Unloved in LA

William Cash has written a feature length article in the Catholic Herald that provides some new insights into Evelyn Waugh’s 1947 trip to Hollywood. The trip combined an effort to agree film rights with MGM for Brideshead Revisited as well as for Waugh and his wife to enjoy an escape from austerity England. Although the film project failed, the trip did produce material for Waugh’s 1948 best selling novella about Hollywood The Loved One as well as several journalistic productions that were well above his average achievement in that genre. According to Cash:

Although Waugh biographers Martin Stannard and Selina Hastings have done a rigorous job of excavating the Waugh papers at the University of Texas, the full story as to why the 43-year-old novelist refused to let Louis B Mayer adapt his most popular novel remains in a “Waugh” MGM file that I located – when I worked in LA – in a storage warehouse in East LA.

What follows is quite a good description of Waugh’s Hollywood experiences, in particular the contributions to the story of MGM screenwriter David Winter and writer Ivan Moffat. Winter and Waugh had a history going back to their Oxford days that most other commentators have missed (and about which Winters’ bosses at MGM must have been unaware when assigning him to the project). According to Cash, Waugh had suffered an:

…intolerable experience with Keith Winter, the 41-year-old MGM screenwriter allocated to the project in 1947. Although the studio went to careful lengths to ensure that Waugh was handled only by Oxbridge-educated expat Brits under contract to MGM, their choice of Winter turned out to be deeply unfortunate.

Winter had been at Berkhamstead School with [Graham] Greene – whose father was headmaster – and both went on to Oxford with literary aspirations. Like Waugh, Winter followed Oxford with a stint as a schoolmaster and published a novel. He had also been a successful West End playwright. Although Winter and Waugh drifted in the same literary waters, Waugh viewed him with cool disgust. Writing to a bright young friend in 1931, Waugh said that the one good thing about London is that “one doesn’t see Winter or anyone like that”. A few months later in Villefranche, he wrote to novelist Henry Yorke that his holiday had been ruined by the arrival of an “awful afternoon man called Keith Winter”. He later described him as “Willy Maugham’s catamite”.

Waugh had always been unimpressed by Winter’s homosexual style of dress and once loudly shouted abuse at him for favouring a willowy red shirt with white spots. Enduring him again in LA in 1947 was almost too much. On Waugh’s second day in LA, Winter appeared for a “conference” in what Waugh (his own LA get-up, it should be noted, was pin-striped suit with a tartan waistcoat and watch and chain) distastefully described as “local costume – a kind of loose woollen blazer, matlet’s vest, buckled shoes. He has been in Hollywood for years and sees Brideshead purely as a love story.” A week later Waugh was complaining that “Keith Winter shows great sloth in getting to work. He came to luncheon with us in native costume and was refused admittance to the restaurant until I provided him with a shirt”.

Keith Winter clearly became Waugh’s working model for Dennis Barlow, the young British expat who disgraces the British colony in LA by working in a pet’s mortuary in The Loved One. In the novella, Barlow is a penniless poet who comes out to Hollywood to script a life of Shelley; Winter was an ex-novelist/playwright who had written a movie about the Brontë sisters.

Winter symbolised everything that Waugh – who never worried excessively about the sloth of his aristocratic friends – found most sterile and debased about the expat “artistic colony” in California. As a middleclass, homosexual, trendy screen-hack, Winter held no interest for Waugh either socially or intellectually.

Another source apparently overlooked by previous commentators is Ivan Moffat. His  seems to have been interviewed by Cash rather than discovered in the film studio files:

Ivan Moffat remembers having dinner with Evelyn at a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard called Don the Beachcomber. When one of the owners, of “swarthy” complexion, came up to their table and introduced himself as a “Colonel”, Waugh replied “Colonel? Don’t look much like a colonel to me.” Then Waugh said it was “Lenten” and that he didn’t want too much food. As the portion duly arrived, Waugh took one disapproving look and said: “Even for Lenten that’s not very much.”

“He didn’t try to make himself likeable,” said Moffat. “Americans just didn’t get his drollery, his rather acrid attitude to everything. He spoke in a certain manner. The tone of voice was tongue-in-cheek but you had to know when he was being tongue-in-cheek. He was never self-important or high-horse.”

There is also a more detailed report of Waugh’s visit to Mount St Marys College, then located in suburban Brentwood:

Waugh always felt obliged to accept invitations to speak to Catholic schools. In LA, he was “trapped” by nuns to lunch at Mount St Mary’s College in Brentwood and exposed to a “brains trust” before the school. The student newspaper reported that when asked about his brother Alec’s novels, Waugh said he could say little because he had not read them. Asked to recommend some favourite authors, he listed TS Eliot, Max Beerbohm and Graham Greene. When a girl raised the name of John Masefield, Waugh replied: “A bore”.

That visit may have contributed to the inspiration for Waugh’s more ambitious American adventure in 1948-49 when he traveled over most of the Eastern USA lecturing at Roman Catholic colleges and universities.

Cash offers an excellent discussion of other information gleaned from the studio files and elsewhere about Waugh’s Hollywood visit. Much of this (in particular the information about Waugh’s memo to the studio, the Breen negotiations and the role of Leon Gordon, as well as, to a lesser extent, David Winter) was previously discussed in some detail in Robert Murray Davis’s 1999 book Mischief in the Sun: The Making and Unmaking of The Loved One.  Cash was apparently unaware of this, but his own more abbreviated discussion of the files is equally stimulating.

The article is well written and well researched and highly recommended to our readers. It is available in full at this link.

 

 

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