In one of those standard Northwest Washington colonials off Military Road, on the third floor - isolated from a house filled with the usual kid litter and conventional furnishings - is a shrine to one of the most gifted actors of the '50s, the late Montgomery Clift.
His beautiful/handsome face, captured like a butterfly under glass on the cover of Life magazine 31 years ago, stares from one wall. Nearby leans a duffle bag with "Robert E. Lee Prewitt" stamped on the side - the barracks bag Clift used while playing the tortured GI in "From Here to Eternity" 26 years ago. It is filled with Clift's clothes: slacks, duckbilled hats, shirts...
The room is a Clift clutter: discs of his films, albums filled with letters and photos of Clift, an ashtray he made as a child, taped telephone interviews with his mother, a framed $5 check dated and signed by Clift 13 years ago, a silver dish that once held Clift's cache of pate and caviar, his gleaming Italian espresso machine, his long wooden desk, a neck brace.
Turn on a small light-box and an X-ray of Clift's jaw grimaces back, taken after a car wreck that forever smashed a once-perfect face.
-it happened in 1956 as the actor lost control winding his way down a Hollywood canyon after a dinner party given by Elizabeth Taylor - a close friend for life, from their first electrifying moments together in "A Place in the Sun" in 1951. The actress raced to the car, crawled in to cradle his battered head and raged at photographers who closed in around the car before the ambulance, "You bastards! If you dare take one photograph of him like this, I'll never let another one of you near me again!" It was a command the Hollywood paparazzi respected; Taylor was then the world's most sought-after actress. She would later recall of Clift, "By the time he reached the hospital his head was so swollen that it was almost as wide as his shoulders. His eyes had disappeared..."
The accident was 10 years before Clift's death of a heart attack at age 45, but the myth-makers who write of Clift say it began the longest suicide in Hollywood's history. For years bisexual, Clift off screen was a complex, tormented man whose behavior seemed at war with his luminous onscreen talent. After the accident he turned more and more to pills and drunken days and lost nights with tawdry male sex partners.
But the intensity and caring he brought to his acting of the sensitive, compelling loner; the first Hollywood rebel, who influenced a generation of Brando-James Dean-Al Pacino-Robert DeNiro-Dustin Hoffman followers, remain on film. His mesmerizing eyes under full dark brows, his enticing vulnerability won young girls in first pubescent flush from the moment he loomed soulfully on the screen in "Red River," that 1948 classic Western with John Wayne. Liz Taylor, then the exquisite teen-ager, loved him, and Marilyn Monroe, lost on pills by the time they did "The Misfits," was a kindred spirit.
A small renaissance has begun this 13th summer since Clift's death. Two biographies are hot paperback beach reading. Warner Brothers has an option to do a film based on one biography, "Montgomery Clift" by Patricia Bosworth. Cinema clubs are showing retrospectives.
Helping keep the Clift legend alive is his brother Brooks - the owner of that phenomenal third-floor Washington room. He generously rummages through his rainy-day trove for biographers and reporters and anyone who was enamored of Clift.
Long into an afternoon, of remiscing, Brooks Clift is asked if he resents being called, as he was by one interviewer, the Keeper of the Flame. "Why not?" he replies softly. "That's what I am."
Clift was one of the most famous actors of the '50s; the puzzle of his life is why he systematically destroyed himself when he could have had it all. He was successful on two levels. Bobby-soxers sat outside his New York apartment for hours hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but the pretty-boy image was soon followed by solid critical praise and three Academy Award nominations for best actor.
With the possible exception of Brando, no actor was more sought-after than Clift in 1953 and 1954. Clift turned down role after role helping to make other actors prominent in the process. He turned down "On the Waterfront," which became Brando's big vehicle. He refused to play in "East of Eden" with James Dean. "Sunset Boulevard" went to William Holden when Clift turned it down.
"Monty could have been the biggest movie star in the world," his agent Herman Citron said. "He was always considered before Brando but he was too choosy. We'd scream at each other over the phone. "I will not do it Herman," he'd say. "It's crap!" ; and I'd yell, "Can't you lower your standards for once?""
From "Montgomery Clift" by Patricia Bosworth
Clift's love-hate relationship with his mother, a domineering and obsessed woman, is heavily examined in Bosworth's biography as a reason for Clift's ultimate self-destruction.
His brother Brooks helped Bosworth immeasurably to weave together much of Montgomery's past, but he defensively rejects as "overexaggeration" much of the seamy and sorrowful that biographers depict.
Brooks prefers to dwell on the positives - Clift's sensitivity, his rare talent for friendship, his vitality, his humor. "He was always interested in people and he had a dedication, a fierce concentration to his work. He was the most aware person. A man without skin."
Brooks likes to recall an anecdote about that period in his brother's life when he was instantly recognized and set upon by strangers. Visiting friends in a New York apartment, before knocking on the door, Monty stripped in the hall to his shorts, socks, shoes and dark glasses. Upon entering, he said, "I have to do something to keep people from recognizing me."
Brooks, 60, was born 18 months before his famous brother and yet, in their strange and exotic childhood, the two boys and Monty's twin sister, Ethel, became, in a sense, one.
"I had the feeling that the twins were pushed up, and I was pushed down - to be "tripletized,"" recalls Brooks. Uprooted, touring Europe with a mother who had been born illegitimate and spent an obsessed life trying to be accepted by her distinguished Virginia and Maryland relatives, the Clift children literally were raised as triplets. They had identical Dutchboy bobs and short pants, studied the same lessons.
In 1929, after nine months abroad, "In our identical reefer coats, chattering away in French, we came across as effete eccentrics - bowing from the waist like exiled royalty," Brooks once recalled.
He paces in the third-floor room. "The adjustment to returning to the United States was horrendous." He pauses. "Speak of "The Misfits." We lasted three weeks in public schools. These "strange kids from Europe" were just natural objects of derision. We knew decimals in French but we didn't know what a pound was. We didn't know what a girl friend was." In those three miserable weeks in Chicago public schools, the Clift children were saved from total mayhem because "we did have these light-weight French bikes we could escape on."
Brooks bears little resemblance to Montgomery. He has a reddish mustache and eyebrows and curiously splayed fingers out of syne with his trim body (Brooks was a figure-skating champion as a child in St. Moritz).
It is in Brooks' voice that one finds Montgomery Clift. There is an eerie similarlity, the same cadence, the same thickness of emphasis on certain words, the same pauses. When they were young, Brooks would pinch-hit for Monty on the phone to confuse friends.
Looking back over the years he says, "Monty and I shared confidences." He gropes with a few stutters. "There was some kind of solace we could give one another."
He is ambivalent in his feelings about his mother, Ethel (Sunny) Clift. "She could be very cruel - but this was her way of showing love. Love plus ambition for her children to excel." He waves away details - "There is a lot I could say - but, well, she is 91."
Their childhood was like some rigid obstacle course to be successfully run in order for their illegitimate mother to "arrive." On the wall of the third-floor room are pictures of ancestors his mother fought so hard to claim.
The mother's grandfather was Col. Robert Anderson, union commander of Fort Sumter. Her other grandfather was Montgomery Blair, lawyer for Dred Scott and postmaster general in Lincoln's Cabinet. After an unhappy childhood as the adopted daughter of a foreman in a Pennsylvania steel mill, Sunny Clift learned of her ancestors. Her driven saga followed. An aunt told her she must take her children to Europe to groom them properly before they could be accepted as Anderson-Blairs. Sunny Clift eagerly did her bidding until her husband, a banker and broker, hit the skids during the Depression and refined poverty took over.
Brooks remembers an inspection tour by Aunt Sophie in washington after two years of preparation in Europe. She pronounced them still "rough around the edges." And the meeting with the Anderson-Blairs never took place.
Brooks protests today that "even without "aristocratic lineage" Mother would have tutored us, taken us to Europe. It's an oversimplification that we did these things because they were genealogically important to be "recognized" by the Andersons and Blairs.
Mother always knew best and father played a shadowy role.
There is this letter, neatly typed in Brooks' scrapbook, and it gives the impression of a mother who knew well the artful technique of praising with one sentence, jabbing with another:
It was 1950 and Brooks had just dropped out of Harvard Business School. His mother relayed his father's remarks after viewing Brooks act in Pennsylvanias Hayloft summer theater. His father told her, "Brooks was excellent, his diction clear, his laugh natural and I was surprised and delighted." Sunny Clift then continues, however, "Knowing how deeply disappointed he was when you "tossed away" what seemed to him to be a most promising business career, I know you would be pleased to have his opinion right away."
William Holden also got good notices in "Sunset Boulevard," Brooks' mother noted, then added, "Monty turned that one down, as you may recall..."
"Already Monty was more loved than loving. He felt guilty about his extravagant charm and beauty and his inability on many occasions to fulfill both the men and women who loved him - to give back, in other words, some of what he was taking. He could not accept their love without ultimately paying a price. But he was so used to being alternately loved and punished by his mother that he felt uncontrollable urges to be very, very good - or very, very horrible."
Patricia Bosworth in "Montgomery Clift."
His sexual ambiguity was Clift's private torture, wrote Bosworth. For the record and the movie magazines that promoted Clift as Hollywood's most eligible bachelor he would date starlets like Terry Moore. Off the record he was having an affair with a Broadway choreographer, among many other males.
But his deep emotional involvements were always with women, wrote Bosworth. A male friend said, "He'd pick up guys.... He'd sleep with them and that would be that. Once he said to me, "I love men in bed but I really love women.""
Clift became deeply and emotionally dependent on his analyst, Dr. William Silverberg. Friends often wonder just how much Silverberg was helping Clift - who would be rude when drunk, pass out, eat food with his fingers on the floor, and wander in a glazed state after mixing booze and barbiturates.
Brooks Clift, however, heatedly defends Silverberg and, as he does often in an interview, shouts that his brother's actions have been sensationalized in biographies.
"I never spoke to him about Silverberg. You do not have the gall to advise somebody. The books sound like he was helping to kill Monty, but I don't buy that.
"I feel that Silverberg was a salvation in many ways. Not an ultimate one, obviously. But Monty's pride in taking Silverberg to see him in "Freud" was ironic and unbelievable and joyous. He gave him a great deal to live for and a great deal of help."
Brooks Clift is now pacing in anger. "And if Monty stopped a cab to p-- in the street because this f------ country doesn't have any pissoirs, why, I can understand that. That is not an aberration. To eat with his fingers is part of freedom. It's part of conditioning yourself to be uninhibited, which is the most valuable thing an actor can be."
Brooks also disagrees with views on his brother's homosexuality. "I don't think he had a psychological problem about it. He never tried to hide it. I think it became a problem when other people felt it was a problem." Brooks said that during childhood there was no indication and that his brother remained bisexual most of his life. He was deeply in love with one woman, Augusta [Dabney], but she was married to his friend [actor Kevin McCarthy]." Clift rejects the view of many others that his brother once romantically loved Liz Taylor, as she did him. And Elizabeth Taylor, now Mrs. John Warner, has long refused to discuss her relationship with Clift.
While Montgomery Clift was living an anguished double life of public fame and private disintegration, Brooks was struggling to find his own world.
"My mother wanted me to be a business success. She still thinks I'm going to be a success. She wrote me the other day. Unfortunately she will not admit that I am a failure." Brooks Clift draws on his can of Lite beer. "I don't think I am a failure but in the eyes of the world, in the what-do-you-do questions, I am not a "success"," he says, curling his fingers into quotation marks in the air.
Brooks left Harvard Business School after being miserable in his attempts to please his mother. Brooks Clift then studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and American Theater Wing, and directed and stage-managed many of the live TV shows of the '50s - "Hit Parade," Milton Berle, "Philco-Goodyear Playhouse." He was producing TV commercials for Batten, Barton, Dursting & Osborn when he was transferred to Atlanta in 1966 and moved into multiple careers as a sales manager, executive producer and director of TV films and commercials. His Montgomery Cliftian voice was heard on TV voice-overs for everthing from C&P telephone to Caron Perfumes and on camera for Standard Oil and National Bank of Georgia. He had character roles in "Roots" and "Bingo Long's Traveling All-Stars."
Then along came Jimmy Carter. Brooks' fourth wife, Eleanor Clift, who had been covering Carter for Newsweek, followed the president to Washington in 1977. Clift has been caring for their three children, ages 4 to 13, but is now looking for TV and radio work in Washington. "It was easier in Atlanta where my work was known."
Brooks Clift's own life is hardly without tragedy. In 1962 his oldest daughter, single and pregnant, murdered her lover, then spent three years in a mental institution. Her peripheral fame made her the subject of headlines as "Montgomery Clift's niece."
Brooks Clift says quickly that his daughter now is married, living in Canada and doing well. He runs through his list of four marriages and eight children: one is a successful artist, another a successful photographer, another a therapist.
And what about living in the shadow of so famous a brother?
"Oh, lots of people traded on me. They would invite me to parties. Jack Cassavetes said to me, "Brooks, I will make you assistant director on this movie if you will get this script to your brother." Monty said, "The script will come through [his agent] and I think Cassavetes is a s - ; to tell you that." There was a certain amount of insecurity as to when people were using you."
"Well, here I am making a lousy fortune in a gold mine.Around March (of 1947) you're going to have quite a decision to make. The film "Red River" will be released. Now, "Do I know Clift or don't I?"..."
Montgomery Clift in a letter to a friend in "Montgomery Clift."
Clift's insecurities were unfounded. "Red River" made Clift. Fifteen years later "Freud" opened - the movie that Brooks Clift emphatically insists "killed him."
Director John Huston tangled with Clift throughout the filming, bullied him past his physical limits, tampered with the script. The debilitating battles ended in protracted litigation. "Huston's lawsuit was sadistic and immoral," says Brooks. "Monty went four years after that without getting insurance for another movie."
The Universal Studios lawsuit contended in part that Clift deliberately slowed production by refusing to memorize lines. Clift contended he couldn't memorize because of fast rewrites and that the lines were not valid to the part; did not ring true.
Brooks Clift taped a phone conversation with his brother at that time. "I can memorize lines in one second - if they're valid - if I believe them. But the insurance people say I wouldn't Isn't that something? I wouldn't memorize. In other words I sat back like a naughty child who said "I won't memorize the lines' - but the difference between couldn't and wouldn't is very large." Clift goes on: Now I hope to get the Academy Award - this time I want it - I'd love it...If I get the Academy Award they just will have creamed themselves."
Clift did not get the Academy Award. His last years were painful - both for himself and for those who remembered him as an irresistible, magnetic, fresh talent. His ills had included bursitis, arthritis, phlebitis, calcium deficiency, severe muscle cramps, cataracts, a slipped disc and acute insomnia. His 14-foot-long medicine chest housed a hospital-sized cache of sleeping pills and uppers and downers and other medications.
The eulogies poured forth. "His appearance heralded a whole new trend in American film acting..." "He gave so much it was almost painful, his acting was all torn from inside..." "...a terrifying intensity..."
And everyone who knew him before and after the accident carries memories. "I was a teen-ager when he was making "A Place in the Sun,"" says George Stevens Jr. of the American Film Institute. His father directed Clift in "A Place in the Sun." "He was the first of the slightly Bohemian actors. He had a car without much chrome and when I asked what happened he just said, "Aw, it got torn off," and he hadn't bothered to replace it. He was thoughtful and genuine. Then, I remember the last time I saw him. It was such a shock. He came over, unsteadily, arms around my father, overly sentimental. There was not much equilibrium of any kind."
Bosworth, who knew him as a child when her father was a lawyer for the Hollywood Ten, had a "tremendous crush on him. He was exciting, mercurial, one of the definitive actors. I saw him later, when I was a member of Actors Studio. I looked at that ravaged face and I didn't recognize him."
Why Clift never in death became a cult figure, as have James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart, lies in part in his acting. In a sense, he was too good.
Even in life, his performances were sometimes undervalued.Actor Karl Malden felt it was because "he completely immersed himself in the character and situation...so much so that he actually sinks into the flesh of the story." Clift was so believable that director Fred Zinneman was asked, over and over, after an unknown Clift played the part of a GI in "The Search," "Where did you find a soldier who could act so well?"
Stevens says, "Monty was more subtle and less a "personality" actor. Too fine an actor. That's a disadvantage if you want to be a "cult" figure, which depends on persona. It helps if Rich Little can do you - Bogart, John Wayne, Brando, Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe - but no one could imitate Monty."
And what now for Brooks Clift? He has written an introduction to a photo collection of Montgomery Clift and his films, to be published this fall. He thinks about working some of his memorabilia into a documentary.
And, as he thinks of the Warner Brothers option to do his brother's life, Brooks adds wistfully, in that voice that so echoes Montgomery Clift's, "Maybe for the part of Monty in the film...maybe they could use my voice..." CAPTION: Picture 1, Brooks Clift, by Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Inset: Montgomery Clift in 1948.