April 01, 2010
Turner Classic Movies, (TCM), the Ted Turner golden oldies network, saluted Louis Jourdan last week with a night of his movies, an evening that sure brought back memories. The highlight of the evening was the 1948 Letter From an Unknown Woman, based on a story by the tragic Stefan Zweig, a great writer who despaired of the world and ended his life by his own hand in South America during World War II. The film does his story justice. It is about an egotistical concert pianist and his heedless treatment of a woman who has loved him since childhood. Louis Jourdan is the pianist, the wonderful Joan Fontaine is the almost biologically bewitched girl and later on woman. For me the real star is Vienna at the turn of the century. The film is black and white, and the Austrian capital is perfectly captured, insular and full of ghosts, with a faint, heady air of isolation and rotting elegance. The men wear top hats and white tie or uniform, the ladies have trains and veils and elaborate headpieces. Most of the action takes place behind heavy brocaded curtains. The mood of turn of the century Vienna is one of doom and melancholy. The German director, Max Opuls, gets every note right, even the wonderful waltzes sound morbid.
Vienna has been compared to a first class opera performed by the understudies. How true. I’ve been there many times, and the saddest part was when I visited the Schoenburg Palace, on Schoenburg Strasse, where some squatters moved in on one of its floors immediately after the war and managed to ruin the most beautiful building in the city. My in-laws have done nothing about it and have left it uninhabited. One of my wife’s aunts lost all six of her sons with the Wehrmacht fighting in the east, and I somehow see her point. No use bringing back such painful memories. I was hoping my children and their Schoenburg cousins would one day take it, but they’re all Yankees now. But back to “Letter From an Unknown Woman” and Louis Jourdan.
As a young girl Lisa watches him come and go and listens to him endlessly rehearse, and one day she runs into him as he’s leaving his apartment. She lives below. Stefan is the best looking man she’s ever seen or imagined, and Jourdan—who was thirty at the time—fulfills the role like no other. No one from all the screen idols we’ve known has ever looked as Louis did in that film. He’s manly yet soft spoken, glamorous but dangerous, self-assured yet somehow needy. It’s all in his looks, and she understands him perfectly. No use going into more detail, just see the film, but it all ends the way you think. Tragically. I liked the line at the opening frame, when a drunken Louis has been challenged to a duel, and his seconds tell him to lay off the brandy and get some sleep as he will be dueling in three hours. “I don’t mind being killed, but I do mind having to wake up so early,” says my hero with a wry smile. Then it’s all flashback. Needless to say he is a great star but ruins his career with women and wine, while Lisa loses everything by her obsession for him. But as she lay dying from typhus, having lost her son by him to the same disease, she writes him a letter explaining who she is and what she’s felt all these years for him. He had completely forgotten her and their brief affair. He goes off to the duel amidst a snowy, misty Vienna. It is enough to make even a low life like John Terry cry, but then he cries all the time.
Louis Jourdan was born in 1919, and was discovered by David Selznick in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes after the war. He became the perfect “jeune premier,” and played in classics such as “Gigi” “The Swan” “The Best of Everything” and was even the bad guy in Roger Moore’s “Octopussy.” He made close to 100 films. I met him in the Hotel du Cap in the mid-Sixties. We became fast friends and spent our time in the cabanas of the hotel playing quiz games about classical music. We had tapes or records, and a stopwatch. The quicker one answered the more points one got. Louis had invented the game and apparently it was popular among certain Hollywood parties, certain being the operative word, according to Louis. The rest of the time Louis would swim, sunbathe and read Beaudelaire. His one and only wife, the wonderful Kik, would remonstrate with him, “no one’s going to make a film of that, you should be reading scripts.” They had a son, Louis, who was even better looking than his father, but like so many Hollywood children got into drugs and died. The Jourdans asked me one summer to look out for him, and the two of us picked up a beautiful young Swede, Helen Hogberg, and in my jeep drove from Antibes to Athens via Yugoslavia. My father took one look at him and told me there was no way I could go around with him in a buttoned up—as it was back then—city like Athens. “He’s too beautiful, people will talk.”
The Jourdans gave a wonderful party for me in LA on my way back from Vietnam, and afterward broke the news that Lulu had died. It was typical of them, thoughtful to the end. Louis is now 91 and I haven’t been in touch since exactly twenty years. Seeing the movie reminded me of our lost youth and old friendship.