I would imagine that everyone at some point has visions or dreams of having a conversation dinner with someone considered great or brilliant. Churchill, Eisenhower or even Einstein – someone like that. My chance came in 1984. I had an invitation to breakfast with one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. – Billy Wilder
I was an executive at the famous Hotel del Coronado and had just staged a 25th anniversary celebration starring in Billy Wilder’s legendary film Some Like It Hot jack lemmon, Tony Curtisand Marilyn Monroe. I invited everyone to a fabulous weekend of fun. Lemmon, Curtis, and Wilder showed up, along with many living supporting cast. It was a perfect weekend that went exactly as I planned.
Wilder’s cinematic achievements are unsurpassed by anyone. His list of screenplays since 1929 included Greta Garbo‘s “Ninotchica”, “Hold Back the Dawn”, “Champagne Waltz” and dozens more. As a writer and director, he has won Oscars and other awards for Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution. , “The Spirit of St. Louis”, “Sabrina”, “The Front Page” and “Some Like it Hot” just to name a few.
On Sunday morning after a day’s work, I received the message that Mr. Wilder wanted to have breakfast with me. I had a quick phone call with Lemmon and asked if the invitation was genuine or just a polite gesture from Wilder.
“My boy, never miss a chance to bow down to greatness,” was Lemmon’s reply.
We met on the Promenade Deck on a bright Sunday morning. Wilder sat at a table, sipping a cup of coffee and smoking a cigar. I had put a box of expensive cigars in his suite when he arrived on Friday night. That morning I arrived at the same time as Lemmon, whom Wilder had also invited.
We had breakfast while Lemmon and I sat and listened to Wilder talk about a range of topics including the fact that he was back at the hotel after 25 years. He remembered how difficult it had been for Marilyn to work with him, Lemmon, and Curtis. About how she held up filming while her two co-stars in heels and drag stood patiently awaiting their next scene with her. The film has since been considered the greatest comedy film ever made.
He spoke about art, for which he was one of the greatest experts in the world. Lemmon had told me about a night many years ago when he accompanied Wilder to a private exhibition at a Beverly Hills art gallery:
“Billy told me to buy a certain painting. I didn’t like it but he said it would be a good investment so I bought it and paid $1,000. I put it in a closet when I got home and forgot about it. A few years later, the gallery owner called me and asked if I would consider selling it. I smelled a win. He painfully told the gallery owner how difficult it would be for me to part with the painting and offered me $10,000. I continued to regret the thought of parting with it, but told him I would.”
Lemon shook his head. “How the hell did Billy know painting would be such a good investment?” Lemmon thought it was pure genius.
The man who fled the Nazis in 1933 and came to America with less than 100 English was indeed a screen and film genius.
Money raised during the Saturday night banquet in the hotel’s ballroom went to San Diego State University’s new film editing facility. Years later, I received a call from a university official asking me if I would contact Wilder and invite him to come to the cutting center opening. I still had his home phone number. After dialing the number, a heavy German accent answered. When I identified myself and asked if he remembered me, the response was, “Of course, Tom. Tell me, do you have any more of those great cigars?” He might not remember my face, but he did remember my taste for good cigars.
Billy Wilder died of pneumonia on March 27, 2002 at the age of 95. The epitaph on his tombstone takes his sense of humor to the grave and is the last line from Some Like It Hot. Engraved on the stone is “Billy Wilder, I’m a writer, but nobody’s perfect.”
He was the closest thing to perfection.
Tom Morrow is a longtime Oceanside journalist and author who contributes to OsideNews.
The columns represent the views of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect those of North Coast Current’s owner or management.