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