From 1967 to his death in 1975 Norma Shepherd was Bernard Herrmann’s third wife. She is currently living in Southern England where I talked with her in 2004.
Part 1: Benny and Norma
You didn’t particularly warm up to Hollywood, I suppose?
I hated it. It wasn’t Hollywood’s fault. I was brought up with a kind of simple life in Yorkshire, went to University, I’ve always been intelligent and sensitive, but I went out there with Benny, did it three months at a time, three there, three here. And every time I came back here [I felt like] Persephone let out of Hades, and then going back into Hades. Partly because I didn’t drive there and you’ve got to. Secondly most of the years we were there he was not happy. He wasn’t getting enough work, he was working but he was doing stuff he didn’t particularly want and he wasn’t a big shot in the studios anymore, so he was a little bit depressed and he started hating it.
It was a different world to me. Once, I was newly there and there was a ring at the bell in the early morning. And there was a phalanx of ladies with blue hair and Bermuda shorts and I wasn’t ready to receive them. Benny was working. I said: “Who are you?” “We are the Composers’ Wives Association, and the girls are very miffed you haven’t joined us.” I said I didn’t know about a Composers’ Wives Association and then I said: “What do you do?” And the front one came up to me and put her hand out and picked up a lock of my hair and dropped it in distaste. “Well for instance honey, we could help you with your HAIR.” I said, “I am not quit ready, phone me and see me another time”. And then I said to Benny: “Who the hell are the Composers’ Wives Association?” – “Oh they’re such stupid bitches! All the wives of composers who never get any work and shouldn’t get any work. Real composers’ wives would never join that.” Then I found out the whole of Los Angeles is one big wives association. That’s what it is.
In 20th Century Fox was a barber shop and whoever the musical director was, like Lionel Newman, somebody who gave out the jobs. They found out when he got an appointment for his hair cut and they fought each other for that seat next to him in that barber shop. And they had that kind of ladies agreement that it is her turn to get that husband in the seat. “Have your haircut next to him so you might get a job.” That typifies life out there, that’s why I didn’t like it. But day to day you wouldn’t think I was miserable. I got on with things. And of course I was there to support him and we got the animals all those cats and dogs and things. I made the best of it, but I wasn’t fulfilling myself in anyway, I was doing it for him. And then when he got fed up with it I was thrilled.
We brought all the animals over into quarantine, blood hell. Herrmann said I can’t bear to see them put in boxes, you got to do it. This is when we moved out of the house [Bluebell Ave] that belonged to Lucy II. We rented it from here because she got it in the divorce. And so I came with 15 suitcases and 5 boxes of animals on a plane on my own to go into quarantine.
And then every day in the quarantine, he couldn’t bear to see them in a cage, so I had to go every day out to Uxbridge, 50 minute drive, 50 minute drive back to see the animals every day. And his old favourite died in there of cancer, but never mind he got a next one. One dog and three cats…He loved his animals, he adored them.
That’s when you two moved to Chester Close…
That is our old house, Chester Close, which we bought from Christine Keeler, she lived in there with her young husband and when they had a baby they wanted a bit more space. So they moved. Then they broke up and he wrote us if he could have his house back. “I love that house; I’ll give you a big profit.” And I said to Benny, we only just moved it, I only just got straight, we can’t move again. And he said: “Let him have it, I feel sorry for him”, because he had a soft heart like that.
And that’s the Bentley…
Herrmann always wanted one of those all his life and we were walking past a shop window in Mayfair near Berkeley Square one day and it was in the window and he marched in and said: “I’d like that car”. And they said: “Oh this is the most beautiful…” “I know exactly what it is! I’d like it!!” And then they said “and the tires are so wonderful” He said “I want it!” They spent half an hour selling it to him after he said he wanted it. But he never drove it because he couldn’t drive on the left. He tried a couple of times and nearly got us killed, so he never drove it, I did.
I loved it and I was going to keep it forever, but it was so difficult to drive
In California he went out one day with Hitchcock, they went to a Rolls Royce dealer. And they both walked in and asked to look at the cars and this chap didn’t recognize either, he should have recognized Hitchcock, and he looks at them, because they were always very badly dressed and untidy, and he said no: “You couldn’t afford it anyway.” And Hitchcock said: “I am Alfred Hitchcock. You have just seen ten thousands of dollars walk out of your shop!” So they didn’t get one that was when Benny bought the Alvis.
Before you met him, had you ever heard of him?
Yes. In my late teens I mixed him up with Bernard Herrmann of the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra. A lot of people made the mistake. Even the BBC made the mistake … A couple of times my Benny tried to, not sue them, but tried to get lawyers to say “Look, someone made this mistake again in print”, because the newspapers used to make it as well. And the BBC wrote: “There is no confusion between the two Bernard Herrmann’s at all.” And a week later we get his tax papers from the BBC to our address! … And Benny opened it… “He doesn’t earn very much, does he?” And once we had some teenage girls climbing up the railings and ended up on our balcony, looking in the big window. We saw all these faces. And what happened? Paul McCartney had gone and done an arrangement of something with Bernard Herrmann of the Northern Dance Orchestra. And I don’t know wherever they thought finding Paul McCartney at Bernard Herrmann’s… but they all climbed up the balcony shouting Paul McCartney! And Benny said: “Oh lets let them in.” And he let them in and the porter removed them. There was confusion.
When did you first meet him?
It was New Years Eve 66 becoming 67 […] we shared a taxi. On New Years Eve there aren’t any taxis, you fight for taxis, so we shared with somebody else, me and him. And then ‘somebody else’ got out and I was in with him and he said something … very gruff and rude to me: “Oh well, you are a bit thin, I think I ought to buy you some lunch tomorrow.” I said: “All right then.”
But before this I heard of him again. Some friend of us, you know Lea and Perrins’ Worcester sauce, well the young man of that family … and his girlfriend invited a couple of us to dinner one night and they said “This man will be here, Bernard Herrmann the composer. Only don’t be surprised if he seems rude because if you are saying anything that is not interesting he will just shut you up immediately or pretend you are not there, and they warned us over that. He is a brilliant man, but he won’t have that social niceties. So don’t be offended.”… But that was ages before I met him on the New Years Eve.
And did he live up to his reputation?
But he was very, very kind. He would never be rude or nasty to somebody weaker. Or to an animal or to anything weaker, he would not. He’d love to do it to people he thought needed bringing down, arrogant people who had no right to be arrogant. If he had a right to be arrogant you could be as arrogant as anything like Stokowski. If you had no right Herrmann would see to it that you were humbled a bit.
I got the impression from people that were close to him that he was actually quite soft.
He was soft and kind. Any animal or insect or anything he was very, very soft. Or elderly people… He didn’t like children! No children. Don’t bring any children. Thank you very much… He used to say to his brother Louis: “Oh come around, but don’t for gods sake don’t show me any photos of your grandchildren, it’s so boring!”
Did he ever sing Wuthering Heights to you?
Herrmann sing? Sing? It was the worst, worst sound. Worse than even playing the piano! Oh god, oh no, he couldn’t sing. Absolutely not – No!
You know to do Wuthering Heights he walked every step in Yorkshire and all the places where it took place. His heart and his soul was in that. He used to say one day somebody will do it. During my years with him there were about 4 or 5 approaches from different opera companies wanting to do it. And he said, they can’t afford the set, they can’t afford the size of orchestra and then he did it himself on record.
He was mad on Emily Bronte. He used to make a joke about why he got in with a Yorkshire girl, because his soul was up in the moors with Cathy. He once conducted the Halle Orchestra in Sheffield, this was after his divorce, and the leader of the orchestra said to him “Don’t you want one of our Yorkshire lasses? Don’t you like our Yorkshire lasses?” And then he used to tell this tale, “I ended up with a Yorkshire lass.”
There was a big age difference between you two.
It never bothered me, it never bothered him. Ever! In fact he used to laugh about it. He laughed a lot about it. And he said Stokowski said to him: “Don’t get a green apple, get a ripe apple. I had a green apple which was Gloria Vanderbilt. It doesn’t work out with a green apple…” and Benny used to laugh about it. A lot of people on my side said “are you sure, is this the right thing?”
There’s something about it, they die first, don’t they, when there is a big age difference. That’s sad. I suppose at the back of your mind when you are young, you know that might happen.
He died fairly young actually…
He had very high blood pressure and this is what caused these outbursts. It was a disease, and they gave him pills and he couldn’t take them as he couldn’t talk properly and couldn’t compose. They calmed him down, so he didn’t take them. So he knew what he was doing. Anyway… no the age difference didn’t bother either of us. He was still 17 in the head, really.
Aren’t most men?
No some are 50 when they are 15!
…It’s impossible to image him 90. It’s almost a blessing that he went earlier. He would have been hopeless and miserable if he couldn’t do what he was doing. Like he was when they gave him those pills for blood pressure. And he was miserable because he wasn’t himself. So maybe it was good that he wasn’t ninety so he couldn’t do what he was doing.
But of course this age difference happens a lot in show business. It doesn’t happen in banks and insurance companies. Somebody ought to write a book about that. Of course Hayley Mills and Roy [Boulting] who were friends of ours, they had 31 years I think, we had 29 years… She was happy.
Hayley Mills. She was pretty famous in the 60ies.
She still is. She is over here. She is not doing a lot of work though now. But she was more famous as a child. She has not done a film for a long time now really. Her son is a very, very famous weird pop star. It’s hers and Roy Boulting’s. His name is Crispian. Everybody has heard of him. He has got some funny kind of band I don’t know. He is a household name.
I saw him when he was born. Before he was born, he rode in that very Bentley in his mum’s stomach out to Laurie Johnson’s.
Part 2: Name dropping…
Laurie Johnson, still lives in London, doesn’t he?
I’ve sort of lost touch a bit, we keep sending us our love, living down here it’s hard to see everybody.
Oh yes he loved Howard Blake before everybody loved Howard Blake.
David Raksin, they used to row all the time. They were buddies but they rowed…
They wanted [Herrmann] to do Laura. You know Dave Raksin did Laura. And Benny said: “Don’t have me. Don’t do it. Laura would listen to Debussy. I’ll help you how to put the Debussy [in]. Laura has to have Debussy.” So they said “Goodbye Herrmann” and then they got Dave Raksin who got the biggest hit of all time. And that was mentioned every time they ever met! And Herrmann said: “Yeah, yeah I was wrong, I was wrong, Okay.”
Elmer Bernstein he was lovely to me when Benny died. I came back here and he wrote to me and he was so kind and lovely.
Malcolm Arnold, Andre Previn, etc.
Malcolm Arnold, he was a good friend of Benny’s. But he must be ancient now. He hid himself down in the country somewhere in some cottage [in Cornwall]. Benny used to go down and see him. They used to correspond. But you know when Benny died we never found any letters. There are a few about his opera Wuthering Heights… Benny used to be a very prolific letter writer and used to write people like Malcolm Arnold, write to California, twice a week to his first wife. But where are the letters? Where can they be? I got some that were in an envelope from Charles Ives.
He was fond of [Andrzej] Panufnik… and didn’t like Quincy Jones and didn’t like Andre Previn. Poor Previn had never done anything wrong. I think Herrmann might have been a bit jealous, getting that orchestra … he thought Previn hadn’t the talent other than the political and public relation’s talent.
He used to be guest conductor of orchestras here. Only they didn’t like him because he was dogmatic and dictatorial. He always said: “That’s what they are there for.” He would respect Toscanini but he wouldn’t respect Andre Previn. As Andre Previn would say “Oh Gentlemen we are all equal… and I am so sorry I said that earlier.” Benny wouldn’t do that. He did a couple of conducting jobs earlier in our marriage but not a lot.
The chap who was managing said they would love to have a chance at the states. So Herrmann bought a single with him. He brought it to Guy della Cioppa, who was Red Skelton’s manager. And he had all the contacts in show business and everything and Benny gave it to him and said: “Can you play this around? These boys want a chance.” … Della Cioppa brought the record back and they all said “Nothing in it, nothing in it”… And then of course years later everyone grabbed Herrmann and asked: Have you heard anything good in England? “If there was, I wouldn’t tell you!” [Della Cioppa] admitted it to me so I knew it wasn’t just Herrmann telling a story.
He wrote to me years ago, when I was so busy. “I am 22. I am going to write a book on Herrmann.” I don’t think I replied. I used to get loads of stuff from fans and things I couldn’t deal with. And I didn’t reply and then I got another letter and I didn’t reply.
And then I was in the BBC working one day the reception rang: “There is a young man sitting in reception and he won’t go away till you talked to him and we can’t get rid of him and we’ll have to throw him out.” And I said: “No don’t have him thrown out. I want to see what it is.” It was Steven Smith something like 22 or 23 sitting there saying: “Why haven’t you replied to me?” I didn’t know his father was going round the block in a taxi, because his father wouldn’t let him come to London alone. His father was a lot older, because his father had two generations of children, and he was very, very stiff and proper, a lovely man. And he was chaperoning his son who was sitting in the BBC. So I said: “You can come and see me later.” I found out not only was he genuine but he has got a brain and a lot of knowledge.
He came in our old house … and he lived in the basement. The basement looked like a small version of Citizen Kane’s basement. Full of rubbish, [up the neck]. And he came up like three days later with a beard and [had] gone thru everything. He was a big help to me because there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t know what it was.
The stuff that is now in Santa Barbara…
Yeah it is all there, except the only stuff I own … [the PSYCHO concert suite]… And one day I set to him: ”You have given everybody everything. You’ve never given me one.”
Part 3: Herrmann and the Movies
Did he ever regret going from New York to Hollywood?
No, he moved with the time. His great passion was conducting, he was a conductor with the CBS Symphony Orchestra and he did a lot of radio there and his love of course was classical music. He discovered obscure classical music and had them play it. He was very upset when they disbanded the orchestra, really upset. But he still had plenty of jobs as a composer and a few as a conductor. But when he got no more orchestra he couldn’t invite any guest conductors, so they didn’t invite him. So he was then getting more and more films to do. And in fact I had a letter, which I lost, from Orson Welles to Benny saying “Why don’t you come out here instead of coming on the plane all the time. Come live here, its great.” And he went.
He was able to shut doors behind him, in all aspects. I mean he was able to shut a friendship behind him if someone offended him. And the only way to offend him has something to do with music. It’s the only way he could ever be offended. You could do anything else. He was able to shut off people as they never existed. He was more upset about the loss of the orchestra than about the loss of New York. And he quickly fitted in. He had a lot of friends there.
He loved Obsession. He adored that film. He adored it. And he robbed himself of the Oscar because he had two nominations in.
He did it. He adored Larry Cohen. The Cohen’s were with me when he died. I stayed at their house that night. We were out there with them the night he died. He finished recording Taxi Driver and then Larry Cohen asked: “Are you too tired or have you the strength to look at the next film you are doing for me?” And Benny had just done Taxi Driver and then we saw this film with Janelle and Larry. And that was the evening. And when he died that night they came next day and I stayed with them a couple of days before coming back.
Twisted Nerve and Endless Night
Roy Boulting just asked him to do them… they were very good friends. They asked him to do Family Way and he said: “Don’t have me. Have a young person. You want a composer who is the age and spirit of those two young people in the film.” That’s when they got Paul McCartney. That’s when he advised Paul McCartney how to do it. I always thought now for 30, 40 years that Paul McCartney gave him the Chagall that’s in there. But you know it was only this year I looked at the back and it says that the person who bought it is Roy Boulting! Mind you he must have bought it to Paul to give it as a present.
Actually in the last few years he rejected things because there wasn’t enough money [involved]. He said: “They cut my fee and they are still giving Quincy Jones a [big] fee.”
Battle of Neretva
They [the producers] had so much money from this government, that government, this film society. That they got all grants and they made a film that was something like 7 hours long. They were going to make different cuts. Herrmann said it was like a roast beef and each group is taking what they want… And he did one version of that and it was still 3 hours long and bloody boring it was.
We went to Zagreb. Herrmann always used to make a joke saying that I was a communist; I’ve never been a communist, because I admired Harold Wilson, who was our prime minister. It’s only like being a democrat instead of being a republican in England, really. He said: “Oh we will be OK in Zagreb because of Tito!” Oh and they sent “minders” for us like they do in Russia. They send “minders” in big black coats to “entertain” you. And they sit there with grim faces behind you! Herrmann adored this! He loved it. And he said: “Oh yes, you’ll fit in very well there being a communist!”
Everybody says on the radio and they write books and articles saying that he wanted to use a piece (of Berlioz) that he didn’t get permission for so he wrote Salammbo… He was never going to use anything else. You have to write a piece because she is a good singer, because Kane is no fool. She is a good singer, but she can’t quite do this, it’s too much for her, the voice won’t make it. Cause otherwise Kane is a fool. She gets a piece from an opera, a known opera and she can’t sing it, he’s an idiot. He wasn’t an idiot, she was a very good singer, but Herrmann made it just that too difficult, so only the greatest diva could do it. And that’s why the audience wants her to succeed, she can’t quite but it is not her fault. And he said that’s why he wrote it that way.
I met Hitchcock very briefly. Everybody says they never spoke again. I met him, it was cool, it was not a warm meeting. It was in Universal Studios, this must be 69, 70, 71ish. And we were in Universal for some other reason and Herrmann said: “See that tiny little office over there, that’s Hitch’. And that stupid little parking place. Hitch used to have an empire with big offices and a big staff. Then they made it down to half that size, then they made it to half that size… We are going over to say hello.” Actually [Herrmann] got a record; he was always intending to give him a record he just made. But it wasn’t a film thing. It was either Moby Dick or something of his concert pieces to take it and give to Hitch. Peggy, Hitchcock’s secretary was there. Hitch came out, Benny said: “I thought you’d like a copy of this.” “How are you?” etc. and he introduced me. And Hitchcock was cool, but they did meet. They met, I was there. And when Herrmann came out again he said: “What a great reduction in Hitch’s status.”
Benny never stopped being rather bitter about that row with Hitchcock. Although I told you he was able to shut things behind him, people who offended him. This he didn’t shut. He was always very hurt by that and delighted when everybody said that [latest Hitchcock] film was a flop.
And of course we knew Truffaut. I love Truffaut. Truffaut had no English at all and Benny had no French at all… Truffaut had his own interpreter [Helen Scott] but she wasn’t always there… So Herrmann and he communicated with the exception of me with my very bad pidgin French. They did everything just by waving the arms and laughing and patching each others shoulders. And when it got really difficult Helen or I used to be asked. We had a dinner or something [and] they couldn’t say a word to each other except “okay”. The both knew the word “okay”.
Benny wasn’t really happy [with The Bride Wore Black]. If he hadn’t loved Francois Truffaut so much, he would have been cross. What they did, they dubbed different things in different places. They put pieces that were for this man and put it somewhere else for this man. Because Herrmann loved Truffaut he didn’t make a row, but he said they made a hash of it. Normally Herrmann would stay for the days and days of dubbing, but it was recorded in Paris, you see. So he wasn’t going to stick around in Paris to do it. He trusted them to do it. He trusted them and left everything foolproof and [then] they started mucking about. But hey were thrilled with it. Truffaut was really thrilled after he messed it about.
By the end of his career Herrmann was getting hot again
All the old men were wearing gold chains and their shirts down open to their waist and they were trying to be young. This is what’s wrong with Hitchcock because he was trying to get a pop song and he wanted not to be old hat.
Benny once went and asked [Lionel Newman] for work. “I am here for four months and I am free. What’s going?” And Lionel Newman said: “Sorry Benny, we decided to run with the kids.” Run with the kids means… we are going to get 21 year old composers that are giving us drums in a pop song. We decided to run with the kids. He was about the same age as Benny and was saying to him you are too old, you are an old hat. So this rankled. It hurt him!
And now what comes up: Brian de Palma comes, Larry Cohen comes, Martin Scorsese comes. Herrmann was getting hotter and hotter. In fact Spielberg was meeting Benny the day he died to do the next one… and all this. And they were all in their late twenties and they were all after Herrmann. And guess what happened? Lionel Newman phoned Benny: “We got this big film coming up…” And Benny said and I was there: “Sorry, I’ve decided to run with the kids!” and he put the phone down. And he was so happy. He was shaking with laughter! And he laughed and he laughed. And he phoned everybody he knew in the world…