Carol Matthau | The Daily Mail Weekend magazine | September 2001
At 77, Carol Matthau has the voice of a baby, the cleavage of a teenager, the platinum bouffant of a Marilyn Monroe and lungs tough enough to breakfast on a pack of cigarettes. ‘I didn’t think I would want to go on living after my darling Walter died,’ she says, ‘but here I am. I seem to have made it. Although some days I wonder.’
A year on from Walter Matthau’s death in July 2000, Carol grieved once again when his beloved friend and co-star Jack Lemmon also passed away. The pair had acted together in three of the greatest comedy movies of all time: The Odd Couple, The Front Pageand The Fortune Cookie.‘They made eight movies together and they loved each other,’ says Carol. ‘They hung out together at each other’s houses, laughing and talking long into the night. Walter and I had such great, great times with Jack and his wife Felicia.’
In her 41 years married to Walter — he of the rubber face and the perfectly timed one-liners — she was so devoted to him she would never think of disobeying his wishes. But she is now considering a minor act of rebellion. ‘I’m thinking of having a face lift,’ she says. ‘I didn’t dare when Walter was alive since he never saw the need for it. The problem is, whenever I consult a surgeon, they tell me there is no excess to pull up.’
She has not long risen from her bed, having just relocated to New York from the Los Angeles mansion she shared with Walter until he died. These days women like Carol Matthau are as rare as swing bands, delicious throwbacks to a time when passion was everything, when nights were marked by champagne-fuelled parties and happiness with the right man was the only serious ambition worth having. We’re not talking bad-girl decadence here, either. Carol supported the two children of her first marriage with a successful stage career, before going on to write two books. The Secret Is In
The Daisiesand Among The Porcupines.
These were wonderful and fascinating memoirs of a life among friends as diverse as Karen (Out Of Africa) Blixen, theatre critic Ken Tynan (he proposed), Greta Garbo (‘she never wore underwear, and sat with her legs open’), Woody Allen (‘so shy he makes everyone feel uncomfortable’) and Cary Grant (‘he was always careful with money’).
Someone once asked Carol if she knew anyone who wasn’t famous. After a moment’s pause she admitted: ‘Actually no, I don’t.’ She is clearly delighted to be back on the East Coast. She and her close friends, Oona O’Neill and Gloria Vanderbilt, once ruled New York as the It girls of the 1940s. This trio, dark-lipped, long glossy hair waved over one eye Veronica Lake-style, danced their way through club land, breaking hearts, starring in gossip columns, pursued by powerful men. Three girls with the world at their feet.
Carol’s beauty and her dry-as-vermouth one-liners were the inspiration for Holly Golightly, the immortal heroine of the novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, written by her pal, Truman Capote. Gossipy sets of reminiscences are her forte, as Truman knew. ‘Darling,’ he said to her before beginning Breakfast at Tiffany’s, ‘you and I are going to have to spend every night together for the next few months.’
Recalling those nights, she adds: ‘I think Truman wanted to climb inside my head, to understand how girls thought, their dreams and their reactions to whatever life threw at them.’ The girls in question were, of course, society beauties like herself, Oona and Gloria. Oona, daughter of the troubled playwright Eugene O’Neill, wife of Charlie Chaplin, was her closest girlfriend. ‘She was one of the most brilliant people I knew, born with a broken heart because her father didn’t want her. Then she found Charlie, who treated her like a princess.’
Oona, who was 18 when she married 54-year-old Charlie, died in 1991. But Gloria, America’s legendary poor little rich girl, lives on after two tragedies — the death of the only one of her four husbands she actually loved and, a few years ago, the tragic death of one of her four sons, who fell from an apartment window.
Carol’s first marriage, aged 16, to writer William Saroyan, sounds like a claustrophobic nightmare. ‘He was the worst person I knew in my entire life. So jealous and possessive, I could barely breathe. Was I glad to get him out of the way.’ So why did you marry him again? ‘Because I’m dumb,’ she laughs. ‘Because we had two children and he swore he would change. You should never expect a man to change. They can’t.’
The beginning of real happiness came when she met the struggling actor Walter Matthau, the grand passion of her life, who had to wait until his 40s before he found fame and wealth. Never a conventional Hollywood star. Timemagazine once said of him: ‘He’s about as likely a candidate for stardom as the neighbourhood delicatessen man.’ But the combination of his lugubrious features, a wondrous sense of timing and an ability to deliver lacerating put-downs in the style of W.C. Fields turned Matthau into one of the most sought-after and highly paid actors. Apart from his films with Jack Lemmon, his other memorable works included The Sunshine Boys, A New Leafand
California Suite, ensuring Matthau’s place as one of Hollywood’s greats.
Asked to compare her two husbands, Carol says simply: ‘Saroyan was full of hate while Walter was full of love and understanding. From Saroyan I learned about one thing: fear. From Walter, I learned about dignity and love. Saroyan would pull the floor from under you when you were least suspecting it, pretending to love everyone. Then, when he closed the door and it was just the two of you, his hatred would just seep out.’
Her mother, Rosheen Marcus, enjoyed a life that sounds like a template for Cinderella. Thrown on to the street at 16 and finding herself pregnant with Carol, she earned a pittance working in a hat factory. Carol spent her first eight years boarded out in a series of bleak foster homes. Then along came the moment of magic that transformed the lives of mother and daughter for ever.
Rosheen went on a blind date with the great aviation pioneer Charles Marcus who, with Vincent Bendix, founded the mighty Bendix Corporation. Hey presto, he fell in love with the factory girl and married her. Carol was whisked from bleak Dickensian squalor to the glittering world of Fifth Avenue, to an 18-room apartment staffed by butlers, chefs and maids. ‘Of course my mother married him for his money,’ says Carol. ‘I once asked him why he married her and he said: “Because of you darling. So you wouldn’t have to go back to another foster home.” He made my life, but 1 think I ruined his. Poor Daddy, the marriage didn’t bring him happiness.’
No one rescued Walter from the tenement in New York’s Lower East Side, where he grew up with his impoverished mother amid thousands of other Eastern European immigrants. His escape route was his acting talent.
Walter and Carol met in 1955 when they were both playing in the Broadway run of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He was talented, funny and told some great jokes, but he was also married with two children, while Carol was in the throes of extricating herself from Saroyan for the second time.
One of Walter’s first questions to Carol was a typical Matthau shocker: ‘Have you ever had an orgasm?’ Stunned because she hadn’t ever experienced one, and deeply embarrassed, wondering if this loss showed, she snapped back: ‘How could I have? We’ve never been to bed together.’
It was the beginning of the great romance. ‘We didn’t have $200 between us when we married and, although there didn’t seem to be a lot of work, we were deeply happy. However, Walter was in terrible debt from gambling and so we lived on borrowed money from a usurer.’ Did she ever ask him to stop? ‘No, I never asked him to give up because I wanted him to be happy. Anyway, I like reckless men and money doesn’t make you happy, it’s merely a convenience.
‘When I told Truman I was marrying Walter he said to me, “Darling, you have so many rich beaux, why are you doing this? Go to bed with Walter and marry someone rich.” But I couldn’t sleep with someone I didn’t care about, and once I’d gone to bed with Walter I never wanted to leave it. Just like that — I fell totally, deeply, insanely in love with him.’
He was equally ecstatic about her. When asked what Carol meant to him, he replied: ‘From the moment I started seeing her I started to live. In fact, I was taken out of the abyss of primordial slime and transferred on to a carpet of beauty, intelligence and spiritual generosity.’
Despite a lack of money, Walter asked Carol to give up the stage.
‘He didn’t want me to act, and there was never any resentment on my part since I hated it. I only acted because I had to support my two children as Saroyan refused to help me and I don’t believe in alimony. So I modelled during the day, worked in the theatre in the evening and wrote when I got home. Not for publication, I wouldn’t have dreamed of showing my journals to anyone, but in order to bring clarity to my world. Truman always encouraged me to write.
He once said he couldn’t wait for my letters.’
But how will she cope without Walter? Although she has spent just one night in the hotel suite where we meet, photographs of Walter are already on display. Lifting down the nearest one, she stares at it for a long moment, then sighs with longing. ‘Nothing can ever prepare you for the death of a great love. Even now I’m not ready to say that he’s gone. I loved him passionately from the beginning until the end.
‘Without Walter, I’m half a person. We were so happy together and never had to struggle to make our marriage work. We slept together every night, scissor-shaped, and whoever woke first would rise, prepare breakfast, bring it back to bed on a tray, fill the house with Mozart, then climb back into bed again. Of course I’m talking about sex. Yes, always, every night and morning until the end, almost. I loved going to bed with Walter.
‘Even in hospital I’d climb in beside him and we’d whisper to each other. He got sick a lot over the past four years, although he fought very hard to stay alive. On his last night I jumped into the big hospital bed I had brought home and he whispered, “I never thought I’d get a girl like you”, then he died.’
Without Walter she saw no point in staying on in LA. ‘I’d always loathed it and so did Walter. He didn’t get sucked into Hollywood. He used to say: “We’ll come here for ten years, take the money and run.’” She looks out of the window and recalls early times with him.
‘We led such different New York lives. When I went to live with him on the West Side, I told him I’d only driven through there on my way to Europe. I have many close friends like Gloria here, and I can write, now that I have this unending sense of time and space. It wasn’t possible to do so when Walter was alive and I owe my publisher Random House another two books.’
Is she planning any more memoirs? ‘Well I’m certainly not going to do some awful Hollywood wives’ book. One will be on ageing and the other is to be called, The Myth Of Children, because children don’t give you a life, which is why so many women nowadays choose not to have them.’
Reminded of how some years ago she spoke of her two children by Saroyan as the ‘worst two people I have ever known’, she shrugs, saying: ‘Old differences. All resolved.’ She describes Charlie, her son with Walter, as ‘an incredible person, kind, gentle, strong and a deeply talented film maker’.
Yet for a woman for whom marriage meant a full-time career, for whom love was the only goal worth working towards, she remains, despite her protests, fascinating, complete, not at all the accessory wife such a life might have created.
‘Thank you,’ she replies with the kind of demure smile she might have wowed men with during her heyday. ‘Maybe that’s because Walter is still in the room with me. Right now, he is over there. Right next to his side of the bed.’