HOLLYWOOD—Let’s have a summing up on Alfred Hitchcock’s considerable dieting experience and expertise, graded by Sparky, my diet defender. Barks signify approval, and howls, derision.
Hitchcock trapped by the conventional iron-maiden concept of diet as deprivation—requiring discipline, willpower and starvation—relied on scales and calorie counting. Big no-no. The diet he described to Tom Snyder in the 70s—a small steak and string beans, a paltry 750 calories a day—was his harshest slenderizing foray, and also one of his briefest. He would soon be at Chasen’s conspicuously ordering a repeat of the steak-shrimp cocktail feast a flabbergasted Mel Brooks had just seen him consume.
Hitchcock believed it was best to “diet dry” and not drink a lot of water, favoring black coffee instead of the usual wine for repasts. No beverage is more in sync with the body than water, and yet he limited it when in dieting mode. The master technician’s problem-solving genius can be seen at work here: coffee is a diuretic–which is to be desired when adhering to an iron-maiden diet and your eye is on the scales. For relying on the scales and other ugsome accouterments of conventional diets—one loud howl!
Here’s a man who boasted living “All from the neck up” and deliberately avoided exercise. He would never walk someplace when he could ride, never climb stairs when he could take an escalator. Morning exercise, before breakfast, vital for maintaining fitness, would have been anathema. But a true diet, in the sense of a way of living and eating, embraces exercise as a core principle. For denying this core principal Hitchcock deserves another howl from Sparky.
Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto asserts that “the Hitchcock’s, like many middle-class English families depended on potatoes for a cheap, filling and nutritious (if somewhat monotonous) diet.” The predilection for including potatoes on the plate is a strike against the Hitchcock diet. “Everyone who ever dined with Alfred Hitchcock,” writes Spoto, “knew that (except when he was on an unusually rigorous diet) potatoes accompanied every dinner. They were variously boiled, baked, double-baked and—in later years when he suffered some dental problems—mashed.” Spuds—yuk! A potato is a slab of bread, and it you want it; accompany it with lots of veggies. One merciless howl for the potato fetish.
How Hitchcock gulped food down, barely pausing to chew it, is worthy of Sparky’s meanest howl. In the words of a waitress who served him, “He ate like a horse and never cracked a smile.” Yet Hitchcock celebrated food in ways other than actually ingesting it. He talked about it, reveled in it with masochistic glee, especially when enforcing the diet. His favorite topics of conversation were food, wine and Hollywood gossip, in that order. His screenwriter on “Saboteur,” Peter Viertel, recounts in McGilligan’s biography that the director liked to read aloud from a book of famous menus and would “sigh ruefully” over a glorious repast served at a state dinner attended by King George inParisin 1914. During the early 40’s when Hitchcock had dropped 100 pounds at the urging of his physician, ate frugally (“maybe a salad with a side of lamb”) and Viertel believed Hitchcock was striking a publicity pose when flamboyantly bordering multiple steaks and desserts. Anyhow, one big bark from Sparky for celebrating, not demonizing, food.
Hitchcock’s fighting weight, an all-time low of 189 pounds when he became nearly a “svelte Master of Suspense,” corresponded to the 1950s, his most sustained period of creativity, when he helmed a stable of American Masterpieces (in one intense 17-month period he directed four, including ‘Dial M for Murder’ and ‘Rear Window’) as well as numerous episodes for his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show as well as presenting the droll introductions that endeared him indelibly to audiences around the world. It was a wildly productive decade for him and it was the decade he kept relatively trim throughout. He had “seldom been happier,” wrote John Russell Taylor, an early biographer.
In these years Hitchcock was advertisement for frugal eating and its value was reflected in heightened activities (and income) and the energy to deliver. Two big barks from Sparky.
The proper entry-step for weight management is to love yourself as you are, and to love yourself is to accept yourself. Hitchcock wins this with flying colors; he celebrated his double chin and rotund midriff. His aggressively sedate nature helped play against type for the introductions to his television show, when the camera might surprise him seated in a go-cart or on a window washer’s scaffolding thirty floors up. Laudable about Hitch, he’s one of those people who took his flaws and gloriously embraced them: fat, short and bald, he definitely had self-possession and at ease with himself. This deserves a bark.
And finally, one last bark for Hitchcock: you cannot deny one shining dieting achievement of his. He outlived the Beverly Hills physician, Dr. Tandowsky, who had first badgered him about getting on a diet or dying an early death.
FINAL SCORE: 4 BARKS, 3 HOWLS
Grady Miller is the author of “Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet.” He can be reached at gr**********@ca*********.com.
By Grady Miller