John Riley is another writer friend from way back. As a matter of fact, he not only gave the ms. of my first novel to the woman who became my agent, he even got a mention of my second novel in the L.A. Times. Before then, he covered crime and politics in Chicago at City News and Chicago’s American, and then was a correspondent for Time in Washington and for Life and Newsweek in Los Angeles. As a freelance, he was a Sunday magazine columnist in the Los Angeles Times, published in Esquire, TV Guide, Playboy, Penthouse, Playgirl, Look, People, True, and countless other magazines. He wrote movies for NBC and Fox Network. He was elected by fellow screenwriters to six years as a member of its Board of Directors of the Writers Guild and was a recipient of the Guild’s Morgan Cox Award for exceptional service to the Guild.
The Writers & Artists Building
I began renting an office in a building at the corner of little Santa Monica Boulevard and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in 1969. Three years later, Bernard Wolfe moved out of a similar sized office (two doors from my corner suite) and a crew from Samuel Goldwyn Studios showed up and installed white pegboard over its interior walls. Then its occupant for the next twelve years showed up, and his agent appeared briefly with a gift to celebrate the new tenancy. Paul Kohner handed a bowl of fresh cherries to his longtime client Billy Wilder. I introduced myself to Billy and he was kind enough to offer a few of Paul’s cherries. Billy showed me the Eames chair and matching ottoman that had been a gift to him from the designer and his wife, Rae. They would show up within a few days for a service call. I was told he had an identical pair in his apartment in the Wilshire Towers, a building with which I was long acquainted.
Billy became a friend instantly and remained one until his death just after Bush vs. Gore was decided in 2002, an excellent time to leave our planet. In 1984, he had moved out of our building, which in those days was known as the Writers & Artists Building, to one a block away which had an elevator. In those days our building did not, and Billy’s hips were giving him trouble.
In 1981, I showed Billy and his omnipresent writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, my newest work toy: a NorthStar Horizon 8-bit computer, which utilized an early operating system called CP/M. I had paid an assembly language programmer a small fortune to write a program for it which would format a text file into a screenplay. I showed Billy and Izzy how I could change the first name of the lead character and that first name would be changed throughout the perfectly formatted screenplay, which I scrolled down the screen. As a test file I used a movie I had written for NBC about male strippers called “For Ladies Only.” Billy had read my screenplay and said nice things about it that I do not think he really meant.
As they were leaving, Izzy asked me the killer question about my computer program: “does it make you any funnier?” Although the question was meant to be funny, its effect on me was devastating. I’d like to think I was successful in not showing it.
Years later, sometime in the nineties, I received one of Billy’s telephone calls asking me for help. He could not operate any kind of machine, including all typewriters. When I visited his office I learned I was required to send a FAX to Germany. He handed me the page. I inserted it in the FAX machine. From an address book he dictated the telephone number in Germany. I entered the numbers and pushed the send button and off went the page to the fatherland. I turned to leave and there on an empty desk near the doorway was a large white IBM Executive typewriter. I remember a large IBM ad in Time Magazine spread over two adjoining pages featuring that typewriter and Billy’s grinning face.
I asked two questions in one. Did IBM give you this machine for doing the ad and did Izzy, before he died, work often on it with you? Over the years Billy had refused to divulge any details of his ruptured collaboration with Charles Brackett long before he and Iz started working together, a collaboration that ended only with Iz’s death.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Did it make him any funnier?” I asked.
It is possible to respond to someone through his collaborator long after that collaborator has departed, but not nearly as satisfying as if Iz had been there with us. In a way, I suppose, he was. I know over the years I knew Billy I said many things that were funny, but it was impossible to get more than a faint smile from him. I have no memory of whether Billy smiled when I asked this question. It felt good that I could ask it. The I.A.L. that were the first part of Iz’s name in his screenwriting credit stood for Interschool Algebra League, which offered a prize which was awarded to him for second place.
One night I came into the building long after the world outside had descended into winter darkness. The lights in Billy’s office were switched off, but I could see into it enough to make him out at his desk. I called his name. He switched on a light. I asked if something was wrong. He showed me a three-page telegram from David Begelman congratulating Billy on closing a deal on a picture MGM would produce and Billy would direct and write with Iz.
I told Billy that was wonderful. Billy responded it was dated three days earlier and no one at MGM had called to tell him to come to the lot to begin work. It was to be his last picture, “Buddy, Buddy,” with Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau, neither an artistic nor a financial success. But no one knew that then. Each time I think of Billy sitting in the dark waiting for an MGM underling to call it makes me sad.
A few years before Billy moved from his office in my hall, we walked at mid-day down Rodeo Drive. We were headed to a restaurant, the door to which opens off an alley in Dayton Way. When I came to Beverly Hills in 1966, the restaurant’s front door opened on Wilshire Boulevard and was called Bentley’s English Chop House. When Billy and I visited it had become a Japanese place, and its attraction to Billy was its soup. Billy was big on soup.
“Try da soup,” he would say. “It’s VONderfull!”
(After Billy moved from our building the restaurant became a favorite of mine. I eat there often. It is called The Grill on the Alley.)
As we walked there he talked of running into Greta Garbo in a sweatshirt and matching pants out for a run on Rodeo Drive. As we passed, a brick building was beginning to be taken down.
“Look,” I said. “They’re demolishing The Daisy.” I remembered the nightclub from my own visits and before that from Gay Talese’s famous Esquire piece about Frank Sinatra and his altercation with the bombastic science fiction author Harlan Ellison, whose obituary I read in the New York Times this morning with breakfast. My mention of The Daisy meant nothing to Billy.
“Young man,” he said. “That was Romanoffs.”
I had known Mike Romanoff. His wife had worked at the Staircase, a shop across Santa Monica Boulevard from our building until his death. And years before that Mike, whose real name was Harry Geruson, had told me that his last restaurant had been at another location south of Wilshire Boulevard that had, as he put it, exquisitely terrible plumbing.
Slowly Billy told me of an evening he and Audrey were dining with Frances and Sam Goldwyn at the original Romanoff’s. Mike and several waiters were attending the table when, from Rodeo Drive, a spectral older man arrived and began yelling at Goldwyn, “You are the worst of all the bad directors of terrible motion pictures…”
At that point Mike and his staff grabbed the intruder and ejected him. A long silence followed. Billy broke it by asking who that had been.
“He always does that, no matter where he sees me,” said Goldwin. “D.W. Griffith.”
I am still in the building as a tenant, but in a smaller office halfway down the hall to where I was. I append a photograph I made of the original directory of the Writers & Artists Building, but as edited by the building’s second owner of my tenancy that became a footnote to the building’s new directory. It lists Billy Wilder and a suite number. When Billy worked in the building his only directory listing was for his production company, Phalanx Productions. Neither Billy nor Iz had a directory listing of their own.
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