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Writer Keith Fleming Discusses His Memoir.

Writer Keith Fleming talks about his first book, a memoir, The Boy with the Thorn in His Side (William Morrow.) When Fleming was a teenager, he was living in Chicago, depressed, and was committed to a string of mental institutions. Then his mother sent him to New York to live with his young, gay uncle, the critically acclaimed novelist and biographer Edmund White. The move and his uncle’s influence transformed his life. Keith Fleming is a freelance editor and writer living in Providence, RI (THIS INTERVIEW CONTINUES INTO THE SECOND HALF OF THE SHOW).


Other segments from the episode on May 15, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 15, 2000: Interview with Keith Fleming; Interview with Rudy Behlmer.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Keith Fleming, author, on his book, "The Boy with the
Thorn in His Side," and living with his gay uncle, Ed White, as
a teen-ager in the 1970s

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Writer Ed White has chronicled gay life in America through his series of
autobiographical novels and his books of non-fiction. He's an excellent
writer and has been our guest several times. So I was interested in reading a
new well-written memoir, which is in part about him, by his nephew, Andrew

On the opening pages, Fleming explains that in 1976, when he was 16, a
troubled kid rebelling against authority and at the worst moment of his
adolescence, his Uncle Ed came to his rescue. Fleming had spent most of his
previous year in psychiatric hospitals. His parents were both divorced. His
father wanted him to remain institutionalized, but his mother got him out by
signing an emergency release order. Then she called her brother, Ed White,
and asked if Keith could come live with him for a while. Ed White agreed.
White was in his mid-30s then and at the beginning of his literary career.

Fleming's memoir is called "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side." I asked
Keith Fleming if he had any idea whether his uncle was going to be pleased by
his arrival or resentful.

Mr. KEITH FLEMING (Author, "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side"): Well, I
think that what's interesting is that there'd been a kind of rehearsal two
years earlier for this whole idea of my going off to New York and living with
him. In other words, if I went to live with him at 16, at 14, he had shocked
my mother by telling her, `How about if Keith comes and lives with me in New
York?' At that time, she had said absolutely not, and she confided to me
later that her thinking was it wouldn't be good for me to be living with a
young, gay guy who was going out all the time picking up men.

But, obviously, she changed her tune two years later, you know, namely because
she saw me rotting away in this miserable adolescent psych ward. And suddenly
her brother, my uncle, had become sort of the last resort for me, in her mind.
And in my mind, I suppose I was remembering that initial invitation he'd made
to me, and so I wasn't worried that he was going to be annoyed.

GROSS: When your mother sent you to New York to live with your uncle, how
come she didn't take you in herself?

Mr. FLEMING: That's something that I kind of leave very mysterious in the
book, and I think it has to do with she and I are a lot alike in that we can
be very temperamental and strong-willed sometimes. And it's my uncle who's so
diplomatic and whose eyes seem to show so much more calmness. I guess that's
a better way of saying it. My mother and I are both very intense people, and
we'd found ourselves arguing about my not taking out the garbage, and it would
turn into big arguments. So she must have been thinking, `Hm, maybe he'll do
better with Ed, who had already requested that Keith be sent to him two years

GROSS: When Ed White was young, when he was, I guess, still a teen-ager, he
had his own encounters with psychiatry. He went to a psychiatrist because he
was gay and thought that there was probably something terribly wrong with
that. The psychiatrist attempts to convert him to heterosexuality.

Mr. FLEMING: Right.

GROSS: Never quite took. But do you think that his unhappy encounter with
psychiatry helped him relate to your unhappy year in psychiatric hospitals?

Mr. FLEMING: Yeah. In fact, very much so. I think that, for one thing, we
each had these sensationally bad shrinks, who also had a lot in common with
each other. His shrink was someone who was completely confident that he alone
could cure my uncle. And my shrink, too, felt that all other shrinks were
softies; that only his hard-core treatment was going to cure me. And yet, for
example, my uncle's shrink was always falling asleep during the sessions, and
the same thing with my shrink 'cause he slept only two hours a night. He had
something like 200 patients scattered all over Chicagoland in different

And so the funny thing is that my uncle and I also shared this funny
vulnerability to our shrinks. We didn't realize how terrible they were then.
We felt that we were freaks who didn't quite deserve to be part of the human
race: my uncle because of his homosexuality; and me because of this terrible
acne that I had. And we were fatherless, for all purposes, my uncle and I.
We each had a divorced dad who we weren't seeing much. And so we were very
vulnerable to this psychiatric authority, and only later did we both realize,
`Oh, my God, that was a monster that was trying to treat me.'

GROSS: My guest is Keith Fleming. He's written a new memoir called "The Boy
with the Thorn in His Side," and it's his coming-of-age story that includes
the year that he lived with his uncle, the writer Ed White, in New York.

Ed White is now a celebrated novelist and biographer. Where was he in his
career when you came to live with him?

Mr. FLEMING: He was very early in it, and I think that's what makes it all
the more extraordinary that he was willing to take on a teen-age ward like me
because he was very poor. Where he was was a single novel of his had been
published, "Forgetting Elena," and it had sold only something like 300 copies,
though one of these copies had been read by Vladimir Nabokov, who happened to
be my uncle's favorite writer. And when Nabokov had been asked, `Who are the
two best American writers today?' Nabokov had replied, `John Updike and
Edmund White.'

That was wonderful, the praise from Nabokov, but my uncle was very poor in
1976 when I first came to live with him. In fact, he was earning his living
by ghostwriting a US history textbook.

GROSS: When you were a kid growing up, what did it mean to you that your
Uncle Ed was gay? How was that treated by your parents, your grandparents and
how did you see it?

Mr. FLEMING: Yeah. Well, I think that that's something that I found so
interesting to explore, as I was writing the early pages of the book, because
I think it's in writing that we sometimes think--my uncle will often say, `I
don't know what I think about something until I start writing about it.' And
I found myself remembering all of these things I hadn't been so conscious of.

I was 12 when I found out he was gay, and it was totally inadvertent. My
mother and grandmother, Ed's mother, would often tell me that, `Uncle Ed is
maybe going to get married to his friend, Marilyn(ph).' But one weekend when
I was with my uncle, at age 12, I saw that there was another woman around,
another woman who seemed quite mad about Uncle Ed. So I asked my mother,
`Which woman do you think Ed's going to get married to?' And then she sat me
down and it was a big scene and it was, `Well, honey, neither. Your Uncle Ed
is gay. Do you know what this means?'

And that word `gay' to me sounded more like--of course I knew what it meant.
I knew it meant homosexual. But I couldn't relate my Uncle Ed's being gay to
what I heard on the playground, which would be, `Oh, those two kids are
perverts, and they play around with each other.' For me, my sophisticated
uncle being gay seemed like kind of an entirely different thing, almost a kind
of a stylistic thing. And I saw his being gay as being his very hip clothes
that he would show up in, the ripped jeans and the cigarettes that he smoked
so elegantly, the way that he exhaled through his nostrils, his whole manner
of talking, this sort of wonderful musical rising and falling. And so his
being gay, in a way, was really a name for his sophisticated style.

GROSS: For a whole sensibility?

Mr. FLEMING: Right. Right.

GROSS: You were a 16-year-old straight kid when you came to live with your
Uncle Ed. Was it understood by all of his friends that you were off limits to

Mr. FLEMING: Well, you know, the funny thing is that--I'd forgotten it, but
my uncle just the other day was telling me--he said `Don't you remember when
some of my friends came by one day, and they were all camping around and
saying, you know, "Aren't you going to go fruity, too, to me?"' And I can't
remember it, but it must have happened. But I think the reason I can't
remember it is it must have been only once. And, in fact, my uncle's gay
roommate very much saw me as a straight kid, and--though he would tease me by
calling himself `Mom.' He'd say, `Hi, Keith. Mom's home.'

GROSS: What are some of the tastes or interests that you were exposed to
through living with your uncle?

Mr. FLEMING: Hm. Well, I think the first one was the music that he was
always playing on his record player. He would write at home, and he loved to
kind of be bathed in music. And I was just an ordinary Midwestern kid who,
you know, played folk music and so on and some pop music. But, suddenly, to
be in this apartment with this very lyrical music going on all the time, this
serious music, as my uncle sort of jokingly told me it was called--he loved
Handel's "Concerto Grosso." And in those old days, with the turntable, the
"Concerto Grosso" was so long that it was four records that would be stacked
one on top of another. and it would sort of go on for hours.

And I started loving this music and feeling that my own emotions were being
deepened and ennobled and improved. And, obviously, literature would be
another things I came to add, as a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut, and was told that
Vonnegut was a strictly adolescent author. But the first books my uncle gave
me were "Lolita" and "Swan's Way" and something called "Lord Chesterfield's
Letters to his Son." And it was certainly very interesting reading.

GROSS: My guest is Keith Fleming. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest Keith Fleming is the author of the memoir, "The Boy with the
Thorn in His Side."

In the year that you lived with your uncle, Ed White, in New York--this was
1976. This was like pre-AIDS. It was an era of a lot of partying and
cruising that your uncle was participating in. And did he try to hide any of
that from you and make himself seem more proper or whatever, more straight
laced, or did he kind of talk to you about the lifestyle he was living...

Mr. FLEMING: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and why he chose to live that way and what it meant to him?

Mr. FLEMING: Yeah. Well, I think he struck a wonderful balance. I think he
still was able to continue his own highly adventurous sex life, but did it
outside our apartment. And, you know, I think it could have been a little too
weird for me if I would wake up in the night to the laughter of an orgy that
he'd brought back to the apartment. So he kept everything out of the

And, instead, to me, he would always seem like a very glamorous guy. I mean,
I think young people are always admiring people who seem to be out having fun,
and that's the way he would seem. He would go out--I'd be doing my homework
at the kitchen table at 10:00 in the evening, and he would have just climbed
out of the shower, and now he had his leather jacket on and his jeans and he
was going to go down to the village and go to his bars or maybe cruise over
to--and he would tell me about this. He'd say, `Oh, last night I was cruising
down in this old warehouse on the Hudson River and, you know, met the sexiest
boy there,' or something and...

GROSS: You know, a lot of people would think, `Well, you were sent off for a
year to someone who was, you know, a classic bad influence. He's out late at
night cruising bars, having sex with different people. You know, this is not
something you expose an impressionable teen-ager to,' etc.

Mr. FLEMING: Right.

GROSS: So are there ways in which you think that what other people would have
found to be really bad influence was actually a good influence on you?

Mr. FLEMING: Well, absolutely, because he's a very civilized man, and just
this book he'd given me, "Lord Chesterfield's Letters to his Son," was--my
uncle was very much a modern Lord Chesterfield. There's a place and time for
everything. He would be--Lord Chesterfield advises people to never rise later
than 10, no matter when they went to bed. And my uncle had this whole
self-discipline. And during the day in the apartment, he was always working
quite hard, and I guess he had everything compartmentalized. So he was far
from being a bad influence. He was actually an example of a highly productive
person who manages to do it all. And, you know, the sexual shenanigans that
he'd get into every night would only start long after the workday had

GROSS: You had a terrible case of acne when you showed up at your uncle's
house, and he immediately talked to you about it, sent you to a good
dermatologist. And it cleared up, or at least vastly improved. How did it
change you when your face cleared up?

Mr. FLEMING: Yeah. Well, before I talk about that, I just wanted to say that
I think it was so amazing to me that no one else, that doctors and nurses and
parents, had--that it had never occurred to them, `Oh, gee, maybe this kid
needs some kind of treatment here,' cause it was just a truly severe case and
I just felt like the Elephant Man or something.

And so I think, what I've heard from other acne survivors, is that while
sometimes parents will think, `Well, it's just a passing thing. It's not that
big a deal,' and it's to my uncle's--it's a tribute to my uncle's empathy that
he immediately grasped that this was the thorn in my side, this was the big
thing. And, yes, it instantly made me feel that I'd rejoined the human race.
It was that dramatic.

GROSS: He also sent you to private school.

Mr. FLEMING: Yes. And, again, with as little money as he was making, that
was, again, quite extraordinary. I learned my uncle had had a fantasy when he
was a teen-ager that he would be rescued by this wonderful New Yorker, and
though in my uncle's fantasy this wonderful New Yorker becomes a lover, it's
interesting to me that, a generation later, my uncle's old fantasy, he was now
fulfilling the role of the wonderful New Yorker, playing the role that he
wished someone had played for him when he was a teen-ager.

GROSS: Your uncle has basically chronicled his life and times through a
series of novels and short stories, and in chronicling his life and times,
he's told a lot of the larger story of what it's meant to be gay in America in
the '70s and in the '80s. And in that sense, you know, because he's such a
celebrated and well-known writer, he's something of a public figure. So after
he's kind of couched his life in fiction, here you are coming along...

Mr. FLEMING: Right.

GROSS: ...and writing a non-fiction story of your life, which involves
telling part of the story of his life. Did you, like, ask him almost for
permission to tell the story before writing it or asked him how he'd react to
it, if he would mind?

Mr. FLEMING: I think I might have, but what I think is interesting is that he
calls his autobiographical novels auto-fiction. And since I know him and his
life, as I read them, I can see that often they are pretty straight
transcriptions from his life experience. And he sometimes will say, `Well,
what I like about writing a novel is I don't have to make sure I know the date
and I don't have to check all the facts, and I can just write things, you
know, sort of true to my feelings.' So I would say, in a way, that my memoir
is just taking his auto-fiction one step further.

GROSS: One downside I can see about being Ed White's nephew and writing a
book that is in part about Ed White is that if it were me--I admire his
writing very much, and I'd feel like he was an editor sitting on my shoulder,
reading each paragraph and finding all of its deficiencies.

Mr. FLEMING: Right.

GROSS: I think I'd find it very stymieing. How did you deal with that?

Mr. FLEMING: I actually didn't feel that, and I think that I've had a
lot--you know, even though this is my first book and I'm 40, in my mind I've
been a writer since I've been, you know, 20 or something. And I've had--in
other words, I've always, I guess, had--in myself, I've had confidence in my
own writerly ability. Part of that might have begun when I was 16. My uncle
would say to me things like, `No, you really have talent. You're going to be
the last writer in America,' which, to me, sounded impressive, until I started
to think, `Oh, actually that's pretty sad. Like, the last idiot who's still
scribbling away in the age of video.'

GROSS: Are you close now with your uncle?

Mr. FLEMING: Yes. And he and I will actually be doing--I will be his opening
act on his reading tour next month, which should be quite a trip.

GROSS: Well, Keith Fleming, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. FLEMING: Thank you.

GROSS: Keith Fleming's new memoir is "The Boy with the Thorn in His Side."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Funding credits; soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Ruby Behlmer, editor of a collection of memos by producer
David O. Selznick. The book offers a look at an earlier era of Hollywood

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Rudy Behlmer, editor of "Memo from David O. Selznick,"
talks about the movie business in its early years

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Martin Scorsese is editing a new series
of books that is republishing several classics about movies. One of them is
"Memo from David O. Selznick," which was first published in 1972. Selznick
was the producer of such films as "Gone With the Wind," "The Four Feathers,"
"Dinner at Eight," "David Copperfield," "Anna Karina," "A Tale of Two Cities,"
"Made for Each Other," "Rebecca," "Spellbound," "Duel in the Sun" and "The
Third Man." Selznick handled much of his communications with stars and
directors through memos. And those memos are very revealing of Hollywood in
the era of the studio system. The book was edited by Rudy Behlmer, who joined
us a few months ago to talk about the making of "King Kong." We invited him
back to discuss Selznick.

One of the stars that David O. Selznick discovered was Ingrid Bergman. He
was responsible for launching her career in America after she had already
started making movies in her native Sweden.

Mr. RUDY BEHLMER ("Memo from David O. Selznick"): That's correct.

GROSS: And he felt very strongly that she had the potential to be beautiful
on screen, but you had to be really careful the way you shot her because if
you shot her from the wrong angle, she wouldn't look beautiful. He wrote,
`The difference in her photography is the difference between great beauty and
a complete lack of beauty.' In fact, would you read an excerpt of the June
22nd, 1939, memo that he wrote about the importance of using the correct
angles for photographing her?

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes. Now he's writing a memo, in this case, to the director of
the film, Gregory Ratoff, with a copy to Gregg Toland, who was the
cinematographer on the film. And this is just an excerpt. It's, once again,
not a brief memo. But he says, `The Toland tests of Miss Bergman prove
indubitably what we have been saying since before the picture started, that
more than with any other girl that I know of in pictures, the difference
between a great photographic beauty and an ordinary girl, with Miss Bergman,
lies in proper photography of her, and that this in turn depends not simply on
avoiding the bad side of her face, keeping her head down as much as possible,
giving her the proper hairdress and not to make her look too big, and even
more importantly, but for the same reason, avoiding low cameras on her, as
well as being careful to build people who work with her, such as Leslie Howard
and Edna Best, as well, of course, as the children beside whom she looks
titanic if the camera work isn't carefully studied. But more important of
all, on shading her face and invariably going for effect lightings on her.
This means that there should not be a single sequence of the picture that is
not staged for real effect lighting, whether it be morning, afternoon or
night.' And so forth and so on.

GROSS: How much do you think that advice was followed in her movies?

Mr. BEHLMER: Oh, it was followed--Ingrid Bergman was a fairly large woman.
And, of course, he was concerned that, you know, her leading men would look
smaller than she. And, also, he wanted to give her a fresh quality. This was
the time, as you know, of the plucked eyebrows and the heavy makeup and, you
know, the glamorization process, which he did not want to use on Ingrid
Bergman. He thought that she was particularly effective with a scrubbed look.
Now this was, again, contrary to current practice at that time. You know,
glamour was the keynote. But he felt that she would come off best in a more
natural state. So he had to fight this with the makeup people and with the
hairdressers and with the cameramen. Not fight it, but insist upon going this
route, which, of course, worked out very well. I mean, we know how Ingrid
Bergman photographed, and it was part of what made her certainly a star for
the American public.

GROSS: Selznick and Ingrid Bergman had a falling out. I mean, he discovered
her in America and made her a star. What was their falling out about?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, the falling out--she had been under contract to him for
quite some time and he was loaning her out, which was standard practice at the
time. And, of course, realizing a profit on the loan-out that she wasn't
getting. But that was also standard practice. And after several years, she
wanted to leave Selznick and go on and do other things, and there was
discussions about who was going to pay what, you know, to get out of the
contract. So Selznick, who was, quite honestly, very unhappy about this for a
variety of reasons, because Ingrid Bergman was still a very, very big, big
commodity that he had on his list. And he wrote a letter as though it was
written by Ingrid Bergman to David Selznick in which she recounted--Selznick
recounted in her words--all of the things that he had done for her since she
arrived from Sweden that made the point of what he had done and what she had
wanted to do that he dissuaded her from doing, and what he had been able to
arrange for her to do in pictures. In any case, the bottom line is, this was
a letter that he hoped might change her mind. Unfortunately, it didn't, but
it's a very interesting letter.

GROSS: Would you read a few lines from this 1947 letter that Selznick writes
in the voice of Ingrid Bergman?

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes. This is, once again, a long letter. But one part of it
here. This is in the middle of it all. He says, `Unfortunately for
you'--this, of course, is supposedly Ingrid Bergman talking--`when I returned
from Europe and had everything that I wanted, I forgot all about my promises
and statements through the years. I forgot everything you had done for me. I
forgot my promises and even my letter. And I demanded payment for the picture
which I asked you to give up and which you had given up and which could have
been one of the subjects listed above on which you would, of course, have made
a great deal of money, as well absorbed your overhead, which was idle largely
as a result of my not making a picture. It is true that I entertained the
troops on my own insistent desire to do so, but I didn't see and still don't
see why you shouldn't pay me $60,000 for having done so.'

GROSS: And it goes on and on and ...(unintelligible).

Mr. BEHLMER: It goes on and on. And it is this listing of all of the
things, you know, and I--you had given me these directors which you had
insisted upon, and I was able to do this project which I wanted to do, and you
were able to work out the details and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and so
forth and so on. So it makes a very good case for Mr. Selznick, quite

GROSS: I think that his relationship with Ingrid Bergman early in her career
and the way he paid such attention to how she was photographed and how she
looked shows the attention that he took with his actresses. While he was
making "Rebecca" with Joan Fontaine, he saw that the makeup man had tweezed
her eyebrows, which really upset him. He hated tweezed eyebrows. And he
wrote, `What can I do to get you makeup men to throw away your kits and your
tweezers? The public is so far ahead of you all and is so sick of your
makeup. You are all managing to contribute to the destruction of stars.'


GROSS: And he was upset about the way Marlena Dietrich looked on one of her
films. I'm going to ask you to read this excerpt of a 1936 memo about how
Marlena Dietrich was looking. Tell us the context of the memo and read an
excerpt for us.

Mr. BEHLMER: OK. Well, he made one picture with Marlena Dietrich, who was
not under contract to Selznick. It was called "The Garden of Allah," and it
was photographed in Technicolor, which at that time, the three color
Technicolor was brand new. And, of course, Marlena Dietrich was an exotic
glamour lady and had been portrayed that way and, of course, had extreme
makeup and very careful photography and what have you. But he was a little
concerned--even though he didn't want her to look like Ingrid Bergman with the
fresh-scrubbed look, he was a little concerned about the excess here. So he
was writing to the director, Richard Boleslawski, in 1936.

And he says, `Surely, a little reality can't do a great beauty any harm.
Would you please speak to Marlena about the fact that her hair is getting so
much attention and is being coiffed to such a degree that all reality is lost?
Her hair is so well-placed that at all times, when the wind is blowing, for
instance, or when Marlena is on a balcony or walking through the street, it
remains perfectly smooth and unruffled. In fact, it's so well-placed that it
could be nothing but a wig. The extreme and ridiculousness is the scene in
bed. No woman in the world has ever had her hair appear as Marlena's does in
this scene, and the entire scene becomes practically unusable because
everything's so exactly in place and the whole effect of a harassed and
troubled woman is lost,' etc., etc. And the hairdresser rushing in between
takes to put each strand of her hair in place, you know.

And so he was trying valiantly here to get a little naturalism into the
exotica. He was not against glamour, certainly. And when it was appropriate
or not taken to extremes. But in the case of Joan Fontaine, which you brought
up in "Rebecca," Joan Fontaine was supposed to be a very plain, you know,
ordinary, totally non-glamorous character in this film. And, of course, he
wanted to keep it that way. That was part of the charm of the piece.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rudy Behlmer. And his 1972
book, "Memo from David O. Selznick," has just been republished as one of the
first books in a series edited by Martin Scorsese. And it's the Modern
Library "The Movies" series.

We'll talk more with Rudy Behlmer about David O. Selznick's memos after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Rudy Behlmer, who has written extensively over the years
about movies. And his 1972 book, "Memo From David O. Selznick," has just been
republished in a new film series edited by Martin Scorsese. And this book
contains a lot of the memos that producer David O. Selznick wrote over the
years to the people making movies with him.

David O. Selznick is most famous for creating the movie "Gone With the Wind"
and having quite a controlling hand in the movie's production. In the memos,
he writes a lot about searching all over for an unknown actress to play
Scarlett. Why was that so important to him to try to cast an unknown actress?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, of course, all of the top actresses at the time wanted to
play Scarlett O'Hara. By then, the book had been a phenomenal publishing
success, and it is a wonderful character. So the Bette Davises and the
Loretta Youngs and virtually everyone in Hollywood was, you know, ready to go
and wanted to play this part. But he felt that people who had been stars for
a while--let's take Bette Davis for an example--you know, they had already an
image and they were associated with various characters and so on. He wanted
to find somebody who was not known to the American public so that people would
think of this person as Scarlett O'Hara, not as one of the stars portraying
Scarlett O'Hara. He felt that it would enhance the portrayal if it was
someone that didn't have that full laundry list of credits behind them. So
that's why Vivien Leigh eventually came to play the part because, in America,
she was hardly known. She had done a few British films.

GROSS: Now he wasn't looking for an unknown for the part of Rhett Butler. He
knew he wanted Clark Gable. In fact, he co-partnered with MGM, the studio
that Gable was contracted to, so he could get Gable for the part. Why did he
feel so strongly about him?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, he felt strongly about him because virtually everyone
thought that Clark Gable was Rhett Butler, and I'm speaking of the reading
public, which, of course, people that were reading this novel, you know, were
in the millions. And there didn't seem to be any dispute. You know, there
was no, `Well, there are four other people who'--it was Clark Gable. There
had been thoughts very early on about Gary Cooper. There had been thoughts
about Errol Flynn. But there--it was almost unanimous that everybody thought
it has to be Gable. Well, of course, Gable was under contract to MGM, so the
only way, as the time went by, that he could get Gable was to make a deal with
MGM. Not only to borrow Gable, but to let them distribute the film, put money
in the film and also own 50 percent of it. What a deal.

GROSS: Selznick hired George Cukor to direct "Gone With the Wind," and then
fired him and hired Victor Fleming, who's also famous for directing "The
Wizard of Oz." And when he fired him, Selznick wrote, `We can no longer be
sentimental about it. We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts.'
What insights do the memos by Selznick offer about why he got rid of Cukor?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, there are a lot of stories about that. There's nothing
that blatantly says, `George, you're out of here.' It was a combination of
many factors. First of all, he was extremely nervous about this enterprise.
This was going to be the biggest thing that he had ever attempted. There was
a lot of money involved. He was uncertain. The script was still not right
and he was getting changes down on the set to Cukor every day, every hour. It
was driving Cukor crazy. He had so many suggestions, and it was the first
time that he actually spent a lot of time on the set second-guessing a
director, which became a habit through the years after that. But up until
that point, was not that way. There was uncertainty. There was uncertainty
about interpretation of it. And, finally, after a couple of weeks, it wasn't
working. And I think both of them knew it. And that was that. Although
Selznick was very careful to place George Cukor over at MGM to do the women.
I mean, he had nothing against Cukor. He just felt that in this instance, it
wasn't working. So they shut down. And he took Fleming because Fleming and
Gable were very, very close and had done several films together. And Fleming
was a excellent director. He was top of the line, and he was just finishing
up "Wizard of Oz," believe it or not, and segued from "The Wizard of Oz"
to "Gone With the Wind" and almost collapsed as "Gone With the Wind" was
shooting. In fact, he did have to take a few weeks off since he was on the
verge of collapse.

GROSS: One of the things that's really famous about "Gone With the Wind" is
the score by Max Steiner.

Mr. BEHLMER: That's right.

GROSS: Now David O. Selznick nearly fired Max Steiner in part because Steiner
wasn't writing quickly enough and Selznick wanted Steiner to write from the
script, whereas Steiner insisted on actually seeing footage before he
composed. I'm wondering if you think that Selznick's control over everything
was a blessing or a curse or a blessing and a curse?

Mr. BEHLMER: I think, Terry, what you just said at the end there, a blessing
and a curse. Obviously, people didn't want to be controlled to the extent
that Selznick wanted to control them. Now Max Steiner had worked for Selznick
ever since 1932 where they were both at RKO Radio Pictures and Selznick was in
charge of production. But, of course, Steiner was a work horse and Steiner,
you know, was doing nine, 10 pictures a year, and so forth. And he had to
squeeze in "Gone With the Wind." Also, Steiner was not used to reading
scripts. He wanted to sit down and look at the finished movie and then start
scoring. That was the way he did it, because he felt that if you look at a
script and then started in, that the picture may evolve in a different manner.
So why even bother with that. Let's see what the final result is, and I will
be moved to compose to what I react to on the screen. So Selznick was
concerned about this.

Also, Selznick wanted to use--he was always a great fan of using classical
music and he wanted to use Southern music--of course, Stephen Foster, and so
forth and the militaristic and the patriotic tunes of the day. All of which
was fine, and which Steiner would have done anyway to a degree. Because
Steiner knew that you had to, you know, put in this material to give it the
period flavor. But Selznick seemed to want to go even further than that,
which Steiner rejected because he felt that music that is identified and
associated with something else such as classical music, it detracts from
what's on the screen unless it's, you know, once again, a Southern tune or
"Dixie" or "Rally Around the Flag, Boys" or something where it's appropriate.

So they would have discussions and arguments about that. And, of course, what
ended up was a fine score. It was generally original from Steiner with some
of these interpellated pieces from the South.

GROSS: You reprint a memo that Selznick wrote to Will Hays during the making
of "Gone With the Wind" about the line, `Frankly, my dear, I don't give a
damn,' which is, I guess, the most famous line from the movie. And the
production code prevented them from using that line. The head of the office,
Joe Greene, wouldn't give Selznick permission to use that line. So he wrote
to Will Hays. `It is my contention that this word, as used in the picture, is
not an oath or a curse. The worst that could be said against it is that it is
a vulgarism.' Do you know what happened after that? How they fought it out?

Mr. BEHLMER: They did fight it out, because it's hard to believe now, of
course, but back in 1939, you could not use a curse word and that famous line,
`Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn,' which Rhett says at the end of the
film, he didn't want to use something that would soften that, and he felt the
only way you could do it was to have it just that way. But they did shoot a
protection reading, just in case they lost the battle, where he didn't say
that. He said something like it, but he didn't say `damn.' But in any case,
they finally gave in because he had convinced them--he did all this research
and the fact that it wasn't used in the fashion of--blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah. But, you see, the Hays office was concerned that if they did let it
go, it would open up the floodgates.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BEHLMER: And that everybody now is going to say, `Well, wait a minute.
You know, "Gone with the Wind"'--and they did not want to make an exception
because, as we all know, exceptions are used as an example. But somehow or
other, he got around it. He had to pay a fine. I can't recall now. I think
it was $5,000 or something like that. A fine to show that, you know,
Hays--this is--we're letting you do it, but you're not entirely off the hook.
And it did over the years introduce more. But it wasn't something that
happened on every picture right away.

GROSS: My guest is Rudy Behlmer, editor of the book, "Memo from David O.
Selznick." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rudy Belhmer. And in 1972, he
edited a book of David O. Selznick's memos, and that book, "Memo from David
O. Selznick," has just been published in a new edition in a new series of
film books edited and chosen by Martin Scorsese.

Now one of Selznick's claims to fame is that he basically brought Alfred
Hitchcock to America from England and launched his American film career. What
was their working relationship like?

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, it's very interesting because Hitchcock had, of course,
been directing in England for years and had been very successful and some of
his pictures had international fame, which wasn't always the case, of course,
with British films. And he brought him over to do "Rebecca." And, of course,
Hitchcock was most anxious to come here because this is where it was all
happening, in Hollywood, at that time. And, of course, the resources were
much greater and all of the things that you had to work with and the
distribution and what have you. So he was delighted. Selznick and Hitchcock
both respected each other. And Selznick let Hitchcock alone more than he did
other directors. But he was very much involved still with the script, with
the casting, the pre-production; that is, Selznick was on a Hitchcock film.
But he usually let Hitchcock alone during shooting. But then Selznick became
heavily involved again in post-production, in editing and scoring and so

Now for a while, this worked out all right, but as usual and as is the case as
time went by, Hitchcock wanted more freedom and he was not thrilled with the
overzealous Selznick and Selznick, of course, became more and more and more
involved with things as the years went by. And Hitchcock, of course, had
established a name--was Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca," Alfred Hitchcock's this,
that and the other thing--where he became one of the best known of directors
to the public at large. Most people in those days didn't know the directors.
You know, they knew Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. BEHLMER: Really, that's about it. And before that, D.W. Griffeth. But
beyond that, nobody was really interested in the director's credit, and it
certainly wasn't going to be above the title. But you had Alfred Hitchcock's
blah, blah, blah, "Spellbound." Now Selznick was very, very shrewd. He
orchestrated this. But, you see, he created a Frankenstein in a sense
that--you know, then Hitchcock wanted out as so many of the people who worked
with Selznick over the years wanted out eventually because they could do very
well elsewhere and achieve independence.

GROSS: You've collected Selznick's memos in this book, and it seems to me one
of the reasons why he must have written the memos is that if you're delivering
somebody your wishes in a memo, they can't talk back to you. They can't say,
`No, I won't do that because,' `You're wrong because.' They have to read it
and then they're expected just to act on it. Did people talk back to him
afterwards? Do you know?

Mr. BEHLMER: That's right. Well, of course, there--I'm sure there were a
lot of irate people who would get these long-winded memos criticizing
something, and they would call him up on the phone or they would go down to
his office or what have you. In some cases, I think they were just
thunderstruck and didn't say anything, and in other cases, they were hired
hands, so they thought, `Well, OK, I'll swallow my pride and go do what he
wants.' Also, of course, there were answers to some of these memos.

Now in the book, as you know, Terry, it's all Selznick's memos because, of
course, the person who writes a piece of material, whether it's a letter or
whatever, is the legal owner of it, even though somebody else has received it.
So this is the Selznick version because, otherwise, I'd have to get clearance
from nine million people to put their answers in there. But, again, for the
most part, there were not a lot of answers in the files. There were a lot of,
you know, references to things, but not long-winded retorts.

GROSS: Did Selznick really write a memo saying that his funeral service
should be simple and brief so that no one would be bored?

Mr. BEHLMER: Yes, he wrote--that's right. And they followed that dictum.
And he was always afraid of people being bored because he had a threshold of
boredom and he just wanted to move things along. Also, you know, he was
addicted to Benzedrine, and this is before the days when people knew exactly
what harm it could do, so that's why he was working, you know, like 20, 21
hours a day and expecting everybody else to be fresh at 8:00 in the morning
and at midnight.

GROSS: Well, Rudy Behlmer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BEHLMER: Well, Terry, it's been my pleasure once again. Particularly,
going back to 1971 and 2.

GROSS: Rudy Behlmer edited the book "Memo from David O. Selznick," which has
just been republished as part of a series of republications of classic movie
books. The series' editor is Martin Scorsese.

(Station credits given)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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