In 1991 I was an undergraduate English-Creative Writing major at UCLA, planning on becoming a great American novelist. It seemed like a real career choice at the time. I had had a sad childhood and was ready to stomp around the world as a cynical romantic, a female Hemingway. I smoked menthol cigarettes, adored Pynchon, went to Lollapalooza, slept in piles of Penguin paperbacks, existed primarily on Diet Coke and mini-donuts, and thought Moby Dick was a laugh riot of a tale.
I was older than my undergraduate peers, having worked my way through community college to get to UCLA, and was supporting myself with a pastiche of financial aid, student loans and work study. That was my situation when I came across an index card on a bulletin board in the career center, offering a paid internship at a talent agency in Beverly Hills.
Having grown up in L.A., I was not in the least star-struck, and the idea of a talent agency conjured up images of self-deluded and desperate lovely young people from Missouri. Nonetheless I really needed a job, so I scheduled an interview.
A bell tinkled on the glass front door when one entered, and a pair of cats blinked askance from atop file cabinets. It was Old School. Old Hollywood Old School.
9169 Sunset Boulevard turned out to be a late art deco storefront right on the eastern edge of Beverly Hills where The Strip begins. It had originally been a furrier’s boutique and featured a small central showroom area with a huge mirror and about six offices and a small conference room radiating out from there. A bell tinkled on the glass front door when one entered, and a pair of cats blinked askance from atop file cabinets. It was Old School. Old Hollywood Old School. And as I paused on the threshold, letting my eyes adjust to the dimness after the glare of the boulevard, I felt I had stumbled in to much more than I’d bargained for.
The office manager, with whom I met, was Irene Heymann. Irene was in her late seventies at that time, and sported a formidable silver-gold up-do and power jewelry, but had a pixie-like twinkle in her eyes. She explained to me that she had been at the agency since its inception in 1938, for many years as Mr. Kohner’s assistant, then after his death (1988), as office manager. Mr. Kohner, I learned, had represented the likes of John Huston, Henry Fonda, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Bronson just to name a few.
I said I was not star-struck, which went for contemporary Hollywood celebrities, but the titans of Old Hollywood’s heyday were another matter. As Irene gave me a matter-of-fact breeze-over of the agency’s long and illustrious history, I tried not to look too wide-eyed and to keep my mouth from dropping agog. I must have managed to look impressed, and I did call Irene “Mrs. Heymann” (“Ms.,” she corrected), while the other young applicants just said “Hey, how’s it goin’?” So I, of course, got the job.
And with it I got a copy of the biography, The Magician of Sunset Blvd., The Improbable Life of Paul Kohner, Hollywood Agent, written by Paul’s younger brother Frederick. According to Frederick, Paul, it turned out, had been quite the player. As a young man in Czecheslovakia, he had introduced himself to a reluctant Carl Laemmle, president of Universal Studios, when the later was taking a treatment at a spa a few hours from the Kohner home. That encounter resulted in Kohner’s apprenticeship and immigration to the USA. At Universal he became a producer, most notably of Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary, and was engaged to Mary Philbin! According to Frederick, the engagement ended when Paul caught her stepping out — however according to a reader of this blog who knew Ms. Philbin, the engagement was called off because her parents disapproved of Paul Kohner based on “religious differences.” [Thank you, James, for setting the record straight.] It was while producing Drácula (Spanish-language version) Paul met the Mexican film star, Lupita Tovar whom he did marry and with whom he lived quite happily ever after. [Their daughter Susan Kohner was also an actress, and her sons Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz are writer-director-actors.]
In addition to Huston, Fonda, Dietrich and Bronson, Kohner’s clients included: Maurice Chevalier, Ingmar Bergman, Liv Ullman, Eva Marie Saint, Vincent Price, Ernest Hemingway (yep), and Lana Turner.
When Laemmle passed him over to head the studio (giving the job to his son instead), the arguably-more-competent Kohner was incensed and left Universal. After a stint at Columbia, he founded his talent agency in 1938. The Paul Kohner Agency was not the first, but was one of the earliest agencies in town. In addition to Huston, Fonda, Dietrich and Bronson, Kohner’s clients included: Maurice Chevalier, Ingmar Bergman, Liv Ullman, Eva Marie Saint, Vincent Price, Ernest Hemingway (yep), and Lana Turner. He had, in fact, been one of the handful of people Turner called when her daughter stabbed Johnny Stampanato, and had taken Ingmar Bergman on the Universal Studios tour (complete with Jaws encounter).
Alas, Paul Kohner died in 1988. When I was hired in December of 1991, the agency partners were Pearl Wexler, Gary Salt, and Robert Schwartz. They were a colorful bunch with clients to match, but the agency was a wee “boutique” agency in the shadow of the mighty CAA and ICM.
I was to shortly to learn that the ghost of Uncle Carl Laemmle haunted the office, perpetually regretting — so they said — having passed Kohner over to run his studio in favor of his son, “Junior Laemmle.” Alas, in the four years I worked there I never encountered Uncle Carl, although I always kept my eyes peeled for him. Can you imagine?!?
I did, however, get one of the biggest startlings of my life thanks to an encounter that occurred on my very first day on the job…
Postscript: Though the Kohner Agency moved out of 9169 Sunset Blvd. (aka The Berman Building) in 1995, it served as the model for a Disney-MGM Studios building.