Writers have to begin somewhere. In search of characters, dialogue, and color for their canvas, many start as reporters. Working on deadline teaches you to create clean, tight sentences, but mostly it prepares you for the blank page. Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Gay Talese, Nora Ephron, and hundreds of others cut their writing teeth as journalists, learning to bite before they would chew.
Add to the list Billy Wilder, the celebrated film director and screenwriter of classics like Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot. With his new collection, Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, film scholar Noah Isenberg offers the first English translation of dozens of Wilder’s newspaper and magazine articles, mostly from the mid-to-late 1920s. Isenberg’s collection is as close to a diary as we’re going to get from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Though the stories mostly stand up on their own, Wilder fans will see the humor, wordplay, and descriptive powers that would come to characterize his films, not to mention the characters that would populate them. Reading these stories is like glimpsing the percolating brain of the genius to come.
But before dropping us into Billy’s head, Isenberg gives us some background. Wilder’s mother, Eugenia, had lived as a girl on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for several years with an uncle who was a jeweler. She came to love New York and begged her parents to let her stay. But she returned to Galicia, got married, and had her own children. She named them after Buffalo Bill, the Wild West showman she had seen during his tour of the city: Willie, her firstborn, and Samuel, her second, nicknamed Billie. Though his Jewish father—a waiter and later a train-station café owner—wanted him to become a lawyer, Billie had other ideas. He gambled in pool rooms and often stole tips from his father’s tables. After high school, and after seeing a rash of American films with cool characters in raincoats and with press passes stuck in their hat brims, he decided to become a newspaperman. Living in Vienna with his family, the tall, redheaded eighteen-year-old asked the editors of the local tabloid, Die Buhne, for work as a foreign correspondent, with hopes of following in his mother’s footsteps and moving to America. But Wilder didn’t speak English. He visited the newspaper offices anyway, and according to later accounts, walked in on the chief theater critic having sex with his secretary—an encounter that would rattle around in his fedoraed head for decades and work its way into movies like The Apartment and The Major and the Minor.
By 1925, young Billie was creating crossword puzzles for Die Buhne’s sister paper, Die Stunde, working his way up to interviews and reviews of cafés where patrons were “bent over newspapers as big as bed sheets.” Each morning, his mother, Eugenia, would wake him and say, “Get up and write some anecdotes.” Wilder would interview celebrities, the families of murder victims, and an all-female dance group called the Tiller Girls, who, with their leader/chaperone, Miss Harley, would be the models for Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators in 1959’s Some Like It Hot.
In the spring of 1926, the American orchestra leader, Paul Whiteman, visited Vienna. Wilder, whose only English came from song lyrics, interviewed Whiteman, fearlessly describing his double chin and his mustache, to which he dedicated a whole paragraph:
It is cut quite short and twirled up in the middle, the two ends extend out quite far, and points upwards toward his nostrils at a sharp angle; the tips have a bit of pomade, which adds an aromatic element to our visual pleasure. That is the mustache of the future. Copyright by Paul Whiteman.