Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ardie Deutsch

In Memoriam. Armand Deutsch died in Beverly Hills the weekend before last. He was 92 and had lived almost sixty years in Los Angeles where he went on a lark in the late 1940s, on the invitation of a man named Dore Schary, to become a film producer.

I met Ardie, as he was always known, twenty-one years ago when I went to interview him late one Sunday afternoon in October for a piece I was writing on Truman Capote. He and his wife Harriet were by that time very prominent because of their friendship with Nancy and Ronald Reagan. They lived in a rambling one story house off Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills.

Ardie and Harriet Deutsch in 1951 (the year they were married).

We had the interview in the Deutsches’ screening room, which was a separate building and called the Whim House. It was a very imposing screening room – large enough for at least a couple dozen guests and with side tables covered with silver frames of the Deutsches’ many famous friends, including the President and the First Lady. As a matter of fact, at the end of the interview, as Ardie and I returned to the main house, Mrs. Deutsch, on hearing him enter, informed her husband that she was on the phone, “with Nancy,” she added.

On first meeting – he was seventy-one – he was very formal and seemed a bit of a stuffed-shirt. He was compliant in answering my questions about Truman, how he knew him, what he was like, how they had attended his Black and White Ball, but he was not overly-generous with his responses. I got the picture of a man who had long lived a very sophisticated and privileged life, full of famous acquaintances and friendships. I also felt that because of his well-publicized friendship with the President and the First Lady, that he felt it was important that he be discreet. I liked him for it.

After the article was published in California Magazine, he sent me a warm note congratulating me on the job, and that was that. A couple of years later, I had begun researching Bill and Edie Goetz and because Ardie had been a long time good friend of Bill Goetz, Edie suggested I speak to him.

Our interview about Bill Goetz had an entirely different tone and atmosphere. Goetz had been one Ardie’s best friends and his fondness for the man brought out the man who was a good storyteller and anecdotalist as well as an aspiring writer. He was more willing to talk about himself.

Ardie had been born into privilege in 1913.
His mother was the daughter of the legendary Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck. His father was the son of a steel executive. It was to be a childhood right out of Scott Fitzgerald.

He later wrote about his parents, in his memoir Me and Bogie:

“ She was brought up in a mansion on Ellis Avenue, a then fashionable South Side district of Chicago. Her father, Julius Rosenwald, was a titan of the day who built Sears, Roebuck into a huge company, acquiring a large fortune in the process. He was one of the country's leading philanthropists and an adviser to presidents. His wife, August, was an active functioning wife and mother, well known throughout Chicago for her civic activities. Day by day these two people lovingly went about the business of cloistering their daughter from the realities of that gentle era. They sent her to the marriage altar an eighteen-year-old young woman whom they never would have permitted to travel alone on the deluxe 20th Century Limited from Chicago to New York. She was no more equipped to cope with her high-spirited, tippling bridegroom than to be an astronomer.”

Ardie’s father, “in true Andy Hardy fashion, was brought up across the street,” the son of a steel executive. “To say that he wanted for nothing would be an understatement, although his future father-in-law’s overriding success tended to diminish everyone around him. There was no real rudder to my father’s formative years, and he certainly brought no maturing to this union. They were indeed two eggs not yet ready to make an omelette.”

But they did, nonetheless, and the result was Ardie. The young father, “was particularly partial to a popular short subject of the day called ‘The Fitzpatrick Travel Talks,’ which described in glamorous terms different places on the earth’s surface. My father, however, was not the average movie-goer. Occasionally one of the Fitzpatrick offerings was irresistible to him. Off he would go virtually from movie palace to India, absenting himself from home and fireside for many months.”

In 1924, as an eleven year old, Ardie was said
to have been a potential victim of two teen-age Chicago boys. Neighbors of the Deutsches, named Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, the two academically brilliant teenagers had planned “the perfect crime,” and committed it by kidnapping and murdering a classmate of Ardie’s named Bobby Franks. Ardie later claimed that he missed his brush with fate that day because he had a dental appointment, rather than walking home from school (when he might have been abducted), he was driven by chauffeur to the dentist.

When he was twelve, his mother and father divorced and he and his mother went to live in Paris. Paris was an adventure for the boy who in 1927 got to go to Le Bourget Airport as Charles Lindbergh was landing from his history trans-Atlantic flight. “In truth, I did not get so much as a glimpse of him since the plane and the airport were small and the crowd was vast. Oddly enough, that proximity remains a high point for me,” he wrote more than six decades later. A few days later, visiting his grandfather in London, he actually met the Lone Eagle at a reception held in his honor at the American Embassy.

In 1933, when Ardie was a sophomore at Dartmouth, his father died suddenly from typhoid in Mexico at forty-one. He left his son $10,000 and a handwritten letter telling him to spend it on a good tailor, which Ardie did. “In those days, the finest custom-made suit in New York cost less than three hundred dollars. Within two years, I accumulated an awesome wardrobe.”

Ardie’s mother remarried, successfully, and they went to live in New York where the young man out of college ended up working on Wall Street. In New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was a habitue of the night clubs and the Broadway shows. His family’s fortune and social connections gave him the opportunity to meet people. He was also, by nature, a friendly and unobtrusive fellow. He married actress Benay Venuta, who had a well-known character actress who later worked for years as understudy to Ethel Merman. The couple had two children.

The Deutches at home in Beverly Hills, ca. 1986.
Income was never an issue for the young man, and not unlike his father, he had a penchant for a good time. Although he was clearly not the imbiber that his father had been, nor quite so fanciful, he did have the capacity for making a decision on a whim. One night at a dinner party in New York in 1946, he met Dore Schary, who was then running production at RKO Studios in Hollywood. Schary took a liking to Ardie and suggested that he go out to Hollywood and become a movie producer. The idea was so serendipitous (Ardie was just over thirty and now single again) that he went for it.

Never one to pretend to have knowledge he lacked, Ardie went into the business expecting nothing to come of it. The first picture he worked on was as an assistant overseeing the production for Schary, was “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” starring Cary Grant, whom he’d met already in New York. When Grant saw him on location in Malibu, he offered to have his car pick him up every morning to drive him out to the set.

Soon after completion of the picture, Dore Schary was brought over to MGM by LB Mayer and Ardie went with him where he was assigned to produce a film called “Ambush.” The transition into a career remained astonishing to him sixty years later in the telling: “I was moved into my own suite with my own secretary, and told my salary would be one thousand dollars. Thinking this meant per month, I was thrilled when the first check arrived. It was per week.”

“Ambush” was budgeted as a B-picture, but again, serendipitously, because of his social friendship with Robert Taylor, then a big MGM star who wanted to do the picture, it was moved up the ladder, and became a very successful picture for the first time producer who was given a raise and another project. Ardie stayed on at MGM, producing ten films, until 1958 when the changes in the industry and the studio brought an end to his career.

He’d gone out to Hollywood basically just to see what it would be like, and he liked it, yet always planning to return to New York. In 1951, he was invited to a dinner party at Fran and Ray Stark’s and asked to escort a young widow named Harriet Simon. It was love at first sight for Ardie and they married six months later.

When Ardie’s film career ended in the late 50s, he took an office with Bill Goetz for running their individual (and occasionally joint) financial interests. When he discussed the possibility of returning to New York, Harriet informed him that she liked living in Los Angeles (she’d come from New York also) and wanted to stay. So they did. The Deutsches became charter members of the film community as well as the social community of Los Angeles and New York.

Over the years Ardie forged good friendships
with many prominent members of the community and the industry. He held an unusual position, for besides being independently wealthy, he was scion of a famous family and grandson of a great American businessman and philanthropist. His mother also had taken up the mantle of her father’s projects and had a distinguished reputation as a philanthropist as well as a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Perhaps because his father had never made anything of himself, Ardie didn’t expect much more of himself. However, unlike his father, he had the stability to conduct his life in moderation and intelligently. The result was that Harriet and Armand Deutsch led a very happy life together, often in the company of a host of rich, famous, and accomplished friends – such as just one example, Nancy and Ronald Reagan.

By the late 1980s, Ardie and I had developed a luncheon friendship.
This grew out of my interest in his world and his stories about his experiences, and the fact that many of his friends had passed on. Every three or four weeks, he’d take me to lunch at a restaurant in Century City called Jimmy’s – an L.A. equivalent to the old Le Cirque here in New York, or to Hillcrest Country Club. By then I was working on Debbie Reynolds’ autobiography and Ardie was happily filling my ears with stories of the old days at MGM. By then he’d also developed a desire and had some success in writing and so he’d occasionally show me his pieces.

Although he never developed the confidence, he was quite a good writer, a natural, and happy to hear that even from this still-budding professional. About that time, he helped a major New York literary agent secure a very famous client for a big book deal. When it was completed, this agent told Ardie that if he could ever do anything for him, to just let him know. By then Ardie had written several pieces about famous people he’d known in his life including some contemporaries whom he admired greatly. He hit upon the idea of turning it into a book – a collection of reminiscences.

A deal with a publisher was made, with no advance to speak of but a guarantee of a certain number of books to be printed and a publishing date. The result was what I would call a memoir, Me and Bogie; And Other Friends and Acquaintances from a Life In Hollywood and Beyond (Bogie being his late great friend Humphrey Bogart).

Ardie and DPC at Hillcrest Country Club in L.A., 2002.
It was a great accomplishment for a man who’d lived his life with no professional expectations but simply a willingness to make the most of whatever was passed on or handed to him. There were nineteen chapters beginning with “Me and My Father,” “Me and the Crime of the Century” (Loeb and Leopold); right through Joe Louis, Frank Sinatra, Robert Taylor, Billy Wilder (he had enormous admiration and respect for Billy Wilder), Walter Annenberg, the Barrymores, Nancy Reagan, Bennett Cerf, Jimmy Stewart, and a tour through many other famous friendships such as Jack Benny, Walter O’Malley, Henry Fonda, Bill Goetz.

Ardie, typically, although delighted, was unimpressed with his achievement. Afterwards he continued to pursue his professional writing career – he wrote a few pieces for me – but was always filled with the uncertainty and fears that afflict many writers, especially at the outset of a project.

I visited him one afternoon last year when I was out in Los Angeles. Both he and Harriet had pretty much withdrawn from social life, hindered by the vagaries of time and age. He walked with a cane and was philosophical about the quietness, indeed, even loneliness of his advanced age. He loved people, loved knowing people, and now with so many old friends gone and his own condition inhibiting him, he was isolated more than he would have liked. In our meeting, I encouraged him to write more. He had an idea of some reminiscences about his early days in Manhattan when he was fresh out of college and hitting the nightclub circuit. The thought of it always stimulated his memory but he remained the insecure budding writer that he had become. He needed some serious hand-holding to get himself moving again. I wished there were a way for me to help him along more but alas, I was here in New York, and he was out there.

He’d led a charmed life.
He always regarded it with a self-effacing modesty. He was aware that his grandfather’s fortune had decided his fate in so many ways. But although he tended to surrender himself to his fate, somehow he made the most of it. He loved his wife, he loved his friends, he loved all those glorious moments that he eventually put to words. And, as it turned out, unbeknownst to him, I’m sure, he was a helluva good writer. Ardie.