Robert Got­tlieb

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The Man Who Made the Movies: The Me­te­oric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox by Vanda Kr­efft

The Man Who Made the Movies: The Me­te­oric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox by Vanda Kr­efft.

Harper, 927 pp., $40.00

20th Cen­tury Fox

21st Cen­tury Fox

Fox En­ter­tain­ment Group

Fox News Chan­nel

Fox Broad­cast­ing Com­pany

Fox Movi­etone

Fox Mu­sic

Fox­tel . . .

Yes, but who or what was Fox? We know a lot about such gi­ants of the early film busi­ness as Louis B. Mayer, Sa­muel Gold­wyn, Adolph Zukor, Ce­cil B. DeMille, D.W. Grif­fith, Mack Sen­nett. But William Fox?

Yet William Fox, ac­cord­ing to Vanda Kr­efft in an enor­mous re­cent bi­og­ra­phy called The Man Who Made the Movies, was...the man who made the movies. And if her hy­per­bole is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, as hy­per­bole tends to be, she does make a strong case for Fox’s cru­cial con­tri­bu­tion to how the movies as we know them hap­pened, along the way re­veal­ing a life of amaz­ing ac­com­plish­ment that moved in­ex­orably into the realm of tragedy.

“The Me­te­oric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox,” Kr­efft’s sub­ti­tle, isn’t hy­per­bolic. Fox’s rise was in­deed spec­tac­u­lar. In less than a dozen years be­gin­ning in 1904, when he ac­quired his first nick­elodeon, he amassed a for­mi­da­ble chain of the­aters and then cre­ated the Fox Film Cor­po­ra­tion—why just ex­hibit movies when you could make them your­self? But where, Kr­efft asks, did he find the money to suc­cess­fully com­pete with the gi­ants of the busi­ness: Zukor’s Fa­mous Play­ers– Lasky, Grif­fith’s Bio­graph, Mar­cus Loew? As she con­vinc­ingly demon­strates, he found it less by hook than by crook—pri­mar­ily through his ugly deal­ings with Tam­many Hall.

William Fox was the least col­or­ful of the early moguls. He had no in­ter­est in the glam­our of the in­dus­try—he op­er­ated from New York, never hav­ing a home in Cal­i­for­nia, rarely vis­it­ing his im­pos­ing stu­dio in Los An­ge­les. Per­sonal scan­dal never touched him—he was a fam­ily man with one (adored) wife and two (beloved) daugh­ters. He had few so­cial am­bi­tions, other than the hope of even­tu­ally be­ing seen not merely as a tri­umphant movie mogul but as a great Amer­i­can en­tre­pre­neur— a Rock­e­feller, a Van­der­bilt. When he was just launch­ing his Fox Film Cor­po­ra­tion, he an­nounced that he “in­tended to be­come the ‘monarch of the movies,’ equal in stature to ‘lum­ber kings, wheat kings, coal barons, cot­ton kings, steel mag­nates, rail­way mag­nates.’” And he al­most pulled it off.

Fox seems to have been im­pec­ca­bly hon­est in his di­rect deal­ings with peo­ple, de­spite his al­most di­a­bol­i­cal con­nec­tion with Big Tim Sul­li­van, the king­pin of New York City pol­i­tics. (As Kr­efft puts it, “As an un­der­writer for Fox’s nascent film em­pire, Big Tim had a unique, vi­tal ad­van­tage. He could pro­vide large amounts of cash in­stantly with no pa­per­work to fill out and no fur­ther ap­proval needed.”) From the start, the prob­lem of how to fi­nance his huge am­bi­tions was Fox’s great­est chal­lenge, and would even­tu­ally lead him to ruin.

The

Foxes—the Fuch­ses un­til they were re­named on ar­riv­ing in Amer­ica from Hun­gary in 1879, only months af­ter William was born—were bot­to­mof-the-bar­rel poor, barely sur­viv­ing in the worst slums of New York’s Lower East Side. The saintly (of course) mother, Anna, lost seven of her thir­teen chil­dren to the usual slum dis­eases. William al­ways revered her, and by ex­ten­sion all moth­ers. But the dom­i­nant psy­chic in­flu­ence on the boy was his fa­ther, Michael—in­do­lent, in­com­pe­tent, par­a­sit­i­cal—whom William hated with an un­com­mon vi­o­lence. On the first page of her first chap­ter, Kr­efft tells us that at Michael’s fu­neral, in 1936, William spat on the cof­fin and mut­tered, “You son of a bitch.” He blamed his fa­ther for the fam­ily’s dire poverty, and specif­i­cally for send­ing him out to earn the money Michael him­self should have been earn­ing. By the time the boy was nine, he was sell­ing candy (“Lozengers”) in the streets. Within a year he had re­cruited a bunch of neigh­bor­hood boys to work on com­mis­sion for him, sell­ing to a richer crowd up in Cen­tral Park; dur­ing the sum­mer he could bring in up to twelve dol­lars a week. “I do not re­mem­ber any­thing about play,” Kr­efft quotes him as say­ing, “be­cause I never re­mem­ber play­ing.”

His ed­u­ca­tion was, to put it po­litely, scanty—the only sub­ject he was good at was math—and he dropped out of the third grade at the age of ten to take a job at a small cloth­ing com­pany. His mother, Kr­efft tells us, was hor­ri­fied: “She had given her el­dest child the He­brew name Melech, mean­ing ‘king,’ and she’d hoped he would be­come a doc­tor or a lawyer.” She made him prom­ise to take night classes, which he did un­til he was about four­teen. He also was obliged to study He­brew.

The young Fox wan­dered into a va­ri­ety of oc­cu­pa­tions, in­clud­ing a stint as half of a com­edy vaudeville act. (He had al­ways har­bored no­tions of be­com­ing an ac­tor.) He tried be­ing a sales­man. He tried real es­tate, and had no stom­ach for be­ing a land­lord. He flirted for a while with so­cial­ism. And when he was twenty, he mar­ried Eva Leo, whom he had de­cided was the wife for him when she was nine or ten and he was four­teen or fif­teen. (The Leos lived down­stairs from the Foxes.) His fam­ily was fu­ri­ous: not only did they look down on the Leos, but they feared that their meal ticket was gone—William was sup­port­ing his par­ents and five younger sib­lings on his in­come of sev­en­teen dol­lars a week. They needn’t have wor­ried; he went on sup­port­ing them for the rest of their lives.

Eva, he rec­og­nized, was the great luck of his life. Not only did she care for him ten­derly, she cre­ated a haven for him: “From the be­gin­ning, Mrs. Fox made our home, no mat­ter how sim­ple, a heaven for me; her artis­tic fin­gers made ev­ery­thing she touched beau­ti­ful.” He never for­got the decor of their first apart­ment, on Myr­tle Av­enue in Brook­lyn: the “dainty Swiss cur­tains and cre­tonne hang­ings at the win­dows, with cush­ions here and there to match, and beau­ti­ful pan­els, re­pro­duc­tions of great mas­ter­pieces given away with coupons of Bab­bit’s soap, which she had framed to adorn our walls.”

And in time she be­came his silent part­ner in the Fox en­ter­prises: “Mrs. Fox hasn’t just been a wife to me and a mother to my chil­dren, but the main­stay of my ca­reer.” When he started mak­ing movies, she was his first reader and ad­viser, si­lently in­di­cat­ing her ap­proval or dis­ap­proval of his de­ci­sions in front of his col­leagues. He had ab­so­lute trust in her judg­ment. And be­cause she was an in­te­gral part of his af­fairs, she never re­sented his eigh­teen-hour work­days or the ab­sence of nor­mal so­cial ac­tiv­ity from her life. She had him and their two daugh­ters and their work. There was no time for any­thing else.

In his early twen­ties, de­spite his am­bi­tion and drive, Fox had still not found the path to the suc­cess and wealth he knew were within his grasp. Then one day in 1904—he was twenty-five—he re­al­ized that mov­ing pic­tures were the an­swer. He and two part­ners had ac­quired a slot-ma­chine ar­cade, and he con­vinced them to let him con­vert the sec­ond floor of their far-from-thriv­ing work­place to a small space in which to show movies. It had 146 seats, a pro­jec­tor, a screen, and a $30 sec­ond­hand piano. There was no other such place in Brook­lyn—one had re­cently gone bust.

Rent­ing cheap films was easy, at­tract­ing an au­di­ence wasn’t, but a pass­ing stranger con­vinced him to hire a “bal­ly­hoo man”—a coin ma­nip­u­la­tor, a sword-swal­lower, a fire-eater—to stand out­side on the street and pro­claim to passersby that he would fin­ish his act up­stairs. It worked. Es­ti­mates of the the­ater’s first-year prof­its range from $40,000 to $75,000, and this was only the be­gin­ning. Im­me­di­ately Fox be­gan ac­quir­ing other venues, as large as he could af­ford—the 1,600-seat Unique The­ater in Brook­lyn, for in­stance. He had bought out his ner­vous part­ners, but they now asked to be let back in, and he wel­comed them back. “Through­out his ca­reer,” Kr­efft tells us, “Fox would dis­play a re­mark­able abil­ity to for­give those who had dis­ap­pointed him in busi­ness, re­gard­ing their lapses less as per­sonal af­fronts than as the re­sult of lim­ited vi­sion.”

The en­tire movie busi­ness was boom­ing, and so was the com­pe­ti­tion—bril­liant en­trepreneurs like the ex-fur­rier Mar­cus Loew were as am­bi­tious and far­sighted as Fox was, although he al­ways did things his own way. Un­like most of his com­peti­tors, he catered to a fam­ily au­di­ence: his the­aters were clean, well ven­ti­lated, well man­aged. “It meant twenty-four hours work out of the twenty-four but it was worth it.” And, says Kr­efft, “While many other ex­hibitors ran shabby the­aters that matched the cir­cum­stances of their pa­trons’ lives, Fox aimed to touch their dreams.”

Most im­por­tant to his suc­cess, of course, was that moviego­ing was

swiftly be­com­ing a na­tional phe­nom­e­non. By 1907, Mov­ing Pic­ture World could point out that all the av­er­age owner had to do, once a the­ater was up and run­ning, was to “open the doors, start the phono­graph [for mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment] and carry the money to the bank. The pub­lic does the rest.” The fol­low­ing years were years of dy­namic ex­pan­sion for Fox, and also the pe­riod dur­ing which he was in­stru­men­tal in fight­ing a ti­tanic bat­tle against Thomas Edison’s Mo­tion Pic­ture Patents Com­pany (MPPC), which through its patents on cam­eras and other equip­ment had a stran­gle­hold on film pro­duc­tion. The an­titrust war wasn’t for­mally laid to rest by the Supreme Court un­til 1917, but Fox and his al­lies had al­ready for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses pre­vailed. “The end of the MPPC,” writes Kr­efft, “opened a new chap­ter in film his­tory. Now, any­one in the United States who wished to make movies could do so legally. Thanks largely to Fox, the foun­da­tion had been laid for the Amer­i­can stu­dio sys­tem.” And he was quick to claim credit: in a full-page ad in a trade pub­li­ca­tion, he an­nounced, “I fought in the United States Courts and won.”

His way was now clear. The cru­cial ap­pel­late court de­ci­sion had come down on Oc­to­ber 1, 1915, but Fox Film Cor­po­ra­tion had al­ready been in pro­duc­tion for most of the year, hav­ing at­tracted $400,000 from a group of not ex­actly snow-white in­vestors. The foun­da­tions of the com­pany were, in­deed, murky. As Kr­efft puts it:

A founder who had made his name by al­ly­ing him­self with the most cor­rupt po­lit­i­cal ma­chine in Amer­i­can his­tory, a gen­eral man­ager who had helped run a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar po­lice graft scheme and who was prob­a­bly in­volved in a mur­der plot, seed money from cor­po­rate stock ma­nip­u­la­tors—these were the peo­ple who launched the Fox Film Cor­po­ra­tion. It wasn’t the way Fox wanted to do busi­ness, but it was, he be­lieved, the way he had to do busi­ness. For the next fif­teen years, he would work with su­per­hu­man en­ergy to scrub away those stains and to cre­ate a clean, bright, new life for him­self and his name­sake com­pany.

From the start of his ca­reer as a moviemaker, Fox was far more fo­cused on qual­ity di­rec­tors than on stars, dis­cov­er­ing or en­cour­ag­ing Her­bert Bren­non, Frank Borzage, Frank Lloyd, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and the revered F.W. Mur­nau, whose Sun­rise (1927), hardly a typ­i­cal Fox fea­ture, re­mains one of the world’s most ad­mired films. His di­rec­tors—un­til they couldn’t take it any longer—put up with his eter­nal, ob­ses­sive in­ter­fer­ence in their work. “Fox,” Kr­efft tells us,

chose all the sto­ries, some­times com­ing up with ideas him­self; he col­lab­o­rated with writ­ers, se­lected ac­tors, and as­signed di­rec­tors. Ev­ery night . . . he watched the day’s rushes. As images filled the screen, Fox fired sug­ges­tions at the stenog­ra­pher and the film ed­i­tor, who sat nearby hud­dled over a small ta­ble tak­ing notes in the light of a green­shaded lamp. Af­ter that, into the early morn­ing hours, he met at length with each di­rec­tor about reshoots.

When film­ing was com­plete, [he] helped edit the footage, wrote in­ter-ti­tles, and over­saw pub­lic­ity cam­paigns .... Watch­ing up to fifty reels of film per week, Fox ap­proved ev­ery foot of film that the stu­dio re­leased.

What were these movies? Most of them were the stan­dard melo­dra­matic and comic fare of the time, but Fox was also as­pir­ing to art, to cul­ture; he wanted tremen­dous prof­its, but he also wanted re­spectabil­ity, and to ed­u­cate and in­spire. He spent great sums of money to film the clas­sics—A Tale of Two Cities, Les Misérables, A Con­necti­cut Yan­kee in King Arthur’s Court. He im­ported the fa­mous Nor­we­gian ac­tress Betty Nansen—Ib­sen’s orig­i­nal Hedda Gabler—who ar­rived in New York wear­ing a sable cape and “trail­ing a ret­inue of ser­vants” car­ry­ing “fortysix trunks con­tain­ing $50,000 worth of cos­tumes.” (No­body came to her movies, and none of them sur­vives to­day.) And then light­ning struck. Some­one de­cided to star a would-be ac­tress named Theo­dosia Good­man in a film called A Fool There Was, based on a no­to­ri­ous play that had in­tro­duced the con­cept of “The Vamp” (short for Vam­pire)—the woman whose sex­ual al­lure is so great and de­struc­tive that the men who fall for her are doomed, doomed, doomed. Theo­dosia Good­man be­came Theda Bara (ana­gram: Arab Death). Fox launched the film and star with an un­prece­dented na­tional cam­paign, and A Fool There Was burned up the box of­fice. (Its most fa­mous in­ter­ti­tle, af­ter Theda has re­duced one of her lovers to slav­ish ado­ra­tion, was “Kiss me, my Fool!” In­stead, he shoots him­self.) This early 1915 re­lease was the first movie to make a mil­lion-dol­lar profit. Af­ter the sweet­ness and pluck of Mary Pick­ford and the Gish sis­ters and the other in­génues of the day, the mo­ment had ar­rived in Amer­ica for “The Vamp.” Theda Bara seized the mo­ment, de­spite be­ing (aptly) de­scribed by Kr­efft as a thirty-year-old with

lit­tle to rec­om­mend her. With her broad, flat face, asym­met­ri­cal fea­tures, strong jaw­line, and thick­waisted, chubby-legged fig­ure, she looked mostly like what she ac­tu­ally was: a mid­dle-class, Jewish tai­lor’s daugh­ter from Cincin­nati, Ohio.

By the end of 1916, Fox had re­leased eigh­teen Theda Bara ve­hi­cles, all im­mensely suc­cess­ful ex­cept when they de­vi­ated from the Vamp genre. (No one wanted to see Arab Death in some­thing called The Two Or­phans, so she had to go on say­ing things like “My heart is ice, my pas­sion con­sum­ing fire.”) Am­bi­tious and se­ri­ous about her work, she would some­times fin­ish one movie and start the next one on the same day. It all paid off: she was 1916’s third most pop­u­lar star, af­ter Pick­ford and Char­lie Chap­lin.

Luck­ily, Bara was a sen­si­ble per­son with a sense of hu­mor, and she did her bit to help things along. Where was she born? “You might just as well tell them I was born on the desert of the Sa­hara.” Could she be a lit­tle more spe­cific? “Very well,” she sup­pos­edly said, “make it two blocks from the Sphinx.” When a woman wrote to her, ac­cus­ing her of break­ing up happy homes, she wrote back, “I am work­ing for a liv­ing, dear friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to.”

She was Juliet (Fox im­proved on Shake­speare’s fi­nal scene). She was Salome. Most of all, she was Cleopa­tra. Fox bal­ly­hooed this ex­trav­a­ganza for years, and by 1918 it had been seen by 5.2 mil­lion peo­ple—about 200,000 more, Kr­efft re­marks, than the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Egypt in Cleopa­tra’s day. Alas, Cleopa­tra is lost to us, but the many lu­di­crous stills tell you all you need to know.

Bara and Fox got along well—they ad­mired each other’s work ethic and re­spected each other’s pro­fes­sion­al­ism—but there was no ro­mance: he was a one-woman man, and she at that time was a no-man woman. The only ro­mance in her early life was the ro­mance of act­ing. She read a lot (Ni­et­zsche and Con­rad, her fans were in­formed), stay­ing qui­etly at home ev­ery night with her par­ents, un­til in 1921 she mar­ried a well­known di­rec­tor and lived hap­pily and in lux­ury for the next thirty-five years.

Kr­efft has a lot of fun with Theda Bara, and how not? But she’s not re­ally in­vested in movie his­tory or, for that mat­ter, in movies. For in­stance, she has noth­ing pen­e­trat­ing to say about Fox’s next great fe­male star, the en­chant­ing Janet Gaynor, win­ner of the first Best Ac­tress Os­car, hero­ine of the ac­claimed Borzage films 7th Heaven, Street An­gel, and Lucky Star, of the great Sun­rise, and—long af­ter her Fox days—of the orig­i­nal A Star Is Born. By the mid-1920s, with pro­duc­tion shifted from New York to Cal­i­for­nia, Fox was fo­cused on build­ing his movie house em­pire, hav­ing re­ceded from over­see­ing the prod­uct. “I only met him to say how do you do,” Gaynor said. “He didn’t seem to have any­thing to do with the run­ning of the stu­dio.” Kr­efft does give us the first Fox male star—the manly, no­ble William Far­num, whose orig­i­nal fame came from play­ing Ben-Hur on stages across Amer­ica. And we learn about Tom Mix, the tremen­dous west­ern star (he made eight or nine fea­ture films a year for Fox), though Kr­efft ne­glects to tell us that not only are Mix’s boot-prints set in ce­ment at Grau­man’s Chi­nese

Theatre, but so are the hoof-prints of his fa­mous side­kick, Tony the Won­der Horse.

Given Fox’s with­drawal from per­son­ally su­per­vis­ing the mak­ing of his movies, the stu­dio’s out­put of the early 1920s was less distin­guished and less suc­cess­ful than its pre­de­ces­sors. Its ac­tors grew dis­il­lu­sioned. John Gilbert, for one, told his wife, the ac­tress Leatrice Joy, “Fox doesn’t have a friend in the world, be­cause he is mean, cheap, vul­gar, and he’s no­to­ri­ous for break­ing his word.” Do we ac­cept Gilbert’s word? He was ex­trav­a­gantly emo­tional and a life­long hater of au­thor­ity, but he was hon­est.

Clearly, Fox’s at­ten­tion was else­where. He had come to re­al­ize the great dis­ad­van­tage he was un­der by not own­ing a sig­nif­i­cant enough num­ber of movie the­aters—he had, for in­stance, no choice ex­hi­bi­tion venues on the West Coast—and he flung him­self into an orgy of ac­qui­si­tion and con­struc­tion. To raise money for this rad­i­cal ex­pan­sion, the Fox Film Cor­po­ra­tion went pub­lic, though Fox re­tained con­trol: from the start, he had shown an ob­ses­sive need to ex­ert ab­so­lute con­trol, re­fus­ing to re­lin­quish the slight­est scrap of au­thor­ity.

In the mid-1920s, he be­gan re­vi­tal­iz­ing artis­tic op­er­a­tions, bring­ing back ex­pe­ri­enced di­rec­tors like Raoul Walsh and Al­lan Dwan and fea­tur­ing a new group of tal­ented ones: Howard Hawks, for one, and most im­por­tantly the young John Ford, to whom, in 1924, he en­trusted his most am­bi­tious project to date, The Iron Horse, a ma­jor crit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial tri­umph. He had big hits like What Price Glory and even­tu­ally The Big Trail. And he threw him­self into the race to con­vert the movies to sound—a race not only to de­velop the best tech­nol­ogy but to de­feat his ri­vals for both the profit and the glory. Kr­efft makes a good case for him as the true pioneer of talk­ing pic­tures, rather than the Warner Brothers with their Jazz Singer.

Per­haps his most con­spic­u­ous suc­cess dur­ing this pe­riod was the cre­ation of Fox Movi­etone News. In a ma­jor coup, on May 20, 1927, Fox filmed— with sound—Charles Lind­bergh’s take-off from Roo­sevelt Field, Long Is­land, on his solo flight across the At­lantic. Movi­etone News brought the world the Prince of Wales, Mus­solini (“I sa­lute the no­ble gov­ern­ment of the United States”), Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, Her­bert Hoover’s ac­cep­tance speech af­ter the 1928 elec­tion, and an erup­tion of Mount Etna, com­plete with the sound of houses col­laps­ing. By the end of 1928, Fox had fifty news crews dis­persed around the world. He was again a cre­ative force to be reck­oned with. Over the years, Fox’s out­side in­ter­ests—and life­style—had been chang­ing. Now he and Eva and the girls were liv­ing on an op­u­lent es­tate on Long Is­land. For a while he was se­ri­ously in­volved in phi­lan­thropies: the Red Cross, the United Jewish Cam­paign. And an­nu­ally he gave $250,000 in per­sonal char­ity, with Eva per­son­ally dis­tribut­ing the money.

None of this ac­tiv­ity, how­ever, in­ter­fered with his old de­ter­mi­na­tion to as­sume a com­mand­ing sit­u­a­tion within the movie world. This meant pri­mar­ily the con­tin­ued ex­pan­sion of his the­ater own­er­ships, a goal he pur­sued with reck­less in­ten­sity. In 1927, for in­stance, he ac­quired for mil­lions of dol­lars the newly opened Roxy The­ater in New York, the largest movie house in the world—the “Cathe­dral of the Mo­tion Pic­ture.”

In his ob­ses­sion, he grew in­creas­ingly out of con­trol—and there was no one to re­strain him. In a telling pro­file writ­ten in 1929, a ra­zor-sharp young re­porter, Al­lene Talmey, de­scribed him as tor­mented by “his re­lent­less lust for power .... It is ab­surd to say that he is con­ceited. It is too puny a word. Me­ga­lo­ma­nia af­flicted with ele­phan­ti­a­sis, that is the state of his self-es­teem.”

By then, he was fac­ing both tremen­dous op­por­tu­ni­ties and pro­found dan­gers. The prob­lem, as al­ways, was money—how to sup­port his grandiose schemes with­out los­ing con­trol of his com­pany. In the fall of 1929, he was on the verge of claim­ing the great­est prize—ac­quir­ing the late Mar­cus Loew’s prop­er­ties (in­clud­ing MGM) for $50 mil­lion, which would have made him the un­chal­lenged leader of the in­dus­try—when Black Tues­day changed ev­ery­thing. He had failed by a mat­ter of days.

The heart of Kr­efft’s book lies in her al­most 250-page, bril­liantly re­searched, and al­most un­read­able ac­count of his sub­se­quent strug­gles, first to pre­vail, then to sur­vive—strug­gles with his en­e­mies, with the un­sym­pa­thetic money peo­ple he fi­nally was forced to reach out to, with the gov­ern­ment’s lat­est an­titrust ac­tiv­i­ties, with a cor­rupt court sys­tem, with his blind con­vic­tion that he could save him­self. These pages are so dense with le­gal and fi­nan­cial de­tail that they’re im­pos­si­ble for a layper­son like my­self to parse, but we get the point.

Fox lost the strug­gle—and his stu­dio and his the­aters—although he emerged with some $20 mil­lion in per­sonal as­sets, or as­sets he had trans­ferred to Eva. But his oc­cu­pa­tion was gone, as well as his po­si­tion as a gi­ant of the film in­dus­try. He was re­duced to be­ing a by­stander. Far worse, in the strug­gle, he had re­sorted to il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties—not only des­per­ate fi­nan­cial ma­nip­u­la­tions but ac­tual crimes. Even­tu­ally he con­fessed to con­spir­ing to ob­struct jus­tice and de­fraud the United States, and was sen­tenced to a year and a day in prison. Af­ter ex­haust­ing ev­ery pos­si­ble le­gal re­source, he en­tered Lewis­burg fed­eral pen­i­ten­tiary on Novem­ber 20, 1942, and was re­leased on pa­role af­ter serv­ing five months and sev­en­teen days. In 1947, Pres­i­dent Tru­man granted him a full and un­con­di­tional par­don.

It was not only Fox’s pro­fes­sional life that had col­lapsed; his per­sonal life had as well. Eva had not only grown phys­i­cally ill, she had be­come the vic­tim of grave emo­tional dis­or­ders. The two Fox daugh­ters, hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced dis­as­trous mar­riages—and with one unim­pres­sive son each to show for them—had never es­caped their fa­ther’s over­whelm­ing need to rule their lives. The fam­ily was trapped in a siege men­tal­ity, cling­ing to one an­other be­cause there was no one else. Fox died in 1952, at the age of sev­enty-three, and was buried pri­vately. No one from the film in­dus­try at­tended, be­cause no one was in­vited.

Un­til the end, Fox re­mained bit­ter, an­gry, and con­vinced that oth­ers had de­stroyed him. Vanda Kr­efft’s re­mark­able book makes it in­escapably clear that he had de­stroyed him­self.

William Fox with his wife, Eva, and one of his daugh­ters, 1920s

Theda Bara on the set of Cleopa­tra, circa 1917

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