ALEXANDER KORDA was sitting at a table in Paris with David Selznick. Orson Welles was there. It was in the early '50s and Europe was "still reverberating," as Welles put it, to the zither strains of The Third Man , a movie Korda had dreamed up, hired Graham Greene to write, Carol Reed to direct, Welles and Joseph Cotton to star in -- had, in fact, produced in the fullest sense of that word. Selznick had bought from him the American distribution rights and emblazoned the Selznick name in ads and publicity to the point where audiences might easily have believed Selznick had been the film's producer. So there they were in Paris and Korda turned to Selznick and said, "You know, David, I hope I don't die before you."

Selzick was bewildered. "My goodness, what a strange thing to say, Alex -- what brought that to mind?"

"Well," said Korda, smiling lightly, "I hate to think of you going into the graveyard, scratching out my name and putting yours there instead."

That little story isn't in Michael Korda's witty and touching memoir, but it may give a quickidea of the character of his uncle, the book's central figure. Alex Korda was a talented film director who felt no vocation for that job, yet made such sensitive and intelligent pictures as Marius, The Pivate Life Of Henry VIII, Rembrandt, That Hamilton Woman ; he was also a born entrepreneur who almost single-handedly created a British film industry (and was duly knighted as a reward late in life) but was bored and finally burdened beyond endurance by the details necessary to running a picure empire. He was a man who had everything, seemed always on the brink of losing it -- a bringk he almost courted -- and never found real happiness of any kind, through marriages to three beautiful women (Merle Oberon among them), not to mention countless liaisons (his valet always made sure there was a fresh toothbrush every night in the guest bathroom), and a business and social life that put him on intimate terms with the great names of the age (from Churchill and Beaverbrook to L. B. Mayer and Vivien Leigh).

Charmed Lives , in other words, is a title of considerable irony, for none of the principals in this "Family Romance" ever realize their most profound goals or thier most private dreams. There's Alex's fiery brother, Zoltan, director of Elephant Boy (with Robert Flaherty), The Four Feathers remake, Sahara , and The Macomber Affair , who never was as good as he thought he could be, who made a lot of movies he felt no great call to do because he wasn't allowed to make what he wanted. There's the youngest brother, the author's father, Vincent, a delightful eccentric and the most endearing of the three brothers, who gave up the happy bohemian life of an artist for the job of art director on countless movies he cared little about. And there's Alexa too, the young woman who became the last Lady Korda, inherited a considerable estate on her husband's death and ended a suicide in her thirties.

None of the subsidiary characters in the story -- and there are many fascinating ones -- get much closer to their deepest aspirations. Not that Michael Korda stresses this point; his story is told with compassion but no condescension and not a trace of moralizing; indeed, like almost all the people in the tale, his book could most easily be characterized as charming -- the deepest aspects are all implied. Despite the wealth and the fame and notoriety, the Korda lives remind one most of Auden's lines: "In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away . . . ." At the end, one is left with a poignant sense of loss, the more affecting because it is never stated explicitly.

After a series of best sellers on Male Chauvinism, Power and Success (all with exclamation points), it is stating the obvious to say that this is Michael Korda's most personal work, but one hopes he will continue in this vein, for Charmed Lives joins at once that very small handful of books about movie people that is worth reading: literate without being pretentious, candid without being exploitative, worldly without being jaded, sensitive without being mawkish. It is a story the like of which -- in our ever more conformist, conglomerated, bureaucratic and homogenized world -- we shall probably never see again. A Hungarian Jew from Turkeve named Kellner (meaning "waiter") rises by wit and ingenuity to the heights of British and American society as the illustrious Sir Alexander Korda.

It is a story of chicanery and charm, of industry and intrigue, daring and deceit. Sir Alex's nephew has written this complicated fable without making judgments, and with a vivid sense of detail and characterization -- often comparable in lightness of touch to the casual but incisive brush strokes of Max Beerbohm -- and, most important, with a poetic understanding of what the world is like and what really matters in it.