March 1, 2024 | Rome, Italy

14. Spain: Fallen Salt

By |2023-06-22T03:27:03+02:00June 22nd, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
55 Days in Peking, or when Hollywood came to Spain.

hen I asked my father why we would be boarding a giant car headed to a place far outside the city, and after that drive further south, to a villa where we’d have lunch, this is more or less what he told me:

We are going to see my friend Peter who is a friend of Nick Ray who is making a Hollywood epic about the Boxer Rebellion and doing so in Spain because movie producers love saving money, and local labor, skilled and unskilled, comes cheap, so does literally importing thousands of Chinese to serve as extras in a film to be called “55 Days in Peking.”

My father was only beginning to pick up speed. The film would star “Ben-Hur” Heston and “Kwai” Niven (names and references he emphasized but which meant nothing to me) and would be historically predicated (what?) on the undoing by the West of the last Dowager Empress, who ran China ferociously, tried to again isolate it from outside influences, and let her fingernails grow into three-foot claws.

With this ending, he went silent and left me to review the salient details. Doing so, it struck me that the only thing I had understood fully was that China once had a strange girl boss with incredibly long fingernails. I was also struck that actors had first names like Ben-Hur and Kwai, far more exotic than the likes of Christopher (in fairness to my father, he soon after took me to see both “Ben-Hur” and “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” two films I came to know by heart, improving on an already firm love of bridges and inducing a lifelong vision of Roman era chariots).

The only thing I had understood fully was that China once had a strange girl boss with incredibly long fingernails.

Notwithstanding my historical and intellectual shortcomings, unforgivable at nine, we did, in fact, get into the giant car and go south, and later, farther south.

The first destination was Las Rozas, the surreal set of the film, with people and machines and cars running so amok that I hid my head behind my mother’s shoulder. “Look,” she said, “there’s Ava.” Ava Gardner. Perhaps the empress with the long nails.

Next we drove an even longer way to Ray’s rental villa at the foothills of a mountain range I was also told about at length, this time by Ray himself, but I didn’t listen. I was still busy adjusting to the oppressive presence of so many adults in one place at one time.

For those of you who must spoil the memories of the then-innocent (and ignorant) child, Ray was the Nick Ray, a legend in Hollywood for having made “Rebel Without a Cause,” which turned a troubled young actor, James Dean, into the saint of the 1950s Beat Generation. Though he in fact wasn’t much of a rebel and ended up dying young, his diehard nihilism made him a kind of sexy Holden Caulfield incarnate for all those who believe the American 1950s were all about competing cigarettes and motor oils and who hated communism the most. Ray helped serve as the poster boy for those who thought conspicuous consumption would lead to intellectual and moral decay. Far be it from me to weigh in on where we stand now, some sixty years later, with motor oil celebrity set aside to make way for a pre-eminent virus and its coercive if not paralytic cultural aftermath.

But it’s time now to return to boyhood. Ray was to me just another adult, pleasant enough but cranky, and his entourage (including my parents) like a club of devotees meeting with their leader. My father, of course, was abrasive, jabbing with Ray about the this and that of Hollywood, Spanish politics, mad at how Spain desperately needed a tourist industry to match Italy’s, so the country could in effect copy the Italian miracle of industry expansion (including more movie projects) and thriving Amalfi Coast tourism, only just then getting started.

I left all this luncheon patter behind to walk around the pool, which was covered in leaves and clearly never used. I saw a frog or two and felt at home, all the more so when a few lizards scampered by me.

This is when I heard the voice. It said, “So, young man, what are you doing alone out here?”

I was speechless. I was, well, frogging and lizarding, my most refined skills.

The man said, “You know, look at a pool long enough, and even if it’s empty you want to just jump in and swim. Pools have a language.” I didn’t say a word back. The man walked once around the pool and left. When I looked for him at the table he wasn’t there, so I asked about “that man.”

“Oh,” said Ray, “Greg left.” He never stays long. Greg was Gregory Peck, an apparent passerby in Spain. I never saw him again, except on screen. I will never forget his remark and think of it each time I see a swimming pool. It was as if he’s made me think twice about taking chances. Either you felt compelled to do so, and did, or you’d always remain behind, not even knowing if there had been water.

I left all this luncheon patter behind to walk around the pool, which was covered in leaves and clearly never used.

The now-wine-drunk lunch group was finishing up. I sat next to a blond man Ray called Marek. The two men clearly had some sort of personal relationship and exchanged harsh words, my father laughing. By then my mother was on a cot, napping.

“You’re an ass, Marek,” barked Ray, to which Marek replied with a heavy accent, “But I look good.” Marek was Danish and though I didn’t much consider looks, he seemed strong and powerful, and above all young, decades younger than Ray.

Ray continued his ranting and at a certain point knocked over the salt. Marek grabbed the fallen salt orb with alarming immediacy and heaved it over his left shoulder. To me he smiled, “Fallen salt, bad luck.” Those were the only four words he said to me.

This verbal sparring soon escalated and my father pulled me from the table and soon we were back in the giant car, headed back to Madrid and, at least for me, the safety of my known realm of pets and lizards and solitude. My father talked for days about Ray, but not to me, to his Spanish colleagues as a way to emphasize the centrality of the movie business. Hollywood should be allowed to film in Spain for pennies if necessary. The value in terms of public relations, especially under a wrought-iron dictator, was inestimable. I knew nothing about public relations, and the word inestimable, while immensely attractive, made no sense at all.

Of this adventure I remember two things: Peck and the pool, of course, but also Marek, and not because of his quarrel with Ray.

Two weeks later my father casually said, “Did you hear about Marek,” as if somehow I might be the infant editor-in-chief of Variety. I hadn’t.

You know, he said, strange thing, terribly strange: he stayed a few days more but on his way to Madrid he ran his Triumph sports car off the road and was killed instantly.

I could not grasp this fact, either “killed” or “instantly,” as neither had meaning in my world. I understood only that I would never see Marek again, nor would anyone else. It was only in the middle of that night that I awoke from a nightmare of a kind I had never had before, in which even adults stopped being, like clocks that had run out of ticks, and all I could think of at that moment was, “Fallen salt, bad luck.”

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.