Monday, April 5, 2010

A Dreadful Man

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.


Unknown said...

What an interesting man. This is definitely one of my favorite classic Hollywood books, I bought it because I like Brian Aherne but ended up becoming much more interested in George Sanders than I would have predicted! :)

Jennythenipper said...

That's exactly what happened to me!

rudyfan1926 said...

Le sigh, I am also a full fledged member of the Cult of Sanders. I adore him and love Aherne's book (and Memoirs of a Professional Cad).

I will watch him in just about anything, even phoning it in, he's remarkable and there is that voice.

Jennythenipper said...

I have yet to read Memoirs...It's on its way from ILL as I write this.

The voice! Oh la, I agree. I'm indecisive as to has the better voice Herbert Marshall or George Sanders.

The poor sound quality was definitely a detriment to Dark Purpose. What few lines Sanders had were hard to distinguish.

Ladybug said...

Glad to see the Sanders' Cult is adding new members.

Aherne paints one view of George Sanders. VanDerBeets another slightly different view (one permitted by a loving sister, but the early letters from Tom and George reveal the beginning of the obsession with money). Memoirs is delightful. But Sanders' doesn't give away much.

To see Sanders' in his croquet/golfing attire, you must visit the US Croquet Hall of Fame. Also read the Goldwyn entry about the Rolls Royce offer.

If it becomes a true obsession, one I admit to having, I'll send you the letter from THE TIMES written immediately after the suicide (and there were two notes). Responding to various articles about the suicide, an old friend (the one who was in South America with Sanders) gives us George Sanders at his silly best while also giving us a man somewhat different than the Hollywood image which Sanders' himself helped to create.

Nora (the Babbler again)

Jennythenipper said...

Ah Nora, I confess to writing this article, partly in hopes of hearing what you'd have to say on the topic.

There's a US Croquet Hall of Fame!? After a quick google search I found this:

And you can be glad they witheld the "archive" setting for their own personal use.

I would be interested in seeing the letter if it's not too much trouble to send it to me as a pdf or something. For those wondering, I didn't mention Sanders exploits in South America as they comprise only a tiny fraction of Aherne's book. I'm sure others have written more thoroughly on his misadventures there.

Jennythenipper said...

I found the anecdote about the Rolls on a website for the Maui Croquet Club:

Producer Samuel Goldwyn installed two courses at his Beverly Hills estate, where celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks and Howard Hughes enjoyed the game. Goldwyn, who hated to lose, once pleaded with actor George Sanders not to leave him with a difficult shot. "If you don't do it, George, I'll buy you a Rolls-Royce," Goldwyn said. Sanders paused, thought about it and said, "I already have one," and sent Goldwyn's ball flying. "

Ladybug said...

Hello Jenny,

I'll send Ogden's letter plus the articles from THE TIMES to your physics dot address.

Interesting note: Ogden briefly dated Joan Fontaine after her divorce from Aherne.

Be aware, Aherne changes some names in his book. And Colman's biographer disagrees with some statements Aherne makes (petty items only). But bless Aherne for those priceless letters.

Since I adore Herbert Marshall, I refuse to cast my vote on best voice.

As for Sanders, he was known for being difficult and was placed on suspension several times. Three times in one year alone. But being suspended was Sanders' way of getting time to work on pet projects (airplane building was one).

Sanders' refusal to do one film, which he considered unflattering to the English people (an inside joke to all who knew him), lead to yet another suspension and an appeal from Sanders to the British Consul. To get even with him, Fox loaned Sanders to MGM for Rage in Heaven. MGM asked Sanders NOT to make the situation worse by saying anything, which immediately sent Sanders to the press with this statement:

"I am grateful to Fox for sending me to Metro, where everyone is so refreshingly intelligent."

There is no end to Sanders' stories on or off screen.

SteveQ said...

(Really far off topic again; sorry) I watched NCIS last night and the subject "Best Prostitute Movie" came up. They suggested "Klute" and "Leaving Las Vegas." My vote goes to "Never On Sunday." Care to chime in?

Jennythenipper said...

Steve: I love Never on Sunday! I might not have thought of it, but I agree completely. I haven't seen Leaving Las Vegas. Klute is good. Camille would be on the top of my list and maybe That Hamilton Woman. We should have some pre-code in there too, I should think as there were a lot of hoors in the films back in the day. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Blonde Venus, perhaps. The 1931 Waterloo Bridge should be in there and maybe the 1940 one as well. Oh speaking of Dietrich, Destry Rides Again! This seems like yet another list post for Rupert Pupkin.

Jennythenipper said...

Nora, do you know whose names are changed in A Dreadful Man?

Sarah said...

So happy to see you on the Sanders bandwagon. I am currently still reading Maria Riva's book on her mother Marlene (my God that woman had a mighty list of lovers!) I hope to get to Aherne's soon. Kind of excited to learn about Hume's catty side!

Jennythenipper said...

Hey Sarah, let us know how you like Riva's book.

Hume's catty side gets quite intense at points. I didn't really say this in the post, but toward the end when she was dying, she is bitter and racist even which gets hard to take. But through the bulk of the book she has the most interesting opinions about everyone.

Robbie in Tokyo said...

Yes, George Sanders (is it possible to say George Sanders without using the George Sanders accent?) is a delight.

I remember the first time learning about his suicide and being very saddened by the news. Any film he was in was improved by his mischievous presence. I love how he explains his name to Joel Mccrea while racing along in the car in Foreign Correspondent. "ffoullet? How do you pronounce it, with a stutter?" "No, just 'fa'." Lol!

alexandra dobra said...

Thank you for this wonderful read! :)

species1859 said...

Loved reading your comment and the responces of others. I LOVE George Sanders and have loads of photos and lobby cards from his movies which I have hung on my condo wall. He was a unique, truly fascinating man. Last May I began a blog dedicated to George. Some of you may be interested in taking a look at

I think you will enjoy it. I am so thrilled to hear how others feel about Sanders. However, I distrust Aherne's book because of the errors and I think he was envious and jealous of George. VanDerBeet had access to all of George's papers and to his sister and I think it is far the better book. However, I sure did like the George anecdotes, particularly the "golfing" one, that Aherne talks about. Anything George did he seemed to do more easily and better than others.