Winding Road from ‘Casablanca’

Playwright Explores Her Hollywood Family's Real-Life Drama

Here’s Looking at You, Kid: An encounter between Thilde Foerster (left) and Casablanca director Michael Curtiz (inset) set the stage for a family drama unfolding only decades later.
cUrtiz photo: ap photo
Here’s Looking at You, Kid: An encounter between Thilde Foerster (left) and Casablanca director Michael Curtiz (inset) set the stage for a family drama unfolding only decades later.

By Jon Kalish

Published July 31, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
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In 1972, shortly after Thilde Foerster died, her son and granddaughter went to clean out her apartment in Santa Barbara, Calif. There they found an old battered suitcase hidden under her bed, filled with film scripts, plays and an unfinished novel. Foerster’s son, Michael Forster, knew that his mother had worked in the film industry in Europe during the 1920s and early ’30s, but the granddaughter knew nothing of this.

The contents of the suitcase would reveal a story so rife with Holocaust drama, romantic tragedy and religious awakening that decades later, the granddaughter, Michelanne Forster used them as fodder for her play, “Don’t Mention Casablanca.” The villain in the real-life drama involving Forster’s father and grandmother turned out to be a legend from Hollywood’s golden era, “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz. He was Michelanne Forster’s grandfather.

Forster grew up in Southern California and moved to New Zealand when her father got a teaching job in Auckland. She has lived in New Zealand for more than 30 years, and has become one of its most well-regarded playwrights, winning commerical and critical acclaim. Forster says that although she was very close to her grandmother, Thilde Foerster “never said a word to me about her past.” The playwright’s father wasn’t much better. He didn’t tell his daughter that he was Jewish until she was a teenager.

Forster detailed her poignant family history in an interview with the Forward, conducted in Christchurch, New Zealand, just a few blocks from the Court Theater, where “Don’t Mention Casablanca” debuted in 2010.

The family saga began in Vienna in 1919, when Thilde Foerster had a brief affair with a hotshot Hungarian director named Mihály Kertész. Foerster became pregnant and had a son, Michelanne Forster’s father. Kertész didn’t offer to support Foerster or his baby boy, so Foerster placed the infant in an orphanage. She eventually took custody of her son, but when she learned that Kertész had fathered another child in Vienna out of wedlock, she went to court and got Kertész to pay child support.

Listen to a podcast about Thilde Foerster and Michael Curtiz:

The child support stopped after Kertész went to America and changed his name to Michael Curtiz. In Hollywood he hit the big time, directing such celluloid blockbusters in the 1930s and ’40s as “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and, most famously, “Casablanca,” for which he won an Academy Award. During his life, Curtiz directed 173 films, first in Europe and then in the United States. He died in 1962.

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