Robert Altman is born, torments his sisters, judges his parents, collects snakes, chases girls (and catches them), goes to war, tattoos dogs, marries three times, becomes a father or stepfather six times, learns how to make movies, impresses and insults “the suits,” says “cheese,” and sets his sights on Hollywood success.
ROBERT ALTMAN: Kansas City? [Starts to sing] “Everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City. They’ve gone about as far as they could go. They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high. About as high as a building ought to grow. They’ve got a big theater that they call a burleseque. For fifty cents you can see a dandy show.” [Stops singing]
Yep, Kansas City. I think it was a rather uneventful, American middle-class community I grew up in. I don’t think it makes a hell of a lot of difference where you grow up, except if you can’t shake the prejudicial influences. Whether it was Kansas City or Bangladesh. If you grew up in an Amish family in Pennsylvania, and you’re fifty years old today, even if you shed all the main tenets of what you learned, you still retain something of that. A lot has to do with how strong the influences are, where you were placed in the world, and whether you’re inhibited by that perspective. Have I shaken these influences? I don’t know that I have, really.
KATHYRN REED ALTMAN (wife): Kansas City, born and bred. He’s the boy next door. He was very influenced by that whole environment—it’s always been a big part of him.
JOHN ALTMAN (cousin): Our great-grandfather, Bob’s and mine, was Clement. He came here from Germany. They’re the ’48-ers, the failed revolutionaries of 1848. They’re from Schleswig-Holstein and they’re Catholic. And like a lot of those Germanic principalities and duchies, they pretty much took sides at the end of the Revolution of 1848. A lot of the minor nobility and the smaller principalities and rulers were really freaked out by 1848, so they tended to wrap themselves in the flag of either the Lutheran or the Catholic, depending on where they were. If you were in Schleswig-Holstein, it was mostly Protestant, so a lot of the Catholics took off. Clement probably was born around 1835—he died about 1888. So he probably came here, to America, as a boy. They settled in Quincy, Illinois. From the way they’re dressed in photographs, they’re probably petit bourgeois, they’re probably shopkeepers.
Robert Altman at two and a half, in his parents’ home in Kansas City
Clement is the father of F.G., or Frank, our grandfather, who’s born in approximately 1860. F.G. comes to Missouri in 1878, so he’s eighteen or so. He may have come first to Edina, Missouri, which is in northeastern Missouri, a tiny little town. He was here in Kansas City by 1880. He apparently had some money, because he opened a jewelry store on Main Street in the 700 block, which was pretty much right in the center of downtown. And then he moved progressively south over the next few years.
In 1888, he began building what became the Altman Building. He also took on the two buildings immediately next to that, which are very similar but a little bit different. Both had bellied up, and he bought them and then he kind of clapped an iron front on all three of them, so it looked like it was one building. But as you were walking through the building you would know that it was a façade—you would go up sometimes and then go down, on what was supposed to be the same floor. That was at the center of what was known as Petticoat Lane, Eleventh and Walnut, which as a result made it just a dynamite location to build the family fortune. But he didn’t own the land, and there were three different owners of the land underneath these three separate parts of the building. I have had friends of mine from law school call me and say, “Hey, I’m reading about your family’s ongoing lawsuits over this land and how it’s an example of how never to build.” The lawsuit continued for generations and ate up a lot of money.
F.G. marries Nettie, and they’re Bob and my grandparents. They had six children, two of them boys. One was my father, Frank, Jr., and the other was Bob’s father, B.C., for Bernard Clement. The children viewed F.G. like Life with Father, as standing at the head of the table. F.G. was always spoken of in somewhat forbidding terms. Whereas Nettie—God, she was great. She was lovely, she was wonderful. You know in A Wedding, Bob named the matriarch, the Lillian Gish character, Nettie, right?
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN (sister): Our father, B.C., had one brother, four sisters. Frank’s the oldest, then comes Annette, then comes Marie, then comes Dad, then comes Pauline, and then comes Ginny. Annette, Marie, and Pauline were put in Europe, in France, for their education. That’s what they did in those days. Grandmother Altman—Nettie—and Ginny stayed in England. They studied art, music. Annette played the harp beautifully. Pauline played a little bit. Marie was a wonderful pianist.
Grandmother Altman was a wonderful pianist, too. But she wasn’t a concert pianist like everyone keeps saying. She wasn’t—she played in movie houses. And she was a wonderful woman. I mean really great. Just alive and happy and fun to be around.
JOHN ALTMAN: The family story is that in about 1916—B.C. would have been around fourteen—our grandfather’s brother, Uncle Clem, gave B.C. a hundred dollars and said, “Go to Riverside Park and bet that on a horse called Feather Duster.” B.C. goes down to the paddock, sees Feather Duster, and decides, “I don’t like the look of him.” He decides he’s going to save Uncle Clem that hundred dollars. Of course Feather Duster wins at something like twenty-two to one, and B.C. has to go back and tell Clem he didn’t place the bet. That might have been the last bet that B.C. didn’t place.
B.C. and my father were only about a year or two apart, and they were virtual twins, physically. They were products of Kansas City in the teens, which was an ebullient, growing, we-can-do-anything kind of place. I’m sure the country was too, but this city especially. And then the Roaring Twenties in this city, my God, with Boss Pendergast, if you were in your twenties and you had money, which they did then, I mean the world’s your oyster, or at least the world bounded by Kansas City.
The Altman Building initially had twin motion-picture theaters on the first floor. And they opened with Birth of a Nation. The distributor at that time hadn’t figured out this was a twin theater and sent the reels of one print. So they staggered the showtimes by fifteen minutes, and B.C. and my father, who at that time would have been fourteen and sixteen, respectively, were the projectionists. They would quickly hand-rewind it—no electric-power rewinds in those days. They quickly rewind the first reel as it comes off Projector One and run it over and stick it on Projector Two. They quickly solved that, but the first week was really exciting. So maybe that’s how film—like an infection, like dengue fever, you know?—gets into the system, and then it mutates genetically and takes over the lives of your children.
Our grandfather F.G. died the night my father graduated high school. As was the wont of The Kansas City Star in 1917, the obituary says, “Frank Altman, prominent Catholic businessman. …” The Altman Building was one of the last big buildings in Kansas City built primarily out of wood. Huge wooden beams. F.G. would have been fifty-seven, and he was helping some of the workmen move a huge wooden beam. It slipped and he got a huge sliver, which infected. And before antibiotics, he was gone in a few days. He left Nettie, six kids, and enough money for Nettie to live just fine for the next forty years.
Dialogue from Kansas City:
BLONDIE O’HARA (Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh): Can I have my husband back now?
SELDOM SEEN (Played by Harry Belafonte): How do you want him, in a box or a sack?
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BARBARA ALTMAN HODES (sister): Mother’s family was a very wealthy family, the Matthews, but her father died when she was young.
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: Jack, her grandfather, raised walking horses. When he died he went out to the barn and he died there.
Did someone say our mother’s side was from Mayflower descendants? No. Absolutely not. Grandma said they came over with all the other criminals. They got here in about 1701 or 1702, something like that.
TIM ROBBINS (actor/director/producer/writer): My great-grandmother on my maternal side was a Matthews from Missouri. I’ll bet Bob and I are cousins. We’ve got to be some way, right? I mean how many Matthews were in Missouri in the late 1800s? When I heard about the Matthews thing, I said, “Holy fuck, he’s from Kansas City, my mom’s from St. Louis.” Wouldn’t that just be a mind blower? I only learned about it at the memorial, so I never asked him.
ALAN RUDOLPH: My mother’s maiden name was Altman. I didn’t tell Bob for a few years—several years, actually. When I did, he just looked at me for the longest time. And then he said, “I’ll be a suck-egg mule.”
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BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Mother’s name was Helen, but she was called Rose, because she always wore a lot of red. And B.C. was a good-looking son of a gun—a full head of hair, and quite the guy in town. But Mother wouldn’t tip her hat to him. Mother was seeing this man from New York. Anyway, she finally gave in and they started dating, and she said, “I’m not interested in marrying you.” And she would write letters to this guy from New York. B.C. would come pick Mother up, and he’d see that letter, and say, “Oh heck, I’ll mail that.” He’d take it home and steam it open and read it. Then he’d seal it and mail it. He wanted to find out about the guy in New York, to help his own chances.
Bernard (B.C.) and Helen Altman with their toddler son, Robert
So one Christmas, B.C. walks in with a beautiful box of candy. And in the center was this ring box, wrapped in foil. And of course Mother’s mother was there, and her sister and her brothers were there. B.C. said, “Take that middle one.” She said, “You know I don’t eat candy. Why would you bring that?” Finally she took that middle piece and opened it up with the ring inside and oh—“Congratulations!” and everything from her family. She said, “Bernard”—it wasn’t “B.C.” with her, it was “Bernard”!—“in the other room.” Well, Mother was older than Dad and she wasn’t Catholic, though she became one later. She told him, “I’ll marry you under two conditions. Never bring up my age, and never bring up religion, no matter what kind of knock-down, drag-out fight we have.” And that was the deal.
SUSAN DAVIS (actress and cousin): Bob’s mother was before her time in many ways. Helen was into nutrition. She was very charming. Not, in quotes, “social” or “chic.” The Altman girls—Bob’s aunts—were very chic. They all belonged to the Junior League. I don’t think Helen did. Uncle Bernard was much more out there. She was quieter, a very good mother, a very conscientious mother.
JOHN ALTMAN: B.C. always had a twinkle in his eye. He never seemed to talk down to you. He seemed to be interested in what was going on with you. And he also would let you in on masculine things like hunting and drinking underage and things like that. Not terribly—it wasn’t a structured thing, and he wasn’t trying to garner your affection. He was just, you know, “Come on in and be part of the men’s club.” And he was a member of many men’s clubs.
B.C. operated at all these different levels, and always smooth. He had friends from what my father called the “joints” around town all the way up to captains of industry and Ewing Kauffman, who eventually owned the Kansas City Royals. B.C. would be playing cards with the boys and then raising money to put Christ the King parish into existence, without skipping a beat.
JERRY WALSH (friend/lawyer/executor): My father ran for Congress in 1944, and B.C. was his campaign manager. They lost by something like six hundred votes out of twenty thousand or thirty thousand. It was a very close election. My father was not somebody who ever would have been a good politician, I think, but he had the ambition. As for B.C., Bob once said to me, “It’s a good thing for the Republic that they failed in this operation.” He thought his father’s interest, and probably my father’s, too, would have been primarily to find a way to get money out of the federal government for themselves.
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BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Our parents had a great marriage. I’m sure Mother went through a lot with Dad, mostly because of the money he always gave away, but they had a great marriage.
JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: Their relationship? Very good. He took her everywhere, till he had his affair. Even after, I think, he still took her everywhere.
JOHN ALTMAN: Helen was a sweetheart. Sweetest lady. And when she suffered a severe stroke, B.C. did not leave her side. No way was he putting her in a facility of any kind, he just waited on her in every way you could imagine, hand and foot, for years. He loved her, and that was the right thing to do. It was his duty, and I’m sure he wanted to do that very much. He just put his head down and did it and it was a lovely thing to see. It was a lovely example of what a man should be.
BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Yes, all the women loved B.C. Everyone loved him. I mean the men and the women. Why wouldn’t they all adore him—he complimented them from head to toe: “Oh my God, you look great,” and all this blah, blah, blah. All the men really liked B.C., too. My God, he gave them an arm and a leg and a nose to go along with it. It didn’t bother Mother. Mother was never jealous of Dad, of other women or anything. It wasn’t that she decided not to let it bother her. It didn’t bother her because she knew B.C. I can’t put it any different. I’m sure he was not a complete angel in his life, but I mean, she knew my dad. And Mother was a very classy, elegant lady.
The wedding of Pauline Altman to John Walsh was a gathering of the prominent, prosperous Altman family in Kansas City. The ring bearer, fifth from right, was Robert Altman. His father, B.C., is the third man from left, and his mother, Helen, is the first woman on the right.
JERRE STEENHOF (high school girlfriend): The Altmans were an old-time, very well-to-do family in Kansas City. B.C. was almost like the scallywag of the family. Helen was the sweetest, most considerate, charming lady. She was just one of the most beautiful, charming women who ever lived. But in my opinion B.C. was the dirtiest old man who ever lived. He used to speak fresh to all the young girls.
LOTUS CORELLI ALTMAN MONROE (second wife): B.C. was a womanizer, a gambler. Helen was in another world. She was somewhere in the vapors. Just so nice, but she had made her own world because that was how it was. B.C. was a con man. He made his living off the people he knew at the country club, selling insurance policies to them over and over again. He’d play golf, play cards. All he did was play. Bob did take after B.C. in that he could sell anybody anything.
SUSAN DAVIS: It was a funny balance. My family, the Kigers, were in diamonds, and the Altman family was in insurance. My family was so much more serious and responsible. Uncle Bernard made and lost I don’t know how many fortunes. You know that was a little rocky there. Everybody loved Bernard, and who wouldn’t? He was the salesman of the world. But the family was always concerned, “Are they going to have enough money to get by?” Everybody was concerned. And there was a “take care” quality in the family—“Well, we’ve got to buy more insurance over there from the Altmans”—to get them money.
JERRY WALSH: It happened more than once where B.C. would call on a Monday morning. The phone would ring early, the kids were eating breakfast or getting ready to go to school, and my father would answer the phone. There’d be kind of a mumbled conversation. He’d say, “Okay, okay, good. Well, I’ll wait for you.” And my mother would say, “Who was that?” My father would say, “Oh, that was B.C., he’s going to give me a ride to the office.” And my mother would say, “I know what happened. He lost money on the golf course yesterday and he needs to borrow a few hundred dollars to cover a check, isn’t that right?” [Laughs] B.C. would sell some policies and get some money and whatever.
RICHARD SARAFIAN (director/actor/former brother-in-law): B.C. had breakfast in bed until ten o’clock, served by Helen, and then from there he’d go to the Kansas City Club for an hour or two of gin rummy. By three o’clock he was on the golf course. He was a great salesman. He could sell anywhere. He was never a high-pressure salesman, though. In the waiting room, waiting for his daughter Joan to deliver my second son, he sold three policies.
When hunting season came around, B.C. would practice his duck calls months before. Every year he had a new device. One year he manufactured a slingshot out of metal and he was all excited because he had these ball bearings as big as marbles. He was going to shoot the slingshot. He was hard of hearing, but somehow he could always hear the ducks first. On one occasion, he called out, “Here they come!” He pulls back on the rubber band and holds up his thumb to get a good aim and smashes his thumb with the ball bearing. He passed out from the pain, and that was the end of duck season.