Robert Wagner on Life, Career and Natalie

Clifton had a very rich deal at the studio, and his house reflected it. It was Victor Fleming's old place, and Clifton had done it in a bright, comfortable style, in the mode of Billy Haines -- the go-to decorator in that era. I remember at one point Clifton did the bar in a Greek style, full of things he brought back from the location of "Boy on a Dolphin." The word was that Clifton earned the same money that Darryl Zanuck earned. He didn't get the stock that Darryl got, but he earned the same money. Clifton had a string of enormous successes. There was "Laura," and "The Razor's Edge," then "Mr. Belvedere" and two sequels, "Cheaper by the Dozen," "Stars and Stripes Forever," and "Titanic" – all big hits.

I was learning that this kind of moviemaking was typical of Darryl; he never had the money that MGM or Paramount did. He couldn't buy stars, he had to make them, and if he didn't have enough stars to make a movie, he had the extraordinary ability to make the movie itself the star. Darryl had the vision to see real possibilities in an effete stage star, and to build very effective vehicles around a personality centering on asperity and waspish intelligence – hardly the stuff of mass audience entertainment then or now, but somehow Darryl and Clifton made it work.

Clifton was very social; he gave wonderful parties, so he had a lot of leverage by dint of his position as well as his commercial cachet. It was Clifton who introduced me to Noel Coward. Noel was playing Las Vegas and Clifton threw a lunch for him. Eventually, everybody else left, and I was alone with Noel. And he said, "Come and sit over here." So I went over and sat down, and he put his hand on my leg.

"Are you by any chance homosexual?" he asked.

"No, I'm not."

And he said, "Ah, what a pity." His hand came off, and that was it. After that, he couldn't have been more of a gentleman, and I always adored him.

************** Living with Barbara, hanging around with a social set that was a generation older, I was very consciously styling myself after an earlier era and in a sense swimming against the tide, which in that era consisted of Marlon Brando and Monty Clift. But my interest in associating with people my age was no more than nominal. I wanted to see the great stars I had watched at the movies up close. I wanted to learn their secrets; I wanted to learn how they did what they did.

One day in New York, I walked into "21" with Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. The restaurant…stopped! It was like a freeze-frame in a movie. Diners froze in mid-bite, waiters froze in the midst of waiting. It was as potent a demonstration of the power of great stars as anything I've ever seen.

Clark Gable always liked me because I had caddied for him, and I had been shooting with Gary Cooper and knew his family quite well. I idolized Clark and watched every move he made; Gary I admired for being such a terrific actor, such a wonderful man.

In many ways, they were alike, in other ways they were different. Gable had been born poor, while Cooper was a judge's son from Montana who never dressed in anything but Brooks Brothers. But both of them had a way that suggested they came from the earth. Gable loved to hunt, loved to fish, loved automobiles and beautiful women. So did Coop, but offscreen he always gave the impression of being terribly chic.

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