- My Saga of the Newly Discovered Estate of Erich von Stroheim
According to Erich von Stroheim's first biographer, Peter Noble, the famed director was born in Vienna in 1885 as Erich Oswald Hans Carl Marie Stroheim von Nordenwald, the son of Colonel Frederick von Nordenwald of the Sixth Regiment of the Royal Dragoons of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while his mother was a lady-in-waiting to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the wife of Emperor Franz Josef I.1 A few years later, Thomas Quinn Curtiss, von Sroheim's second biographer, repeated the story, only this time his mother was the sister of Franz Josef's Imperial Counsellor, Emil Bondy, while Erich attended elite Austrian officer academies.2 Thus, one generation of film historian after another repeated many the legends Erich von Stroheim had himself created, in order to cover his modest beginnings as the son of a Jewish hat maker and shopkeeper, Benno Stroheim, and his Prague-born Jewish mother, Johanna Bondy. Just when Erich Stroheim came to the United States and transformed himself into Austrian royalty was a matter of speculation.3 Getting at the truth proved to be elusive indeed because of a lack of surviving documents. All that changed in 1999.
This report explains how I discovered the personal documents of Erich von Stroheim and how they were placed on deposit at the Margaret Herrick Library. My goal is to describe the process from the original discovery of the estate in various parts of the world to how this project of recovery was fully realized, thus giving film historians and scholars access to material about the life and working practice of Eric von Stroheim that had, until now, been unknown. Finally I will discuss some of the ethical issues involved in my quest and my hopes for future academic research.
In 1999, I produced a reconstruction of Erich von Stroheim's 1924 classic Greed. It was during that time that I became friends with Erich von Stroheim's son, Josef von Stroheim. Josef shared with me many memories of his father and introduced me to Mary Alice von Stroheim, the widow of his half brother, Erich von Stroheim Jr. Mary Alice then told me about Jacqueline Keener, whose sister, Denise Vernac, was Erich von Stroheim's living companion in Paris the last years of his life. It was on their estate outside Paris where much of Erich von Stroheim's personal belongings remained, hidden for decades after his death in 1957. Not until my visit to Jacqueline Keener in 2000 did this material once again surface.
Going through the estate collection of Erich von Stroheim, I realized that I had the privilege of seeing what no other film historian had. I was amazed by the quantity and quality of this important historical material, and I couldn't believe that it existed in such a complete form. I also realized that, sooner or later, this material had to be placed in a public institution, which would make it accessible to those interested in the career of Erich von Stroheim. After returning to Los Angeles, I met with officials from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Thus, it came about that fourteen boxes, containing more than three thousand photographs and hundreds of rare documents, eventually found their way to the Margaret Herrick Library. What can now be discovered at the Herrick is the most comprehensive collection of von Stroheim material in existence; a traveling exhibition detailing [End Page 101] the life and work of Erich von Stroheim has also been on tour. This report serves as an introduction to origins of this wonderfully rich material.
This epic saga started when I was producing the reconstruction of Greed (1924) for Turner Classic Movies in the spring of 1999. During that time, I was informed by my consulting editor Carol Littleton that I should probably contact Joseph von Stroheim, who was a retired sound editor and resided in the San Fernando Valley. I was surprised, because I didn't know any of Erich von Stroheim's children were alive. I was of course looking for any missing links I could find...