Martin Litvin, Audacious Pilgrim. The Story of Meyer Levin. Woodston KS: Western Books, 1999. Paper. 233 pp. $10.00.

Available from Zephyr Publishing, P.O. Box 1, Galesburg, IL 61402. $12.50 postpaid.

reviewed by William L. Urban

It is easy to write a biography about a likable person, or about a despicable one. The difficulty comes with a talented but flawed individual, and it becomes even more awkward in dealing with a novelist, whose literary products are so temptingly ready to be used as autobiographical materials.

Meyer Levin is one of those persons, once relatively famous, well-known still in the world of film and belle lettre, but a blank in the mind of the general public today. It was to correct this that Martin Litvin, an author best known for Galesburg local-color novels, has collected materials from Levin's widow and written this labor of love.

It is important to know that Litvin was suffering severe health problems during the writing of this biography, because the style is uneven, even awkward. It is challenging enough to adapt one's natural story-telling style to serious biography without worrying about what scholars would say about the distractions caused by putting footnote material into the text and the occasional unnecessary editorial comment. Between failing eyesight and hospital stays, Litvin was never sure that he would see this work to its conclusion. Hopefully, readers will be understanding, and even generous regarding his deviations from traditional literary-historical conventions.

Meyer Levin is certainly an interesting figure. Not necessarily a likable one, but never dull. Born in 1905 into a poor but respectable Jewish family that was escaping from its Jewishness into the middle class sufficiently to send its only son to the University of Chicago, they acquiesced when he chose to become a writer rather than pursue a more obviously profitable career. However, Meyer Levin found that liberation from one's cultural past was not as easy as the American dream might suggest. He bedded gentile girls by the score and ultimately married one. But he was not happily wed until late in life, when he married a much younger Jewish girl, Tereska, who provided Litvin with much of his material.

Levin was attracted to show business from his youth, when he produced puppet shows for Chicago audiences. This provided one of Litvin's most significant insights into Levin's personality - the desire to manipulate others, the drive to have total control of every production. This required the puppet-master to give total concentration to his product, ignoring every distraction, neglecting other responsibilities. The spoiled Jewish boy with demanding parents grew up to be charming, bossy, creative and self-destructive. In short, all the traditional ingredients for a successful writer.

Success came early to him. Though his early achievements were not particularly exceptional, they were sufficient to permit him to travel through Europe to Palestine in 1925, then find employment upon his return to Chicago. They were not enough, however, to sustain him in comfort through the Great Depression, and by the 1930s he was ready to settle down with his first wife, Mable Schamp, a graduate student from rural Texas who was studying chemistry at the University of Chicago. She was also a recent widow, a chain smoker and a heavy drinker. Her life story fit Levin's almost to the last detail, only differing in that his love had not died -- she had merely married a student.

Levin was a member of America's Lost Generation. He had lived in Paris, he knew Ernest Hemingway, his personal life was a mess out of which he pulled the material for his stories. He had written The New Bridge, Citizens and The Old Bunch, progressive novels about immigrant life in Chicago, the struggle and suffering of common people against obstacles of every kind. All had sold fairly well in the Jewish community and The Old Bunch had attracted wider notice. He was one of Esquire's first writers, assigned movie reviews just as talkies were coming in. This was to prove greatly useful in his future careers, one of which was as the writer/director of movies and documentaries. He was a newspaper correspondent, first in the Spanish Civil War, more significantly in France and Germany in 1944-1945.

His marriage began to come apart in Spain. When he found his services as a reporter were not needed, he went on to Palestine, then under a British mandate, where a handful of Jews were attempted to learn how to be farmers. Mable was left behind, working as a medical assistant in a Republican military hospital, exposed to every danger and to many attractive men. She was a brilliant person, but her sexual drive was on Levin's own extraordinary scale, and being pregnant seemed but a minor distraction. Her letters to Levin are one of the high points of the book, eclipsed only by Levin's own adventures in a jeep, roving ahead of American forces in France and Germany to seek out the first glimpses into the Nazi Holocaust. His reputation as a writer had earned him an appointment as a war correspondent in the Normandy invasion, but his unwillingness to follow official procedures resulted in his being returned to London; he then parlayed his recent battlefield experience into an assignment as a civilian correspondent covering the Allied push into the disintegrating Third Reich. He later wrote In Search about these extraordinary experiences.

Levin had been aware of anti-Semitism. He had undergone the usual ethnic taunts in the Chicago public schools. One summer early in his first marriage he had been asked to withdraw from the nudist camp where he had been writing a novel; Jews were not welcome, not even when the wife was an attractive gentile. So much for the liberating effect of not wearing clothing! Prejudice was apparently not limited to social conservatives.

But nothing had prepared him, or anyone else, for the Nazi murder-machine. Nor had anything prepared him for the Allied disinterest in the fate of the surviving Jews, especially the British unwillingness to offend Arab sensibilities by enabling refugees to settle in Palestine. He quickly sensed the lack of interest his employers and, ultimately, the reading and movie-going public had in stories about emaciated elderly Jews in anonymous pin-striped prison garb. As an artist, he understood that the story had to be told differently than as documentary or news. It had to have a personal ''hook.'' That is how he encountered the story of Anne Frank.

The diary of the young Dutch Jewess was Levin's obsession for the rest of his life. It brought him into conflict with his second wife (Mable was herself well on the way into insanity and suicide), his employers, with Otto Frank (in a sensational lawsuit that Levin won) over the stage and movie production. All this frightened his second wife, who was too young, despite her being a war widow, and too French to understand what was happening. The ''Jewmania'' that had caused him to risk his life to seek out concentration camp survivors would now cause him to fly into fierce rages, enter into furious quarrels with literary giants, and alienate his closest friends; even his son came to dislike him so much as to change his name. What the reader is to make of this behavior by a middle-aged writer is unclear, though one might well believe that anyone who really hated Lillian Hellman could not be all that bad.

His literary production was now in full gear. He wrote for the best magazines, his novels were accepted eagerly: The Stronghold (the rescue of Nazi prisoners held in a Bavarian castle), My Father's House and The Illegals (about Jews in Palestine/Israel), Compulsion (the Leopold-Loeb case), The Obsession, Gore and Igor (a contemporary, comedic look at the Sixties), The Settlers and The Harvest (Jewish settlers in Israel). He had the money to travel, to live in exotic locations, to meet other famous writers. But he was too driven to enjoy his success, even to enjoy his friends. He had become a ''dybbuk'', a possessed man, determined to prove that his ''unstageworthy'' play about Anne Frank was superior to the saccharin Broadway/Hollywood version of her life. In Anne's/Meyer's words: ''Maybe the whole world will learn, influenced by the good which is in us, and perhaps it is for that reason that the Jews must suffer now.''

Levin's play was produced by the Israeli army and might have attracted a significant following if he had not called a press conference in which he denounced his myriad enemies. The Israeli army could defeat Arab legions, but not American lawyers. The play was closed and he was forbidden to resurrect it. Alcohol intensified his tendency to depression. When he died in Jerusalem in 1981, public recognition was his, but his most precious dream and his private life were shambles. The Holocaust had taken yet one more victim.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online November 24, 1999

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