In 1977 Walter Bernstein was nominated for the Academy Award in screen writing. We met that same year at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. To him I became “The Kansas Kid,” sometimes shortened to “The Kid.”
The movie was the Marty Ritt film, The Front staring Woody Allen. I had not seen it, nor did I know much about film scripts, and I knew nothing about Bernstein’s accomplishments: Fail Safe and the Molly McGuires among other movies.
The other writers at MacDowell at that time included Lucy Kamasar (who had recently integrated McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village); the poet and playwright Honor Moore; Milton Klonsky (who would win a McArther Award the following year); Iris Owens, who had just published After Claude, Mary Higgins Clark, the author of Where Are The Children, and a George X , working on his second book about Russia (I cannot, even with the help of Goggle find him, nor obviously recall his last name, even thought he loaned me his house on Ibiza the following year. Madness.)
I had just published a novel set in the west and in a moment of youthful vanity, I gave a copy to the MacDowell library where Walter checked it out. For what reason I would soon learn.
MacDowell in those days was (and maybe still is) a gift of time and place for writers.
You could stay up to about six weeks; they furnished you a small cabin where you could write and even stay over night if you didn’t want to use the dormitories, also provided. Around noon a handy man arrived with lunch. My cabin (and I guessed others as well) had a fire place and when the man who brought you lunch saw that you’d used you stash of wood from the front porch, he brought you more. As I was there in January, I went through more than my share. It was the custom of the country that only the wood-and- lunch man were to stop by your cabin, and he never came in, nor even knocked.
For dinner you went back to the main hall where many of us gathered in a large room (also with a fire place) for drinks. I don’t remember if we brought our own (I think we did) or there was a bar set up. Maybe there was a bar. There was much quick-draw and rapid-fire talk about politics and art, much of which (being who I was then) left me behind. I remember Iris Owens saying she had once worked for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press in Paris. Her job was to edit the first draft of Lolita. I thought no one had edited Nabokov, much less Lolita.
“Oh, she said. “It was a mess of motels going all across the country running to 600 pages with the two of them entangled in the sheets every ten pages. I’d cut motels by states: there goes three in Ohio, there goes four in Illinois, there goes all of Kansas.” (And here she looked at me because Walter’s name for me had gotten around). I believed her at the time.
The one subject that was off limits was our writing—the day’s work that just ended, or whatever project was in progress for the stay. As I had never been around so many accomplished authors I missed to chance to hear them on their writing. And how I understood I was not to ask came about because one evening at drinks I said to George X: “How goes it?” To which there was a collective silence, then: “It goes.”
“Hey, kid,” Walter said one evening to me at dinner. “I read your novel. Very good. Would you read a draft of my screenplay? It’s a western and I’m a furtive Jew from New York. What do I know about cowboys?
Walter was then writing The Electric Horseman, not for Robert Redford, but for Steve McQueen who, it turned out, was about to die. When that happened the studio sent the project to Redford who fired Walter. But all that was to happen later. For the moment, Walter wanted to know what I knew about horses and cattle and cowboys. I was flattered. Sure, I said.
Robert Redford, The Electric Horseman
A few days later at dinner Walter gave me a copy of the script made from the MacDowell Xerox machine. Mark it up, he said. Or put lines down the side where I’m getting things wrong. Then we can talk. Sure, I said.
I had never read a movie script. There was “Ext.” and “Int.” Also “Cut To” and “Back To,” with sometimes “Continuous.” There were numbers running down the page which I took to donate scenes. There were some (but not many in Walter’s script) camera shots. Flush left on the paper were descriptions. Sometimes accounts of what the actors were to do, sometimes of the setting. In between and indented, was the dialogue. I had no idea how I could be of help, but I knew I wanted to.
If you want to see Walter from those days, rent the Woody Allen film Annie Hall. You have to go all the way down the reel (to use Walter’s term from before DVDs) but there he is, standing outside a movie theater with Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, and Sigourney Weaver. Walter is Annie’s date. The script might have read: Scene 47: Ext. Movie Theater. Alvy with unidentified woman; Annie with unidentified man. Gestures. VO (Voice Over):
I did run into Annie again. It was on the upper West side of Manhattan. She had moved back to New York. She was living in Soho with some guy. When I met her, she was dragging him to see “The Sorrow and the Pity”…which I counted as a personal triumph.
As to Walter’s script, at first I found myself so mesmerized by the form that I didn’t read it with care the way Walter wanted me to: But yes, there was confusion about horses, sometimes they were horses, then they were stallions, then they were mares (when in fact they were probably all geldings). I had to untangle bridles from halters; I had to take horns off cows, and change cows to steers (with or without horns, but I thought unless they were Texas Longhorns for show instead of ranch cattle, they had probably been de-horned.)
Somehow Walter had learned the word hackamore (probably from an East Coast riding friend) and so I had to take the hackamore off all horses and put bridles and bits back in their mouths. I also added lead ropes otherwise Robert Redford and Willy Nelson (in the final version) would be tugging horses (or mares or stallions) along by their halters, unless they were using reins attached to bits and bridles, which in two scenes at least they were not. Saddle blankets were fine. Stirrups as well. Saddle horns, yes. Chaps, ok, but we called them leggings. Spurs, fine. But from I could tell they were never needed. Still, the audience probably needed them. Most of this was description and while I felt comfortable making those changes, when it came to dialogue, I was less sure of myself. However, I did without hesitation make one change: Walter had written a Willy Nelson line as: Tonight I’m going to find myself a little keno girl who can suck a tennis ball through a garden hose. My rewrite (which, as it turned out, did not get me screen work) was: Tonight I’m going to find myself a little keno girl who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. Arthur Laurents, eat your heart out.
“Thanks, Kid, “Walter said at dinner a few days after I had handed back the script. “I guess cowboys don’t play tennis.”
In this way, to paraphrase a bit dialogue from another movie, there began a beautiful friendship. But that was to be further down the reel for the two of us; in the meantime, it was the next week or so that Walter learned he’d been nominated for an Academy Award in screen writing which meant his picture was all over the papers, including New York Times that MacDowell subscribed to, plus various local papers when it was discovered that Walter was in residence at MacDowell.
I remember there was a toast in front of the fireplace one night. Then as well, pats and handshakes and cheek kisses over dinner as folk stopped. Our two person table grew chairs. Walter seemed pleased indeed.
About this time I got my first royalty check and I thought I’d like to share it with Walter by taking him to dinner. There was supposed to be a good place to eat in Keene, not far away: the Red something (Lion?) Inn. It will turn out that it is owned by a former student of mine from the college where I was then teaching. Not only was he the owner, but the chef as well.
“Sure, Kid. Thanks,” said Walter. “But I have friends coming up in a few days, would you mind if they joined us. My treat.” Fine I said, but insisted the bill would be mine. “Then I’ll leave the tip,” he said. “We’ll use my station wagon.” I made a reservation for four in my name.
Why Walter didn’t tell me his two guests were Diane Keaton and Diane Carroll I don’t know, nor did I ask. He might have meant to surprise me, but it didn’t seem that way when we all met in the large hall, Walter saying to the two Dianes, this is Bob Day, he’s helping me with the Steve McQueen script. Bob this is…and… We all shook hands, although Diane Carroll gave me something of a hug and noted that it was about time Walter got the recognition. Then off we went out the door, bundled up in coats and sweaters against the New England January. I wanted to look back to see who was staring after us, but I did not. Grace under pressure. Cut to:
EXT: The Red Lion Inn:
Walter goes through the door first, followed by Diane and Diane. They stand there for a moment until Bob enters: Cut to:
INT: Full Shot: The restaurant is busy. A pretty receptionist asks for a name.
Four for Day.
Close up on Kitchen: A young man looks up from a steaming pot.
Walter Bernstein, Diane Keaton, Diane Carroll, Bob Day
Young Man (VO)
My god, it’s Bob Day
Reaction Shot: (VO): Ad Lib: Audible Amazement. Fade to Close.
Read the entire “Chance Encounters” series here.
Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”