The Friendship Mask
by ALEX CARNEVALE
She says the same thing, that bitch, that you do about me, that I’m an emotional cripple, by which she means that I don’t release my true emotions, that it’s a cover-up, what I show the world.
– Elia Kazan to his therapist about Barbara Loden
Elia Kazan decided to break things off with Barbara Loden. She had already felt, almost imperceptibly, his reluctance. She had recently told him at length of all the men she had ever been with. She informed him of her history, she said, so he did not have to wonder.
Enraged, Kazan began cheating on her whenever he could. She rehearsed her part in The Changeling all afternoon and evening at Lincoln Center, and he was free to stroll off from the set during those times. With a blonde girlfriend, he now exclusively courted brunettes.
One of these available women was a singer in a religious choir he had met in Tennessee. She kept her eyes closed while they fucked, mystifying Kazan. Another was a Greek brunette who tried to convince him to impregnate her and disappear. He refused.
While Loden was being fitted for costumes for her role, he wandered in Central Park one day and picked up a girl playing softball. She gave him her dead husband’s favorite sweater.
Kazan’s friends feared that Barbara Loden had trapped him years before by keeping her only pregnancy. The boy, Leo, was now three, and Kazan had less than no interest in him. “I’ve never regretted telling Barbara that if she wanted a child it was all right with me,” he writes in the best show business autobiography ever penned, A Life. “Knowing my nature, wouldn’t you say she was taking a riskier chance than I was?”
Seven years into the relationship, Kazan was now weary of her. (“No one can tell me that novelty is not a great charge in sex,” he states in A Life, as if that were a revelation.) His numerous indiscretions only further convinced Kazan that he and Loden did not have love between them anymore.
He planned to pick up Barbara Loden from rehearsal in a cab and head back to her place, where he would break the news gently. In the taxi, she immediately began complaining about how he had blocked her scenes, and criticized his directorial efforts in general. Kazan turned on her, dismissing his earlier reticence towards cruelty. She listened quietly to what he said.
Once her room, she took off all her clothes immediately, as she always did, to appease him. “I wanted to lie still on the bed and hold her,” Kazan writes about the post-coital mood. “But I noticed she didn’t like this the way she once had, and although her head was on my upper arm, and her leg over mine, she seemed tense, like a runner before a race. Then she said, with a casualness I thought feigned, ‘Daddy, I wish you’d tell me what you want me to do.'”
He could think of no real reply. Moments later, she said, “It’s either we marry or break up for good.” After seeing her home, he went to the apartment of the young widow. There he was happy for a time.
When Elia Kazan had first introduced Barbara Loden to his friend John Steinbeck, the writer told him, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from her. Kazan planned to resolve his conflict with Loden by leaving for Europe; his therapist suggested he would feel better if he said goodbye to her. There, on a bench in Central Park, he met his son Leo for the first time.
Elia had been with his first wife Molly Kazan when he first met Loden. Ostensibly a playwright, Molly was not much of a writer and on some level, even after four lovely children by her, Kazan could not forgive this weakness. Molly first learned of Kazan’s penchant for infidelity during his not-so-quiet affair with the actress Constance Dowling.
He always made a habit of introducing his wife to his mistress, but his affair with Constance was so obvious Molly was told by a third party. His wife banished him to the study of their home, right next door to the bedroom, and seriously considered divorce. A friend gave her a piece of advice: “If you want him, you’ll have to take him as he is.” The only one who supported the director in the marriage’s impasse was his parents.
He started up with Loden originally on the set of Splendor in the Grass. They had sex during every single lunch break. When the production was in New York, he would go home to his wife and their maid would serve the family dinner. He only stopped having sex with Loden when she became visibly pregnant.
Again he was compelled to see what Molly thought of Barbara, and vice versa. Unable to resist, he asked Loden for her opinion on his wife. “She’s a very handsome woman,” Loden said.
Throughout these lascivious trails, Kazan reveals he felt very little in the way of guilt. His penchant for self-acceptance in A Life reeks of 20/20 hindsight, but there is something else at work there, too, an essence his analyst identified and determined could never be fully repaired. Kazan did not long for other women because there was something lacking in his life. He had determined that this was his life: what primacy could any other part of his self claim, to stand up to that?
Elia’s commiseration with Loden waxed and waned as the years went on. Sometimes she sent him letters describing an empathy she felt for him; at other moments she wondered if she even liked the man at all.
From his perspective, her innate destructiveness and lack of interest in how others viewed her was what attracted him in the first place. It was also the inner element which produced the natural charisma invaluable to her work as an actress and filmmaker.
Loden and Kazan continued to see each other, if infrequently, in the last years of Molly Kazan’s life. (Molly died from a brain hemorrhage in 1963, and was buried with her wedding ring.) Given a new primacy in his life after Molly’s death, Loden challenged Kazan regarding the stage roles he gave her. She constantly threatened to move to Los Angeles.
Kazan openly wondered to friends whether he’d required Molly to make his relationship with Loden work. He lost the ability to maintain an erection with her during sex, and attempted to break things off, as I have already described.
Free of Barbara, wandering the earth, Kazan felt somewhat alone. He wrote to Loden, suggested he missed her and asked her to come to Japan. They kept writing until she arrived, and when he saw her at the airport, he knew he had made a mistake. Still, she did everything she could to please him, and he responded in turn. She seemed happy to be with him again until Kazan told her that he had been fucking around with another woman in the month before she arrived.
Back in the U.S., Kazan continued seeing both Loden and his new mistress. (He was never able to manage much more than two at a time.) Again, his curiosity got the better of him, and he encouraged Barbara to confront the other woman he was seeing. Kazan called the girl to warn her Loden might try to see her.
“She’s right here,” the girl said.
“How are you getting along?” Kazan asked.
“I like her very much.”
Loden somehow emerged the victor of these events, and she moved in with Kazan a few months later, walking into Elia’s study and putting Leo in his lap. They were married in Kenya soon after, and a ceremony was held in the Caribbean. They were wed for less than a year before he found a mistress that would complement her better.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.