I’ve been a fan of Scott O’Brien’s for years. When his new book, Ruth Chatterton: Actress, Aviator, Author, was released this month, I got in touch, hoping he would agree to talk about his impressive body of work. As it turns out, Scott had read my blog and my recent entry about George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Who knew he was also a big fan of Tammy, Loretta, and Dolly, the Holy Trinity of Country Music Queens? In an email, Scott explained his admiration.
“ I saw Loretta with Conway (dream concert). I went out to the bus and brought her a plant. I talked to Mooney Lynn, but I didn’t get to talk to Loretta. She was like an angel on stage. Joel (Scott’s partner) and I took my mother to see her in a concert with Patsy and Peggy in 2005 (Santa Rosa).
Around 1974 I saw a San Jose concert with Porter Waggoner and Dolly. I went up stage and met them. I had them sign the album with the photos of them as little kids on the cover. She sang “Coat of Many Colors” in that album. I told her how much I liked that song and she said, “Yep! That’s me. That little girl’s me!” That was it. She had a ton of make-up on. I was the only long-hair hippie in the auditorium.”
I’m always delighted when I run into someone who is a fan of both classic cinema and country music. It’s a rather odd combination, and for years, I thought I was the only one. What other fan could watch Flesh and Devil while listening to Loretta’s You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man through headphones? Ah, me. It does take all kinds.
Scott’s new book on its way to me. I’ll dive into it next week. In the meantime, order your own copy. Then check out his other biographies.
Michael G. Ankerich: Tell me a bit about your interest in films, particularly classic films. How did your interest in early Hollywood get started?
Scott O’Brien: My parents were both movie buffs. They talked about stars from the 30’s and 40’s and piqued my interest. When I’d come home from school in the 1960’s I’d watch classic films on TV. I felt an affinity with the actors and style of movie-making. I was delighted by the screwball comedies of Loy and Powell, and enchanted by the voices of MacDonald and Eddy. I wanted to know everything about these people. I met Myrna Loy in 1965 when she was touring in Barefoot in the Park. She was so gracious—everything that a young fan could ask for. I saw Nelson Eddy doing his nightclub act in San Francisco (1966) and talked with him briefly. I also met and chatted with Jane Powell, William Holden and Irene Dunne. I wish I had asked to have a photo taken with these stars, but I didn’t have the nerve. When I was at San Francisco State, I spent more time researching old movie stars than I did studying Sociology.
Michael: You actually have connections to the film industry. Your great-aunt worked at Warner Bros. Tell me about Evelyn. Did she share her Hollywood experiences with you? Did she influence your interest in old Hollywood?
Scott’s Aunt Evelyn.
Scott: I grew up hearing so much about my great-aunt Evelyn O’Brien. I finally got to meet her when I was eighteen at a family reunion in Ogden, Utah. Evelyn had a scandalous marriage to the son of a Mormon apostle that no one ever talked about. She was divorced by the time she was twenty (1930). She lived in Hollywood in the early 1930’s. She told me that Busby Berkeley used her in the chorus for the Kay Francis film Wonderbar(1934). I could tell that she really liked Kay, but all my questions were about Myrna and Jeanette.
After Hollywood, she went to San Francisco and lived just below Carole Landis in an apartment on Bush Street. The two became close friends. When Landis landed in Hollywood, she referred to a list of contacts that Evelyn had given her. My aunt returned to Hollywood around the same time (1937) and became the chief assistant for make-up genius Perc Westmore. In the early forties she toured all over the country representing the House of Westmore. She did make-up for stars such as Lana Turner, Linda Darnell, and socialites like Gloria Vanderbilt. Evelyn passed away while I was writing my Kay bio. By then, my aunt was suffering from dementia.
Michael: I’ve read your biographies on Ann Harding, Kay Francis, and Virginia Bruce. I’m waiting for your new book, a bio of Ruth Chatterton. I’m fascinated by your selection of subjects. What intrigued you about these actresses and what do you look for when deciding on a subject?
Scott: I waited for years for someone to write a biography on Kay Francis. I made a huge scrapbook about her and collected all her films, except the lost Illusion (1929). I had read George Eells book Ginger, Loretta and Irene Who? His chapter on Kay fascinated me. I finally wrote an article about Kay for Films of the Golden Age in 1995. On New Years Day 2003, I decided to bite the bullet and do a book myself. I was tired of waiting for someone else to. My partner Joel and I flew to New England to read the Kay Francis Diaries held at Wesleyan University. We were also invited to stay on Nantucket with her closest friends Jetti and Lou Ames. What a delightful couple! They had several pieces of Kay’s furniture, photos, paintings and lots of stories to share. Kay was godmother to their two sons. Everything seemed to fall into place. I was then invited by the Florida Nurses Association to Daytona Beach where I introduced The White Angel (1936), Kay’s epic about Florence Nightingale. I told Joel that we owed that trip to Kay, along with our sojourn to Key West. She was really looking out for us!
My biographies on Virginia and Ann are the first on these actresses. Again, I had wanted to know more about them and no one had told their story. Naturally, I would have done one on Myrna Loy, but Loy had done a thorough and honest job detailing her own life in Being and Becoming, which I highly recommend. There were three biographies written on Jeanette MacDonald—why on earth would I write a fourth?
I liked the understated style of Virginia Bruce, her eyes and that smoky-voice. I was under Ann Harding’s spell after I saw her in Peter Ibbetson—one of those afternoon classic movies that came on TV when I was in high school. In almost every instance family and co-stars were pleased, and wanted to share their stories about these women. I was more than just a snoop. I really cared, and I hope that is reflected in my writing. Fortunately, I had the help Ruth Chatterton’s favorite cousin’s daughter Brenda. Brenda sent me a large package filled with the only memorabilia that Ruth had collected during her career. It included a delightful baby photo with her mother that had never been published.
Michael: One of the things that I admire about your books is your quest to interview anyone who knew your subject. I also like how you weave yourself into the story with those you interview. How important is it for you to dig around and find friends of relatives of your subjects?
Scott: For a sense of completion on these projects, I have to feel that there has been no stone unturned. Trying to locate friends and relatives of a subject is essential. Even though these women would now be between 102-120 years old, I wasn’t discouraged. It can prove challenging for a former co-star to recall specifics from 60-80 years ago. The late John Kerr wrote me that he was simply too ill to respond. He had played Chatterton’s son in a 1940 stage revival of Tomorrow and Tomorrow. I had a very lively telephone chat with Eva Marie Saint, who worked with Ruth in a 1950 TV production of Dodsworth. Child stars like the late Sybil Jason, Jimmy Lydon, Gloria Jean, and the late Billy Mauch helped bring Kay Francis alive, as well as her two adoring godsons Tabor and Jonathan Ames.
Michael: After you complete a biography, how hard is it to let go of that subject? You spend an enormous amount of time with Kay Francis, for example. Then you finish the book and move on. Do you go through a type of mourning or is it good riddance?
Scott: Author/critic Mick LaSalle advised that I was “keeper of the flame” for the stars I write about. In one sense you never really let go. After Ann Harding – Cinema’s Gallant Lady was published I had wonderful conversations with Ann’s niece and grand-niece. I knew that they had two Ann Harding book projects of their own—hence they didn’t participate when I previously contacted them. I was very pleased with the gratitude they expressed regarding my own book. They were included along with me in an interview I did with Moira Finney for TCM’s Movie Morlocks.
Michael: Let’s talk a bit about Kay Francis. With Kay, you had a biographer’s dream: a diary kept by the actress. How did you stumble upon that document?
Scott: The 1976 book by George Eells, Ginger, Loretta, and Irene Who? included a chapter on Kay. Eells had access to her diaries. When I began my book I learned their whereaboutsand scheduled a visit to Wesleyan University. Joel brought along his laptop and we spent four days reading every entry. Many were in shorthand had been translated. I felt honored to read the jottings of Kay from the time she was a teenager until she was forty-eight. The entries were brief remarks on engagement calendar pages (3X4)—focused on her love life, beaus and friends.
Jetti and Kay Francis, Christmas, 1962
She rarely mentioned her stage/film work. Kay was a sexual and passionate woman—(She had referred to herself as: “Happy Lover-Lousy Wife.”) For a sexually active woman she certainly had her challenges. Diaphragms, for example, were outlawed in the U.S. until 1938. Abortion was considered by some to be an acceptable means of birth control. Although it took a toll on Kay’s health, emotionally and physically, I wanted to respect and understand her choices and what she was up against. I have great admiration for her as a person and human being. If her friends Jetti and Lou Ames are any indication, Kay was something special.
Michael: You wrote that it was Kay’s ability to be herself at a time when men and women conformed to social restrictions that impressed you about the actress. She sounds like a woman way ahead of her time.
Scott: Kay and the people she enjoyed being around were part of the avant-garde: Louis Bromfield, William Haines, Lil Tashman, Carole Lombard, Ruth Chatterton – they balked at convention and opted for being true to themselves. As a flower-child of the 60’s I could identify with her passion and philosophical approach to life. She lived simply. For awhile she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood, but she was not extravagant. She associated money with independence, not luxury and self-indulgence. She left nearly one-million dollars to Seeing Eye Inc.
Michael: Kay’s outspokenness got her into trouble with her studio, didn’t it? How did her strong personality impact her films and her career in a male dominated Hollywood?
Scott: By 1937, Kay began to complain about her roles being “old hat.” As Queen of the Warner lot, the studio kept putting her in “weepies” because they made money. She had her heart set on doing Tovarich hoping for another gem like Trouble in Paradise. Her failure with The White Angel and First Lady didn’t help matters. Jack Warner was out for blood when she protested. When Claudette Colbert was given the lead in Tovarich Kay took legal action to dissolve her contract. Then to everyone’s surprise she dropped the suit. Rumor had it that she being blackmailed. Warner put her in six “B” pictures with the intent to ruin her career. That’s when she gave her famous “I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten” interview with Dick Mook. It took another woman to save Kay’s career. Carole Lombard insisted that Francis have the second female lead in In Name Only (1939). Kay exceeded everyone’s expectations playing the vengeful wife of Cary Grant.
Michael: Your new book is a biography of Ruth Chatterton. I am amazed by her life. It looks like she crammed a lot of living into one life. What surprised you about her?
Scott: I was truly impressed with Chatterton’s nerve and drive to do and say the “right thing”—not for the benefit of a select few, but everyone. The books she authored have a progressive slant. There are no real heroes in them. You may not like some of her characters, but you understand their back-story and how they got that way. She tackled Anti-Semitism, McCarthyism, and stood up for the civil rights movement. What’s not to like about her? Careless with her money, Ruth was as extravagant as she was generous. Toward the end, she was literally living off the kindness of strangers. I was also surprised how steady her radio and stage work were through 1961, the year she died. She was adept at making transitions and redefining her life.
Michael: She had a very successful career on the stage before she came to Hollywood at the dawn of talkies. Did she come willingly into the new phenomenon that was talking films?
Scott: In 1918, producer Myron Selznick offered Ruth a $300,000 contract for six films. Her co-star/mentor/lover Henry Miller encouraged her, but she demanded story approval and returned it unsigned. It wasn’t until 1928, when her stage career had all but collapsed that Emil Jannings came to her rescue with Sins of the Fathers (1928, her only silent.
Michael: Chatterton made top notch films in the 1930s: Dodsworth, Frisco Jenny. Anybody’s Woman. The Academy seemed to have snubbed her. Why?
Scott: She was nominated twice for Best Actress Madame X (1929) Sarah and Son (1930). Favoritism and studio politics played a key role in who won. Many were outraged when Chatterton wasn’t nominated for Dodsworth. She was freelancing by then and didn’t wish to cater to the whims of studio bosses. They didn’t like mavericks like Chatterton.
Michael: She was a multi-dimensional person with numerous interests outside of films. What were some of her passions?
Scott: Her main avocation outside of acting was aviation. She had flown in the late 1920’s. Her very close friend actress/director Auriol Lee was the first woman to fly across the equator (1927). Ruth was also friends with Amelia Earhart. In 1935 and 1936 Chatterton had her own national air derbies between Cleveland and Los Angeles. Up through the 1950’s Chatterton (for a lark) would occasionally be seen up in the co-pilots seat of commercial airplanes whenever she traveled.
Michael: Can you speak a bit about Chatterton’s interest in politics and social justice and her efforts to move our country forward in terms of human rights? Like Kay Francis, she seems like a great liberal?
Scott: The Jewish refugee situation following WWII triggered Chatterton’s passion for writing. She was heavily involved in The American League for a Free Palestine. In 1946 she was in the controversial A Flag Is Born (about concentration camp survivors). Marlon Brando and Paul Muni were also in the cast. Her first novel Homeward Borne was an insightful look into the problems of Jewish orphans being assimilated into American society. She wrote her second novel The Betrayers during the heat of America’s Communist Witch-Hunts. “I can’t help it,” she explained to one interviewer, “I’m a born crusader who wants to fight social injustices.” Her last novel The Southern Wild tackled civil rights issues and the lethargy and tradition of Southern culture that perpetrated bigotry and violence.
Kay Francis’ close friend Jetti Ames said Kay was a liberal, but I have no specifics. Kay’s secretary/help-mate Eunice was African-American. When Kay was on tour she refused to stay in hotels that were segregated.
Joel Bellagio (Scott’s partner), Jetti Ames, and Scott during his research for his Kay Francis biography.
Michael: Does Joel, your spouse, share your interest in old films and Hollywood? How involved is he in your work?
Joel’s been a real trouper offering his observations on every film that Kay, Virginia, Ann, and Ruth made. He helps me keep a balanced point of view on their films and performances. He also manages my website scottobrienauthor.com, and tags along when I go out of area for research, or to do book talks, signings, etc. He also is a sounding board after I complete each chapter. The other night, he was in the mood for Girls About Town for the umpteenth time. I’ve thoroughly brainwashed the poor guy. Joel knew nothing about classic film when we first met—although he was named after Joel McCrea. His favorite films are: Dames, Golddiggers of 1933, One Way Passage, Dodsworth, Maytime, Now Voyager, and Alice Faye’s The Great American Broadcast.
Michael: Of the actresses you’ve written about, which one left you wanting to know more?
Scott: Ann Harding was estranged from her family for years. When she passed away in 1981, Ann hadn’t communicated with her sister Edith for over thirty years. She wasn’t on speaking terms with her daughter Jane for the last fifteen or so. Ann eventually adopted an older woman who had been her friend/caregiver. Like her Brigadier General father, Ann had a tendency to cut people off from her life. I communicated with a woman who was pretty convinced that her father was Ann’s brother or illegitimate son. Interesting story. It’s probable that Ann’s father had an extra-marital affair which produced the boy. Ann’s parents eventually lived apart which might explain this episode. Ann’s niece and grandniece were willing to do a DNA test, but the idea never went anywhere. There wasn’t enough solid evidence for me to put it in the book.
Michael: Can you tell us who is next on your list?
Scott: George Brent. I was contacted by an Irish filmmaker Brian Reddin while researching Ruth Chatterton (Brent was Ruth’s second husband). Reddin is preparing a documentary for Irish TV on Brent and wanted to interview me. I took a sabbatical from Ruth and dove into the early years of George Nolan (Brent’s birth name).
Ruth Chatterton and George Brent, the subject of Scott’s next book.
Reddin forwarded me Brent’s birth certificate and encouraged me to write a full-fledged biography. George is a fascinating subject. So much blarney has been written about him. He was a very private person and would tell PR people at Warner Bros. to write whatever they wanted to about him. Tracking down copies of his films, except for the early Fox stuff, was pretty easy. He was in my all-time favorite film, The Rains Came. Along with Jezebel and Dark Victory it offered Brent one of his best opportunities.
Michael: As a writer, do you prefer the research or the writing? Why?
Scott: The research has a sense of fun. The writing needs to be fresh and have tempo. Both require concentration and determination to “get it right.” I completely immerse myself until the project is finished. I also find that during my daily 2-3 mile walk a phrase or idea will come to mind which is helpful. As far as a preference—the two go hand-in-hand.
Michael: Has your research left any lasting impressions about the lives of celebrities?
Scott: When I wrote Virginia Bruce-Under My Skin, I researched the life of Jenny Lind who Bruce portrayed in The Might Barnum (1934). Lind was the first real celebrity in the modern sense of the word. Barnum exploited her name all over the place. It started a trend. By the 1930’s celebrities were either thriving on the adoration of fans (Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford), or being terrified (Garbo). Ann Harding saw “celebrity” as an “unwelcome guest.” Traditionally, repertory acting was the art of creating illusion, a magical experience that allowed audiences to collectively “awaken” into shared human experience. The play itself wasn’t about the actors involved. There were no “stars.” There is something grotesque about the worship of “celebrity.” I have to ask myself, “Why are you doing this, Scott?”
My rationalization is simple. I have written stories on my own ancestors for members of my family. I’ve interviewed all the old-timers and researched news archives to get insight into our roots and common story. I feel the same way about writing these stories about film actors. People I admired. I wanted to do right by them. (Kay, by the way, is a distant cousin of mine on the O’Brien side.) It’s hard to explain the uncanny experiences that have compelled me forward. It’s almost as if these dead ladies of the cinema were nudging me along the way. I don’t sensationalize. I write about human beings. Some of the exploitive garbage written about famous film folk by a certain crop of contemporary authors upsets me. They make up stuff. They wait until all the people they interviewed are dead before releasing their manuscript. Oh well, it adds to the chaos—grist for the mill as the Zen masters say.