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Dybbuks and Golems
DAVID HARE (playwright): Mike liked being Mike Nichols: very, very good at his job and known to be very, very good at his job. He got this tremendous sensual pleasure from being in America. He liked being king in his town. But underneath it, there was that sense that he’d come out of the midcentury catastrophe—that he’d managed to get out, and very few people had.
EMANUEL AZENBERG (producer): It would be presumptuous to try to figure out Mike’s life, but you can’t get away from the fact that he escaped the Nazis.
JEREMY IRONS (actor): In a way he was carrying the flag for those dead brethren, not wasting his life, because his had been given to him while it hadn’t to many others.
ROBERT NICHOLS (brother): My mother always emphasized how extraordinarily intelligent our father was. And yet: Hitler became chancellor in 1933. It was obvious—the dislike and humiliation of Jews was out there—but my father didn’t leave for five years. Why the hell did he stay around? German Jews often feel more German than Jewish, and I’m afraid my father might have been one of those.
By the time of some of the Nuremberg Laws, Jewish doctors couldn’t see Aryan patients, and then with the later Nuremberg edicts, Jewish doctors couldn’t see patients, period. At that point he left, in August of 1938. My mother was in a convalescent hospital. She had had, possibly as a complication of pregnancy with me, deep-vein thrombosis in the leg, so she was not able to come with Mike and me, and didn’t get out until 1940, so she got out very late.
Mike and I left in May of 1939, less than four months before the war started. I was three, and he was seven. We traveled on the Bremen, one of the biggest ships in the world at that time. Mike erroneously believed it was the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that allowed us to leave. That pact came later, though it may well have helped that we were regarded as Soviet citizens, not German. I didn’t know it until about two years ago, but Mike and I were never German citizens. We were born there, but in those days citizenship was exclusively through the father. Then, even if you were born in the country, you were not a citizen unless your father was. On the ship’s manifest, we are listed as Hebrew-USSR.
I remember that we were obstreperous at dinner, and we were sent to our stateroom. Mike had much more coherent memories of the trip. He told me that we had a great time. We weren’t just two little boys on the loose—somebody he referred to as a stewardess had been assigned to keep an eye on us—but we did travel as unaccompanied minors. We just roamed around the ship, looking at the engines, whatever we could do. People, especially women, regarded as heartrending the idea of these two little boys alone on the ship, but to me it sounded more like a great adventure—at least in Mike’s telling of it.
EMANUEL AZENBERG: His brother tells the story about when they first came—they traveled by boat, just the two brothers, and when they got to America they saw a store with Hebrew letters on the window, and Mike evidently said to his brother, “Do they allow that here?”
HANNAH ROTH SORKIN: He would never ever, ever touch anything vaguely Holocaust-related. He had tremendous survivor guilt.
PETER LAWRENCE (stage manager): At the opening of Death and the Maiden, I was standing in front of the theater talking to Fred Zollo, the producer, when Mike drove up in a huge, top-of-the-line Mercedes that he had just bought. When Mike got out of the car, Fred said, “It’s the Mengele 500.” The next day, Mike sold the car.
PAUL SIMON (musician): We were once at dinner with Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey, and Tina said that she speaks German. I think Mike was surprised. They started talking about how people who speak German don’t tell you that their second language is German.
RENATA ADLER: Mike and I came from similar backgrounds. We were both refugees. Our first language was German. Every once in a while, he would use a little phrase from our childhood, “Riech mal dran,” if there was a question whether something was spoiled or not. Meaning literally, “Smell at it.” Quotations, jokes, rhymes. When he bought the rights to Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, he thought we could translate it right. Then, he would remember a few lines from Brecht, so perfect and simple that there was no way to translate them. Not if you had the original in your head.
PETER LAWRENCE: When I first met Mike, I thought he was from Wisconsin or something. I didn’t know that his name was Igor Peschkowsky.
CANDICE BERGEN: At what age did he become “Mike”? Because it couldn’t have been easy being Igor in New York at that time. I don’t think any child was ever put through more.
ART GARFUNKEL: Let’s face it: “Mike Nichols” is a construction of a human being. He is busy leaving this guy who left Germany behind and becoming a very appealing American guy named Mike Nichols. What a choice: Mike Nichols.
ROBERT NICHOLS: Mike’s name was not Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, it was Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky. I have documents with seals on them showing that. Buck Henry famously gave Mike a director’s chair that says “M. I. Peschkowsky” on it; it should say “I. M. Peschkowsky,” though it doesn’t make any difference now. Of course, Mike couldn’t bear the name Michael Nichols. I don’t think it’s so terrible, the lack of poesy in Michael Nichols, but Mike did. He just didn’t want it as a professional name. He was never Michael Nichols—always Mike.
JEFFREY SWEET (writer): The McCarthy era to a large degree was cloaked, not terribly well, in anti-Semitism. Look at the questions they’re asking: they say to Joe Papp, “Your real name is Papirofsky.” Or to Judy Holliday, “Well, your name is Holliday, but your real name was what, Tuvim?”
I think that a lot of the satire boom—Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Tom Lehrer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, all these people who had a satiric tinge to their work—came out of Eastern European Jews, whose parents and grandparents had fled the pogroms, taking a look at people like Joe McCarthy and Karl Mundt and these other horror shows and saying, “Oh, they’re Cossacks. They may not have horses, and they may not have sabers, but they’re Cossacks. They can’t kill us, so let’s mock them.” I think that’s why you had this explosion of satire in the ’50s. It wasn’t exclusively Jewish, but it was 95 percent Jewish. Interestingly, Jonathan Miller disagrees with me entirely. He said, “No, it’s just that everybody was educated and was ready for smarter comedy.” To which I said, “Then why were they all Jews?”
ROBERT NICHOLS: My father’s name was Pavel Nikolaevich Peschkowsky. His father’s name was Nikolai, so he took Pavel Nikolaevich, and that became Paul Nichols—he didn’t just pull it out of the air. But I’ve always wondered, and no one will ever know, whether my father realized when he changed his name that he was changing ethnicity too, because Nichols is certainly not a Jewish name.
EMANUEL AZENBERG: Mike always knew he was Jewish, and like almost all of the Jews of that generation—not all, but many—was conflicted about that identity. It competed with being an American. You see it with Neil [Simon]. You certainly see it with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks—all of them. The essence of their cultural roots comes from that identity, and they run away from it as much as they run to it. Mike had that too.
ROBERT NICHOLS: It was not a secret that we were Jewish. All of our friends were Jewish. A lot of my boyhood friends were Jewish. It was just an entirely Jewish milieu. At that time, New York was by far the largest Jewish city in the world, and there were more Jews in New York than there were Protestants or Catholics. It was the largest single religion. Practically everybody I knew was Jewish. They were all trooping off for Hebrew lessons and had bar mitzvahs; we had none of that. We were totally secular. I would go to school on Jewish holidays. And we always had Christmas trees, Christmas presents—no menorah, nothing Jewish. Not atypical for German Jews. Very different from Eastern European Jews, with hostile feelings on both sides.
PETER LAWRENCE: There was a New Yorker cartoon, or maybe a Feiffer, in which there was the outline of a man in a suit holding a briefcase, and inside him was a tiny angry little boy jumping around trying to get out. There was always Igor Peschkowsky in Mike. There was always that German Jewish boy who arrives in America looking like a boiled egg. He said the only two things he knew in English were “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.” I’m sure that’s apocryphal, but he claimed it was true.
ROBERT NICHOLS: Mike loves that story. My memory is the words were not “Please don’t kiss me” but “Please don’t touch me,” and it was I who said it, not Mike. I could be wrong, but I’m 83 percent sure.
DOUGLAS McGRATH (screenwriter): Mike didn’t speak a word of English. He spoke German, which was one of the least popular foreign languages in 1939 in America. He’s away from the physical danger of Hitler’s Germany, and the new crisis for him, because he’s seven, is: How do I fit in? But to fit in, you have to figure out what in is. I think that’s where he developed what I think is the defining characteristic of his talent, which is his acute and very precise understanding of human nature.
RENATA ADLER: Mike said that if you are a refugee, you begin to read people’s minds. Which is true in a way. It’s from learning a style of comprehension. In order to assimilate, to become one of them.
TONY KUSHNER1: Mike’s grandfather was Gustav Landauer, a major figure in European anarchism. And Mike’s grandmother wrote the libretto for Richard Strauss’s Salome. So they weren’t coming from some shtetl in Russia. They were the royalty of European Jewry. And Mike brought with him that sense of the importance of culture and the importance of the intellect, the effortless marriage of high art and low entertainment and serious intellectual and emotional engagement. He really drew from a deep well, a very old and polished notion of cultural production, and I think you see it in his films. It’s one of the things that makes them feel so shocking in the context of their times. They’re not exactly of the American tradition. There’s a slightly European feeling in them.
Copyright © 2019 by Sam Kashner and Ash Carter