Book Review: “Cocktails With George and Martha” by Philip Gefter

COCKTAILS WITH GEORGE AND MARTHA: Movies, Marriage and the Making of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ by Philip Gefter

What a document dump!

The most delicious parts of “Cocktails With George and Martha,” Philip Gefter’s unapologetically obsessive new book about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — the dark ’n’ stormy, oft-revived 1962 Broadway hit by Edward Albee that became a moneymaking movie and an eternal marriage meme — are diary excerpts from the screenwriter Ernest Lehman. (Gefter calls the diary “unpublished,” but at least some of it surfaced in the turn-of-the-millennium magazine Talk, now hard to find.)

That Lehman is no longer a household name, if he ever was, is one of showbiz history’s many injustices. Before the thankless task of condensing Albee’s three-hour play for the big screen (on top of producing), he wrote the scripts for “North by Northwest” (1959), arguably Hitchcock’s greatest, and with some help, “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957). The latter was based on his experience copywriting for a press agent, which inspired a novelette in Cosmopolitan called “Tell Me About It Tomorrow!” (Will someone please bring back the novelette?)

From beyond the grave, in a production journal titled “Fun and Games With George and Martha” housed at the Harry Ransom Center, Lehman dishes on working with Mike Nichols, the then-darling of New York intellectuals hired to direct his first Hollywood film, starring his famous, furiously canoodling friends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

But first “Cocktails With George and Martha” fans out like a deck of cards the back story of the play, which initially featured Uta Hagen as Martha, the delulu grown daughter of a New England college president, and Arthur Hill as George, her husband, an associate history professor whose career has stalled. (Yes, they are named for the first first couple of America.) A younger married pair named Nick and Honey come over for the world’s longest and most hellacious nightcap.

Steeped in alcohol and analysis themselves, sophisticated audiences thrilled to the play’s voyeurism and vulgar language, even as the Pulitzer Prize committee got prudish, suspending the drama prize the year “Woolf” was eligible.

Gefter describes how another playwright, probably jealous of the box-office returns, accused Albee rather homophobically of “neuroticism” and “nihilism” in The New York Times. “If the theater must bring us only what we can immediately apprehend or comfortably relate to,” Albee responded in one of cultural journalism’s best mic drops, “let us stop going to the theater entirely. Let us play patty-cake with one another or sit in our rooms and contemplate our paunchy middles.”

Casting Liz and Dick, then the world’s biggest celebrity couple, in the movie — after Jack Warner had promised Albee that Bette Davis and James Mason would do it — also came with risk (and paunchy middles; the glamorous Taylor was instructed to gain 20 pounds).

While Burton’s delicious diaries barely mention the production, much of its agita is familiar from Mark Harris’s recent and thorough biography of Nichols. But Gefter pulls in for a tighter focus. He’s not quite the “phrasemaker” that Martha calls George — locutions like “garnering his own notoriety” and “actual lived behavior” mush up an otherwise tight book, as does a scattered epilogue on other marriage movies. But he does, as George puts it, get to the marrow: of male ego, rushing into new projects with hubris and jostling for posterity.

“Hacks only imitate,” Nichols declared, binge-watching Truffaut and Fellini flicks in anxious preparation for the shoot. “We artists steal.”

The novice director and the veteran writer bantered in the back of a limo to the airport about being jealous of each other’s publicity. Nichols had been to Jacqueline Kennedy’s apartment for lunch (and would use her promised endorsement to prevent himself getting fired); Lehman, who contributed to “The Sound of Music,” which was thriving at the box office, had quietly arranged for a profile of himself in Cosmo.

Dramatic alterations, like opening on a pair of fornicating dogs and making George and Martha’s imaginary son real, were roundly rejected by Nichols, who also clashed with the seasoned cinematographer and composer assigned by the studio. He was determined to keep the movie in arty black-and-white rather than commercial, modern color, and wanted to hire André Previn or Leonard Bernstein to do the score. (“Mike likes them young and hip,” Lehman sighed.)

Meanwhile, Burton tried to get the assistant director fired on his wife’s behalf — “it’s rather like talking about changing one’s housekeeper, isn’t it?” — and worried that the project, like Nick when he tries to have sex with Martha, would be “a flop.”

He was mollified by a pond stocked with trout on location and a birthday present of Francis Bacon essays. Still, Lehman recorded, the cast and crew were a “discontented bunch” and, understating the case: “‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ is not exactly a happy picture.”

Gefter, a former Times picture editor, has written formal biographies of the photographer Richard Avedon (Nichols’s close friend) and the curator Sam Wagstaff. This is something different: a shot glass filled with one work that, alongside contemporaneous books like Richard Yates’s novel “Revolutionary Road” and Betty Friedan’s polemic “The Feminine Mystique,” showed how the “cartoon versions of marriage” long served up by American popular culture — Doris Day movies, the Cleavers, etc. — always came with a secret side of bitters.

His interest in “Woolf” dates back to when he was 15 and, apparently the only teenager in America who read Playboy for the articles, encountered an interview with Nichols in his father’s copy.

Gefter peeks at the unpublished memoir of Gerard Malanga, a poet and Andy Warhol associate, to elaborate how George and Martha were at least in part inspired by Willard Maas and Marie Menken, teachers at Wagner College about whom Warhol made a 1965 film called “Bitch,” which was recently screened at MoMA.

He distills a lot of secondary material, including interviews published and unpublished conducted by the critic Mel Gussow (also a longtime Timesman), Albee’s friend and biographer. The playwright saw the phrase “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled in dry soap on the mirror of a Greenwich Village bar around 1954, when he was an aspiring novelist running with a crowd of talented bohemians.

“Woolf,” which Gefter calls “an existential provocation that serves up a range of fundamental truths about marital attachment,” got its creator on the cover of Newsweek by 1963. Such a hall of mirrors is American culture that Martha’s famous “what a dump” line quoted an unfamous one in a minor Bette Davis noir, “Beyond the Forest.” Davis, among the actresses lobbying to play Martha in the movie, then reclaimed it as a catchphrase for the rest of her years.

Albee was a purist about his characters, repeatedly refusing the chance to revive “Woolf” onstage with gay male couples. Terrence McNally, an early boyfriend, thought he wrote like a composer. If so, though, there was a hint of jazz there. According to one actress who played Martha, Albee “always said that Act IV of the play was when the audience leaves the theater, and the couples argue all the way home.”

Hey, it beats lying in bed with our laptops.

COCKTAILS WITH GEORGE AND MARTHA: Movies, Marriage and the Making of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” | Philip Gefter | Bloomsbury | 368 pp. | $32

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