Legendary screenwriter James Ivory confirmed what had been an open secret in the film world for a decades during a recent interview with the with the Guardian: he and the late producer Ismail Merchant had been romantic as well as professional partners since they met in the 1960s.
The two men would become the founders of Merchant Ivory Productions and the creators of such beloved films as “Bombay Talkie,” “A Room With A View,” and “Howard’s End.”
After the Guardian asked Ivory why he had never spoken about his decades-long personal relationship with Merchant, the 89-year-old screenwriter and director seemed a bit taken aback. “Well, you just wouldn’t,” he splutters. “That is not something that an Indian Muslim would ever say publicly or in print. Ever! You have to remember that Ismail was an Indian citizen living in Bombay, with a deeply conservative Muslim family there. It’s not the sort of thing he was going to broadcast. Since we were so close and lived most of our lives together, I wasn’t about to undermine him.”
While it’s probably true that cultural and spiritual reasons played a part in Ismail Merchant’s decision to keep this aspect of his personal life private, Ivory’s quote only tells part of the story. (James Ivory himself, after all, was born in Berkeley, California yet waited until he was almost 90 to publicly come out of the closet.) Anyone who has read obituaries of contemporaries of both Merchant and Ivory has seen references to “longtime friends” or “companions” to the artists who shaped much of the art that was created until very recently.
Merchant’s 2005 New York Times obituary, which was published shortly after the producer died at the age of 68, hints at the richness of their partnership and is a perfect example of how same-sex couples were written about in the media until very recently.
“The Indian-born Mr. Merchant’s carnival-barker personality contrasted dramatically with the artist’s reserve of the Oregon-reared Mr. Ivory,” wrote Warren Hoge. “But as producer and director respectively they achieved a personal and professional partnership that endured 44 years and produced award-winning films including ‘A Room With a View,’ ‘Howards End’ and ‘The Remains of the Day.’
It was perhaps because both Merchant and Ivory learned at an early age that they could not talk openly about their love that their films grasped the loneliness and occasional power of being an outsider so well. “Many of their greatest films evoke a sense of unspoken desire, of any persuasion, simmering beneath a placid surface of decorum – a repression with which many a gay person, unable always to freely articulate their romantic self, has been able to empathize,” noted the critic Guy Lodge last year in a review of a new restoration of Merchant Ivory’s 1987 film “Maurice.”
The debonair Merchant was born in Bombay in 1936 in what was then British India. The son of a wealthy textile dealer, he moved to New York City in his early 20s to begin his MBA at New York University. He was quickly swept into the city’s vibrant arts scene and met a young James Ivory (himself a recent arrival from a small city in Oregon) after a screening of a film Ivory made about Indian miniature painting.
As the pair’s relationship began, they also quickly became friends and collaborators with fellow artists that included actors Saeed Jaffrey and Madhur Jaffrey. In an interview with NBC News last year, Jaffrey described the creative energy that was in the air. “We used to sit on the floor of Jim’s apartment and talk,” Jaffrey recalled. After the then-unknown Madhur Jaffrey was cast as the seductive Manjula in the 1965 Merchant Ivory classic “Shakespeare Wallah,” the actress saw firsthand why Merchant became known for transforming sets and garnering publicity on what were often very small budgets. “Ismail was so good at pushing the boundaries,” she recalled.
James Ivory would also make history at this year’s Academy Awards when he became the oldest Oscar winner ever at the age of 89 for his screenplay for the critically-acclaimed film “Call Me By Your Name.” During his moving acceptance speech, he took a moment to give what Vanity Fair called a “tender shout-out to Ismail Merchant.”
“Whether straight or gay or somewhere in between, we’ve all gone through first love and come out the other side in tact,” Ivory said, going on to note that his longtime relationship with Merchant “led me to this award.”
“I wouldn’t be standing up here without the inspired help I received from my life’s partners, who are gone,” he continued, referring to both Merchant and longtime screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died in 2013.
As Ivory deservedly receives acclaim for his accomplishments with “Call Me By Your Name” as he gets ready to enter his tenth decade, I cannot help but think of what a glorious movie the history of the Merchant Ivory partnership would make. After all, the story of an ambitious Indian man who meets and falls in love with a stoic Oregonian amid the creative whirl of New York City in the early 1960s is exactly the type of film fans of Merchant and Ivory have been happily savoring for decades.