[Stuff magazine, UK edition, 1998]
IT ALL depends on who you ask. Elizabeth Taylor, who married him, thought he was the most wonderful man she had ever met. The writer SJ Perelman, who worked for him, described him as “an ulcer no larger than a man's hand.” Mike Todd didn't so much stamp his personality upon the world as sear it on with a branding iron. He made and lost fortunes. He gambled, hustled and squandered, all with the same furious energy. He was the kind of character showbusiness hadn't seen since the heyday of PT Barnum. Mike Todd was not a man to be denied.
Taylor certainly saw it that way. Soon after she met him in 1956, he demanded she become his wife. “You are going to marry only one guy, see, and his name is me,” he informed her. “He was irresistible,” Taylor would later recall, and she meant it literally: the irresistible force which recognised no immovable object. Todd lavished jewellery upon her; pearls for weekdays, rubies, sapphires or emeralds every Saturday. For their engagement he presented her with a twenty-nine-and-a-half carat diamond ring which could have passed for a good-sized ice-cube. “Thirty carats,” he observed, “would have been vulgar.”
Todd was the supreme vulgarian. The man was magnificently, brilliantly vulgar, and he knew it. He was a showman who believed in giving the people what they wanted, and nobody knew what they wanted better than Mike Todd. A former shoe-shine boy and cigar thief on the streets of Minneapolis, where he was born in 1907, he started out in showbiz at the age of eight as a shill for carnival pitchman, helping to shift dodgy watches at five bucks a pop. His name then was Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen. He changed it when he took to producing peepshows on Broadway. “High Dames and Low Comedy,” he would promise his eager audiences. “Guaranteed not to win the Pulitzer Prize. It's not Shakespeare, but it's laffs.”
By the time he met Taylor, he had just produced his first film and his crowning achievement: Around The World In 80 Days. Somehow,and nobody was sure how, he had independently financed and retainedfull ownership of this elaborate creation, shot on location across the planet with dozens of major stars in cameo roles and what was then an unthinkable number of extras. When he couldn't meet his huge weekly payroll, filming would stop as he thrashed out deals with swarthy acquaintances from his Chicago days. His determination to get things done led to him nearly drowning the cast and crew off the California in an unseaworthy paddle boat powered by a cable car engine. When a flock of sheep halted production in Colorado, he bought it. The animals proved to be a cinematic dud. “Sell the goddam sheep,” he barked. “We need a herd of buffalo.” The buffalo duly appeared in the movie. In Paris, he ordered the cars removed from the Place Vendôme. The gendarmes intervened, so he bribed a pair of cabbies to drive head-on smack into each other as a diversion. He finished the edit under police supervision; every night, until Todd's Californian creditors were paid off, the Sheriff of Los Angeles would lock up the print in a vault.
With the film released to great acclaim and profit, Todd set off around the world to publicise it. Living up to his reputation as “part Nero, part Cecil B De Mille”, he threw parties everywhere he went, parties of mind-boggling expense and decadence, featuring limitless quantities of the most extravagant food and drink, costly monogrammed gifts, lions and tigers in bell-shaped cages. Todd charged it all to the film, as publicity. His son sent a wire to tell him the movie was doing well: “We are making almost as much money as you are spending.” As Todd liked to say, “I been broke lotsa times in my life but I ain't never been poor.” At a bash in Moscow, he vainly attempted to hire the Red Army from Nikita Kruschev for a film of War And Peace. His final party, in Madison Square Garden, descended into a food riot. Guests were pelted with hot dogs and doughnuts as they scurried for cover amid stampeding circus elephants and screaming monkeys. He knew how to put on a do, did Todd. For his and Taylor's wedding festivities in Acapulco he had local boys shin up the giant palms, bring down coconuts and fill the halves with bubbly.
Mike Todd's astonishing luck ran out in 1958. On March 22 his plane, the Lucky Liz, fell out of the sky and incinerated all on board - including his friend Art Cohn, there to conduct one last interview for his biography, The Nine Lives Of Mike Todd. Todd left behind a devastated new wife and their eight-month-old daughter. “All I know about kids,” he had remarked of her birth, “is that they get in for half price.” He was buried in a bronze coffin at a deranged public funeral. It was only a last-minute legal veto from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that prevented a nine-foot, two-ton marble replica of an Oscar becoming his headstone.
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