Magazine article The Spectator

Pig in a Silk Suit

Magazine article The Spectator

Pig in a Silk Suit

Article excerpt

Helen Osborne SAM SPIEGEL by Natasha Fraser Cavassoni Little, Brown, 22.50, pp. 465 ISBN 0316848522

Whenever I read of shenanigans on `luxury yachts' I remember a trip around the oily waters off St Tropez as a day-guest on Sam Spiegel's Malahne, which was rather like a floating Marriott hotel with the odd Cezanne thrown in. We were served sticky bullshots under the unforgiving Mediterranean sky. `The drinks,' drawled Lauren Bacall to John Gielgud, `are flowing like concrete.'

After our hamburger lunch, Spiegel who could not swim - ordered a postprandial dip. I was grounded by Nat Cohen, a round little mini-mogul who had fallen asleep on my left leg. John Mortimer, ever the amenable guest, took the plunge only to be surrounded by a circle of sewage as a bolshie member of crew let loose the bilges. Sam, on the companionway, energetically hosed him down.

Oh, la dolce vita! Natasha FraserCavassoni, who has written an engaging biography of her old boss, is unaccountably impressed by life on the Malahne. An invitation on board, she writes, `became de rigueur in society'. Well, blow me down.

Fraser-Cavassoni worked for Spiegel in 1983 on his last movie, Betrayal, by Harold Pinter, her stepfather. The glory days were long past, but she was captivated and intrigued by the ageing scamp, who had not entirely lost his sparkle or his line-up on increasingly younger girls, the Spiegelettes. Helen Mirren was rejected for a role in the film: `her butt is too big for the part,' he decreed.

Spiegel may have been dismissed as an erudite guttersnipe or, by Katharine Hepburn, as 'a pig in a silk suit', but glory days there had been. His four great achievements - On the Waterfront, The African Queen, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia - are lasting testaments to a unique and relentless tenacity. As the director John Huston put it, `Sam made them with spit.'

Spiegelese became a euphemism for Sam's lifelong crusade to cover his tracks and Fraser-Cavassoni hacks away like a gillie in the jungle of camouflage to find her man. He was born in 1901 in western Galicia, which branded him a lowly Ashkenazi Jew, and so he claimed to come from Vienna and, later, to have dodged all manner of Nazi atrocities. In fact, after dumping his young wife and child and a wodge of debts in Palestine in 1927, he flipped across Europe and the Atlantic like a tiddly-wink, and not always one jump ahead of the police. …

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