Howard Suber on Pauline Kael’s Research Theft: ‘It Felt Like Rape’

EXCLUSIVE: Suber tells TheWrap how the respected film critic used his research without proper credit, an incident that affected him for life


Howard Suber is the biggest revelation in Brian Kellow's new biography, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark."

Suber was an up-and-coming assistant professor of film at UCLA 40 years ago, when the famed New Yorker critic filched his research for "Raising Kane," her acclaimed in-depth examination of “Citizen Kane.” 

Suber never took legal action or went public about the plagiarism. But on the heels of the book's publication, he finally has broken his silence, telling TheWrap exclusively that after all these years, Kael's betrayal still stings. 

“I take no satisfaction in the story coming out,” Suber said. “I was depressed over the weekend, despite getting included in the New York Times and New Yorker reviews, because it did stir up a lot of painful memories."

So raw was the feeling that Suber almost declined to participate in the book when Brian Kellow contacted him on his 74th birthday.

“I wrote him back and said, ‘Here I am celebrating my birthday, and I’m feeling good about my life, and I get your letter, which asks me to talk about how I was raped by my parish priest when I was 15,’” Suber recalled. “It may be excessively dramatic to describe it as rape, but that’s what it felt like."

Also read: Pauline Kael Biographer: She Would Have Loved 'Bridesmaids,' Hated 'The Help'

“Raising Kane,” Kael's two-part piece, caused a stir when it was released in the pages of the New Yorker in February 1971.

The exhaustively researched essay asserted that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who knew William Randolph Hearst personally, was the true genius behind the landmark film based not so loosely on Hearst's life, “Citizen Kane” —  not its star, director and co-writer Orson Welles.

But perhaps most provocatively, the article for the first time laid bare one of the major contradictions in the film: The dying Kane mutters the immortal line “Rosebud” to an empty room.

Until Kael's piece, no one had noted that the movie’s central plot point — reporter Jedediah Leland's search to discover what the newspaper baron's dying phrase meant — is founded on an impossibility, since no one was around to take record of the fateful utterance.

Yet, the bulk of her research came from Suber. 

Suber agreed to participate in Kellow's biography only after he learned that the author had unearthed Kael’s original notes for the piece in her papers at the Indiana University Library. It turned out her reference material consisted almost wholly of Suber’s research.

What's more, Suber now says that Kael promised to split the profits and give him a co-writing credit.

Except all he got in the end was a check for $375.

Ironically, he later became a copyright expert, testifying frequently over the years in court cases. “If I’d only known what I know about copyright now, I would have sued her ass, but I didn’t,” he told TheWrap.

He never signed a contract, and most of the promises were made over the phone, so he was worried he didn’t have the paper trail necessary to go after Kael. At the time, he also thought that given that he was a lowly assistant professor and she was an influential public intellectual, nobody would believe his claims.

Even though Kellow’s book has brought attention to the injustice, Suber said he has no plans to take any legal action or try to get credit inserted into any subsequent reprints of “Raising Kane.”

His tale briefly bubbled up in a piece Peter Bogdanovich wrote in 1972 for Esquire, “The Kane Mutiny,” but beyond that was pretty much consigned to circles of Suber’s friends.

Suber says he never saw or interacted with Kael again. Previously, the critic had been tapped to make paid speeches on UCLA’s campus, but after word leaked out in the department of Kael’s betrayal, those offers apparently dried up.

“Some years later a mutual friend asked [Pauline] when she was coming back to UCLA, and she said, ‘Not until Howard Suber apologizes,’ which I thought was hilarious,” Suber said.

For his part, Kellow told TheWrap that Kael’s behavior was an aberration. There is no evidence that she used purloined research in any of her additional work.

“She was for the most part an ethical woman, but she took a really big slip off the cliff,” Kellow said.

And even though the truth is finally out there, the boil hasn’t been lanced.

"Almost like a rape victim, you think, 'What did I do to provoke this? What could I have done to avoid this?'” Suber told TheWrap. 

“I never was a fan of Pauline Kael,” he added. “She was very funny, but also very vicious. Reliving it is too painful. The only way you get over a betrayal that’s so traumatic, is to suck it up and move on.”