Zinsser on Friday

Tristes Tropiques

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By William Zinsser

April 8, 2011


 

One day in the fall of 1956 my wife and I were waiting on a dock in Suva, the capital of Fiji, to board a flying boat to Tahiti. No other air service to that island paradise was then available; the seaplane that was to drop us in Tahiti wouldn’t come back for two weeks.

Among the waiting passengers I noticed a slight American man in his late 30s who looked tremendously alone. I introduced myself and he said he was Ernest Lehman, a screenwriter from Hollywood. At that time I was the movie critic of the New York Herald Tribune, and I asked Ernie what movies he had written that I might have reviewed. To my relief he mentioned Somebody Up There Likes Me, a boxing film starring Paul Newman, which I had recently seen and liked.

I asked Ernie why he was going to Tahiti. He said, “To get away from it all.” I asked what the “all” was that he was getting away from, and it all came spilling out. He said he had just been hounded off the set of Sweet Smell of Success, the movie being made from hisCosmopolitan magazine novella, by its producers, Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht. Lancaster also starred in the movie as a venomous Broadway gossip columnist.

But the filming had unleashed a Waterloo of egos that I could only guess at in Ernie’s haggard face. He had been fired as screenwriter–replaced by Clifford Odets–and told to get lost. “We’ll read the reviews over your grave, Ernie,” Lancaster told him. Broken and exhausted, he was ripe for the getaway advice of a friend who spoke the magic word:Tahiti.

Like all the writers and dreamers who preceded us, Caroline and I were greatly taken by Tahiti’s beauty and languor. But Ernie Lehman was deeply morose. We spent a lot of time trying to jolly him over travel’s little surprises; he was a likable and humorous man. But even in the South Seas only so much can be done to cheer up an urban neurotic.

What finally undid Ernie was the absence of news from the outside world. In 1956 Tahiti had no newspaper or radio station; nobody knew or wanted to know what was happening anywhere else. Two of the major events of the postwar era–the Suez war and the Hungarian uprising–took place during our stay. We didn’t know about either one.

But for Ernie the deprivation was harsh. One day he happened to mention that his hobby was ham radio; he had a shortwave tower behind his house in Brentwood, and he talked about the pleasure of hearing faraway voices across vast distances late at night. That evening we looked for him at our hotel and couldn’t find him.

The next day he turned up for breakfast in a high mood. He had spent the day trying to locate a shortwave radio operator and had finally heard of a Frenchman who lived in the mountains. He hired a taxi to drive him up there, and he implored the Frenchman to make contact with someone in Los Angeles. Fiddling with his dials until well after midnight, the Frenchman had almost lost hope when Ernie heard the faint crackle of a familiar voice.

“It was Mel Shavelson!” Ernie told us. Shavelson was a screenwriter whose name I had often seen on amiable comedies like The Seven Little Foys. “I arranged for a phone patch to be put through to Mel and we talked for half an hour,” Ernie said, catching us up on the week’s movie grosses and the latest studio chitchat. I was glad to see him so happy; I hoped Mel’s fix would tide him over until the plane came back to get us.

But two days later a steamship put in at Papeete, heading east, and Ernie bought a ticket and was gone. At Panama he caught a flight to Los Angeles–never again, as far as I know, to leave. We followed his career with affection and visited him several times at the house with the shortwave tower.

Ernest Lehman would long outlive Hecht and Lancaster and his other tormentors–he died in 2005 at the age of 89–and would become one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters. North by Northwest is a classic original, a model of urbanity and wit, andThe Sound of Music is the third-biggest-grossing film at the domestic box office. Some of his other films were Executive SuiteSabrinaWest Side Story, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In 2001 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–the first screenwriter so honored.

He would also know the satisfaction, not given to many writers, of seeing one of his phrases, “the sweet smell of success,” ushered overnight into the American language.


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.

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