Ear­li­er this week, David Evanier shared what he learned about Woody Allen while writ­ing an unof­fi­cial biog­ra­phy of the come­di­an and direc­tor. He is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Here’s the kind of dis­cov­ery that biog­ra­phers love: Woody Allen’s boy­hood pal Jer­ry Epstein, now a psy­chi­a­trist and author, told me that Woody’s birth­day is not real­ly Decem­ber 1; it is Novem­ber 30. But Woody want­ed to be Num­ber One,” Epstein said.

Allen was nev­er tempt­ed to sell out or to try to out­do him­self, and he did­n’t care to ingra­ti­ate him­self with the main­stream. Right from the begin­ning he had total artis­tic con­trol of his work. And he has always walked away from what became stale for him. He walked away from standup com­e­dy, from TV writ­ing, from talk show, game shows, night­clubs, con­cert halls, vari­ety shows and main­stream success. 

So we are talk­ing about enor­mous inner strength and self-belief. He was uncer­tain in his per­son­al life, but he was not shy or uncer­tain about his art. He is the most iden­ti­fi­able, brazen, and forth­right Jew­ish artist in the world, insis­tent­ly remind­ing his view­ers about the Holo­caust in many of his films. Jew­ish Hol­ly­wood, with many of its moguls refugees from Hitler, had been reluc­tant to place Jew­ish actors in lead­ing roles. Mau­rice Schwartz of the Yid­dish Art The­ater was cast as the Native Amer­i­can Geron­i­mo; John Garfield and Paul Muni played Ital­ians. But times were chang­ing, with the ascen­den­cy of comics Mort Sahl, Lennie Bruce, Shel­ley Bergman, and Nichols and May. By 1967 films with Jew­ish con­tent and Jew­ish stars had emerged in The Grad­u­ate (Dustin Hoff­man); Sid­ney Lumet’s The Pawn­bro­ker, Lumet’s com­e­dy, Bye Bye Braver­man, star­ring a new Jew­ish lead­ing man, George Segal; Mel Brook­s’s The Pro­duc­ers, and many more, cul­mi­nat­ing with Bar­bra Streisand in 1973 in The Way We Were. Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow, heads of Unit­ed Artists, gave Allen a blank check and he returned the favor by giv­ing the com­pa­ny enor­mous pres­tige and high­ly suc­cess­ful films. 

But the Holo­caust was nev­er far from Allen’s mind. Since the Holo­caust was such an immense event in my life,” he wrote me, it could­n’t help but wind up as a spo­radic or even fre­quent issue in my work. There are cer­tain crimes that are sim­ply unforgivable.”

I final­ly vis­it­ed Allen at his cozy, very lived-in, dark-hued office with its rust and brown couch­es. He greet­ed me warm­ly. I found inno­cence, curios­i­ty, inten­si­ty, total respon­sive­ness, and deep emo­tion in him. He was near­ly eighty, yet he had the youth­ful­ness of the com­mit­ted artist who can­not wait to get back to his work.

We talked about Israel, about anti­semitism (includ­ing its masked per­mu­ta­tion, anti-Zion­ism) and about the Holo­caust. It can hap­pen in a minute,” he said. He talked of Lucy Daw­id­ow­icz’s The War Against the Jews, of Vic­tor Klem­per­er’s diaries of life in Nazi Ger­many, of Michael Thomas, a resister to Nazism he’d known, of Rossellini’s Il Gen­erale Del­la Rovere. We talked about our par­al­lel his­to­ries: the thrilling dou­ble bills of clas­sics at the orig­i­nal Thalia The­ater, of Brook­lyn, type­writ­ers and the inter­net — How can kids watch Cit­i­zen Kane on that tiny screen?” — and about the Laff Movie on 42nd Street that played Chap­lin, Lau­rel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton 24 hours a day, and, next door to it, the Horn and Hardart Automat. (I men­tioned the mashed pota­toes and creamed spinach. What about the baked mac­a­roni?” he asked. My father had tak­en me to both places, as Woody’s father had tak­en him.) We talked about the decline of night­clubs, how they had their curi­ous moments — such as John Car­ra­dine read­ing Shake­speare at the Blue Angel night­club — and he spoke with admi­ra­tion of Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, and night­club impre­sario Max Gor­don, who gave him an ear­ly break at the Blue Angel.

I asked him what was his great­est joy in life. His face became radi­ant. My mar­riage to Soon-Yi. And my chil­dren.” I gave him a copy of my nov­el, The Great Kiss­er, and he said he would take it with him to read on the plane to Cannes. He did, and wrote me about it with­in a week. 

All the time we thought he was a neu­rot­ic mess, Woody Allen was play­ing the ulti­mate mag­ic trick on us. Bro­ken, needy, an imprac­ti­cal dream­er, a schlemiel on-screen, in life he was the artist who kept going, was nev­er destroyed, who got it all.

David Evanier was the found­ing edi­tor of the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Event and the for­mer fic­tion edi­tor of The Paris Review. Now pub­lish­ing his eighth book, he has received the Aga Khan Fic­tion Prize and the McGin­nis-Ritchie Short Fic­tion Award.

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