The Good, the Bad, and the Horological Eli Wallach’s Fascination With Watches

Maybe it was that watch won in a card game on a crowded troop ship heading home to America at the end of World War II.

Maybe it was on a movie set in post-war Italy where a peddler sold him a watch from a worn suitcase.

Or maybe it was during one of his first visits to small, out-of-the way watch and jewelry shops during lulls in filming in the 1950s.

But at some point a half-century ago, stage and screen actor Eli Wallach became an avid collector of unique watches and clocks.

“I can’t tell where the urge came from, or still comes from, to collect these timepieces,” he told JCK recently. “It’s a mystery even to me.” But, said the Method actor who was an original member of the Actor’s Studio, “I am fascinated by the artistry of these watches and clocks, and the craftsmanship that goes into making them.”

“Fascination” is the operative word for Wallach’s approach to collecting. He doesn’t do it for the investment or financial value of the timepieces—according to Wallach, he doesn’t even know what their appraised value is today. (However, a watch that he had restored and donated to a charity auction a number of years ago sold for $14,000. The timepiece had been presented to him by Elia Kazan, director of the stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire.)

Wallach doesn’t seek out specific categories or types of timepieces, nor does his collection have a theme, although it includes more desk clocks and bedside clocks than watches. His collection, he admits, is an eclectic one: created by the allure of the craftsmanship and sustained by the joy of collecting and the pleasure each of his timepieces gives to him.

Troop ships and flea markets. The seed of the collection, Wallach suggests, may have been an Eterna watch he won in late 1945 in a card game on a crowded troop ship on the way home from war-ravaged Europe, where he served five years as an officer in the Medical Service Corps. “I still have that watch,” he says.

His first serious involvement in watches, though, came during his last military assignment, in 1945 post-war Berlin. “We heard the Russian soldiers had lots of money from back pay they hadn’t gotten for years, and that they liked watches. So I bought four or five [watches] and sold [the pieces] to them when I got there. It was the most money I had seen for a while and provided me with a nice nest egg to go home on.”

After the war, when Wallach resumed his acting career, his attraction to watches and clocks grew. “I’m from the theatre; we’re always on time,” he jokes. His horological interest was further stimulated when, starting in the late 1950s, he began making movies abroad.

“Everywhere I went in the world to make a film”—places like France, Mexico, Italy, Greece, Spain, Cambodia, Crete, and England—”I would look for an old or out-of-the-way watch shop in town and buy an old timepiece that interested me, whether it was a watch or desk or bedside clock.”

He also began visiting flea markets and jewelry and watch shops that sold estate items, looking for unusual timepieces. He bought a uniquely shaped Illinois watch (circa 1925) for $45 at a flea market in Greenwich Village and found a set of three old Zenith timepieces—a silver travel clock, a swivel pocket watch with radium dial, and a cloisonné ball-shaped table clock—in Covent Garden, London, in 1984.

Movies and theatre. Friends and fellow actors noticed Wallach’s hobby and began making gifts to him for his collection. “They learned of my fascination with clocks and were very generous,” he says. In fact, many of his timepieces come with a story connected to plays or movies in which he has starred—stories he delights in retelling as he shows each timepiece to a visitor, amid recollections of such co-stars as Audrey Hepburn, Jack Nicholson, Marilyn Monroe, Peter O’Toole, Clint Eastwood, and Zero Mostel.

He points out a blue Cartier cloisonné pyramid clock, a gift from the Wallachs’ friends Walter and Carol Matthau. A Longines Automatic was a gift from Cheryl Crawford, Broadway producer of The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams, in which Wallach co-starred with Maureen Stapleton. He displays a red wristwatch, a gift from theatrical great Zero Mostel, with whom he starred on Broadway in Rhinoceros. Wallach remembers when Mostel gave it to him: “The watch was all red, even the dial and hands. ‘Here, it’s no use to me,’ he told me. I replaced the seconds hand with a silver-colored one, put a Velcro strap on it, and still use it.”

He points to a stainless-steel Baume & Mercier with a unique chain bracelet, displayed in a glass case. “This watch I got in Italy,” he says. “It was a gift from [Italian film director] Sergio Leone, at the completion of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” In that classic Western, Wallach plays Tuco, the amoral—and amusing—bandit.

“This Movado Museum watch is a gift from the original designer, Nathan George Horwitt,” notes Wallach. “He engraved his name on the back.

“And this is my favorite,” he continues, indicating a gold Tiffany bracelet watch, circa 1918. ” I found it in a little estate jewelry place in Philadelphia. The numerals on it were bad, and the hands were missing. I bought it for $75 and then spent three times that much having it cleaned and repaired.”

Home and public. Wallach’s collection also has many timepieces that have nothing to do with the theatre or movies. These include a number of clocks created by his son Peter, an animator, based on descriptions of clocks his father has seen overseas, and 20 unique designs created for Wallach by Bucks County, Pa., craftsman John Schrantz.

Wallach has displayed the pieces in his private collection only three times, all in New York City. The first was at Tourneau’s flagship Time Machine store, to commemorate Wallach’s 50 years in theatre in 1999, and the second—in summer 2001—was at Sotheby’s, in connection with an American Watch Guild event. The third public showing took place last July at the Concours d’Elegance, an exhibit featuring some 50 watch brands, co-sponsored by the American Watch Guild at the Jewelers of America New York summer show. Wallach has stated in his will that the collection is to be donated to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, where he began his acting career in the late 1930s.

Wallach’s collection, which he keeps in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, actress Anne Jackson, now includes some 100 timepieces.

“I have so many they’re in every room, but I can’t keep them wound—my wife says they make too much noise all ticking at the same time!” he jokes. But even if the timepieces aren’t all keeping time, he says, they’re still “a pleasure to look at.”