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Mike Nichols: A Life

Mike Nichols: A Life

by Mark Harris


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A National Book Critics Circle finalist One of People's top 10 books of 2021 An instant New York Times bestseller • Named a best book of the year by NPR and Time

A magnificent biography of one of the most protean creative forces in American entertainment history, a life of dazzling highs and vertiginous plungessome of the worst largely unknown until nowby the acclaimed author of Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back

Mike Nichols burst onto the scene as a wunderkind: while still in his twenties, he was half of a hit improv duo with Elaine May that was the talk of the country. Next he directed four consecutive hit plays, won back-to-back Tonys, ushered in a new era of Hollywood moviemaking with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and followed it with The Graduate, which won him an Oscar and became the third-highest-grossing movie ever. At thirty-five, he lived in a three-story Central Park West penthouse, drove a Rolls-Royce, collected Arabian horses, and counted Jacqueline Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Avedon as friends.

Where he arrived is even more astonishing given where he had begun: born Igor Peschkowsky to a Jewish couple in Berlin in 1931, he was sent along with his younger brother to America on a ship in 1939. The young immigrant boy caught very few breaks. He was bullied and ostracized--an allergic reaction had rendered him permanently hairless--and his father died when he was just twelve, leaving his mother alone and overwhelmed.

The gulf between these two sets of facts explains a great deal about Nichols's transformation from lonely outsider to the center of more than one cultural universe--the acute powers of observation that first made him famous; the nourishment he drew from his creative partnerships, most enduringly with May; his unquenchable drive; his hunger for security and status; and the depressions and self-medications that brought him to terrible lows. It would take decades for him to come to grips with his demons. In an incomparable portrait that follows Nichols from Berlin to New York to Chicago to Hollywood, Mark Harris explores, with brilliantly vivid detail and insight, the life, work, struggle, and passion of an artist and man in constant motion. Among the 250 people Harris interviewed: Elaine May, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Tom Hanks, Candice Bergen, Emma Thompson, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Lorne Michaels, and Gloria Steinem.

Mark Harris gives an intimate and evenhanded accounting of success and failure alike; the portrait is not always flattering, but its ultimate impact is to present the full story of one of the most richly interesting, complicated, and consequential figures the worlds of theater and motion pictures have ever seen. It is a triumph of the biographer's art.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399562266
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/01/2022
Pages: 688
Sales rank: 81,246
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which was a New York Times notable book of the year, and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. A graduate of Yale University, Harris lives in New York City with his husband, Tony Kushner.

Read an Excerpt


Starting from Zero



In the origin story that Mike Nichols liked to tell, he was born at the age of seven. The first image of himself he chose to conjure for people was that of a boy on a boat, holding his younger brother's hand, traveling from Germany to America. They were unaccompanied on that six-day crossing in 1939, their ailing mother still bedbound in Berlin. Their father was already in New York. His two small sons had not seen him for almost a year.


Nichols was not yet real even to himself. His name was Michael Igor Peschkowsky, or perhaps it wasn't. Decades later, his brother, Robert, looking into his family's history, told him that according to the ship's manifest and the petition for naturalization that was later filed by his father, his name was actually Igor Michael Peschkowsky. Igor. A horror-movie name. Nichols looked at him impassively. "Maybe," he said. "Maybe it was." It didn't matter. Whatever his name when he boarded ship, it was gone by the time he got to New York.


Nichols turned the transatlantic crossing into a story-his first self-revelation-as-anecdote, an approach that he would eventually refine into a shield and a disguise, but also into a style of directing, a means of conveying an idea or a feeling or a circumstance to an actor that he deployed with precision and finesse over a five-decade career in movies and theater. He first tried it out on journalists in his twenties, when suddenly everyone wanted to know who Mike Nichols was and where on earth he had come from. The story he told, droll and wry, with a slight undertow of despair, was that at seven he was packed onto the boat knowing only two sentences in what would become his new language: "I do not speak English" and "Please do not kiss me." In some tellings, he spoke no English at all and instead wore those two warnings on a penciled sign that was pinned to his clothes before boarding. It was this picture-the New Yorker cartoon version of his early life, with a punch line that hinted at both utter solitude and defiant standoffishness-that Nichols used to explain his personality to others, and to himself: a portrait of the artist as the Little Prince, alone on his planet and at home nowhere.


If the boy who had existed for seven years before that journey usually went undiscussed in interviews, it was in part because Nichols's life before America was so hazy to him that he could retrieve little of it until adulthood. His childhood in Berlin-his years as either Michael or Igor-barely existed in his memory. As a youngster, he attended the Private JŸdische Waldschule Kaliski, an elementary school that, during Hitler's rise, became a Jews-only institution. Nichols's father, a doctor named Pavel Peschkowsky, was a Russian Jew, albeit so secular that he didn't even believe in circumcision. His mother, Brigitte Landauer, was a German Jew, wholly invested in and proud of her national heritage and also indifferent to her religion. Within their cultural circle, Paul and Brigitte were not atypical-as Lotte Kaliski, who founded the school Nichols attended, put it, "We all had to learn to become Jewish. Most of us came from very assimilated families and so did the children. But we understood that in order to give children a more positive attitude, they had to know something about their background."


Whatever that education was to be, Michael-or, as Elaine May later teasingly called him, "little Igor"-was not in the school long enough to absorb it. His memories of the Kaliski school were few, and mostly miserable. He recalled a group of German children in black shirts stealing his bicycle. And, more vividly, he could picture "with awful clarity a scene with my gym teacher and my mother, and realizing they were lovers. She was a beautiful woman, and I remember her quarreling with him, and he ripped a necklace off her and threw it out a window, and she went running after it." As an adult, Nichols spoke as if that moment were still raw, admitting, "I suppose I've spent a large part of my life trying to sort that out." But at other times, he pushed the door shut. "A Jew in Nazi Germany, parents always fighting," he would say, as detached as if he were musing about a stranger. "Aren't all childhoods bad?"


His ancestry-the "family legend," as he called it-was dramatic, filled with art and politics, wealth, loss, privation, and bloodshed. When he left Berlin as a little boy, he knew hardly any of it. His mother and his aunt had given him and Robert the good part-he was a cousin of Albert Einstein, no less, and thus had a famous relative already in America, a story he became so certain was prideful apocrypha that he was astonished when it turned out to be true. But they left out virtually everything else. He knew that his father was now a two-time emigrant; as a young anti-Bolshevik supporter of Alexander Kerensky, he had fled Russia, crossing the Gobi Desert into Manchuria and eventually resettling in Germany. But not until Nichols was almost eighty did he learn that a fortune in gold had helped Pavel Peschkowsky start his new life. "Jews with goldmines!" he marveled when, during a guest appearance on a TV genealogy show, he first heard the truth. One of his great-grandfathers, Grigory Distler, had taken possession of what was thought to be a depleted mine on Sakhalin Island and found an immense undiscovered trove of gold, enough to give his daughter Anna and her son-Nichols's father-seventy-five bars. The inheritance enabled their passage out of Russia and allowed Peschkowsky to set up a successful medical practice in Berlin. "I always had this picture of my father somehow working his way up," Nichols said. "They were rich! Who knew? I wish to God I had gotten to know my father better, because I had it all wrong."


His mother, Brigitte, came from unhappier circumstances. Her father, Gustav Landauer, was an intellectual polymath who studied metaphysics and translated Shakespeare into German. He was also a political firebrand, a committed believer in the philosophy of an anarchist, post-governmental agrarian utopia, and an agitator who served jail time for his insurrectionist articles in Der Sozialist. Bearded, oratorically fiery, and six and a half feet tall, he cut a formidable public figure. In 1903 he married Hedwig Lachmann, a poet and translator who adapted Oscar Wilde's Salome into a libretto for Richard Strauss. Landauer was interested in religion as a field of research but had no use for it in his home, nor did his wife, despite being the daughter of a cantor. Brigitte grew up in Hermsdorf, a largely Jewish suburb of Berlin, in a house filled with literature and art. "I played with Jewish children," she recalled, "but we were the only ones who celebrated Christmas and Easter . . . an entirely secular Christmas, with presents, stars, tinsel . . . At school I was the only child who sat alone while the others studied religion and recited their prayers." Lachmann, who demanded near-constant quiet so she could work, and the stern, imposing Landauer were not natural parents. "There wasn't the family 'togetherness' one finds so often today," Brigitte said later. "We met at meals, but otherwise did little together."


What stability she had was shattered in 1918, when her mother became one of the first victims of the flu pandemic and died at fifty-two. Her father had just risen to become commissioner of enlightenment and public instruction during the very brief existence of the socialist Bavarian Soviet Republic, part of an ad hoc leadership cadre set up largely by poets and philosophers. In a matter of weeks, that interregnum fell to the German army, and Landauer became a hunted man. He made arrangements to hide Brigitte and her older sister, Gudula, in the home of friends and went on the run. In April 1919 he wrote, "My beloved children-Some of my friends were or are still imprisoned. But do not worry about me! I am looked after very well in every respect and I will be cautious. My greatest concern is that false rumors will reach and worry you . . . My second concern is that agitated bourgeois and peasants might harass you. I hope not. If it does happen, be wise and prudent . . . Do not forget to take the little bit of money that is in the house, as well as your and your mother's jewelry. I hope to hear from you soon!" Less than three weeks later, Landauer was murdered by members of the paramilitary Freikorps; he was beaten with gun butts and kicked to death, then shot in the head. Brigitte heard the news while riding in a Berlin streetcar. She was twelve.


In 1922, Peschkowsky, then twenty-two, arrived in Berlin, where he finished college, attended medical school, got his doctor's license, and set up a successful practice catering to artists, theater people, and fellow Russian ŽmigrŽs. By then Brigitte was employed as a hospital social worker. They married in 1930. Michael, their first son, was born a little more than a year later, on November 6, 1931. A second son, Robert, was born in 1935.


A photograph of Michael gazing at his newborn younger brother shows a little boy with a full head of wavy dark brown hair. Soon after that, he was given an injection of whooping cough vaccine and, he was told, suffered an allergic reaction that resulted in a complete and lifelong inability to grow hair. He would grow up bald. It was, says his brother, "the defining aspect of his childhood."


At the beginning of Hitler's rise to power, Nichols's father did not think of leaving Germany, as many Jews did. But by 1938 it had become apparent that all Jews-even the wealthy, even the secular, even those who, like Brigitte, felt German to their core-were in grave danger, and he began planning an escape for his family. "One thing that I'm sure hastened his [departure]," Robert Nichols says, "was that . . . Jews could no longer see any [non-Jewish] patients. They could function as practical nurses or orderlies, but otherwise, they could not practice at all as of mid-1938." Returning to Russia, where two of Peschkowsky's uncles had just been put to death for counterrevolutionary activities, was not an option. Instead, he would leave for New York immediately; his mother, Anna Distler-Michael and Robert's only living grandparent-would soon flee Berlin to return to Manchuria. Brigitte and the boys would join Pavel in America as soon as he had found work and a place for them to live. Under German law at that time, he and his family were considered Russian, not German-because he came from Russia, the boys were never technically German citizens, and were therefore somewhat freer to travel. He secured the necessary papers and left Germany that August.


Upon arriving in New York, he got work as an X-ray technician for a local union. By the beginning of 1939, he had passed the state medical boards and was ready to set up a practice under the new name he had chosen-Paul Nichols, a nod to his late father, Nikolai, who had also been a physician. (Paul's patronymic was Nikolayevich.) "By the time I spelled Peschkowsky," he joked to his sons, "my patient was in the hospital." He was ready to have his wife and children join him, but back in Berlin, a medical issue had arisen: Brigitte had been diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, a life-threatening condition in which blood clots can travel to the lungs. At that time, extended bed rest was wrongly considered to be an effective treatment. She was sent to a convalescent hospital. Michael and Robert would have to make the journey alone. Their aunt Gudula, who had been taking care of them in their mother's absence, sewed 15 marks-about $40-into the lining of their clothes and took them to the embarkation point of the SS Bremen, a luxury ocean liner, for the trip, where she placed them in the care of a steward. Their father would retrieve them at the other end. They set sail on April 28, 1939.


In later years, Nichols would speak of his "unbelievable, undeserved, life-shaming luck" in being able to emigrate. Brigitte had a distant cousin in Connecticut-not Einstein, but someone who was willing to sponsor the family, a financial guarantee without which the United States was refusing the entry of most Jews from Europe. He and his brother left on the Bremen just two weeks before the ill-fated departure of another ship, the St. Louis, that came to be known as the "voyage of the damned," in which hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich for Cuba were denied entry at one international port after another; many of them were returned to Germany and eventually killed in the Holocaust. "I remember everything about getting on the boat," Nichols said. "We were on the gangplank when everything stopped because of Hitler's speech . . . They had loudspeakers on every corner . . . I remember the sound but not the content."


But it was not, he took pains to say, a moment of fear. Nichols thought of himself as an immigrant but not as a survivor. He would reach his fifties having spent "years, decades, when I didn't think about it" before coming to realize how deeply a sense that "this is all borrowed time" resided within him. As a child, he saw the boat trip as an adventure. "I remember when we got to the end of the gangplank I jumped as hard as I could because I wanted to see the boat go up and down," he said. And the voyage itself wasn't scary. At seven, he was a self-contained, unsmiling child who had not seen his father for eight months and had gotten used to a mother who "was ill . . . and would be ill for much of the rest of her life." The only thing that could rattle him was the emotional display that the sight of a bald little uncared-for refugee boy holding a three-year-old's hand was likely to engender among adults. "Please do not kiss me" was an essential directive because "if you were alone people tended to kiss you," he said. "And I hated it."


During those few days, the boys had the run of much of the ship. There was a nursery with stuffed animals, and a nanny on staff to keep an eye on them during mealtimes and pack them off to their stateroom if they misbehaved. There were adults who found amusement in the beaky young boy with the serious demeanor. "I remember looking for the prow of the boat, or was it the bow?" Nichols said. "I remember asking a fellow passenger, in German, where was the tip? . . . He pointed to the tip of my nose. And I said, 'No, no, no, don't kid around!'" And there were movies, including the first one he ever saw, a dubbed German version of the 1938 Clark Gable-Spencer Tracy adventure Test Pilot-"test pee-lote," he said, sounding out the words on the screen. "That and another movie . . . I think it must have been Gunga Din. Because the army they were fighting was often shown in close-up, I thought they were fighting giants. I remember that I hadn't grasped perspective yet."

Table of Contents

Part 1 What it was Really Like

1 Starting from Zero (1931-1944) 3

2 Agent X-9 (1944-1952) 20

3 A Sense of Your Possibilities (1952-1955) 36

4 The First Thing We Ever did Together (1955-1957) 50

5 This Boy and Girl (1957-1959) 69

6 A New and Very Strange Experience (1959-1960) 88

7 The Most Important People (1960-1962) 103

8 Playing the Role of a Father (1962-1963) 120

9 Okay, that's Great, Now Let's Try this (1963-1964) 137

10 The Funniest Distance Between Two Points (1964-1965) 155

11 I Want to Know this Place (1965-1966) 170

12 One Considerable Intelligence (1966-1967) 188

13 Prove You Belong Here (1967) 205

14 It's Beginning to Make Sense (1967-1968) 220

15 The Only Way to Live Your Life (1968-1969) 238

16 Cold to the Touch and Brilliant to the Eye (1969-1971) 255

17 Dolphins are Smarter than Human Beings (1971-1973) 273

18 Mr. Success (1973-1975) 290

Part 2 What Happened Next

19 Everything Goes on the Line (1975-1977) 311

20 The Rapture of My Depth (1977-1980) 329

21 Reunions (1980-1981) 342

22 Am I Doing this Right? (1981-1982) 358

23 Oh, this is Trouble (1983-1985) 372

24 A Shot Across the Bow (1985-1986) 391

25 Borrowed Time (1986-1987) 408

26 Pinocchio and Cinderella (1987-1988) 421

27 Still Here (1988-1990) 434

28 It Never Goes Away (1990-1993) 452

29 The Best Route to Revenge (1993-1996) 470

30 Something Scary (1996-1999) 488

31 The Ultimate Test (2000-2001) 507

32 More Life (2001-2003) 523

33 Big Isn't True (2003-2005) 537

34 Good Night, Stars (2005-2009) 553

35 Way Out there in the Blue (2010-2014) 572

Epilogue 591

Acknowledgments 595

Notes 601

Bibliography 647

Works Mike Nichols 651

Image Credits 653

Index 655

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