Go to Chapter One Section

Wilder Times
The Life of Billy Wilder
By Kevin Lally

Chapter One: A Boy Named Billie

Even, as he approaches the age of ninety, Billy Wilder has trouble sitting still. Wherever he is, he's already preparing to be somewhere else--a gallery showing, dinner at Spago, another grudging interview about Sunset Boulevard, another black-tie ceremony in his honor. His restlessness, no doubt, stems from a bright and brittle mind and a long standing place in the most rarefied circles of the Hollywood social scene. But it's more deeply engrained than that, too--traceable to a childhood spent on the move, in a Europe on the verge of seismic change.

Billy Wilder was born as Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, in the town of Sucha, in the province of Galicia, an area of Poland that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Max, had married Eugenia Baldinger in 1903; for Max, the union was a step up the social ladder, as he was a lowly headwaiter in Kracow while Eugenia's mother owned the Hotel Zent'al in Nowy Targ, the last stop on the way up the Tatra mountain range to the health spa of Zakopane. In 1905, the Wilders had their first child, Wilhelm, whom his mother nicknamed Willie. When Samuel came along, she immediately took to calling him Billie, in fond memory of the Buffalo Bill Wild West show she had seen as a teenager during a long stay in New York with her uncle, a Madison Avenue jeweler.

Following his marriage, Max Wilder went into the business of managing a chain of small cafes at various railway stations along the route from Vienna to Lemberg. The family was constantly in motion, spending a few days at one cafe stop, then proceeding to the next. Once he accumulated some money, Max invested in a four-story hotel and restaurant in Kracow at the foot of the Wawel Castle, near Jagiellonian University, Poland's oldest educational institution, where Copernicus studied and the first globe to depict the American continent was created. Perhaps under Eugenia's influence, Max gave his new venture an English name: Hotel City. The hotel had a grand outdoor terrace, where guests would sit during the summer drinking coffee, eating Bundt cake and listening to a small orchestra play court-style concert music. Best of all, from little Billie's point of view, the place had a billiard room. "I grew up standing on chairs and playing billiards against the grown-ups," Wilder recalls. "There was always some sucker who did not know how to play billiards, whom I got to take for a few kronen. And sometimes, I even stole some of the tips left over for the waiters."

Hanging around the billiard room and the card tables, young Billie received an early education in games of chance and the vicissitudes of gambling. As for more cultural matters, Wilder notes, "My father had nothing to do with literature or music--he did not play an instrument, he did not read novels. But he did read newspapers--he was aware as to what was happening. The same thing with my mother. I did have an aunt who had a little library, who would talk to me about the German writers, who made me familiar with Zola, Dumas, made me read Thomas Mann. I also had an uncle, an army engineer in the First World War, who was an opera lover." That uncle, David Baldinger, also encouraged Billie to read up on the Greek classics and on Zionism, and urged him to stay away from Der Ring des Nibelungen. But as Wilder sums up, "That's about all the connection my family had with the seven arts."

By 1910, the family was doing well enough to own a home in Vienna in the upscale First District, next door to a historic fifteenth-century restaurant and a dazzling nineteenth-century Greek Orthodox church. The Wilders divided their time between their Vienna residence and their Kracow establishment, until a memorable day in 1914 when Max Wilder, in striped trousers and a cutaway, mounted the Hotel City bandstand and halted the orchestra to make a dire announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, there will be no more music today," he informed the guests. "Our Archduke Ferdinand has been murdered in Sarajevo."

With one bullet, a great era was effectively ended. The Habsburg dynasty had ruled the land for more than 600 years, with the venerable Emperor Franz Josef presiding since 1848. As a child, Billie Wilder experienced a culture characterized by grace, refinement, harmony, aestheticism and a love of beautiful music--most particularly, the waltzes of Johann Strauss and his even more celebrated son. Austria-Hungary in those days was still the stuff of fairy tales--a grand, baroque never-never-land seemingly immune from the sweaty fever of the Industrial Revolution and the angry ethnic forces clashing outside its borders. The political assassination in what is now Bosnia punctured that insular existence. The Wilder family joined the frantic exodus from Kracow to Vienna, traveling in a horse-drawn carriage because the trains were completely full. Soon, Galicia was invaded by the Russians, and Wilder's birthplace of Sucha became an especially chaotic battleground, with the Russian and the Austrian forces constantly wresting control of the hapless hamlet from each other.

In 1916, Franz Josef died, and Wilder remembers watching the grand funeral cortege with his father, from the second floor of the Cafe Edison on Vienna's Ringstrasse. Military leaders and diplomats from all Austria-Hungary's allies were there, dressed in black uniforms and riding black horses. Max Wilder pointed to the coffin of Franz Josef, declaring, "There is the last of your old emperor." Then he called Billie's attention to a little boy riding behind on a white horse: "And there is your future emperor." Of course, that was not to be; the war was tearing apart the great Austro-Hungarian empire, drastically altering the map of Europe. Decades later, after the Second World War, Wilder, now a hugely successful director at Paramount Pictures, would be called on to give a personal studio tour to a visitor from his native Austria. His guest was a frail, prematurely aged-looking man in a wrinkled suit: Otto von Habsburg, the very same boy he had seen parading behind his fabled grandfather's coffin in Vienna. Instead of ruling half of Europe, he was in exile in America, making a humble career as a college lecturer on international relations.

Like everyone in Vienna during the war, the Wilders faced hardship and deprivation they had never known before. The British blockade of Germany and Austria created shortages of food and fuel. Recalls Wilder, "I and my late brother, who was two years older, we would stand in line for fourteen, sixteen hours, and each of us would get three potatoes. . . . But we as children had an easier time than the grown-ups, because we were flexible: You'd go out to the country and grab a couple of eggs, and things like that. You went into the swapping business-I'll give you my watch for a half a ham, or whatever." Young Billie also earned money as a street cleaner, while his mother served in the Red Cross and his father performed guard duty for the army reserve.

When the war ended in November 1918, things only got worse. Angry mobs raided shops, toppled imperial statues, attacked and killed soldiers. Wilder remembers how the soldiers, and especially the officers, scampered into civilian clothes so as not to be held responsible for all the ongoing suffering. As the empire was divided up, Austria became increasingly vulnerable. Food was still woefully scarce, and nearly half the country's population was fighting for scraps in the overburdened, ailing city of Vienna.

"Then one day," says Wilder, "the spell was broken--the Americans came with the trucks with the flags. That was all started and organized by Herbert Hoover, later on our president, who was the head of the American Relief Committee. And suddenly there was white flour, there were eggs. It got us gradually out of the years of hunger."

The war, however, had taken a huge economic toll on the Wilder family. The Hotel City became a liability, and Max Wilder spent the rest of his days jumping from one quixotic business venture to another. "My father was a dreamer and an adventurer who sought something his whole life long without knowing exactly what it was," Wilder declares. "He dreamed about