Albert Johnson (pictured below) was responsible for my two most enduring memories of Cannes. Early one evening at the Carlton bar, he waived me over to the table he shared with a handsome young fellow and two gray-haired gentlemen, who turned out to be none other than William Wyler, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors, and his brother and business partner Robert. Two years earlier, I had been present at Albert’s six-hour tribute to Wyler at the San Francisco Film Festival. “Ben-Hur” had knocked me out when I was ten and, through my teens, I had seen nearly all of the double Oscar-winner’s films. Once at university, it had come to the point where—auteurist dictates be damned—I wrote a long analytical paper about his career for a film class. At that time, there was no director whose work I knew better, so I could not have been more thrilled at the introduction.
I sat with them a while and, as it was clear we were all getting along, Albert proposed dinner, an invitation the Wylers happily accepted; they were on vacation, just passing through, had no plans. Willy, as Robert and Albert called him, although I wouldn’t dare, was 67, vibrant, humorous, a twinkle in his eye and a pleasant Alsatian lilt to his German accent, but hard of hearing, a consequence of his bombing expeditions over Germany during World War II. In 1968, he had enjoyed a huge success—his biggest since “Ben-Hur”– with “Funny Girl,” but his attempt at contemporary racial relevance, “The Liberation of L.B. Jones,” had been a sluggish disappointment on its release just two months before Cannes. That night, however, none of us could have guessed that his career was over.
We strolled down the Croisette to Albert’s favorite seafood restaurant along the port, where we proceeded to have a four-hour repast. I must have been insufferable as I peppered the great veteran with a hundred questions about his career. But he was affable the entire evening, coiffing white wine along with the excellent fish while expressing bemused uncertainty about where Hollywood was headed at that strange moment. At one point, when I brought up his drama “The Collector,” for which his new British stars Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar had won prizes in Cannes five years earlier, Robert launched into a tirade, one he must have issued a thousand times before: “Villy, I told you, you should haff done ‘The Sound of Music!’ You vould haff made a fortune! ‘The Collector,’ it was depressing, it didn’t do anything. My boy, did you know Villy was supposed to direct ‘The Sound of Music?’ “ “But I couldn’t stand the show, it was a bunch of sugar-coated junk,” his brother wearily replied. “Can you believe it?” Robert persisted. “Villy let it go and Robert Wise made millions off it! It played for years!” The director just shrugged, Albert laughed and laughed, and his handsome companion didn’t utter a word the entire evening. He may not have even known who our dinner guests were.
As wonderful as the evening was, the other encounter Albert engineered proved far more consequential. On the festival’s final Saturday, I was again over at the Carlton when the omnipresent Albert introduced me to yet another American friend who was just passing through. This one, however, was a beautiful young woman. At least 5’10” with long dark hair, she greatly resembled Ali MacGraw, to the extent that Robert Evans once mistook her for his wife at close range. Her name was Linda Strawn, she’d recently graduated from UCLA and was in the midst of a nine-month European tour organized to a certain extent around film festivals. My kind of woman. We spoke for a couple of hours and toward the end I felt emboldened to invite her on an impromptu trip to Morocco for a few days. She twirled this impertinence around in her head for a moment before declining, prudently no doubt. But we exchanged postcards during the summer and met again when she came through London in November. By the following summer we were together and remained so for six years.
Spending the next week not in North Africa but in cheap, charming hotels in Monte Carlo and other much-imagined spots on the Riviera, I did write about the festival—but for The Stanford Daily, not Rolling Stone. Every year I’ve gone to Cannes subsequently has yielded up something special but, by way of discovery and excitement, there never has been and never will be anything like the first time. Cinema and romance came together there, intensely so, just as I’d always imagined it.