In Memory of Else Blangsted, 1920-2020, Part One

The legendary music-editor of countless classic films, and beloved friend to so many, has died

“Of all the great music editorsshe is the queen,” said famed film composer Perry Botkin.

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This was an estimation of Else Blangsted shared by pretty much all the songwriters, composers, directors and actors she worked with during her years as Hollywood’s preeminent music editor. Sure, there were a few exceptions, those who didn’t love her because she was too honest with them.

But to Quincy Jones, she was always, as he said, his “Bavarian Princess.”

Robert Redford, in a written tribute delivered when she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, declared that Else had “the mind of an artist and the soul of a saint.”

I was fortunate to be her friend for years. Very fortunate, as I am to be friends with the great Van Dyke Parks, who introduced us when I was working on my book Hollywood Remembered. (Van Dyke shared with me his reflections on Else yesterday, which will be in Part Two).

I was one of her guests that happy night when she received her lifetime achievement award. Usually such events would not interest her. She always cared more about the work, and about doing it with truth and diligence, than awards or acclaim. But this one, she knew, mattered. And it was fun, too.

Her acceptance of this award was something not to be forgotten. She was 88 then, some twelve years ago. As soon as her name was announced in the big ballroom where this event was held, she slowly stood, smiling, and owned the moment. Talk about mindfulness. She knew how to savor a moment before that word and concept became part of our everyday currency.

As the entire ballroom turned to see her, she stood and then literally danced, spinning through the cheering crowd smiling, as she approached the stage and ascended. As the applause slowly faded, she waited. And then accepted the honor with the relaxed grace, candor and humility for which she’s long been revered:

“Like everyone else,” she said, “I did my job, and I did my best.” Then a slight pause – she knew timing – and added, “I just did it longer, not better.”

She always said she would live to 100 “and then no more.” When asked why only 100, she answered immediately.

“Because that is enough. One gets exhausted.”

She died two nights ago on May 1st at 2 AM California time. She was where she wanted to be, in her beautiful home. She was only three weeks shy of her 100th birthday, May 22.

But this is her 100th year, after all, born in 1920, so close enough.

She had a beautiful house, where she lived with her beloved cats, books, photographs, and memories. Both her front yard and backyard were always bursting with a beautifully vibrant profusion of blooming flowers. While most people never make any time in their lives to stop and smell the roses, Else literally made that time every day. It’s one of many qualities that has endeared her to so many Hollywood legends.

She had many great friends. Her best ever, I think, and most beloved, was the late great Dudley Moore. Anytime she spoke of him, that lovelight came to her eyes, and she would tell me another funny, charming, sad and beautiful story of the one she called always “my Dudley.” She so loved him, as he loved her.  

In her last years she was closest to her friend Jamie, the actor James Cromwell, who shared her humor and passion for politics. And she remained close to a legion of actors, composers, musicians and friends, including Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Quincy Jones, Robert Redford and many more.            

Many times she said that she didn’t care about fame, though she knew a lot of famous people, past and present. She cared about talent.

“I’m a talent groupie,” she said many times. “I can’t care about fame or celebrity at all.”

This was mostly true, though not entirely. She admitted to liking it when she was out with Jamie, and people would come to the table to pay their respects.

She was born on May 22, 1920 in Würzburg, Germany, an ancient city in what is considered Bavaria, halfway between Nuremberg and Frankfurt. Being part of a wealthy Jewish family, at that location and moment in history, was volatile; her life was punctuated by passages of both remarkable triumph and deep tragedy.

And though she modestly would insist that living through it all didn’t result in any surplus of wisdom, she did allow that, if anything, she maintained a healthy sense of humor through it all.

After the New Yorker magazine published a 40-page profile in 1988 detailing the singular series of events that is her life, from growing up in a Jewish family during the early days of Nazi Germany, getting pregnant out of wedlock as a teen, attempting suicide, giving birth to a daughter she was told was dead, leaving Germany as a girl to come to Hollywood to work as a nanny for the producer Mervyn LeRoy before getting work in the studios, appearing in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent Samson & Delilah, and eventually becoming one of Hollywood’s best and most beloved music editors — through love affairs and marriages, through the death of her husband, to meeting again the daughter she thought had died decades earlier, and much more  — her main response to this telling of her tale in this famous magazine that we both loved, and considered the greatest, was one of regret:

“It all seems pretty grim,” she said with a smile. “They left out all the humor.”

But as any of her friends know well, time spent with Else never was without humor for very long. She loved to laugh, and even to laugh at herself. She told funny and often bawdy stories about people she knew well, and knowing of my love of Hollywood and its legends, would indulge me with stories about those she knew well, from DeMille to Chaplin to Spielberg to Dudley and beyond.

Daily she would dine at her local haunt, the coffee shop of the old Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City (until they modernized it and deleted all its charm). It’s there we’d meet regularly, at the table where she held court for years. Back then there were framed black & white photographs on the walls, mostly of stars from the cinema she knew. But over this table was a photo of a young, beautiful and glamourous woman taken in the 1930s. I’d assumed it was a starlet I didn’t recognize. I was wrong. It was Else. She was beautiful all through her life. But back then, she was stunning. But in a real way.

She didn’t eat much then. Always she’d bring an avocado from her own yard (insisting eating one a day was good for your health, which is affirmed by her longevity), and would order an English muffin. In the first years she would get eggs sometimes, and with hashed browns “well-cooked; by which I mean burn them, please.”)

We’d switch off picking up the checks each time, a good system. And though I would ask a few questions, and maybe answer a few, mostly I would listen. Happily. She was a wonderful storyteller and she knew how much I loved to hear all her stories. Many were funny, some quite sad, some romantic, some sexual, and some truly horrific.

For she was in Germany just as the Hitler regime was created, and the ultimate horrors of the Holocaust slowly but surely infiltrated into her life. She also was the daughter of a woman who was both physically and emotionally abusive to her. But rather be forever diminished by her treatment, or worse, Else found strength. Instead of becoming a bitter or mean person, she became the opposite.

In the 1988 New Yorker profile of Else, “Nothing Else To Wish For,” the focus was mostly on the terrible circumstances of her earliest years and ultimate escape and triumph in Hollywood. It is not the story she wanted to talk about with me, and rarely did we go there.

But later on, she shared more of this darkness. She got pregnant as a teenager, which was a shame she tried to hide and hoped would go away. After she gave birth, the baby was taken from her and she was informed it was dead. Although she never knew at the time, that was a lie. The baby, whose name was Lily, was not dead. It was stolen from Else and adopted by a wealthy family. Many decades later Lily found Else, and they met again.

Her parents recognized that the rise of Hitler and The Third Reich, although so incremental at first that many never could accept it was real, meant the end of their lives in Germany. They devised a plan to get Else out of the country, and onto a boat to America. They put much of their considerable live-savings into gold buliion bricks, which they hid inside a white toy dog, which Else carried.

Her ship went from Europe to the harbor of New York, near Ellis Island, where most immigants and refugees disembarked for entry into America. But Else’s voyage was to the other coast, and she stayed on the ship as it went under the country and through the newly-created Panama Canal to its ultimate destination of San Pedro, the harbor or Los Angeles.

The toy dog of fortune, however, which she had checked into storage, was returned to her with her suitcase. But it was empty. All the money, on which this expedition was founded, was gone. Arriving with only a few dollars instead of that secret wealth, she did what she did her whole life. She adjusted. That first night she went to a movie, and before it was over, hid in the dark, where she slept. She was resourceful.

Her arrival in Hollywood began, as did cinema itself, with silent movies. And it’s there our conversations began, not in that tragic dark of the past, but in the bright light of the Hollywood shimmer she knew I loved to discuss. The reason we met was because I was working on my book Hollywood Remembered, and interviewed all those I could meet who remembered it from its glory days. Always thrilled to meet anyone who could remember back to the Hollywood of the silent era, I was delighted when Van Dyke Parks connected us. That is where our friendship began, and a fun topic for her to discuss. Especially given her famous candor, and love of sharing the
real stories about the actual humans who lived inside these legends. Even Chaplin himself, who she knew and I tended to idolize, was so honored. Because of her, I got to know him a lot better.

When she arrived, Chaplin was the first global star of the movies, making his films at his Hollywood studio on La Brea & Sunset. And just west a few blocks from his studio, was Paramount, where DeMille was the king for a long time. She didn’t like either of them.
Before discovering her career pathway in Hollywood, she entertained the idea of being an actress, and worked in one of DeMille’s early enormously-populated silent epics.

“I had a small part in Samson and Delilah,” she said over her toasted muffin and avocado. “DeMille was a very strange man. You can see me in the movie – I am standing behind Hedy Lamarr and they put this wig on me with blonde curls that made me look like a cocker spaniel.

“There were 300 extras in this scene who had to start running when Samson pulled down the walls of the temple. I asked DeMille if we could have a rehearsal because I was scared of being trampled. He refused and did the scene – and you know anytime you fear something, that is when it will happen – I did get trampled. I got hurt. That was the end of my acting career.”

That wasn’t the only reason her encounters with one of Hollywood legendary directors was not pleasant.

“DeMille was Hollywood,” she said. “He was a concept. He was an ugly bald man in riding britches with a whip. He wanted terror, he wanted confusion. I did not like him.”

Else’s first film: DeMille’s “Samson & Delilah”

She worked first as a nanny for Mervyn LeRoy, and through him met the Warners. She charmed them by teaching their children how to sing the ancient Jewish prayers in Hebrew.

She apprenticed in the studios and eventually worked her way up the ranks to becoming a music editor, the person responsible for all the music in the film, and for working as a conduit for the composer and director of the film. 

Her first work was mostly in TV (“God-awful shows like Hazel and Dennis the Menace,” she said), but soon moved into movies. Though she wasn’t credited as music editor on many of her first films (though we managed to add many of these to her official IMDB page), the list of her credited films includes countless classics through the years.

These include Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, On Golden Pond, The Great Santini, Ordinary People, In Cold Blood, Cactus Flower, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Front,  Nuts, Tootsie, All Of Me, and Six Weeks (with a score by Dudley Moore).

She explained how the role of a music editor has changed immeasurably since her day.

“It’s an entirely different system today,” she said. “We did everything by hand. No one cuts film anymore. It’s all digital. In my day, the music editor was the communicator, ideologically speaking, between the composer and the director.”

She then detailed the diligence she brought to her job, which far transcended that of other music editors, as affirmed by those who worked with her. It’s why Else became not only the best, but the most beloved of Hollywood’s music editors. A musician herself and great lover of composers, she brought the role of music editor to a new place. She did this in terms of her intense focus on all aspects of the work, which made the composer’s job easier and the movie better. But also because of her candor, her fearless love of telling the truth, especially in situations where no one else would dare to, as they wanted to remain employed.

Sure, it’s true she forever alienated herself from a few important directors this way. But mostly she endeared herself to them, and to the composers, who would only want to make a movie if Else was there.

Her job began by ‘spotting’ the cues of a film with the composer and director, those movie moments deserving of music. She’d then log a detailed description of each cue with its timing, which she rendered with exacting precision: “You describe a close-up, or a city, or two people before a kiss, whatever it is.”

Unlike the other music editors, she would time her cues within one-hundredth of a second, which had a real effect, as she illustrated with two examples, both composed by the legendary composer, and one of her favorite people ever, the great Dave Grusin:

“In Tootsie, when he/she first goes to an interview, her heel gets caught on something, and I timed that split-second it happens. And it made a musical joke of it. You can hear it.

“In Golden Pond, ” she said, “when Henry [Fonda] finally catches the fish, I timed the fish. You’re not aware of it. But you like it better. For some reason you feel that he really caught that fish.”

Her meticulous tome of cues and timings was delivered to the composer, who went away to write the score based on her calculations. Upon its completion, she would take the score, and physically scribe the cues directly onto the film stock in preparation for recording.

Next came the scoring session, during which the composer conducted the orchestra, while she led the session.

“Musicians are like naughty children,” she says. “You get 48 of them, or more, and they’d all be chatting and gossiping, and I would say, into a mike, `We are in readiness!’  Then they shut up and go to their chairs, and play.”

After the recording was finished, she supervised the process of matching the music to the movie.

But all of this entails only the surface aspects of her role. What made Else the queen was that formentioned candor; her consummate capacity to communicate candidly with everyone involved, regardless of rank, and to ceaselessly champion the composer.

“When working on movies,” she explained, “the communication is more domestic than one might think. We connect with strangers the same way we connect with people at home. And that’s important: Don’t change your language when you talk to people who have more power than you do. Language is just physical. I’m talking about what is interior.

“If we like ourselves enough, it passes not only for charm, but it makes you less of a liar about your own life. And that truth communicates itself. And I really think I’ve got that by the short-hairs. Because I will talk to Mr. Redford the same way I talk to you. It’s a liberating thing.” 

It’s true. Anyone who knew her knew she valued talent far above celebrity. She’s been singularly unimpressed by some of the biggest stars Hollywood has known, such as Chaplin. Given that I had nothing but a reverence bordering on admitted obsession with the man and his movies, I was thrilled to learn she had known him, as she knew. She also enjoyed sharing the man inside that myth. She first met him in Hollywood, and then again a few years later, when she lived next to him and his wife Oona in Lake Geneva, Switzerland for years. “He had a beautiful house,” she said. “But not as beautiful as mine.”

Regarding her first impressions of the man, she said, “There was no awe meeting Chaplin. He was human. And the most egomaniacal guy I ever met.

“I went to a dinner where I first met him and Oona, who was very beautiful, and also very pregnant. And Charlie was telling story after story and wonderfully acting them out. And Oona kept saying, ‘Charlie, I really have to go home.’  She looked like she was going to faint.

“He’d say, ‘Yes, Honey,’ and then go right back into another story. I felt sorry for Oona, much more so than I felt entertained by Chaplin.”

But some other stars who were not always well-known for their kindness, such as Frank Sinatra, were remembered with surprising fondness.

“My dear friend Lee J. Cobb was dying,” she said. “Sinatra saved his life. Lee had a series of heart attacks and couldn’t recuperate. It was a bad time for him, after the House Un-American thing, people always hounding him.

“Sinatra took care of him. He gave him a key. A key to a gorgeous apartment on Fountain Avenue with a houseboy when he got out of the hospital. Where he could recuperate slowly and in style. Lee asked me to write a letter to Sinatra to thank him for saving his life.”

She then recited some of the letter, which was very funny in a way guys can be funny with each other, and better left unwritten here.

Of all the composers she worked with, she became closest with Dave Grusin, who scored hundreds of films. Grusin, who is retired now, confirmed happily the tales of Else doing yoga in the studio, which she did for decades before it was in vogue, and her eternally unflagging advocacy for the composer’s work to be heard.

Let us hear the music!,” he related, was her relentless refrain.

Else with Dave Grusin. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter

Of all those she worked with and who became close friends, none made her smiling eyes sparkle more than Dudley Moore. Asked how they first met, she told me it was a friendship triggered, as was much that was momentous in this town, by a phone-call.

“Tony Bill made a movie called Six Weeks,” she said, “and he calls me and he says, ‘I got Dudley Moore to do the score, and he’s got a music editor but I think you two should meet, you’d like each other.’

“We made a date down in Venice to run the film. My Dudley was already there wearing a silver silk cravat. I said to myself, ‘He’s more frightened than I am!'”

“We sat down, looked at the film, we both liked it, nobody else did. I said to him, ‘You have two and a half minutes to make up your mind that I will be your music editor.’ I went away. Came back and he nodded his head very definitely. We made that movie and then another and then another.”  

Like many people, Dudley needed someone to trust, and when Else came into his life, he found a life-long confidante. She knew of his love of tall, beautiful blondes, many of whom he married and paid alimony to forever. She also knew of his great musicianship. He was a serious pianist, and loved playing music more than acting.

But she was also wise to the fact that he was a showman, and could always see the truth in him which remained hidden from most. He often would do piano concerts with an orchestra. At the Hollywood Bowl in 1981, he performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” and more, with the L.A. Philharmonic. So charming and beamishly luminous was he, that it was received with an ecstatic ovation that seemed endless.

But Else knew that he had made several mistakes, which he covered up admirably with such flair and flourish that nobody noticed. But she knew it would bother him. He let down Gershwin, after all, whom he was there to honor.

She waited in the wings for him as he came off-stage towards her, and saw the anguish in his eyes. She hugged him and said, “Don’t worry, Dudley. Nobody noticed. Except me, of course.” He laughed and they went off to celebrate.

Through his triumphs and his sorrow, she was there for him. During the last years of his life, while he was in New Jersey suffering from a rare brain condition called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy from which he died in 2002, and could no longer speak, he could still listen. So Else would call regularly, and read to him over the phone.

“Always Dickens,” she remembered. “He loved Dickens.”

Asked to describe why she loved him so, her answer was succinct and immediate.

“My Dudley was a wonderful person,” she said. “A truly good person.”  

She was forever fascinated by the human condition, something we both shared. She loved great books about people, fiction and non-fiction, and watched a movie every night. Many of those were ones she hated, but anytime she saw a great one, she loved telling of its greatness. Since she spoke several languages, she watched films in French, German, and other tongues, too.

And she loved sharing her own stories, some of which became mythic, especially those about people with great fame and fortune and the inevitable human foibles they all went through.

Close friends with Gil Friesen, who along with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, started A&M Records, she told this story of him, which said much about the man and also about this town.

When Herb and Jerry decided to sell A&M, they made a deal which was huge, making them all many milions. They did it without Gil’s consent, as was their right, legally. Though they went away with much more than he did, his did end up with a reasonable share: $50 million. But Gil, as Else related, was furious about this.

I remember her saying, with disbelief in her eyes, “Can you imagine that – here he finds out he just made fifty million dollars – and he was livid!” But later she allowed that some things are about more than money, even in Hollywood, and he felt betrayed.

When I first met her she was 88, and in great shape physically and mentally – very sharp – kept vigorous by a wise diet and yoga always.

But even 88 was older than most people, which she knew. She embraced her age. She liked being old, she said, because she could get away with being honest much easier than when she was young. People expected it from her now.

Never, though, was she coy about what was inevitable. She promised she would live to 100, and no more. She also was clear that she had no faith in God. And after enduring what she did in such close proximity to the Holocaust, and its effect on her family and the world, it’s understandable. She even would mock me for my faith, and belief in the power of prayer.

So she didn’t plan for an afterlife, at least any she admitted to me. But she did plan to the end of her life – how old she would be – as well as her funeral itself.

As a longtime music editor she couldn’t help but score the music she wanted played at her memorial:

“‘God Bless The Child’ by Billie Holiday is number one,” she said. “Because it’s ‘God bless the child who’s got his own,’ which I love.

And I’d also like Randy [Newman] to be there to perform ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On.'”

Right now, during this season of lockdown, that funeral which so many of us have envisioned sorrowfully for years, cannot be held in public. But in the honor of Else, here are those two chosen songs, offered now with gratitude forever and in loving memory of a great and true friend.

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