In the late 1970s, my friend Michael Blankfort took me to a UCLA screening of The Juggler, the 1953 Stanley Kramer film shot in Israel. Kirk Douglas stars as Berlin juggler so famous that he is certain that the Nazis will not deport him. He does not grasp their mania. After surviving a concentration camp, he has great difficulty adjusting to life in Israel. Michael was a little nervous as he had not seen the film in 20 years. As the lights rose, he said, “It holds up pretty well.” Michael had adapted the screenplay from his own novel, but had not been allowed to direct it. The McCarthy-era Hollywood monitors confiscated his passport before he could get to Israel.
Michael was a board member at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, where, in 1970, I attended the summer program for college students. A few years later, I looked up his number and called him. Nervous, I rattled off my life story and told him I had written a novel about Syrian Jewry called The Damascus Cover. I asked if he had time to read it. “No,” came his response. Then he said, “But I’ll read it anyway.”
That was Michael; he never turned anyone away. The following afternoon we sat in his office, a single, small, cluttered room, in the Writers and Artists Building in Beverly Hills. He was 65 and I was 23. He had written the screenplays for Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, Adam Had Four Sons with Katherine Hepburn, among many others, and at considerable risk served as a front for the blacklisted Albert Maltz’s, Broken Arrow, the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film which was then nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. The nomination furthered Blankfort’s career and though all monies were paid to Maltz, he became and remained estranged from Blankfort. Michael worked in the studios during the day and at night typed out 14 novels on an old typewriter, among them Behold The Fire, a historical novel about the Jewish NILI spy network that furthered the establishment of Israel. He told me that to continue to write novels was his test of integrity.
A tall, dashing man with a mustache and full head of wavy gray hair, Michael was always ebullient and full of humor. He had a breadth of spirit; there was nothing small or petty about him. He loved people, and he loved art. Michael assembled an incredible collection of young and emerging artists — he had a discerning eye and never paid more than $100 for any work. Paintings covered the walls in his home, the overflow in a large closet. I attended the opening party after he donated his entire collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where his de Kooning, Montauk Highway, remains on display today. After we met, for the next nine years, we had lunch together about every 10 days.
Always lunch — so he could write before and after. His phone rang constantly and there was a different name scribbled every day at 12:45 in his little appointment book. Michael’s lunchdom fell into three tiers. First, there was Walter’s Cafe, for a sandwich while he worked with the writer on his pages; then the dimly lit Swiss Café for better food and social chatter, and, on special occasions, to celebrate a sale, an engagement or the like, there was the elegant LaScala. Michael always picked up the check.
Michael died suddenly. His manuscript in one hand, his garage door opener in the other, standing on his steep driveway he pushed the button and toppled backwards. The day before the accident, Michael came to my Third Annual 30th Birthday Party. This was the first time he visited my house. Two years before, he had forgotten my (first) 30th birthday party (the second was never held) and called the following morning. He had remembered as he went to bed and, upset, had laid awake much of the night. He wanted to apologize and ask if I would forgive him.
I am two years older now than Michael was when I met him. I remember how Michael was aware near the end that his memory was failing. He’d read my pages then call and say, “You better come over right now, before I forget what I have to say.” It was an inspirational self-awareness and a graceful acceptance of human frailty.
At his funeral, the president of the Motion Picture Academy at the time, Fay Kanin, said, “For all of us who were privileged to know him, I suspect that Michael Blankfort’s greatest ‘novel,’ his ultimate work of art — was himself.”