Fiction — April 6, 2011 13:37 — 1 Comment

Burning And Dodging – Julie Wittes Schlack

Let me take off my glasses. Otherwise they’re going to glare something fierce in this light. And besides, they make me look ridiculous on camera, like the Wizard of Oz in Drag.

Okay. Ready.

So when was the first time I met Robert Capa? He was hanging around the set of Notorious, taking publicity stills of Ingrid and Cary Grant, though really it was just an excuse for him to be with Ingrid without anyone catching on that they were having an affair. In fact Hitchcock made this whole big show of introducing them to each other as if they’d never met—which couldn’t have been easy for him, seeing as he was as smitten with her as practically every other director she ever had. I was doing make-up for that picture.

I didn’t get the on-screen credit. Hell, neither did my boss, and he ran the whole department. I don’t know what Hitch was thinking, but that’s all water under the bridge. I still had thick hair and all my teeth back then, and a figure that was frankly pretty zaftig for a twenty-year-old. Zaftig? That means shapely. Trust me, sweetie. That was a good thing in 1946.

So like I was saying, it was late afternoon, I was touching up Ingrid’s makeup for the drunk-at-the-party scene, Capa was already three sheets to the wind, and he was palling around with the lighting guys when he says in this booming voice, “Hollywood is the biggest piece of shit I ever stepped in.” Of course with that Hungarian-German-French accent of his, it came out sounding more like “Hollyvood” and “sheet,” but there was no mistaking what he meant.

Yeah, Saint Capa wasn’t above biting the hand that fed him. “The World’s Greatest War Photographer” – that’s what Life called him, you know — he would stand there like a swarthy James Dean before there was a James Dean, cameras hanging around his neck, cigarette dangling from his mouth, eyes squinting against the smoke, and talk about how Hollywood had no values and no history. “You’re only as good as the box office of your last movie,” he’d sneer. But meanwhile he’d spend his mornings playing tennis or sunbathing at the pool of one of the rich friends he was freeloading off of. He’d spend his afternoons drinking and flirting. He’d spend his nights gambling, playing cards with the likes of Howard Hawks and Humphrey Bogart and John Huston—I mean big guys with big bucks—and losing more in one night than “the people”— the saintly working people like me—made in a month.

Everyone had fancy terms for it, descriptions to make this craziness attractive. “He’s a bon vivant,” they’d say, but I think there was more to it than that. I think he felt empty inside unless he was risking everything. Think about it—here was a man who made his living from taking pictures of people killing and being killed, putting his own life in danger time after time in order to do it. And P.S., the only woman they say he ever really loved—Gerda Taro—she was killed taking pictures of the Spanish Civil War while he was back in Paris, making prints and probably making a little whoopee. They say he never got over her death, and he had this recklessness about him that made me believe it.

So suddenly this man who’s rubbed his own face in all the horror mankind’s got to offer is in Hollywood, for God’s sake, taking pictures on sets that are facades of the devastated cities he’s just left, where the actors look gorgeous, even when they’re shreying and dying. Believe me, I get it. Peace takes some getting used to. Capa had been shooting nothing but war and refugees since whenever the Civil War in Spain started. And after Spain it was the Italians in North Africa, then London, then Germany. He went in with the first wave on Omaha Beach, for God’s sake. The man was not lacking in balls. And after the horror he’d seen, I can understand why he’d find Hollywood a little…trivial.

But the way he mocked Ingrid—I think it was unforgivable. He’d sneak off to Malibu for weekend trysts with her—when he wasn’t at the track, that is—and lecture her about working too hard. Of course she was picking up the tab, but still he’d hector her. “You’re just your husband’s meal ticket” or “You’re just Selznick’s golden goose” or “You’re acting like a schoolgirl—just work, work, work.” I remember once she was talking about the movie she was going to do after Notorious wrapped, and Capa, who right about then didn’t have much work besides taking snaps of the people he was so contemptuous of, said to her, “You’ve become an industry, an institution. You must return to the status of human being.”

And who the hell was he to lecture her? You want to know his real name? Andre Friedmann. Doesn’t get much more foreign than that, does it? No, he invented Robert Capa. He and his Gerda Taro, in Paris at the time, they thought they could get him assignments if he pretended to be some famous-in-America photojournalist named Robert Capa. “Bob” sounds so American, you know? And Capa you could almost mistake for Capra. Convenient, no? Not that he was the only Jewish exile changing his name back then.

My real name is Anna Rodzanski and I was born in Kracow. That’s in Poland, in case you were wondering. Want to know what name I used in Hollywood? Anna Rodzanski. I didn’t need to hide or prettify or pretend. It’s kind of…what’s the word—not funny, but…ironic! It’s kind of ironic, right, that my job was to do exactly that—to hide the blemish or the acne scar, to take an average woman’s face—maybe even a homely one like Bette Davis’s—and make it drop-dead gorgeous. Or sometimes, the best of times, to transform somebody.

Now I’m not saying that Ingrid was a saint. She thought highly of her own opinions and she wanted what she wanted. But she was serious about her work…every bit as serious as he was. And, unlike some of her bimbo colleagues, she wasn’t obsessed about looking beautiful. Of course she didn’t need to be—she couldn’t help it. Jesus, her skin was something.

Look at me. These lights aren’t nearly as hot as the ones they routinely used for interiors and I’m sweating like a pig. And of course the sweatier I get, the more my cheeks and nose glisten and reflect the light, right? So what do we do? We tamp it all down with Pan-Cake, so I don’t look like some ruddy-faced Irish cop. But Ingrid, she didn’t glisten; she just glowed. You hated to touch her skin for fear of somehow contaminating it, let alone apply a matte finish over her face. Jesus, it was a natural wonder, that face.

In fact, when he was drunk, which was usually, and sentimental, which was often, Capa talked about what he’d have to do in the darkroom with his pictures of Ingrid. He told me that in lots of pictures of people—actresses and ordinary people—he’d have to burn in, you know, overexpose their faces so that they wouldn’t look so washed out. But with Ingrid, she was so naturally luminous that he’d have to underexpose her face. Dodging, they call it… Oh yeah. He was quite the dodger. Dodging bullets, dodging commitments, dodging debts…

Of course Ingrid also blushed easily and deeply, so we’d mute her. But not much, and we never made her over. We never had to paint on a Mary Pickford mouth to make up for flat, featureless lips. We certainly never had to fill in acne craters the way you’d caulk a tile floor, the way we did for…well, I won’t name names. And the eyes…well, Ingrid wasn’t actually so unique that way. A lot of movie actresses have unusually wide-set eyes. Otherwise, when their faces are blown up on ten-foot-high screens, they look shifty or freakish. Of course a lot of them are shifty and freakish, but we don’t want them to look that way. So for a lot of them we’d use the ultra-light Pan-Stick, the Bone or the Moonlight, to create the illusion of more space between the eyes than was actually there. After all, it’s the eyes that tell the real story, so if you have to use a little, what—craft? technique? A little artifice—to reveal the truth, well that’s what you do.

But that’s not what you’re here for. This is a documentary about Robert Capa. You don’t want to hear about makeup secrets. You want to hear about bedroom secrets? I’ve got nothing to say about their affair that isn’t already known. Ingrid was discreet and Capa was so boastful that you couldn’t believe anything.

Maybe you want to hear about their politics? Besides just admiring basic decency, Ingrid didn’t have a political bone in her body…except when it came to getting the parts she wanted. Now Capa, another story altogether. When he was a young man in Europe, one of the first to Spain after Franco tried his little coup, Capa was a Red. He never admitted it—in fact in later years he denied it. Some people say that in the fifties he even named names. I don’t want to believe that, but apparently the State Department was holding his passport renewal hostage and without it, he was sunk. But back then, in the thirties? Capa—well, he risked his life every day trying to show the world what was going on in Spain. Sure, the French leftist press was paying for these kinds of pictures and he needed the money. He always needed the money. But I do think he believed in the cause.

Okay, so maybe he could be sincere. Which is why those accusations that he faked that famous photo of the Spanish Republican soldier being shot got under his skin so much.

Do I know if it was authentic? Are you kidding me? Nobody still alive knows. Not that he was above faking anything. Later in the war, when he was on deadline and there was a lull in the action, he’d ask the soldiers to pose. Not often, but he did it. I know because I heard it from his own lips the first time I met him.

It must have been soon after they started shooting Notorious. It was early in the story, when Ingrid—wait, do you remember the plot? The war has just ended, and Ingrid’s character—oh my, I forget her name now—but the movie opens with her character’s father being convicted of treason. And then we see her at a party at her house, probably later that night. She’s drunk. Drunk, and seductive, and cynical, and she takes Cary Grant out for a wild drive in her convertible. Anyhow, he ends up carrying her back into the house and she passes out, and the next morning he enlists her to spy on her father’s Nazi friends in Rio. At first she says no, makes some cynical comments about “what’s in it for me?” But then Cary plays her a recording that they’d made—they’d tapped her father’s house—and made a record of her arguing with him, telling him that he’s a traitor and that she loves this country.

It’s pretty corny by today’s standards, but the point is, there’s this moment just before Cary puts on the record where Ingrid’s character—Alicia, that’s it, Alicia Huberman—she says, “Why should I help you?” and Cary says, “Patriotism.” And Ingrid—of course, Alicia, still hung over—she says, “That word gives me a pain.” Hah! Can you imagine anyone being allowed to say that in a movie today? “No, thank you,” she says, “I don’t go for patriotism…or for patriots.” But then, watching Ingrid listening to this record, you see her nakedness, her fear at being exposed as someone who actually cares. You knew it already, but without her saying a thing you realize that this whole drunken-party-girl routine is an act to cover up her humiliation at her father’s actions.

So that was the scene, and after they finished shooting it, she and Capa were in her trailer having a drink. I was taking off her makeup and laying out what we were going to need the next morning. Hitch knocked on the door. It was already dark outside and it was raining—I remember this because he shook the rain off his umbrella by quickly opening and closing it over and over again, almost like a parry and thrust. I’d never seen him move so energetically. Then he stepped into the trailer. He didn’t waddle back then.

“I want to congratulate you on your wonderful performance today,” he said, grave as always. Ingrid blushed and offered him a drink, then me, and the four of us came together around the makeup table and clinked our glasses, and Hitch said, “Here’s to shame.”

And we all looked at ourselves and each other in Ingrid’s mirror—Hitch in his suit and tie and sad-sack face, me with my glasses on my head and blush on my hands, Ingrid, frazzled but gorgeous, with her hair a mess and cold cream still on her cheeks, and Capa, standing back a little, watching us watch ourselves—we clicked glasses and said, “To shame!”

There was this awkward silence, then Ingrid lifted her glass again and said, “To traitorous fathers—not mine, of course,” and she tossed back what little scotch and water was left in her glass.

Capa and Hitch both watched her drink…hungrily, like they were following the scotch from her lips to her mouth and down her throat, leaning in for the slight crease in her neck as she swallowed.

Then Capa poured everyone another round and said, “If shame’s the theme, here’s to losing yesterday’s earnings at the track!”

Well, I didn’t know what to say, and Hitch just nodded. But Ingrid laughed. “Salud!” she said. Then there was another pause and then, smiling but kind of nervously, she held up her glass and said, “To illicit romance.”

That’s when Hitch said something solemn and formal as always, like, “And now I must take my leave.” And he left. I should have left too, but it was nice and cozy in there, I was feeling no pain, and nobody was kicking me out, so I just took a seat at the little table in the little kitchenette.

Capa didn’t budge, though. He just narrowed his eyes a little, and, still looking at Ingrid’s reflection in the mirror, he said, “Living honestly—that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Oh, but I don’t live honestly,” she said in that flirtatious, almost sassy way she had. “I’m a Hollywood star. I spend my time making fantasies, not living in the real world, isn’t that what you’ve told me?” Then she raised her glass again and suddenly she wasn’t breezy at all. “To my scripted scenes,” she said and took a sip. And then, still toasting him, she said something like, “What about yours?”

It was not a toast at all. It was a challenge. And Capa, he didn’t take his eyes off her. “Every photojournalist who gets work orchestrates a scene now and then. Was the soldier shot at the base of the hill or at the top? Was the sun just rising or just setting? What the hell does it matter? Either way he’s dead by nightfall.” And he smiled this pained sort of smile. “Shall we not drink to truth?”

Yeah, I really should have left right about then. But watching the two of them, well, it was better than watching a movie. It’s funny—I just saw Notorious a few weeks ago, and I’m amazed that it holds up as well as it does. I mean Cary and Ingrid have that stolen moment together after she sneaks away from the exiled Nazi she’s spying on. They’re supposed to be in Rio, and they’re standing in front of this obviously two-dimensional photograph of the city, the floor fan’s whipping up Ingrid’s hair while Cary’s stays locked in place, and still they manage to draw you in. But for a guy like Capa, who burned with some kind of conviction—I mean he had to, to drop himself into one line of fire after another—it must have been disgusting to watch this manufactured location, this facsimile of danger. It’s like that movie title. What was it? Imitation of Life.

Anyhow, Ingrid stared at him a while, and then—I’ll never forget this—she said, “No, I can’t do that. But shame, I can drink to. Let’s go back to that.” She was pretty stewed by then, too loaded to really even lift her glass. She just kind of lowered her face into it. She didn’t even look at him.

“To shame, then,” Capa said. “To photographing dead soldiers instead of being one.” Then he downed his double.

Geez, that was one long, sad, soggy night.

It didn’t end there, their affair. No, he hung around and took stills for her next movie, Arch of Triumph. What a stinker that was. And then Ingrid went to New York to rehearse Joan of Lorraine and Capa joined her there so they wouldn’t have to be so secretive and he could give her some culture. You know, concerts and all-night soirees in Greenwich Village. Oh, and art films, of course, like Rosselini’s. Give the man credit—he really did admire her brain, not just her looks. In fact I remember once when she was leaving Hollywood for a few days, Capa threw his hand over his heart and dropped to one knee and said, “Don’t go away. There are very few precious things in life—not life itself—but the merry mind. It is your merry mind that I love.”

Honest to God, Ingrid would have left her husband for Capa in a heartbeat, but he wouldn’t settle down. “I’m not the marrying kind, blah, blah, not fair to the children, blah blah.” So come to think of it, that New York trip was, what do you call it, a swan song? He decided to go back to Europe, and honestly, by then, since it was clear he’d never marry her, I think she was ready to let him go. He adored her, he instructed her, but God, he was so sad under the swagger. I don’t think she wanted to be around such sadness. I wouldn’t have. Think about his pictures. You remember the one of the French girls with the shaven heads being paraded through the streets after France was liberated, holding these little babies that had been fathered by Nazis? The betrayers became the betrayed. They are so despised, those girls. There’s such grimness in those shots, such naked ugliness. I don’t know how you immerse yourself in that day in and day out and don’t become a hollowed-out shell of a man. What was it he always said? “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” There’s a price for that kind of closeness.

Capa used to tell this story: On his first World War II assignment, he was at a base in Britain as these US Air Force guys headed out for their first bombing run over Europe. Twenty-four planes took off, but only seventeen made it back, and Capa photographed the medics carrying the dead and wounded from the planes into ambulances. Finally the last man off—a wounded pilot—passed Capa, and, as he did, he said something really bitter and angry, like, “Are these the pictures you were waiting for?”

Capa said at that moment he felt like the pictures he’d just taken were only for undertakers and he didn’t like being one. He said he swore that—and these are his words exactly—“If I was going to share the funeral, I swore I would also have to share the procession.” The man’s English left something to be desired, but son-of-a-gun, he always managed to make his point.

What? Yeah, sure, I did a few more movies with Ingrid. I saw a lot of Capa for a few months, and I followed his career from a distance after that. But he and Ingrid stayed in touch for quite a while after he left Hollywood.

In fact, in her autobiography she quotes from the letter he wrote to her when he went off to cover the Arab-Israeli war in ’48 — the shoot that I was thinking of when you said you wanted to interview me about his work. Here it is.

Hold on—I’ve got to put my glasses back on.

He says, “In our world the values are false and we cannot afford to have defeats. Now I say something again which I cannot explain with the pen: you have to wait for a bottle, for a floor, for a fireplace, for a cigarette. I am a newspaperman again, and it is all right.”

I don’t know exactly what he was trying to say, but I know it was as close to truth as I ever heard from him. And that’s all I’ve got for you.

My first time on film. . . This’ll be seen by, what, seven people? No offense.

Are we done?


Julie Wittes Schlack is a book reviewer for The Boston Globe and works by day as a facilitator of online communities. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dos Passos Review, Ninth Letter, Tampa Review, The Louisville Review, and other journals. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband, and is the grateful mother of two.

One Comment

  1. This is one of the best historical essays I have read in a very long time. The writer (who happens to be my sister) brings every character to life even more vivdly than the characters in Capa’s photos. Bravo!

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney