Robert Temple - Author of The Sphinx Mystery

I would like to pay tribute to my friend Biff Hartman (1943-1987), who died so tragically at a young age after establishing herself as a brilliant and sensitive film actress. Elizabeth Hartman was always called by her family and friends ‘Biff’, which arose from a childish inability to pronounce ‘Elizabeth’, whether by Biff herself or by her sister Jan, I no longer recall.

Biff was a uniquely sensitive and gifted actress. She first sprang to the world’s attention in 1965, when her first film A Patch of Blue was released. She won a Golden Globe award for her performance, and was nominated for an Oscar. A Patch of Blue was directed by Guy Green. I never met him, but Biff told me he was a very amusing and congenial fellow, who was deeply sentimental. He needed to be, in order to direct that kind of film, which was the very essence of sentimentality. Biff played a young blind girl who met Sidney Poitier but could not see him. Biff was not only white, she was translucent, a pale thin beauty with red hair. Sidney Poitier is anything but white! The morale of the film was so basic it seems incredible today: blind white girl loves black man because she cannot see that he is black. Hence, colour prejudice is silly, and only exists when we can see the colour of the skin, but if you are blind you cannot see it and there is no prejudice. Well yes, colour prejudice is silly, but the charming fable of that film, so sensitively acted and directed, was far too simplistic. And yet in 1965, in the middle of the Civil Rights movement in America, the film had a huge impact, however simplistic it might be as a story. And it brought Biff to international attention and to what is called in Hollywood ‘stardom’. ‘Stardom’ is what we might call a metaphysical condition, akin to ancient ideas of ‘divinity’ perhaps. But I won’t digress on the ironies of ‘stardom’. We all know about those!

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In any case, none of this ever had any effect on Biff, who was only interested in doing good work as an actress. Like all actresses of the first rank, she had an eerie ability to ‘become’ the character, by a kind of self-hypnosis. No character could possibly be further from Biff’s own introverted personality than the wildly extrovert character of Barbara Darling in the film You’re a Big Boy Now! (1967). And yet, she was completely convincing in that role. I saw that film again recently, and her performance was even scarier than I remembered it since the last time I watched it a few years ago. The idea of Biff being a sadistic predatory girl who eats men for breakfast was one of the most extreme cases of casting against type in cinema history. She was such a quiet and introverted person that it seems incredible to me that she was ever chosen for this role. She did, however, have elements to her character deep down, which could be difficult and combative. But these only came out in her marriage to Gill Dennis. Introverts tend to reveal their difficult natures quietly, in the privacy of their own homes. And in Biff’s case, she was only difficult because of the terrible psychiatric condition from which she suffered for so many years, which I will describe in a moment, and which resulted in her premature death.

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During the spring and early summer of 1966, when Big Boy was being filmed in Manhattan, I spent about six weeks on the set and on location observing the production, as a friend of Biff’s. You can get to know people pretty well in six weeks of intensity such as arises in the making of a film, especially when you yourself have no responsibilities and no work to do, so I got to know most of the people involved with the film very well indeed. The director was a rather goofy fellow named Francis Ford Coppola. He was very amiable, and everybody liked him, but nobody took him seriously or ever imagined that he would ‘make it’ in the film business. He had no control over the crew or the film. The film was a sprawling mess, and it was only saved by the clever editing of Aram Avakian, who was an immensely impressive fellow of great brilliance. The initial cut of the film was such a disaster that I was told the project was effectively handed over to Aram after shooting finished, to see if he could save it. He did as good a job as could be done with the existing footage, which was then released. Aram ‘hyped it’ in typical sixties fashion, with jump cuts and juxtapositions and ‘fun stuff’. Oh well, that was then, and this is now.

Control over the physical chaos on the set and on location was exerted as much as possible by the first assistant director, Larry Sturhahn. Larry was a very amusing fellow with a wry sense of humour, who had ‘seen it all’. I remember one evening going with him to his apartment very late, after some location filming in the Village. Biff had gone home straight to bed in her temporary rented apartment at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street because of her early rising, and her extreme professionalism, which never allowed her to relax while making a film. I brought along with me to Larry’s, and we all had drinks on the way, a glamourous gal I had picked up somehow, a brunette with a bob and who had the hots for movies and movie folk. The three of us sat drinking like fish for ages in Larry’s place, our speech getting more and more blurred. I could see that the gal and Larry were exchanging increasingly eager ‘significant glances’, so I pretended to close my eyes and go to sleep in my chair, to put them out of their misery. As soon as they thought I had really passed out, they leapt up like hares and practically ran into the bedroom, where a great deal of noise and activity ensued, and I let myself out and went back to King Street, where I was staying with my friend Mia Agee, who always gave me my own key.

Another amusing fellow on the film was the boom man, Nat Boxer. He was always good for a laugh, and his specialty was making fun of some of the weaker characters involved in the production, such as Francis. However, as a boom man who worked with sound, he also had a specialty in silence, so that he communicated with his face a great deal, like Buster Keaton.

Oh dear, how mercilessly everyone made fun of Francis! Everybody did it affectionately, but with a sense of profound despair at his utter inability to command respect or confidence. The idea that he could ever make a successful movie was inconceivable to just about everyone then, I believe. This all goes to show how very wrong everybody can be! As soon as he made The Godfather, Francis entered the stratosphere, from which height he has never since descended. I must stress that the only people who never once made fun of Francis were Biff and Aram Avakian, who was determined to save him, and effectively did. I think he was the only one who saw that Francis really had some talent and could go somewhere if he could somehow get a grip on things and be a more forceful personality.



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You're a Big Boy Now was featured in Kine Weekly, May 1967. Click on the cover above to see further pages
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No one ever made fun of Biff. She kept herself to herself, was polite but never chatty, and I seemed to be the only person who knew her, which puzzled all the others, but they never dared to ask me what was going on, as they were too intimidated by her reserve. She spent her time hiding in her dressing room, timid of everyone. But then suddenly she would emerge as the terrifying man-eater whom she played in that film. Putting on her man-eater makeup was so time-consuming! I think she got herself jigged up by watching her face transform in the mirror, and slowly she became that person as her face became that face.

The studio that was used was in the west twenties or thirties somewhere. I don’t know whether it still exists. The sound stage was comfortable and ample, and everybody liked the place. Manhattan is such a delightful place to make movies. When the producer, Phil Feldman, an amiable but worried man, became concerned that the film was looking too weak, he ordered some ‘sexing-up’. Biff groaned with horror, because she was the one who was expected to ‘sex up’. Biff never had a rounded figure, and was rather flat-chested and very thin. In fact, she was perilously like Twiggy. But she was ordered to become even more of a sex bomb than the script already called for. The idea was that more would be made of her job as a dancer in a club, to give the film more zizz. So they put her in a kind of glass kiosk, dressed in her sexy outfit, and raised the kiosk about thirty feet above our heads right to the roof of the sound stage. She had to do suggestive dancing in that dangling cubicle. We were all terrified that she would fall, and so was she. I’m certain it wasn’t really safe. I don’t remember whether Aram may even have directed this inserted scene, but he surely made a lot of it in the editing. It did add some zizz, that is true, and Biff survived, so everything was OK. I remember that Andy Laszlo, the cinematographer, had some trouble shooting this, and was practically at his wits’ end about it. After all, he was not a bird photographer by profession. Andy Laszlo must not be confused with Ernie Laszlo, a much older cinematographer who the year before had shot the amazing and powerful film, Ship of Fools. Of course, they were both Hungarians, but I don’t believe they were related. But then, you never know with Hungarians. They have that wine called Egri Bikaver, which means ‘Bull’s Blood’, and I would definitely say that Bull’s Blood is thicker than water. Andy Laszlo is still alive somewhere, which goes to show the staying-power of Central Europeans. He shot many fine films and was a good fellow.

While all the serious stuff was going on with Biff doing some rather frightening acting, a wild time was had by some. The ‘leading man’ was an extremely pleasant and witty young fellow named Peter Kastner. He was a Canadian, which meant that we all looked upon him as an exotic foreign import. We half-expected him to have a bottle of maple syrup in his pocket. And he would have, if he had thought of it! He was a great practical joker, the sort of person who liked to wind up chattering teeth (which he left all over the sound stage day after day in different spots where people would sit), and he had the infectious sense of fun of a little kid. He and I spent a lot of time exchanging jokes, which became increasingly outrageous, as we realized that we both shared an anarchistic sense of humour and loved the Marx Brothers. He was a really, really nice guy. He was not a typical lead actor, because he was not particularly interesting to look at. He had talent, but as he had ordinary looks and no glamour at all, I wondered what would happen to him. I never had contact with him again after this film, but you can see from that he went on acting for about 18 years and then dropped out, never having become a star or anything of that kind. He could have been a really good comedian, as that was his nature, though I don’t know if he ever tried it. Peter was older than I was, but I thought he was younger, because he behaved like a ten year-old half the time, which was very funny and delightful. In fact, he only needed a little bit of encouragement from someone as anarchistic as myself to set him off. But this did not go down well with the true man–eater on the set, who had fastened herself to him like a limpet, first-time actress Karen Black. Karen was considerably older than both of us, but I don’t think either of us knew it. I certainly didn’t. She looked and behaved like a teenager in high school, and was some terrific sex kitten. Peter was ‘the man of the moment’, so she was in there. Karen was very, very ambitious and determined. She had, and knew she had, an exciting talent, and she also had that mysterious ingredient called ‘compulsive watchability’. When I knew her, I don’t recall noticing her squint particularly, and I think it must have become more pronounced as she got older. Karen, wrapped as she was around Peter like a fox fur, did not want him and me to waste our time cracking jokes and being silly. Of course, she liked a bit of fun and was no killjoy, but I got the impression the fun mostly took place in bed, and was no joke, but was pretty seriously engaged in. Karen struck me as seriously carnal. I recall one day after shooting she literally dragged Peter off to wherever it was he was staying, and he nearly fell over in the street with her pulling at his arm like a tigress. He was about to be devoured. I remember the baffled but delighted half-smile of bewilderment on his face as he submitted to this playful but determined bullying by his mate, who couldn’t wait. Or maybe Karen just wanted a drink, who knows.

There was a genuine glamour boy around, though in a supporting role, and that was Tony Bill. He was already part of the Frank Sinatra set, and was a smoothie and a compulsive girl-hunter. I was on very cordial terms with Tony, and we had many a pleasant chat, because he was completely friendly with everyone and has a gregarious nature. If he ever came on to Biff he certainly didn’t get anywhere, and I suspect she was too skinny for his taste. I’m certain he must have tried something on with Karen, but I believe she must have rebuffed him, as there was no chemistry between them that I ever saw, and she thought he was too unimportant and he thought she was too unimportant, and anyway, she and Peter were in clinches whenever there was a spare moment.

Speaking of clinches and people getting involved, one thing I noticed about Francis was that he was not that kind of director. Francis had about as much interest in getting off with a girl on the set as a hedgehog has in eating a beefsteak. He was serious, not flippant, and he did not strike me as being at all flirtatious. He appeared to be interested only in his work. If anything, he took too little interest in people and was lost in his own dream. But I’m sure he had other things on his mind, as he was struggling so hard, and in danger of sinking.

By far the most intelligent and most interesting person connected with this film was the actor Michael Dunn. Michael was a dwarf, a little less than  four feet high. He had a head which was too large for his tiny body. He and I became good friends during this period. He was intellectually very brilliant, with some gigantic IQ far above the genius range. He was immensely well-read and could talk for hours about numerous deep subjects, and did so. Biff liked Michael very much, and appreciated his special qualities. He thought just as highly of her. That is why their scenes together in the film are so resonant, and work so well. I already knew who Michael was before I met him, because I had seen and been so deeply impressed by the recent film Ship of Fools, which gave Michael his greatest role. You can never forget Ship of Fools once you have seen it. All that intense passion between Oscar Werner and Simone Signoret, really it is a classic of the first rank! I saw it again a year or two ago, and it was just as wonderful as ever. It is one of the great films.

Michael and I discussed Ship of Fools a lot. He was the one who told me all about Ernie Laszlo and how his cinematography had created half the magic of that picture. I have forgotten all the anecdotes about Ship of Fools, unfortunately. It was based on the only novel by Katherine Anne Porter, whose reputation was chiefly that of a short story writer, and she was certainly one of the best America ever produced.

One of the most amazing sights I ever saw was Michael Dunn ‘pulling a bird’, as the saying was in those days. It was one evening in a bar in the Village, I believe in Bleeker Street. In those days, gay men had not yet taken over the Village, and there were still plenty of sexy girls to be seen there. Michael and I were sitting on bar stools having a beer. Michael liked to sit on bar stools because he was high up and it was almost like being of normal height. And then the most amazing thing happened. A very sexy girl, much older than me, but about Michael’s age, who was dressed in a slinky outfit, came onto him. She and Michael went off to his place pretty rapidly. For the duration of the film she was his girlfriend, and perhaps afterwards, I wouldn’t know. (I left America to settle in England a few months later and was unable to keep up with all these friends after that.) She was not only of normal height, she was slightly taller than normal. Michael and I were friendly enough that I could ask him straight about things, because he often frankly discussed his physical abnormality and his situation with me. He told me that a surprising number of girls of normal height were willing to have sex with him, and that a certain type of girl (I don’t think he ever defined that type) found it fascinating. In any case, they got plenty out of it, as whatever Michael did, he did it well. He would give me a mischievous grin from ear to ear whenever this subject came up. I remember discussing Michael’s success with women with Larry Sturhahn and others, and they had all noticed it, and they told me that Michael had a way of fascinating women because he was so brilliant and such a marvellous conversationalist. In fact, Michael was the only person involved with the film with whom Biff was friendly. There was nothing between them, but Biff came out of her shell with Michael and enjoyed talking to him in a deep and meaningful way. A few years later, Michael died, aged only 38. People with his physical condition don’t live to be old, apparently. He knew it was coming. He was cheerful and philosophical in the face of it all. I have to pay tribute to him, a brave and courageous man.

There was a strange, sallow, and rather furtive English fellow hanging about the set all the time, though nobody spoke to him. I already knew I was going to be moving to England, where I had already spent one summer, and so I made an effort to find out who this chap was, and try to be friendly. I had noticed that nobody liked him. He told me that his name was David Benedictus, and that he was a novelist. In fact, he had written the novel upon which the film was based. But he had set the novel in London, and it had been drastically altered for the film to be set in New York instead. Francis was polite to him, but otherwise he was essentially ignored. There was ‘something about David’, and I could never put my finger on it, but Americans avoided him. One problem was that he had rather a higher opinion of himself than others did. People like Larry Sturhahn and Nat Boxer actually complained to me that Benedictus ‘insisted on hanging around’. Such comments seemed rather illogical to me, because I was doing nothing but hanging around myself, and I didn’t even have the excuse of having written the novel. But what they really meant was that they found Benedictus annoying. It is OK to hang around if you fit in, but if you don’t, you should leave. I was aware of the extreme irony of the situation, since I had no logical justification for being there, and he did. And yet I was welcome and he was not. This naturally made him furious. I think what really bothered everybody was that David was rather too insistently wishing to befriend ‘film people’ for his own future advantage, rather than because he really liked them and wanted to be part of the crowd because he enjoyed their company. David never struck me as the kind of person who ‘liked people’ in a natural way just for the sake of it. I was to come across more of David’s wish to know ‘film people’ in England later, when he became very friendly with me suddenly as soon as he realized I knew the film director Fred Zinnemann. It’s just as well I did know Fred Zinnemann, because if I hadn’t, David would never have asked me to the party in London where I met my wife Olivia. But I always like to think it was through being friends with Biff that I really met Olivia, even though they didn’t ever meet each other, since if I hadn’t known Biff, none of it would have happened. And no one would be more pleased today than Biff, if she knew.

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A photo of the main characters in Sidney Lumet’s film, The Group (1966). The girls of ‘the group’ are here shown with their names beside them. Biff is at bottom left. Candice (‘Cappy’) Bergen, who was at university with me, is at
upper right.
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Another photo of the main characters in Sidney Lumet’s film, The Group (1966). In this photo, Biff is in the centre, and once again, Cappy Bergen is at upper right.

  One day I brought onto the set of Big Boy my friend Caroline Glyn. She had never seen a movie being made, and was delighted at my suggestion that I take her along to the studio to see how it all worked. I had known her since the early spring, and she was still in New York. Everybody was delighted to meet Caroline, who was such a fascinating girl that Peter Kastner started to get over-excited talking to her, like a Labrador who smells food in its bowl. I made it plain to everybody that Caroline was a best-selling novelist, teased her about it, she blushed appropriately, and everybody loved her and couldn’t stop asking her questions about herself. I introduced Caroline and Biff to each other, and they got on very well. They only met on the set that day, not otherwise. Each could appreciate that the other was a strange and fascinating girl, and they looked at each other with that friendly shock of recognition that two aliens in spaceships might exchange if they passed on their way between planets. Biff’s fumbling efforts to be friendly and girlie were deeply moving, as she was no socializer.

I was so touched when Biff went out of her way to say favourable and endearing things about me to Caroline, by way of trying to establish a rapport between them, and to help raise Caroline’s opinion of me even higher. Biff was very generous in that way. She would always praise people to others.

Of course, Biff was busy with her work most of the time, and I always tried to distract her as little as possible, and be invisible, because there is nothing worse than somebody hanging around when you are working as an actor or an actress, unless you can totally ignore one another and there is no working attention mis-directed. I think one of the problems with David Benedictus was that he did not know how to judge when to leave people alone and when it was OK to speak to them. He had no previous experience of filming and hence had no sense of the rhythm. I always knew the moment when I had to disappear into the walls, and when I could safely re-emerge. I had learned all that with Karel Reisz.  The trick is to care as much about the film they are making as they do, and be part of the flow. When they get serious and all attention is focused upon the one thing, you get serious and focus upon the one thing too. You cannot have an ego at these times. The film is everything. If you do not know that the film is everything, you will not fit in. When the first assistant director suddenly says in a loud voice: ‘OK now, everybody …’ you had better damn well freeze, shrink and become a non-person, unless you have a job to do, and then you only think of the job. It is all team-work, everything is ‘the group mind’ in film-making, and when the camera rolls, individuals cease to exist, and there is only the team, who all share a single eye, the camera, and a single purpose, the film.

I have a great admiration for teamwork, and since I have necessarily spent most of my life working alone, I wish I had done more of it. My idea of the ‘future life’ is that it is teamwork.

I thought that as she was English and he was English, I ought to introduce Caroline Glyn to David Benedictus, so I did. This caused more of a collision between them than I could have imagined. If Benedictus had been difficult before, now he became his most truculent. He had absolutely no preparation or warning that Caroline was going to show up, or any idea that I knew her. He knew very well who she was, because she was rather famous at that time in England as the most prolific young writer. After all, she had written a best-selling novel at the age of 14 about school life. (By the age of 21 she had published five novels.) She had apparently been the object of Benedictus’s fantasies for some time, as he seems to have envisaged himself as her male counterpart, and when they met it was meant to be the Dream Meeting where they might even join pens or something romantic like that. I thought I was being polite and constructive by leaving them talking alone together for twenty minutes. It sounds as if the film set was just one big social meeting-place. In a strange way it was. I know that sounds odd. Films aren’t usually like that. But even Francis was interested in Caroline. I can’t really explain it, but Big Boy was ‘one of those pictures’. It seemed to be as much about everybody enjoying themselves as about really making a movie, though Phil Feldman didn’t see it that way, as he knew how to sweat, and his position with Seven Arts was on the line. He rarely appeared on the set, however, feeling more at home in the office with the accountants, where he could worry about the numbers and wipe his brow anxiously. It is amazing how rarely producers come onto sets. I am convinced that most of them really have no particular interest in films. It is only the rarity like Alan Pakula who was deeply involved at the creative level, and of course he became a director.

Well, I guess you could call it ‘the Big Boy Party’ that we were all having. I say ‘we’ because I was part of ‘we’. I don’t know how it happened, it just did. Something like this happened with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because I knew everyone on the crew so well, Kubrick had to throw his paranoia overboard and befriend me just to save his face. He never really knew who I was and didn’t dare to ask, over the course of two whole years, even though I used to sit and talk with him in his office about the meaning of life, joke with his secretary, and drink with his gopher. That was the kind of strange fellow he was. But that is another story and another time and place. I seem to have spent a large portion of my life as the invisible participant in and observer of activities performed by other people, as if I were some kind of disembodied entity who was only half here. And that is true, of course. I am a kind of Zelig. It is in my nature.

Well, by the time I returned to Caroline and Benedictus, and one has to remember that all of these things were punctuated by occasional bits of filming separated by infinite delays, they were not getting on at all well. Benedictus was turning purple slowly, as Caroline had obviously told him what she thought of him. Caroline left him abruptly and took me away out of his earshot and started complaining to me about him. She had those flushed cheeks which she only got when really worked up about something, which was not at all often. It was like she looked after cycling for hours in Central Park, when she was a bit puffed. She said Benedictus was insufferably arrogant and objectionable and that he seemed to have held some kind of crazy idea that he and she could come together as the dream literary couple in London, the two youthful toasts of the town, the most talented girl author and the most talented boy author (though he was already no longer a boy, if indeed he had ever been one). She even said that she thought he had seriously fantasized about marrying her. She was absolutely scathing about him. I had never before heard her criticize anyone like this. Her reaction was so violently antipathetic that I was amazed. He was looking the other way, and they did not speak again. I don’t know what he can have said to her, but it caused such fury that it must have been extreme, as Caroline was normally a very tolerant person who looked upon human follies with a philosophical detachment. She rarely lost her cool about anything.

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Biff in the arms of Clint Eastwood, in The Beguiled (1971), a film set during the American Civil War, which was directed by Don Siegel. It was very popular and is still often on television.

When Big Boy was over, Benedictus and I did not even wish each other goodbye, much less arrange to meet in England. He was so resentful of me that he couldn’t even bring himself to look at me anymore. We would never have seen each other again if we had not run into each other in the Strand one evening after I had popped into the Savoy to buy a copy of Variety, which one could do in those days. From that chance meeting in the street, much ensued. But shaggy dog stories can get out of control, and one must draw the line.

I believe it must have been during the filming of Big Boy that I met Gill Dennis. I seem to recall that he visited New York in order to see Biff. I liked him at once, and we got on well, and he never seemed to mind about my strange friendship with the girl he was in love with. Biff and Gill married eventually. He was absolutely devoted to Biff. Biff was always talking about Gill when he was not there. I don’t think she knew any other men apart from Gill and myself, though I did not really qualify as a ‘man’ in my opinion, being only 21. Gill was older than me, but I have no idea how much older. It was understood that my relationship with Biff was purely one of friendship. There was never anything romantic between us, though I acted as a confidante and was as close as one could get to being ‘an intimate’ of someone so isolated and alone as Biff was. Gill seemed grateful for my existence, some kind of genuine friend of hers, as clearly Biff was a source of great worry and concern to him even at that time because she had no other friends. I did not at first appreciate that Biff struggled with deep depressions, which were getting worse. But Gill must have known very well. He didn’t say anything to me. But I think he realized that my being around might force her to interact with somebody and if she could be with somebody, anybody frankly, it might prevent some of the opportunities arising for bouts of depression.

You need to know that Biff was so enchanting, she was like a vision, if you like that kind of girl, that is. There was something other-worldly about her, she was fragile like a delicate and beautiful butterfly which is on the verge of extinction and you want to preserve it because it will never come again. She had a delicate beauty, but it was not her looks that were the main thing. She was so aetherial that she was more spirit than body. I don’t believe she was properly incarnated, and part of her hung out.

When I say that Biff and I had a spiritual bond, that is precisely what I mean. Maybe these days people don’t have spiritual bonds anymore. I don’t see them. Everybody is too busy binge-drinking and copulating with strangers they never see again to think about anything which is not grossly physical and basic. But I can assure you that there are other dimensions of love and friendship, forgotten as they are today. Whether they will ever return, I don’t know. Perhaps, as F. Scott Fitzgerland would say, not ‘this side of Paradise’.

Well, one day it was all over, and everybody went home. I went about my adventures, which were considerable, enough for a novel, and that autumn I moved to England for good. Big Boy was going to open in London, and of course I went to that opening. But the highlight of that event was that Biff came to England. She was in London for several days or a week, during which time she did some publicity. Gill could not come with her, and that meant she was dangerously alone in a foreign city, and subject to depression. It was during this time when, undistracted by making a movie, Biff was able to spend many hours with me. She had a luxurious suite in the Dorchester. It overlooked Park Lane and had a huge sitting room. It was there that we sat for hours, until dusk came on and the dimness of the light outside gathered in the room, adding to an atmosphere of both intimacy and gloom. This was the time when I really came to know her as she needed to become known, as someone struggling against the python of manic depression. She told me that it was so bad that sometimes she would sit alone in a room staring at the floor for three days without eating or sleeping. If you have never known anyone with manic depression, you cannot remotely imagine it. To all who suffer from it, I extend my deepest sympathies, because it is one of the cruellest afflictions on this planet. It is so bad that in order to escape from it, people kill themselves. People with manic depression are all suicide-risks. And Biff was no exception.

At this point it all becomes too painful. It is all very well recounting jolly memories, but what is one supposed to do with the sad ones?

I became convinced that what was happening to Biff was that she was in the grip of recurring, uncontrolled spontaneous auto-hypnosis. She would become practically cataleptic. Of course, in those days I had no knowledge of these phenomena. I only understood them later. I later wrote a whole book about hypnosis and trance phenomena entitled Open to Suggestion. I believe it was about 550 pages long. It came out some years after Biff’s death. It is out of print.

Biff married Gill. Gill experienced hell because of her condition. Finally he could not go on and they parted. Biff jumped off a building and that was how she escaped her affliction. Those few of us who knew her cannot forget her. I used to talk to her sister Jan Shoop in Pittsburgh on the phone about her. It made both of us feel better. I saw Gill in Los Angeles. But that was all very long ago. I am talking like Hemingway, in short clipped sentences. Because there is no other way to talk about these painful things than merely to recite them as a list of events, as if one were writing down the names of the bones in the body as I had to do in biology class at school, all 96 of them (or was it 106?). Somehow, writing down the names of the 96 bones is very detached, and has nothing to do with whose bones they were. This is called ‘distancing yourself from the pain of the reality’. I am guilty of it in this case.

Gill wrote that wonderful film Walk the Line, about Johnny Cash. That is a sad story too, the story of Johnny Cash.

When you’ve known somebody like Biff and she’s gone, you don’t forget. She jumped off the building, but she remains in my heart.



(On June 27, 1968, I wrote this little prose poem to Biff:)

In your fabulous red utterances of silence and silver, I speak to you of your unmoving movement, of your lonely way through life, and of your solemn silence. I wish to tell you of your miraculous solitude. For there is gold in autumn leaves stirred on the pavement of a park, and among the rhododendrons glistens the hidden black of a bear’s hide. These hidden creatures of the park sometimes appear and in their mouths as they come are coins for passage, and in their comings and goings are the shock of living. Such encumbrance you trace in the delineations of a brow’s rigidity, but soft, soft as a cloud that shifts its position. You drink the liqueur of many minds. Your hands are of down. You have the jewels of that Other.

I took these photos of the tombstones of two of my cousins, Clyde and Bessie Hartman, who are buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio. Biff was was from Youngstown, Ohio. It is possible that she and I were distantly related, as the various Hartmans in Ohio may all be descendants of the same immigrants to the state in the 19th century.


© Robert Temple 2009-2022