Martha Levinson, the American relative, doesn’t get much mention in the final episode of Downton Abbey. There’s a telegram: “I am sorry that I could not be with you. Although we pray for those at peril on the sea, I am too old to be one of them.” Lord Grantham replies: “In a way, I’m sorry she’s not here.” Her daughter, Lady Grantham quips: “In a way, but not in every way.” Of course, the intrusion of the brash loud-mouthed American isn’t always welcome, but isn’t made to feel unwelcome thanks to the nuances of wit. The center of Downton Abbey is English manners, not American ones.
Just as a mental exercise, I began to wonder: how old would Adolf Loos be in comparison to the characters on Downton Abbey? Turns out, utilizing the detective work of the Downton fans out there, that he would have been just a bit younger that Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham. Robert was born in 1866, Adolf Loos in 1870. The newspaper articles I’ve been reading were written by a man in his late 20s, an Austrian who had lived in America for about three years, from 1893-1896. Curious about his life history, I finally looked into his biography.
Wikipedia references these bits from a book review by Thomas Muirhead, reviewing Adolf Loos: Works & Projects by Ralf Bock:
Bock provides harrowing details of Loos’ tortured existence. Born in 1870, his stonemason father died when he was only nine. A rebellious, disorientated boy, he failed in various attempts to get through architecture school. Contracting syphilis in the brothels of Vienna, by 21 he was sterile, and in 1893 his mother disowned him.
He went to America and for three years did odd jobs in New York, somehow finding himself in that process which, alas, Bock fails to explain. By his return to Vienna in 1896, he was “an autodidact who had neither completed a degree nor possessed any other apprenticeship training”, yet who had somehow become a man of taste and intellectual refinement.
He immediately entered a brilliant Viennese intelligentsia that included Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Karl Kraus, quickly establishing himself as the favourite architect of Vienna’s cultured bourgeoisie.
Diagnosed with cancer in 1918, his stomach, appendix and part of his intestine were removed, and by the time he was 50, he was almost completely deaf. Then in 1928, he was disgraced by a paedophilia scandal, and at his death in 1933, at the age of 63, he was penniless.
The paedophilia scandal is particularly disturbing, apparently the girls were 8-10 years old, and during the trial Loos was suffering from dementia. So, as the line goes, I’m interested in Adolf Loos, but not in every way.
Lately, I’ve rekindled my interest in Billy Wilder. Learning more about Austria, oddly enough, has provoked it. Revisiting The Apartment (1960) after so many years, I find the depth of the satire amazing. I didn’t realize until now that he was Austrian. Following the “what age would they be, relatively?” game Billy Wilder would be about four years younger than Lady Rose Aldridge, who returned from New York for the finale of Downton Abbey.
Wilder offers a gentle critique of America, embracing it but with reservations, similar to Adolf Loos. His appraisal of our customs is far more nuanced than I’d really given him credit for. Watching the extras for The Apartment revealed that the concept of the film came from an odd question of morals. Joan Bennett, wife of producer William Wanger, was involved in a scandal, which On Sunset Boulevard summarizes in this fashion:
In 1951, producer Walter Wanger discovered that his wife, Joan Bennett, was having an affair with the agent Jennings Lang. Their encounters were brief and frequent. When Lang and Bennett weren’t meeting clandestinely at vacation spots like New Orleans and the West Indies, they were back in L.A. enjoying weekday quickies at a Beverly Hills apartment otherwise occupied by one of Lang’s underlings at the agency. When Wanger found proof of the affair, he did what any crazed cuckold would do: he shot Lang in the balls.
It wasn’t the murder that caught Billy Wilder’s attention, but the question: “what sort of guy allows other people to use his apartment for immoral purposes?” Casting Jack Lemmon as a sort of “everyman” in the corporate machine, pressed into compromising his morals down the slippery slope, was genius. Ramping up from the runaway success of Some Like it Hot, The Apartment isn’t simply a comedy or drama— it falls somewhere in between: it’s complicated, much like life.
The beauty of an outsider, particularly from an outsider from another country, asking the difficult questions about what makes us “civilized” is an abiding interest for me just now. Lemmon’s character, Calvin Clifford (C. C.) “Bud” Baxter, is likeable, but morally flawed, as is the female lead, Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine.
There is much to be said about The Apartment, as satire of mid-century American capitalist morality, but I fear this is stretching out too long.
Perhaps it’s best to leave this with the words of Martha Levinson, as conceived by Julian Fellowes and played by Shirley MacLaine, from season 4 episode 9 of Downton Abbey, addressed to Violet, the dowager countess played by Maggie Smith:
You see, I have no wish to be a Great Lady.
No, a decision that must be reinforced whenever you look in the glass.
Violet, I don’t mind looking in the mirror, because what I see is a woman who’s not afraid of the future. My world is coming nearer and your world? It’s slipping further and further away. Goodnight.