On Meeting Ivan

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Taking shelter from the rain in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: JH.

Thursday, October 5, 2022.  It was still raining yesterday, throughout the day, and early evening along with temps in the 50s, although rising, with the rain tapering off. Today the weatherman is looking for temps in the low 70s and dry! Hooray!! (Although that’s just the forecast as I write these words, doesn’t mean it won’t change.)

Our “history” of the Hearst castle, La Cuesta Encantada in San Simeon, California reminded us of a Diary we first published many years ago about Marion Davies and how her meeting with screenwriter/producer Ivan Moffat made film history; and in the process fundamentally defined the relationship between Davies and William Randolph Hearst.

Ivan Moffat in his later years.

I had met Ivan more than twenty years before in Beverly Hills at the home of our mutual friend Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill. Ivan had a kind of English version of the Humphrey Bogart image — craggy-faced, furrowed brow, the cigarette with the long ash about to fall off; silver gray hair brushed back casually.

He had lived in California for years by then, but still looked perfectly at home in a suit and tie, albeit slightly less than impeccable but comfortably worn. He had a deep, gravelly voice that lent a serious dimension to anything he said.

On meeting, we talked about our friend Sarah while waiting for her to appear for cocktails.

Ivan told me the first time how he’d first met her in 1961 shortly after Jack Kennedy was elected to the Presidency. He had been seated next to Sarah at a dinner party in New York. They were discussing the recent election, and in her characteristically authoritative yet off-hand way, Sarah told Ivan that the U.S was going to be invading Cuba.

Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill with Sparky, her Jack Russell, Beverly Hills, 1980.

It should be noted that at the time, the relationship between Castro and the U.S. had deteriorated seriously, but no military action had been taken.

Considering that, Ivan thought Sarah’s remark was outrageous and absurd, and he told her so, asking how she could say something like that.

“Why, Jack told me the other night,” Sarah answered, unfazed by Ivan’s reaction. “He said we’re going to invade Cuba. Soon.”

Ivan was astounded and disbelieving that the President-elect would think or say such a thing to a friend at a dinner party.

“And then a few weeks later,” Ivan said, continuing, “we had the Bay of Pigs invasion.” He was amused by his friend on the re-telling but still somewhat astonished by her inside information.

Later I asked Sarah about this. She said that Jack — whom she’d known since the 1930s when Joe Kennedy was Ambassador to the Court of St. James (and Sarah’s father was the Duke of Marlborough) — “always talked too much.”

Ivan and I then concluded easily, and with a laugh, that it was a quality that JFK and Lady Sarah shared, although she was unaware of it in herself.

Bill and Edie Goetz, 1965.

I used to see Ivan sometimes on Thursday nights at dinner parties that Edie Goetz had in her great big house filled with Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in Holmby Hills.

Mrs. Goetz, the eldest daughter of L.B. Mayer, and wife of Bill Goetz, one of the founders of 20th Century-Fox, entertained formally, Hollywood style — women in long dresses and jewels, men in dark suits.

The butler had come from the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace. The chef was, for a time, the best in Southern California. The dining room was done by Billy Haines and entirely candlelit for dinner, save the lights over the Fantin-Latour, the Degas, the Modigliani, the Soutine, the Manet, and the very large Bonnard.

The guest list was usually eight or ten — such as Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Freddie and Janet de Cordova, often some visiting dignitaries from New York or Europe, and Ivan Moffat.

Conversation was always lively. One night Ivan told the story of the release of George Steven’s A Place In the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. Ivan had been involved in the producing of the picture.

The film, made in 1950-51, was an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, involving out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In those days, such matters were very dicey in a world with an influential Catholic Church code, as well as movie censors, not to mention the newspaper and magazine business. Because of it, they were worried about getting enough distribution for the film.

Maid Marion with Mr. Hearst.

Coincidentally, one night Ivan was introduced to Marion Davies at a cocktail party. Telling her about himself, he mentioned the new picture he was working on, and the subject matter, knowing that it was a sensitive one for her. Davies had openly lived outside of marriage to William Randolph Hearst for more than thirty years. There were persistent rumors of a child that she’d had with him. There was also the obvious: that she couldn’t have a “legitimate” child which some said was her tragic regret.

As Ivan had hoped, Marion Davies asked if she could see a print of the picture. One night he took a print up to the mansion she shared with Hearst on Beverly Drive (still standing — the house was used in The Godfather for the bloody horse head bedroom scene). Mr. Hearst was still alive, although barely, in his bedroom upstairs.

Davies and Moffat sat together in the large screening room right out of Sunset Boulevard, and watched. At the end, Marion had tears streaming down her face.

“It’s a beautiful film,” she whispered. Ivan then told her the problems they were facing with the different censors.

“I think I can help. Come with me,” she said, leading him out of the room, out of the house, and down the long driveway to the gatekeeper’s cottage at the entrance gate. Inside were teletype machines and many telephones connecting to all points in the Hearst empire. Marion picked up a phone that went directly to an editor in New York.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In the Sun.

Speaking with her slight stutter, but with conviction, she said to the ear on the other end, “Mr. Hearst and I have just seen the most wonderful picture called A Place In the Sun, and Mr. Hearst wants something about the picture in the papers everyday until it opens.”

Ivana Lowell.

Mr. Hearst, of course, had not seen the picture, confined to his room, close to death. It had long been rumored that Marion Davies had great editorial power in the Hearst papers — which was then the largest, most powerful chain of newspapers in America.

From the day following Davies call, until the day the film opened, A Place In The Sun garnered enormous publicity in the Hearst papers and magazines and went on to become one of the most talked about films of the year.

Fast-forward to 2002. I hadn’t seen Ivan Moffat since moving back to New York ten years before. Nor had I heard much about him, as it happens. Although last year, his name came forth with another great pleasant surprise.

It was revealed in the press that Ivana Lowell, daughter of the late Caroline Blackwood, had learned after her mother’s death, that her real father was not the man she’d always believed to be her father. Her mother (who’d been married to Robert Lowell and Lucien Freud, among others), for whatever reason, had concealed his identity from everyone.

Ivana, curious to know the truth learned that her mother had left her with one big clue. Her name. Ivana. After her father. Pursuing the lead, she learned that indeed it was so: Ivan Moffat was her father, and he welcomed her knowing. She and he met and she was charmed also, and pleased to learn of her true paternity.

Ivana Lowell’s mother, Caroline Blackwood, with her first husband Lucian Freud on their honeymoon in Paris, 1949. Photograph: Private Collection

From the London Daily Telegraph, Aug 3, 2002

Ivan Moffat, who has died aged 84, had a colourful career as a screenwriter and man about town among the English colony of writers, directors and actors in Hollywood after the war.

Tall, attractive, charming and well-connected, Moffat assisted the director George Stevens on I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951) — the title of which came to Moffat in a dream — and the classic Western Shane (1953).

George Stevens, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ivan Moffat in 1951.

He then co-wrote, with Fred Guiol, the script for the Texas cattle ranch epic Giant (1956), starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, which brought Moffat and Guiol an Oscar nomination, and an Oscar for Stevens for best director.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant.

Moffat and Guiol did an excellent job condensing Edna Ferber’s sprawling family saga, and it was a tribute to their skills that the script was shot as written – not Stevens’s usual habit. The picture would be the most profitable for Warner studios until Superman 20 years later.

Ivan Moffat was born in Havana on February 18 1918, the son of the actress and poet Iris Tree (herself the daughter of the celebrated Shakespearean actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree) and the American photographer Curtis Moffat.

The family soon returned to Fitzroy Square, London, where Moffat pere adorned their house with oriental carpets, African sculpture and T’ang dynasty horses. Ivan was educated at Dartington Hall, Totnes – where he began a lifelong friendship with Michael Young (the future Lord Young of Dartington) – and the LSE. As an undergraduate, he joined the Communist Party, an action for which he was blacklisted for a time while in Hollywood; Jessica Mitford later described Moffat as “span[ning] the gap between Left-wing politics and the deb dance scene”.

In 1938 Curtis Moffat moved back to America, and Ivan took over a flat on the top floor. He maintained his father’s tradition of bohemian entertainment and became an habitue of the Gargoyle Club in Soho, mixing with Philip Toynbee, son of the historian Arnold Toynbee, and Dylan Thomas, whom he claimed to have got his first job at Strand Films; Moffat himself worked at Strand, making government-sponsored documentaries promoting the war effort.

When America entered the war, Moffat enlisted as a writer in the Special Coverage Unit of the US Army Signals Corps – the so-called “Hollywood Irregulars” who under the director George Stevens were charged with improving film coverage of the war. Moffat filmed such events as the liberation of Paris and of Dachau concentration camp.

Directly after the war he moved to Los Angeles, where he turned down the offer of a writing job with MGM to become an associate producer at George Stevens’s new company, Liberty Films.

Moffat was by then married to Natasha Sorokin (whom he had met in Paris), a beautiful but unstable Russian who was reputed to have formed a menage a trois with Simone de Beauvoir, her former teacher, as well as her lover Jean-Paul Sartre.

Ivana’s mother Lady Caroline, c. 1950s.

Her union with Moffat produced a daughter, Lorna, but broke up in the early 1950s, after which Moffat embarked on a series of liaisons with beautiful and interesting women.

In a diary entry of September 30 1955, his friend Christopher Isherwood remarked: “He is always so pretty and bright eyed and clean – he has to be for I imagine his evenings usually end, if they don’t begin, visiting some girl.

“He has the slightly guilty grin,” Isherwood added, “of the accepted lover.” Isherwood identified with Moffat “as an expatriate and as a romantic adventurer” – although Moffat was, unlike Isherwood, clearly heterosexual.

In 1956 Moffat began a long on-off affair with Caroline Blackwood, whom he first met in Venice while she was still married to Lucien Freud. She followed him back to Hollywood with vague ambitions to become an actress, and soon moved in to his small modern house on Adelaide Drive, overlooking Santa Monica Canyon.

Moffat seemed to Isherwood in this period to be avoiding marriage; and there were indeed other girlfriends before he married secondly, in 1961, Katharine Smith, the 28-year-old daughter of the 3rd Viscount Hambleden (of the W H Smith family), a former bridesmaid to Princess Alexandra. The married couple soon moved back to London, partly because Moffat had been hired to “doctor” the screenplay of The Great Escape (1963), and partly so that his wife could fulfil her responsibilities as a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother. Moffat ended up modifying a substantial part of The Great Escape, but for various reasons (and much to his cost) he chose to forego a credit.

His other screenplays included John Masters‘s Bhowani Junction (1956); D Day The 6th of June (1956); John Steinbeck‘s The Wayward Bus (1957); Boy on a Dolphin (1957), Sophia Loren‘s first American film; They Came to Cordura (1959); F Scott Fitzgerald‘s Tender is the Night (1961); The Heroes of Telemark (1965) and Black Sunday (1977).

During the 1970s, he wrote episodes for the television series Colditz, and in 1985 he wrote the script for the television film of Florence Nightingale.

Ivan Moffat died on July 4. His second marriage was dissolved in 1972. He is survived by his daughter Lorna from his first marriage, two sons, Jonathan and Patrick, from his second, and by another daughter, Ivana, with Caroline Blackwood.

Ivana with her elder sisters Natalya and Evgenia.

Patrick Leigh Fermor writes: Ivan’s father, Curtis Moffat, was a highly civilised American connoisseur, traveller and photographer, and his mother was Iris Tree, the daughter of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and half-sister, though neither knew it until they grew up, of Sir Carol Reed. There was also great-uncle Max Beerbohm at Rapallo; Ivan used to wear his straw boater at a slant at dressing-up parties. His school years at the avant-garde Dartington Hall were not very exacting. All his life, with his high forehead, tousled hair and large eyes, he had the look of an intelligent, rebellious, finely-strung and charming boy. His quiet, urgent style was spaced out by pauses and changes of pace and pitch and interrupted by bursts of all-consuming and infectious laughter. His most precious gift – a very rare one – was the spoken word.

We met and made friends, in the first winter of the war, at Rosa Lewis‘s Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street, and after much to drink, groped our way through the blackout to the Gargoyle Club, drank some more, collected two fellow-members and moved on to his absent father’s Aladdin’s cave of a flat in Fitzroy Square, and finally dossed down among the empties. When I left, he tried on my guardsman-recruit’s cap in front of the hall mirror, and shuddered with a stage groan. But he soon joined the US Army and I only learned of his wartime adventures when it was all over. He became friends with Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre and married Natasha Sorokin, their Russian protegee. Script-writing in Hollywood made him friends with Aldous Huxley, Isherwood and James Stewart. His narrative gift, on return, brought both sides of the Atlantic to life.

Evgenia and Ivana in 1996 at their grandmother Maureen’s ‘tiara party.’

Strange things were always happening to him. Once when he was staying at the Savoy, someone — a girl, I think — gave him a praying mantis as a present. He had to leave for a few days on location, and when he got back the hotel was filled with minute green progeny everywhere from cellars to sky lights. They were very decent about it. It might happen to anyone …

He was devoted to his friends and deeply-felt love affairs were scattered through his life. I remember once observing one in the painter Niko Ghika‘s house in Hydra, with endless talk and songs, amphibious days and endless dictionary games under the stars. Ivan’s marriage to Kate Smith, a great friend of Princess Margaret, brought two sons, Jonathan and Patrick, into being, but alas, didn’t last forever. But a romantic link with the author Caroline Blackwood resulted in a predictably beautiful daughter, aptly christened Ivana.

We met several times in France and Italy, including a spell in a grim castle on the Tuscan coast, where fierce seething plates of frutti de mare, bristling with claws and accusing eyes and coiling tentacles with feelers were plonked on the table. Ivan said: “Look out! They are on the move.” And a lightning improvisation sprang up: all the sea creatures, first of the Mediterranean, then of the whole world, were uniting in revolt and were about to fight back until all their human foes had been ingested.

Apart from his many other charms it is outbreaks like these that will be acutely missed.

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