The only individual producer thus far to win the best picture Oscar three times in eight years, Sam Spiegel had a remarkable career and an amazing life that took him from Galicia in the dying days of the Hapsburg Empire to Hollywood, Africa, the Middle East, and a yacht on which he threw legendary parties. Harpers Bazaar contributor Fraser-Cavassoni, who worked for Spiegel on his last film (“Betrayal”), chronicles the whole wild ride in an engrossing biography that documents his professional achievements and vividly captures a personality as epic as any of his films. It’s all here: the sleazy financial maneuvers and creepy taste for underage girls that make Spiegel a decidedly flawed protagonist, as well as the wit, sophistication, and Old World charm that make him a titanic figure the likes of which the movie industry will not see again.
The author seems to have interviewed everyone still living who knew Spiegel, and she journeyed as far afield as his hometown (now in Poland) and Jerusalem to pursue primary sources. She makes good use of this material to correct her subject’s often unreliable recollections and declines to be judgmental about Spiegel’s creative embroidering. “As the last of the great showmen, he recognized the power of myth,” she writes in an introduction that uses the Academy Awards ceremony of 1958 (when he won for “The Bridge on the River Kwai”) to deftly lay out the themes of Spiegel’s life. Fraser-Cavassoni’s formidable research and analytical skills are more impressive than her agreeable but rather sloppy prose, surprising from the granddaughter of biographer Elizabeth Longford and daughter of historian Antonia Fraser.
However, in matters of structure and balance she gets it right. She devotes less than 50 pages to her subject’s youth in Poland, half-decade (and first marriage) in Palestine, and wanderings through Europe, America, and Mexico that included two jail sentences (one for entering the U.S. illegally, one for financial misdeeds), two forced deportations, and several hasty departures one step ahead of the immigration authorities. Spiegel was “a late, late bloomer,” his biographer tells us; his real life began, as does her main narrative, when he arrived for the second time in Hollywood at age 38 in 1939.
As the author moves into the creative prime that began with Spiegel’s 1951 production of “The African Queen” and ended in 1962 with “Lawrence of Arabia” (his third best picture Oscar), movie buffs will recognize many oft-told tales: John Huston and Humphrey Bogart avoiding dysentery from Uganda’s tainted water by exclusively drinking and even shaving with whiskey; Spiegel scheming during “On the Waterfront” (his first best picture win) to divide director Elia Kazan from screenwriter Budd Schulberg (who, when asked why he was shaving at 5 A.M. replied, “to kill Sam Spiegel”); the producer hectoring David Lean over the slow shooting pace of both “Kwai” and “Lawrence.”
Meanwhile, the parties continued apace, unconstrained by Spiegel’s two subsequent marriages: at his mythic New Year’s Eve bashes call girls would discreetly appear after the wives left. “In many ways, Spiegel viewed his entertaining as another production,” notes the author, and her account of such late-career misfires as “Nicholas and Alexandra” and “The Last Tycoon” would be more depressing if you didn’t get the feeling that old Sam was still having a lot of fun with his fancy boat and his teenaged girlfriends. He died, appropriately enough, on New Year’s Eve 1985, and readers can only agree with the comment by David Geffen that Fraser-Cavassoni shrewdly takes as Spiegel’s epitaph: “Sam had a great life, it wasn’t as if he ever cut down on his cream.”