CATEGORIES Cinematical

Stewart Stern 2This is Part Two of a two-part interview with screenwriter Stewart Stern, who wrote the screenplays for Rebel Without a Cause, Sybil, and many other films. Part One of the interview covered Stern's career.

CINEMATICAL: Stewart, let's start by talking about your childhood, which profoundly impacted your writing. You and your mother never had a good relationship.

STERN: She did her best - she and my father never intended to have a baby so soon. They went on their honeymoon - boom! - she was pregnant; they never even had a chance to know each other, really, before they became parents. My mother was creative, she wanted to be an actress. She didn't really want to have a baby then. Her own mother, my Grandma Kaufman, was 47 when my mother was born; she had already used up most of her affection on the nine children she had before my mother. So my mother never learned how to be...how to be that way.

But when I made clay figures, my mother would run them off to a ceramic studio and get them glazed and fired. (Stern goes to his desk and pulls a small, green clay figure out of a drawer) This is an alligator I made as a kid...just a little clay figure, and look - she had it glazed and fired. (He hands me the figure to examine)

CINEMATICAL: It says on the bottom you were nine years old. This is remarkably well done for a nine-year-old.

STERN: I was always artistic. Marjorie (his younger sister) wasn't. She wanted to be, she tried so hard, but she just wasn't.

CINEMATICAL: How about your father? What was your relationship with him like?

STERN: (pause) I...I suppose I kind of internalized my mother's attitude toward him. I aligned myself more with my mother, with her artistic leanings, her jazziness.

Stewart Stern - childhoodCINEMATICAL: Your mother introduced you to theater.

STERN: Yes. She took me to see Peter Pan in 1928, I was six years old, and she took me to see Eva Le Gallienne playing Peter Pan. It was so remarkable - she flew out over the audience, and that was it for me. Peter Pan set me on the path the rest of my life would take.

My mother took me to see that play almost every Saturday at the matinee. Years later, I got to know Le Gallienne, and she'd let me hold her hat, the hat she wore as Peter Pan. I coveted that hat.

When her estate was sold after her death, a man named Bruce Hanson bought a lot of her memorabilia - he bought the cap, her pan pipe and sword, and this book. (Stern hands me an old copy of the book Peter Pan)

Hanson gave me the book, which I treasure. Look, it belonged to Eva Le Gallienne, this was her copy! There's her ex libris inside the cover. It was hers.

CINEMATICAL: You were really drawn to the story of Peter Pan.

STERN: I wanted to be Peter Pan. My mother made me a Peter Pan outfit, and I used to play at Peter Pan with my cousin, at my Uncle Adolph's farm. So you see, she did do some things for me, certain things. And in other ways she wasn't there.

CINEMATICAL: And your father?

STERN: I had...contempt for him, for his weakness with Uncle Adolph and with my mother, that he could never stand up, just stand up.

CINEMATICAL: Like Jim Stark's father in Rebel Without a Cause.

STERN: Yes. But he finally did stand up, in the most wonderful way.

CINEMATICAL: Can you tell me about that?

STERN: During World War Two, I had just flunked out of OCS (officer training) - me and about a third of my class. They had more officers-in-training than they needed officers, so they had to get rid of some of us. I didn't make the cut, because I couldn't yell and grunt loudly enough when I was pretending to bayonet a German soldier, it just wasn't in me. And so instead of being made an officer, I was made a corporal and sent to an infantry unit. Infantry. (chuckles)

So there I am at this infantry camp in North Carolina. I was just sitting in the barracks, waiting to join the division in the field. I couldn't start training yet because they didn't have any combat boots in my size, so me and a couple of other guys were waiting. And it was cold, and raining, and I was just miserable. I called to talk to my parents, and I told my father, "Dad, I'm miserable, and I would do just about anything not to be here." And he said, "Well, okay son, I'll make a call and see what I can do."

My father knew an associate of President Roosevelt, my family was connected, you know, and so he made a call and said, "Look, my son is being wasted in this infantry unit, he's a Phi Beta Kappa, can you put him somewhere else?"

CINEMATICAL: He got you out of it?

STERN: Well, yes and no. In the meantime, my boots came in, I was sent out to the field with all the other replacements. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, didn't know how to roll a damn fieldpack, nothing. And this one guy Tony Frieri, he could tell I was just hopeless. We had to go on this forced 65-mile hike, and I show up with all my gear and stuff dragging the ground and falling off me, just picture it (laughs).

And Frieri took one look at me and said, "Boy, you are one sorry-looking sad sack." And he showed me how to roll a proper field pack, he showed me the ropes. He was hard on me, he didn't let up, but he liked me, he helped me. And eventually he started inviting me to join the other guys at their card games. They made fun of me, some of them, for being a college boy, called me "Shakespeare", but they liked me. We bonded there, we became friends. And at the end of it, I knew I couldn't leave the infantry unit.

CINEMATICAL: But your father had already called the White House...?

STERN: Yeah, so we got back and I called my dad and he said, "I have great news, son, I made a call and got you transferred to the Signal Corps in Beverly Hills. And I told him, "Dad, remember what I told you before? Well, I changed my mind, I'm staying with these guys, I want to go over with them." And my dad said, "Stewart, are you crazy? You want to go over there and be killed? I made the call." I told him, "Dad, this is what I have to do, I need to go over there with these guys, I have to do this."

And so my father called the White House back and told them to cancel the change of order. He let me go over there, knowing I might be killed, because I asked him to. At the time, I didn't understand why.

CINEMATICAL: Did you later?

STERN: Well, years later, I went to EST (Erhard Seminar Training, a large group "awareness training" that was popular in the 1970s), and I learned not to fear my own truth. I wanted to know about my parents and get to know them as individual people, not as my mom and dad, not as puppets in our roles as parents and child, but as Frances and Manny.

So I met with each of my parents separately, I cooked them dinner - I'm a good cook, by the way - and we just sat and talked. And my dad told me about this memory he had from my childhood - I had whooping cough, and he was sending my mother and Marjorie and me to the New Jersey shore; back in those days they thought the salt air would cure illness. And he told me, "Do you remember when your Grandmother Stern and I were seeing you off in the taxi? You thumbed your nose at your Grandmother Stern in the mirror of the cab - you were just a little guy, and you thumbed your nose at her. And I liked that you did that, because I had a lot of anger at her."

Then he told me this story about how when he was a young man, just 22 years old and out of medical school, he had a mentor, a Dr. Wright, who was very well-regarded. And Dr. Arthur Wright, during WWI, was being sent overseas and he was allowed to choose his own team to go with him. And my father was one of the ones he chose, and he was so excited to be going overseas with this great doctor, his mentor.

And then a few days later, Dr. Wright called him in and told him he wasn't going to take him after all, because his mother - my Grandmother Stern, that I thumbed my nose at - she went to Dr. Wright and begged him not to take her son over to the war. Dr. Wright couldn't break her heart, so he promised her not to take my father. He never, ever forgave her for that.

And that, that is why, years later, my father reversed that order to get me out of the infantry and let me go. He stood up.

CINEMATICAL: Was your father the model for Jim Stark's father in Rebel?

STERN: Yes, both of Jim Stark's parents were my parents. But Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is even more about them than Rebel.

CINEMATICAL: Let's talk about you a bit now. Why cows? (Note: Animals, especially cows, are a recurrent theme with Stern - his house is full of animals, in his personal drawings and painting from his childhood, in pictures and miniature farms throughout his home).

STERN: When I was a boy, at my uncle's farm, I always wanted to be with the cows. We had choices of what to do, where our nannies would take us: swimming, tennis lessons; I always just wanted to be with the cows. Cows are very nurturing, they lick their calves all the time and care for them; I suppose the cows represent to me the affection I never got from my mother. (Stern digs out a photo album and shows me some pictures of himself as a boy, with a small, black calf)

Look at this. This is me with my first calf. Look at this picture (a picture of him and the calf running together through a field). Just look at that - it's like a scene from The Yearling. Sometimes I would go to the barn and lie down with them. My favorite was Blackie, and I would curl up with her and feel safe and warm there, and sometimes fall asleep curled up right next to her.

And I would bottle their breath, too. I would get test tubes, the kind with corks, from my father, because he was a doctor, and I'd hold the tubes right up to their mouths to catch the cows' breath, and then stick the cork in real quick. And I'd take all the tubes with me back to New York, so in the winter, when I was cold and lonely, I could open the tubes and smell them and feel warm and safe.

CINEMATICAL: Could you really smell it?

STERN: No. Yes. I don't know. I thought I could, and that's what matters. I am still as close to animals as I can be; I have over 5,000 volunteer hours logged at the zoo. On Sundays I make stuffed celery for the gorillas, they know when it's Sunday because that's the only day they get it. And then I go to the family zoo area; they have these two miniature cows that haven't been well-socialized yet. I go there and I just sit with them for two hours, to socialize them, so they can interact with the kids.

CINEMATICAL: You've always loved animals, haven't you?

STERN: I drew them and painted them when I was little. The dairy farmers, they wanted the cows pregnant to keep them producing milk, but they didn't want all the calves. So as soon as the calf was born, before it even got to look its mother in the eye, they would take it and kill it, and cut it up and sell it for 5 cents a pound to the silver fox farm down the road, for food for the foxes.

There was one calf, a sweet little white calf, the first one I ever saw born. I named her "Lottie". She had just been born the day before, and I was in the barn holding her and talking to her, and this truck pulled up. A man got out, walked up to be and said, "Excuse me, kid", and he took Lottie out of my arms. I didn't know what was happening. And he took her around the corner and he killed her...killed Lottie right there...one of her little feet came flying over by me. She never even got to know her mother, he just...he just slaughtered her to pieces. (long, emotional pause)

My interest in animals has to do with trying to save myself, trying to save that child from the horror of what happened that day.

CINEMATICAL: Going back to your childhood now: you spent much of your childhood at your Uncle Adolph's farm.

STERN: Yes. Mountain View Farm, near Nyack, New York. I had to be perfect so I wouldn't upset the Zukors or seem unappreciative. I had to protect myself from the Zukor contingent, or I would be punished.

CINEMATICAL: By whom?

STERN: My parents. I had to behave - we were not rich, my family. We were there by the good graces of our rich relatives, the Zukors. I wasn't even a grandson, just a nephew. So I had to behave the way they wanted, all the time. One time, I was about four years old, and my cousin, he liked to chase grasshoppers. And one day, before he could catch one, I grabbed it and stuck it in my mouth and bit down; I didn't know what I was doing, really.

My grandmother saw me with that brown grasshopper juice dribbling down my chin, and she was horrified. And so they (his parents)...they made me wear aluminum "mittens" - like aluminum mugs with ventilation holes punched in them. They tied them onto my wrists, so I couldn't get them off, and made me wear them, so I couldn't pick things up. I was four years old.

I think that (his childhood) is where part of it comes from, the writing, and the anxiety about writing; the needing to get it all out, but being afraid to say it, afraid to be an imposition.

(Stern shows me three photographs that occupy a prominent place on his rolltop desk)

STERN: These are the three women who saved me. My mother's sister, my Aunt Julia. What a kind and nurturing woman she was, she was wonderful. Beatrice Lillie (a stage actress whom Stern idolized and later befriended). And Fraulein, my nanny. The first thing Fraulein did when she was hired was to tell my parents they couldn't punish me for six weeks. She came when I was six, and Marjorie was 3, and she was with us for four years. But even after she left, when I had a problem I would call her. It was an inconvenience for her, she had other charges by then, but she always took my calls and talked to me. That picture - I went to see her shortly before she died. She remembered me, even after all those years.

CINEMATICAL: Can you tell me about your sister, Marjorie?

STERN: Marjorie was all tenderness, like a child born without a skin. She was so sensitive. She was closer to our father. She didn't like it when my mother attacked or critcized me at the dinner table. It upset her so much to see me in trouble, she'd leave the table in tears.

CINEMATICAL: Did you and your mother ever heal the rift between you?

STERN: Well, years later, when she was living in a retirement home in Arizona, she was interviewed by a retired journalist there for the retirement home's newsletter, and in this story she was name-dropping all the famous people I knew: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Natalie Wood. And at the end of the article it said, "her son is a screenwriter and her daughter is a housewife". She mentioned all these famous people, all of our friends, by name, but not her own son and daughter. (pause) So I guess you could say no, we didn't ever really heal the rift. It was better, maybe, but never healed.

CINEMATICAL: You married your wife Marilee 25 years ago. Can you tell me more about her?

STERN: Well, I met Marilee through her boyfriend at the time, Gardner McKay, he was an actor and an artist. She was a ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet, with Balanchine. He discovered her, and she went to NYC when she was 15, on a scholarship to the School of American Ballet (SAB). Anyhow, I met her, and eventually she moved to L.A. to dance with the Los Angeles Ballet that was forming, and we became friends, I used to go and watch rehearsals. And at some point - she wasn't dating Gardner any more by then - she was commuting from San Diego to LA, and I had to leave for a shoot for a couple months, so I told her she could stay in my house. She did, and after that she never left; I wouldn't let her leave.

CINEMATICAL: What does she do now?

Stewart Stern 3STERN: She's a remarkable woman; she has so many gifts. When I couldn't take Hollywood anymore, we came up here and she taught at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Eventually she got tired of it, and in 1989 she left the ballet. Then one night, out of the blue, she began drawing. She drew on these enormous sheets of graph paper. And I was amazed at her work.

She made all these incredible pictures, and then she read a magazine about "outsider art" and got fascinated by it, and we started going to NYC once a year to see outsider art shows. Then she decided to approach (gallery owner) Phyliis Kind, to ask her to look at her work. All she really wanted to know was if she was really an artist.

I approached Phyllis over a punchbowl, and she agreed to let her assistant look at Marilee's work. The day before we were to leave NYC, we went to the gallery to pick the pictures back up. The assistant made Phyllis look at the pictures, and Phyllis liked them. She came to Seattle to see them in person, and she  gave Marilee a one-woman show in her gallery. Marilee got  some good write-ups, she sold a few paintings to collectors; one of them is in a museum in Switzerland, where outsider art began. And then, as suddenly as it came, that impulse to draw and paint was gone, and she stopped being an artist.

These days, she is back in ballet, teaching very popular ballet classes for children at the Seattle Tennis Club. She's just amazing, an amazing woman. All the things that she has touched, she is; at the core of it all is something incredibly important.

CINEMATICAL: How has your relationship with Marilee changed you?

STERN: She opened me up in ways I never thought I could open, in every aspect - more rage, more love, more ability to express. Out of the life I came into the world with, I didn't stay stuck, I wasn't Peter Pan anymore, because of her. I wasn't afraid to love and to be loved.

CINEMATICAL: Were you afraid before Marilee?

STERN: Yes, I was, I know I was. I didn't think I was interesting. The perception you get of yourself is the perception other people have of you when you're young, unless you find a way to see yourself in a different way. And Marilee...I've witnessed very few relationships as extraordinary as ours.