In 1939 -- no, it can't be almost 50 years ago! -- this writer took his leave of Hollywood to go East, specifically back to his second alma mater, Dartmouth College, to write a book about his first alma mater, Hollywood. He had been taken there when he was 4. His father, B.P., a 26-year-old pioneer photoplay-writer, had worked himself up the movie ladder to producer and partner of L.B. Mayer in the now forgotten, downtown Los Angeles Mayer-Schulberg Studio. By the time I was running the Blue-and-White daily and a mediocre half-mile for L.A. High, Mayer and my old man had become bitter rivals, L.B. running MGM and B.P. running Paramount.
After Dartmouth and three years as apprentice screenwriter for three legendary moguls, David Selznick, Walter Wanger and Sam Goldwyn, I was ready to leave Hollywood because I had learned from years of watching and a few years of personal frustration that in the dream factories the writer was low man on the totem. Whether you made $100 a week or $2,500, you and your story ideas, your scenes, your completed screenplays were shuffled like cards by the studio heads and their usually sycophantic assistants, then known as "supervisors."
That first book, "What Makes Sammy Run?", chronicled the rise of an on-the-make copy boy from New York who hustles his way to Hollywood, where he climbs to the top of the ladder by sweeping aside the people above him who get in his way. Everyone who goes into the writing life has hopes and dreams. But "Sammy" was to endure beyond my rosiest fantasies. In 1952, it was included in the Modern Library, and I wondered if the name listed between Schopenhauer and Shakespeare belonged to me. In 1960, NBC presented a two-part television version starring Larry Blyden as Sammy and John Forsythe as his Boswell, Al Manheim. Then, a musical version starring Steve Lawrence ran for two years on Broadway. Year after year, paperback editions continued to appear, most recently in the late '70s with an Author's Afterword speculating as to whether a Sammy Glick, greedy for political power, had taken over the White House a few years earlier.
Despite its long life in other forms, once the all-powerful Mayer put it on his ex cathedra list, "Sammy" had remained a Hollywood untouchable. But now, after all the years of ostracism my father had predicted for the book at the hands of the original moguls, "What Makes Sammy Run?" has finally broken through the studio gates. A new generation of studio heads, fresh out of film schools or rock music, has practically forgotten Louie Mayer and his doge-like taboos.
Today, as we begin to address the problem of putting "Sammy" on screen, and to reappraise the contemporary significance of Sammy Glick, I find myself challenged by the question: What has happened in America -- or is it to America? -- that has so drastically changed our perception of Sammy Glick from dread repugnance to upwardly mobile acceptance, if not actual admiration and emulation?
When I first took the book to Random House, almost half a century ago, Sammy's chances for enduring fame, on a scale of 1 to 10, seemed to hover around zero. Bennett Cerf, my publisher, warned the neophyte novelist to expect the worst. Even if it enjoyed good reviews, Cerf went on, the chances for commercial success were virtually nil. It was the cold verdict of the publishing world that there simply was no market, and precious few readers, for a Hollywood novel. The horror stories abounded. Only the year before, "The Day of the Locust" had not earned back its $500 advance to Nathanael West -- that premature absurdist and avid hunter -- who had to keep on grinding out western-movie scripts at Republic to keep food on the table and shells in his shotgun. The popular hobo writer Jim Tully, the up-and-coming John O'Hara ... all had come a cropper on the Hollywood novel. Even when "Sammy" won enthusiastic advance notice from a trio of literary heavy hitters, O'Hara, Dorothy Parker and Scott Fitzgerald, Cerf stood by his first printing of 2,500 copies, and promised if the book sale exceeded what he considered a rosy estimate, he would wine and dine me at "21."
"The problem is that people who read novels have no interest in Hollywood, and the people who go to movies don't read books," Cerf pontificated. It sounded reasonable. I was prepared to paste the O'Hara and Fitzgerald letters in a scrapbook for my young family while going back to screenwriting to support them.
But soon after publication, I was at "21" with Bennett Cerf not once but month after month, as the book took off in a way none of us had foreseen. The New York Times gave it the equivalent of four stars: "Best first-novel of the year." In Hollywood, it was the succe`s de scandale my veteran producer/father had feared. "You'll never work in this town again," he had written me after reading it. "How will you live?" From the moment the book dared show its face in Hollywood bookstore windows, I was marked "traitor." Sam Goldwyn, literally turning purple with anger, fired me. Hedda Hopper, the columnist who could make or break careers, accosted me in a popular Hollywood restaurant with "Humph! I read that book! How dare you!"
But the ultimate blow came from the tycoon of tycoons, Hollywood's boss of bosses, Mayer, my no-longer-benevolent "Uncle Louie." At a meeting of the Motion Picture Producers' Association, L.B. turned on my father: "B.P., how could you let your own flesh and blood write such a book?" And before my beleaguered father could answer, L.B. intoned, "You know what we should do with him? We should deport him!" The only member of the powerful MPPA who dared the wrath of L.B. was my liberal and maverick old man. "For Christ's sake, Louie, he's the only novelist who ever came from Hollywood. Where the hell are you going to deport him, Catalina Island?"
With Mayer wanting to deport me, I had the unusual distinction of being attacked simultaneously by the Communist Party and John Wayne. Although it was the first book in the history of Hollywood fiction to side with the Writers Guild in its bitter struggle against Mayer, Thalberg & Co., it failed to meet the Hollywood Communists' high standards for Social Realism a` la Stalin. But to John Wayne -- Big Duke, the USC football lineman transformed into an all-American movie star through the magic of John Ford -- "Sammy" was the personification, or novelization, of the "Communist Manifesto."
Encounters with Wayne at parties, or in famous watering holes such as Chasen's, Ciro's and Romanoff's, became Beverly Hills versions of "High Noon." In Wayne's superpatriotic eyes, an attack on Hollywood (or the Sammy Glicks of Hollywood) was an attack on Free Enterprise, Mother and the Flag. I was verbally abused, publicly denounced, and if flogging had been permitted in Hollywood along with tongue-lashing, I would have been as bloodied as Kunta Kinte in "Roots."
If "Sammy" went on running into the '50s and '60s, so did John Wayne's righteous indignation. One of the happiest moments of my life was sailing into Puerto Vallarta in the mid-'60s on a 90-foot schooner with my wife, Geraldine Brooks. The timing was perfect, a Mexican Pacific sunset, the company of friends we could laugh with, and exquisite margaritas. If I cashed in my chips at this moment, I felt, I'd be ahead of the Dealer. Then Gerry was saying, "Budd, try not to get upset, but look who's coming in with us." I looked, and lost a little of my Baja California tan. Side by side with our Double Eagle was the John Wayne yacht. When the Great American Hero and I stepped ashore almost shoulder to shoulder, we were welcomed by the mayor. To celebrate this historic moment -- the arrival of a legendary American film star and a prominent American writer, who still lived part-time in Mexico -- Puerto Vallarta was planning an official reception/fiesta that evening. Big Duke and I as co-guests of honor! While I could honestly admire his hulking presence on the screen, he and Louis B. had drummed me out of Hollywood. Now he was lousing up Puerto Vallarta for me -- and PV was still an appealing, largely unspoiled fishing village in those days.
At the Hotel Dorado I sulked. I'm not going down to that pachango and have Wayne shoot me down for "Sammy" again -- the way he wastes Injuns in those westerns of his. Said the ever-practical Gerry, "We'll put you at a table across the room from his -- with your back to him. You love Mexico, the music, the tequila viejo, the people -- just forget Wayne's there. Enjoy yourself."
Which I was trying to do when I felt a muscular arm around my neck. John Wayne -- with his rough-and-ready entourage behind him -- was ready to drag me to the nearest jacaranda tree and string me up as a traitor. More than a score of years had passed since "Sammy" first appeared on the scene -- but the great Defender of the Alamo and the American Way (with the exception of the First Amendment) had never forgotten or forgiven. After a brief scuffle -- when the guests of honor were separated, and the mayor was ready to run for cover rather than high office -- the hero of "Fort Apache" fixed me with that famous look, and lines only a natural like Duke could get away with: "How about you 'n' me settlin' this once 'n' for all? I'll be back at midnight. An' I'll be waitin' for ya!"
ELEVEN-THIRTY: In my room at the hotel I started warming up, Walter Mitty throwing furious combinations that would render hors de combat the mighty warrior of "Iwo Jima" and "The Longest Day." I had been around boxers all my life. I liked them better than actors. I had watched them get ready. This was my moment.
QUICK DISSOLVE: Two old beach masters lunge at each other -- but there's an obstruction somewhere between them. It's the invisible, 5-foot-2, 110-pound Gerry making it impossible for either of us to throw a punch without hitting this uninvited but insistent "referee." "Gerry, PLEASE get out of the way," I beg. Wayne was trying just as hard to remove this unexpected obstacle to his heroics. So, as our corners pulled us apart, the only winner was Gerry. It went into the record books, like most Hollywood fisticuffs, as ND -- No Decision. Or maybe that should read "double TKO" -- the "T" standing for tequila.
If Sammy Glick had been perceived as strictly and narrowly a product of Hollywood, if the character and the novel as a whole had been viewed as myopically and self-protectively as Louis Mayer and John Wayne had seen them, my career might have been over and I would have been down and out in Beverly Hills. But the perception of Sammy Glick by the critics and the public was far broader and deeper than we could have anticipated. I had written about Sammy Glick because I had been brought up among Sammy Glicks, and I had used Hollywood as a background because Hollywood was my home town and, until I exchanged palm trees for pine trees, the only community I knew.
But the Sammy Glick I had chosen as my prototype was not linked only to Hollywood hucksterism. The New York Times Book Review welcomed him to the select company of American antiheroes from Simon Legree to George Babbitt. In the opinion of Damon ("Guys and Dolls") Runyon, I had created "the All-American heel." In review after review, Sammy Glick was described as "aggression personified," a "conquistador from the gutter." In time, Sammy Glick was to creep into the language, and even into some dictionaries. A "Sammy" might become rich, powerful and famous, but you wouldn't want him to marry your daughter. In fact, you wouldn't want to turn your back on him for fear he'd cop your watch, your story, your company, your wife, your life. The trouble was, Sammy lived by different rules from the rest of us. As the moralizing narrator, Al Manheim, puts it to him, "You never had the first idea of give-and-take ... It had to be all you all the way. You had to make individualism the most frightening ism of all."
The reason the book enjoyed such spontaneous success, we were learning, was that I had touched a nerve -- not a Hollywood nerve, not a Jewish nerve, but something flawed and dangerous in our national character, some upside-downing of the Golden Rule that resulted in its brutal opposite: "Do it to him before he does it to me!"
That was Sammy's compulsive creed, that was his pirate flag, that's what made him -- in the words of one reader -- "part of the established folklore of America." "What Made Sammy Run" became a subject not just for literary critics but for historians and psychiatrists.
The eminent Dr. Franz Alexander, head of the Psychoanalytical Institute at the University of Chicago, in his provocative book "The Age of Unreason," thought he had found his answer in Sammy's being the ultra-aggressive, ruthless and belligerently self-centered type rather common among second-generation Americans from impoverished immigrant families, where the father has lost his prestige due to his inability to cope with his new environment:
"A common solution is that the son usurps the father's place in the mother's affection as well as in economic importance and acquires an inordinate ambition. He wants to justify all his mother's hopes and sacrifices and thus appease his guilty conscience about his father. He can do this only by becoming successful at whatever cost. Success becomes the supreme value and failure the greatest sin because it fails to justify the sacrifice of the father.
"In consequence of this all other defects such as insincerity in human relationships, unfairness in competition, disloyalty, disregard of others, appear comparatively slight, and the result is a ruthless careerist, obsessed by the one idea of self-promotion, a caricature of the self-made man and a threat to Western civilization, the principle of which he had reduced to absurdity.
"I am impressed by the accuracy with which Schulberg has described this type, a victim of cultural conditions, and how well he has portrayed the hero, Sammy Glick, the 'frantic marathoner' of life, 'sprinting out of his mother's womb, turning life into a race in which the only rules are fight for the rail and elbow on the turn, and the only finishline is death.' "
While it was flattering to have Dr. Alexander devote an entire chapter to Sammy Glick, his answer made sense only up to a point. Was the Sammy Glick syndrome really limited to children of impoverished immigrants? "Detribalization," Alexander had diagnosed the disease. The son has lost respect for his father's (tribal) values, but has yet to be affected by the mores of his adopted culture. So he is left and lost in a moral no-man's land.
But if that were so, how would you account for the mail "Sammy" drew from all over the country? From insurance companies in Hartford, from chain stores in the South, from mail-order houses in the Middle West, people were writing that I could not have written Sammy without personal knowledge of their own mailroom boy who had run over their backs to become office manager, and in some cases company president. Teen-age white boys in Atlanta, third-generation sons of the middle class in Boston, no ethnic group, geographical area or economic stratum seemed to have a lock on "Sammy." He was not from Rivington Street alone, or from Sunset and Vine. He was made in America.
Through the '40s and '50s, "Sammy" endured as the quintessential antihero, the bad example, the free-enterprise system at its meanest, brass-knuckle, kick-in-the-groin dirtiest. By now the book had sold into the millions, read by people who loved to hate Sammy Glick.
It was in the early '70s that I began to feel the first disturbing shift in what was to become a 180-degree turn in our national attitude toward Sammy. Following a talk I had just given at a local college on the impact of success on American writers, a young man came up to thank me for creating Sammy Glick. "He's a great character. I love him. I felt a little nervous about going out into the world and making it. But reading 'Sammy' gives me confidence. I read it over and over. It's my bible."
He put out his hand, the hand that would soon be knifing friends and colleagues in the back. As I took it, hesitatingly, I asked myself, What have I done? Or what has a changing, greedier, more cynical America done to Sammy Glick? Speaking on other campuses through the '70s, I found to my dismay that the first young man hitching his star to Sammy Glick's was not at all an aberration but the harbinger of a trend. Now all the young people in college reading a new edition of "What Makes Sammy Run?" were reacting to him as if he were a positive guide to their futures onward and upward. The book I had written as an angry expose' of Sammy Glick was becoming a character reference: How to succeed in America when really trying!
What had happened, of course, is that we had left the '60s behind, with its hippies and flower children and their communal dream of sharing and loving, and had moved on to the Nixon generation, the Bebe Rebozo generation of deal-makers and Do-It-To-Them-Before-They-Do-It-To-Us. In that context, the Watergate break-in was no accident, nor was Attorney General Mitchell's Glickish boast, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Nor the blanket apology for immoral acts or amoral behavior, "Everybody does it."
No, not everybody does it -- conscience and social responsibility are still alive if not too well in America. But the dramatic transformation of Sammy Glick from the antihero of the '40s to the role-model hero for the yuppies of the '80s is a painful reminder of the moral breakdown we are suffering without even seeming to realize that suffering is involved. This is a new nation, created in ambivalence, with idealistic individuality contending with selfish individualism. From the very beginning it was Jefferson versus Hamilton, the democratic dream versus the autocratic reality of hard money and the Bank, social justice versus a narrow interpretation of Law and Order.
Individualism run rampant, an arrogant disregard for the views and the welfare of our fellow man, is the root of the Iran-contra debacle, which has brought the president down from his mythic high. Small wonder in such an atmosphere that a lieutenant colonel in the Marines becomes his own CIA and State Department, wheels and deals with foreign countries, international arms dealers, Swiss bank accounts and rebels in Miami who dream of the good old days of Somoza while they gobble up those mysterious millions.
In the closing lines of "What Makes Sammy Run?" I had described his meteoric career "as a blueprint of a way of life that was paying dividends in America in the first half of the 20th Century." Well, with our takeover artists, our inside traders, our Ivan Boeskys, our Ollie Norths, our college football heroes on the take from filthy rich alumni, our New York City commissioners compromised almost to a man (and woman), all signs point to even bigger dividends for the Sammy Glicks in the remainder of this century, and on into the threatened 21st.
The book I had written as an attack on antisocial behavior has become a how-to book on Looking Out for No. 1. Change that line of the old hymn to read, "America, America, God shed His grace on me." Let's hear it for me, me me!
Who needs free milk and hot lunches for poor kids in school? Who needs loans and assistance for high school graduates who can't go on to college for lack of bread? It's Darwin Time -- survival of the fittest! Sure, all people are created equal. Only Sammy Glick is created more equal than the schleppers, get it?
Okay. That's how they're reading it in 1987. And if that's the way they go on reading it, marching behind the flag of Sammy Glick, with a big dollar sign in the square where the stars used to be, the 20th century version of Sammy is going to look like an Eagle Scout, compared to the 21st.