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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During the 1920s and ’30s, Foerster was also finding success in the film industry. She became a sought-after scenario writer in Europe. Her job was to look for stories to turn into films and write treatments for them. At one point she worked for Germany’s largest movie maker, the UFA (Universum Film AG) film studios in Berlin. In 1931, she traveled to Hollywood, where RKO Pictures agreed to turn one of her story ideas into a movie starring Pola Negri, the great German silent film star. The film, “A Woman Commands,” got made but flopped at the box office the following year.

While in Hollywood, Foerster went to court and tried to get Curtiz to resume paying child support, but the judge ruled that an American court lacked jurisdiction over a European matter. Newspaper accounts of the legal battle portrayed Foerster as a “fan dancer” and gold digger trying to exploit her connection to the famous Hollywood director.

Back in Europe, Foerster’s son, who was affectionately referred to as Michi, was being cared for by his Uncle Ludwig, whom playwright Michelanne Forster describes as a bit of a luftmensch, or someone without a consistent income. When Thilde Foerster stopped sending money to her brother and son, there were hard times in which Ludwig Foerster and his nephew skipped out on restaurant meals. At one point, Michi and Uncle Ludwig were living in a farmer’s cellar, eating potatoes. At another they came to rely on the charity of the Jewish community.

In 1933, after spending a considerable amount of money in her failed court battle with Curtiz, Thilde Foerster left Hollywood for Mexico because she had to be outside the United States to apply for a permanent visa. Since the Third Reich was on the rise, she had no chance of continuing to work in the German film industry. During her entry interview with immigration authorities, she presented an official with a German book that she had not written. It had a fake cover with her picture and byline on it. Foerster claimed to be a famous author back in Germany, and said she had written the book, “Hearts Behind Bars.” The immigration agent fell for it.

“Chutzpah, chutzpah, chutzpah,” Forster chuckled while recounting her grandmother’s scam.

When the Reichstag building, the home of Germany’s parliament, burned down in 1933, Foerster called her brother and directed him to get her son out of Germany. Ludwig Foerster and Michi headed to Austria. It was during this journey that Michi was informed that he was a Jew. In Vienna the two were supported by the Jewish community for six months. A visa was secured for Michi, and at end of 1934, the newly discovered Jew sailed to America by himself at the age of 13.

“I think he was really brave,” Michelanne Forster says of her father.

When the teenager arrived in California that same year, his mother informed him that she had not, in fact, ever been married to his famous father. He also realized that the great director wanted nothing to do with him. Eventually, Thilde Foerster succeeded in getting a court to order child support from Kertesz in California.

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