by Peter Tonguette
My father died unexpectedly in early January twelve years ago. I received many condolences and expressions of solidarity, but one note in particular stood out.
It was from Peter Bogdanovich. I had been interviewing the great American director sporadically since 2003, when I was twenty and he was sixty-four. I loved his films, and he liked that I loved them. When he wrote to me about my father though, Peter was not speaking as a famous filmmaker but simply as someone who cared. “I understand what you’re all going through and it is extremely difficult,” he said. “I lost my dad the same way—quick and sudden. The only thing I’ve learned is that his spirit will always be with you. It’s a matter of getting to that level and letting go of the excruciating physical loss.”
I was once buoyed by his films—The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller, and more—and I was now fortified by his words. He said that he had been in my shoes and that it would be okay. Maybe I wouldn’t have trusted these sentiments if they had come out of the mouth of another person, but I believed them coming from him—someone who, I had long been thoroughly persuaded, was a great and sensitive artist. Almost twelve years to the day after my father passed away, the man who had shown me such uncommon kindness himself died, on January 6, at the age of eighty-two.
During the years between my father’s death and Peter’s death, I came to know him much better. We did countless interviews for our book, Picturing Peter Bogdanovich: My Conversations with the New Hollywood Director, and we became increasingly comfortable with each other. Long before I asked him my first question, I had been a student of his work. And we shared a love for classic films, a respect for the men who made them, and, of course, the same first name.
The latter was one of the happy accidents of my life—an accident that, somehow, led me to him. Of course, my parents were not thinking of Peter Bogdanovich when they named me, and it was by no means a foregone conclusion that I would immerse myself in cinema instead of, say, classical music or spelunking. But, since I was called “Peter,” and since I did watch classic films obsessively from adolescence onward, how could I fail to take notice of a director named Peter who had once been a film buff like me?
The inverse was surely true: Peter could never have known that he would one day cross paths with another young film critic named Peter who, at around the same age as he began interviewing Ford, Hawks, and Lang, would start peppering him with flattering questions about his work, but when it happened, how could he not have been amused by the whole thing? The best compliment he ever paid me was when he said, about some interview technique of mine, “You remind me of me.” The last time I talked to him, he said my book was “better than a kick in the head.”
We talked all the time and exchanged emails almost as often. Once, he suggested I title our still-in-progress book “Dear Peter/Dear Peter,” since, for a long time, that was the mock-formal way in which we both addressed each other in writing. Another time, I called him for an interview, but before I could start recording the conversation, he launched into a particularly rich story—one I would have loved to have included for posterity in the book. I asked him to repeat it for the record, but he sensibly declined. A second telling would have taken all of the juice out of it.
We had that kind of relationship—easy and casual, but always caring and considerate. The first Thanksgiving after my father’s death, Peter told me that holidays are always tough after a loss but, as he put it, “try to be thankful for what is, and was.” Years later, he said that, while the fifth year after such a loss can be the hardest in his experience, he was certain that my father’s spirit remained with me and my family.
Peter was firm in his conviction that the soul survives death. That belief was surely rooted in the losses in his own life, especially the death, in 1980, of Dorothy Stratten, the model and actress with whom he fell in love and cast in They All Laughed. She was killed by her estranged husband, Paul Snider.
That trauma prompted Peter to undertake a period of self-reflection and study not unlike how Robert F. Kennedy immersed himself in the writings of the ancient Greeks after the assassination of his brother. Peter became an expert in the matriarchal origins of civilization described by Robert Graves. He planned to make films from Graves’s novels Watch the North Wind Rise, Wife to Mr. Milton, and The Golden Fleece, and he told me he once toyed with the idea of collaborating with Chuck Jones on an animated version of Graves’s “historical grammar of poetic myth,” The White Goddess. He also embedded in his mature films discreet, almost imperceptible references to Dorothy Stratten: a song he co-wrote for her is heard fleetingly on a car radio in Texasville, and in She’s Funny That Way two characters discuss the significance of the unicorn, a creature to which Peter had compared Dorothy.
This might all sound rather academic, but my relationship with Peter was anything but. I’d never describe him as a father figure, but I started to think of him like an older pal. He’d call me that once in a while: You’re a good writer, pal. Thanks so much, pal. He was warm, quick to laugh, quick to quip, and knowledgeable about the ways of Hollywood.
The pandemic had one positive side effect in my life. Peter was reliably at home. As long as I called a little after business hours, he was likely to pick up. Maybe because we both realized the years were marching on, we each called more frequently than before. In his book on John Ford, Bogdanovich remembered the last time Howard Hawks spent time with John Ford, who was then dying. “I mean really goodbye,” Ford said at the end. “Really goodbye, Jack?” Hawks asked. “Really goodbye.” While I never had the impression or premonition that I was having that sort of conversation with Peter, I did make it a point, in the last months, to say, implicitly and explicitly, everything I wanted to say to him.
We last talked two days before Christmas—an extraordinarily upbeat and fun call. We covered everything from George and Ira Gershwin (about whom he was planning to make a movie) to Ernst Lubitsch (whose films he and I both adored). We agreed that everyone desperately needed a laugh. Peter felt that the world was ready for a Bogdanovich comedy.
Charged by this conversation, the next day I watched George Cukor’s comedy-drama Holiday, starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as a pair of proud nonconformists. I discovered this film years ago on the strength of Peter’s recommendation. “After the film, as I walked home on the dark Manhattan streets, I was feeling buoyant, happier than I could ever remember, positive about the vast possibilities of life,” he recalled of his first watch as a sixteen-year-old in his book Who the Devil Made It. When the film was over, I thought again of the young man on whom the film had left such an impression, and I told myself to mention it to him when we next spoke. I also meant to tell him that a book I had edited, Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews, was being translated into Serbian.
But there was no next time. How I wish I would have dialed his number on December 31. Or January 1. Or January 3. He would have answered.
No death since my father’s has had as great an impact on me. I find myself jolted when, throughout the day, it dawns on me that Peter is gone—that there will be no more conversations, no more answering machine messages, no more phone tag, no more “Dear Peters,” no more movies. Friends seem to have anticipated my reaction; I have heard from people from the distant past. Many tell me they are “sorry for my loss,” or words to that effect. Of course, it isn’t my loss at all. It’s a loss for Peter’s family: his sister, Anna; his two daughters, Antonia and Sashy; his devoted second wife, Louise.
Is it wrong that I feel so bereft over someone who was, in most measurable ways, so remote from my own day-to-day life? I don’t think so. As members of the human race, we are constantly seeking points of contact with each other, even if those contact points are sometimes unlikely or at a distance. I’ve come to regard Peter as one of the most significant people in my life—someone whose empathy, compassion, and fellow feeling extended to me, his devoted moviegoer and most grateful friend.
I’ll always remember the way Peter answered the phone—“Yeah?” And the way he wrote the letter f in a single stroke, as when he inscribed a book “For Peter.” Above all, I treasure the generous way he allowed a fan into his life. Over the past few days, I have thought a lot about the many great examples of ordinary people making contact with giants: a young Stephen Sondheim being taught by Oscar Hammerstein II, or Joy Davidman corresponding with C. S. Lewis. Peter was my giant, and I never expect to have another.
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