This Day in Jewish History

2005: A Hypochondriac Whose Writing Captivated Hollywood Dies

Ernest Lehman's one flop was writing a film version of 'Portnoy's Complaint'. 'Sound of Music' and 'North by Northwest,' to name but two, did rather better.

Wikimedia Commons

On July 2, 2005, screenwriting great Ernest Lehman died. Lehman’s virtuosity as one of the first writers to dedicate his career specifically to writing for the movies – as opposed to slumming for a spell in Hollywood because the money was good – may explain how he could have been behind such a diverse collection of movies: the dark drama “The Sweet Smell of Money,” the romantic comedy “Sabrina,” Broadway-musical adaptations that included “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story,” and - undoubtedly his greatest achievement - the original screenplay he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “North by Northwest.”

Ernest Paul Lehman was born in New York on December 8, 1915, and he grew up in Woodmere, Long Island. He was the son of Paul E. Lehman and the former Gertrude Thorn, who together owned and operated a women’s clothing store. When Ernest was 18, at the height of the Depression, the store went out of business, and his parents had to sell their home in the suburbs.

Lehman attended the City College of New York, where he studied both chemical engineering and creative writing, before deciding to turn his talents solely toward the latter. A brief spell as a freelance writer after college, however, struck the high-strung Lehman as “a very nervous way to make a living,” and he looked for fulltime work.

The work he found was for a public-relations agency, and later for the press agent Irving Hoffman, placing stories about clients with a handful of gossip columnists who had the power to make or break careers. The most powerful of these columnists, and the most insidious, was Walter Winchell.

Much as Winchell, and the PR business in general, repelled Lehman, he was a good enough observer that when he wrote a short story about it, which was followed by a novella, “Tell Me About It Tomorrow,” published in Cosmopolitan magazine, in 1950, it titillated the chattering classes, whose members recognized both Winchell and Irving Hoffman in Lehman’s searing characterizations.


Walter Winchell.
Photo by ABC Television / Wikimedia Commons

The sweet smell of Hollywood

Eventually, Lehman would adapt that story for the screen (sharing writing credits with Clifford Odets), in the form of “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as the Winchell and Hoffman characters, J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco.

By then, however, that and other magazine pieces by Lehman had led to his being invited out to Hollywood by Paramount Pictures. He wrote the screenplays for “Executive Suite” (written for MGM, 1954) about intrigue in a corporate boardroom, and “Sabrina,” directed by Billy Wilder, also in 1954, for which Lehman received his first Oscar nomination.   

Lehman was nominated for a screenwriting Academy Award four times (for “Sabrina,” “North by Northwest,” “West Side Story” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), and twice as a producer (“Virginia Woolf” and “Hello Dolly!”) – but the only Oscar he ever won was honorary, for his cumulative achievements, in 2001.

Lehman's complaint

If one of his screenplays should have taken the Oscar, it was that for “North by Northwest,” in which Cary Grant plays a advertising executive who gets caught up in a terrifying case of mistaken identity, and whose plight sees him running from a crop-duster plane with no fields in sight, and scurrying across the face of Mt. Rushmore. All the while, he’s trying to figure if his love interest, played by Eva Marie-Saint, is on his side or that of his enemies. In his commentary for the DVD release, Lehman said that, “I felt that I didn't write dialogue; I wrote repartee.”

Bubbly as the repartee is, Lehman labored on the screenplay for more than a year, and recounted one two-week period when he sat in front of the typewriter and didn’t produce a single word.

The only Lehman film that truly flopped was one he both wrote and directed, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1972). He also wrote two novels, and was active in union affairs, serving as head of the Writers Guild West for two years.

Though a lifetime hypochondriac, Lehman lived until age 89. He was married twice and had three children, the last one coming in his second marriage, when he was 86.