The Day I Met God

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I met God on a bright and sunny L.A. day in 1999. I’d just written His biography. He’d declined all my requests for an interview, but the book – a big doorstop of a thing - got good reviews despite His celestial silence. (He wasn’t silent about me; He told Jack Lemmon that the idea of doing an interview with me made Him “want to throw up.”) But now, apparently having read Andrew Sarris’s kind review in the New York Times Book Review or similar ones elsewhere, He commanded an audience on a particular August afternoon. I checked my calendar. Lo: I happened to be free all day.

So we spent two or three hours together, God and me. Fuck the evening of my birth, the moment when I discovered that sex with another guy was a lot better than going solo, the night I met my future husband, my wedding day.... The day I met God ranks by far as the greatest of my life.

By God, of course, I do not mean anyone supernatural. This was no rendezvous with a bush that burned while it talked, no tête-à-tête with Jesus in the gutter outside a slummy bar. By God, I mean the God in whom the film director Fernando Trueba believes – the God I have worshipped for much of my life, the one writer I most wanted to emulate, in Platonic terms the perfect universal to my own highly flawed particular. “I would like to believe in God in order to thank him,” the obviously non-American Trueba had the balls to announce in his Oscar acceptance speech in 1994. Trueba either didn’t know or didn’t care that atheism is criminal in this country when expressed openly on awards shows, where Jesus competes with CAA for the “Most Urgently Thanked” prize. “But I believe in Billy Wilder,” Trueba went on. “So, thank you Mr. Wilder.” Mr. Wilder called him the next day and said, “Fernando, this is God.”

At the time of my audience, God was working out of a small second-floor office over a shoe store on Brighton Way in Beverly Hills. I made my way up a plain flight of stairs, knocked on the door of what could well have been some schlub’s podiatry practice, and there He was, sitting behind a large desk surrounded by leatherbound copies of his screenplays lined up like the holdings of the Special Collections room of the Paradise Public Library. He shook my hand. My knees still rattled after I sat down opposite Him. We chatted. He didn’t throw up. That’s the short version. In fact, like the labors of Hercules, my path to Mr. Wilder was perilous; unlike Hercules, I am weak and small of stature. I’d say I’d had to get past a cretin bull, but that would be unfair to the mythical ox.

The story really begins with a staticky, half-intelligible message on my answering machine. The German-accented voice said, as far as I could make out, “This is Ben Dictahtion at the hemisphere shsloulsh. Billy Wilder wanztoshmeeshoo so if shoowooshd call thishhumbershhhhhh.” The string of digits that followed was too long to lead to a United States phone. I wondered if the Eternal had an especially lengthy area code.
The message was Gabriel-like in its announcement of approaching divinity, like a few others I’d heard my machine play back over the years. (One was, in its entirety: “Joan Fontaine. 5-0-niiiine – 3-3-niiiiine- 7-5-3-niiiiiiiiiiine. Call me.”)

I dialed the number and found myself chatting with Benedikt Taschen, publisher, who wanted me to write what turned out to be The Some Like It Hot Book, an exquisitely produced, gorgeously illustrated, yellow-bound beauty written by someone who evidently didn’t mind being paid very little. But that’s skipping ahead.

Taschen gave me an address just off Mulholland Drive and told me to meet him there in the late morning of an August day. I was anxious as I pulled up at a driveway that seemed to have no house nearby – only a stone wall. A handsome blonde youth was skipping down the hill above the wall. “I’m looking for the Taschen house.”

“You are here!” he cried with the same accent as Tashen’s, then pointed straight to the sky. Sunk into the hillside was a 30-foot concrete column. At the top was an octangular pedestal; I couldn’t see the slightly smaller octagonal house perched on top. “You must take ze elevator,” the kid advised, pointing to a steep funicular with the carriage waiting for me at the bottom. This was the landmark Chemosphere, the Jetsons-like residence designed by the daring architect John Lautner in 1960 and featured in Body Double and The Simpsons. Taschen met me at the top, escorted me into and through the house (including his pre-teenage daughter’s bedroom with the half-naked daughter asleep in her bed), after which he told me that he wanted me to write a book that looked like a sketch he quickly drew on a slip of paper. It was rectangular. I was to fill in the rest.

The Chemosphere

We set off for Brighton Way in separate cars – his SUV, my little rental car – across Mulholland toward Laurel Canyon, Sunset Boulevard, and Beverly Hills. The Kraut careened across the treacherously winding Mulholland Drive as though it was the Autobahn. I followed, sweat-covered and shaking, convinced that the next day’s Los Angeles Times front page would feature an article headlined:

MILLIONAIRE GERMAN PUBLISHER KILLED IN FIERY CRASH

with a paragraph buried deep in the paper with the subhead:

Writer Also Dies

By the time we reached the parking lot I was a nervous wreck, my shirt soaked in sweat, my knees wobbling, my mind in a badly altered state – exactly not the way I wanted to be when meeting the man I most wanted to meet on the face of the earth. But Mr. Wilder greeted me warmly and seemed quite pleased to meet me. He offered me a seat and immediately asked, “Why didn’t you contact me? I would have been happy to talk to you.” I never imagined that God would lie.

I was flabbergasted and momentarily speechless. “Um, well, uh - my agent did talk to your manager,” I stammered, failing to mention the five or six letters I had sent to him personally at his various addresses. “There must have been some sort of miscommunication.” Blaring inside my head was a voice saying, “Billy! Billy! Billy! No wonder you thrived in Hollywood for over 60 years. You lie so charmingly.” Taschen then inexplicably rushed out of the office, leaving Mr. Wilder confused and me holding the bag.

“Where did he go?” Mr. Wilder asked me.

“I have no idea,” I answered, then added – equally inexplicably – “You know those Germans.” Where this came from or what it meant I still can’t say, but Mr. Wilder was amused by it and repeated it knowingly. (Mr. Wilder was not himself German. He had several other nationalities: he spent his formative years in Vienna, but he was most accurately a German-speaking Polish Jew, having been born in a village called Sucha Beskidzka, about 35 miles from Krakow. He moved with his parents and brother to Vienna when he was about 10, then split to Berlin in 1926 when he was 20. He stayed for 7 years, exited to Paris in 1933 just after the Reichstag burned and Hitler took power, and landed on these shores in 1934. He became an American citizen in 1939.) 

With Taschen mysteriously having taken a powder, making small talk with God wasn’t easy. What does one say? “How’s tricks?” “What’s new?” “Where do you keep the Oscars?” “Who’s the most famous woman you ever screwed?” Mr. Wilder seized the reins by looking me squarely in the eyes and declaring, “Your book is the best researched book I’ve ever seen.” I fought back tears.

“Thank you very much, very very much,” I got out.

“Very impressive,” he said.

“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” I squeaked. “Very relieved.”

Taschen burst back into the office. “I hadt to get some feelm for ziss cahmera,” he announced. “Helmut gave it to me.” (Who’s Helmut, you ask? Helmut Newton! Don’t you know anything?)

“I made a reservation at Mr. Chow’s,” Mr. Wilder said. “Is that okay with you?” He was looking at me. I would have been happy on all fours eating out of Fido’s dog dish in the corner.

“Of course,” I said. “Sounds great.” And with that we left the office.

Mr. Wilder was quite a bit frailer than I had expected or could notice when he was seated behind his desk; Taschen had to help him down the stairs. I hovered nervously, but not so anxiously as to fail to notice that Mr. Wilder was wearing the most gorgeous slippers I have ever seen, with the possible exception of those once owned by the late Wicked Witch of the East. They were black velvet with elegant gold-, silver-, and red-metallic-threaded embroidery; they looked like they’d been created by a team of talented elves. Mr. Wilder’s feet dragged; it took some time for us to make our way around the corner to Mr. Chow’s, where the maître d’ greeted us as though – well – as though the God, party of 3, had just arrived. He seated us immediately at Mr. Wilder’s preferred table and presented no menus. Mr. Wilder didn’t even order. Waiters simply began bringing us his favorites: a large plate of shrimp dumplings, bowls of hot and sour soup, a vast dish of lo mein, and a platter of frighteningly spicy chicken.

Then She arrived: the legendary Audrey, the second Mrs. Billy Wilder, the one Truman Capote wrote about in his lost short story, “And Audrey Wilder Sang.” Dressed in her characteristic Chanel-inspired (or perhaps original) suit and defining Louise Brooks wig, she was exactly as I imagined she would be; one of their friends I interviewed had told me, “She always wears the same kind of outfit: white suit with black trim, black suit with white trim, brown suit with tan trim…. And she’s a real pistol.” Another friend of theirs once said, “She’s brilliant, beautiful, and as hard as he is.”

“Audrey, my dear,” Mr. Wilder said as she strode around the table. “This is the man who wrote the book.”

“What book?” she snapped as she sat down beside me.

“The book!” he repeated. “The big book!”

“Oh, that!” Her face assumed the expression of someone who has just discovered that the milk has turned. She faced me and said, “That book. Full of mistakes.” She brought her index finger within inches of my nose and wagged it at me. “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” Now I was the one who wanted to throw up.

“I’m so sorry to hear that, Mrs. Wilder. Please tell me what isn’t right.”

“Well,” she started, as though she was about to read the Torah from beginning to end. “Marlene never said that." I knew immediately, of course, to what she was referring. I’d found a detail somewhere about Marlene Dietrich telling Mr. Wilder that his marriage to Audrey, a big band singer at the time, would never work because they were astrologically incompatible. “I’m not a Cancer – I’m a Scorpio! Somebody got it wrong once, and you’ve repeated it, and now it’s replicating.” She pointed her fingers toward each other and wound them in circles in the air, indicating infinity. Okay, I thought – I can live with that. She can’t sue over an astrological error. But she had more to correct: “And we weren’t married in Linden, Nevada – we were married in Minden, Nevada!” She’d obviously looked herself up in the book, noted the booboos, and stopped reading.

To the “Minden” correction I had a comeback: “I can cite the source on that one right now,” I said, “I got that directly from Louella Parsons’ column announcing your elopement.”

She immediately made the cuckoo sign and said, “Figures.”

As Fagin sings in Oliver, I found myself reviewing the situation. In the past three minutes I had met the wife of God; heard the name “Marlene” uttered familiarly in reference to one of the greatest, most luminous movie stars in history; been told off by the wife of God; and found redemption by way of a cuckoo sign applied at the mention of that big fat cow, Louella Parsons. My head was very light. The air, as the studio boss tells Daisy in Inside Daisy Clover, was “very thin, but very good.” I really did feel like I was in heaven. For a boy from a dinky little town north of Pittsburgh, I was shocked to have my entire, mostly discontented life suddenly stamped “Worth It.” I excused myself from the table and went to the men’s room to splash some cold water on my face.

There was a pay phone at the top of the stairs. I dialed the number of my then-boyfriend, later partner, now husband. “Hello?” he answered.

“I’mwithhimhe’sdownstairsHiswifejustshowedup,” I blurted. “Shewasjusttalkingabout’Marlene’ - byherfirstname! MarlenefuckingDietrich! Igottagobye.” And then I ran downstairs and rejoined the little party.

We spent two hours over a superb lunch. I may have gotten the astrological stuff wrong, but I’d been told by another friend that despite his age Mr. Wilder ate like a horse, and that turned out to be quite true. It was a pleasure to watch him devour much of the spicy chicken himself. He was 93 at the time.

But he wasn’t the same firebrand he’d been all his life – the one who said, after Peter Sellers had a series of massive heart attacks and had to leave the production of Kiss Me, Stupid, “Heart attack? You have to have a heart to have an attack.” The one who loudly berated an interviewer after she misquoted Norma Desmond’s famous line in Sunset Boulevard: “No! No! No! You fucked it up! It’s ‘I am big – it’s the pictures that got small.’” The one who’d terrified me whenever I thought about what might happen if I actually did get to interview him. This was Billy Wilder diminished, an old man in declining health – still funny, but not as deadly.

He’d start to tell a story, but he’d forget the ending; I’d jump in and supply it, knowing it already, having written “the big book.” Mrs. Wilder, sensing the increasing awkwardness, swiftly took command by launching into a selection of Audrey’s Greatest Hits: she swung effortlessly from stories about Marlene’s peculiarities to the fact that she, Audrey, had personally dyed Marilyn’s hair for Some Like It Hot. (Note: That would be Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe! - who once called Mr. Wilder at home and reached Audrey instead. “Tell Billy he can go fuck himself,” Marilyn said; “And my very best to you, Audrey.”)

This was the Audrey who provided the punchline for the story of the afternoon  Mr. Wilder brought a guest over to the house. “Audrey, my dear! We have a visitor!” “Who?” came the reply from upstairs.

“Greta Garbo.”

“Oh, fuck off,” said Audrey Wilder.

The rest of the conversation was a blur; the Szechuan chicken, God, Marilyn, Marlene, Audrey, eating a fortune cookie with the man who wrote and directed The Fortune Cookie – it all went to my head. The only things I recall of the rest of the lunch is the sensation that the lightness of being was not at all unbearable; that no drug I’d ever taken could compare with this prolonged rush; and that if Benedikt Arnold Taschen would just have a conversation or two with my literary agent I’d be seeing Mr. and Mrs. God on a fairly regular basis. Much of the material the book would contain was to come from Mr. Wilder’s private collection.

And then it was time to leave. Mr. Wilder’s factotum/personal assistant/driver appeared, their car was waiting for them at the curb, and we all made our way out of the restaurant. (Being my father’s son, I had a nearly uncontrollable urge to grab the check, but then I recalled the $32+ million that God had pocketed at the auction of part of his extensive collection of Picassos, Mirós, and Giacomettis in 1989, and I silently agreed to let him pick up the tab.)

I shook Mr. Wilder’s hand before he was lifted into the car by his assistant. He was cordial but obviously exhausted. Audrey began to get in as well, then changed her mind and marched up to me. “What I said in there,” she said. “Stupid! I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what? What did you say that you’re sorry for?”

“That stuff about the mistakes. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”

“Mrs. Wilder,” I said with both confidence and absolute honesty, “you are by far the most charming person I have ever met. You have nothing to apologize for. Trust me.”

She shrugged her shoulders and got into the car, and they drove away.

Epilogue: The miserly Taschen would only assign me The Some Like It Hot Book as work for hire. My agent, the fabulous Edward Hibbert, and I have an agreement – he agrees not to write the books, and I agree not to strike the deals. Taschen refused to speak to Edward; he told his assistants not to speak to Edward; and I never heard from him again. Mr. Wilder died in 2002. Mrs. Wilder is said to have become a recluse. The Chemosphere has not yet toppled during an earthquake. And I will die a happy man, having met the God I believe in during my brief, surprising time on earth.

Image of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder
Author: Ed Sikov
Price: $39.95
Publisher: Hyperion (1999)
Binding: Paperback, 675 pages
Ed Sikov

Column by Ed Sikov

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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Comments

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... December 8, 2011 - 9:14am

Wonderful article, Ed. 

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading December 8, 2011 - 11:20am

This is fascinating. I will be looking for your biography of Billy Wilder!

Jack's picture
Jack from England is reading texts of rejection from pretty ladies December 8, 2011 - 11:25am

Fantastic article. One of the best I've read here. Thank you for sharing.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life December 8, 2011 - 11:30am

Agreed. Great story, Ed.

Wilder directed SO MANY great films. Ace in the Hole, Sabrina, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, Sunset Blvd, Some Like It Hot. What a track record.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing December 29, 2011 - 9:51am

Thank you all very much! I confess - I like this one, too.