“The reason I can’t write you about what I’m ashamed of,” Elia Kazan wrote in 1955 to his wife, Molly Day Thatcher, “is because I’m ashamed of it.” He was referring to his affair with Marilyn Monroe. “I’m ashamed of it. I’m ashamed I hurt you ever. On the other hand I resent being made to feel guilty and low and less,” wrote the renowned Greek-American director about his interlude with Monroe, the even more famous preeminent American sex symbol of the times.
But “I’m not ashamed at all, not a damn bit, of having been attracted to her,” a defiant Kazan continued. “I’m not sorry about it, [though] I’m awful sorry I hurt you. I am human, though,” he wrote.
“It might happen again. I hope not, and I have resisted quite some other opportunities. No loss. I got a lot out of this one; can’t say I didn’t,” Kazan wrote, his words painful but brutally honest.
“If you don’t like what I say and feel it necessary for your own sense of honor to divorce me, divorce me,” Kazan continued. “I don’t think I should not be married or anything like that. If you divorce me, I’ll tell you plainly I will in time get married again and have more children. I feel I’m a family man and a damned good one. I don’t care what your judgment is on that.”
That excerpt is a glimpse into the fascinating but tumultuous life of arguably one of the greatest directors in American cinematic history, as revealed through his personal writings in a provocative new book, The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan, edited by Albert J. Devlin (Knopf, 2014).
Much like Maria Callas in opera or Pete Sampras in tennis, Kazan was not merely at the top of his field among Greek-Americans. Rather, he was at the top of his field, period (as a director). Not just among Greek-Americans, but among virtually everyone.
He won the Oscar for Best Director twice, for Gentleman’s Agreement in 1948 and for On the Waterfront in 1955. The latter starred Marlon Brando, who won the Oscar for Best Actor. Widely regarded as one of the greatest actors in history, Brando said of Kazan: “I have worked with many movie directors—some good, some fair, some terrible. Kazan was the best actors’ director by far of any I’ve worked for…he was extraordinarily talented; perhaps we will never see his like again.”
But as disclosed in another letter Devlin includes in the book, one from Kazan to Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulburg, the director had another actor in mind for the lead: I’m not insane about Brando for this. In fact, in my opinion he is quite wrong…If we don’t get Brando, I’m for Paul Newman. This boy will definitely be a film star. I have absolutely no doubt. He’s just as good looking as Brando, and his masculinity, which is strong, is also more actual. He’s not as good an actor as Brando yet, and probably will never be. But he’s a darn good actor with plenty of power, plenty of insides, plenty of sex.” Kazan was right. Newman went on to become a highly-acclaimed actor, though he never quite reached Brando’s level of prestige.
Kazan went on to direct another actor often referred to as the rebellious Brando’s heir apparent, James Dean, in East of Eden (1956) for which he was nominated for another Best Director Oscar. Kazan wrote to John Steinbeck, the Pulitzer-winning author who wrote the novel of the same name, on which the film was based, about Dean: “I looked thru a lot of kids before settling on this Jimmy Dean. He hasn’t Brando’s stature, but he’s a good deal younger and is very interesting, has balls and eccentricity and a ‘real problem’ somewhere in his guts, I don’t know what or where. He’s a little bit of a bum, but he’s a real good actor and I think he’s the best of a poor field. Most kids who become actors at nineteen or twenty or twenty-one are very callow and strictly from NY Professional school. Dean has got a real mean streak and a real sweet streak.”
As legendary an icon as Kazan was, and remains, his boundless shadow was considerably tainted by his cooperation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952. The HUAC, originally established in 1938 to investigate Nazis within the United States, had changed with the times as Communists had displaced Nazis by the 1950s as the primary enemy of concern. Inspired by Wisconsin Senator Joseph’s McCarthy anti-communist fervor (though McCarthy, of the Senate, was not party of the HUAC, which was situated in the House of Representatives), the HUAC interrogated many members of the entertainment industry believed to have been members of the Communist Party.
Kazan, born Elias Kazantzoglou in Constantinople in 1909 immigrated to the United States with his parents, George and Athena, in 1913. He was in fact a member of the American Communist Party during the mid-1930s, at the time of the Great Depression, but soon quit that party and abandoned that ideology.
Kazan said he was not about to risk his career by refusing to testify – to name others who were members of the Party with him – in order to protect an ideology in which he no longer believed. In 1999, when the Motion Picture Academy honored him with a lifetime achievement award, some in the audience sat with arms folded in protest, while others stood and applauded in support.
The Washington Post praises Devlin’s book, insofar as “these letters make possible a fuller understanding of Elia Kazan as both a formidably gifted director and a painfully conflicted human being.” The New York Times also lauds the book, but advises that first, a read of Kazan’s autobiography A Life (Da Capo Press, 1988) is essential to a heightened context in which to appreciate the letters. Publisher’s Weekly says the chronological arrangement of the letters reduces any thematic value, and that only experienced Kazan chroniclers will be able to follow along with ease. But Malcolm Forbes in the Weekly Standard writes: “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.”
That 1999 Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Kazan by another Oscar-winning director, Martin Scorcese, and another legendary actor, one whom both Kazan and Scorcese have directed, Robert DeNiro, both of whose lives he influenced tremendously. “Thank you all very much,” Kazan said as he embraced both Scorcese and DeNiro. “I think I can just slip away.”
Kazan died four years later.