Reading Jonathan Coe’s fascinating new novel, Mr Wilder and Me, I was reminded of my one and only meeting with Billy Wilder. It was in London in 1993, at the house of a friend. Wilder and his wife, Audrey, were among the guests at the small dinner party. Wilder was eighty-six by then and was on genial good form. We were encouraged to get him to anecdotalise about his years in Hollywood.
Thus prompted, I asked him a no doubt familiar question: what was Marilyn Monroe like? Some Like It Hot is a near-perfect comic film and has taken up permanent residence in my pantheon of top-ten films of all time. But Wilder’s face abruptly hardened at my enquiry and all his geniality left him as he embarked on a bitter riff about what an appalling, ghastly person Monroe had been and how her erratic and selfish behaviour had almost ruined the film.
In fact, I can date the encounter precisely – 2 March 1993 – as I wrote up the experience of meeting Wilder in my journal:
Dinner at [X’s] last night where the guest of honour was Billy Wilder. Delightful, podgy, humorous – full of anecdotes and very happy to talk. He is in astonishing nick for a man of 86. When I asked him about Marilyn Monroe the mood changed somewhat. He said that Monroe as a person was ‘mentally ill’ and he obviously couldn’t stand her. Audrey Wilder joined in and told a story of MM telephoning from a New York bar after Some Like It Hot had been released. She signed off by saying, ‘I like you, Audrey. But you can tell Billy from me to go fuck himself.’
There were other stories, about Marlene Dietrich, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Tennessee Williams. Wilder didn’t like Humphrey Bogart, either – called him ‘a coward’. He wore a blue suit, polka-dotted blue bow tie and a non-matching polka-dotted handkerchief in his jacket pocket. ‘Dapper,’ I recorded. ‘Little tasselled loafers on small feet. Audrey Wilder – face-lifted, black Louise Brooks-style hair with a white gardenia behind her ear. She smoked furiously, her cough came from her ankles.’
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While Some Like It Hot was being filmed (it was released in 1959), Marilyn Monroe was married to the playwright Arthur Miller. In fact she was pregnant, though she later miscarried. The Miller–Monroe marriage was under real stress and this may have contributed to her bizarre behaviour patterns. Miller approached Wilder privately and asked him if he would help out by changing the shooting schedule, gently suggesting that Marilyn be allowed to start later in the day – perhaps at noon, Miller prompted. Certainly, Wilder replied, I’d be glad to. Except the only problem is that she doesn’t get to the studio until four in the afternoon. The more one reads about the strains of filming Some Like It Hot, the more extraordinary it appears that the film is such a seamlessly assured comedy and that Monroe’s performance as singer and ukulele player Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczyk is so incandescently successful and alluring. It is her greatest role.
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I suppose you could take the literary concept of poète maudit and apply it to someone like Monroe – actrice maudite: someone entirely ill-equipped to handle enormous fame and huge wealth, not to mention the unwelcome attention of powerful men. Her untimely death has spawned as many conspiracy theories as that of her one-time lover John F Kennedy. Another actrice maudite who led an extremely rackety life and who also died in very mysterious circumstances was Jean Seberg (1938–79). In my new novel, Trio, I loosely base one of the central characters, Anny Viklund, on Seberg. One of Seberg’s three husbands was the French novelist Romain Gary, who, among other achievements, won the Prix Goncourt twice, once under his own name and the second time writing under a pseudonym, Emile Ajar, and passing himself off as an Algerian. This was a tremendous literary hoax but would now be regarded as a gross act of cultural appropriation, the new intellectual crime. Gary shot himself a year after Seberg’s death, admitting he was Ajar in his suicide note.
Seberg was hounded – and smeared – by the FBI for her left-liberal politics and her support for the Black Panther Party. There is convincing circumstantial evidence that the FBI was involved in her mysterious death. She disappeared from her Paris apartment and, nine days later, her body was discovered in the 16th arrondissement in her car, wrapped in a blanket. It looked like a suicide but the Paris police autopsy pronounced that there was so much alcohol in her body she would have been incapable of walking, let alone driving. There was no alcohol found in the car.
Seberg reputedly had many affairs in her short life (she was only forty when she died). One of the most bizarre claims about her comes from another novelist, the Mexican writer and diplomat Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes insisted that he had had an affair with Seberg and wrote a roman à clef about the liaison, called Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, a novel almost as bad as its title. In the three biographies of Jean Seberg that I read while I was researching Trio, Fuentes isn’t even mentioned in the index. So what was Fuentes playing at? It’s almost as if it were a hoax concocted by Romain Gary. I read the Fuentes novel and it does seem, in the end, merely a somewhat grotesque act of wishful thinking, an older man’s sexual fantasy. Now that’s what I call appropriation.