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John Kobal, the talking pictures man – archive, 11 March 1987 | Art and design

“I tend to forget what I’ve just said,” John Kobal said, and a couple of minutes later he said: “What have I just said?” It’s not surprising that he can’t always remember what he’s just said because he says so much. He talks nineteen to the dozen. He also listens.

He must do, because he’s interviewed everyone from Arletty, Tallulah Bankhead, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford at one end of the alphabet to Mae West and Loretta Young at the other end, with Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Anita Loos, Joel McCrea and almost every other Hollywood star you can think of in between. Somehow they all managed to get plenty of words in edgeways and the result is a whole shelf of books.

One of his books of interviews is called People Will Talk. Certainly, John Kobal will talk non-stop, but (as I say) he listens. Interviewing an interviewer (at least this interviewer) presents problems. One is getting the pen to move across the paper fast enough to get down what he is saying especially since the topic of conversation switches at bewildering speed. Another problem is that half the time I feel that he is interviewing me, because as well as being a tremendous talker, he’s also a very good listener. Or have I just said that?

Recently he did an interview for Interview, the late Andy Warhol’s magazine. He wasn’t too pleased with this because he hadn’t had a chance to revise it and he came out saying the most absurd things, worthy of John Cleese. But if they didn’t care he didn’t care. He had put his name, John Kobal, at the top of every page and he came out as George Kobal. He wouldn’t have minded being called Frank or Mark, but George? He’d rather they changed his last name. He’s been called everything from Cable to Cabal and even Cobalt, and he didn’t care, but George?

He doesn’t care. What’s in a name? I suggest there’s a lot. With a name like Shakespeare you would have to write history plays. With a name like Wordsworth you would have to be a poet, and with a name like de Gaulle you’d have to become President of France. He agrees and says that with a name like Plato you’d have to think, and with a name like Aristotle you’d have to take hemlock. Socrates, I say.

Yes, well, how about some coffee? I said I would prefer cold water. He’s very keen on water. We discuss tap water in New York and London. He’s against all this high-priced bottled water. You know what was W. C. Field’s objection to water? Fish fuck in it. He talks about pollution and says that probably the best water is water fish have been in. Take a bowl of water, put a goldfish in it, and if the fish is still alive in the morning then the water’s probably fit to drink.

Andy Warhol did his portrait a couple of months ago. He just took a black-and-white photograph, blew it up and signed it on the back. He didn’t even put any colour on it. His assistant said Andy charged an extra $5,000 for each colour he put on, so he was really doing him a favour by just doing a black-and-white.

That was not long before Andy died. Did he look ill? Well, when somebody looked like Andy it was not easy to say whether he looked ill or not. But people are dying of a lot of things these days. Not just Aids but tuberculosis and asthma (pronounced az-ma). We’re going to be hearing a lot about this over here soon.

A photograph of Hollywood actress and sex symbol Lana Turner, 1943, from the John Kobal Foundation.

A photograph of Hollywood actress and sex symbol Lana Turner, 1943, from the John Kobal Foundation. Photograph: Clarence Sinclair Bull/Getty

The planet’s polluted, toxic wastes. Tomatoes don’t taste of anything unless you put salt on them but now we can’t eat salt. There’s freedom of speech in the United States, if you can afford it. Over there people don’t just sue one another for what they’re worth. They sue you for $50 millions.

He likes England because of its sense of reasonableness. People say things like: “It’s not the end of the world, is it, dear?” That kind of thing. But it’s changed in the last few years. In England we’re taking over the American style, always whipping you up to state of…all these numbers, computers… Americans have to sell things, everything’s been taken over by Madison Avenue. Superficiality. That’s why he prefers it here.

He was talking to Bette Davis the other day and said: “You look down on television,” and she said, it was a pity really, she missed the point because she said: “Oh I don’t know, some people do very good work on television.” What he had meant was that when you’re in the cinema you look up at the screen. But when you watch television you look down on it. Anything you look down on you can’t look up to.

He’s a tall man so he must look down on most people but he clearly looks up to Bette Davis. Admires her enormously. He had told her that a lot of people who had had dealings with her found her difficult and she had said you mean after all those films she had made and the autobiography she had written it came as news to people that she could be difficult?

Suddenly we’re on to politics. It would be nice if Mrs Thatcher had a sense of humour. There are two kinds of teacher and she’s one of them. Talking about humour and politics I said something about what fun it must have been the last few weeks at the White House were the Marx Brothers seem to have taken over. Instead of Howard Baker for Chief of Staff they should have had Russell Baker, the extremely funny newspaper columnist. John Kobal agreed enthusiastically. And Art Buchwald for Secretary of State. He’s been to Paris! And, of course, they’re going to have to make a film of this whole Irangate business. Who’s going to play Nancy Reagan? Jane Wyman, of course. She’s an actress and she’s already played the part of being married to Ronald Reagan.

John Kobal is of German and Russian extraction, comes from Canada and now shares his time between Britain and the US. He has been infatuated with films all his life. His collection of still photographs contains about half a million items and is one of the biggest in the world.

In the old days, before everyone stayed indoors watching old movies on television, we used to go out to watch them in the cinema, only in those days they weren’t old movies but new movies. Queueing for your ticket you would look at the stills on display. After the film you would often think, that was a great scene in the still but I don’t remember it in the film. The reason is that it wasn’t in the film. These stills were studio photographs taken for publicity purposes.

Most of them got thrown away. John Kobal picked them up. He acquired them wherever he could, from the film companies, from the stars themselves, even from delving through dustbins in Wardour Street. People always bring up this story about him going through dustbins. In fact, he only did it once or twice and anyway going through dustbins was not his favourite occupation, but people are always repeating the story about him building the collection by going through dustbins.

Anyway, he built up this huge collection which has been the source for exhibitions all over the world and all these books. But as well as preserving the photographs he had also re-discovered the photographers, who had never been given any credit in their working lives. Cecil Beaton or Avedon, or all those Conde Nast fashion photographers became famous but the Hollywood studio photographers were unknown. Kobal has put them on the map, taken them seriously as artists of the 20th century. Some of them are now in their eighties and thanks to him working again and in high demand.

So what else? He’s going to be on a television chat show, and there’s an exhibition in Leeds which has photographs from the collection, and he’s eventually going to finish his book on Cecil B. de Mille, and he’s written a musical about Mae West. He’s got this wonderful editor at Knopf as a result of whom his books are being taken seriously if being reviewed in Time magazine is being taken seriously. After 20 years of writing he now loves writing, because of this wonderful editor at Knopf. Or has he already said that? What he’d really like is to be paid to sit on television and talk.

People Will Talk, by John Kobal, is published by Aurum Press, price £14,95. Portraits of The British Cinema, Leeds City Art Gallery, until March 19.

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