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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Forster wanted her father’s blessing for the play. She also realized that she couldn’t really write it without her father’s assistance. It wasn’t until after the playwright had her own children, and her father became a grandfather, that he became more open to the idea.

“Life is short, and you gradually let go of the things that hurt you as a child and as a young man,” Forster observed. “You see them in a different light as time goes by.”

Among the works found in that battered suitcase under Thilde Foerster’s bed when she died was a play that Foerster wrote about Hitler. Forster says the play made it into the finals in a playwriting competition in the late 1960s. If it had won, it would have been staged at Lincoln Center.

“I hadn’t really appreciated that the whole time she was my grandmother, she was actually writing; she was still hoping to break through somehow with a work, but that never happened for her,” Forster said.
 Thilde Foerster spent the last years of her working life as a secretary in the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department. She spent the end of her life in a nursing home after surgery for a brain tumor.

Forster was the only member of the family in California when her grandmother died. The playwright remembers her grandmother as a witty, politically aware woman who was a good storyteller. She says that the two of them were quite close, despite the fact that Thilde Foerster revealed almost nothing about her life.

Foster’s father was similarly tight-lipped. He didn’t reveal that he was Jewish until Michelanne Forster was 14, just a year older than he was when Uncle Ludwig had informed him that he was Jewish. When a classmate insisted that Forster couldn’t be Jewish because her mother wasn’t Jewish, she confronted her father, who said that as far as he was concerned, she was Jewish, too, even if her mother was a gentile.

“My father said to me, ‘You’re Jewish enough for Hitler.’ And that sentence went straight into my heart and stayed with me ever since,” she said.

Forster had felt that she was a failure as a Jew because she lacked a Jewish education as a child, but over the years she has decided that she is part of the Jewish people.

“My father said to me many times, ‘I lived off the charity of the Jewish community, and without the Jewish community, I would be in Hitler’s ovens.’ And that has always stayed with me and gave me the courage to go back to the Jewish community because I owe my life to them. Our whole family does,” Forster said, her voice breaking.

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter and podcast producer.

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