Authors: Gene Wilder
Kiss Me Like a Stranger
“The title came from Gilda Radner, his third wife, and one of the many friends, lovers, and colleagues about whom he writes with striking candor. . . .”
The New York Times
“Wilder tells plenty of entertaining stories about his work with everyone, including Jerome Robbins, Mike Nichols, Mel Brooks, and Zero Mostel . . . [it’s] a reflective and well-written meditation on the life of someone who has more on his mind than the next big part or belly laugh.”
Los Angeles Times
“I always knew Gene Wilder was a remarkable person, but I didn’t realize how remarkable until I read this brave, riveting book.”
“It’s not an autobiography in the usual sense of the word. . . . It’s an honest, affecting look at his life.”
“Gene Wilder is not just a uniquely talented and lovable performer, he’s a gifted memoirist with a story to tell and a writerly commitment to emotional truth. The real delight lies in the prose—tight, funny, and fast as the breeze—and the insights about accident and fate that lodge in your mind long after the smile has left your lips.”
—Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author of
“A wonderful addition to the entertainment memoir Gene pool.”
“A book to cherish. Here is the real Gene . . . irrepressibly funny, wise, warmhearted, and honest. In sharing with us the most intimate details of his extraordinary life on-screen and off, Gene shows all of us how to embrace the unexpected, pursue our passion, and seize joy every day. Give this book to someone you want to kiss.”
—Pat Collins, film critic
KISS ME LIKE A STRANGER: MY SEARCH FOR LOVE AND ART
. Copyright © 2005 by Gene Wilder. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Book design by Jonathan Bennett
Photographs on pages 73, 79, 119, 157, and 171 courtesy of Photofest. All other photographs and memorabilia are from the collection of Gene Wilder. Photograph on page 163 © Steve Schapiro.
“After a While,” pages 218 and 219, courtesy of Veronica A. Shoffstall.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wilder, Gene, 1935–
Kiss me like a stranger : my search for love and art / Gene Wilder.
ISBN 0-312-33706-X (hc)
ISBN 0-312-33707-8 (pbk)
1. Wilder, Gene, 1935– 2. Motion picture actors and actresses—United States—Biography. I. Title.
First St. Martin’s Griffin Edition: March 2006
1 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
without whom I would be
floating like a cork in the ocean
kiss me like a stranger
Suppose you’re walking out of the Plaza Hotel in New York City on a warm spring day. You breathe in the lovely fresh air as you step outside and walk down the red-carpeted stairs, saying a quick, “Hi, again!” to the uniformed doorman.
You want to go directly across the street to Bergdorf’s Men’s Shop on Fifth Avenue, but the Plaza fountain is directly in your path, with people from all walks of life sitting on the ledge of the fountain, eating sandwiches in what’s left of their lunch hour, talking to their friends from the office, maybe flirting with some new acquaintance and whispering arrangements for a love tryst that night. Perhaps some are taking a short sunbath on this first beautiful day of the year or even sneaking in a quick snooze as they lean
their backs against the famous fountain where Zelda Fitzgerald once jumped in fully clothed.
You can get to the shop on Fifth Avenue by walking around the fountain on the path to your left, or by taking the path to your right. I believe that whichever choice you make
change your life. I’m sure everyone has had these mysterious brushes with irony, perhaps referring to them years later as “almost fate.” Here are a few of mine.
I walked into Marjorie Wallis’s small office on West Seventy-ninth Street. I was very nervous.
“What do I call you?” I asked.
“What do you want to call me?”
“I heard Dr. Steiner call you Margie on the telephone . . . is that all right?”
“Margie it is! Sit down.”
She indicated the plain couch in front of me. There were no pictures on the walls. Margie sat in a comfortable-looking armchair, with an ottoman—which she wasn’t using—resting in front of her. Her face wasn’t warm, but it wasn’t stern, either.
“What seems to be the trouble?” she asked.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at her.
“I want to give all my money away.”
“How much do you have?”
“. . . I owe three hundred dollars.”
She looked at me silently for four or five seconds.
“I see. Well, let’s get to work, and maybe by the time you have some money you’ll be wise enough to know what to do with it. In the meantime tell me about . . .”
And then she asked me a lot of questions. “Your mother was how old? . . . How did you feel when the doctor said that? . . . Have you ever tried to blah, blah, blah?” I took so many long pauses before I answered each question that I thought she might throw me out, but she just sat there, with her feet up on the ottoman now, and waited. When I did start talking again, she made little notes on a small pad that rested on her lap.
What I couldn’t understand was this: why on earth was I thinking about a fifteen-year-old girl named Seema Clark during all my long pauses in between Margie’s questions? Seema kept popping into my head while I was talking about my mother and doctors and heart attacks and my Russian father and masturbation.
I thought Seema was Eurasian when I met her the first time—she certainly didn’t look Jewish—but when we both came out of the synagogue together I realized that she must be Jewish. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was only fifteen, but I had seen a lot of movies and I thought she looked like a very thin, teenage Rita Hayworth. I was her date when Seema had her fifteenth birthday party. There were eight or ten other kids at her house that night, all laughing their heads off at some wisenheimer who was “hypnotizing” one of the girls. I thought he was pretty stupid, but I enjoyed watching the cocky little faker who thought he knew how to hypnotize people because he’d read his uncle’s book on hypnosis.
Seema held my hand while we watched the “hypnotist” go
through his fake talk. I knew she really liked me. She looked so pretty that night, with a pink barrette in her hair and wearing a brand-new yellow angora sweater. Her mother served all of us birthday cake and some delicious coffee. When all the other kids had gone home, Mrs. Clark showed me the coffee can, because I had said how good the coffee tasted—it was A&P’s Eight O’clock Coffee—and then her mother said good night and left Seema and me alone.
We sat on the couch in an almost-dark living room and started kissing. I was shy, but I didn’t want Seema to know how shy I really was, so I put on an act as if I were used to all this kissing in the dark with no one around. I thought that she was probably more experienced than I was and I decided that it was about time for me to feel a girl’s breast. Well, I can’t say, “I decided”—I was just going on what I’d heard from all the other boys my age, especially my cousin Buddy, who was nine months older than me.
It took me about eight minutes to get my hand near the start of Seema’s breast—the hairs of her new angora sweater kept coming off in my fingers, which certainly didn’t help any. After another three or four minutes, I finally put my hand on about one-third of her breast. As soon as I did, she jerked away. My mouth went dry. She looked at me with such disappointment in her eyes and said, “You’re just like all the other boys, aren’t you?” I flushed so hot I thought I’d burst. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t say anything during all the kissing and creeping up the fake angora. Why didn’t she just say, “No,” or, “I don’t want you to do that,” or anything but what she did say? I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t at all like all the other boys, that I thought she would like what I was doing, that I thought she was waiting for me to do it. But I was too embarrassed to say any of those things. I just said, “I’m sorry, Seema,” and then wished her happy birthday and got out of there as fast as I could.