HOLLYWOOD—As a pudgy kid, given my choice of portly role models, early on I chose Alfred Hitchcock over Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. That choice repercusses to this day, revealing or influencing character traits: a great capacity for voyeurism abetted by awareness, confirmed early on by all sorts of playground trauma, that we would survive our minds and wits and not our athletic feats. A further attraction was emulating a man who, according to his biographers, never exercised a day in his life. Pretty appealing stuff to a kid for whom sports was a circus of shame. Avoiding physical activity was a good choice, given my aversion to sports and belief that balls were high-speed objects aimed at me!
Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899, the last year of the 19th century, which still equated a big belly with being well-off and not having to physically toil. As a child he secretly gorged fried fish and hunks of bacon. Replacing the quantities of bacon and fish that ”˜mysteriously’ disappeared was fairly easy, since Hitchcock’s dad, William, was a greengrocer in London’s East End. Potatoes in some form always accompanied the family meal—a penchant for the heavy starchy member of the nightshade family persisted throughout his adult life. Charlotte Chandler, the journalist who has interviewed many soon-to-be-dead filmmakers (Hitchcock, Fellini, Wilder), asserted that every day he dined on steak, mashed potatoes with sliced tomatoes every day.
While still in Britain in the 1930s the Master of Suspense was, thanks to press accounts, already notorious for napping after lunch, right through filming as the set-ups and shots were made, the ne plus ultra of unabashed indolence. Really enviable, to be snoozing and yet the work came off like clockwork, and, nevertheless, it was symptomatic of Thanksgiving overindulgence compounded by the exertions of carrying 300 pounds on his 5 foot 7 inch frame.
During the Selznick years, when he came to Los Angeles his weight topped 300 pounds. His back ached all the time, and he was dozing off at dinner parties (in one cocktail party he nodded off in mid-conversation with Nobel laureate, Thomas Mann). A Beverly Hills physician, Dr. Ralph M. Tandowsky, a recognized authority on cardiology and cardiovascular disease, joined Mrs. Hitchcock in pestering him about the dire consequences of letting his weight go. Thanks to this physician he became “obsessed by his own mortality” and lost one third of his body weight, 100 pounds, on a diet of black coffee, lean meat, and cantaloupe (he boasted having only having coffee for breakfast). He was stymied how he would do a cameo in “Lifeboat,” a movie set entirely at sea. And then it came to him. In the 1944 movie, Hitchcock appears in a newspaper ad for the Reduco Obesity Slayer in before and after poses, the famous profile, notably leaner.
And then throughout the rest of the decade his weight crept back, in a kind of Sisyphus cycle. He became grotesquely fat. At loggerheads with Hitchcock over the screenplay for “Strangers on a Train,” Raymond Chandler (no relation to Charlotte) could comment one morning in the studio parking lot within the director’s hearing, “Look at the fat bastard trying to get out of his car!”
In fact, by then in 1951, as Hitchcock entered the decade of his most sustained creativity, he was starting to slim down again on a variation of the same Spartan coffee-steak regimen he’d once adhered to. When filming began on “Rear Window” he had dieted down from an all-time high of 340 to an all-time low of 189, writes biographer Patrick McGilligan. “I was feeling very creative at the time, Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut. “The batteries were well charged.”
To be continued
Grady Miller is the author of LIGHTEN UP NOW: The Grady Diet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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