Director-playwright Garson Kanin is sitting in the Madison Hotel's Retreat bar with his wife, actress-playwright Ruth Gordon. They are having tea and toast. Their interlocutor, under the impression that they are teetotalers (which they in fact were once, during a hectic season in Paris, of all places), is having Perrier. Tactful interlocutor.
KANIN: Oh yes, we still see Greta Garbo, she's a neighbor of ours in Manhattan, right over in the next block.
INTERLOCUTOR: Is that up in the 80s?
GORDON: No, I'm the one in the eighties.
That Day at the Willard
Does anyone have to be reminded who Garson Kanin is? He wrote "Born Yesterday" and invented Judy Holliday. He wrote many of the Tracy-Hepburn classics. He directed a long list of films and plays from "Funny Girl" to the Pulitzer-winning "The Diary of Anne Frank" to "Do Re Mi," which he also wrote. He was in town to push his latest book about Hollywood, "Together Again!" -- stories of the great screen teams.
Ruth Gordon, of course, has been acting since she appeared in Maude Adams' "Peter Pan." She got an Oscar for her dear-old-granny witch in "Rosemary's Baby," starred in "Harold and Maude," "Where's Poppa?" and a long line of pictures and plays when she wasn't writing with her husband or by herself.
They were married in the ballroom at the Willard Hotel Dec. 4, 1942, when he was in town with the OSS and she was writing "Over 21" and appearing in "The Three Sisters." Today they live on East 49th Street. He is a few days short of 69. She is 85.
Sexy but Ethereal
The new book, he says, celebrates the magic that two actors can produce: Astaire and Rogers, Bogart and Bacall, Olivier and Leigh, Rooney and Garland, William Powell and Myrna Loy ("They showed that marriage could be fun, that you could have a romance without doing the old boy-gets-girl boy-loses-girl number") and the other combinations, like Hope and Crosby, Laurel and Hardy, Newman and Redford, the Marx Brothers . . .
"Sometimes it just worked for the one picture, like Bogart and Bergman in 'Casablanca' or Bogie and Katie Hepburn in 'The African Queen.' "
"We don't read each other's stuff anymore before publication," Gordon says. "I was amazed, the way Garson could take these teams and make me want to see their pictures all over again. Such a mystery. The studios could be so wrong, like teaming Clark Gable and Greer Garson. But then they'd put Irene Dunne and Cary Grant together." She shrugs her eyebrows.
"In the long run, I failed," Kanin mutters. "I couldn't find the answer. All I can say is that one plus one equals a hundred and one sometimes."
Gordon brightens. "What you mean is one plus one equals one. Isn't that brilliant? That's me!"
It is pointed out that the bond wasn't always sheer sexual magnetism, that Astaire worked well with many sexy partners but the true magic happened in those dispassionate, maybe even ethereal numbers with Rogers.
"Sexy but ethereal," muses Gordon. "I like ethereal sex. Got to work on that."
Down by the Canal
His father, a Rochester, N.Y., realtor, acquired a movie theater called the Panama (because it overlooked the Barge Canal, distinctly not the Panama), and at age 5 Kanin was so bitten by movies that he'd sneak into the projection booth, open the cans and try to read the films frame by frame before they were screened. He saw everything nine times at least, Annette Kellerman, Nazimova, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chase, Harry Langdon, the Gish sisters, Richard Barthelmess. It may have been then that he learned to write dialogue.
KANIN: I quit high school after a year because I wanted to play the sax. I was into jazz. I played in Chinese restaurants. I was with Benny Goodman awhile, doing club dates, but I noticed he could learn a part at sight that would take me three weeks, and it was so depressing I quit. If I gotta be that good, forget it --
GORDON: You got an interesting career so far: You gave up high school, gave up Benny Goodman . . .
KANIN: Then I was the fifth banana in a 42nd Street burlesque theater, four shows a day, but I also was learning acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. I'd have my script propped up on the music stand. We did a lot of radio, $3 a program, maybe $25 for a big network show, which you repeated three hours later for the West Coast. Finally I got to work for George Abbott on Broadway and was in 'Three Men on a Horse.' I had five parts but no dressing room. So a couple of girls let me into their dressing room.
GORDON: I think that was kinda cute. You in there with the girls powdering their cheeks.
It was his first job in Hollywood. He was petrified. There he stood before the enormous desk, face to face with the fabled Sam Goldwyn.
"A large man," Kanin recalls in "Hollywood," the memoir he wrote in 1974. "Why had I expected him to be small? Beautifully dressed and groomed and shod. A smooth, pink face under a finely shaped, bald dome. An impressive presence.
"He clasped his hands under his chin and said, in a high, penetrating voice, 'Sidney Howard tells me you're a very clever genius.' Could it be? Had I heard correctly? Did I own, so soon, a personal Goldwynism?"
Many of the better Goldwynisms were later to be written by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Kanin himself. But the real item did exist.
"At first he liked 'em," Kanin adds, "but he couldn't stop 'em, and they began to irritate him. Once he said to me, 'You want to hear some real Goldwynisms, go talk to Jesse Lasky.' " He laughs. "Goldwyn had a manicure every day, shoes, ties just perfect always, carried nothing in his pockets to spoil the line. A gentleman. But not in business. In business he was a barracuda like the rest of 'em."
Goldwyn could invite Kanin and Gordon to the ballet (he learned to love it when, as Sam Goldfish, straight off the boat, he wanted to see a show where he wouldn't have to understand the English) and be hurt when Kanin assumed it was for research. Harry Cohn, another barracuda, couldn't care less about ballet or any other kind of culture. Ernst Lubitsch, the director whose subtleties became his trademark -- the Lubitsch touch -- was a pixie. Kanin adored him. He tells this story:
KANIN: Why is it, Mr. Lubitsch, that Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper always remind me of each other?
LUBITSCH: Well sure, they're the same person.
KANIN: Wha --?
LUBITSCH: Why of course. Didn't you ever notice? They're never in the same picture together.
"Born Yesterday" was written for Kanin's friend Jean Arthur. The idea came to him in sections.
"I saw a stripper in her dressing room at the old Eltinge theater and she was reading 'David Copperfield' and had a stack of books on the table. She had a left-wing intellectual boyfriend. Years later when I was in Washington I saw a lot of wheeling and dealing. I visited Roosevelt's powerful wartime commerce secretary Jesse Jones' suite, met a woman called Lady Bird there, married to some Texas congressman. So when I was sent to London in the war I decided I could either stay drunk the whole time or work. I tried the first for awhile and then I started to write this play about a junkman in politics. It was going to be a drama, but Judy came along and it turned into a comedy."
The trouble started early: Jean Arthur didn't like it. She couldn't see herself as the gum-chewing Billie Dawn. She got as far as the New Haven tryouts, then demanded that some key scenes be cut. The show moved to Boston. Arthur wanted to be taken off. She got sick on the eve of the Philadelphia opening. Producer Max Gordon kept saying, "Don't worry."
"The more he said, 'Don't worry,' the more I worried," Kanin writes. "Shows that close out of town seldom reopen."
Mainbocher, the costume designer, mumbled something about a kid named Judy Holliday who had been burning up the New York cabaret scene with Comden and Green and Leonard Bernstein at the piano. Kanin sent for her on a Tuesday, put her in a Philadelphia hotel room with the script. Two hours later she came out and nodded tentatively. "The only thing is: When?"
When she came off the ceiling, she agreed to give it a whirl. Between frantic rehearsals she got her hair dyed the reddish blond that became her trademark. And Saturday night she went on. Letter perfect. Kanin writes:
"From the first day, almost the first hour, it was plain that we were in luck. Judy was creating the character before our eyes."
From there it was "The Solid Gold Cadillac," "Bells Are Ringing," "The Marrying Kind," written by Kanin, and other successes before her death at 42.
The Golden People
The stories pour out, the names. A nice letter from William Powell, now 90, praising the Hollywood team book. Chatter about Fred Astaire, still graceful and active at 82. Bogart. Chaplin. Lillian Hellman. Rene Clair, a favorite French director. Annabella. The great D.W. Griffith, the Daniel Boone of screen narrative technique. ("I took him to lunch several times. He was living in one room at the Knickerbocker hotel waiting for someone to take him to lunch.") Charles Ray, another fallen star, who wound up as an extra. (Garbo, on location in a scene with Gordon, covered her face when Ray was pointed out to her in a crowd of extras. She didn't want to see.) George Cukor. Groucho. Paulette Goddard. And the teams: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton . . . Fairbanks and Pickford . . . Burton and Taylor . . . Comden and Green . . . Kanin and Gordon . . .
Each pair is different. All are the same. One plus one equals one.