CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Released amid the turmoil of World War II, the movie “Casablanca” has remained one of the world’s best-known classics — and Leslie Epstein has had a front row seat.
His father Philip Epstein and uncle Julius Epstein won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the 1942 Warner Brothers film, which also won Best Picture and Best Director (Michael Curtiz) that year. “Casablanca” marks its 75th anniversary in November.
“It’s one of the most emblematic Hollywood films,” said Epstein, former director of the creative writing program at Boston University.
Identical twins Philip and Julius Epstein wrote sparkling dialogue for a cast starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
“In Bartlett’s Quotations, there are almost as many [from ‘Casablanca’] as from ‘Hamlet,’” Epstein noted. “It’s these witty and incisive lines. All except one are from my father and uncle.”
“The language lasted,” he said. “That was my family. I’m very proud of that.”
Epstein has other recent family milestones. His son Theo Epstein is the general manager of the Chicago Cubs, which won last year’s World Series, their first championship since 1908. And this year, Epstein himself marks a decade since the stage production of “King of the Jews,” based upon his 1979 novel of the same name about Chaim Rumkowski, the infamous head of the Council of Elders in the Lodz Ghetto during the Holocaust.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Epstein’s grandfather, Henry Shablian, immigrated to the US with “all the Jews escaping from Kishinev and other pogroms,” Epstein said. “He was from Bialystok or a town nearby.”
In line at Ellis Island, Shablian encountered what his grandson called “a very common situation” among immigrants: “The guy in front of him said, ‘My name is Epstein.’ My grandfather said, ‘That’s my name, too.’”
The newly-renamed family would flourish in the US. Henry Epstein’s sons Philip and Julius both attended Penn State before heading for Hollywood, where they would team up to write “Casablanca.”
The film depicts a complex love story set in Vichy French Morocco’s famous port, where refugees from Europe sought to escape the evils of Nazism, personified by Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt).
After American nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Bogart) shoots Strasser in a climactic scene, French Captain Renault (Claude Rains) lets him off with a classic line, which came to the Epstein twins as they drove along Sunset Boulevard.
“They turned simultaneously [to each other] and said, ‘Round up the usual suspects!’” Epstein said.
He said that Warner Brothers head Jack Warner, who was Jewish, had told the Epstein brothers to change their name.
However, he also said that Warner was “no coward,” having released “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” in 1939.
“His life was threatened by the German consul,” Epstein said. “The story is that [someone] made a heavy weight fall on set and it almost killed somebody. They searched [Warner’s] house for bombs.”
‘Someone made a heavy weight fall on set and it almost killed somebody. They searched Warner’s house for bombs’
Epstein downplays the anti-Nazism in “Casablanca,” saying it was “really not that brave,” since it came “after the war had broken out.” However, Epstein said that his father and uncle did display bravery when they co-wrote and co-produced the 1944 Bette Davis film “Mr. Skeffington.”
“It’s the only [film] I know of, not one [other] in the whole of WWII, from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day, that mentioned the word ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ in a domestic context,” Epstein said.
He added that the movie “caused a firestorm,” including criticism from the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League — “the idiocy that caused Jews in America to bury their heads in the sand against what was going on in Germany.”
Also in 1944, the Epstein brothers received their Academy Award for “Casablanca” along with Howard Koch and an uncredited Casey Robinson. (Though the film was initially released in November 1942, its full national release wasn’t until early 1943, and so “Casablanca” was entered in the awards twice — nominated in 1942 for Best Picture, and then in eight categories the following year, including Best Picture, which it won).
Asked where his father and uncle got their talent, Epstein said, “They got it from God. It was something inherent.”
“Where did Shakespeare get it?” he said. “He was given it. Life or spiritual experience either dampens or enlightens.”
The Epstein streak
In the 21st century, another Epstein would also write memorable endings.
Theo Epstein has won a World Series twice, for two long-suffering teams: the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. As Red Sox general manager, he helped the team win a championship in 2004, which it had not done since 1918.
Epstein would eventually join the Cubs as general manager. His new team had not won a World Series since 1908 — even longer than the Red Sox. But last November, the Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians in a nail-biting 8-7 win during extra innings in the final game of the series, to take the championship four games to three.
“I’m just as proud of Theo as of Julius and Philip,” said Leslie Epstein, who was at that game. “It’s harder to win a World Series than to write an Academy Award-winning film.” (Upon reflection, he conceded that maybe the feats were equal.)
Noting the successes of his father and uncle, and those of his children, Epstein quipped, “I’m the only sandwich ever made that had the meat on the outside. I keep plugging.”
Epstein’s most well-known — and controversial — work is “King of the Jews.”
In 1961, he first read about his eventual subject Rumkowski in “The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe” by Gerald Reitlinger, which he calls “one of the first, and still one of the best, about the Holocaust.”
“Of the 200,000 in the [Lodz] ghetto, 800 survived, and almost all hate [Rumkowski],” Epstein said, referring to a biblical commandment in Deuteronomy. “There’s a story in the Talmud. ‘If you’re starving and going to die in the forest, and you see a nest with two eggs, you’re allowed to take the eggs. But before you do, throw a stone at a bush nearby to distract the mother so she doesn’t feel pain.’”
Rumkowski, he said, “would take the eggs and not throw the stone.”
“I am merciful in some ways toward Rumkowski, but ultimately condemn him not so much for what he had to do but [for] the sense of power and even fulfillment that doing it gave him,” said Epstein.
Epstein noted that Rumkowski “put his portrait on ghetto money and ghetto postage stamps — money to buy nothing, stamps to send nowhere. He rode in a carriage behind a white horse…
‘He did terrible things, yet he kept the ghetto alive longer than any other’
“He did terrible things, yet he kept the ghetto alive longer than any other — indeed it might have been the only one to survive if the Russians had continued their drive westward instead of stopping, not so much for military but political reasons.”
Rumkowski died in Auschwitz in 1944, vengefully beaten by Jewish Sonderkommando inmates.
Epstein described reviews of his book as “mixed” because of its focus on collaborators, its use of humor (rare at the time in Holocaust literature) and its attention to “the banality of evil.” He is a fan of Hannah Arendt, whom he met once.
“Thank God, The New York Times put it on the front page of their book review,” he said, adding that it was “extremely well-reviewed” by Robert Alter.
However, Epstein criticized the late Times editor Anatole Broyard for his negative review. And, he said, “Politically conservative, religiously conservative Jews hated the book.”
‘It took a toll on me, to be vilified. Over time, I think the controversy has faded’
He also asked the late scholar Lucy Dawidowicz, author of “The War Against the Jews,” for a blurb, and her reply was “written on my heart,” he said.
She responded: “Not only did Hitler kill 6 million Jews, now comes Leslie Epstein to dance on their graves.”
“It took a toll on me, to be vilified,” he said. “Over time, I think the controversy has faded.”
In 2007, Boston University staged a version of “King of the Jews,” for which the late Jon Lipsky won an award for best director.
“I’m trying to get it done in New York,” Epstein said. “I have about half of the money I need.”
Last fall marked a time of transition for Epstein — it was his final year as director of the BU creative writing department, a position he held since 1978.
This year, with the 75th anniversary of his father’s and uncle’s film, and his son’s team World Champions, Leslie Epstein is feeling a lot of nachas — especially for Theo’s championships.
“It’s very rare in life that a Jew gets to be altogether happy,” Epstein said. “Those two, 2004 and 2016, were unalleviated joy. For a Jew, it doesn’t happen often. No irony, no sarcasm, no second thoughts, no doubts. Just plain happy.”