Hollywood Royalty: Walter Wanger's "My Life with Cleopatra"

Writing My Life With Cleopatra was William Wanger reaching for that .38, hoping the pen would be mightier than the gun.

By Kim MorganDecember 6, 2013

My Life with Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic by Walter Wanger. Random House. 242 pages.

CLEOPATRA producer Walter Wanger had surely seen it all. Having lived and worked through the silents, the talkies, and Todd-AO, the movie veteran understood the art and commerce of Hollywood, the deals and decadence. The eminently erudite and sophisticated producer also understood the infidelities — the groin-crushing infidelities — and with a cinematic vengeance, he shot a man for it. So it’s quietly startling to read, in his published production diary, My Life with Cleopatra, this miniature entry regarding Eddie Fisher’s infamous betrayal by wife Elizabeth Taylor and her new lover Richard Burton. It’s darkly amusing, and almost winkingly cryptic:

March 19, 1962

Eddie Fisher to New York.

I think it is ill-advised to leave now. He didn’t ask me for advice, however, which is just as well. I was no expert in solving a similar problem myself.

Indeed, he was not. Wanger went to the slammer for the felonious confrontation with his wife’s lover. There was no “we need to talk about this, honey”; no higher ground or any of that path-of-least-resistance business. Simply put: he shot his wife’s paramour in the crotch. But with prison comes wisdom. And, certainly, with Elizabeth Taylor comes wisdom. Had heartsick crooner Fisher actually sought advice from educated ex-con Wanger, perhaps he would have learned something. Or, perhaps he would have gotten too many ideas. In any case, Eddie Fisher did not seek counsel with Walter Wanger before exiting the Cleopatra set, so distraught over his violet-eyed wife lusting for that ruggedly handsome Welshman-in-the-grass that, according to Elizabeth Taylor (via Vanity Fair contributing editors Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger), he put a gun to her head. “I’m not going to kill you. You’re too beautiful,” he told the woman who’d just survived a life-threatening and emergency tracheotomy the year prior.

Who knows what might have happened had Eddie Fisher shot Elizabeth Taylor? The bullet would have connected, for Liz was notoriously catastrophe-prone, but something would have saved her, for she was also freakishly resilient. A jewel from one of her glittering headdresses or a flinty sequin from her customized Cleo eye-makeup would have deflected the fell bullet. Instead of spending a couple days in the morgue, Liz would have returned to the hospital after a months-long vigil while Fischer anguished darkly in the slammer. Wanger would have had no choice but to endure the production delays as he had all the others, and Taylor would have returned to the set alive and refreshed. Wonderful. Except for the hair department. They’d have to alter all of her wigs to cover that damn bullet wound.

But Fisher’s fresh hurt must have rustled up some past tumult within Wanger — much more than that skinny, enigmatic 1962 diary entry suggests. One can only speculate how much Wanger knew of Fisher’s rage, but he surely reflected on l’affair — particularly when considering Liz’s lover, Burton. Fisher reportedly bought a gun just for Burton, whom he dreamt of shooting (I can’t help but think of Fisher humming his own hit “I’m Walking Behind You” in his sleepless fantasy murder scenarios), but, thankfully, never fired a bullet.

Walter Wanger was a different kind of man. When in 1951 he found himself in a similar predicament, the pipe-smoking producer didn’t pack his bags and run to New York. He packed a heater and headed for the MCA parking lot.

Wanger barely discusses his own scandal (of course he doesn’t) in My Life With Cleopatra (co-written with Hollywood columnist and author Joe Hyams), his making-of diaries dating from the film’s beginning in 1958 to his epilogue dated March 7, 1963:

It would be pleasant to say that the trials and tribulations which characterized the making of Cleopatra ended with that day in Egypt eight months ago when I made my farewell speech. It would also be pleasant to say that the pleasures of fame and fortune made all our sufferings worth while and, that in the true Hollywood tradition, we lived happily thereafter. The truth is something else again.

The truth, Mr. Wanger, the truth. Whatever that means is questionable, especially in regard to something as chaotic as Cleopatra. Knowing more about the man, you get the feeling his past dramas pale when dealing with the madness of Cleopatra, a fiasco that famously cost, in some estimates, up to $44 million and is considered, adjusted for inflation, the most expensive movie ever made. My Life with Cleopatra, first excerpted in The Saturday Evening Post two months before the movie’s opening in 1963, was a fascinating move on Wanger’s part. Yes, publicists Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss unleashed the divulging Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence in the same year, but Wanger was big stuff. What working producer would write a tell-all about a major production his name was still attached to? Executives were shocked, the public was insatiable for Liz and Dick, and Wanger needed some good publicity. And yet, even as Wanger spills secrets and names names while detailing the exhausting production and its budget-bleeding stresses, these aren’t soul-baring journals of a man entering the final years of his life. The diary is, in part, a face-saving account: a glimpse into the inner workings of production to disconcert studio executives; an exposé that was a first of its kind. Wanger knew he might never eat lunch in this town again and was up for the gamble. His legacy and reputation were more important.

And Wanger deserves some respect. Cleopatra was a throwback, a movie to reclaim the glory of Wanger’s opulent “orientalist” spectacles from the ’20s and ’30s. Nearly four decades earlier, the young producer was prescient enough to bring a project called The Sheik to Paramount vice president Jesse L. Lasky, making Rudolph Valentino a sensation and the vogue of exotic spectacle a phenomenon in 1921. Based on his accomplishment, the 69-year-old understandably desired more credit, veneration, and, of course, more money. My Life with Cleopatra underscores his efforts in sometimes brief, sometimes extensive detail penned by a man sorely disappointed and burned by studio executives, the men “who made my job as a producer of the picture an obstacle race.”

“I am bitter indeed,” Wanger wrote,

about what I consider to be their bungling indifference. In retrospect, however, I can say that I understand that they were operating, for the most part, out of insecurity and fear. They were desperate, nervous men, trying to protect the studio from further losses, and Cleopatra soon became their scapegoat.

In basic, sometimes writerly style, well suited for popular consumption, Wanger recounts his then-recent history (the book was published when the movie was released) concerning a picture that switched directors (Rouben Mamoulian to the tragically overworked Joseph L. Mankiewicz), switched locations (London to Rome), switched Caesars and Antonys (Peter Finch to Rex Harrison; Stephen Boyd to Richard Burton) and, in the end, switched Fox presidents (Spyros Skouras to Darryl F. Zanuck). Insider-ish and dishy enough to cover Cleo essentials for both the casuals and the obsessives, the memoir of the nightmarish production and its famous affair (Liz was accused of the deliciously worded “erotic vagrancy”) makes Cleopatra ever-enthralling 50 years later. A gloriously restored Cleopatra showed this year at Cannes with a Blu-ray to follow, and indeed, this forever fascination is the very reason Wanger’s diary has been dusted off and put back in print (with a new afterword by Kenneth Turan). The backstory has always been more interesting than the movie itself, and Wanger capitalizes on its glamorously morbid curiosities. He claimed to be proud of the picture, but he understood what the public wanted: scandal.

Though the book reads relatively tame by today’s confessional standards, there are plenty of intriguing, page-turning smaller details that ring wonderfully bizarre. Wanger’s accounts of Roddy McDowall’s broken tooth (the Pope’s personal dentist is called to the set) or the night Taylor’s dress ignited after she stepped on a book of matches at a party (who else spontaneously combusts after stepping on a book of matches?) or anything to do with elephants (circus owners sued production for $100,000 based on an elephant supply and threw in a slander claim for daring to call their pachyderms “wild”) prove more surrealistically entertaining than the endless budget issues or how Wanger felt about the travails of poor Joseph L. Mankiewicz (One wishes world-class wit Mankiewicz had published his own diary.) Whatever his intention, Wanger does deliver something powerful: battle fatigue by proxy. He makes you sick and tired of the thing. The bloated production becomes wearisome enough that just reading about the budgetary issues makes a person resentful and scattered. You just want it to end. I felt myself wishing Elizabeth Taylor, bless her, would just stop having so many goddamn problems.

And yet, it was Taylor who saved the picture because of her glamorous preposterousness: in those four years she nearly died, won an Oscar, dumped her husband, incited a world-wide scandal, and made Richard Burton a household name. That sells tickets no matter how turgid the movie. But despite its faults, Cleopatra is, in moments, dazzling, and it eventually became popular and profitable. It also inspired many, including Andy Warhol, who called it “the most influential movie of the ’60s." A new generation of women would ditch their red lipstick in favor of nudes and carefully draw those sultry, smoky Cleopatra eyes before slithering into their skimpy mini dresses. The story may have been bogged down by old fogey studio gloss, but Liz’s look was positively youth-quaking.

Survivor Liz reigns triumphant. Cleopatra did not damage her. Wanger is another story. You can’t help but feel for the man, even if you question the veracity of his self-reflection and responsibility in these diaries. How heartbroken was he? What was going on with him, personally? Near the end of the long and laborious production, he writes on June 20, 1962:

Haven’t heard a word from the executives in New York or Hollywood since they left here.

Although I am off salary and, theoretically, without any real authority I am remaining with the picture and still functioning as producer.

I don’t think the executives know what they are doing. Regardless of what they think and do, this is my project.

But by that time, was it? In spirit, yes, but that’s about it. For elucidation, I reached for Matthew Bernstein’s indispensible Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent, the definitive biography of Wanger and a fascinating look at Hollywood history from the silent era to the confused 1960s. In Bernstein’s book, I read accounts, written or spoken by Wanger, that were more illuminating and eloquent than My Life with Cleopatra.  Where was that Walter Wanger in his own diary?  Obviously My Life With Cleopatra wasn’t going to read like John Cheever’s beautiful, laceratingly honest journals (not many diaries do), or Richard Burton’s charmingly acerbic, intelligent, and frequently moving diaries — the beleaguered producer cannot resist spin. My Life With Cleopatra contains some keen insight and nicely worded observations (“I sometimes feel as though I am living a scene from The Snake Pit. Every time I turn around there are grinning, leering, shouting photographers — the paparazzi. They are everything and everywhere. They are like the cats of Rome, hiding on rafters, hiding under beds, always screaming for a morsel.”) But I’d wished Wanger had penned a more dramatically thought-provoking, forthright tome. Wanger’s life certainly contained drama — melodrama, in fact, and a love triangle that, though less glamorous, was intriguingly darker and more shocking than Eddie, Liz, and Dick.

Which leads me back to 1951, Wanger, his wife, and that parking lot. As detailed in Bernstein’s book, 57-year-old Wanger was besieged with career worries, money stress, absurd Red Scare pestering, and the extra-marital wandering, however understandable, of his frequently cheated-upon wife, the talented, versatile actress Joan Bennett, who’d played everything from saucy Fritz Lang femme fatales to a ’50s freeze-dried Douglas Sirk housewife. Wanger, the independent who worked at every major Hollywood studio, produced, among many, movies like The Cocoanuts, Queen Christina, Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent, Scarlet Street, and up to that point, portentously, The Reckless Moment; he was an intellectual, an educated man intent on making movies a more respectable art form. And yet he found himself committing a criminal act Eddie Fisher only fantasized about. Suspecting an affair with Bennett’s agent, Jennings Lang, Wanger hired a detective to tail his wife and learned exactly what he feared: she’d been sneaking off for months, even meeting Lang in a flat (which reportedly inspired Billy Wilder’s classic, The Apartment). In a fit of violent jealousy, Wanger drove to the MCA parking lot where Lang and Bennett were chatting outside her car. Wanger approached; argued with Lang, shot twice, the second bullet hitting Lang where it counted most: in the groin. The irate husband was swiftly caught; conveniently and ludicrously, the Beverly Hills Police Station was just across the street. Upon arrest, Wanger, possessed with a furious sensibility, stated: “I’ve just shot the son-of-a-bitch who tried to break up my home.”

What followed was counsel provided by Jerry Giesler (who else but the man who represented Errol Flynn, Charlie Chaplin, Bugsy Siegel, and Lana Turner?), studio heads from Darryl Zanuck to Samuel Goldwyn contributing to his legal costs, a not guilty by reason of temporary insanity plea, and a four-month stint at Castaic Honor Farm Prison. As related in Bernstein’s book, Wanger explained his actions to Giesler with an almost poetic reiteration, staring down a very real prison sentence (which he never thought he’d serve — it was a forgivable crime of passion, he thought) while maintaining his dramatic panache. In words that read like Humbert Humbert’s repetitive “because you took advantage” letter to Clare Quilty, Wanger mournfully avowed:

I am 57 years old and I loved my wife and family and had no desire for any change — I was not only jealous of Joan I was jealous of our way of life […] I was jealous of Joan’s forthrightness — I was jealous of her good judgment […] I was jealous of the time we had with the family — I was jealous of our liking or disliking a book or play and our reasons – of her interest in my clothes and mine in hers — of her perfume (La Rose) and my cologne (Fraser’s) — the way she ran the house, the way she organized — the efficiency of her means of travel — her interest in my work — my interest in her pictures — the discussion over directors, scripts and all the rest of show business — her desire to entertain well — her love of church and her desire to be with the children — these are all things I was jealous of plus the physical attraction […] her lack of conceit and willingness to look objectively at her career […] I was jealous of all of this which I saw changing from day to day and a hardened new code of behavior and an attitude so foreign and distant and bitter that it was quite obvious to me that our marriage had entered a new phase and a dire one — I did not want to see this change occur and was ready to do all I could to stop it.

Four months in prison was a depressing experience, but Wanger understood the raw humanity of it, the rough romantic glory. You catch the man screwing your wife, you shoot his balls off. But by Cleopatra, Wanger reveals a refreshingly liberal attitude toward such matters. The macho rage has lessened, and women, not just goddesses like Elizabeth Taylor, can be forgiven. In My Life With Cleopatra he writes:

These are hypocritical times, when men are permitted to have more than one love at a time and women are castigated for the same kind of behavior. I believe that Elizabeth loves two men. And who is to say that a woman can’t love two men at the same time, any more than that a man can’t love two women at the same time?

I have lived in several of the great cities of the world during my lifetime, and I have known many women considered to be paragons of virtue. I doubt, however, that many of these moral women have as strong a code of personal ethics as Elizabeth. Further, I doubt that many of them would have been able to resist Burton’s charm.

This is lovely, a tribute not only to Taylor who “goes where her heart leads her,” but perhaps to both his wife and himself. He may have hardened after four months in prison, but he seems to have evolved emotionally. And yet, four years of Cleopatra destroyed his pride; it was a spirit-crusher, a quagmire of business and emotions, a once passion project that through time, could only feel passionate when Elizabeth’s name was invoked, which Wanger does frequently in his journals: “It is not a far stretch of the imagination to compare Elizabeth with Cleopatra. She has the intelligence and temperament of the Egyptian Queen — and she has the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.” Writing My Life With Cleopatra was Wanger reaching for that .38, hoping the pen would be mightier than the gun. But alas, the book couldn’t have possibly provided the relief he sought, and he remained a troubled man. In a letter published in Bernstein’s book (and not in Wanger’s diary), a heartbreakingly humiliated Wanger begged Zanuck to save his reputation after firing him during post-production of the picture:

I beseech you, Darryl, as the new president of the company to not aggravate this situation and further damage my status as producer of Cleopatra by not bringing me to Paris for the conferences and cutting and editing of this picture. Not only will this further harm my reputation and status, but I think you, as the new president of Twentieth Century Fox would not want to further humiliate and degrade me, a fellow producer, in this manner, in the eyes of the entire industry and of the entire world […] I appeal to you as a man not to do this to me.

After shooting Jennings Lang, Wanger stayed with Bennett, albeit with understandable friction, for another 14 years, produced (among other films) three terrific, lean, and meaningful pictures that resonated with him personally (Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the award-winning I Want to Live!), and entered a new stage in his career. He wasn’t a radically different man but a changed one, inasmuch as movies, life’s indignities, and a prison sentence can change a person. He was both tired and tireless. He suffered heart ailments. He was old. But he endured the 1950s. He was ready for new projects and adventures.

And then came shooting Cleopatra. He survived Cleo’s four-year stretch, but he didn’t survive the 1960s. He died at age 74 in 1968 — the same year a truly underrated Taylor and Burton picture was released, Joseph Losey’s Boom! There, his queen Elizabeth, dissipated and drugged-up, playing Tennessee Williams’s Flora “Sissy” Goforth, dons enormous headdresses, screams at servants for injections, and takes overripe, bar-ragged Burton as a lover while rotting in her mansion on the Isle of Capri. The picture is an engorged wonder; tumescent, histrionic, and hilarious, but beautifully bizarre and emotionally honest. Taylor shows us the dark side of excess, the desperation of love, and the disillusionment of lust and, despite the picture’s poor reviews, she is fantastic. Here is the “the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.” And here is the honesty of opulence, its fading glamour that was already losing its luster by the time of Cleopatra, the vulgarity of a queen in her own mind, and her lover (now older) sliding into the 1970s, garish, sagging, and exceedingly brave for it. Building on their groundbreaking brilliance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Boom! presents the glittering duo reveling in and revealing their decay with an almost avant-garde perceptibility. At this point, regardless of the baubles and booze and purple, writ large, Liz and Dick seemed to get it. One wonders if Wanger saw an early screening. One wonders if he got it, too. I hope so.


Kim Morgan is a film and culture writer.

LARB Contributor

Kim Morgan is a film and culture writer who has written for numerous publications, including Salon, LA Weekly, GQ, and Playboy. Read more on her blog, Sunset Gun


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