Saturday, March 6, 2010

Struggling with Integrity: An Interview with Walt Odets by Jon Robin Baitz

Awake and Sing!
Lincoln Center Theatre Review
Spring 2006, Issue 42

This past January, the playwright Jon Robin Baitz traveled to Berkeley, California, to meet with Walt Whitman Odets. "Walt Odets is clipped, guarded and deeply introspective," Robbie wrote us, "as well as a scrupulously honest old-school gentleman. He smokes endlessly-little black cigarettes, maybe Nat Shermans. We talked for many hours in the music room of his house, which was always smoky and dark. And Walt, who is a clinical psychologist as well as a renowned horologist, pilot, inventor and photographer, answered my questions with precision and candor. "

Robbie Baitz: You have said to me that you're careful about how you sign your name.

Walt Odets: I'm not careful about it, but I sign it illegibly. That's my signature. If someone asks me why, I say it's because I sign my name so much that I want to do it quickly. The truth is, I do it so as not to provoke a discussion.

RB: What kind of discussion does the name provoke: You're the son of...? Are you related to...?

WO: Are you related to... That type of discussion. Generally, people think I'm too young for Clifford Odets to have been my father. They're curious about the name, because it is so unusual. Gorodetsky was a common name. It means " urban man."

RB: He's the guy from the city.

WO: Right. New York was his beat. [Laughter] I think he was at home no-where like he was at home in New York. In Los Angeles, he looked like a freak.

RB: Was he in exile in Los Angeles?

WO: Yeah. And he looked like he was. He walked around in these frumpy woolen clothes all the time. That's all he had were these woolen New York suits.

RB: Did he hate being in L.A.?

WO: He hated it, but I suspect it gave him some refuge from the rejection that New York directed at him. You know, he'd work on a play for two years and make four thousand bucks. Then you go to the coast, and they say, " You shmuck. You're selling out." I don't know what people expected him to do. The story, which I think everyone knows, is his father was a very ambitious businessman and wanted him to be a successful businessman. When my father as a teenager said he wanted to be an actor in the theater, to my grandfather this was like saying he wanted to be a whore. My father struggled against that his whole life. One of the strongest memories I have is when I was very young, maybe eight or nine, he asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. Of course, I hem-med and hawed and tried to say something that would please him. And he said, It doesn't matter. "The only important thing is to never do anything for money. " He said it with such intensity and importance attached to it.

RB: In his work, he insisted on the importance of human dignity. He wasn't in service to a concept. He was a student of cruelty, too-the cruelty of life, what it could do. The way the systems worked. The powerlessness of the individual.

WO: His father was the paradigm for that. His father was very cruel. So my father transferred a lot of feelings about his father to the economic machine and all that. My father was actually sort of incompetent about money. He earned money to pay bills and stuff, but in terms of accumulating money or having an interest in being wealthy, he had absolutely no interest in that whatsoever. Because that's the only thing his father pursued.

RB: What was your grandfather's relationship to your father's success?

WO: He liked the success.

RB: Did he understand the work?

WO: I don't think he understood the emotion of the work. I think he understood it conceptually.

RB: Did he see himself in it?

WO: No, of course not. I don't know how to describe him. His name was Louis, but he gave himself a middle initial and told people to call him L.J. He thought that sounded important. He died ten or fifteen years after my father.

RB: This sounds like an obvious question, but when your father died, did it break his father's heart?

WO: No. My grandfather didn't have a heart. He had a pump. [Laughter] I don't know how better to put it.

RB: An immigrant's pump.

WO: An immigrant's pump, exactly. Some-one who had been through a trial of such kind that I don't understand it-that he had a pump instead of a heart.

RB: Did your father try to gain a measure of his father's understanding?

WO: Yes. He always wanted that. When my mother died, we moved to the Chateau Marmont hotel for two years. My father had an apartment above us, and my sister, Nora, and I and our nanny lived in an apartment below. After that, largely so that I could be in the Beverly Hills school system, my father rented a house in Beverly Hills-802 North Bedford-which turned out to be the house that my mother grew up in. My father had no idea. He got it from a real estate agent. Then my father-crazily, I think-tried to make a family out of us, and he asked L.J. and his second wife to move into the house with us. When my father would get home from work, my grandfather had my sister and me standing at the front door with bedroom slippers and a newspaper to greet him. And my father walked in one night and said, "Sir, do you think these kids are servants? I don't want my bedroom slippers, I'm not interested in the newspaper, and the kids are not servants!" My father would fly into rages with his father about things like this and finally, after about six months, threw him out. My father could never stand this man. And my father supported him the whole time-sent him money, a regular income. He was miserable in L.A. It's possible he might have been miserable anywhere, but there was a certain component of the misery that was about being in Los Angeles. I think of him sitting on the sofa, listening to Beethoven, smoking a cigarette in a terry-cloth bathrobe. He wrote his last play eight years before he died. He had two kids to support, and he was living in Los Angeles doing movie jobs, mostly under the table, without credit.

RB: It's not easy to be a screenwriter. It's actually very hard work. You have to learn a different kind of craft and structure, and it's far more mathematical in a lot of ways than writing a play.

WO: He once told me that there'd be situations where some movie star, like Rita Hayworth, would get a scene and sit down in a chair and say, " I'm not reading that line. " And the whole thing would grind to a halt. In those days, as he related it to me, it would cost $25,000 a day to have a movie crew. So the whole thing would grind to a stop, and they'd need someone to rewrite the dialogue. And when that dialogue was rewritten it would affect another scene, and another. My father was very facile. In four or five days he could rewrite the whole thing-get rid of the line an actress objected to and reconstruct the relevant things around it. And then they'd pay him $100,000 for a week of work.

RB: He adjusted to the realities.

WO: Right. When he wanted to make some money, he made money. But in 1954, for instance, he wrote The Flowering Peach. And he only made, like, four thousand bucks on that. Of course he was dissatisfied with himself. But if you run into an artist who tells you that he's happy with his life and he loves his work, he's full of shit. So of course he was unhappy. I don't think he ever wrote a play that was happy.

RB: I'm trying to think if I know any happy playwrights.

WO:Or even playwrights who were happy with a play.

RB: Was New York sort of like Moscow in The Three Sisters? You know, how every year they want to go to Moscow?

WO: For us, it was. The whole time we lived in Los Angeles we went from one rented house to another, all in the same school district, each with a one-year lease. It was because we were always about to move back to New York. But there would always be one last job to finish after another, one last job. All those Beverly Hills houses came with the silverware, furniture, the linens, the napkins. I don't think my father ever owned a towel of his own. We'd move into these completely furnished houses that came with screwdrivers. He spent his money on things like paintings, books and phonograph records.

RB: How do you feel your father might have influenced you?

WO: The influence is so pervasive, it's almost hard to answer the question. I remember when I was in grade school, he helped me with a paper about red Bor-deaux wines. Later, he asked me how it came out. I said I got a B-plus. And he raised an eyebrow and said, " I didn't ask you what your teacher thought of it. I asked you how it came out." It was a revelation, even at that age. The intensity and focus with which he said it made me understand that this was very important. Up until then, I'd accepted the whole idea that one works to please the world. As children, we usually learn that. Integrity is about following yourself. About being generative rather than reactive-generative in an authentic way. He accomplished that, I think, but not to the extent that he might have. He remained very sensitive to publicity and very sensitive to disapproval, very sensitive to others' disappointment, even as he had a kind of independence and even as he pursued integrity. I think my father was famous when he was too young to have fully developed this internal locus for navigation.

RB: Did he spend the rest of his life trying to reclaim that? Or missing it?

WO: I think he did reclaim it to a great extent, but never fully. He was terribly hurt by criticism. Somehow, I knew that.

RB: But he never spoke about it directly.

WO: Not to me. He might have with some people. When he was being interviewed, there was often an element of self-defense in it. He'd try to defend what he was doing and how he was living. He had this great early success, and then experienced a lot of rejection. He was naïve and kind of surprised by the criticism of his work. He felt that you don't abandon someone if one play is not great. He took it on the chin. After 1940, I don't think he had any real acceptance, other than the potboiler The Country Girl. I remember a girlfriend of his once said to me, "You know, when he wrote The Country Girl he spit it out as fast as he could type it. When he wrote The Flowering Peach, it was like watching someone tear off pieces of his own flesh and try to mash them into the shape of a baby." She said it was too painful to watch.

RB: I asked you what kind of effect he had on you, and it's important to point out that you've written a great deal about AIDS. You've been an activist. You were a controversial figure in the AIDS world early on, when you were one of the few people talking about the necessity of prevention. And you elicited a lot of anger in your own work. There has to have been some influence from your father, in that you did what you thought was right. Perhaps you were instilled with a certain kind of moral programming, a code. Your father's moral universe had some influence on your moral universe.

WO: When I was out in public a lot talking, I realized I couldn't try to anticipate how people would feel about something. What I said to myself was, "You have to do your best in this work, think it through as carefully as you're capable of, then you have to be honest and acknowledge your limitations." That allowed me to steer a course that was relatively free of reactivity. I suppose I got that from my father. Because he wasn't a pleaser. He didn't resort to that.

RB: It's a big lesson to learn from your parents, to learn how to make noise.

WO: The playwright Bill [William] Gibson said to me recently, " You know, your father was the only person I've ever known who was truly bigger than life." I don't know how he got that way.

RB: Did you experience him as larger than life?

WO: I did. Though part of that is that our parents have a kind of power that no one else will ever have. So that distorts my per-ception. But people adored him or hated him, you know? I've never heard anyone say, "I kind of like Clifford Odets." [Laughter]

RB: Walt, you have said to me that you ve always carried a measure of shame about his life.

WO: I think ninety percent of it was tied to the HUAC thing. And maybe another ten percent of that, the sell-out thing. I heard both of

RB: What would you hear?

WO: When my father died, I read his obituary in the paper, and it said, " He was a playwright of early promise who sold out to Hollywood." My father had so instilled in me this issue of integrity that I was stunned by that. But I got used to it. But with HUAC what people say is that Clifford Odets is one of those who named names. I think probably, oh, fifty times in my life, someone has said something to me about it-almost as if they were confronting my father. When I read that a book of all the HUAC testimonies of famous people had been compiled, I finally decided okay, I'll get it and read it. I'll get it over with, find out exactly what he did and not just have feelings about this. When I read it, I was enormously relieved. He constantly confronted the Committee. It's a wonder they didn't throw him out on his duff. It was an eloquent, confrontative discussion. He only named people who were already known-names that had been published in the papers before his testimony.

RB: He cooperated, but in his idealism and naïveté perhaps he was less than fully aware of the extent to which he was being used.

WO: And the Committee could say, " Clifford Odets cooperated with us. We asked him questions and he answered."

RB: The smart money would have been to either take the Fifth or be even more belligerent.

WO: He was pretty belligerent. He believed that taking the Fifth meant he had something to hide-and he had nothing to hide.

RB: But you could call him a cooperative witness. And they had someone else, a notch on the belt-Clifford Odets.

WO: I would have made the same naïve mistake.

RB: Me, too.

WO: I would have been right in there saying, " Fuck you. This is what was going on. This is who I am. And a congressional committee is not going to tell me, who named his son after America's greatest poet, what it means to be an American. "

RB: That's what he said?

WO: Yeah. [Laughter] But you're right. It was naïve. And, of course, the testimony was secret for a long time, so early on no one could read it. I don't think that there was any Freedom of Information Act then. So it was: Clifford Odets cooperated. For years he had a lot of wonderful paintings that he would loan to his friends. A Klee, a Matisse. He'd say, " Give it back when you get tired of it." The morning after the news about his testimony came out in the papers, he opened the front door of the apartment and there were three paintings stacked in the hallway. His friends had brought them back. He was baffled by it. Maybe he wasn't thinking about the notion of cooperating. Or maybe he was. Maybe he wanted to protect his ability to work. My mother had died. He was taking care of us. Maybe that factored into it. People always assume that, had they been in that situation, they would have done something more honorable. I assume I would have done what I had to do to get by. I said that to Bill Gibson and he said, "Those shmucks had nothing to lose. Your father had a lot to lose. He was taking care of you kids. He had to support you." Then he shook his head and said, "Nora."

RB: It's a lot to live with.

WO: It's obvious from the plays, his whole life was about the struggle for integrity-his integrity as an artist, but also as a person. The theme is obvious in his plays. I think integrity is about honesty, and it's about trying to make the best choices with the fewest compromises in one's decisions. He tried to do that in his interpersonal relationships. He did that even as a parent. When my sister, Nora, was born in 1945, she weighed a little over one pound and was in an incubator for more than six months. I remember my father telling me that she was the size of a Listerine bottle. As she got older, it became clear that she had serious pervasive developmental disabilities. She saw five to six doctors a week. Her monthly medical expenses cost as much as all the other household expenses combined. My father was a very conscientious parent. Nora became a central task in his life. He could never have supported her in New York.

RB: Do you remember him as being sick before he died?

WO: Yes. He had stomach problems. He was very sick by the time they diagnosed the cancer and recommended exploratory surgery. He had colon cancer. I don't know how he survived the pain, but he did. He went into the hospital and two weeks later he was dead. I was sixteen when he died. My memory of him is: lots of faults, lots of inconsistency, but always the pursuit of integrity in every aspect of his life.

Jon Robin Baitz is the author of The Paris Letter, The Substance of Fire, Ten Un-knowns and A Fair Country, among other plays. His screenplays include People I Know (2003) and the film adaptation of The Substance of Fire (1996). For TV he has written episodes of The West Wing and Alias.

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