Why Did You Kiss Me: Cooking For The Godfather

When I met my future wife and the mother of my two children, Terrel Seltzer, she was rooming with Constance Penley in an essence-of-Berkeley apartment up on Panoramic Way above the football stadium. Connie was at the height of our career as a feminist film critique and woman-about-town, a force to be reckoned with in the cultural hothouse atmosphere of the Bay Area. She had a thin, almost waifish look, fine features, a fabulous sense of Parisian style and a lilting Southern drawl. It was impossible to be upset with Connie until you really got to know her. She and her fellow editors, all of them Francophiles and cutting edge academics, had created Camera Obscura, a trend-setting quarterly that wrote about filmmakers like Jean Luc Godard Douglas Sirk and Francis Ford Coppola in the same breath.

Connie was our entrée to the scene at the Pacific Film Archive, which at that moment under the directorship of Tom Luddy was at its zenith as the U.S. center of Avant Garde film. Tom used university money to fly out, host and flatter the likes of Rainer Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Barbet Schroder, Werner Herzog, Chris Marker, Bernardo Bertolucci, etc. Martin Scorcese took up residence briefly to study Hollywood musicals as he was preparing New York, New York. And of course the center of the Bay Area film scene and the man who could effortlessly bridge the gap between Hollywood and independent film was Francis Coppola, a fixture at the Archive and at Chez Panisse. He was hard at work on Apocalypse Now, which had already attained mythical status with its massive overruns and production related nervous breakdowns.

We were included in many of the post film dinners at Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters the restaurant’s founder and first chef, former girlfriend of Luddy, played host. At the time the entire restaurant was prix fixe and the upstairs had a romantic private dinning room, a cabinet, reserved for Luddy after the restaurant closed. The staff was instructed to save the half consumed bottles of wine, the dregs, and the leftovers, to feed us on the house. They joined in the festivities that lasted til well past midnight most evenings. We occupied a few large tables where broken English and better French sufficed with lots of references to film scenes, directors and actors. For some of us this was the height of Chez Panisse, a neighborhood restaurant that hosted the world.

One evening Tom threw a birthday party for the Andy Warhol star Viva, her 40th. Terrel was five months pregnant and wearing a snug, red vinyl jumpsuit she thought Viva, who had written a book about her pregnancy, would approve of. Terrel was later the subject of a pregnancy cookbook I wrote. More on that later. It was a chaotic affair and somehow Connie ended up seated next to a middle-aged woman who seemed totally out of place. Being a well-mannered Southerner, she took it upon herself to entertain this mystery guest by explaining to her European cinema and the various schools of film criticism in painstaking detail. This monologue went on for fifteen or twenty minutes, when Connie stepped away to get a drink. Tom ran over to her and in a hushed tone audible fifteen feet away said, “Connie, you are talking to Pauline Kael.” Connie was mortified and slunk back to apologize to Kael who dismissed her social error with a wave of the hand.

When Connie announced that Francis was going to spend the night at Panoramic, we were shocked. We lived in a humble, student apartment, Terrel and I with our two month old son Beau in one tiny room, while Connie as the senior renter occupied the large bedroom with the view of the Golden Gate. Francis trooped up the stairway a bit winded after climbing a hundred steps from the street below. He came bearing gifts, many bottles of wine, and the keys to a yellow Renault he was lending us. We chatted briefly and then went to our respective rooms. We couldn’t get over it. Coppola was in the next room, and we would see him at breakfast.

The next two months were a whirlwind with many Francis sleepovers. He hosted frequent screenings at his palatial three story Victorian on Broadway in San Francisco to which we were often invited as Connie’s guest. He had a fully equipped theater, twin 35 millimeter projectors, on-call union projectionist, plush seats for about 30, delicious wine and snacks. Wim Wenders, in town to work on Hammett, a movie being produced by Zoetrope, was there a lot. Tom Luddy never missed a screening. We watched Our Hitler by Sybeberg, an eight hour epoch, over two nights. And many rough cuts of Apocalypse Now which was being edited down the street. One night Sofia, his daughter, who was not apparently getting the attention she deserved, jumped rope loudly in the kitchen above, knowing the disruption she was creating. She did get her father’s attention.

Francis had a massive ego massaged by his family, Hollywood, the media, his employees at Zoetrope and adoring fans worldwide. He would sometimes end discussions by saying, “I am a Hollywood movie director.” He was at that moment considered to be one of the most important directors in the world. Godfather Part II had been released four years before, hailed universally as a masterpiece of American and world cinema. And one thing that he wanted was to be respected by the serious film critics like Connie who carried weight in academia. Connie was given a free office in the Zoetrope building, and, maybe more importantly, direct access to many of the world’s most important filmmakers.

One night we were up until two in the morning and Francis suggested we visit his office, the penthouse in the Zoetrope art deco building in North Beach. His suite is an amazing wood paneled room with portholes he explained reminded him of the Nautilus. We smoked cigars and Francis asked me about my political views which he found intriguing. We descended and he took Connie and I on a tour of the neighborhood, explaining his ambitious expansion plans. He casually asked if I would be interested in the role of minister of politics in a kitchen cabinet he hoped to set up after the release of Apocalypse Now brought in new funds. Terrel was offered a job as well as the research assistant on a bio pic of Nikola Tesla that was to be directed by Dusan Makavejev, who had previously done WR: Mysteries Of The Organism, a film about Wilhelm Reich, another brilliant iconoclast. Being around Francis was like sitting in the court of a benevolent king.

In fact I was offered a less glorious posiition at the restaurant in the first floor of the Zoetrope building, formerly a hamburger joint called Zim’s and renamed Wim’s to honor the filmmaker. The second day there while washing dishes I broke a glass that fell into the ten pounds of hamburger being mixed for lunch. The chef, Willie Bishop, a legendary Chez Panisse alumni by way of Big Sur, took one look at me and shook his head. He wanted a real, hard working diner guy.

Fortunately I was promoted up. I was invited to a meeting with Mia Hunt, a San Francisco socialite, who told me about a huge weekend celebration she was organizing being planned for April, two months away. Francis had just acquired the Niebaum Inglenook Winery, twelve hundred acres in the Napa Valley town of Rutherford, and he wanted to show it off and to commemorate three events that coincided — His 40th birthday, the premiere of Apocalypse Now, and Easter Sunday. Mia explained that this was such a big job, two caterers were required. Peggy Knickerbocker was the overall lead and I would be preparing the meat: two barbecues, 400 pounds of chicken for the Saturday afternoon birthday celebration, and twenty lambs and ten goats for Easter Sunday.

Initially money seemed to be no object. I saw this as a military operation and a chance to make a name for myself — and went about the work, which included commissioning metal grates to span the fire at a cost of several thousand dollars — with intense seriousness. As was later pointed out, it would have been just as effective to build simple spits, but not nearly as dramatic. I hired a staff of four headed by Willie Bishop to help with cooking, rented additional barbecues, arranged for a cord of oak and hundreds of pounds of charcoal to be delivered, dug pits under the metal grates, purchased the meat and the marinade ingredients. I arrived two days early along with two cooks to accomplish the preparations which included marinating the chicken in olive oil, lemon juice and herbs.

More than a thousand of Francis’ closest friends and business associates were invited to spend the weekend. A huge area was set aside for camping with breakfast served both mornings, and at least seven hundred showed up, with more than four hundred occupying tents in a meadow above the main house. It was a glorious weekend with perfect spring weather. The one complication was that Terrel arrived Friday with Beau who was five months and with a horrible case of the flu. She could barely move, and mercifully Beau let her sleep through the first day. She made it to the Sunday spread.

Francis drove around the estate in his turquoise and white 57 Thunderbird convertible, top down, shaking hands and yakking with everyone. He smiled at Connie, but since he was there with his extended family that included his wife, children, father and mother, he couldn’t let on they were seeing each other. There were hay rides for the kids, a sense of camaraderie, and a spirit of generosity and spontaneity that totally transcended the typical Hollywood event. Les Blank, the documentarian, was hired to film the event though no official piece was ever produced.

The birthday party Saturday afternoon was low key and most of the guests, including the celebrities, were so happy to be there at this momentous occasion and to see that Francis, in great spirits, had not apparently succumbed to Apocalypse fever. Robert Stack was particularly taken by the moment, and shook hands with each of the cooks, offering high praise for the food.

Sunday dawned magically. In order to be ready to serve Easter dinner at two in the afternoon my fellow chefs were stoking the fires by dawn. Breakfast was served to all the workers in the first floor master kitchen which had a juke box filled with opera tunes and a beautiful copper espresso machine.

We were eventually visited in the barbecue pits by many of the guests who began smelling the tantalizing smells of roasting meat. To see that many whole animals cooking had a primitive air that was captivating.

An elaborate program had been organized by the Zoetrope staff before the Easter meal was served. An Easter egg hunt for the children had just concluded. A parachutist dressed in a tuxedo landed right on his mark, opened a bottle of champagne he had descended with, and handed Francis, who took it all in stride, a glass of bubbly. The Gay Marching Band of San Francisco played boisterously. Francis gave a gracious “acceptance” speech as he was essentially being crowned the king of Northern California cinema. To seal the deal, Carmine Coppola, Francis’ father and a classical conductor, played the theme from the Godfather and a few tears were cried.

A long buffet table with two lines had been set up to accommodate the dozens of side dishes. Cases of red and white wine from the winery were served by six bartenders. Even Robert De Niro waited in line. It must have taken several hours to feed everyone but no one seemed to mind. One by one the lambs and goats were carved and served. By the end of the day everything had been eaten.

During the entire weekend Mia had me call the weather service at the San Francisco airport for the most accurate forecasts. I stopped calling Sunday morning when it was obvious the weather would be perfect. Monday morning on cleanup day dawned gray and ominous. It began raining by nine and poured the entire day as we filled in the barbecue pits and hauled away all the trash. Still it had been a huge success and now, looking back, one of the most uninhibited expressions of generosity I have seen. After all there was no publicity that came from the party, no magazine spreads or TV footage or Food Network memorials. It was a celebration of a moment that truly came and went, and its own reward.

There was a moment of financial reckoning. The party had gone over budget, to no one’s surprise. But compared to the red ink on Apocalypse Now it was pennies and no one really pressed the issue. Tom Sternberg, Francis’ producing partner scolded me mildly, but then laughed as he gave me my check. He had bigger battles to fight.

Twenty-five years later I ran into Francis at a party in Berkeley and reintroduced myself. I told him how we had met and, as I was finishing, he grabbed me and gave me a hard kiss on the lips. I was totally surprised of course. Was it a play on the Mafia kiss of death? Looking back he probably found this the easiest way to avoid a conversation he did not want to have. But who knows, maybe it was an acknowledgement of that time that was so special and now so far away.