A giant of the theater as man of letters.
May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By MALCOLM FORBES
The later years touch on forays into novel-writing and inspire more ruminative letters on his accomplishments to family members. Throughout, family correspondence neatly counterbalances the letters concerning working life, and together they allow us to see two markedly different sides of the same man. It is in his letters to his first wife, Molly Day Thacher, that Kazan provides his most personal, heart-on-sleeve outpourings—not to mention lines of self-confessed shortcomings. One would appear to be a prioritizing of guilt: In a reply to Molly’s “last letters of abuse and love,” Kazan apologizes for name-calling but not for his affair with the starlet Constance Dowling. (The editors note that they have silently corrected Kazan’s repeated misspelling of “marraige.” With this in mind, it is tempting to believe his union was doomed from the start.)
While Kazan’s letters shine a light on crucial milestones, from births and deaths to films and plays in various stages of production, they also illuminate those around him, particularly the unknowns whose careers he nurtured. James Dean, we hear, is “inventive and true,” while Brando is “surly and introverted” but also “the best actor we have.” Warren Beatty possesses “tremendous determination.” Kazan is just as profuse with his wrath: Tight-fisted theater owner-producer Lee Shubert is a “fetid cadaver”; Hollywood a “dreary ass hole”; A Man for All Seasons “pure English pansy Theatre, cool, unreal, boring.”
The person he has the most to say about is the one to whom he writes the most: Tennessee Williams, “the kindest of men.” As Kazan writes more frequently, and with greater depth, we trace the transition from working relationship into solid friendship. Better still is being able to witness the journey from rough-draft “kitchen sink” scripts to finished, polished productions. Kazan’s dramaturgical and psychological insight, revealed through page upon page of critique, helps “unify” Williams’s Camino Real and The Rose Tattoo, whereas his coach-like support and marshaling spirit buoy Williams out of his many moments of despair.
After we have finished trawling these letters, who is the Elia Kazan that emerges? Certainly a less guarded incarnation than the self-portrait sketched in his 1988 memoir, A Life. Here we meet a flawed husband, a loving father, a loyal friend, and a consummate professional who admits to getting “awful intense . . . in fact, obsessed” with his work. Kazan was a perfectionist who believed in “spiritual propinquity” when casting, who approved of theatrical tradition but would “stiffen” at style, and who wouldn’t suffer fools or compromise in attaining his vision—fighting studio bigwigs and censors both to keep the pivotal rape scene in Streetcar and to represent the brothel in East of Eden as “drab, evil and dull.”
“Trust my instinct,” he tells Jack Warner. “‘I’m known as the Greek Barnum and I care like a son of a bitch.”
But he also doubts. Self-deprecation alternates with gushing positivity. “My work has not been rewarding or rewarded or even good,” he tells Odets in 1958. Kazan’s letter to John Steinbeck two years later finds him worrying over his nickname, Gadget, and its implication of “ever-ready compliance, a subservient, scattershot friendliness and an adaptability which made it possible for me to be the ‘necessary’ thing to any man.” Candid, cutting, affectionate, and often lyrical, these letters may not always endear us to their writer, but they add to our understanding and appreciation of a unique talent.