Gabriele Flossmann on Eric Pleskow’s 95th birthday
“Turning 95 doesn’t leave me cold! That sounds really old. In any case much older than I feel.” With these words, Eric Pleskow, honorary president of the Viennale and once powerful president of major Hollywood studios such as United Artists and Orion, comments on his forthcoming birthday on April 24, 2019. The fact that he can’t celebrate his special day in Vienna has to do with – as he puts it – “the literally painful realization” that old age is not, or not only accompanied by an increase in experience and, hopefully, also wisdom, but also by various physical ailments that limit his range of movement and thus his ability to travel. In any case, this remark reflects what has always distinguished Eric Pleskow: his humor. Although he now spends his time in a wheelchair in his apartment in Stamford, Connecticut, and doesn’t make any major trips apart from visiting his daughter Michelle, who lives ten minutes away, you can still travel anywhere with him thanks to his extremely sharp mind: into the past, the present – and the future. After all, he promised his daughter, me, and many other friends that he would live to at least a hundred. And, he emphasizes, he intends to keep this promise. By the way, ten of the fourteen Oscars in the Best Picture category that Eric won during his era at United Artists and Orion are in his daughter’s house – and four in his apartment in Connecticut.
I first met Eric Pleskow 42 years ago in London, in February 1977 at a convention of the Hollywood studio United Artists. “We are No. 1” read the T-shirts of United Artists employees meeting with international journalists in the luxurious ambience of a grand London hotel to present the most recent hits of the film program and to discuss the latest marketing strategies. “We are No. 1” – anything more discreet would have been false modesty, because back then, under Eric Pleskow’s presidency, United Artists had actually succeeded in becoming the market leader in the American film industry. Also invited were stars of the films, including Sylvester Stallone and Roger Moore – the then newly fledged successor to Sean Connery in the role of James Bond.
On the first evening a gala dinner was held in the ballroom. I arrived late; all tables were already full. Except for one, a table for 12 people, that was almost empty. Only three middle-aged gentlemen sat there and raised no objections when I joined them. Two of them spoke with me in a friendly manner, while the third one held back. I asked them in English if they knew the president of United Artists, who was supposedly Austrian. This question aroused both astonishment and amusement, reactions I didn’t understand at the time. They promised to arrange an interview with Mr. Pleskow – a difficult task, they said, because Mr. Pleskow was anything but a simple or pleasant person.
The interview took place the following day. As it turned out, the “difficult Mr. Pleskow” was the taciturn third man from the gala-dinner table. He spoke fluent, accent-free German with a hint of a Viennese lilt and repeatedly emphasized that he usually didn’t give such interviews, but that the two other gentlemen, with whom he’d shared a table the evening before, had persuaded him to do it …
A few months later, in May 1977, I met him again at the Cannes Film Festival. He usually rented the same room in the Carlton Hotel every year – room no. 321, where he barricaded himself during the day to escape the celebrity hype on the Croisette. Except one day, when I saw him sitting downstairs on the terrace. It was my first time at a festival and I wanted to do another interview with the great “Hollywood mogul.” At the request of the Zeit im Bild [Austrian television news broadcast] editorial office, it was to be about “Starlets who strip to get the attention of film producers.”
After an initial look of surprised courtesy, Eric Pleskow’s expression turned into ice-cold rejection. Not because of the naked starlets, whom he probably wouldn’t have had a problem talking about, but because of the words “Austrian television.” He would not be available for Austrian institutions! Finally, the interview did take place, and it was only years later that I was able to grasp the more exact reasons and scope of Eric’s reservations about Austria. And the more I learned about his personal experiences with Austrian history in our many conversations, the greater my desire became to reconcile him with Austria and to prove to him that there were also people here other than those under whom he had suffered until his escape in 1939.
Over the 42 years that we’ve known each other, our friendship has grown deeper and deeper. Eric told me how he managed to save himself and his parents, literally at the last minute in 1939, when he was barely 15 years old. He told me about his brother Herbert, who had died in 1939 after a long and serious illness. And if he hadn’t died, Eric and his parents would certainly have perished in a concentration camp, because they would never have left Vienna without the sick Herbert, who wouldn’t have been able to bear the exhausting escape. He also told me what it means to him that in Vienna only the graves are left of his family, in the Jewish part of the Central Cemetery.
I first visited Eric in New York in 1980, and we both remember that visit as if were yesterday. He wanted to invite me to dinner and I was supposed to pick him up at his office on 5th Avenue. We wanted to walk to the restaurant (the then absolutely hip Club 21). I noticed a silver-gray limousine driving behind us at walking pace. After a while I got nervous and asked, “Have you also noticed the car that’s been following us?” He was unmoved: “Yes, that’s my chauffeur and bodyguard. The guys at Orion are so stupid and believe that the shares will fall if anything happens to me.”
It turned out that the guys at Orion weren’t so stupid after all, because when Eric fell seriously ill ten years later and couldn’t run the company for a long time, the shares did fall. Orion Pictures finally went under, although Eric, thanks to his unique instinct, was still able to find and produce film material such as DANCES WITH WOLVES and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Both movies received several Oscars, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS even in all the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor. All Oscars for one film in the important categories – that’s something only one person had achieved before, namely the very same Eric Pleskow with films like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS. If he hadn’t had to flee from the Nazis in 1939, Eric notes today in both a coy and wistful way, he wouldn’t have become an essential player in Hollywood and thus an essential part of international film history, but probably would have been a doctor in Vienna – and retired a long time ago.
Meanwhile, Eric is more than reconciled with Austria. He reads Austrian newspapers online every day and is concerned about Austrian politics. He enjoys being honorary president of the Viennale and, as he says, has more friends “in Vienna than in the US.” Since February 2007, Eric Pleskow has also been an honorary citizen of the City of Vienna. On the commemorative plaque in Vienna’s City Hall his name is listed after that of Billy Wilder. Eric still likes to reminisce about his first visit to Vienna with Billy Wilder, where they presented the film SOME LIKE IT HOT in 1960. They quickly agreed on the hotel they wanted to stay in: the Imperial. Wilder was supposed to take the suite in which Adolf Hitler had once stayed, while Eric was “content” with the former suite of Hermann Göring. The intention behind this macabre “joke” was that by spending the night in this hotel, Wilder and Pleskow could make sure that the Nazi haunting was over.
In his acceptance speech for his honorary citizenship, Eric once again gave the audience a taste of his dry sense of humor: He had heard, he said, that as an honorary citizen he was entitled to an honorary grave, but he would gladly do without this gift from the City of Vienna. Instead, he made another suggestion. Rather than a grave, he would like to have a room with a view of Vienna – while he was still alive. His 95th birthday would be a nice occasion for this gift, but meanwhile Eric Pleskow has accepted the fact that he can only travel to Vienna in his mind. So he’s all the happier about visitors from his former homeland. Especially when they bring him a poppy-seed cake, which he regards as the “tastiest and most agreeable form of ‘opium for the people.’”
Pleskow is pleased that a new projection hall was built above Vienna’s Metro cinema and named after him. All the more so, because the hall was opened during his lifetime – and not “in memoriam,” that is, afterward.
When asked about the #MeToo debate, Eric Pleskow voices his indignation. He wouldn’t have tolerated incidents like those around Harvey Weinstein at United Artists and Orion. Rather, he recalls amusedly, it was he who had been the “victim” of various advances. He tells me about a still very famous and busy actress who came to his hotel room to convince him that she was a suitable leading lady for one of his next movies. To emphasize this, she suddenly tore open her blouse and then his shirt. At Eric’s express request, there were no more physical advances. Using the hotel sewing kit, he then had to sew on the torn shirt buttons himself. “After that incident,” he says with a smile, “I couldn’t possibly have asked my wife to do it.”
Pleskow also had a hard time with Ava Gardner, whom he accompanied to Berlin in 1954, together with Humphrey Bogart, on a promotion tour for THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA. Everyone had already gathered for a press conference – only Ava Gardner was missing. After waiting for a long time, Humphrey Bogart got grumpy and threatened to leave. Eric Pleskow, then 30, knocked on the door of the hotel room to which the diva had retired with her new lover. She opened the door naked, linking arms with him when he told her why he was disturbing her. She was ready to accompany him to the press conference in her “casual attire.” Had Eric Pleskow not prevented her, the scandal would have been perfect.
After these spiritual excursions into his own past as a “Hollywood mogul,” memories of Vienna come back to Eric Pleskow. Above all, of his friend Ari Rath, the former editor and editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post, who died in January 2017. Eric had spent his childhood with him in Vienna, albeit unnoticed at the time. Both had grown up in the immediate vicinity of Porzellangasse. Their very first encounter in Vienna made them allies – “Porzellangassen-Buben” (“Porzellangasse boys”), as their closest friends called them afterward. The parallels in their life stories welded them together: their experiences with anti-Semitic attacks in pre-war Vienna, their flight from the Nazis, and their professional successes in a new homeland. They talk about these experiences in the 2011 documentary DIE PORZELLANGASSENBUBEN. The two sealed their late bond for life with a joint trip to Jerusalem. For Eric Pleskow it was the first reunion with Israel since 1950. Now there is only one “Porzellangasse boy” left. That the emphasis is on “boy” can be confirmed by anyone who sees Eric Pleskow’s alert, sparkling eyes. In my personal encounter with the 95-year-old it seems as if the 80 years that have passed since his escape from Vienna have been wiped away.