Out walking on Sunset Boulevard
Posted on August 24, 2015
Edmund Josef von Horváth (9 December 1901 – 1 June 1938) was a German-writing Austro-Hungarian-born playwright and novelist. He preferred the Hungarian version of his first name and published as Ödön von Horváth.
“If you ask me what is my native country, I answer: I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Pressburg [Bratislava], Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland. I am a very typical mix of old Austria–Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech; my country is Hungary; my mother tongue is German.”
While out walking during a thunderstorm on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, in June 1938, Ödön von Horváth was hit by a falling branch from a tree and killed. Eerily, only a few days earlier, he had said to a friend:
“I am not so afraid of the Nazis … There are worse things one can be afraid of, namely things one is afraid of without knowing why. For instance, I am afraid of streets. Roads can be hostile to one, can destroy one. Streets scare me.”
Von Horváth died tragically young, but lives on in popular culture. Lydia Davis’ short story, Ödön von Horváth Out Walking published in her 2014 collection “Can’t and Won’t,” concerns Horváth’s encounter, while out walking in the Bavarian Alps, with the skeleton of a long dead man whose knapsack was still intact.
Von Horváth opened the knapsack and found a postcard on which the man had written:
“Having a wonderful time.”
Asked by friends what he did with it, Von Horváth replied:
“I posted it.”
Danilo Kiš’s short story, The Man Without A Country, published in the 1994 collection “The Lute and The Scars” fictionalises the death of Von Horvath. Here’s a beautifully macabre extract …
Christopher Hampton’s play Tales from Hollywood (1984, and adapted for television in 1992) portrays a fictional Horváth. He survives the falling branch and moves to the United States, where he works in the motion picture industry with expatriate German authors such as Bertolt Brecht and Heinrich Mann.
Hampton returned to the theme of movies about movies in his 1993 book Sunset Boulevard, a libretto written (with Don Black) for Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 movie.
Black, Webber, Hampton
Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, and William Holden, who plays a hack screenwriter, Joe Gillis
According to Hampton:
“I was approached by the English National Opera about 10 years ago to write an opera libretto. I suggested Sunset Boulevard and wrote to Billy Wilder (who was also the film’s co-writer) asking him how I would get the rights. To which, more or less by return of post, I received a letter from Wilder saying, ‘being a writer yourself, you will not be amazed to hear that I have no rights in this whatsoever. By some cruel boo-boo of the capitalist system everything belongs to Paramount.'”
Upon learning that Andrew Lloyd-Webber had contacted Paramount to try and persuade them to give Wilder some of the proceeds from the Musical spin-off, Wilder wrote to Webber:
“It’s really very kind, but you should save your efforts because, after many years of living in Hollywood, I know these people in the studios and they all have rubber pockets so that they can steal the soup.”
It’s almost as if Hampton had Wilder in mind when he wrote about the fictional Von Horváth …
“A girl I know, American, asked me the other day what Ars Gratia Artis meant over the gates of MGM. I told her it meant ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’.” (Ödön von Horvath to Bertolt Brecht)