26 APRIL 2003, Page 41

Pig in a silk suit

Helen Osborne

SAM SPIEGEL by Natasha Fraser Cavassoni Little, Brown, £22.50, pp. 465 ISBN 0316848522 Whenever 1 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.

Spiegel was not so much economical with the facts as addicted to deception. 'If Sam Spiegel says it's going to be a sunny day tomorrow, reach for your umbrella.' Telling the truth unnerved him. Elia Kazan said he could lie without betraying a tremor of his facial muscles'. His third wife explained, 'He would prefer to climb a tree than tell the truth.'

In 1938 when he finally came to roost in Hollywood he gathered around him a macho gang of gambling chums: William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Preminger, Huston, Edward G. Robinson. 'There's shit everywhere,' his maid complained one morning after an all-night gin-rummy game. Sam replied wearily, 'There's shit all over the world.' He was also an aggressive bachelor-about-town. An inspired pimp,' remarked an observer. 'He could create those very high-class mush-pits.' Bacall recalls, 'Sam. Kazan, Huston, they were all hell on women.'

It was Huston who decided that 'Mr Spieeegel' as Garbo called him. or S. P. Eagle as he had rechristened himself, was more than a mere Mr Fixit and needed to be 'bullied' up a notch or two. Together they formed Horizon Pictures, otherwise known as Shit Creek Productions, because that was where they usually were.

Thereafter, although the sheriffs were often at the front door while the penniless producer drove round in a chauffeurdriven Rolls, Spiegel became the showman who could never afford to be seen to be down. 'Do you expect a leopard to change its stripes?' he protested at suggestions of caution. He also had a nose for a good story (everyone had turned down On the Watelfront), believed artists work better under pressure (and so created plenty) and, clashing lustily with all his directors except Kazan, maintained that films which ran smoothly were dull and boring.

Asked to define success, Spiegel replied, 'Baby, know your audience.' There may have been more to it. Legend insists that one day as he strolled down the Champs Elysees someone gave him a kick in the pants; without turning he declared, 'The cheque is in the mail.' Perhaps the trick was that he really did have eyes in the back of his head.