I have officially joined the cult of Sanders. I put it off as along as I could, but midway through Brian Aherne's breezy book "A Dreadful Man" I realized I was completely mesmerized by this eccentric, misanthropic actor and nothing less than full-on obsession would do for it. While the book is mostly about Sanders surpisingly few of the letters in this epistolary biography were written by him. Sanders married actress Benita Hume, in a scandalously short time after the death of her first husband Ronald Colman. Benita actually turns out to be the main correspondent and her letters make up the bulk of "A Dreadful Man." What letters of Sanders' do appear are treasures as they capture the full force of his curmudgeonly style. Benita's correspondence is light and chatty and occasionally catty. She describes Grace Kelly's acting as "an atomic age thundering bore," an assessment which made me laugh out loud even as I disagreed with it.
What I enjoyed most from her correspondence was the emergence of a snapshot of her relationship with George Sanders. Though most suspected he married her for the fortune he imagined she'd inherited from her first husband, he seems to have been completely devoted to her all along, despite the fact that he found out rather quickly that most of her money was hopelessly locked into trust funds for her children. Even his best friends found him to be eccentric to an extreme degree, thoughtless and probably unmarriagable. And yet, this odd pair worked somehow. She made him a better husband by dragging him out more into the social sphere and he helped her move on from the crippling grief she felt when Colman died. Colman had been ill for some time, and if you compare her letters during that time to the letters after her marriage you can see that she was operating under a huge strain and hadn't really realized it. Sanders it turned out, made her laugh which is a power not to be underestimated in such a situation, and she describes him as nothing but thoughtful and caring. It's difficult to imagine to those with much familiarity with Sander's as an actor, but he seems to have made Benita an exception to his caddish ways for the 18 years of their marriage.
I'm about five minutes away from starting a Tumblr blog called "FuckyeahGeorgeandBenita" based on this picture alone. The caption was written by one or the other of them, probably Benita.
One of the more intriguing aspects of "A Dreadful Man" is its depiction of Sanders strange business dealings. Robbed of his birthright title and fortune by the Bolshevik Revolution, Rossian-born Sanders chased the dream of being a tycoon for most of his life. He created a number of dodgy companies to hide his wealth around the globe. In several cases he encouraged friends to invest in these hopelessly corrupt organizations with disastrous results. While Sanders and Hume were usually the main losers in these dealings, Aherne is quick to point out that Sanders never expressed an iota of regret for the other people who lost money in these swindles. It's hard to believe but Sanders even managed to con the British government into subsidizing his "Cadco" (named after his autobiography "Memoirs of a Professional Cad.") When a company has the word "cad" in its name, should you really be surprised when it rips you off? Besides fodder for Aherne's sometimes bitter writing (he lost quite a lot of money in one of Sander's earliest schemes), these companies' main product was the prestige that Sanders desired. Though he never spent a minute actually working or managing one of them, he spent untold hours planning and decorating elaborate executive office suites for himself. He liked nothing more than a big desk with lots of buttons apparently. All of this is endearing to me as I always love a good eccentric, especially if I don't have to actually live with him or haven't given him any of my money to "invest." Sanders narrowly avoided prosecution for some his more egregious failings while the rest of Cadco's management actually went to jail.
Sanders was completely disdainful of his career as an actor. You can see a bit of Aherne's own complicated relationship with his profession coming though, here. You can tell he's driven a bit mad by Sanders who never put much effort into his work, always turned up never having even glanced at a script. Aherne who was conscientious to a fault struggled to find work as he aged, while Sanders was seemingly always had more work than he could use. Surely some of this was the lingering prestige of his Oscar for All About Eve, but some of it was what Aherne describes as "his personality." Sanders just brought class to whatever it was he was about, even if it was trash like Psychomania.
After Hume's death in the late 1960s, Sander's life went downhill in a big way. He married a second Gabor sister, Magda (he'd had a comically disastrous marriage to Zsa Zsa before Benita). The second Gabor marriage was actually Zsa Zsa's scheme to provide for her older sister and to try to help Sander's whose drinking was becoming alarming. How this loveless, nay, like-less, match was supposed to work, Zsa Zsa never explained but it was annulled six weeks after it began. After, Magda, his film choices went from bad to worse, his health was poor and made worse by drinking. He ended in suicide in 1972 with a note famous for its brevity and wit among suicide notes, "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."
I think part of Aherne's motivations for writing the book was to come to terms with the loss of his friend and of course the suicide. Though Sander's claimed "boredom" I don't think Aherne was convinced by that. I certainly wasn't. The picture of a man with many talents, hobbies and interests is not one of boredom, but of destabilization and frustration with many bad choices. Sanders had an almost compulsive house buying habit. He would drive through a neighborhood, see a house for sale and buy it on the spot. He moved continuously to avoid taxes, often winding up in far flung locales far from friends and family, which was more than usual the case when he found himself at a small coastal town in Spain with too many sleeping pills. Benita seemed to bring out the best in George and provided some stability. Without her, he might have gone off the rails more completely than anyone, even he, could guess.
Shirtless and apparently underpantless as well . You'll thank me for the "archive" setting on my scanner or you'll curse me for it. Click in at your own risk, people.
There are many great Sander's anecdotes in the book but my favorite is the one Aherne tells about golfing with George. Sanders was a great lover of croquet but famously hated golf. Aherne played golf a lot in Switzerland since there wasn't much else to do. His entire social life revolved around the game and he continually pestered George to play just to get him out and about. Sanders finally relented and arrived at the country club in his favorite ensemble, a pair of ratty old shorts and bedroom slippers. No shirt and eventually the slippers were discarded as well. Sanders had no clubs so he borrowed a five iron from Aherne. He proceeded to win by several strokes all with with just the five iron and all while protesting that he hated golf and never played.
The ease with which Sanders could pick up just about anything was legendary and perhaps the key to his desperate end. A stroke had made life difficult. He hacked his beloved piano to pieces with an axe because he couldn't play it any more. For someone to whom everything came easily, it was perhaps simply too humbling to learn after all that life requires some effort.
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