Thursday, January 17, 2008

VAL LEWTON BLOGATHON—The Evening Class Interview With Val E. Lewton

Val E. Lewton, the son of Val Lewton, is a well-known artist living in Washington, D.C. Now retired, he worked from 2000 to 2006 as the chief of the Office of Design and Production at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art. Prior to that, he was a self-employed designer and artist.

On the design front, Lewton has designed such temporary exhibits as "Landscape Into History: The Art of Tomas Cole", "Decorative Designs of Frank Lloyd Wright" and "Cast & Recast: The Art of Frederic Remington." His special independent projects have included "Impressionists by the Sea" for The Phillips Collection, "The Mississippi Story" for the Mississippi Museum of Arts, "Myths of St. Petersburg" for the Hillwood House Museum, and "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

As a painter, Lewton has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Addison Ripley Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Plum Gallery in Kensington, Maryland; the Montpelier Art Center in Montpelier, Maryland; and the Studio Gallery in Washington, D.C. His work has also been featured in group exhibitions at the John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.; The Katzen Center in Washington D.C.; The Athenaeum in Alexandra, Virginia; and the Virginia Beach Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is also featured in collections at The Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the American University. He has received three art commissions from the D.C. Commission on the Arts, as well as a commission from the City of College Park in Maryland. He holds a masters degree from Claremont University in Claremont, California and a bachelors degree from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

Despite fighting off a bad cold and congestion, Val Lewton, Jr. amiably conversed with me about his father.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Val, first of all, I wanted to express to you how grateful I am—as a diehard fan of your father's films—that you've been so forthcoming in contributing anecdotes to both of the documentaries I've seen, as well as in several written essays and interviews. Your contributions have provided a human face to your father and I wanted to thank you for that.

Val E. Lewton: You're welcome.

Guillén: To gain context, at the time your father was working at RKO, how old were you?

Lewton: Let's see, he started in—I believe—sometime in 1942, so I was around 5½, something like that.

Guillén: Were you ever allowed on the sets?

Lewton: Not right away. As a matter of fact, I don't think I was ever on one of his sets. I saw one of the sets; but, I never saw any of his movies being shot. I saw the ship that they were using for Ghost Ship and I saw the set for Bedlam; but, I was older by then. I was probably about 8-9. [Note: Lewton's father took pride in exposing him to the fine craftsmanship that went into the production design of Ghost Ship, specifically the giant, hand-carved hook used in the film.]

Guillén: Did your father, then, keep his work fairly divorced from your upbringing?

Lewton: In the sense that I didn't visit the sets; but, I heard plenty of stories about what was going on. He used to talk at the dinner table about what was going on or he would tell stories or explain ideas that he had for movies and stuff like that.

Guillén: When did you actually get to see his films?

Lewton: I saw Bedlam while he was still alive; but, I probably didn't see most of his movies until after he died. [Note: Lewton's father died when he was 12.]

Guillén: Are you the executor of your father's estate?

Lewton: Well, there wasn't much of an estate. [Chuckles.] No, not really. My mother inherited what there was, which was mainly the house we had and some insurance. As you know, in those days my father was just a salaried employee and so he didn't own part of the movies. [Note: At that time residual checks were not in existence so Lewton's mother Ruth was forced to move her family and begin working.]

Guillén: He probably had no idea he would become so beloved by fans all these years later?

Lewton: I think he'd be somewhat surprised, yeah. The movies were very popular in England and, I think, in France after the War.

Guillén: By referencing the estate, I guess what I'm speaking more about is what you allude to in the documentaries: his journals and diaries, correspondence, that sort of thing.

Lewton: I have all that stuff or I had; I've given much of it to the Library of Congress. I'm still in that documenting and donating procedure. [Note: Of particular interest is that—when his father left RKO—he took with him a leather-bound book of scripts. Included in the volume of scripts were the entire "recipes" for his films, from wardrobe notes to camera moves to editing. This highly valuable book is what now resides at the Library of Congress.]

Guillén: Have you given any thought to publishing any of that?

Lewton: No, I haven't. The letters are pretty interesting, I've got to say, quite interesting.

Guillén: I imagine! Just the bits you share in the documentaries are fascinating insights into your father's creative process and the films themselves. I would strongly encourage you to publish those.

Lewton: What has happened is that last year Kingly Reprieve—a publisher in Glascow—republished my dad's novel, No Bed Of Her Own. It was first published in 1932 by Vanguard Press in New York City. I seem to own the copyrights, for some reason. [Chuckles.]

Guillén: Well, that's good! Along with watching his films, have you read your dad's novels?

Lewton: I have read the novels, yes. A few of them.

Guillén: I'm looking forward to reading what's available. I didn't even know he wrote novels until this new documentary by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones. What I appreciate in what you present about your father is something that I think is of current relevance—what with the writers' strike in Hollywood—this awareness that your father was just trying to make a living and trying to be as creative as possible within those practical parameters. I like the human face you paint of your father.

Lewton: Yeah. From the letters, I think, he was somewhat appalled at the titles that he was given and wondered how he could possibly do anything with them; but, he obviously quickly figured out what he could do and how he could get around the system.

Guillén: Did many of the individuals he was collaborating with visit your home? Did you get to meet Jacques Tourneur?

Lewton: Jacques was around quite a bit. They liked to sail together. They both had boats. Jacques had a much bigger, fancier boat after he became an A-producer called The Sheer Water. My father's boat was a diminutive 22-foot sloop.

Guillén: I liked the photos of you with your father on his boat. He appeared very happy on the boat.

Lewton: Most of the time. But you know how men are on boats. [Chuckles.] He taught me to sail and I still sail.

Guillén: How do you feel about this rekindled interest in your father's work?

Lewton: Well, y'know, there has been some interest since probably the early '60s. There was a time in the '50s when it was too close to the period and people weren't that interested; but, since the '60s, [there's been interest]. Because I have the same name, from time to time people say, "Oh, is that your father?" and so on.

Guillén: I turned on to your father's work in the '80s. I opened the first video store in the San Joaquin Valley when his work started to become available on videotape and—as the person in charge of ordering inventory—I made a point of including them in our store stock. A couple of decades later, I'm delighted that Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones took on this doumentary project to champion your dad's work. What are your thoughts on their documentary?

Lewton: I've seen the rough cut—I haven't played the final version—but, I was very pleased with how well [it was done]. It's a great honor and it looks great. The way they concentrated on the pictures and the way they organized and selected the [clips] are great.

Guillén: Did most of the photographs come from your family collection?

Lewton: I think almost all the photographs came from me.

Guillén: They're wonderful images. Thanks again for contributing them. Scorsese mentioned in the documentary that there is no existing recorded footage of your father, either in audio or home movies?

Lewton: That's absolutely correct. We looked hard to try to find something. There was an audio recording of my father at a going away party when he left Selznick that I used to play; but, I guess my mother lost it. At some point it was lost. That was the only audio recording that I ever heard. He was also on some kind of very early TV talent show where he was a judge; but, they probably didn't save it. Now everybody in the world has images of themselves and recordings; they're all over. It's so strange. He was an amateur photographer—he loved to take still photographs—so that's why we have these great still photographs and, apparently, his family—even early on in Russia—were great Kodak fans. There are snapshots going back into the late 19th century.

Guillén: Speaking of Selznick, did you get to meet him as well?

Lewton: I don't remember ever meeting David Selznick. I'm sure he never came to the house; but, my father was called often to go see him.

Guillén: Can you confirm or deny this rumor regarding Selznick allegedly posting your father by the men's restroom to monitor when audience members took a bathroom break during Gone With the Wind? Is that a true story?

Lewton: He told that story many times. If it's not true—he was great at making things up—then, I think it was true that he was told to do it but I don't think he actually did it. He was supposed to do it and just made up the amount of time.

Guillén: Among your father's work, is there a film of his that is your favorite?

Lewton: I like The Seventh Victim. It's my favorite because it has more of his life story about New York and it's the closest to the family in terms of subject matter. [Note: Elsewhere Lewton has said that The Seventh Victim captures the "wounded poet" in his father.]

Guillén: Interesting. He did the three movies with Boris Karloff, did you get to meet Boris?

Lewton: Certainly. He was around.

Guillén: What are your reminisces of him?

Lewton: He was tall and gentle, kind of scholarly, not at all his movie persona. [Chuckling.] I think that's probably well known about his personality.

Guillén: And I imagine you also got to meet Bela Lugosi?

Lewton: I don't remember meeting him at all. I met Anna Lee. She had a daughter who came to a birthday party of mine.

Guillén: How about Ann Carter? Did you ever meet her?

Lewton: Never met her.

Guillén: How about your dad's aunt, Nazimova?

Lewton: I did meet her, though I was very young. She was memorable. She said that she kept her complexion by washing her face with Boraxo. She was an early defoliator. [Laughter.] We used to go swim in her pool. She lived at the Garden of Allah; but, she had lost it because—after she did Salome—she went broke. She had to sell off her properties.

Guillén: This is a somewhat delicate question but I am curious: your father furthered Mark Robson's career by giving him his first chance to direct. While watching the documentary, I had some issue with Robson later on when he and Wise were starting their production company and Robson didn't pull your father in. I'm trying to understand what strikes me as a clear betrayal of their friendship. Was their decision out of concern for your father's already-failing health?

Lewton: No. My father wasn't involved with them in trying to start that company. Apparently, they sent by messenger or sent somebody to tell him that they no longer wanted him to be a part of that. He was very hurt and I don't think he ever made up with Mark; but, he and Bob Wise did reconcile. Bob Wise was always very generous in acknowledging my father's help and influence. I used to see him quite often. I remember my wife and I saw him probably 12 years ago in Beverly Hills. He took us to lunch and he was very cordial.

Guillén: What are your hopes for this new documentary by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones?

Lewton: [Chuckles.] Well, I hope people look at it and want to see the films and rent them and look at them.

Guillén: They're such wonderful movies. They've remained some of my favorites for years and years. I'm really glad that he's getting the recognition that he so much deserves. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me this morning and, again, for all of your forthrightness in sharing stories about your dad.

Lewton: Well, I hope they're of some help to people and give some insight. It's a long time ago and it's hard to [differentiate] what I remember, what I was told, and separate it all out. But I do the best I can with it.

Guillén: Have you written it out at all?

Lewton: No, I haven't. I've had my own career designing exhibits and painting and have been busy and have never really had a chance to do that.

Guillén: Can you characterize your own painting? I would love to see them someday.

Lewton: I would say they're urban landscapes.

Guillén: What would you say is the lasting influence your father has had upon you?

Lewton: He worked with me. I was always amazed that he had the time because he worked six days a week often. He taught me how to do carpentry and how to work with tools. He taught me how to sail. He had some strange ideas about things: how you should dress; whether you should sleep in the nude; whether you should wear an undershirt. He had strange things that have kind of stayed with me.

Guillén: Are those Old World customs he practiced?

Lewton: No, I don't think so. I think he was trying to be an American, an Eastern establishment type. The tweed coat and the pipe and all that.

Guillén: Well, thanks again, Val, for taking the time to talk with me this morning. I hope you get over your cold rapidly.

Lewton: I will!

I'm grateful to Turner Classic Movies for their biographical info on Val E. Lewton and to film historian John McElwee at Greenbrian Picture Shows for providing the many playbills I've used to illustrate this entry.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great interview, i really enjoyed it. I've been a fan of Val Lewton's movies ever since seeing CAT PEOPLE on TV when i was a young boy in the late 50s or early 60s. I loved it then and it's still one of my favorite movies.

I'm now an avid collector of vintage movie posters, focusing primarily on CAT PEOPLE posters, but also have some of the other Lewtons, including I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE.

I recently purchased a vintage copy of Lewton's novel, NO BED OF HER OWN, and look forward to reading that, so it's all Val Lewton all the time around here!

Kurt Lein

Anonymous said...

Val Lewton and I were classmates and Delta Tau Delta fraternity brothers at whitman college class of 1959.

Here's a link to a picture Lewton painted in 2008 of whitman college clock tower.

Anonymous said...

Would anyone know anything about Nina Lewton Druckmann, Val Lewton's daughter? I have only run across one mention of her.


Guy Mondo said...

Great interview. I was an intern at the Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts (now called National Museum of American Art) in 1974-75. Val had an office there then where he was an exhibits designer. I worked down the hall from his office which had a giant anthropomorphic frog made of papier mache outside his door. It never occured to me back then that he was related to the Hollywood Val Lewton until years later.

Michael Guillen said...

Guy, thanks for stopping by to comment on a topic that has been dusty on the shelf for some time now. Great memory about the papier mache frog! Thanks for that.