When I came to Hollywood in 1993, among the characters I met were prodigious old New York Jews who seemed to have been shipped fresh to California like onion bagels or seeded bialys from the old Jewish Daily Forward building and the Seward Park Library on East Broadway, from the immigrant classes at Cooper Union, from the soapboxes in Union Square; old men who were steeped in history and knowledge and literary and political engagement and passion-- and who often produced crap. And I found Max J. Rosenberg, once described by Variety as “the scholarly art film entrepreneur,” who died in Santa Monica at 89 in June of 2004.
His greatest hits had included Rock Rock Rock!, considered a rock and roll classic with Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon, Laverne Baker, the Flamingos and Tuesday Weld in her first screen appearance. Among his other hits were The Deadly Bees, The Terrornauts, The House That Dripped Blood, The Incredible Melting Man and The Beast Must Die. In 1957 he produced the first horror film in color, The Curse of Frankenstein.
Max had entered the film business in 1945 as a distributor of foreign art films, partnering with Joseph E. Levine. Rosenberg and Levine distributed The Blue Angel,The Titan (which won an Academy Award as best documentary,) I Met a Murderer (James Mason’s first starring role), Laburnum Grove, Proud Valley, Michael Powell’s Edge of the World, Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, among many others. Max formed Amicus Productions, Ltd. in England in 1962 with Milton Subotsky and produced Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors,Tales from the Crypt and its sequel, Vault of Horror, Scream and Scream Again andTorture Garden. Amicus went on to widen its scope and produce serious work, including Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. In the 1980s Rosenberg produced Pinter’s Langrishe, Go Down for the BBC and scores of other films.
Max had lived in London for many years and knew many Hollywood moguls. Yet his dusty Hollywood office, “Rearguard Productions,” (previously called “Vanguard Productions”) looked like the end of a journey. He hadn’t made a picture in some years, and he was trying to sell off his inventory to the BBC. “Dealing with them,” he said, “is like having intercourse with a ghost.”
Max was a combination of old time Socialist, well-read scholar, lover of Yiddishkeit and Hollywood hurly-burly carnival pitchman. When Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted, he told me, he went to the Bronx Botanical Gardens and sat with his Daily Worker, weeping for hours. “Before I got into show business,” he said, “I worked on the WPA with bricklayers, all Irish. This was in 1933. We didn’t have enough to eat in those days. Trying to rouse their working-class consciousness, I would say to them, ‘`Fellas, what do you think the answer is?’ And they said, `Kill the Jews.’”
He had distanced himself from the Communists a long time ago. “The Communists were so innocent,” he said. “They didn’t know Yiddish, but tried to use Yiddish expressions on their soapboxes to woo the workers. So when they addressed the `women workers,’ they called them `whores of the street.’”
On Sunday mornings Max and I walked on the Santa Monica beach. I would
call him and he would say, “I’ll be at the corner. You can pick me up like a piece of soiled lasagna.”
He was frail and he resembled a swizzle stick. A baseball cap was planted on his grizzled head. As we walked a slight wind knocked him over, and I caught him. At the restaurant, he would hand his cap to the hostess and say, “Burn this.”
“I’m working on an angle,” Max said. “'The Nun With the Red Glove.' I have a friend who handles midnight shows. I wrote an ad: `See the nun with the red glove at midnight.’ Nobody knows what it means. But we’ll see what happens. Russ Meyer has made a fortune.”
He loved literature and knew it as well as anyone I had ever known. With his faded eyesight he was consuming that week Ian Gibson’s The Death of Lorca and Gustav Regler’s The Owl of Minerva. He talked with perfect recall and real insight about Henry Roth, Joseph Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Tillie Olsen, Sciasca, Robert Lowell, Charles Reznikoff, Gogol and Laurie Lee. There seemed to be almost no book that he had not read, and he could quote from many of them. Daniel Fuchs, novelist of The Williamsburg Trilogy and screenwriter of scores of films, had died that week. Fuchs had lived at Park LaBrea in the Fairfax district near the old Farmers Market. Max said, “Trilogy is probably the best book ever written by a young man.” I had loved Fuchs’ novels; I had written him once from New York to tell him so, and he had answered me. Max went on, “Fuchs loved Hollywood. Instead of being seduced by it, he seemed to like it.” He paused. “Writers are so different. I reread the Communist Joseph Freeman’s memoir, An American Testament. It’s like reading Sanskrit now. Like reading a buried language that has nothing to do with us.”
Max paused and said, “Alfred Kazin had one book in him.”
“A Walker in the City,” I said.
“Yes, of course,” Max replied. “As a literary critic, I never liked him at all. And I couldn’t stand his pomposity, the fact that he’d rubbed shoulders with so many big shots, such a pain in the ass. When I knew Alfred, I liked him because he had terrible pimples, and he was very shy, and he had a dirty old briefcase that had four hundred books in it. In Union Square I would be at the center of the crowd talking because I always had a big mouth. And he’d be on the outside.”
Max’s wife had died three years before. He could no longer sleep. He went home from his office at four and tried to sleep until midnight. He read through the night, rose at three and was in his office by four a.m. He had endowed the Isabel W. Rosenberg Weekly Story Hour for children in his wife’s memory in Jerusalem. He showed me a picture of the children gathered around the storyteller. He’d given away most of his huge library. “Since my wife died,” he said, “I no longer want to be surprised by beauty.”
When we parted, he said, “Duvid, go back to your lair and your harp.”
Walking along the beach with him, I was amazed by his ability to quote from books I cared about--Harry Roskolenko’s When I Was Last On Cherry Street, his reverence for the lower East Side streets I had never known but were in my bones. On another Sunday walk, he talked of his early success. “Milton and I made Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors together. It was when the going was very good for me. I was walking on Broadway. Milton grabbed me: “Max, how’d like you like to make a picture called House of Horrors?” I said, `Of course.’ The rest is history. I made a bloody fortune. I thought this was an easy business. We made the picture for $75,000 and we took in over a million. So much for that. There’ll be other times, though. But now at the end of the day I feel so depleted and discouraged. I called Milton this week and said let’s do the sequel. He’s a good friend of mine. I’m the guy that let him loose on an unsuspecting, innocent and sweet public. I think he¹s like that character in George Bernard Shaw’s Chocolate Soldiers. Shaw wrote that this guy never withered because he never blossomed.
“I want to write a book and call it History of a Stupid and Crazy Jewish Commie Bastard. As a furrier, my father was known as the fastest botch on the lower East Side. He could never use a pattern, but he used to cut five coats a day. One coat was for a centipede; another was for a woman fourteen feet tall; another was for a woman who clung to the earth. Everybody used to work on furs like beaver and Persian lamb. My father worked on things like baronduka.” (sic)
“What was that?” I asked him.
“I’m not sure,” Max said. “I guess they must have been large rats. Anyway,” Max said, rising from the bench, “It’s been lovely, my kind. But now I have a meeting with a producer in thirty minutes. I think this is gonna do it. I¹m going to present him with a script idea that can be made for only one million.”
“What’s it about?” I asked.
Max bristled at me. “What difference does that make? I don’t know yet.”
He walked off briskly.
Max and I had a terrible dispute near the end of our relationship. The fault was entirely mine, although I did not know it then. In those days, the fact that he lacked perfection was enough to puncture holes in my love for him.
I saw him one last time on the Santa Monica promenade. before I returned to New York in 2002. It was one of those sunny Sundays when the promenade is ringing with the laughter and music of hundreds of young lovers, children, musicians, and characters like the man in the bowler hat and roller skates who danced to music in behalf of the Christian Children's Crusade. It was the kind of day so ineffably beautiful it induced a sadness about how to embrace it before it was gone.
I recognized his familiar stance out of the corner of my eye before I saw his face. Max was standing in the doorway of Woolworth¹s and he was almost invisible in the hot sun. He had his baseball cap on and he stood with his arms folded in front of him. His head jutted forward. He was hungrily watching the spectacle through his one good eye, especially two babies in a carriage. I knew how much he loved children.
I kept walking. Max: watching with love, sorrow, bitterness, loneliness and indomitable strength the carnival of life.
I remember the few months with Max when, again and again, I was surprised by beauty.