene, Counselor-at-Law (the last was made into a film, which I’m showing to our movie club).
Book published in 1963 when he was 71; he died a few years later.

His name was really Elmer Leopold Reizenstein, and he was a total unbeliever. He changed his name simply because Rice was easier to spell—not because of any anti-Semitism.

His book is a bit too defensive, and he’s too full of himself. But it’s an enjoyable read. Full of comments on celebrities. It needed an index!


He heard historian Chas A Beard at Columbia: “The seat of the American government was first established at the corner of Broad and Wall streets; it has remained there ever since.”

He listened to Thorstein Veblen at the New School: He could hardly hear him. “From his giant frame there emerged a barely audible mumble.”

He became wealthy early in life, thanks to his plays. “I have never been in debt, have never borrowed a penny, have never bought anything on credit.”

“Whenever my sons try to put me in my place, I remind them that I saw Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, George Sisler, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Ed Walsh, Napoleon Lajoie, Grover Cleveland Alexander and many other immortals.”

As a child “…I did believe that if you touched a Negro the black came off on you…”

“There is sort of a pecking order among Jews, as among other peoples. In general German Jews look down upon their Russian and Polish coreligionists.” He quotes Abraham Cahan: “I often convict myself of currying favor with the German Jews. But then German Jews curry favor with Portuguese-American Jews, just as we all curry favor with Gentiles and as American gentiles curry favor with the aristocracy of Europe.”

He graduated from law school. “In the abstract, I considered the law as a majestic instrument for the impartial administration of justice, the protection of the wronged, the reparation of injuries. Yet in practice I saw it used for the avoidance of debt by shady bankruptcy proceedings, the collection of damages by trickery and coercion, the breach of contractual obligations by dubious technicalities, the manipulation of divorces by cynical collusion.
…. As a single example, on one exciting occasion a notorious bucket-shop operator evaded the police by hiding in our office. I had to stay late to attend the switchboard and divert inquiring calls. It was like taking part in a melodrama. It disturbed me greatly; nor was I appeased by the eventual surrender of the fugitive.”

“…it had become apparent to me that the law could be successfully practiced without much legal knowledge. Trial work consisted largely in influencing juries… The prospect of a lifetime of such activities was dismal.”

Isadora Duncan: “She was a heavy woman who at first glance seemed almost clumsy, but when shed began to dance one was aware of suddenly being in the presence of a great spirit and great artist. Dancing to the ‘Marseillaise,’ she stripped off her white robe…one breast completely exposed…[which] evoked a riotous demonstration.”

“Nijinsky must be mentioned separately, for I have never seen his equal. It is hard to believe that the human body could execute such convulsions and inform them with such grace and fervor.”

At a pacifist meeting in Washington on the eve of WWI, “…a brawny, shirt-sleeved young man on the platform was pounding his chest and shouting, ‘Here’s one who won’t fight!’” John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World.

In the 1940s, during a panel discussion, he said that the Kerensky government fell because the soldiers were sick of the war. “Kerensky, who was a member of the panel, crossed the stage, shook his fist under my nose, accused me of being a Communist.”

He broke up with his first wife: They were “basically unsuited to each other.” “…other inharmonies are too intimate to be referred to.”

He once asked TS Eliot how often he had a really good press. “Twice, I should say.” Then added, “But my standard of a good press is rather high.”

Dorothy Parker, with whom he worked on a play: “I discovered that in the granite of her misanthropy there was a vein of softish sentimentality.”

James Joyce was “exasperatingly taciturn”; Dorothy Parker remarked, “I guess he’s afraid he might drop a pearl.”

One evening he watched as Sinclair Lewis consumed an entire bottle of brandy.

Switzerland: “For me it is the least interesting of all European countries…. man does not live by soap and water alone.”

After having tea and Mr and Mrs Thomas Mann, the wife was suddenly unfriendly as Rice was leaving: He had a cold, and had been using his handkerchief. Later, he discovered that the handkerchief was a tea napkin. Perhaps Mrs. Mann thought he had kept it as a souvenir.

In Paris in the 1930s: the Mass delegation of the Legionnaires were marching. The French cried: “Ou est la chaise electrique?” The men from Mass, interpreting it as a special tribute, “beamed and waved in grateful acknowledgement.”
The French were referring to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

They rehearsed the play Street Scene in Fort Lee, NJ. It was tough “foraging for food in the dismal precincts of Fort Lee.”

He had met a lot of celebrities. Henry George. Helen Keller. Max Beerbaum. Emma Goldman (“an unattractive but earnest and intelligent woman”). Alfred Adler: “Loud and opinionated, constantly interrupting and contradicting….”

The Vicious Circle at the Algonquin Hotel: “Actually, the conversation, like most table talk, consisted mostly of gossip, complaints about the weather, the traffic, the servant problem and taxes, and much detailed discussion about the state of everyone’s health.” He admired Heywood Broun, who always said what he believed; and like almost everyone else, “Woolcott I never really liked.” He heard George S Kaufman say many devastatingly witty things, “but never a kind one.”

He disliked Claudette Colbert. Late to rehearsals, criticizing fellow actors, displays of temperament.

Thomas Wolf: “He always struck me as gauche, self-conscious and morbidly self-absorbed.” He was never to get through any of his books, which he called verbose and turgid.

Paul Robeson was not only black, but red.

On Dec 26 , 1927, there were 11 Broadway openings. Lots more theaters then!

Re Counselor at Law, he remembered an actor named Muni Weisenfreund – Paul Muni –and offered him the part. “Muni was brilliant.”

But opening night, he forgot his lines. Why? “I suddenly remembered that Robert Garland was out there; and all I could think of was that he gave me a bad review once.” Otto Kreuger played the lead in Chicago, tho Rice said he was not up to Muni.

Muni refused to play in the movie; he may have feared being typed as a Jewish actor. Barrymore was engaged; Rice had doubts about his rightness for the part, and felt he was definitely on the decline. (Alcoholism.)

“The picture was a great popular success. Barrymore was quite wrong for the part and had many shaky moments, but his magnetic quality mitigated his deficiencies.”

Theodore Dreiser also lived at the Hotel Ansonia. He and Rice were asked to sign a protest against Nazi outrages. Dreiser phoned Rice—should he sign? “Well, I don’t know. I’m against Hitler, but I’m all for what he’s doing to the Catholic Church.” Rice persuaded him to sign.

Counselor was to be played on TV. Who should play the lead? Rice suggested Muni or Gregory Peck. Neither was available. Rice then suggested Lee J Cobb, Ed G Robinson, Sam Wanamaker, Jose Ferrer, John Garfield. None were acceptable to the ad agency; all had been blacklisted! (This was at the height of the Communist scare.)

Everyone finally agreed on Garfield. Rice asked Garfield if he was a Communist; he said no. But the ad agency turned him down because he was a “controversial figure”—and his wife “was suspected of dubious affiliations.” Book doesn’t say whether the play was filmed or not—probably not.

I took the book out of the Woodstock NY library; it had last been checked out in 1976

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