Budd Schulberg

updated 12/18/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1989 01:00AM

It is early evening on Long Island, and Budd Schulberg leans back in his lawn chair, sips a vodka and tonic and listens to the whisper of the wind chimes as a breeze blows his way. He has just completed the screenplay of his epic 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? for director Sidney Lumet. That book and a collection of his short stories are about to be reissued. In September he received a literary award in Deauville, France. And yet, despite a fresh bubble of fame, there is about him a deep and abiding melancholy. What else could we expect from a lifelong prophet of doubt and ambiguity?

"Life is essentially tragic," says Schulberg, 75, who became famous at the age of 27 for What Makes Sammy Run? A minor classic, Sammy has sold a million copies and is one of those rare books that capture forever an American archetype: the ruthless flawed overachiever. A yuppie before his time, Sammy Glick is an amoral movie producer who will stop at nothing to prevail; his name has become a code word for venal ambition.

Schulberg made a movie mogul his antihero despite the fact that he was, himself, a blood prince of the Hollywood dynasties. His father, B.P. Schulberg, was the VP in charge of production of Paramount Studios, and when Sammy was published, the reigning movie monarchs regarded it as an act of treason. Forget the fact that Budd even then felt himself an outsider ("always looking in, my nose pressed against the glass"); he had been raised and indulged as a would-be insider.

His father was a former newspaperman who had become a top Hollywood producer. His mother, Ad, who would later become a literary agent, was a woman obsessed by the work ethic. "When I wake up, I feel that I have to accomplish something every day," says her son. "I have to earn my food with work—this comes from my mother." One result of this marriage of privilege and puritanism was the daffy sight of 10-year-old Budd being driven downtown by the family chauffeur to peddle magazine subscriptions to passersby. But nothing he did seemed to melt his mother's indifference. "I remember seeing her kiss Rex Reed," he says. "He was her client, and she treated him like a son. She treated me as a client."

Still, as a child, Schulberg led a golden life of a kind, with unlimited access to the Paramount back lots. He lived in a mansion and dined with movie stars. Then one day, in the summer of 1931, he came home from school and suddenly the magic spell had been broken. His philandering father had moved out to live with actress Sylvia Sidney—and Budd's world would never be the same. "After that," he says slowly, "I have never felt very secure about the ground under my feet."

To this day, Schulberg is able to remember his youth with the clarity of a recent calamity. "I went back to the house on Lorraine Boulevard a year ago," he says. "I sat in the bedroom and looked out at the garden where I used to raise my pigeons, and there I was, drowning in nostalgia. Usually your childhood home is smaller than you remember. But this one was actually larger than I pictured, with many more bedrooms and a stairway leading to the maid's quarters. In those days there were chauffeurs and cooks and upstairs maids, and my family was riding high."

Schulberg remembers sneaking out of his room to watch the famous parties with his sister, Sonya, now 71, and his brother, Stuart, who died in 1979 at the age of 57. They would perch at the top of the grand staircase and watch the celebrities cavort below. "I can still see Chaplin behaving like a child," he says. "It was the party to welcome Maurice Chevalier to America in 1928, and Chaplin was being ignored. He always had to be at the center of things, so he started banging away at the piano, just like a baby who demands attention."

At that time Budd's father was at the top of the industry, producing 50 features a year. "But he couldn't keep it up," says Schulberg. "Every week turning out a new two-reeler. Begin writing on Monday, complete shooting by Saturday. The pressure was unbearable."

The early film moguls relieved that pressure by gambling all night and seeking comfort in the willing arms of ambitious starlets. Schulberg's father was no exception. B.P. gambled away his money, quit his job and was divorced by his wife. In 1949 he was so desperate he took out an ad in Variety pleading for work. He died in 1957, a broken man.

By the time he was a freshman at Dartmouth, Budd had developed a "contempt," he says, for the false and fluid values of Hollywood. "If you were raised in Hollywood, it wasn't too difficult to get pretty angry at the world around you," he says. "God, it was really not subtle. People would come up to me when I was a little boy—11, 12, 13. An actress would want some favor from my father; a writer would urge me to say something about him. That was all around me. When they fussed over me, I knew why." It was at Dartmouth that he began work on Sammy, a novel savage in its condemnation of the film industry. ("Going through life with a conscience is like driving your car with your brakes on," was the way Sammy Glick expressed his philosophy.)

When the book came out, Schulberg was back in Hollywood working as a screenwriter. Sam Goldwyn immediately fired him. Louis B. Mayer suggested to Schulberg's father that his son be deported. In reply, B.P. pointed out that Budd was a native American. "Where the hell are you gonna deport him," he asked Mayer. "Catalina Island?"

Moved by the suffering during the Depression, Schulberg briefly became a member of the Communist Party at 24 but was disillusioned by the hard line the party took against his book. "It failed to meet the Hollywood Communists' high standard for Social Realism a la Stalin," he wrote later, and he took pride in the fact that Sammy was attacked simultaneously by John Wayne and the party.

But Schulberg wasn't through with the Communists. In 1951, he would cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming 17 people he had once known in the party. His liberal friends were horrified and began to shun Schulberg. "It was his one great blunder," says a left-leaning author not entirely unsympathetic to Schulberg's plight. "He didn't understand the consequences of what he had done."

Schulberg's Oscar-winning screenplay about mob corruption, On the Waterfront, in which longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) testifies before a crime commission—naming the names of villains—was seen by Schulberg's enemies as an indirect defense of his own decision to cooperate with HUAC. To this day, there are people who will leave a room if he enters. "There are things in my life that I would have done differently," Schulberg says now, obliquely alluding to his testimony and its cost. "But they are private things, things buried in my heart."

In a sense, Louis B. Mayer finally got his way. Schulberg was effectively banished from the trusted circle of Hollywood insiders and went into a kind of professional exile, writing screenplays for independent producers and books that nipped at Hollywood's heels. After working with F. Scott Fitzgerald on a frothy little movie called Winter Carnival, Schulberg wrote The Disenchanted, depicting the tragic fate of writers in Hollywood, who were showered with money but deprived of their most important asset—artistic integrity and control. Watching Fitzgerald descend into alcoholism in this environment, Schulberg discovered that success could be even more dangerous than failure. "To cope with fame, you have to be a saint," he says. "There are so many temptations, so many parties."

Another victim who left an impression was writer Tom Heggen, who wrote Mr. Robertsat 30 and soon found himself overrun by an army of false friends. "We were at '21' in New York, and he was surrounded by people," Schulberg recalls. "Tom knew I had gone through a sudden burst of success at an early age, and he asked me for advice. He was getting $9,000 a week, but he was afraid he couldn't write anymore. I told him to bank the money and sign on as a deckhand on a freighter and keep a diary. But of course, the next time I saw him he was at '21' surrounded by people." A few months later, in the spring of 1949, Heggen committed suicide.

Schulberg sailed off on his own lonely course. He became a boxing writer, finding in that hard discipline a reassuring grace and simplicity. "Everyone has an explosive moment," he explains. "In boxing, they're able to use it. It's controlled. They don't ever take it outside the ring. All the old fighters were incredibly gentle outside the ring. This Tyson is an aberration. He's the beast Jack London wrote about. He's antiboxing."

Schulberg had vowed as a child that he would never become romantically involved with actresses but then proceeded to marry one after another. His first wife, Virginia Ray (1936-42), was a bit player. They had a daughter, Victoria. His second marriage, to actress Victoria Anderson (1943-64), produced a pair of sons, Stephen and David. All three children went through periods of deep alienation from their father. Schulberg says that they chaffed at his peripatetic, high-profile lifestyle. But now a kind of peace has been made, and the clan gathers on rare occasions. "I like when they're all around," says Schulberg. "We are much closer than we have ever been," says daughter Victoria, now 49 and living on a farm in Idaho.

Schulberg's third marriage, in 1964, to actress Geraldine Brooks, was by all accounts a great love match until Brooks's death in 1977. That same year, Schulberg, who admits that he needs to be married, wed Betsy Ann Langman, niece of the late author Barbara Tuchman. They have two children, Benn, 9, and Jessica, 7. His relationships have always been somewhat rocky—about par for a hard drinker and quirky writer—and some people mistake the banter between Betsy and Budd for serious bickering. She wants him to get a new suit, she nags him about his drinking. He shrugs and refills his glass. "They need each other," says a mutual friend.

The two of them have in common a great sense of loss over the political promise of the '60's. Schulberg was there the night Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles. After the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., he began a writer's workshop in the devastated ghetto of Watts (which now continues its work in New York as the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center) and received a few humanitarian awards for his efforts. "I didn't want to just hang back and complain about things," he says. "I thought that we should all do something. I found great poets, great hearts in the ashes of Watts."

Today, Budd and Betsy live quietly on the bay in Westhampton, N.Y., taking pride in their children and pleasure in friends like Kurt Vonnegut and Wilfred Sheed. "When I was in school, Schulberg's short stories were the ones I read," says Vonnegut. "And of course Sammy knocked my block off. It is unique. It remains so today—a small masterpiece."

Schulberg also telephones his sister, Sonya, almost every day. They read the New York Times together, fueling the old fires about social injustice. "Did you see the ruling about the flag?" he cries. "Sometimes I feel she's the only one who understands," he says. "She was there for my youth, and she's the only one left."

With Sonya, Schulberg can share his still-smouldering political anger and the sense of restless frustration that dogs him. He doesn't understand precisely what it is that propels him—the essence of his work. It has something to do with futility and failure. "You know, I ran the half-mile on the high school track team," he says. "But poorly. I was a failed athlete. They sent me out to test this other guy, McCarthy, who was the fastest half-miler in the country. I was supposed to wear him out for the real half-miler. This is 60 years ago, but I still dream about that race. In my dream—my nightmare—I am running as fast as I can, and he is just loping along, waiting to eat me up. I don't even have to look back to see him. I can feel him. I am running my damn heart out, and I pass out cold. I'll always hear him on my heels, loping along effortlessly."

There is a little bit of Sammy Glick in us all, Schulberg believes. That race was lost 60 years ago, yet he can still hear the footsteps closing in behind him; maybe that's what makes Sammy run.

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