THE HOUSE WHERE WODEHOUSE LIVED

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In January of 1959 we went to live in London.

Our flat was on Dunraven Street, number 17, just behind Park Lane and Hyde Park beyond, green nd lovely even in winter, up near Marble Arch and Speakers' Corner. The flat was an entire floor through of a grand old row house, two bedrooms and high ceilings for $125 month ($145 including rates). Time magazine, as the wisecrack later went, hadn't yet discovered London.

I've been back to see that house many times since and in recent years they've put up one of those little blue & white Wedgwood-y sort of historical plaques on the facade, announcing that P.G. Wodehouse lived there. I don't know whether Mr. Wodehouse lived at number 17 before us or after us but he certainly wasn't there when we were.

Our star neighbor was Sandy Mackendrick.

The first floor, the ground floor as the Brits have it, was the pied-a-terre of our house peer. He was the Viscount Massereene and Ferrard. He had a place out in the country somewhere, which I imagined to be a stately home like the one where Sebastian's family lived in the television version of "Brideshead." We rarely saw the Viscount but occasionally he would be quoted in The Times on some matter of which he'd spoken in the House of Lords.

The next floor was occupied by a lady who did things high up at the American embassy in nearby Grosvenor Square. She was very pleasant. Then we had our floor. Above us, the Mackendricks. The top floor, a sort of garret, was inhabited by several young doctors, interns or residents at one of the famous London hospitals. They gave occasional, and noisy, parties and there were always pretty girls passing on the stair who were en route to or from the flat where the doctors entertained.

I sometimes wonder which of those flats Mr. Wodehouse rented. But this isn't about the man who created "Jeeves"; it's about one of the best movie directors of our time.

Alexander Mackendrick died at year's end in California where he lived with his wife Hilary. He was 81. The New York Times did a major obit and I was delighted to see in the Jan. 31 issue of The New Yorker a fine piece in the cinema department by Anthony Lane. Sandy deserved all that. And more.

My wife met them first. I guess she and Hilary, who was a smashing redhead, met on the stair. In any event, we were on occasion invited up for drinks when the Mackendricks were entertaining. One evening Robert Mitchum was there, big and amiable, kneading large hands together as he sat on the couch. Irene Papas, the great Greek dramatic actress, Kenneth More, it was that sort of crowd. Once on the steps my wife encountered Jack Lemmon. No "B" list for Mackendricks.

By then, I knew who Sandy was. He'd made two of my all-time favorite films, "The Man in the White Suit," starring Alec Guinness, and "The Sweet Smell of Success," maybe the greatest film in which Burt Lancaster ever worked, and surely Tony Curtis' finest role. Mackendrick also directed Guinness in "The Ladykillers, " with Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom. His first movie was "Whiskey Galore!" released in America as "Tight Little Island," and he made a wonderful, largely overlooked flick called "A High Wind in Jamaica."

I can't recall I ever had a serious discussion of movies with Sandy; perhaps I was too awed. I kept hearing Joan Greenwood's husky voice in "White Suit" or seeing Lancaster sipping coffee at 21 and taking notes for his next day's column in "Sweet Smell." And what could a young newspaper correspondent possibly have to say to a man who directed such giants?

Mackendrick didn't write "Sweet Smell," of course; that was Odets, from a story by Ernest Lehman. And as Mr. Lane reminds us in his fine New Yorker tribute, it was James Wong Howe behind the camera. But it was Sandy who put these prodigious talents together and came up with the quintessential tale of Broadway and newspaper cynicism and the amoral flack feeding off the scraps and crumbs.

There was something gutsy about making "Sweet Smell" in 1957. Winchell was still alive, still powerful, and as always, vicious and vengeful. He had his column, he had his microphone, and here very obviously was a cinematic act of defiance. J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster) was Winchell, a brilliant, talented columnist and prime son of a bitch. As for Tony Curtis, a ragout of ambition, greed, fear and shallow craft: if you've ever written a gossip column, you recognize Sidney Falco in Curtis' body language alone. Curtis once left a phone message for me as from "Sidney Falco" in Los Angeles. I got back to him within minutes, totally confusing his secretary.

I've interviewed Tony and Lancaster and even Martin Milner, who played the juvenile, and years later they were all still talking about "Sweet Smell" as one of those career-defining movies after which actors lust.

As for Sandy, oddly enough, he was born in Boston, of Scottish parents, who came to their senses when he was 6 and returned to Scotland. Anthony Lane tells us he went to art school and then on to London where he worked on advertising design for J. Walter Thompson. During the war Sandy did propaganda films.

We moved from Dunraven Street late in 1960 and spent the next four years in Paris, never again seeing the Mackendricks. He worked once more with Lancaster, Mr. Lane reports, being sacked after two weeks as director of Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple," which starred Burt, who was also the producer. "We hadn't the time or the money for him (Sandy). That's the truth."

After that Mackendrick stopped making movies and became dean of film at a California art institute. And that's where he died, a Scot in California.

In the obits it was clear he and Hilary were still married and they had two sons, grown now, of course. That was nice to read, too. If they are anything like their old man, they'll be OK. And I'm glad he and Hilary stayed together, unlike so many showbiz couples. I think of them that way now, the gorgeous redhead and the lean, talented maker of movies, the folks upstairs, with Jack Lemmon and Mitchum and Kenneth More on the stairs, in between the dollies headed up to party with the doctors, and past the Viscount's door below, in a house where Wodehouse lived.

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