By Anna Belle Kaufman
My father, Jacob Lincoln Kaufman, opened his dental practice in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1930s. During that time, and in the years to come, many European artists, writers and film makers fleeing the Nazis settled in LA and worked in Hollywood. One brought another and then another to my dad’s office and soon he had quite a collection of patients from Austria, Germany, Hungary and environs. Some of the more well known were the actor Peter Lorre and Lorre’s wife “Cilly” (Celia) and Fritz Lang, the director, and his wife, the actress Lilly Latte, as well as the actor Pepe Schildkraut. They all adored their dentist and friend whom they called “Kaufie.”
My dad had a great ear and a gift for mimicry and at dinner he would regale us with the language he’d heard in his chair that day, speaking with a perfect Berlinese, Viennese or Hungarian accent. One evening he recounted, in the appropriate dialect, that Mrs Hochfeldt, an elderly German patient, said that she believed in reincarnation and that she had been an Egyptian princess in her past life. Pop told us he replied that he must have been a dentist in his, because his feet still hurt.
Pop was a great joke teller as well as a mimic, and often left his patients laughing. They usually brought him gifts, mostly things to eat. As a child, my favorite were the candies from another émigré, the fine chocolatier Tibor Metzner, who would bring Pop’s favorite “Lehar” (after the Viennese composer Franz Lehar), a filling of minced hazelnut praline and bittersweet chocolate inside a coat of the darkest chocolate we’d ever tasted. Tibor once named a new candy after me, but decided he didn’t think it was good enough to add to his glass case of sweets in their ruffled black dresses, to my great disappointment.
One of Dad’s most beloved patients was Fritz Lang, the great director of Metropolis and the masterpiece M, with Peter Lorre. Lang began his career making German Expressionist art films but went on to marry that aesthetic to popular entertainment, making a name for himself as a great in Film Noir. Fritz said that Goebbels, the Reich’s propaganda minister called him to his office to tell him that the Testament of Dr. Mabuse was being banned, but to also offer him the post of head of the German film studio. Fritz, whose mother was born Jewish, although she had converted to Catholicism and raised him as a Catholic, quickly fled Germany. (Leni Reifienstahl took the post). The monocle wearing Lang had a reputation for being autocratic, overbearing and severe, extremely mean to his actors. But he was a pussycat around my dad, sweet as Tibor’s candy. I don’t know whether it was because he loved him or because one’s dentist has the power to inflict pain. Probably both.
My father must have mentioned my activities to his patients while they were captive in his chair, for when I was in my twenties and starting to work as a costume and set designer, Fritz brought in a rare old book by Ram Gopal, a famous Indian dancer, that had beautiful costume drawings. It was inscribed by the author to Fritz and Fritz inscribed it to me. At the time, Fritz was losing his eyesight, long unable to make films, but was still quite a dashing and imposing man. He died shortly thereafter, in 1976.
In the 1950s and sixties Pop’s evening routine was the same. He arrived home for dinner at 6:00 sharp (no “Madmen” style cocktail hour, he rarely drank), after which he’d nap on the couch, asking me to remove his shiny black oxfords or loosen the laces for him. Then he would get up, put on his blue striped twill apron and go into a small closet he had fitted with a workbench and a stereo speaker. There he would work late into the night carving waxes for crowns and bridges while listening to classical music on the radio. Pop would cast the wax into gold in his office, and then bring it home again. He wore a magnifying visor so that he could smooth and polish the metal to perfection.
Lilly Latte, Fritz’s widow, gave my father this magnifier after Fritz died and Dad used it for many years. The visor is quite old, perhaps bakelite plastic , made by Zeiss, manufacturers of the finest optics in the world. It says “Carl Zeiss, Germany” on the front, but I don’t know whether Fritz brought it with him from Europe or bought it after the war. When I was making jewelry and silver smithing, in the late 1980s, my father gave it to me.
I used it for years as well. Then one day I dropped something on it and the band that goes around the head broke. Although unwearable, I could could never bear to throw it away, packing it along on several moves. I am determined that – one of these days – I will rivet a strip of leather on the band and rescue it. How can I discard something that belonged to the great Fritz Lang, handed down to my father, also long gone. Did Fritz examine film strips while wearing it? Read scripts as he was losing his eyesight? It is an object redolent with history and the memory of two men with talents, one world famous, the other beloved but unknown.
When I looked through the visor, something small was made large, seemingly brought closer. Now, even in its broken state, it brings something faraway close as well: I see Kaufie and Fritz laughing together as they so often did, arms on each other’s shoulders, sharing a box of Viennese chocolates.