As told to TOM WEAVER
Herman's niece, Gail Cohen, was born in Detroit, living
there for three years before her family moved to Atlanta.
Following the divorce of her parents, she shuttled between
the two cities. She now lives in Cape Charles, Va., where
she works as a a theatre historian and archivist. She recalls
her uncle's filmmaking career and the tragic circumstances
of his death.
I think my Uncle Herman would be amazed by the tributes
to him that are popping up on the various Websites. One
person on the Internet Movie Database Website even said
that Herman Cohen inspired him to make films. I'm
very pleased and thrilled at the response; it's wonderful
for me to see how he influenced other people. I'm very touched
by the people who have written in and commented on my uncle's
death, and his life.
The way I learned about Uncle Herman's death was very
weird. I went to Cloverhill Cemetery in Royal Oak, Mich.,
to visit the graves of my three aunts (Uncle Herman's three
sisters). Then I went to the grave which I thought
was my grandfather, Meyer Cohen -- Meyer Cohen was Uncle
Herman's father. But the cemetery gave me the wrong plot
number, and sent me to the plot of another Meyer
Cohen. Just at that exact time, as fate would have it, the
cemetery van was going right past me. I flagged down the
guy and I asked him to show me the graves of my grandparents
Meyer and Goldie Cohen. He took me to the correct spot,
and now I was standing there in front of them. I'd always
known that Uncle Herman purchased the plot next to them.
I was standing there and the cemetery guy said, "There's
going to be a funeral here Wednesday [June 5, 2002]."
I immediately knew. I said, "My Uncle Herman?!"
He said, "We just got the call."That is
how I found out: at the foot of his burial plot, which two
days later was his grave. If that isn't weird ...!
I was meant to find out, that's all I can say. Uncle
Herman would have loved that story!
the daughter of Herman's brother Aaron Cohen, and I was
born in 1950. I first became aware that my Uncle Herman
was in Hollywood making movies when I was a child. He always
sent me the press kits of all his films, and he sent me
the original script of Blood of Dracula. I was sure
he wrote Blood of Dracula about the story of my mother's
life because the main character was Nancy, which was my
mother's name. And, early in her life, she was always
sent to boarding schools, just like the character Nancy
in the movie. I asked him once, "Is it based on my
mother's life story?", and he just laughed. But he
sent me the script, which I thought was kind of strange.
It was the only script that he ever sent me ... and I was
a child, I was seven! And Berserk, I always thought
that he wrote it about the relationship between me and my
mother [laughs]. I had a terrible relationship with my mother,
and she always left me. I've always told people I felt Berserk
was based on my life with my mother!
Uncle Herman didn't relate much to the family, he saw
them just for holidays. (But he was close to his father,
and I was close to his father.) And yet he was always
naming characters in his movies after family members. For
instance, "Gary Droz" [Robert Shayne's character
in How to Make a Monster] was my cousin; Richard
Banks [mentioned in many Cohen pictures] was another cousin;
and my cousin Jody was Jody the elephant in Berserk
[laughs]! And "Gail" (named after me) was the
girl who got knocked off with the spiked binoculars in Horrors
of the Museum! As a kid, I was horrified! That, by the
way, was a picture that scared me to death. For years, I
slept with the covers over my head, thinking that a blade
was gonna come chop off my head. It is true! It scared
me enough that I really have done that. It's only been maybe
in the last 10 years where I've tried to believe that a
blade won't come chop off my head! It had an effect
I always liked my uncle's films, and I like them particularly
because of the endings with [the authority figures] standing
over the dead bodies of the monsters. I like those reflective,
symbolic moments. Those were in his films, from I Was
a Teenage Werewolf on. Teenage Frankenstein ends
that way, Horrors of the Museum ends that way,
Konga ends that way, oh, so many. And I felt like I
grew up with Michael Gough, who was in several of my uncle's
pictures -- to me, he was so familiar. Seeing him in my
uncle's movies was a big part of my young life. When I was
a kid, he was my actor-hero.
Black Zoo with Michael Gough -- that was a big
moment in my life. In 1963, for my 13th birthday, Uncle
Herman brought several of the animals from Black Zoo
to the house. At that time, I was living with my aunt in
Oak Park, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, and for my 13th birthday,
my uncle brought over the lion, tiger and panther. With
all my friends there. Then we all went to the Fox Theater,
the 5000-seat movie palace that he had purchased in 1961.
(Which to me was a great thing: Here's the money
he made from Teenage Werewolf, and what does he do
with it? He doesn't take wonderful trips, he purchases the
theater that he loved. To me, that really says a
lot about his commitment.) We went in the 1920s screening
room downstairs and saw Black Zoo -- a private screening.
By now the lion, tiger and panther were in cages on the
stage of the Fox, and the trainer let the lion out of the
cage. I was terrified [laughs]! A lot of kids were there,
the whole neighborhood, and to this day, none of them has
forgotten that birthday party! It was in the local newspaper
To me, there's a moment in Trog, a moment at the
end with Joan Crawford, that I love. I have not seen the
film since it came out, but I still remember that moment
where she pushes away the microphone of the reporter who
stuck it in her face for a comment. To me, it is one of
the great moments in film, it means something to
me. Basically, the film showed the cruelty of human beings.
What Joan Crawford did just by that gesture was to me the
triumph of individualism and individuality, and a person
who cared -- she cared about Trog, she related
to Trog. She did not go along with the mentality of "Trog
must be killed," and she was truly saddened by Trog's
death. That gesture -- I will always remember it. It has
always symbolized the triumph of good.
was never on the set of one of Uncle Herman's movies, but
I would have loved to. I was in theater and I always wanted
to work on films, and I definitely wanted to work on Crooks
and Coronets because Dame Edith Evans was in it. I asked
him, "Can I come to London and work on it?", and
he said, "No!!" But he always sent me press kits!
Uncle Herman always said he never wanted pity if he had
a physical illness. I was sitting on Myrtle Beach [South
Carolina] and I wrote him: "You said you didn't want
pity if you became physically ill, so I'm sitting here thinking
about the good in your life...", and I basically
told him that he achieved what he set out to do, and that
was a good life to have. He sent me a birthday card this
May 23, saying he liked my letter.
I talked to Uncle Herman a few days before he died. His
voice had come back, after he had been through several weeks
of radiation and chemo. But now the problem for him was,
he had lost 40 pounds. (The last time I talked to him, he
joked, "It's good I was fat, 'cause I lost 40
pounds!") He was himself. And he wasn't himself
in the conversation before this one, around the time
of the Oscars. Incidentally, we were always rooting for
Judi Dench at Oscar time, because he had her in A Study
in Terror with John Neville as Sherlock Holmes. It was
one of her first films; he hired her because he admired
her work on the stage. He told me he was still in touch
with Judi Dench all this time, that they wrote each other.
Anyway, I talked to Uncle Herman a few days before he
died, and my Uncle Al talked to him the day before
he died, and he was fine, he was joking, he was positive,
he felt for the first time hopeful that he might lick this
cancer. He said he went into the Cobra Media office that
week and worked for a few hours. At the time of the Oscars,
you could not even understand him, he could hardly talk.
But his voice was fine the week that he died, and I had
a total, regular conversation with him. He was joking and
everything. This was the week he died!
My dad talked to him too, he called Uncle Herman twice
after finding out he had throat cancer. My dad and Uncle
Herman, they always hated each other. (I don't talk to my
father either, I haven't seen him for 25 years.) My father
said something really terrible to him: He said to him, "Ha
ha ha, I'M the one who smoked and you're the one
who ended up getting the cancer!" -- Herman told me
that's what he said. In my father's weird way, it is
kind of funny. My father, he's a jerk.
After several weeks of chemo and radiation treatment,
Uncle Herman's voice came back and he seemed better, and
he said he went to the office for a while and worked that
week. He was himself all of a sudden. Then, the tumor
burst. Uncle Herman didn't want to go to the hospital [Cedars-Sinai]
after that happened, by the way. Didn't want to at all.
Herman's father hated doctors, and I'm sure he did
too. When I was a kid, Herman's father would come to Atlanta
and chase the pediatrician away when he came to the house
for house calls! Uncle Herman did not want to go
to the hospital, but Didier Chatelain, his business partner
in Cobra Media, insisted. He went to the hospital, the bleeding
was controlled, he was stabilized. Didier went out to run
an errand for him, and when he came back, he found Uncle
Herman in a body bag. Only an intern came out to speak to
Didier, but with no real explanation as to what happened.
Anyway, there's no clarity about why Uncle Herman died.
The spokesperson had told three different stories that I
know of so far. I have not seen the death certificate, and
I've never been told the cause of death. Didier doesn't
know, either. I read several different accounts of what
the hospital spokesperson said, so I called the hospital
to find out the cause of death. They've been totally cruel
to me, nasty. I called the hospital for three days straight
-- not one person there would talk to me. I was told the
senior vice president would call me back, he never did;
at first, I even was refused [the chance] to speak to his
secretary. I finally did get hold of the secretary,
and the secretary said someone would call me. No one did.
I called back twice, and they refused to let me speak to
her again. The Quality Control person, I'm told, is not
allowed to speak to me. The only person who's spoken to
me is the hospital's lawyer, who said, "This is a very
difficult situation for us." The hospital lawyer said,
"There was no autopsy," 'cause there's not one
allowed in the Jewish religion. I told her, "Yeah,
but we can always exhume the body."
Hundred Years of Service" they're celebrating, it's
supposed to be one of the best hospitals in the world --
and they treated me like dirt. And I am furious. I kept
saying, "I want to talk to somebody in the administration,
I do not want to speak to Risk Management or Quality Control,"
because they're just there to defend the hospital. I wanted
to speak to someone in administration. They refused, they
were nasty, mean, awful. It is still to be determined why
he stopped breathing at Cedars-Sinai Hospital.
After he died, I was talking to a few of my old friends,
and they all said they want to donate money in his memory,
just based on that 13th birthday party with Black Zoo
and the animals. They had never forgotten it, it had been
a special part of their lives, and they were telling me,
"Where can we donate money in his memory?" It
was all based on that birthday party that they were at,
as kids, in 1963.
Here was a person who, as a boy in Detroit, dreamed of
making films. And he had his dreams realized. He always
knew what he exactly wanted to do, and he did it.
At age 18, Uncle Herman was the youngest person ever to
become manager of a theater -- the local movie theater,
the Dexter, which he worked at since he was 12, and then
he was assistant manager of the Fox Theatre after WWII,
and then he left Detroit and went out to Hollywood and made
films -- he produced, wrote and distributed them. And even
acted in some of them; like Hitchcock, he often made an
appearance in his films. He did what he set out to do. I
think that his life serves as an inspiration for people,
to know that they can achieve their dreams. He loved
making movies, he loved the film industry, and he worked
in it to the last week of his life.
For me, there was no greater horror than seeing my uncle's
body lowered into the ground. I thought of all that energy
he had, his magnificent voice, his strong opinions and his
wonderful sense of humor. But he had a good life, he really
did. At his funeral, the whole eulogy was that he lived
life on his own terms. And that was true.
I hope those of you reading this will go to the film Websites,
and look up the films, career and interviews with my Uncle
Herman Cohen. I hope you, your friends and colleagues will
take a moment to remember him and his work. I hope teachers
of film will take the time to find out more about him and
his life in film, and on behalf of film. In his memory,
I hope you will let the young and new voices in film know
of the films of Herman Cohen, the man who achieved the dreams
of his boyhood in Detroit.
Tom Weaver is the author of I Was a Monster Movie Maker:
Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers, Science
Fiction Confidential: Interviews with 23 Monster Stars and
Filmmakers and many others available from McFarland