The Lost One:
Over the years, I have fielded numerous questions about Peter Lorre, both the man and the actor. “Why Peter Lorre?” probably comes up most often, with inquiries about his religion, place of birth, cause of death, “creepy” screen image, etc. rounding out a long list. Several visitors to this website have suggested that we add a Frequently Asked Questions feature, which will be open to any query.
Page numbers refer to The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (University Press of Kentucky, 2005), hard-bound first edition.
Stephen D. Youngkin
The subject of Peter Lorre’s height has been raised enough times to make a good start. It’s a question that stands a biographer (and his subject) on uneven ground. First, the height question begs another – Peter Lorre at what age? Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, as Joel Cairo or as Felix Gillie? These characters span nearly thirty years of the actor’s life, during which time he became even more diminutive – in inches, that is. Height loss will vary with individuals, but on average, men will lose between one and three centimeters (or more) from age 40 to 59.
Screenwriter Walter Reisch, Lorre’s good friend and co-worker on F.P.1 antwortet nicht (Floating Platform 1 Doesn’t Answer, 1932), said that ping-pong partner Conrad Veidt was one foot taller than Lorre, which would make the actor five foot, three inches (TLO, pg 74). It is likely, however, that Reisch rounded off the height difference for the sake of a good story.
On immigration documents (Declaration of Intention, Alien Registration Form, and Certificate of Naturalization) and medical records during the 1930s and 1940s, Lorre’s height is consistently given as five foot, five inches. (The only exception to this was that provided to the ship’s officer of the Cunard White Star Liner Majestic on July 18, 1934. Lorre described himself as being five foot, eight inches – which was clearly a fib [TLO, pg 98].)
Of course, this figure begs yet another question: Was his height actually measured or did he simply supply the numbers?
Trying to reference the actor’s height against various co-workers is very difficult. What kind of shoes was Lorre wearing? Was he wearing lifts? Were his co-workers (including the five foot, eight inch Bogart) wearing lifts? Or his female co-stars wearing heels? How do camera angles, which can radically alter our spatial dimensions, figure in?
In 1944, Lorre was interviewed by Paul Benedict for the article “Mild Mannered Maniac”, published in the October issue of the movie fan magazine Silver Screen. Describing the actor, Benedict wrote: “He is only five feet, five inches tall, but his broad shoulders and the slight stoop with which he walks make him appear even shorter.” (pg 64)
In the end, we’re left with medical records, which are probably the most reliable source for physical measurements.
Admitted to a U.S. Public Service Hospital at Ft. Worth in 1947, Lorre underwent a physical examination that charted his height at five foot, five inches (TLO, pg 284).
Anonymous note recently sent to this website – “Okay, I’m going out on a limb here but the impression I get is that to date I am the only person who’s written in depth about Peter who has a single drop of Jewish blood. At least the names Youngkin, Cabana, Bigwood, Beyer, and Sennett sound pretty goyische to me. I think the European writers don’t concentrate on Peter’s Jewishness because they don’t want to be taken for anti-Semites, and the American ones don’t pay attention to it because it doesn’t mean anything to them. Gentiles tend to think of Judaism as just another religion, not understanding that it goes way beyond that. I am frankly pissed that Youngkin never bothered to mention in any of his books what Peter’s Hebrew name was, whether or not he had a bar mitzvah, whether or not any of his wives were Jewish, what discrimination if any he suffered personally, whether or not he helped any of his relatives escape the Holocaust, how many personal friends and relatives he lost and how he felt about it, what motivated him to make the mind-blowing gesture of returning to Germany after what had happened, why he was given a funeral in a temple but was cremated in violation of Mosaic law – a million relevant questions that Youngkin either never bothered to find out but didn’t feel was worth including in that trivia-packed 600+ page book.”
Before collecting my thoughts about Peter Lorre’s religious convictions, I telephoned one of his oldest friends, who is Jewish. He laughed when I raised the subject and said that “Peter didn’t have a religious bone in his body.” Other friends and family members bore this out. Lorre neither hid his Jewishness nor wore it on his sleeve – and people who did were often the victims of his rapier wit.
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The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre (2005) by Stephen Youngkin – now in its third and winner of the Rondo Award for "Best Book of 2005" – is available in bookstores everywhere, as well as these on-line merchants.
The Films of Peter Lorre (1982), also by Youngkin, is out of print but copies may be purchased through Amazon and Barnes & Noble below. Interested in Lorre's radio and television performances? Check out Radio Showcase and Movies Unlimited. Netflix has Lorre movies for rent.
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