A Talented, Genial Dilettante Drifting Stylishly Through Life

The Ivan Moffat File: Life Among the Beautiful and Damned in London, Paris, New York and Hollywood, edited by Gavin Lambert. Pantheon, 336 pages, $26.

First, some back story: Ivan Moffat was the grandson of the eminent, sexually profligate Victorian actor/manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and the son of the equally profligate poet Iris Tree.

A few years before he died (in 2002, at the age of 84), at the end of a life spent alternating between his true vocation of dazzling women and his desultorily pursued avocation of writing movies, Moffat set about writing his memoirs in spite of the simultaneous afflictions of cancer and a fairly typical case of the low-level depression that often afflicts folk who have the misfortune to grow old and unwanted by show business.

As it turns out, Moffat should have been more diligent; the pages he completed in this cobbled-together but still effective collage of a memoir are particularly graceful and evocative, usually of a privileged, endless Edwardian summer:

“There was a deep pool in the grounds, deeper and clearer in spring and summer, with water weeds and gliding newts. I learned to lie dead-still on its banks, observing the mottled black-and-green surface of its depths. At first you saw nothing, then perhaps a water beetle heading erratically downward, and then, as a darker outline on the mottled surface, the first oily-black newt would appear, wriggling upward, and finally exposing an orange belly as it rose and sipped the air before floating listlessly down again.”

Other segments that Moffat completed involve the sexually based sadism of boarding school, without which no English memoir is complete, and a particularly interesting segment on his service in World War II.

His life was accidentally given direction by a critical alliance formed during that service, when he was assigned to the photographic unit of George Stevens. The director of Alice Adams, Swing Time, Gunga Din and Woman of the Year took a liking to the young Englishman and invited him to work with him after the war.

But first there was the liberation of Dachau, which Moffat and Stevens entered on April 7, 1945—a scene of Boschian horror:

“Those [cattle] cars were now open, and piled with hundreds of half-frozen corpses. Some bore traces of sporadic acts of cannibalism, a gnawed arm here, a gouged leg there. In the central compound and square, which our unit filmed and photographed, lay hundreds more of the dead. There were entire rooms filled with corpses, and more corpses stacked on the ground, naked buttocks of one body up against staring eyes and gaping mouths of the face of another. A number of SS men had been shot by American soldiers after surrendering, and their bodies lay on the ground as well.”

With Stevens, Moffat worked on the grand A Place in the Sun and Shane, and co-wrote the considerably less grand Giant. On his own, Moffat wrote Boy on a Dolphin, Bhowani Junction, They Came to Cordura and Tender Is the Night—movies stronger on ambition than accomplishment, although he probably shouldn’t be blamed for Tender Is the Night, dismal as it is: Better writers than Moffat have run aground on the shoals of Fitzgerald’s deceptively beautiful but dramatically intransigent lacework.

Moffat had a dazzling circle of friends, acquaintances and romances deriving largely from the salon of Salka Viertel: Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht. (Viertel was Garbo’s favorite screenwriter, the mother of Peter Viertel and the center of the European émigré community in Hollywood.)

There were two marriages of varying degrees of misery—to say that Moffat was not the marrying kind would be a considerable understatement—and dozens of liaisons, what Moffat called “walkouts,” his term for a glorified one-night stand, often with exotic creatures such as Merle Oberon and Elizabeth Taylor (“I once began kissing her and she seemed to like it, but unfortunately there was no time for more, she’s always so busy”). His true love seems to have been the beautiful but impossible Caroline Blackwood, Robert Lowell’s third wife.

Gavin Lambert edited this book from Moffat’s manuscript and from oral-history interviews that Moffat gave, with Mr. Lambert’s own fairly lengthy interpolations filling in the gaps.

A wise hand, Mr. Lambert is too serious about a writer’s work to give Moffat a free pass, even if he was a friend. Mr. Lambert is also a good critic: “The deliberate pace and rich detail of Sun and Shane worked so effectively because the material justified it. In Giant the same style too often seems as overloaded as Edna Ferber’s Saratoga trunk of a novel.”

Given the patchwork nature of the book, the fact that many vignettes do indeed shine is a tribute to the work of both men—I particularly like a Moffat story about Chaplin erupting in fury at Christopher Isherwood for drunkenly losing control of his bladder and ruining a couch at Chaplin’s house. Isherwood was promptly banned, but the actual guilty party was—no surprise—Dylan Thomas.

Moffat has a way of drifting through his own book, probably because he had a way of drifting through his own life. Other people are succinctly characterized, but not the author himself.

The suspicion persists that he was that familiar Hollywood character, the genial dilettante, gravitating to the movies because they were the path of least resistance and he got to meet a lot of girls. Hollywood has always been hospitable to lightweights with English accents.

Toward the end, Moffat’s career slowly atrophied; his last credits were things like Hitler: The Last Ten Days and John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday. He lived out his time in a small apartment, idly working on his memoir and making reflexive passes at the young women who squired him around town in exchange for anecdotes of the Good Old Days.

Mr. Lambert sagely remarks that “as a writer Ivan never really recovered the focus that he first acquired from working with George Stevens.”

But for all the essentially evasive characteristics of the man, there’s something charming and, yes, even compelling about Ivan Moffat. He understood instinctively something most people take decades to grasp, if they ever grasp it at all: Style matters. Even when he was old and broke, he managed to keep up his membership in White’s, the exclusive London club.

Living well is indeed the best revenge.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life of Louis B. Mayer will be published by Simon & Schuster in May. A Talented, Genial Dilettante Drifting Stylishly Through Life