On my second day on the job as a part-time intern at the Paul Kohner Agency , I took the first opportunity to slip into Office Manager, Irene Heyman’s office and express to her how much I adored her old friend, Billy Wilder, who had stopped by looking for her on my first day on the job, which had happened to be her day off.

Irene Heyman
Irene at her desk, office Christmas party, 1993. She would hate this photo, mouth agape, but alas it’s the best one I have.

Irene had been Mr. Kohner’s secretary from the agency’s inception in 1938. (She wasn’t ashamed to use the term “secretary,” but she had functioned as much more than that.) By the time I was hired in December of 1991, she ran the whole office which included five agents, four assistants, a receptionist and me, the intern.* Many of the younger clients, who dealt directly with their agents, probably never said more than two words to her, but to those over 40 or of a certain lineage, she was the heart and soul of the agency. For example, I had the impression Tony Huston looked upon her as kind of an aunt. His father, John, had been Kohner’s first client.

I showed good taste and a respect for history in reserving my fainting for Mr. Wilder.

Irene approved of my adoration of Mr. Wilder. I think she believed it well-placed. After all I could be running about fainting over the younger clientele. Instead I showed good taste and a respect for history in reserving my fainting for Mr. Wilder. She knew also that I was an aspiring writer. Wilder is among the great directors, but he was first and foremost a Writer. (I will say more about Irene in a future post. She was certainly one of the most remarkable, strong, insightful and delightful people I’ve ever known.)

So Irene contrived thereafter to give me opportunities to cross paths with Mr. Wilder. They were few and far between, because Mr. Wilder was retired, and didn’t have much need for his talent agency, with one exception, luckily for me. Director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) was, at the time, in the process of completing a documentary for German television, entitled Billy Wilder, wie haben Sie’s gemacht? (Billy Wilder, how did you do it?). Gary Salt, one of the Kohner Agency partners, was Schlöndorff’s American agent, and as such the Kohner Agency was at the center of all contracts and correspondences pertaining to the film.

Sometime during my first few weeks on the job, Mr. Wilder paid another visit to the office. That time Irene was in, and luckily, so was I.

There was Mr. Wilder, sitting across from her at her desk, the two of them gabbing away in German…

The agency kept me pretty busy filing this and fetching that, but Irene, bless her, suddenly buzzed one of the assistants and had me sent into her office to fax something. There was Mr. Wilder, sitting across from her at her desk, the two of them gabbing away in German, which I did not then understand a whit. I tip-toed along the side of the office, so as not to interrupt, but Irene suddenly gave a grand gesture saying, in English, “Have you met my new assistant, Dawn?”

“Ah, yes. How do you do?” He smiled — I think slyly, because the last time he saw me I was on hands and knees in a pile of 8×10 glossies.

Irene handed me a couple pages and directed me to the fax machine beside her desk. I had already seen her operating the fax herself, so I was confused, but seeing my confusion she too gave me a sly smile, and I realized it was all a pretense so that I could get a glimpse of The Great Man.

Billy Wilder BFI portraitI was punching in the fax number, glancing at Wilder from the corner of my eye, when he stood and said loudly, in English, “Wait a minute, Irene. Let me go to the toilet. You know how it is with old men.” At that point he came around his chair and was thus facing me when he said with a grin, “We have to pee a lot.”

I smiled back, tittering, until he’d shuffled out of the room. “Good God, did Billy Wilder just tell me straight to my face he has to pee a lot?!?” I thought. He already had my number and knew how to unnerve me and get a laugh at the same time. Shrewd, very shrewd.

On Set Some Like It Hot“Take a look at that,” Irene instructed waving me to a large black binder lying open on a side table. I walked over; from five feet away I could already see Marilyn. The binder was full of 8×10 glossies taken behind-the-scenes on Some Like It Hot. They were Wilder’s private photos, Irene told me, and had not ever been on public display. (Since then, I believe many of them were published in Taschen’s book on the film.) I flipped gingerly through the prints, in awe. It was like a photo album of the gods at play on the beaches of Olympus. Everyone in every shot was beautiful, including Wilder. Lots of laughter and gleaming white teeth.

Mr. Wilder came back and peered over my shoulder for just a second, musing, “Marilyn…” Then he headed back to his chair, saying to both Irene and myself something to the effect that she was “a pain in the ass” but worth every bit of the trouble because there was no substitute for Marilyn. He said it in some dryly witty, Wilderesque way, concluding with something like, “So sad. Such a loss.”

…plenty of Americans were constantly asking for the right to write Wilder’s authorized biography, but he always refused.

I think Irene told me, after he’d left, that the photos were for Schlöndorff’s documentary, but I also thought she’d said there was to be a book or biography accompanying that documentary. She made the point of telling me plenty of Americans were constantly asking for the right to write Wilder’s authorized biography, but he always refused, so this German publication was unusual. I could have misunderstood or conflated the documentary with the Taschen book, but that book didn’t come out until 2001. Was it ten years in the making? I can’t say. But I did get a few more minutes of thumbing through those photos before they were Fed-Exed off to Deutschland.

I still cannot believe there was a moment in time when I was one of two people present to hear Mr. Wilder speak about Marilyn while flipping through his personal photos of her. Egods!

*Kohner died in 1988. During my tenure, 1991-1995, the agency was under the partnership of Pearl Wexler, Gary Salt, and Robert Schwartz.)

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