by Maura Spiegel
Acclaimed as the ultimate New York movie director, Sidney Lumet began his astonishing directing career with the now classic 12 Angry Men, followed by such landmark films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. In this excerpt from the highly-entertaining biography, Sidney Lumet: A Life, Maura Spiegel discusses Lumet’s war experience and its lasting impact on him.
GI Jew: Eating Ham for Uncle Sam
In outline, Sidney’s war years were not so bad. He was well trained in a highly technical field, and he was assigned to teach at a secret military camp in Florida before being deployed to northern India. He never saw combat. But his wartime experiences left their scars. Nothing in his hard upbringing prepared him for the brutality and moral injuries of the army. A central theme in his work in later years would be the brutality of men—often in uniform—in their institutionalized treatment of one another.
Sidney didn’t like to talk about his nearly six years in the military. His daughter Jenny reflected that she had never heard him talk about any of it; nor had his first wife, Rita Gam, whom he married not long after returning from the war. Unaware of his nightmares, she thought that his time in the service had “passed through him, like everything else.” It’s a conventional truth that men of his generation kept silent or shared their memories only among themselves; Sidney kept no friendships from his nearly five years in the Army Signal Corps. Even with friends who had also served overseas, like Walter Bernstein, for example, no stories were shared. It was only toward the end of his life that he shared a few stories, and all of them were dark. In his unpublished memoir he gave voice to some of the pain he’d carried through the decades.
Early in those pages Sidney contemplates his fascination with the numbers 7, 2, and 1. “It occurred to me, one day, that I had enlisted in the Army at 17 and gotten out at 21.” He reflects: “The Army. The source of a recurring dream for over 40 years.” The dreams varied as to specific circumstances, but they always followed a single pattern: “I’d be notified I had to report for duty by midnight of a certain date. My protest was always the same, changing only by the length of time the dream had been recurring: ‘I’ve served already.’ ‘I’m over 40.’ ‘I’m past 50.’ ‘I’m over 60. It can’t happen to me.’ But there I’d be—midnight approaching, and reporting for duty. And I would awaken, tears on my cheek, the pillow also wet, and a deep blue day ahead of me.”
It wasn’t the war but the army that Sidney found crushing, a cauldron of brutality, bigotry, and boneheadedness. What could be further from the world of sensitive and idealistic artists and intellectuals he’d left behind? Just prior to enlisting he’d been taking courses in French literature at Columbia’s extension school. Like so many, he’d signed up with a full heart. The army taught him technical skills he would value throughout his career, but it tore the idealism and youthful zeal out of him, and he suffered a disappointment in himself—perhaps even, for a time, a loss of self.
His life thus far had been one of extremes—poverty and stardom, misery at home and camaraderie and nourishment in the theater—but nothing had prepared him for boot camp. If Sidney’s artistic milieu had been devoted to aesthetic cultivation, self-expression, idealistic political views, collaboration and esprit de corps, boot camp was its perfect antipode. Sidney writes about reporting for duty in December 1942:
A group of us had been driven by bus to a camp in Red Bank, New Jersey. It was one of those cold December nights when your knuckles hurt if they brush against anything. We arrived close to midnight to face an infuriated staff sergeant. We were the last group in that day and had kept him and the Quartermaster people from getting off early. He kept thrusting his head in front of each of us and screaming, “Fuckhead! Faggot!” He stopped in front of me, his head thrust forward, as if he were literally going to bite my head off. “What kind of fucking start is that—showing up at ten to twelve!” I put on my most conciliatory smile. “Well, Sergeant, it’s close to the holidays—I wanted to spend time with my family.” “Spend time with this, you faggot cocksucker” he said, grabbing his crotch. “What holiday? You’re a Hebe.”
Although it was—and still is—routine for new recruits to be met with taunts and insults, an initiation to military authority, Sidney could not help taking it personally. He was again a vulnerable child, without safe haven; his charm and intelligence could mitigate nothing.
He understood the rationale behind the mindless, repetitive drills, and why everyone had to look the same and sleep in identical beds. He probably also understood the intentionally demeaning aspects of boot camp, but he found them harder to tolerate. He writes in his memoir about his mystification that the toilets had no stalls, no dividers separating one from the next. Its purpose, he concluded, was “to destroy any sense that you’re an individual.” For Sidney, this strategic degradation tore at his self-worth. Even more frightening to him was that, as he writes in his memoir, the army encouraged “mob mentality.”
As his description of his arrival at Fort Monmouth—the origin of his decades of nightmares—continues, it grows more dreamlike, written in the present tense:
We’re herded into a line and marched out. Rain and sleet have begun to fall. My foot slips off the duckboard walkway as we head for another building. Water is oozing into my civilian shoes. The cold rain hits my neck and runs down my back. We enter a hut. Two privates and a corporal are behind a long counter. They throw each of us two blankets and a pillow as we pass. Out into the night again and we are walking toward a barrack. This time there are not duckboards and my feet are sinking into the cold wet mud. I stumble up three steps and into the warmth of a barrack. Twenty upper and lower cots run down each side of the room. The heat is welcome but the smell is awful; coal gives off a sweet acrid odor unlike anything else. Now it’s mixed in with the smell of wet wool, farts and unwashed bodies. Most of the bunks are occupied by earlier new arrivals. Two 25-watt bulbs at either end of the barrack provide the only light. I stumble into a lower, shaking now with cold. I kick off my shoes, throw my wet coat over my feet and wrap myself in one blanket, covering myself with the other. A muddy shoe lands on my cot as someone heaves himself onto the upper. I’m exhausted. Just before I fall asleep I think, “Is this how I’m going to fight fascism?”
He concludes the story of his first night in the army, “I wanted to enlist in the Army. And yet the first night filled me with a sweating dread that stayed with me for decades. The next morning I was awakened by wet drops on my arm. It was blood. The guy in the bunk above me had slit his wrists during the night.” He writes nothing further about the soldier who slit his wrists, whether he lived or died.
MAURA SPIEGEL is a born and bred New Yorker, and has been teaching literature and film at Columbia University for over two decades. She is co-director of the Division of Narrative Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she teaches film to first year medical students. She has published articles on many subjects including the history of the emotions, Charles Dickens, Victorian fashion and film, and diamonds in the movies.