The American journalist Lillian Ross spent decades at The New Yorker. Early on, she mastered the magazine’s Talk of the Town featurettes, and soon became best known for her extraordinary profiles, such as her Portrait of Hemingway, which brought her immediate and lasting fame outside the bounds of The New Yorker’s readership.
Hot on the heels of her Ernest Hemingway profile, Ross went to Hollywood where she was granted unprecedented access to the conception, production, editing, and release of a major motion picture, John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage. The resulting articles—later compiled into Picture, now a classic work of American non-fiction—exposed the studio’s disastrous mishandling of the movie, which Huston had hoped would be his greatest work. In print irregularly over the years, Picture has just been reissued by NYRB classics with a new introduction by Anjelica Huston, and Metrograph will screen The Red Badge of Courage this weekend.
In 2017, when Lillian Ross passed away at the age of 99, remembrances came in from all over the world, and we are able to share one in particular. The director Wes Anderson, a close friend of Ross’, lives in Paris and was unable to attend her memorial. However, he went to the Montmartre Cemetery, where he recorded a poignant message to his late friend with his iPhone. Here is the transcription of that short video, which Metrograph will screen as part of our celebration of Lillian Ross, Picture, and The Red Badge of Courage.
Lillian, as you know, wrote about people she was interested in and curious about, and because she was so interesting herself, they were often interested in her in return. Often, her articles and Talk pieces led to lifelong friendships. That’s how I, myself, met her, and we became great friends, although I didn’t see as much of her as I wish I had in recent years, once I started living over here, which is in France.
Anyway, because I’m here, I thought my contribution today might be to mention one of those important friendships, which I can show you over here.
[Anderson turns the camera to show the final resting place of French director François Truffaut.]
She wrote about him regularly over the years at various intervals, and I thought I’d read a little passage from one of the pieces that she wrote.
She first interviewed him in 1960, when he made The 400 Blows, when he was first in America. She asked him about how he felt about what he had accomplished over the years. And he said the thing that struck him most was all the people that died.
He described: “I started to correspond with Henri-Pierre Roché, the author of the book Jules et Jim on which I based my film. But I kept delaying making the film. Roché kept sending me letter telling me it was a very urgent matter to make the film. I sent him a picture of Jeanne Moreau, and wrote to him that I thought she should be the girl in the film, and he said, ‘Bring her to me quickly.’ But he died before I could meet her. And I’m angry with myself that I didn’t make the film during his lifetime. One often feels guilty toward the dead, if only because they perhaps sent a letter to which you didn’t reply.”
I miss Lillian because of her personality and her work. But I will keep re-reading it. Thank you.