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We should talk about the Jewish backstory of ‘All About Eve’

This year marks the 70th anniversary of “All About Eve,” the landmark screen drama with a backstory that implies how risky Jewish identity, whether overt or repressed, could be circa 1950.

Written and directed by the American Jewish filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz, “All About Eve” was adapted from a short story inspired by an ambitious young actress who exploited the Austrian Jewish actress Elisabeth Bergner (1897–1986).

Born Elisabeth Ettel in Drohobych, present-day Ukraine, Bergner explained in her memoirs (1978) how after achieving stage stardom in Vienna and Berlin, she was obliged to flee the rising Nazi movement in the early 1930s.

A heavily exotic accent kept her from reproducing her earlier success in the English-speaking performing arts world, perhaps most glaringly in a failed 1936 screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

Bergner’s trajectory from superstardom to relatively lesser professional acceptance as a refugee was traced in the character of Dora Martin in the novel “Mephisto” (1936) by Klaus Mann. Set in Hamburg in the 1920s, “Mephisto” tells of an ambitious actor who rises to fame under the Nazis, while Dora Martin, a noted Jewish actress, is first defamed then forced to emigrate to America, after Hitler is named Chancellor of the Reich in 1933.

In contrast to this tragic narrative, in “All About Eve” an émigré accent was used to comic effect by the Russian Jewish actor Gregory Ratoff (born Grigory Ratner; 1893–1960) as the dyspeptic Broadway producer Max Fabian. Fleeing post-Revolutionary Russia, Ratoff eventually landed in New York, where he joined the Yiddish theater as a producer, director and actor.

Ratoff’s inescapable accent was seen as appropriate for comic and occasional villainous roles. An exception was the film “Symphony of Six Million,” adapted from a tale by Fannie Hurst, the best-selling novelist of Bavarian Jewish origin.

Ratoff played Meyer Klauber, father of a Lower East Side Jewish boy who grew up to be a wealthy Park Avenue physician, turning his back on his roots. Poignantly dying on his own son’s operating table, when the film was exported to the United Kingdom for screenings, Ratoff was marketed, according to cinema historian Gil Toffell, as “America’s Greatest Hebrew Actor.”

Even this status did not lead to a stellar performing career, doubtless due to his easily-apparent origins. One of Ratoff’s final roles would be a walk-on appearance in Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” (1960).

Mankiewicz’s script for “Eve” includes the quintessential drama critic, Addison DeWitt, described as a “venomous fishwife,” himself inspired by the American Jewish journalist George Jean Nathan (1882–1958).

DeWitt is such an alluring meanie that the writer Daniel Mendelsohn claimed in August 2008 that DeWitt is his “favorite New Yorker, living or dead, real or fictional.”

Bette Davis as Margo Channing, a ferocious aging Broadway diva and Thelma Ritter as a wisecracking maid counter the suave and oily George Sanders who plays DeWitt.

DeWitt’s verbal assurance appears to compensate for deep insecurities, reflecting the fact that George Jean Nathan spent his life denying his Judaism and refusing to have it mentioned in print.

In December 1962, Charles Angoff, a former long-time journalistic colleague, wrote about Nathan from the perspective of an essayist and novelist on American Jewish themes.

With more pity than anger, the Minsk-born Angoff recalled that Nathan’s father was Jewish and his mother, “partly Jewish,” according to his colleague. However, with the rise of European anti-Semitism in the early 1930s, Nathan informed Angoff contemptuously: “As I walk down Fifth Avenue, I can see the Mischa Elman in every Jew’s eyes.”
The reference to the Russian-Jewish violinist Mischa Elman may have alluded to Elman’s openly emotional performance style, projecting an affective vulnerability that the super-refined, cool Nathan shunned as typical of lower class East European Jews.

As the persecutions grew worse, Nathan talked less about Mischa Elman, Angoff recounts, and “in 1934 [Nathan] ceased talking about the Jews altogether.”

Likewise, Nathan insisted that his colleague H. L. Mencken, noted for his crude anti-Semitic comments in letters and posthumous publications, suppress a reference in the American Mercury, the journal they cofounded, to Nathan as his “unbaptized co-editor.”

Nathan insisted on comparable deletions when a biography of himself was prepared by Isaac Goldberg (1887–1938), a translator of Yiddish, among other languages. In a preface to Goldberg’s 1918 translation of Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance” Abraham Cahan, editor of the Forward, praised Goldberg’s acumen.

Yet when confronted with Nathan’s determination to remain a closeted Jew, Goldberg could only accede. In June 1926, even before the systematic elimination of European Jews, Nathan wrote to Goldberg asking, “Why all the race consciousness? The sooner all Jews forget it, the better it will be… Please see my point of view and leave out the Jewish matter.” Goldberg complied.

Despite this adamant denial, Nathan’s persona, as a dandyish, slick man about town, identical to Addison DeWitt in Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve,” appealed to young Jewish literati. As the critic Bill Marx wrote, “Nathan’s flamboyant marriage of satiric irritability and linguistic flair – his habitual stance of imperious incredulity” influenced the comedic styles of writers such as Nathanael West (born Nathan Weinstein; 1903–1940) and his brother-in-law S. J. Perelman.

At the time, America’s critics had such panache that they inspired such permanent archetypes as Addison DeWitt or Sheridan Whiteside in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “The Man Who Came To Dinner” a transformation of the exuberant Alexander Woollcott. What current salaried critics have comparably vivid personalities?

Yet Mankiewicz did not make Addison DeWitt Jewish, despite the director’s own brushes with anti-Semitism in Hollywood, as when F. Scott Fitzgerald derided him as “Monkeybitch” and “an ignorant and vulgar gent” after Mankiewicz was assigned to rewrite a subpar Fitzgerald film script. As revenge, Fitzgerald caricatured Mankiewicz as the unattractive Jewish producer Jaques La Borwits in his “Love of the Last Tycoon.”

Instead, film historians assert that Mankiewicz made Addison DeWitt into a viper-tongued crypto-gay character. Mankiewicz could be harsh about LGBT people, telling the biographer of the gay director George Cukor, of Hungarian Jewish origin, that Cukor was the “first great female director of Hollywood” and as a party host, “George was really queen of the roost.”

Nor was Mankiewicz always tender about his rival Jewish writers and directors in Hollywood, telling one biographer, that in US film history, “With talk came the Jew,” alluding to the importing of Broadway’s Jewish playwrights to pen dialogue for sound films.

Today, those who laugh at “All About Eve” may feel a measure of relief that Addison DeWitt was not portrayed with any greater similarity to the self-denying Jewish original of George Jean Nathan.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to The Forward.

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