As paintings collected over two generations come to auction, A. Scott Berg reveals how art transformed one of Hollywood’s greatest families.
NEW YORK - In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn achieved the greatest success of his fabled career – which had begun with the making of Hollywood’s first feature-length film (a 1914 western called The Squaw Man, directed by the novice Cecil B. DeMille) and which included such classics as Wuthering Heights and The Pride of the Yankees. Except for his failure to master the English language (which resulted in such famous “Goldwynisms” as “Include me out!”), Goldwyn had long since shed all traces of his impoverished beginnings a world away from Hollywood. Schmuel Gelbfisz, a Hasidic Jew born into poverty and squalor in Warsaw in 1879, had walked across Europe as a teenager, sailed to America, reinvented himself as compleat gentleman dressed in Savile Row suits and founded a motion-picture dynasty. His 68th production, The Best Years of Our Lives – inspired by a TIME magazine article about soldiers coming home from the Second World War and trying to adjust to civilian life – became a blockbuster hit, the highest-grossing film of 1946 and his greatest commercial success ever.
many Goldwyn films starring Danny Kaye.
Everett Collection / Alamy.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Best Years won seven of them, including Best Picture. Crowning that year’s Oscar ceremony, Goldwyn received the Irving G. Thalberg Award for his body of work. After the night’s celebrations, the chauffeur drove Goldwyn and his wife, Frances, home to their Beverly Hills mansion. She waited upstairs for Sam to come to bed; and when he did not, she searched the house. Frances found him sitting in the living room, alone in the dark – his Oscar in one hand and his Thalberg in the other – sobbing.
Goldwyn considered the trophies a curse. He had long preached to his son, Samuel, Jr., that the higher you climbed, the harder you would fall. While Goldwyn had a few promising movies in the works, he immediately felt Best Years marked the end of his own best years. With labour troubles arising in Hollywood, McCarthyism strangling the studios (a movement Goldwyn resisted) and the threat of television killing attendance at movie theatres, Goldwyn sank into a serious depression.
He received help from a remarkable therapist named Hilde Berl, a diminutive Austrian trained in graphology. She periodically appeared in New York and Los Angeles, where some wrote her off as a charlatan; but Berl had counselled the Goldwyns previously, helping them resolve deep family issues, including discord with their son. She returned in late 1947 to work her magic. During a session, Goldwyn described his state of mind – how he was living in greater luxury than he had ever dreamed possible, with the utmost respect of his industry. And yet, he confessed, he was deriving no pleasure from any of it. Hilde Berl urged him to collect art.
She explained that for all the ugliness in his background, Goldwyn had a genuine eye for beauty. Just as a perfectly filmed scene gave him pleasure, so too could a single picture. If nothing else, she thought paintings could help him appreciate how much bleakness he had overcome. Berl nudged him toward the French Impressionists.
Goldwyn had recently become friendly with financier and future politician-diplomat Averell Harriman, whose wife Marie had operated one of the finest art galleries in New York. Although Sam balked at the prices, she advised him as he made his first acquisition in 1948 – a Matisse still life called Anémones et grenades (1946), an uncluttered arrangement with a soothing palette that cost $13,500; a Chagall gouache called The Lovers followed. For months, he would hurry home after work and sit in the living room alone, now simply to gaze.
The works of Matisse and Picasso were becoming especially popular in Hollywood mansions – the famous names worth buying, if only as good investments. Their price tags were enough to terrify Frances Goldwyn; but she also came to value their beauty. Over the next two decades, artworks became the Goldwyns’ favourite gifts to each other – including a Degas pastel called Après le bain (circa 1883), two still lifes by Braque, a Bonnard and an oil painting in which he took special pride, the picture he called “my Toujours Lautrec.”
The growing collection commanded attention at 1200 Laurel Lane, the Georgian-style house the Goldwyns built on two of the choicest acres in Beverly Hills. Here they entertained every famous name in Hollywood, sometimes four nights a week, usually at dinners for twelve. As Katharine Hepburn once commented, “You always knew where your career stood by where you sat at the Goldwyn table.”
“The art that had hung at 1200 Laurel Lane inspired sam, jr.’s interest in movies about painters.”
chignon dans un fauteuil. Photo by Gjon Mili/
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images © 2015
Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society
(ARS), New York.
Sam Goldwyn emerged from his funk and spent the 1950s producing such extravagant movie musicals as Hans Christian Andersen, Guys and Dolls and Porgy and Bess. He became Hollywood’s grey eminence, and even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon in 1971. Goldwyn died in 1974 at the age of 94; and upon Frances’s death two years later, the bulk of his $20 million estate was left to charity. But Sam, Jr. inherited the house and all its art and, most important, ownership of the 80 films his father had produced. “Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his novel The Last Tycoon. Samuel Goldwyn was one of them.
Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. was another. While his father would always remain the most colourful of Hollywood’s founders, the son became just as totemic of the period that followed, one in which the big studios became part of conglomerate portfolios and filmmakers found greater freedom of expression outside the studio walls, getting their films financed independently. Sam Goldwyn, Jr. became one of their greatest champions, with his unparalleled understanding of the entire industry. He established the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1979, and it would adjust to the vicissitudes of the film business over the next 35 years and prosper. He produced two dozen movies, among them Mystic Pizza, which cast Julia Roberts in her first significant role in a feature; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; and, most recently, a remake of his father’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Sam, Jr.’s greatest strength proved to be in film distribution. He championed young, visionary directors and such films as Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George, Ang Lee’s Wedding Banquet, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.
Upon his mother’s death in 1976, Sam, Jr. moved into his boyhood house. 1200 Laurel Lane received overdue redecoration; and on the brightened walls, Sam, Jr. made the home his own by adding some unexpected pictures to the Goldwyn collection – a half dozen works by David Hockney in various mediums, oil paintings by Milton Avery, a Botero brush, wash and pencil sketch, Kitaj charcoals and several works by Diego Rivera.
SAM GOLDWYN, JR. ON THE STUDIO LOT. COURTESY OF THE GOLDWYN FAMILY.
The art that had hung at 1200 Laurel Lane no doubt inspired his particular interest in movies about painters. Over the years, he distributed Milos Forman’s production of Goya’s Ghosts, starring Javier Bardem, Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol and Renoir, France’s 2013 Oscar entry about the great Impressionist painter, which became an unexpected box-office success. One of Sam, Jr.’s personal favourites happened to be filmed by Renoir’s grandson Claude – Le mystère Picasso, an exhilarating documentary from 1956 that showed the master himself at work. Sam, Jr. rereleased it 30 years later so that new generations of American audiences could appreciate it.
Although styles and tastes change over the decades, the timeless Picasso provided a powerful bond between father and son. The greatest painting Sam, Sr. and Frances had ever acquired was the artist’s striking portrait of Françoise Gilot, Femme au chignon dans un fauteuil (1948). Sam, Jr. chose to hang the picture on the wall opposite the front door, to greet everyone who entered the house. It was a constant reminder of art’s transformative potential – to change the lives not only of those who resided there but of anybody who ever had the good fortune to step inside 1200 Laurel Lane.
Pulitzer Prize winner A. Scott Berg is the author of Goldwyn: A Biography. His most recent book is a biography of Woodrow Wilson.
This article has been adapted from “The Goldwyn Age of Hollywood,” A. Scott Berg’s catalogue essay for The Goldwyn Collection, published by Sotheby’s in May 2015.
LEAD IMAGE: SAM GOLDWYN, JR. AND SAM, SR. WITH ROBERT MITCHUM ON THE SET OF MAN WITH THE GUN IN 1955. ASSOCIATED PRESS/550324049.
CHIC MODERN BARN, BRIDGEHAMPTON, NY, UNITED STATES. $15,000,000.