Interview with Monika Henreid
Predominately identified as raconteur Victor Laszlo in the iconic Casablanca, audiences might not realize the diverse and varied career of actor Paul Henreid. So it’s appropriate that his daughter, Monika, has dubbed the documentary and book she’s working on Paul Henreid: Beyond Victor Laszlo because he was far more. Henreid herself calls his story a tale of survival and the flame burns bright through her endeavors. She took time to talk to Journeys in Classic Film regarding her father, her determination to tell his story, and how you can help support her crowdfunding campaign.
Kristen: Your connection to your father aside, were there other elements that inspired you to start this journey of examining his past and career?
Monika Henreid: I’ll do the short version. The first or second question out of anybody’s mouth is “What’s it like growing up the daughter of a famous movie star?” After a lifetime, that gets a little stagnant and boring. How would I know? I’ve never had anyone else to compare him to. He was my father, beginning, middle and end. In a lot of ways, he was no different than anybody else’s father because he was just a man, a father, the representative of the household, etc. The fact he was famous makes people curious. As it turns out, he really has had an extraordinary life, above and beyond. He probably went thorugh as much as Victor Laszlo [and was] considerably more romantic than Jerry Durand [of Now, Voyager]. It really started when I was in Europe, specically Vienna, seven years ago. I found myself having a lot of time on my hands and getting curious on the buildings he lived in, the schools he went to, the theaters he played in, and that started my own curiosity. You find, when you do that, you end up learning the difference between the myth and reality of what a parent went through, because most of us don’t ask our parents, “What was your life like? What did you go through? How did you feel when you were a teenager?” By going on this journey myself I found it very interesting, and he had an extraordinary life so it’s a story worth telling and it’s a story of survival.
It’s interesting you bring up having no way of elaborating on the differences in your upbringing from someone not from Hollywood. When I talked to Danny Kaye’s daughter Dena, I had a tendency to try to place her in her father’s head, which didn’t work out well. There’s been talk with various celebrity children when they realize their parent is someone different than the average child’s. Was there a moment for you when you realized, “Hmmm, my dad is different?”
No [laughs]. Because everybody else, all the friends in the family, they all had some connection to the entertainment industry. So my Smith and Joneses, my neighborhood, my playmates were Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Fred MacMurray, and Pat O’Brien, Arthur Rubenstein, and Dore Schary who was then the head of MGM, the list is really long. The kids that grew up in the neighborhood I grew up in were in some way related to celebrities. It never occurred to me that my father wasn’t a plumber or a doctor. And, of course, the irony was my father always wanted to be a doctor, so if I caught a cold, oh, my gosh, he was there with “Oh, we have to get penicillin. Let me take your temperature. You’re gonna be fine.” He loved the idea of playing doctor at home. (And I mean that in the best way.) And he studied. He really was interested in health and medicine. He loved to repair things, so he was the one who’d try to fix the plumbing or refinish the furniture if it got scarred. He loved that kind of stuff.
Most people have these ideas of grand, Great Gatsby-esque parties for those privileged enough to grow up in Hollywood as a child of a celebrity. Was that your experience?
I don’t think it was normal and boring, in the sense that the people were all high-energy, interesting people. As Europeans, my mother and father didn’t fit into the Hollywood, Americana lifestyle. They didn’t drink – they drank wine – and they didn’t understand if you were invited to someone’s house for dinner there wasn’t any wine but cocktails flowed like Niagara Falls; that was kind of an awkward thing, for them, the idea of having liquor in the house, and I don’t remember that from when I was a child, I remember that from conversations around the dinner table. Because they were Europeans, their immediate circle of friends were also Europeans, other actors and writers, directors and producers who’d come to the United States in the ’30s and ’40s. And those were the people who, very often, they’d known in Austria or England before they even got here. Our lifestyle was more European than it was American, in the sense that parties and socializing was comfortable. Everybody talked about everything. Everyone talked into the wee hours. God knows I was taken to bed hours earlier by the governess. It was just terrific. There were always musicians; we had a big Steinway piano. People were singing. It was pretty wonderful.
I can’t blame you for bragging about it. Now, before researching your dad did you spend a lot of time in Europe?
Oh, yeah. We went to Europe a lot of summers because most of the family is still there and now the next generation still lives in Austria. I would go back very frequently with them when I was child. My father when he traveled on-location to make movies, me, him, my mother, and sister would join him at some point and spend the summer in France or Switzerland or Austria.
Do you recall the first movie of your dad’s that you watched?
I do! It was the first time I ever went on a soundstage. It was a huge tank of water, he was playing a pirate [it was the 1945 film The Spanish Main], and there was a scaled down Spanish galleon. And someone said, “Your father is the captain of this ship.” My father was 6’3, there’s no way he’d fit on this ship, and that upset me as a child. I don’t know the rationale, but it upset me and I cried. I remember that we had a print of that movie and so we watched that whenever we wanted. So from the time I was a very little girl I watched that film and somehow in my little imaginaton put together that it was okay for my father to be on that ship. I didn’t know how they handled it, but I connected the two. I very vividly remember that was my first film, probably sitting on my mother or father’s lap in the living room, watching it.
Having him make movies so frequently, did you ever have those moments where you felt he was absent too much? Based on how you describe it, your family was definitely together even when he was filming.
He was very much a hands-on dad. (It’s funny, I never called him dad.) He was very involved in the family. He went to sports events, and that’s something else – we had a tennis court and a swimming pool. He was very athletic, and whatever we were involved in, he was involved in. The only time he wouldn’t be there would be if he was working, but back in those days they did stick to, I wouldn’t say they were 12 hour days, but they were 8-10 hour days, and I remember him coming home for dinner – sometimes we ate earlier and he ate later – but you saw him in the evenings when he came home. He was very…
He was very present.
That’s a very good word to use. He was very present, and you always had the sense he was interested in what you were doing. Everything, now the expression is “hanging out with,” if you were hanging out with my father he was teaching you something because of his own curiosity. He loved life, music, art. He was not a political person. He didn’t like politics. He had gotten in trouble enough times by speaking out and holding to his true beliefs, so that wasn’t a conversation you wouldn’t get into, a political one. But he was so interested in everything that there was never a dull conversation. He could talk about philosophers and philosophy going back to the Greeks. You could talk history. And everything was an interesting conversation. I don’t remember many boring times.
I know you can’t speak for him, but what are your thoughts on Casablanca? That’s one of the films he’s most identified with. How do you feel about the film itself and its placement as the landmark role for him?
That’s an interesting question, and for a long, long time I really couldn’t watch the film or be interested in talking about it. It was like…
It was the elephant in the room.
Yeah, maybe that’s it. The man made 47-49 movies. He had a huge career in Europe before he ever got here.
And he directed if I’m not mistaken?
He directed over 300 television episodes; he did 29 Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He started the careers of many people who won Oscars and Tonys and Emmys, and nobody knows that. That’s another reason I want to tell his story because he really helped, catapulted in some cases, people’s careers and he’s long forgotten or never recognized for it. I think people believe he fell out of the sky, made two movies back-to-back, and disappeared. That’s just not true. He stayed through thick and thin and made a successful career and constantly changed himself because he was blacklisted three times, in three different countries, for three different reasons.
Do you have a favorite film or project of his? One that sets itself above the others?
Well, emotionally, I have to go back to The Spanish Main because there he is in living color, and yes, that’s the color of his hair and it was wavy when they didn’t goop it down, and yes his eyes were that wonderful steel-blue color. He was athletic, so to see him jump and bound across the ship…that was pretty close to him. And he had that noble sense, he didn’t like injustice, so that character he played was kind of who he was. And romantic, God yes, that’s who he was. He and my mother were together for 60 years.
To go back to the documentary and project. What point are you at and what more still needs to be done?
Still fact-finding and researching. My father was born before the first World War. He was definitely affected by the second, and I’d like to get it factually accurate. I don’t want to write a fluff piece.
It’s very simple to do that today.
No, I would really like to get a little more into the nitty-gritty of it all because there were some horrific family changes during that period. His father was shot, it’s a complicated story. So, emotionally, he became head of the household when he was a young boy. There’s so much stuff that made him who he was and had he not had those different experiences he might not have survived all the rejections he got being blacklisted. It’s the story of this man’s survival, part of which was done on a very visible platform.
Can you describe the crowdfunding campaign for those who aren’t aware of it?
My father was a movie star and he was rich. I, on the other hand, am not a movie star and I am not rich. I do live comfortably in the Rocky Mountains, so when I come to Los Angeles everything comes out of my pocket. So, I thought, “You know, I’ve managed to achieve 2500 fans on his page. Maybe fans would like to come on this journey with me.” It would give me a little breathing room, if I had $6,000 extra and it wasn’t for me to get my hair done, it was for taking an archivist to lunch, and spending hours with people to help me do the research, and going to screenings, because nothing is free in L.A. I thought, if I had this little buffer and could keep posting these stories…maybe people would feel they were coming on this journey. It has nothing to do with the physical making of the film…this is just a little, “Come on kids, let’s see if you’re interested.” And the interesting thing is how many people have responded to it. One lady sent me this sweet note saying, “I have to stick with you through this, but I’m on a limited budget so I’m sending you $10 every month.” It broke my heart. She, out of her own pocket, is willing to share a piece of that. And I always think you have to give, you can’t just receive. So I said, if you can do $25 I remade some autographed postcards my father sent out in the 1940s to his fans, and suddenly this influx of people are sending me $25. What’s wonderful is this is very encouraging to me because it shows me people are genuinely interested, that they really want to know his story. I’ve received money from England and Australia; the fanbase is huge and I’m so grateful for that because I really want people to get to know him, understand who he was a little bit better. People, if I may say, your age who are film buffs and are interested in how this industry survived at the time, it’s so encouraging because we have to recognize they are the shoulders upon which we stand.
A huge thank you to Monika Henreid for talking to me. And if you want to support her efforts, please consider donating to her campaign.
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I commend your most interesting interview. You really diversify your content and keep it interesting. However, I wonder at your choice of “raconteur” to describe freedom fighter Victor Lazslo.
Thanks for the kind words Patricia. I’ve been trying to both give myself a break on reviews and give you guys something new to read. As for the use of “raconteur,” I figured it sounded better than “political rebel” or other ways to describe him.
I just saw “For Men Only” on TCM. I have always admired Paul Hhenried. I always wondered what
his personal story was. I just read about him, a short bio. Like so many people, I did not know
about his directing career. Now I afmire him even more. Too bad he is gone. Lucky he did not fall into
Nazi hands. As for the McCarthy area, I will always honor his conduct. I hope with all the troubles
he experienced, he had much happiness.