Remembering the screenwriter of North by Northwest
By William Zinsser
September 1, 2005
Last summer, reading the obituaries of the screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who died at the age of 89, I was taken back to a day in the fall of 1956 when he came into my life as improbably as a character in one of his own circuitous scripts. My wife and I were traveling in the South Seas and 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 then existed; the plane that was to drop us at Tahiti wouldn’t come back to get us 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 told me he was Ernie Lehman from Hollywood. In those years I was the movie critic of the New York Herald Tribune, and I asked with some trepidation what movies he had written that I might have reviewed. To my relief, he mentioned Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman, which I had recently seen and liked.
I asked Ernie why he was going to Tahiti.
“To get away from it all,” he said. It was the classic reason for going to the South Seas; I had met the myth personified. I asked what the “all” was that he was getting away from, and it all came tumbling out. He said he had just been hounded off the set of Sweet Smell of Success, the movie being made from his Cosmopolitan magazine novella, by his producers, Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster. Lancaster also starred in the movie as a venomous Broadway gossip columnist.
At that moment in the mid-1950s, Hollywood was in the first stages of a revolution that would forever alter its power structure. A number of high-wattage stars who resented their long captivity to the big studios had begun to form independent companies to make their own films, and Hecht-Lancaster was one of the most aggressive upstarts. They had bought Lehman’s story and hired him to write the screenplay.
But the filming had unleashed a Waterloo of egos that I could only begin to guess at in Ernie’s haggard face. He said 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. He had never been out of the United States before, never experienced the vicissitudes of travel that every tourist has learned to expect and to contend with. That made him a pure case study for Tahiti as therapy for the depressed. I wondered whether the cure would live up to its reputation.
All the writers and artists and dreamers who had preceded us to Tahiti hadn’t overstated its spell; Caroline and I were instantly won over by the island’s beauty and languor. But Ernie Lehman was deeply morose. We spent a lot of time with him—he was a likable and humorous man—trying to jolly him over travel’s little surprises. To reach the thatched bungalows at our hotel, Les Tropiques, it was necessary to outrun huge, scuttling land crabs, and at night various small animals seemed to be chewing apart the roof. Under the lash of our good spirits, Ernie’s gloom would occasionally lift. 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 blockbuster events of the postwar era took place during our stay: the Suez war and the Hungarian uprising that the Soviet army crushed. We didn’t know about either of them and didn’t miss not knowing.
But for Ernie the deprivation was harsh. One day he happened to mention that his hobby was ham radio. He said he had a shortwave tower behind his house in Brentwood, and he talked with animation 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 morning he turned up for breakfast in a high mood. He said 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 implored the Frenchman to try 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 movies like The Seven Little Foys. “I arranged to have a phone patch put through to Mel,” Ernie said, “and we talked for half an hour,” catching us up on the week’s movie grosses and the latest Hollywood studio chit-chat. I was glad to see him happy at last; surely Mel’s fix would tide him over the second week until the plane came back.
But two days later a steamship put in at Papeete, heading east, and Ernie went down to the harbor and bought a ticket and was gone. At Panama he would be able to catch 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.
Ernie Lehman would outlive Hecht and Lancaster and his other tormentors and become one of Hollywood’s most successful writers. North by Northwest is regarded as a classic original, and The Sound of Music is the third-biggest-grossing film of all time at the domestic box office. Some of his other hits were Executive Suite, Sabrina, West 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,” welcomed overnight into the American language.
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.