by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.
Author’s program note. In 1937 Frank Capra, one of Hollywood’s certifiable magic makers, released "Lost Horizon" based on the1933 novel by James Hilton in which its audience was asked to dream of a world of peace, serenity and mutual good will and kindness, all emanating from a land called Shangri-La where war’s alarums did not penetrate or destroy the greater good and its crucial harmony.
The score by Dmitri Tiomkin was wistful, evocative, uplifting, contemplative, a reminder of what was important and what wasn’t. It was an appeal to mankind’s better angels and a warning to everyday people everywhere that they must open their eyes to the burgeoning catastrophes shredding comity and community, particularly in 1930s Europe and Asia where Apocalypse was already a menacing presence, the fragile values of civilization already challenged and at bay. Go now to any search engine, find the tune; then let it wash over you, for we today have need of this awakening, too, and ignore it at our peril.
Clueless, chagrined, confounded.
One day when I was a student at Harvard, I received a telephone call from the office that scheduled guides for visiting celebrities; people who had a few hours to kill before giving a high-profile lecture, say, or addressing a colloquium on their expertise and renowned place in the world. These happened continuously at the World’s Greatest University.
Would I be available to spend the day with Frank Capra, squiring him around the campus, showing him every venerated nook and cranny? No problem. Thus innocently did one of my most abashing events occur, a real lulu. For you see, I had absolutely no clue as to who Francesco Rosario Capra (1897-1991) actually was; nor (far worse) did I take the trouble to find out. Instead I winged it in the approved Harvard manner most notably evinced by Alfred E. Newman, "What me worry?"
And so I began my notorious career of squandering one stellar opportunity after another, beginning with the gilded chance to learn from the maestro who bestowed on America such iconic films as "It Happened One Night" (1934); "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936); "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)… and so many others, including "It’s a Wonderful Life," (1946) the very essence of the American Christmas.
All I recall of what should have been a red-letter day, tete a tete with history, was how much he talked with his hands and how charming he was to me. I didn’t deserve it… and was desolate when he told Dick Cavett (born 1936) his unmatched, inimitable stories of Hollywood, (including the fact he burned the first two reels of "Lost Horizon")… yes, he told Cavett…but not me.
Sam Spiegel deserved better, too.
My lost opportunity with Mr. Capra took place in Cambridge; the one I am about to tell you occurred in New York, at the home of Lally Weymouth, whose mother Katherine Graham owned "The Washington Post." Again, my (then) abysmal knowledge about cinema was the proximate cause of my (soon-to-be) overwhelming embarrassment. Here’s how it happened…
Ms. Weymouth (born 1943), a Radcliffe alumna, was hosting a fund raising bash for alma mater. As Assistant to the President, my services were commandeered and never more gratefully given, for the event was small and selective, an "A List" of media movers and shakers, headed by Mother Graham (1917-2001).
The chief guest was Mrs. Jacqueline Onassis, and I had as my particular assignment providing the Queen of Camelot with whatever her heart desired. This part of my duty was flawlessly executed as I wrote in an earlier article on Ms. Onassis which you can find at jeffreylantarticles.com.
Thus I came to spend a handful of precious hours with the most famous woman of the world and have her (literally) smile upon me. It is hard to remain a detached and equitable observer, scrupulous purveyor of fact under such circumstances, but here at least I performed my task to my own satisfaction, which means perfectly, with alacrity, good humor, intelligence, and a sharp eye. This was not the problem…
"Ask Mr. Spiegel if he’d like a drink."
Hostess Weymouth then pointed to the man I came to know as Samuel P. Spiegel (1901-1985). He was sitting all by himself, rumpled and forlorn. Go-fer to the rescue. "Mr. Spiegel, can I get you anything?"
Thus did Nemesis, with consummate civility, prepare her booby trap for… me. "What line of work are you in, Mr. Spiegel?" It was the amiable query which made me cringe then and has made me cringe forever after, for Sam Spiegel, plump, aging, his suit crumpled and creased, was one of Hollywood’s titans, the man who compelled the admiration of the world with films like "The African Queen" (1951), "On the Waterfront" (1954); "The Bridge On the River Kwai" (1957); "Lawrence of Arabia" (1963), and my personal favorite, "Nicholas and Alexandra" (1971), featuring as the empress of all the Russias the most elegant and sophisticated woman in the world, Janet Suzman (born 1939), on whom I had a crush that wouldn’t quit. It was her first movie role, and she handled it with royal aplomb. I know. I watched her over and over again.
"What line of work indeed"?… His laconic response, "I had something to do with the movies." Indeed he did…
Sam Spiegel was born in Galicia, a subject of his imperial and apostolic majesty, Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary; he left Europe in 1938 just steps ahead of the goose-stepping jackboots of Hitler’s Germany, his new path literally paved with gold, including a cart load of the little statues named Oscar, items signifying, recognizing merit and the respect of the world’s most finnecky and discerning of critics, coming together to praise and immortalize the best among them… including Sam Spiegel.
It would have been easy, so ridiculously easy, to pick his cinematic brain for the titbits and tales it held in such luxurious excess, including an anecdote or two about (now Dame) Janet Suzman, so alluring, so hitherto unattainable.
How easy, how ridiculously easy it would have been for me to ask for the greatest and most necessary of favors, to call mia inamorata and say, "Janet, you’ve made such a conquest. Would you mind if he called and took you to lunch? I think you’ll like him. By the way, he’s got a new book out that’ll interest you. His name is Lant, Jeffrey Lant." On so very little do even life’s most momentous events depend.
To do a thing takes you one direction; not to do that thing takes you another, thereby creating a different person, like you of course, but definitely not the same. You wonder about this person, whether he is better off than you are, or not; in what ways different, in what ways the same. You want to know, but can hardly imagine and certainly can never know with the desired certainty. Old Polonius would surely say, "Know thyself," but which self is surely mine in a world of constant choice and endless permutations and combinations? It saddens and infuriates us that we cannot know amidst all the daunting possibilities.
And so I fetched some refreshment for Mr. Spiegel, but never asked him to do the simple thing which would change me and my life, whether for good or ill I shall never know… but which I shall always wonder about… fascinated, beguiled, enthralled… and (alas) regretful about all that might have been… but wasn’t.
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is the author of over a dozen print books, several e-books and over one thousand online articles on a variety of topics. Republished with author’s permission by George Kosch