by Richard Trust
Herman Raucher has spent only two weeks on Nantucket, but those 14 days have created a lifetime of bittersweet memories – and then some. Don’t dismiss the “then some”—it has paid a lot of bills.
Raucher’s fortnight on Nantucket 74 years ago was captured in the 1971 Oscar-winning movie Summer of ’42.
Now 88, Raucher wrote the screenplay and the book—in that order— which fictionalized a true experience he had as a 14-year-old falling for an “older woman” and war bride Dorothy, in a “coming-of-age” film.
Raucher wrote Summer of ’42 as a tribute to good friend Oscar Seltzer, who was killed in the Korean War in 1952.
Raucher and Seltzer went to grade school together in their native Brooklyn, N.Y. In the summer of 1942, Seltzer visited Nantucket with an aunt and uncle, Raucher with his parents and sister. Seltzer was “a month older than I was,” the real-life Hermie said, “and he lorded that over me forever.” “Once we got to high school… we stayed in close touch,” Raucher said. “The last I saw of him was when he was drafted – before I was. He came over to say goodbye.”
Although Raucher did not know it then, it was a true farewell. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1950, Oscar Seltzer was a medic who died while attending to, and saving the life of, an American soldier. He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.
Herman Raucher said he “did nothing unusual or heroic” in the Army. “I got into a little trouble every once in a while, but I was out of the Army when I found out about Oscy.”
“I wrote [Summer of ’42] with Oscy in mind because he was killed on my 24th birthday – April 13, 1952 – and I never quite forgot that,” Raucher said. So deeply grieving over his friend’s death, Raucher never celebrated his own birthday again. In the film’s most poignant and memorable scene, Hermie arrives at her beach house one evening and reads from a telegram that Dorothy’s husband has been killed in action. When he says, “I’m sorry,” she turns to him and, both wet-eyed, they slow-dance to music on a record player. Before long, Dorothy gently leads Hermie to the bedroom, where they make love to the sound of ocean waves and the swaying of curtains in the wind by the windows.
Afterwards, on the porch, Dorothy says only, “Good night, Hermie.” He returns the next day and finds an envelope on the door with a note inside that read: “Dear Hermie: I must go home now. I’m sure you’ll understand. There’s much I have to do. I won’t try and explain what happened last night because I know that, in time, you’ll find a proper way in which to remember it. What I will do is remember you. And I pray that you be spared all senseless tragedies. I wish you good things, Hermie. Only good things. Always, Dorothy”
It took Raucher seven years to sell his screenplay to a moviemaker. After 49 rejections, Warner Bros. stepped up and, with a bargain-basement budget of $1 million, the film was shot in 1970 and released to receptive audiences a year later.
“The only reason Warner Brothers picked up on it was we had a very hot director named Robert Mulligan, who had done To Kill a Mockingbird (1962),” Raucher said from his home in Stamford, Connecticut.
“Warners had new management and was looking for product. Bob showed up with the script under his arm and a budget. They didn’t even read the script. They just said, ‘Go make the movie.’ It was cheap enough (at $1 million).”
Mulligan had free rein, “and that was the way Bob liked to work,” Raucher said. “And it was a writer’s paradise. There was nobody trying to change anything. We went with the script I originally wrote.”
Portrayed on screen by actor Gary Grimes, then 15 years old, Hermie was part of a self-described “terrible trio” which included best friend Oscy (played by Jerry Houser, then 18) and next best friend Benjie (Oliver Conant, 15).
Dorothy was played by Jennifer O’Neill, 22 at the time. While the actual events of the summer of ’42 took place on Nantucket, the film was not shot here. “It was too built up and just didn’t look the same by 1970,” said Raucher, whose visit in 1942 was the only time he spent on Nantucket.
The location managers found what they were looking for in California. Mendocino and Fort Bragg were perfect settings.
“We found cars of the 40s, saltboxes and other buildings like you have in Massachusetts,” Raucher said. “It was just lying there; we didn’t have to dress the set or anything.
“We finished the picture on schedule and then you do a year of post-production where you get the music and you do your opticals. Somebody suggested, ‘Why don’t you write a book? We’ll get the book out before the movie and that’ll publicize the film.’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to write a book.’ And they said, ‘Just write whatever you want.’ I did.”
It became a national best seller.
“When they released the movie,” Raucher said, “they said, ‘Based upon the best seller.’ It taught me not take anything too seriously anymore.”
The movie earned an Academy Award – Original Dramatic Score – for Michel Legrand.
“Everything worked for us,” Raucher said. “There was no bad weather, we had some marvelous young talent, the book worked, the movie worked, I worked.
“You never know when you’re making a movie what its fate is going to be. We never had high expectations for it. We thought we’d just slip it in somewhere and maybe all of us would get some work out of it. The gods smiled on us.”
Raucher smiled all the way to the bank. The film grossed $32 million, and, in the 1980s, video rentals and purchases generated an additional $20 million. “Warners didn’t want to pay anybody a lot of money, so I ended up with a big piece of the picture,” Raucher said, revealing that Warner Bros. “owns 50 percent and Robert and I and Richard Roth, the producer, own the other 50 percent. It has paid a lot of bills.”
After the movie came out, several women claiming to be Dorothy wrote to Raucher, but only one was deemed by Herman to be the real Dorothy by her handwriting and a mention of things only she could have known. The letter arrived with a Canton, Ohio, postmark but no return address.
“She wrote that she had remarried and had become a grandmother,” Raucher said, “but most of her letter was about her hope that I had not been scarred or traumatized by our meeting.
“She closed by writing something to the effect, ‘Ghosts of that night 30 years ago are better left undisturbed.’ ”
With no home address to go by, Raucher had no way to respond. He never heard from her again.
Raucher does not remember where her cottage was located on Nantucket nor on what part of the island he and his family stayed.
Raucher was married for 42 years to the former Mary Kathryn Martinet. A Broadway dancer who studied under ballet master George Balanchine, she died 14 years ago. One might surmise that Mary Kathryn – Herman refers to her as M.K – would have been uncomfortable with her husband’s pursuit of writing about that summer in 1942. Not so. “She was all for it, not the least of which was the reason that I would get it out of my system,” Raucher said. “I had felt so horrible that Oscy had died and Dorothy’s husband had died. There was death all around. ‘You have to write this,’ M.K said. And she was in it from the beginning. She suffered through the seven years of rejections. By the time it did happen, she was more than overjoyed.
“She always encouraged me. She’d been with me when I had some plays on Broadway fail. When the first one failed, I woke up the next day and there were three pencils on my desk, all sharpened, and a little note that said, ‘Get on with it.’ That’s the kind of gal she was. She said, ‘Let’s get up off the floor and do something else.'”
Did Raucher ever feel he was in love with two women at the same time? “The love for Dorothy was almost something mystical. I can’t explain it,” he said. “The love for M.K was real and productive. We had two daughters (Jennifer and Jacqueline), and we had a great life together until the spirits took her away.”
Time and the elements have taken away something else. Dorothy’s goodbye note from the door of her beach house was the first of her writings to vanish. “The house was on the ocean and the paper and the ink just disappeared,” Raucher said. “The paper fell apart. I tried to keep it, but I was unable to.”
Dorothy’s 1971 letter, postmarked Canton, Ohio, was a treasure lost, too. “That was a letter I kept to myself for many years,” Raucher said, “but I misplaced it. I don’t know where it is.”
Hermie may not have those precious papers, but, as the summer of ’16 approaches, he’ll always have the summer of ’42.
Even M.K would approve.