Close Ups on Fade Outs: Christine Mayo

I’m starting a new series within this blog, Close Ups on Fade Outs. I love writing books about early Hollywood and sharing my experiences with you through this blog.  In all honesty, however, I have to say that the research into my work is what keeps me stimulated. In recent years, I have dedicated a lot of time to tracking down those early actresses who seem to have slipped away from film historians and enthusiasts.  They have disappeared into the dusty past.  There are questions marks where their death dates should be. What became of these ladies after their careers were over and where and how they spent their last days is what keeps me interested in what I do. Call it a fascination with necrology or an obsession with tying up the loose ends of someone’s life. Whatever it is, the yearning keeps me returning to dusty paths that lead back to the early days of filmmaking.  Come with me!

Christine Mayo

Born: December 25, 1883, Jersey City, NJ

Died: January 9, 1961, New York City

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The early screen vamp was born Christine Maier on December 25, 1883, in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Gottlieb Ludwig Maier and Christine M. Stumpff, both Germany immigrants. She was the first of three daughters. Ann was born in 1885 and Barbara Louise came along two years later.

Christine had the talent for show business.  She was trained as a singer, but went on the stage after losing her singing voice. Her first theatrical experiences were in Excuse Me and Seven Keys to Baldpate.


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The actress became  an early proponent for a fund to support fellow actors.  In 1914, she introduced a plan that would endow beds in hospitals across the country for those in her profession stricken with illness far away from home.

“I do not know just how many deaths occurred in the profession last season from pneumonia alone,” Christine said, “but from newspaper accounts I should judge there were at least 50. With few exceptions the sufferers were compelled to go to New York for treatment, and exposure en route was the reason given for their deaths.”

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Christine made her film debut for Ramo Film Company. She was billed as Miss Mayo in The War of Wars: Or, The Franco-German Invasion (1914), the first film released in the United States that concerned World War I.

Christine then worked for Ivan Film Productions, where she starred in A Mother’s Confession (1915), using the name Chrystine Mayo. Ivan Abramson knew he had his Maxine when casting A Fool’s Paradise (1916). Christine plays a conniving gold digger on the prowl for a rich husband. Motography noted that Christine’s Maxine was a “character role most difficult to conceive.”

Christine Mayo in Who's Your Neighbor?

Christine Mayo in A Fool’s Paradise

In Who’s Your Neighbor?, Christine plays a prostitute, who, during a reform movement, is forced from the red light district to the better parts of the city.

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By 1917, Christine was credited with making the expression “vamp” a “colloqual slang in the English language.”

Off screen, she was anything but an evil seductress. While promoting her films on a tour of 30 American cities, Christine recruited troops for service in World War I and sold Liberty Bonds. Her service did not go unnoticed.  She received a gold medal representing the American flag from the hospital corps and was one of the first women of the stage to be awarded the right to wear the button of the Liberty Legion.

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Christine’s film career, which consisted of roughly 30 films, extended into the mid-1920s. She had good roles and she did good work for such companies as Fox,  Metro, and World Film Corporation.  She appeared with John Barrymore in Raffles (1917) and Lon Chaney in The Shock (1923), in which she played Chaney’s underworld boss, Queen Ann.

Christine in The Shock

Christine in The Shock

After her work in films, Christine did some theatrical work. For a time, she lived in Boston, where she managed the Scandia Jourde and Slattery’s beauty salons.  There is no indication the former actress ever married. She remained close and devoted to her  sisters.

Later in her life, Christine returned to New York City. She lived in a Gramercy Park apartment at 242 East 19th Street with her sister, Louise.

She died on January 9, 1961, at University Hospital of natural causes. Louise died the following year.

 

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Viora Daniel: The untold story of a film comedienne, world traveler, and ‘bank sitter’

By Michael G. Ankerich

Maude Cheatham, writing for Shadowland in 1920, predicted stardom for the actress she had just interviewed on the Lasky lot.

“With her beauty, her vivid imagination, her sweet, girlish enthusiasms, and hopes, Viora Daniel promises to become a favorite twinkler,” wrote Cheatham.

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The day Cheatham arrived on the set, Viora was in the middle of a scene with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.  They were filming Arbuckle’s latest film, The Life of the Party (1920).

“I saw a slip of a girl whose vivid, sparkling face was framed  in dark curls which were caught up in a huge bow. The frilly skirts just touched the round, bare knees, while pink socks and Mary Janes completed her ‘little girl’ costume.”

When lunch was called, a nervous Viora hurried over the Maude. She was being interviewed for the first time. Viora Daniel was living the dream.

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Viora, who sometimes spelled her name with an “e” (Veora), was a California girl, born to Roques and Alfie (Stiner) Daniel in San Simeon on January 24, 1902. She was the second of three children. Wildy was born in 1899; Roques Jr. came along in 1904.

The Daniel marriage went on the rocks in 1906 when Alfie filed for divorce, accusing Roques, a farm laborer turned saloon keeper, of desertion. Viora went with her mother; Wildy and Roques stayed with their father and his mother, Guadalupe, an immigrant from Mexico.

In April 1912, frustration over a doctor bill he received sent Roques into the late night. He confronted Dr. Henry N. Freiman in his San Luis Obispo office. The two argued. Roques pulled out a revolver and fired. Dr. Freiman was killed instantly. Roques then turned the gun on himself and fired a bullet through his brain. He was a corpse by morning.

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It’s not clear where Viora spent her teenage years or how she came to Los Angeles. Early publicity suggests that she grew up and went to college in Idaho. There she met Lorrie Larsen, a young woman from Norway. The two became fast friends and, in time, found their way to Hollywood.

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Viora and Lorrie Larsen lived in this apartment house at 680 Witmer Street when they first came to Hollywood.

While Viora was away on a visit, Lorrie found work as a movie extra. When Viora returned, she met casting director Louis Goodstadt. He gave her the break she needed.

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Famous Players-Lasky took her on and used her in small, supporting roles with Ethel Clayton and Harrison Ford (Young Mrs. Winthrop), Robert Warwick and Lois Wilson (Thou Art the Man), and Bryant Washburn and Margaret Loomis (The Sins of St. Anthony).  Her big opportunity came when she was cast as Millie Hollister in The Life of the Party, a feature film starring Fatty Arbuckle.

Arbuckle put his slapstick on hold to play a respected attorney who runs for office as a reform candidate against local machine politicians. Millie, lowly secretary for a local charity organization, joins him in his fight. In the final reel, Arbuckle wins both the election and Millie.

Viora and Fatty Arbuckle in The Life of the Party

Viora and Fatty Arbuckle in The Life of the Party

Viora and the comedian had a good rapport from the start. “Roscoe is so funny, and a darling. In fact, the whole company are such fun, and they all help me in every way they can,” Viora said. “I don’t always know what to do, and Roscoe will say, ‘Now, just what is it you want Miss Daniel to do in this scene?’ and the director will explain it all over again.”

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To appear with Arbuckle was a dream come true for the struggling actress. “I remember I used to go and see Roscoe’s films,” Viora said at the time, “and how I did enjoy them, but, of course, I never once dreamed that I would ever be playing with him. It is all so wonderful — sometimes I wonder if I’ll wake up and find it isn’t true.”

Viora’s time with Famous Players-Lasky was short. After The Easy Road (1921), she left the studio.

She appeared in a Max Linder short, Be My Wife, then signed with Christie Comedies. The studio was intent on molding her into a film comedienne.

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The glamorous Viora Daniel

Her work at Christie was steady, but not very challenging. The plots bored her. Viora wanted more depth in her roles. In one, That Son of Sheik (1922), she is a starstruck teen who becomes obsessed with her film idol, Ruleoff Vassalino. Her boyfriend, Neal Burns, plots with her father to bring her back to earth.

An ad for A Pair of Sexes

An ad for A Pair of Sexes with Neal Burns

In her private life, reality set in. In September 1921, she toyed with the idea of marrying and leaving her profession.  It’s one or the other, she said. Her best friend, Lorrie Larsen, had married actor Harris Gordon in late 1920 and moved on.

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Viora left films in 1922 to tour in vaudeville. In the mid-1920s, she married bank cashier Wayne Casady, the son of a bank president. She flirted with a return to films.  After making three films in 1927 for independent studios, Viora fulfilled a life-long dream. She set sail and traveled with world.

Since childhood, Viora held a fascination for the Orient. Her dressing room at Famous Players-Lasky was adorned with treasures from lands beyond the Pacific.

“I’m crazy about the Orient,” she told a visiting reporter, “and I love every one of these things. My greatest joy is to prowl about the curio shops, and I know if I ever get to Japan or China, I’ll become light-fingered and probably be put in jail, for I’ll never be able to control myself with all those lovely things about. “

Viora toured Orient in 1928 and set up residence in Hawaii. Somewhere along the way, her marriage fell apart. When she arrived in Los Angeles in 1929, cameras were there to click for her. Snuggling with her miniature pooch, Viora, draped in fur and looking like a million bucks, posed for photographs. Since her acting days, she gushed, she had sailed  the world, exploring little known countries. She’d just wrapped up a trip into the interiors of China and Japan and was soon returning home to Hawaii.

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Viora returns to Los Angeles

Several years later, Viora was back in Los Angeles and not as chipper as before. Sailing the high seas had apparently drained her finances. To keep herself afloat, she reconnected with Wayne Casady, her ex, reminding him that he still owed her over $3,000 in back alimony.

When private and discreet attempts to collect from Casady failed, Viora took her squabble to the press — and to Casady’s place of work. She found herself a seat in the lobby of the Wilshire National Bank, where Casady worked as a bank officer.

She filed suit against her former husband in September 1932. She won the case but had little luck collecting the money.  Viora was back in the bank lobby in February 1933. For four days, the former actress sat. The bank declared her a nuisance and secured an injunction to bar her “sit in.” A week later, her “bank sitting siege” ended by court order.

Rather than continue her fight, Viora opted for marriage and more world travel.  She married Scottish shipping manager Harold Gourlie. The Gourlies lived in Scotland and the Philippines and made frequent trips to the United States. Friends had trouble keeping up with her.

When Gourlie died in London in 1958, Viora returned to Los Angeles. She was married briefly to Silas B. Adams in 1972. Viora settled into an apartment at 11063 Ophir Drive in the early 1970s.

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Viora Daniel lived at 11063 Ophir Drive when she died in 1980.

 

The former actress fought breast cancer for six years. The disease eventually spread to her liver.  She died at home on May 9, 1980. Her final resting place is Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale).

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Viora’s time on the silver sheet was short. Maude Cheatham’s predictions that Viora would become a “favorite twinkler” fell short. Sadly, the fast strides the young actress made early in her career fizzled all too soon.

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Hair Pins and Dead Ends, Ankerich’s new book, on the horizon

Relax, friends, I have not pulled a Howard Hughes or Doris Duke on you and slipped into seclusion on some exotic island in the Pacific. If I ever became a recluse, it would be in Manarola, Italy, but that’s another story.

Michael in Manarola

Michael in Manarola, 2013

I am hunkered down and working on my next book, Hair Pins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood. This book is a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, which was released in 2010.

Hair Pins and Dead Ends tells the stories of 20 young women from all walks of life who, despite the odds against them, rose above thousands of other hopefuls to enjoy various level of success in films.

 

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Like Dangerous Curves, I selected the names for this book because I wanted to know more about their struggles in Hollywood. Some were well known and it was fairly easy to research their lives. Others existed only in fragments, a mention in Variety here, a photo in Motion Picture Classic there. Family members and public documents brought these women back to life.

I wrote extensively about Barbara La Marr  in Dangerous Curves, from her birth in 1896 to her death in 1926. She lived life so fast that I thought we should slow the action down and focus on her formative years, her life before  films.

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In Hair Pins and Dead Ends, I piece together those years using La Marr’s own diary and the unpublished memoirs of Robert Carville, an early lover. I discovered that the “girl who was too beautiful” was really the girl who was too unhappy.

 

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa was equally as mysterious on the silver sheet as she was on canvas. Like Barbara La Marr, this shadowy figure from silent films lived fast. Her publicity campaigns and brushes with the law made her private life more interesting than any films she made.

 

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Margaret Gibson’s 1965 deathbed confession brought her name back to life. A neighbor who had been with Margaret as she lay dying recalls her confessing to the murder of director William Desmond Taylor. While playing virginal maidens on the screen, Margaret drifted into Hollywood’s underworld.

 

Marjorie Daw

Marjorie Daw

Both Marjorie Daw and Virginia Lee Corbin had mothers who brought their families to Hollywood in search of fame in the flickers. Marjorie’s mother died in 1917, leaving the 15-year-old  to raise her teenage brother.

 

 

Virginia Lee Corbin

Virginia Lee Corbin

By the time Virginia could crawl, her starstruck mother was pushing her into the spotlight. Virginia married young to escape her mother’s talons, but found it difficult to let go of her career.

 

Alice Lake

Alice Lake

 

Alice Lake, Helen Lee Worthing, and Lottie Pickford drowned their broken dreams of Hollywood in booze. Alice clung to a career long gone.

Helen Lee Worthing

Helen Lee Worthing

Helen rebounded from mental illness and suicide attempts, but her major sin in life was falling in love with the wrong man.

Lottie Pickford

Lottie Pickford

Lottie never gave a damn about much, preferring to party life away in the shadow of her sister, Mary, America’s Sweetheart.

 

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Sisters Katherine McDonald and Mary MacLaren were the Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine of silent films. They were as different as night and day. Early tension in their lives led to a rift that never healed. Katherine struggled with alcoholism.

Mary MacLaren

Mary MacLaren

Mary, referred to (by some) as a crazy cat lady, spent her last days in her dilapidated home in the heart of Hollywood.

 

Fontaine La Rue

Fontaine La Rue

After a tragedy in their native land, Fontaine La Rue and her mother came to the United States. Fontaine soon married and became the mother of three children. Defying the odds against her, she found her place in the motion picture industry as a comedienne and vamp. I devoted a post to Fontaine when I was searching for her story.  I knew bits and pieces, but lacked the critical piece needed to put her life together.  Her family got in touch and filled me in. Her remarkable story is ready to be told.

 

Belle Bennett

Belle Bennett

Belle Bennett became a teenage mother while appearing in her family’s traveling circus. Once in Hollywood, she denied her motherhood, passing her son off as her brother. Ironically, an accident took the boy’s life, just as Belle was preparing for the mother-of-all roles in Stella Dallas (1925). Belle was stricken with cancer and died at the dawn of talkies.

 

Edwina Booth

Edwina Booth

While Edwina Booth survived the mysterious illness she contracted in the wilds of Africa while on location for Trader Horn, the beautiful blonde was never the same. She disappeared from public view. For years, the world believed she had succumbed to her illness. Edwina, comfortable in her seclusion, never came forward to prove them wrong. Her family sheds light on her illness and later life.

 

Marie Walcamp

Marie Walcamp

Florence Deshon

Florence Deshon

 

Evelyn Nelson

Evelyn Nelson

Marie Walcamp, Florence Deshon, and Evelyn Nelson escaped illness, heartbreak, and disappointment by bringing down the curtain on their own lives. Suicide, it seemed, was the only way to set themselves free.

 

Jetta Goudal

Jetta Goudal

Valeska Surrat

Valeska Suratt

Jetta Goudal and Valeska Suratt committed professional suicide through out-of-control temperament and typecasting.

 

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon came to Hollywood as a successor to Clara Bow, The It Girl, who had broken down from too much “It.” In time, Peggy lost her own way. Hollywood was particularly cruel to this former showgirl and helped her realize that, while she might have been a replacement for Clara, she was a poor imitation.

 

Lolita Lee

Lolita Lee

Lolita Lee, a struggling dancer and movie extra, was hired to replace Barbara La Marr in the film Barbara was making when she finally burned out. Being an imitation of or replacement for anyone never guaranteed success. Lolita soon vanished.

Look for further information about the release of Hair Pins and Dead Ends.

Butterfly McQueen: My conversation with the actress and activist

By Michael G. Ankerich

When the lady on the other end of the line started talking, I knew it could be only one person: Butterfly McQueen, the actress who played Prissy in Gone With the Wind (1939). She was calling collect from a phone booth in Harlem — she had no phone in her apartment.  I was interested in interviewing her for Hollywood Studio Magazine‘s 50th anniversary of the classic film’s release.

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Butterfly alerted me that she would phone

She was enthusiastic about  her recent activities, including community activism and a trip to Africa. Because I was unable to make the trip to New York , Butterfly suggested that we do the interview by mail. I would send her the questions. She would answer the questions in writing and return the pages in a self-addressed, stamped envelope I had enclosed.

Twenty-five years ago, I was more interested in hearing about her work in films than her later activities.  As I reread her responses to my questions about community activism and racism these many years later, I have a greater appreciation for the work she did late in life and her convictions about how we can have a better world. Sadly, I don’t think we’ve arrived to what Butterfly refers to as a “haven for each and every individual of the entire universe.”

Here is how our conversation unfolded.

Butterfly McQueen

Butterfly McQueen

Michael: Were your ambitions to become an actress?

Butterfly: Never. However, one day in our backyard in Tampa, Florida, I picked up an old magazine of the “photoplay” type and a strange premonition came over me, letting me know that some day, I, too, would be among those photos I saw in that magazine.

Michael: What was your first experience on the stage?

Butterfly: My first experience in the professional theater was in Broadway producer George Abbott’s Brown Sugar. I was 26 years old.

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Michael: How did you acquire the name Butterfly?

Butterfly: A friend, Ruth Moore, named me Butterfly because I told her I had danced as a butterfly in Venezuela Jones’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Michael: What stage experience did you have prior to Brown Sugar?

Butterfly: The amateur theater was always by pastime hobby. I first began as a child in church, reciting books of the Bible. In Augusta, Georgia (where my mother was born and raised), every Friday at chapel, I recited or sang, as many others did. Although I am now an atheist, I still prefer performing in church as I did two Sundays ago. The church has a “ready made” audience and platform. I have always enjoyed writing and practicing the piano and guitar. My love of music was nurtured by my mother and my attendance in Sunday School.

I hope some day, our churches will serve our communities each day of the week and have teachers for an everyday existence, rather than preachers for a dubious hereafter.

Vivien Leigh and Butterfly McQueen (as Prissy) in Gone With the Wind

Vivien Leigh and Butterfly McQueen (as Prissy) in Gone With the Wind

Michael: How did you get the role of Prissy in Gone With the Wind?

Butterfly: Newspaper critics who saw me in Brown Sugar, Brother Rat, and What a Life gave me such excellent notices and agents signed me to go to Hollywood.

Butterfly and Vivien Leigh

Butterfly and Vivien Leigh

Michael: Did you realize that a classic was being made during the production of Gone With the Wind?

Butterfly: I don’t believe any of the cast did. We were all ‘high quality’ actors doing our very best.

Michael: Do you have any lasting impressions of  Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh?

Butterfly: Everyone in the cast with whom I was involved were ladies and gentlemen.  Miss Leigh had the hardest part to do. She was always polite, as everyone was. The full year I never heard even a “darn.” One day, Mr. Gable’s script was late and I think he wanted to curse, but because I was at his side, he only gritted his teeth.

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Michael: How did you feel about your role in the film?

Butterfly: Mr. Gable said to me once (the only time he had cause to speak to me), “What’s the matter, Prissy?” His tone of voice implied that “if they are not nice to you, you let me know.” Mr. Gable asked me, “What’s the matter, Prissy?” I was so unhappy about my role and was forever whining and crying out loud. I didn’t answer Mr. Gable.  I’m sure I stopped whining. I could tell anyone how hurt I was that I was not to show what great progress we blacks had made, yet, in 1937, I had to be a stupid, backward ignoramus.

Producer David O. Selznick understood and sympathized with me. The black wardrobe woman forgave my tantrums. She, too, seemed to understand my hurt. Hattie McDaniel (Mammy) said, “You’ll never come back to Hollywood!! You complain too much!!” Mr. Selznick put me in two more movies (Since You Went Away and Duel in the Sun).

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy

Michael: What are your thoughts today about your role as Prissy, almost 50 years later?

Butterfly: Oh, thank goodness! Would you be writing me if there had been no Prissy?  I very doubt it! Would I be in a very beautiful studio apartment? Would I have fans all over the world? I think not.  My past misery has brought me present joy and well-being.

Butterfly with Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Butterfly with Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Michael: I have to ask you about working with Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.

Butterfly: In Mildred Pierce, Miss Crawford was more down to earth than she appeared when I was with her in The Women.

Michael: Of the many motion picture legends you worked with, do you have several who stand out as exceptional?

Butterfly: I respect all of the “greats.” One has to respect the so-called “greats,” because they have kept level-headed, which isn’t easy to do in this hypocritical America (smiles).

Michael: In 1975, you received a degree in political science.

Butterfly: My degree is liberal arts. Each semester one is allowed to change one’s major. Only one semester did I study politics. Other semesters I have studied music, art, introduction to law, and other subjects. It was not difficult to secure credits, because after I made money in G.W.T.W. and had time, I went to college as a hobby. I was not serious about a degree until I had a desire to be a recreation center director.

Butterfly McQueen writings

Butterfly McQueen writings

Michael: Tell me about your community activism.  When did you begin to work in the community?

Butterfly: I suppose when I saw how down hill our appearance began. I try to keep beautiful neighborhoods. There are many more duties, but I chose this one because it is most gratifying, I think. At voting time, I work, but I don’t talk about politics. I, a registered Republican, have crossed over and voted for a beginning Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and a Jimmy Carter.

Michael: You mentioned to me over the phone about going to Africa last year. What was the purpose of your trip?

Butterfly: I went because my roots are there. I found out in Ghana that children wanted pencils and paper. I’m sending them the same, thanks to my fans. I’m trying to achieve dual citizenship.

Michael: Do you still receive mail from your fans?

Butterfly: Yes!  Mail is always very heavy. I feel I must continue to be worthy of people’s admiration, such as keeping myself educated and caring for others.  Each one of us was born to carry on the good which we have inherited.

Butterfly responds to my questions

Butterfly responds to my questions

Michael: How do you want to be remembered, for your work in entertainment or your community activism?

Butterfly: Both!  Seriously, Mr. Ankerich, I would like to be remembered as the person who advised her American blacks that if they are as dark-complexioned as I am, they should be very happy and pleased that they have built a harmonious haven for some white and light-skinned people. Isn’t it ridiculous, Mr. Ankerich, that there is no place where there is a welcome mat for all Europeans? Let America be that place. We of African descent (if one is dark-skinned) should build Africa as we have helped to build America. Civilization began in Africa. Why not perfect it there?

When I was a child, I was not told of prejudice. I learned of prejudice when I came north. The first I heard of social injustice was when we sang, “They’re hanging men and women for ‘The Wearing of the Green.’” Black-skinned people, such as I, would give more space for white and light-skinned people. I do not want America to continue being hypocritical about wanting back-skinned people here, because I know I’ve been helped mostly by those of lighter skin than I, in spite of my being industrious and intelligent.

Two Sundays ago, I explained to a church audience about why I keep a low profile. I know who has helped me: the Margaret Mitchells, the David O. Selznicks, and light- and dark-skinned people of my own race. However, I would not want anyone to go through some of the unpleasantness that many of us Americans suffer, white and black. Some people are as honest as the black bus driver here in Harlem who told me to go sit in the back of the bus because I was too black to sit up front. The Polish lady who told us (my mother and me) she was fighting us because we were black colored. I told her I would not have moved into the neighborhood if other colored people had not already been living there. I looked around, and sure enough, my mother and I were the blackest-skinned.

Handwritten comments by Butterfly McQueen

Handwritten comments by Butterfly McQueen

Another honest American was the politician in Queens, who, on America’s 200th birthday, said that all people were welcomed here except the black women.  They should go back to where they came from, he said.  No one said a word until the Japanese said our minorities hinder America, and I agree in part. America, white and light-skinned America, could progress faster if it didn’t stop to try to keep us black-skinned people in “our place.”  Having said this, Mr. Ankerich, I’ll continue trying to make America the Heaven I know she is for many, in spite of how I’m treated by some people. I’ll continue wishing certain white and colored (light-skinned) people stop using prejudice to make money!  I wish you could see how I’m smiling and have no animosity when I say that, in America, hypocritical America, poverty and prejudice are big business for some people in both the white and black race.

In my daily good wishing (praying), I want a haven for each and every individual of the entire universe.

Mr. Ankerich, please let my fans know that their mail is sometimes late because I’m only here a few months of spring and summer. I’ll rush out and mail this now.  Continued success, Mr. Ankerich.

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Do you want to know more about Butterfly McQueen?  Read Stephen Bourne’s biography, Butterfly McQueen Remembered.

Butterfly died several days before Christmas in 1995. She suffered second- and third- degree burns over 70 percent of her body in a house fire in Augusta, Georgia.

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Ginger or Mary Ann? I must confess

“If you could be marooned on Gilligan’s Island, toward which character would your raging teenage hormones point you: Ginger or Mary Ann?”  When I was in high school about 100 years ago, that was the question the guys asked each other. As I recall, most said the wholesome Mary Ann. The sexy and sultry Ginger Grant, they giggled, might be too much for the inexperienced to handle.  I kept my mouth shut.

The cast of Gilligan's Island

When I heard about the death of Russell Johnson yesterday, the actor who played the Professor in the famed sitcom of the 1960s, I thought about Ginger Grant and Mary Ann Summers.  Sadly, Tina Louise and Dawn Wells, the actresses who portrayed the island beauties, are now the only living cast members remaining from Gilligan’s Island.  Where has the time gone?

Tina Louise

Tina Louise

I pulled my files on these two lovely ladies to see what contact I’d made with them over the years.

I heard from Dawn Wells in the early 1980s.  I feel the same disappointment I felt when I first opened the envelope. Her PR folks sent a disappointing form letter with a printed signature.

The dreaded printed form letter

The printed form letter

The accompanying photograph was nice, but it also had the dreaded printed autograph. Drats!!

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I’m not sure what I said 30 years ago, but when I pulled the photo from my files this morning, I responded, “Crapola,” a mild form of cursing I use when I don’t want to say what I really feel.

Tina Louise was a different story. I wrote to her somewhere in the early to mid-1980s. I sent her a photograph and asked her two questions: When you were modeling in college, did you ever expect you would find fame in films and on television? Did you know Marilyn Monroe? Here is her response.

Tina Louise's response to my questions

Tina Louise’s response to my questions

I transcribe for you: “1. No I didn’t because I was to(o) young to imagine I could and was happy just doing what I was doing. 2. Yes I loved Marilyn but I never met her but many friends of hers.” I assume Tina meant that many of her friends did meet Marilyn.

Here is the photo she signed for me.

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Of the hundreds, probably thousands, of hours I spent in front of the television growing up, there are few moments from those shows that I remember. The episode where Tina (as Ginger) sings I Wanna be Loved by You is the one that sticks in my mind. Ginger is luscious, sultry, and stunningly beautiful. I loved her hair. I adored her gowns. I coveted her boa.

When my classmates asked which I character I most wanted to make out with, I kept quiet.  Now, decades later, I can confess. I didn’t want to have sex with either Mary Ann or Ginger.

I wanted to BE Ginger Grant!

The gorgeous Tina Louise

The gorgeous Tina Louise

Author Stephen Michael Shearer: The Interview

I’ll  never forget the encouragement that author Stephen Michael Shearer gave me when I was writing my Mae Murray biography several years ago. His Hedy Lamarr biography had just been

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 5.49.18 PMreleased in hardcover. Although he was busy doing publicity for the release, he made time to give me a call and talk through some important points to remember when writing a life story.

When his latest book, Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, came out last fall, I was anxious to learn what he uncovered about the legend. I took the book on my travels to Italy in October and learned more about Gloria during those two weeks than I had read 30 years ago in her own memoirs, Swanson on Swanson. After reading her book, I thought I knew all there was to know about the “ultimate star.” I was wrong!

Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star turns the spotlight on one of the most fascinating personalities of the 20th century. Great job, Stephen. Miss Swanson was overdue for her closeup!

I was anxious and hopeful that Stephen would spend a little time talking about his latest book and his other important works.  Here is how our conversation unfolded a few days ago.

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Glorious Gloria

Glorious Gloria

Michael: Gloria Swanson has been gone almost 30 years. Why has it taken so long for someone to write an in-depth accounting of her life and career?

Stephen: I think it is because for all these years since Swanson’s own book came out, many film buffs and quasi-historians have assumed it to be the definitive account, the last word.  Swanson wanted her take on her history to be the Holy Grail, her intimidation reaching out from the grave. Most authors would not touch Swanson’s life after Swanson on Swanson was published – her assumed “authority” just simply prohibited contradiction.

Michael: What was it about Gloria that first interested you enough to devote a biography to her?

Stephen: As a biographer you know that there is never a “final” word about one’s life and/or career, and certainly with an autobiography such as Swanson on Swanson there remained many gaps and holes left untapped, not to mention untold questions.  Swanson’s immense ego gave me rise to ponder the truth about her life and work.  Definitely in her tome her accuracy on her work was for the most part correct.

Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson

Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson

Yet the circumstances revolving about her life, her own personal motivations, her career, and her “self,” fascinated me. Once I spent the first of several weeks in Austin, Texas, sifting through her hundreds of boxes of her archives which reside at the Harry Ransom Center, I realized a need to chronicle her life and career properly, with objectivity and, yes, passion.  I eventually fell under her spell, and came to love her (as I have with all my subjects) once I felt I was getting to know her.

Michael: I love what Gloria said about her mother. ”We could look at the same window and never see the same things.” What impact did her mother have on Gloria’s life?

Stephen: Swanson was a “do-er,” and overachiever.  Her mother was very needful.  Quite like today’s Lindsey Lohan and Jodie Foster, Swanson (who also adored her father) took on the mantel of provider and support for her mother at an early age, a not uncommon act for daughters of divorced parents.  Swanson wanted to please her mother and in one telling letter I found amongst her papers (so diligently archived by her friend Raymond Daum in Texas) Swanson reprimanded her mother Addie (after she had remarried without informing Gloria) suggesting that now she was the parent and her mother the impulsive child.  The dynamics between Swanson and her mother were not much different from countless others.  What made the relationship interesting was that Swanson realized their differences, and kept a financial and emotional “control,” if you will, over her mother’s personal and public image.

Michael: Her marriage to actor Wallace Beery was fascinating.  You bring him to life in your book in a way that made me take a second look at this actor. Beery, you write, “possessed an animalistic manly and muscular body, he harbored a “no-nonsense approach to sex” and that he was strangely, sensuously attractive to you girls.” What a description! Was he really a hunk and irrestible to women?

Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson

Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson

Stephen: By all accounts at that time, yes.  Just look at his frame, those biceps, and that ruggedly manly body in off-camera pictures of him from the 1910s.  What he lacked in intelligence, compassion, manners, grace, cleanliness, and moral and social acceptability, Beery certainly made up in talent and virility. He was crude and vulgar, and remained so the rest of his life.  But Swanson too was uncultured and ignorant then.  And what possibly attracted them to each other – she had an equally strong libido even as a teenager.  So it is totally not unreasonable to understand her attraction to an older man who enjoyed the carnal things in life as much as she. What possibly broke them up was that Swanson wanted finer things for her future, and Beery remained fixed.

Michael: Two interesting quotes have been used to describe Gloria Swanson.  Director Allan Dwan said, “Gloria Swanson had the body of a woman and the mind of a man.” Her daughter said she was a feminine woman with a masculine brain. Do you think she thought of herself in those terms?

Stephen: I would definitely say that after a few really hard knocks in life (her marriage to Beery included) some semblance of reality must have settled in on Swanson and her outlook on life and in particular with her dealing with powerful (and weak) men.  In Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star I wrote that she categorized men into definite types – “daddies” to support and take care of her (little Glory); lovers to play with and satisfy her immense ego and libido; gay comrades to appreciate the same desires she felt for attractive men; and “the enemy” – strong and powerful men she felt compelled to challenge.  In that respect, professionally at least, she was in her element.

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Like Lucille Ball a generation later, Swanson’s professional dealings within the Hollywood caste system were met with resistance, especially by “The Pinochle Club” (the then select group of silent film producers).  I thoroughly, however, do not feel that Swanson saw herself in that light.  Always immensely feminine in private, she would gird herself when she dealt with the industry powers.  She never felt herself inferior (perhaps she possessed that strength because of her 4’11” height), and was oftentimes blindly unaware of her, excuse me, shortcomings, one of which was an absolute conviction she was always correct.

 

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Michael: What was it about Gloria Swanson and children? Don Gallery, the son of Barbara La Marr, told me that Gloria would stay with his family (ZaSu Pitts adopted Don after his mother’s death in 1926) when she came out to California from New York. Don said that Gloria didn’t like kids and used to pinch him and his sister. 

Stephen: Swanson and Pitts were great friends.  (Both had worked under Erich von Stroheim, don’t forget.) They often attempted to develop collaborative projects which might suit them, but their public personas would not allow.  Her own children Gloria found exemplary.  But other children she found she had little interest in.  Perhaps because she always felt her own childhood was drab and uninteresting, Gloria also found there was little in common with nurturing and caring hands on, when her own life, she felt assured, was so busy, so fascinating, and all consuming.  Nowhere in my research did I find references to Swanson and her honest feelings about children.  (She wrote in her memoir so overly poetic about her ecstasy of motherhood, which I found deeply suspicious, before immediately and abruptly segueing into the latest fashion trends or men finding her immensely sexually alluring.)  However, there exist great publicity photos Swanson insisted upon having made of her and her girls and son which show she might have found them very useful to exploit her image to middle class audiences

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Michael: It’s funny about fame. Bette Davis was often referred to as an actress, while Joan Crawford epitomized a Hollywood star. You titled your book, Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star. From your vantage point, looking over her whole life, do you think of Gloria as an actress or star?  Did her looks and glamour get in the way of her ability as an actress?

Stephen: I do not find anything funny about fame, Michael!  It is a bitch.  I traveled for years with Patricia Neal, who truly enjoyed her well-deserved celebrity.  But I also saw how it distanced her from some minor realities of real life.  Immense concentration of one’s public image is always foremost in daily preparation, social intercourse, and appearance.  A little goes a long way, at least for most of us mortals who have not lived the film studio culture.  At the end of the day, one is alone, the star image firmly planted in the heavens, stars distanced by their own radiance.  Fame is exhausting.  And it is a trade-off….

In answer to your question, Swanson was one of the Hollywood handfuls who actually created celebrity and stardom through the use of the film and publicity.  By luck, determination, and self-assuredness, Gloria Swanson was first and foremost a STAR (with capital letters please!) who achieved public acceptance through the film medium.  It granted her money, recognition and privilege which she always felt she deserved.  By her own capricious nature she lorded it over her contemporaries and was highly disliked overall within the film community (and don’t forget too that personal and professional jealousy are part of the actor’s nature).  When her image waned and times caught up with her, her career suffered.  Despite what she might have written in her own book, she only became a true actress (even after two early Oscar nominations) after she learned a strong degree of professional discipline and acting technique via the stage.  When Sunset Boulevard came along, and all the elements – the script, the leading man, the director, the sets, etc. – were brilliantly right in Heaven, she was more than prepared to give what I believe to be THE most sensational comeback in motion picture history.  Gloria Swanson had become an actress.

Michael: How many films of Swanson did you view as you researched and wrote her biography? Do you have a favorite?

Stephen: Because my final manuscript of Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star was so lengthy, the editor felt we should not include the Appendix (Swanson’s complete film, theater, television, radio and recording credits which totaled another 50+ pages) so as to market the book affordably. (This Appendix can be downloaded off my website www.smsmybooks.com.)

A swedish advertisement for The Love of Sunya

A swedish advertisement for The Love of Sunya

I viewed every one of Swanson’s film in existence chronologically as I prepared the manuscript, including one last 1922 little epic Zaza, shortly before the book came out. (Many of the silent films are lost.)  With Gloria Swanson I had to learn to appreciate objectively the process of silent film making and performance.  Swanson truly possessed that “It” factor, that unexplainable gift of cinema magic, which her mentor Elinor Glyn wrote so rapturously about. In those silent films, Swanson is mesmerizing to watch even if she repeats the same techniques and physical mannerisms she repeatedly found precious.  One simply cannot take one’s eyes off of her.  Only a few of her silent films to me are memorable, as I wrote in the book.  They epitomize why Swanson was such a great star.  Only when sound came in (and she was quite acceptable and sometimes quite good in a few of her talkies) did her story lines, contract demands, and her absolute refusal to change with the times force her career to nosedive.  After Sunset Boulevard, she was offered many a golden lost moment to continue her popularity juggernaut.  But Swanson reverted to type, her own persona of herself destroying any opportunity to evolve and capitalize on her rediscovered fame.  Pity for us all.  Swanson’s retort was that the studios demanded she play “Norma Desmond” over and over again (which is VERY untrue).  However, she very well could have played the part of Norma Desmond too well.

Gloria and her carnation

Gloria and her carnation

Michael: How did carnations become Gloria’s signature flower?

Stephen: Her ego, plain and simple.  She used to use roses as if she carried a magic wand to accentuate her prominence in a room.  Her small frame dictated to her that she needed to bring attention to herself physically.  By swatting a long-stemmed rose (which evolved into a simple carnation – cheaper? – in later years) about in conversation, attention was always focused on her.  Once at a social gathering which Swanson attended another not mentioned actress appeared with a long-stemmed unnamed flower in hand, batting the daylights out of it much to Swanson’s annoyance.  Swanson left the party.

Michael: What is your opinion of Gloria’s memoirs, Swanson on Swanson?  Truth, fiction, or somewhere in between?

Stephen: Like legions of film buffs for nearly 30 years, I believed Swanson on Swanson was the gospel.  That is until I began to study her work and life.  She did not write that book.  Her last husband, William Dufty (Sugar Blues) did it as a wedding gift to her.  (Others tampered with the manuscript before publication after Dufty left her over another man.)  Dufty also ghost-wrote the much heralded Lady Sings the Blues, which is Billie Holiday’s “autobiography.”  Holiday could barely spell her own name, much less write a book.  But Dufty was a longtime friend of the tragic singer (she was his only child’s godmother), and he did the work.  A gifted mimic (after he left Swanson his longtime partner, Dennis Fairchild, told me Dufty was a “ventriloquist”) he could channel speech patterns, wordage, the actual “way” Holiday and Gloria spoke.  And for years, as with Lady Sings the Blues, I truly believed that Swanson had written her own book.

With daughter Gloria and first grandchild

With daughter Gloria and first grandchild

She told her story as she wanted it to be remembered.  Gloria superficially was always somewhat honest, especially about her career.  But her image of herself, her outspokenness, her total concept of life was tainted by her convictions she was always right.  And that leads to questions.  Plus, as my research progressed, I found Swanson never took an objective viewpoint on anything and much historical accuracy and important factors of her life were trifled with or merely left aside.

Michael: How much cooperation did you receive from her family?

Stephen: As much as I needed.  Children of celebrity are different.  They suffer in ways we mere mortals cannot assume to understand.  They were more times than not exploited.  On display when needed, their parents voicing and demonstrating affection though they are never there, in reality so much of Swanson’s children’s lives was spent in the care of nannies, nurses and tutors.  Gloria was always off filming, or in rabid pursuit of “romance” entrenched in her amorous affairs or “traveling.”

Daughter Michelle, in interview after interview, told of her seldom seeing her mother until she reached young adulthood.  Swanson children were always sequestered off to private schools.  All three grew into fine adulthood, producing normal, stable non-showbiz families.  Gloria was an enigma they simply had to come to terms with. I believe I dealt fairly with Gloria’s heirs.  They were rarely a part of their mother’s life, by her choice.  She provided education and sometimes support to them as they became adults.  Yet she rarely let them intrude in her social and professional activities.

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Michael: Your first book was a biography of Patricia Neal, whom you interviewed extensively. How did the two of you become acquainted?

Stephen: Patricia Neal was a very close, dear friend for nearly 20 years.  I met her when I lived in New York in the early 1990s.  I was acting at the Nat Horne Theatre in the original off-Broadway play, Luigi Jannuzi’s The Appointment.  (I originated one of the two male lead roles.)  It won the coveted Samuel French Award that year.  Patricia and Philip and Marilyn Langner came to a performance.  Langner was the head of the Theater Guild.  Afterwards, my partner, Michael,  and I drove Pat to her apartment on the Upper East Side.  We had a glorious time, became good friends, and things evolved from there.  I have never been enamored or intimidated by celebrity.  Certainly I am respectful of it, and I have my favorites.  But as a struggling actor in New York, I worked with a few stars, and had even developed a varied and diverse group of actor friends.  I waited tables to survive, and met many stars and celebrities, and found them to be normal folks, for the most part.

Stephen and Pat Neal

Stephen and Pat Neal

Patricia was a Southern woman born and bred, and with me, she felt she could be real.  (Occasionally in later years when we would travel together and she was tired she would become “the STAR,” and I would gently remind her not to treat me as a secretary, but as a friend.)  She could count on my being honest with her.  She was always fascinated with the fact I wanted to know more about her career.  She had to relearn her life after her debilitating stroke in 1965.  So my coming up with facts fascinated her, as most of her other friends did not do the research I did.  At any rate, we were always on the phone, dining out in the city, and keeping in touch. I went to her home on Martha’s Vineyard, and we were simply good friends.  She would ask me periodically if I was ever going to do a book on her life.  I once asked her why, and her reply was, “No one had ever asked her.”  (She did write her own autobiography in the late 1980s As I Am.)  I had published some reviews and did a fair amount of research for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

After 9/11, when I lost 11 colleagues in Tower One, I quit corporate work and began Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life. She opened up her archive, her files, her letters and pictures to me with the one stipulation, that I tell her story “warts and all.”  I believe I did a proper job. Patricia agreed to travel with me to high-end venues (original book signing in New York, The National Book Convention in Washington, D.C., and some television interviews.)  The book did well.  I appeared with Pat in her last film, Flying By, in 2009, which co-starred Billy Ray Cyrus and the lovely Heather Locklear.

Patricia Neal was my friend, my muse.  I miss her terribly.

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Michael: Is it harder to write about someone you know personally, for example, Patricia Neal, as compared to Hedy Lamarr and Gloria Swanson, whom you didn’t meet or know personally. Compare the experiences.

Stephen: With Pat Neal, I had the great opportunity to talk with her about her life and career for a couple of decades.  She graciously allowed me the wherewithal to her papers and memorabilia, and it was a glorious experience, a pampered and brilliant exercise for a first-time author.  I became spoiled, for sure.  When writing Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, I had to be very careful NOT to make it a “fan-based” book.  They are more often than not none too truthful or objective, as you know.  I truly had to search out negative comments and reviews of Patricia in particular because, aside from her numerous triumphs, in some of her most dreadful projects, she usually walked away with positive reviews.  I fought to be objective when I dealt with aspects of her career.

I did not know Lamarr or Swanson.  However, with both of their projects, I went to living sources, family in particular, friends and colleagues, to glean insight to these women.  It is often not in the questions asked that is important, but in the answers given.  To present the right questions and assimilate the answers properly is vital.  (For Hedy Lamarr’s daughter, Denise, to tell me her mother, and Dirk Benedict, Gloria Swanson’s dear friend, to tell me she too, “would have liked you” meant, to me, that I was doing the work correctly.)

Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in Hollywood?

Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in Hollywood?

Michael: Your biography on Hedy Lamarr was just released in softcover. She was stunningly beautiful.  Was she the most beautiful actress in Hollywood?

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Stephen: When I was a young kid growing up in the South, I remember watching Tulsa’s KTUL-TV late night movies.  When Hedy Lamarr was in one, I recall I could not take my eyes off of her.  She mesmerized me so.  I asked my late mother who she was, and I quoted my Mom in the Preface to Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr.  However, beauty is subjective.  It may emanate from within. I selected the title for my book for the fact that Hedy Lamarr was so much more than JUST beautiful.

There have, over the years, been many, many physically beautiful women in Hollywood – Gene Tierney, Greta Garbo, on and on.  But by my taste in facial beauty, yes, Hedy Lamarr tops the list.

Michael: Before I read your Hedy Lamarr biography, the most I had read about her was Ecstasy and Me, supposedly written by the actress.  Were you able to uncover the real story?  Did she actually write it?  How much of it was fact?

Stephen: I relied heavily on published accounts from the various trials to recount the story.  I also interviewed Robert Osborne (who wrote the Preface for Beautiful) and the late Marvin Paige, plus the memories of Lamarr’s children, as to facts, motivations, and outcome.  I believe I got it right.

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Lamarr told the ghostwriters the story of her life (her voice can actually and accurately be heard in certain passages of Ecstasy and Me.)  But then obtrusively, and in another vocal rhythm, comes a sex episode.  For the most part, the book is valid.  The rest – the shockingly sexual parts of it – are fictional trash.

Michael: Were you always interested in classic cinema? Were you a reader of film biographies as a youngster? Are there those that stick out in your mind as favorites?

Stephen: One has to be, don’t you think, to be an historian of cinema today?  We live in a voyeuristic society.  Movies have made us the society we are today. We appreciate beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful locales.  When I was 10 years old, my mother gave me her childhood movie star scrapbook.  I looked at those incredibly gorgeous people and wanted to know who they were and what they did, and set about making that my life’s avocation.  I started reading “heavy” film biographies at that early age, such as I’ll Cry Tomorrow and Too Much Too Soon by Gerold Frank.  I wasn’t a “drama queen”, but it did seem that the truth of these stars’ lives was so much more interesting than the pap of the film magazines. I have collected everything by Anthony Slide, Kevin Brownlow, Leonard Maltin (a colleague I have known since 1973), books of the 1970s and 1980s by James Robert Parish, and works by Jeanine Basinger (who wrote the Preface to Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star).

I have an extensive library with many autographed copies of good, bad and indifferent film-related books, some dating back to almost a century.  Hands down, the film biographies by Barry Paris (Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo) and the late Steven Bach (Marlene Dietrich, etc.) are those which I try to model my work after.  Their books are magnificently crafted.  Not everyone’s cup of tea – but for shear history, grammar, and read-ability, they are like savoring rich desserts.  Made to indulge in slowly and read late into the night.

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Michael: You have acted in television and films.  How did this work prepare you for writing about the industry, or did it?

It certainly gave me insight as to the hard work that is involved in the process of filmmaking.  It is all so artificially unreal.  The sets, the continuity, the emotions.  It has given me a great respect for those who have lingered in front of the lights and camera a lot longer than I have.  Robert Osborne said it wonderfully in his Preface to Beautiful.   For anyone who has ever acted in front of a camera, one’s concentration must be particularly intense, and to do what is written for your character, to physically and verbally express the correct emotion involved for the scene, it is all a major accomplishment – an exercise in making the unreal real.   The mechanics of filming are daunting.  I remember I never looked at ANY movie the same after I did bit work in my first picture, Split Image, in 1981.

Michael: What new projects do you have in the works? 

Stephen: I have several “pet” projects that will probably never see the light of day simply because the subjects are not remembered in the collective conscience.  However, I am savvy as to what is viable for publishers.  Many editors today are young, and do not recognize the names.  But I remain a cock-eyed optimist, and believe strongly in a couple of subjects I have submitted proposals on to my literary agent and my editor at Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press-Macmillan.  Nothing is on the dotted line as of yet, so I really am not at liberty to talk about these projects.  I do have a short novel completed, and have begun work on a memoir.

Motion pictures are arguably America’s one true art form.  The history of cinema needs perpetuation. The lives and careers of those people who have made pictures, the people who crafted them, these very people who have helped define and shape our very culture, should be documented and not forgotten.  My purpose as a biographer and historian is to educate the reader as to who these people were and are.

Author Michelle Morgan talks Thelma, Carole, Marilyn, and a whole lot of Hollywood scandal

 

Michelle Morgan’s schedule has cleared long enough to talk with me about her new book,  The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals. As a writer, I can’t see how she keeps it all together. She has two or three books going at the same time, in addition to being a wife and mother. As you will see, Michelle’s eager to talk about all of it. Fasten your seat belts!

Michael: I’m out of breath trying to keep up with you.  Is it Marilyn, Carole, or Thelma you’re working on these days?  Catch me up.

Michelle: Ha!  Yes I get out of breath with it all too.  I’ve never been so busy in all my life, but I’m so grateful and happy.  Who needs sleep anyway?!  Well, let me set you straight about what I’m up to at the moment….  I’m working on a new Marilyn book with a lady called Astrid Franse.  She has an archive of items from the Blue Book Model Agency, which is where Marilyn was signed to when she was a young model.  We have come together and will create a book about Marilyn’s modelling career, and the friendship she had with the agency boss, Emmeline Snively.  The book will cover the years 1945-1950 mainly, but will also explore what happened to Miss Snively after Marilyn became famous.  There is a lot of information out there about Marilyn’s modelling career, and I’m hopeful that we can put together a great book.  All being well, it will be out in 2015.

I’ve just finished working on the first part of a secret project which I’m not allowed to talk about yet (and which is really killing me because I love to talk!).  It is a terrific project and is one of the hardest, but most enjoyable things I’ve ever worked on.

Carole Lombard

Carole Lombard

I’m also working on a book about Carole Lombard which I am hoping to see published as a glossy hardback, sometime in the future.  I’ve done all of the research and written around 20,000 words, so I’m certainly getting there, but I’ve had to put that project on hold for a little while because of the book  I’m writing about Thelma Todd!

Michael: Talk a little about the book you’re writing about Thelma Todd. 

Michelle: Yes, I’m very excited to say that I’ve just been commissioned by Chicago Review Press to write a book about Thelma Todd.  This book means the world to me because I’ve wanted to write it for four years, and now I finally can.  I have to have it finished by September 2014 and it will be published in December 2015, in time for the 80th anniversary of Thelma’s death.

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Thelma Todd

Michael: Tell me a bit about your interest in Thelma.  Can you share any tidbits about your theory surrounding her mysterious death?

Michelle: My interest in Thelma started when I was working on the paperback revised edition of my Marilyn Monroe biography, Marilyn Monroe: Private and Confidential.  I came across the name Pat Di Cicco who was associated with Marilyn in the early days of her career.  She received a letter from director Elia Kazan, telling her to stop hanging around him, and I was intrigued as to why he would say that.  I started to do some research and, of course, came up with the name of Thelma Todd, because he was once been married to her.  I had heard of Thelma before but knew nothing at all about her, so to find out that she died in her garage, under mysterious circumstances, was something of a revelation and I was completely hooked on her story.

I started researching her while still working on the Marilyn  book, and found all sorts of documents that were really interesting in my quest to discover the truth about how and why she died.  I also found a gentleman who had done a lot of research into her life and death in the 1980s, and he helped me a lot with rare photographs and information.

I do have a theory about how Thelma passed away, and why it happened.  But it’s a secret, so I’m not allowed to tell you!  You’ll find out when the book is released though.  Only two years to wait! Ha ha!

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Michael:  The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals is being released in the United States this month (early December). It’s a whopping 512 pages. You cover everyone from Fatty Arbuckle to Michael Jackson. I guess I learned about some of the early Hollywood scandals reading Hollywood Babylon, which we know is riddled with inaccuracies.  How  were you first introduced to scandals?

Michelle: I was definitely introduced to old Hollywood actors and actresses through my grandpa, who was a big film buff.  He could watch a movie and tell you every actor or actress who was in it.  He really was amazing and I still miss his insights into the good old days of Hollywood.  I became a Marilyn fan in 1985 and, of course, some of her life (and certainly her death) involved scandal, so I guess you could say I was properly introduced to it that way.  Then there is Madonna, who I have loved since 1984.  She is no shrinking violet in the scandal department, so I learned a lot from her, too!

I think being a Marilyn fan leads you to other stars and therefore other scandals.  I first learned about Jean Harlow because of Marilyn (she was a fan of Jean’s), and many other stars’ stories, too.

Michael: Reading Hollywood Scandals reminds me why I often feel like I am running into ghosts when I’m out in Hollywood.  The town holds a lot of tragedy, doesn’t it?  What do you feel are its most well kept secrets?

Michelle: I think there are probably many secrets that we still don’t know, because the studios went out of their way to protect their stars, and cover up all indiscretions and naughty behaviour.  Look at Clark Gable and Loretta Young.  They had a child together, and yet while it was the talk of the industry, it never reached the press at all.  The child was sent to an orphanage, and Loretta then pretended to adopt her, therefore making herself a hero, rather than an unwed mother.  Gable didn’t have anything much to do with the child at all, and only met her once or twice; never once telling her the truth about her parentage.  This story is unbelievable and yet it happened and it was successfully covered up.

I truly believe that there are hundreds – maybe even thousands – of scandals and secrets we still haven’t heard about.  For instance, the case of Patricia Douglas, who was raped in the parking lot of an MGM event, was swept under the carpet for years, until biographer David Stenn found out about it and brought it to the masses; giving Patricia a chance to clear her name and tell her story.  That story is in my Hollywood Scandals book, and it is one of the most heart-breaking and infuriating stories in there.  The poor girl.  The whole experience of what happened to her during and after the event moulded her entire life.  What an absolute tragedy.

Lucille Ricksen signed this portrait for her father.

Lucille Ricksen signed this portrait for her father.

Michael:  That is a haunting story. When I wrote Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, I had trouble letting go of poor Lucille Ricksen, whom you write about in Hollywood Scandals. I felt that she was so abused by the motion picture industry. After writing Hollywood Scandals, is there one story that sticks with you as being particularly troublesome or sad?

Michelle: I agree about Lucille.  It was your wonderful book that made me want to learn more and write about her in my own book.  I find it very disturbing that she was just in her early teens when she died, and yet she had been in movies playing adults for such a long time.  And the photos she posed for; aged just five and six, with nothing but a little scarf protecting her dignity.  Good grief, the girl was a baby. How on earth was this allowed to happen?  It is a very, very upsetting story in every single way.

In terms of sad and troublesome stories that I researched; well Lucille was one for sure, but Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle really did upset me.  The poor man was innocent and yet forced to go through three trials to prove it.  In the end, the jury apologised to him because they were so disgusted that it had happened at all.  He lost his career and his reputation, while Virginia Rappe (the girl at the centre of the scandal) lost her life and has had the most awful rumours made up about her since.  The whole thing was just terribly sad and disturbing.  I finished writing the book a year ago, but poor Roscoe has stuck with me for a long time, as his story is just so tragic and upsetting.

Michael: I’m curious why you didn’t include a chapter on the William Desmond Taylor murder?

Michelle: I really wanted to include him, and actually had him on my list of people that I wanted to talk about.  However, after doing Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and realising just how huge that chapter was, I knew that the Taylor murder would be even bigger, so I had to leave it out.  My publisher was very firm in saying that I had to write about modern day stars, too, so I had to make sure I had a good selection, and two huge 1920s scandals would have probably been too much.  The Taylor murder is definitely one I am fascinated by, however, and I have a number of books about it in my collection.  Maybe if I do a sequel, I can include Taylor in that one!

Michael:  I am fascinated by locations around Hollywood that go back to the early days of filmmaking.  You write a interesting chapter about the “Suicide Apartments,” where two entertainment personalities ended their lives. The location was 1735 N.Wilcox Avenue.  Are the apartments still there or have they gone the way of the wrecking ball?

Michelle: Well looking at Google maps (I’m addicted to that site!), I’m not sure.  There are many apartment blocks on that street, but whether or not they are from that era is a bit of a mystery.  I have always been intrigued with locations, too, and whenever I’ve been to Los Angeles, I’ve always gone in search of Marilyn sights, and many others.  It’s fascinating to me, but also depressing when you discover that something as important as the Taylor house is now a car park.  That really upsets me.

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Michael:  Your first book, as I recall, was a book about locales involving Marilyn Monroe. You also did a biography on her life.  What is it about Monroe that still fascinates us?

Michelle: I think about this a lot. To be honest, I think there’s no correct answer.  She is different things to different people, so no-one will have the same answer.  For me personally, she fascinates me in many ways, but it is her natural personality – the person she was under the character of Marilyn Monroe – that really interests me.  She played the part of Marilyn, the glamorous movie star with the bright red lips, but in real life, she was most happy wearing a pair of slacks and a top; no make-up and her hair un-styled.  I love this aspect of her and I don’t think that her true personality gets enough attention.  That’s why I wrote Marilyn Monroe: Private and Confidential, because I wanted to show people who the real Marilyn was.  I loved writing that book and most people get what I was trying to do with it.  There are a few who would rather I just talked about the Kennedys, death conspiracies, etc.,  but that’s their problem.  I have no interest in embellishing her life.  She was interesting enough without that.

Michael:  Tell me about your background. Were you born in the United Kingdom? With your interest in old Hollywood, have you ever considered moving to California?

Michelle: Yes, I was born in the UK and still live here, very happily.  I think maybe I flirted with the idea of moving to California when I was a teenager, but not anymore.  I don’t like to be far from my family, but if anyone would like to buy me a house there, I’m sure we would very happily move there for the summer!

I live with my husband, Richard, and daughter, Daisy, who are incredibly supportive of my writing and projects.  We also have a dog, Betty, who is a little less supportive, as she insists on interrupting my writing time to try and bribe treats out of me!

I had the best childhood you could ever hope to have; my parents were very happy; I had a younger brother who I adored (and still do!); and very loving grandparents.  When I was a teenager, I thought I wanted to be an actress and used to go on all kinds of auditions and courses.  My hubby (who was my boyfriend at the time) used to go all over the country with me on my quest to become an actress, but when I was 21, I realised that, while I loved writing the application letters, I hated actually auditioning, so it kind of clicked that writing was what I really needed to be doing.

When I look back, I have no idea how I didn’t know it sooner.  I spent my entire childhood writing books and binding them together with string or staples; I used to write fictitious news articles; and would read for hours.  I was a writer from the day I was born, but I was an adult by the time I realised it!

When I did realise that I wanted to be a full-time writer, I was working in a boring office job, with very little support from some of the people I worked with.  I was desperate to leave but I was far too stubborn.  I didn’t want to leave to go to another office job. I wanted to be able to say I was going to work on my writing career.  After seventeen years of working there, my daughter was born and that changed everything.  I wanted her to be proud of me and her arrival was a huge catalyst.  I knew that I’d have to go after my dreams in a big way, so to help, I trained to be a children’s yoga teacher and then was able to leave the day job to run my business and pursue my writing.

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Michelle at a recent book signing.

That was nine years ago and I’ve never looked back.  I don’t teach yoga any more (except for one class for my daughter and her friends) and instead I spend my days doing exactly what I want to do.  It has taken a long time to get here, but not a day goes by when I don’t thank God I’ve been able to do it.  I am glad that I had to work so hard though, because now I appreciate each and every minute of my work and I’m honoured to be doing it.  I just hope and pray that I’m able to do it for the rest of my life.

Michael: What types of books do you like to read when you’re not writing?

Michelle: I love many kinds of books, but adore biographies about golden age celebrities most of all.  I loved your Mae Murray book!  I bought it as soon as it came out, and it is still sitting next to my bed!  As well as biographies, I also love Jackie Collins, and ‘chick-lit’ authors such as Jane Green, Lisa Jewell and Marian Keyes.

One of my own Bette Davis treasures.

One of my own Bette Davis treasures.

Michael:  An admiration for Bette Davis is one we have in common.  I think she is Hollywood’s finest actress. You collect items that once belong to her.  Can you tell us about those treasures?  Photos? You must have a cigarette holder, a tube of lipstick, or something like that!

Michelle: Oh, I adore Bette.  I have loved her since I was a teenager and discovered I was born on her birthday.  When she died, I remember crying my eyes out because I felt such a connection to her and a real admiration that has grown even more so as I’ve become older.  I love her so much, in fact, that my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth, in honour of Bette.  I tell her all the time that she was named after Bette Davis, and she seems quite proud of the fact, even though she doesn’t know much about her at this point in her life.

I started collecting items that belonged to Bette purely by accident.  It started off with me buying a signed book as a present for myself, after the success of my Marilyn book.  Then I somehow got in touch with a man who knew one of Bette’s cousins.  He told me that she had some of Bette’s own books and would be willing to sell them to me.  I snapped them up and they came complete with Bette’s handwriting in one and her bookplates in all of them.  Whenever I need to feel brave, I always go and pick up one of her books.  It sounds silly, but I feel as though her energy is still on those volumes, and it gives me strength too.  I hope to be able to collect more items she owned, one of these days.

Michael: Thanks, Michelle, for spending some time talking about your books and writing interests.  Let me know how your Thelma Todd book progresses. I’d like to talk with you again after its release.

Michelle: I’d like to thank you very much indeed for giving me the opportunity to talk with you.  Your blog is one of my favourites, and I’m honoured to be part of it.

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In the meantime, read more about Michelle through her blog.

Michelle and her parents at a recent book signing.

Michelle and her parents at a recent book signing.