Author Joan Craig Shares Her Memories of Theda Bara in New Book

Theda Bara, My Mentor: Under the Wing of Hollywood’s First Femme Fatale by Joan Craig, with Beverly E. Stout, is the book that I have been waiting for. They don’t come along everyday, these intimate and personal recollections of someone who actually knew the silent film greats, but when they do, they have my attention.

I was delighted that Joan agreed to talk with me about her new book. Read on . . .

From the back cover of Theda Bara, My Mentor:

As movie patrons sat in darkened theaters in January 1914, they were mesmerized by an alluring temptress with long sable hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. Theda Bara—“the vamp,” as she would come to be known—would soon be one of the highest paid film stars of the 1910s, earning an unheard of $4,000 per week, before retiring from the screen in 1926.

In 1946, the author met Bara-then 61-at her Beverly Hills home and the actress became her mentor. This memoir is the story of their friendship.

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Michael: First of all, tell me a little about yourself.

Joan: I attended Westlake School for Girls (now Harvard-Westlake School) in Holmby Hills. I graduated from Marymount High School, West Los Angeles. I attended Marymount-Loyola and UCLA. I raised my daughter in Newport Beach, California. We moved to New York City while my daughter attended The Professional Children’s School. I am currently retired and living with my husband Kurt Ruch.

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Joan Craig

Michael: Set the stage for us. Tell me about your childhood and how you got to Beverly Hills.

Joan: I was the only child of my parents’ marriage. I was born during World War II. My father was starting his own oil company on the West Coast at that time. My father had built one of the first gas stations in Las Vegas. During that time I grew up in the back seat of a car and staying at the finest hotels such as El Rancho Vegas, Mark Hopkins, Fairmount, Bel-Air Hotel, The Beverly Hills Hotel and others. My parents settled in Beverly Hills, when my father decided to build the largest gas station in the world with 24 pumps on Wilshire Boulevard in Miracle Mile in 1946.

Michael: How did you come to live on  Alpine Drive, Theda’s street?

Joan: My parents first rented a house owned by Adolf Spreckels II, the sugar king heir, located at 729 North Alpine Drive across the street from Theda. I was on my way to my first day at school with my nanny, when Charles Brabin (Theda’s husband) cut a rose from his garden to take to my teacher that day.

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Theda’s home in earlier days

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Theda’s home today. Joan lived in the house across the street. In this photo, Joan’s house is just above the stop sign.

Michael: What was the address of her house?

Joan: Theda’s house was 632 North Alpine Drive. Ours was 702 North Alpine Drive, Beverly Hills, which was directly across the street from Theda.

Michael: Who were some of your other neighbors? Anyone we might know?

Joan: Ben Hecht who was known as the Shakespeare of Hollywood lived directly behind us. Harold Adamson, a song writer, who was known for writing Around the World for Eighty DaysI Love Lucy, Frank Sinatra’s first Academy Award nomination I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night and others.  Dean Martin moved into 729 N. Alpine Drive after we vacated it, then Jerry Lewis. The dance team Veloz and Yolanda lived in a house in the middle of the block behind us on Foothill Drive. Across the way from that house lived Thurston Hall who played Antony in Cleopatra. In the 600 block on North Alpine lived Norma Talmadge.

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Theda and her crystal ball

Michael: Do you remember the first time you met Theda.  Tell me about it.

Joan:  I was on my way to school and in passing Mr. Brabin in his garden, I was told that the lady in the house would like to meet me. Upon entering the house I was ushered into the living room. Theda Bara entered the room and asked me to sit down. She sat on a sofa with a crystal ball covered with a cloth in front of her on the table. She asked me many questions while she looked under the cloth at the crystal ball. After meeting her, I felt that I had met someone with a very special gift! She told me to be very good because she could see everything.

Michael: What did you call her? Mrs. Brabin? 

Joan: No, I called her Aunt Theda.

Michael: Incidentally, how do you remember her name being pronounced? Like “Theeda”? 

Joan: Some called her that but she preferred like “Thayda”.

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Michael:  What was her physical appearance like? She actually kept her hair rather long, didn’t she? We think of Theda with white face powder and black kohl  around her eyes.

Joan: Yes, she kept her hair long. Theda processed her makeup in her kitchen. However, at that time in her life, she did not wear very much makeup.

Michael: As I understand it, she became a gourmet cook.  Did you ever dine with her?

Joan: I dined with Theda many times. She liked to cook. She also had a British cook.

Michael: Did she talk about her days in silent film and making movies?

Joan:  Yes. Sometimes we would go to the location where a film had been made. She and Charles would re-enact a special scene from that film as I read the story.

Michael: What were her general impressions of her image and work in Hollywood?

Joan: One of Theda’s favorite subjects was psychology. She was proud of her films since many of them exposed character personalities that may be devious. She felt the insight was beneficial to the public at that time.

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Theda in later years

Michael: How did that impact her work in films, do you believe? 

Joan: Theda was so good at portraying her characters, people really believed that that likeness was her in real life. This was a sensitive issue for Theda. She was not anything like the characters that she portrayed.

Michael:  We think of Theda as very dramatic, over the top, perhaps a Norma Desmond type. Did she come across as being eccentric or egotistical?

Joan: Theda was neither eccentric nor egotistical. She liked having many of the props from her movies around her in her house. Some of them were unusual. She had many friends, mostly celebrities. She loved to entertain and had many parties. She was very sweet, always concerned about the other person.

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Theda and Charles Brabin

Michael: Tell me about Charles Brabin, her director husband.

Joan: Charles Brabin was a highly principled man. He and Theda had a very happy marriage. They shared much of the film industry together.

Michael: Do you remember what he called Theda? 

Joan: They called each other “Moody”.

Michael: You gave me a insightful anecdote about Theda and Mae Murray for my biography on Mae.  Do you remember seeing others visit her from her era?  Who were they?

Joan: Most Hollywood stars came to her, too many to list here! Her close friends were from her era. Marion Davies adored Theda. They would have lots of laughs together.

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Theda and Mae Murray

Michael: Theda took a real interest in you as a child. What was her relationship to other children in the neighborhood? 

Joan: She seemed to like children very much, but didn’t have any of her own. Very interesting! Neither did her sister have children. I think that I was the only child allowed in her house. She and I had a very special relationship. I wanted to move into their house and told them that I could eat across the street so that I wouldn’t cost very much.

Michael: You mention she was a mentor. How was that?

Joan: Theda oversaw most of my lessons. She attended my school functions. I learned math quite quickly. She told me that I could read my fortune in the newspaper providing I could add up my numbers correctly! Both Theda and Charles taught me that it was important to have obtainable goals and good principles.

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From the collection of Michael G. Ankerich

Michael: Did she have a lot of photographs of herself around the house?

Joan: A few photos that were more portrait type.

Michael: Did she give you any autographed photographs of herself? 

Joan: No, she gave me her personal photo album and some of her costumes.

Michael: Is it true that Theda didn’t like candid photographs taken?

Joan: Candid photos of Theda were not allowed. During the forties and fifties, celebrities only allowed professional photos of themselves. If photos were taken they were torn up so that they could not be used in an unfavorable manner.

Michael: You mother didn’t mind that we went over to the Brabin house, but she didn’t want you to have your photograph taken with Theda.

Even in the late forties, some people shunned Theda Bara. Women were still afraid that she might take their husband! My mother told me that a photo with Theda Bara might affect my future life.

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Theda and her prey

Michael: From what I gather, she was someone who lived in the present, interested in present day events, not one to live in the past. Am I correct? 

Joan: Yes. While they didn’t live in the past, Theda and Charles enjoyed sharing their life experiences with me.

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An older Theda Bara

Michael: Do you remember the last time you saw her? Was she ill at that point?

Joan: The last time that I saw her was a few days before she died.

Michael: Did you ever meet Theda’s mother. I believe her name was Pauline.   

Joan: Yes, I meet her many times. She was an elegant appearing woman. She declined to learn English. She spoke several other languages. She and Theda would speak conversational Latin with me at the dining room table. Her native language was Francoprovencal French. This was a native dialect of Switzerland.

Michael: She outlived Theda by two years.

Joan: After Theda passed away, she moved into Westwood, in West Los Angeles, with her daughter Lori. She developed Alzheimers and soon passed away.

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An autographed photograph of Theda Bara. Collection of Michael G. Ankerich

Michael: Did you see much of Charles Brabin after Theda’s death?

Joan: My Mother and I oversaw the care and burial arrangements of Theda’s mother and Lori, her sister. We frequently looked after Charles Brabin and made his funeral and burial arrangements. This left me with a deep sorrow in my heart. The loss still brings me tears.

Michael: What do you want readers of your book to come away with?

Joan: An understanding of Theda in her personal life. Although she was retired, she was very much a part of Hollywood all during her life.

For more information, refer to Theda Bara: My Mentor and the McFarland website.

Bob Harned Remembers His Mother, Actress Sally Phipps

If you ever wondered what became of silent film actress Sally Phipps, you’re in luck.  Bob Harned has written a thorough and revealing biography of one of the cutest flappers to ever grace the silent screen. Bob is not just any writer; he just happens to be her son!

Sally Philips

Sally Phipps

A little about Sally and then I will introduce you to Bob and bring you into the conversation we had about his book, Sally Phipps: Silent Film Star.

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Her real name was not Sally Phipps, but Nellie Bernice Bogdon. When she came to Hollywood and signed with Fox Studios, she became Sally Phipps, a name that seemed to fit a care-free Jazz baby.

Sally was born in 1911 in Oakland, California. A brother, Lane, came along in 1913. Her father, Albert E. Bogdon, was a professional magician and quite easy on the eye (He later became a lawyer). Her mother, Edithe, a commercial artist, later worked at First National Studios coloring black and white photographs.

Sally's father, Albert E. Bogdon

Sally’s father, Albert E. Bogdon

When Albert and Edithe’s marriage fell apart, Sally went to live with her maternal grandmother, Nellie Lane. When she was not quite two, Sally was placed with a foster family, Warren and Eva Sawyer. Warren and Eva were employees at Essanay Film Corporation in Niles, California.

Sally’s career began as Bernice Sawyer at age four when she made three Broncho Billy films at Essanay: Broncho Billy and the Baby, The Western Way, The Outlaw’s Awakening, all 1915 releases.

Sally in about 1915

Sally in about 1915

A stagecoach accident ended Sally’s career at Essanay and sent her back to Nellie, her grandmother.

Edithe, Sally’s mother, began a new life in the 1920s and wanted Sally and Lane to be part of it. Edithe married Albert Beutler in 1922. In 1924, The family moved to Los Angeles.

Danny Borzage, a family friend, saw potential in 14-year-old Sally. Danny’s brother Frank, a director at Fox, gave Sally a screen test and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sally and Danny Borzage

Sally and Danny Borzage

After several uncredited roles, Sally began playing leads. The studio considered her image as that of a happy-go-lucky flapper and used her in comedies, often opposite Nick Stuart.

Sally was named a Wampas Baby Star in 1927, along with Patricia Avery, Rita Carewe, Helene Costello, Barbara Kent, Natalie Kingston, Frances Lee, Mary McAlister, Gladys McConnell, Sally Rand, Martha Sleeper, Iris Stuart, and Adamae Vaughn.

Wampas Baby Stars of 1927. Sally is pictured second from the left. How many others can you name?

In 1928, while filming None But The Brave with Charles Morton, , Sally developed the dreaded Klieg Eye, a eye irritation caused by the powerful lights used on studio sets.

A scene from None But The Brave with Charles Morton (R) and Billy Butts

A scene from None But The Brave with Charles Morton (R)

After her recovery, Sally went on vacation. She was away from the cameras for nine months, an eternity in filmdom.

Nick Stuart was soon making films and making out with Sue Carol. The actress grabbed onto Nick and wouldn’t let go. They were married in 1929.

Sue Carol and Nick Stuart (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Sue Carol and Nick Stuart (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

In March 1929, 17-year-old Sally sued her mother and stepfather for the misuse of her money — she was earning $225 a week.

Soon after, Fox dropped Sally from its rolls. She tried Broadway, appearing as a starlet in the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman hit Once in a Lifetime.

Sally onboard the Ile De France in 1933

Sally onboard the Ile De France in 1933

I will save the rest of her life for your reading pleasure. In short, she was briefly married to a Gimbel department store. By the mid-1930s, Sally was living in a one-room apartment in Manhattan and making $25 a week as a secretary.

She lived in India for a time and studied Eastern religions.  At a séance, she met Alfred Harned, whom she married in 1941. A daughter, Maryanna, was born in 1942, followed by Bob in 1944.


It would be another 17 years before Bob saw his mother. Sally moved to New York and worked as a secretary. After Bob moved to the East Coast in 1967, the two saw each other at least twice a year.

Sally Phipps died of cancer in 1978.

After I read Bob’s fascinating book, you know me, I had questions.

Michael: So many film actresses from the 1910s and 1920s came from families where the father was absent.  This was Sally’s case. Her father, a magician and vaudevillian, was pretty much out the picture, as was her mother, who was a commercial artist. What impact did this have on her life, do you think?

Bob: Although Sally’s biological parents were frequently absent from her life, Sally lived full-time with her widowed grandmother, Nellie C. Lane from age three to age eleven. Nellie, whom Sally adored, was an intensely active civic leader during all the time Sally lived with her, and drove her own car as early as 1911. Nellie was the major stabilizing force in Sally’s life, was as a strong role model, and, although not a father, served as a good             parental substitute during Sally’s critical growing years.

Sally (L) and mother Edithe in January 1928, New York City

Sally (L) and mother Edithe in January 1928, New York City


Michael: Sally and her mother moved to Hollywood in 1924. Given that Sally had worked in the Broncho Billy films in the mid-1910s and performed in plays in school, it seems she was destined to become a film actress, doesn’t it?

Bob: According to interviews Sally gave, all she ever wanted to do was become a lawyer just like her father. However, Sally’s destiny was that she was too beautiful to live a normal life. When a family friend set up a screen test for her at Fox, which proved successful, Fox rushed to capitalize on her beauty and youth by immediately putting her under contract.

A Sally Phipps glamour portrait

A Sally Phipps glamour portrait

Michael: Tell me a little about your mother’s lifestyle after she went under contract to Fox and became a star.

Bob: According to Sally, it was all work, work, work. In a quote from a newspaper article, she said, “Hollywood is one of the most peaceful towns I have ever seen. Why, if wild parties and other things go on there, I’ve missed something. Most of us in the movies are too busy to think of anything but our work.”

Sally inscribed a photograph to Dorothy, her best friend, and explains her new name.

Sally inscribed a photograph to Dorothy, her best friend, and explained her new name, Sally Phipps

Michael: Sally became a Wampas Baby Star at age 15, I believe.  She must have been one of the youngest to receive this honor. Do you have any sense, based on your research and conversation with your mother, that she thought it was too much too soon?

Bob: Not at all. She loved every minute of it.


Sue Carol (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Sue Carol (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Michael: Nick Stuart was Sally’s frequent co-star at Fox.  Do you know whether there was a romance between them?


Bob: Sally was aware quite early that Nick and Sue Carol were smitten with each other and that a romance with him would be definitely out of the question.

Nick Stuart (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Nick Stuart (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Michael: Sally’s career in films was basically over by 1930, when she was only 19 or so. Did she have any sense of why her career ended? Was it the coming of sound?  Was it that Sue Carol came to Fox and played many of roles that Sally specialized in? Was it the lingering grief over her father’s murder in 1927? (Read the book to learn more).

Bob: Sally was always interested in giving the theater a try and found that the current upheaval in Hollywood gave her a chance to make a graceful exit. In the end, she triumphed by walking into a plum role in the 1930-1931 Broadway Kaufman & Hart spoof of     Hollywood, Once In A Lifetime.

Sally and Nick Stuart during the filming of The News Parade (1928)

Sally and Nick Stuart during the filming of The News Parade (1928)


Michael: One misconception I had about Sally was that, after her marriage to Ben Gimbel of Gimbels department store fame, she lived on “easy street” for the rest of her life.  That was not the case, was it? Without giving away a lot of the story, what direction did her life take after her divorce from Gimbel?

Sally in India

Sally in India

Bob: Sally moved on with her life after the divorce, having chosen to receive no settlement or alimony. She appeared in another Broadway show, did Shakespeare with a travelling company, joined WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, travelled around the world, lived in India for a year, and married again, giving birth to two children, including me.

Michael: One of the most unfortunate parts of Sally’s story was when she vanished from you and your sister’s lives in 1950 when you were youngsters. It’s interesting that Sally, as a child, was shifted back and forth between foster parents, her mother, and her grandmother.  Do you think her own childhood experience affected her idea of what it meant to be a parent?

Bob: It certainly seems possible.

Sally and Bob in Hawaii

Sally and Bob in Hawaii

Michael: Were you ever able to learn why she suddenly left you and your sister to grow up without their mother? Did she ever talk about it?

Bob: My sister and I were fortunate in that my father and my grandmother never imparted to us any blame or anger toward my mother. We always knew where she was and could keep in touch. Why she left and what precipitated it was never important to us. As for me, the time she spent with me as an adult was very precious.

Michael: Your sister had a bad experience when she was reunited with Sally, but you actually developed a friendship when you and Sally met again in the 1960s. Was it more of a friendship or was it a real mother and son connection?  How did growing up without your mother impact your life?

Bob: I was born into a show-biz family with bohemian attitudes. My father, who brought us up, was a musician, former vaudevillian, orchestrator, and composer. I grew up loving all            aspects of entertainment. Both my sister and I sang, danced, and acted. Meeting my mother later in life and hearing her stories about her own show-biz life was an incredible experience for a son like me to hear and enjoy. She and I became really good friends, and we spent many happy hours together, which I will always treasure.

Sally and Bob, May 1968 (Brooklyn, NY, atop St. George Hotel)

Sally and Bob, May 1968 (Brooklyn, NY, atop St. George Hotel)


Michael: Roi Uselton and I were very close friends when I lived in Atlanta in the 1990s.  He made contact with Sally in the late 1960s while researching the Wampas girls. Marion Shilling, another actress who had disappeared into obscurity, credited Roi as her “Christopher Columbus.”  Did Sally feel the same way about Roi, that he rediscovered her? She welcomed the attention, didn’t she?

Roi Uselton, actor William Janney, and Michael G. Ankerich, 1991

Roi Uselton, actor William Janney, and Michael G. Ankerich, 1991 (Michael G. Ankerich Collection)

Bob: I remember well the Roi Uselton period in Sally’s life in the late 60s and early 70s. Sally was very excited about being re-discovered by him and with his including her in his upcoming articles in “Films In Review” magazine. I have preserved all the letters from Roi in the Sally Phipps Archive, which I maintain.

Sally and Bob, October 1977, the night Sally was honored with a Rosemary Award

Sally and Bob, October 1977, the night Sally was honored with a Rosemary Award

Michael: How many of her films are available for viewing? Do you have a favorite Sally Phipps film?

Bob: All of Sally’s films were made at Fox except for the first and last listed (below). All are silent except the final, which is a Vitaphone talkie. I particularly enjoy the Fox comedy short Girls, because she has a chance to show off her comedic talents in physical comedy.

Broncho Billy And The Baby – Essanay – 1915 (drama short)

Light Wines And Bearded Ladies – 1926 (comedy short)

Girls – 1927 (comedy short)

The Cradle Snatchers – 1927 (feature)

Sunrise – 1927 (feature)

A Midsummer Night’s Steam – 1927 (comedy short)

The News Parade – 1928 (feature)

Why Sailors Go Wrong – 1928 (feature)

Where Men Are Men – Vitaphone — 1931 (comedy short

Sally with David Rollins in High School Hero (1928)

Sally with David Rollins in High School Hero (1928)

Michael: Is there an outstanding question that you would ask your mother if you could talk with her again? What would it be?

Bob: I feel that I got all of my questions answered during the time we spent together between the years 1967 and 1978.

Sally in Hawaii, 1941

Sally in Hawaii, 1941


All photos, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Bob L. Harned.

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

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.

“Eh — What’s up Michael?” A note from Mel Blanc

I knew his voice before I knew the man. Or I should say, I knew is voices!

I grew up watching Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, Yosemite Sam, and the Tasmanian Devil every Saturday morning as a kid. I never knew, until I was a teenager, that Mel Blanc was the voice for all these cartoon characters that helped shape my life.

As I look back to those days sprawled out in front of the television (before I started watching Dark Shadows, of course), I realize that I learned a lot from the characters that Mel helped bring to life.  I get my cockiness from Bugs Bunny, my mischievousness from  Tweety Bird, my appetite from the Tasmanian Devil, and my persistence from Sylvester, that “bad ole putty tat.”

It was on this day (May 30) in 1908 that Mel Blanc, the man of 1,000 voices, was born. Wonder whether he heard these voices in his head as a youngster?

In the early 1980s, I wrote this legend and asked him the question I often asked in those days: “What advice would you give a young man just starting out in the world?”  Here’s what he said.

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“Be as honest, sincere, and natural as you can.

Be yourself and truthful at all times.

Never take a job unless you like it.”

Sincerely, Mel Blanc

I’ve done pretty well with his first two nuggets of truth. I should have listened a little more closely to the third.

Mel also sent this really cool portrait of himself surrounded by my childhood buddies.

“Eh — what’s up, Michael?” he inscribed.

It’s days like today that I really miss these old-timers.

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Joan Bennett’s lips, Barnabus Collins’ teeth

l was an addict by the time I was six or seven; that is, I was addicted to Dark Shadows, the gothic soap opera from the late 1960s. In fact, it’s a miracle I ever made it out of first grade.


During recess, we played a silly game of jump rope while calling out the names of occupations we’d do when we grew up. ”Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief,” or something like that. I played along, but interjected “vampire” somewhere in the list.

Who knows, I might really be a vampire.  The guy in this old family photo looks just like me. Just like Barnabus looked exactly like a family portrait on Dark Shadows.

Who knows, I might really be a vampire. The guy in this old family photo looks just like me. Just like Barnabus looked exactly like a family portrait on Dark Shadows.

I really got in hot water when I chased screaming girls around the playground threatening to turn them all into vampires. It was a good thing that Miss Elton, my first grade teacher, was also my Sunday School teacher.  She could vouch that I wasn’t a troubled child, just a starstruck movie fan.

I also had a thing for Joan Bennett, who played Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.


Not a crush on her, you understand, but I was gaga over her eyelashes, her beauty mark, and those 1930s movie star lips. Although the show was in black and white, I imagined her pucker to be blood red.

I had Dark Shadows posters, a board game, even a set of glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth.

I also thought that Angelique (Lara Parker) was about the prettiest woman I had ever seen.

I also thought that Angelique (Lara Parker) was about the prettiest woman I had ever seen.


My friends and I once built a Dark Shadows TV set in the barn across the street. I, of course, alternated between playing Barnabus and Elizabeth.

Barnabus Collins, one of my first childhood heroes.

Barnabus Collins, one of my first childhood heroes.

Dark Shadows eventually went off the air and, much to my parent’s relief, I grew out of my Dark Shadows fixation. By the mid-1970s, I had moved on to Barnaby Jones and was making plans to be a private detective when I grew up. But that’s another story.

Imagine my delight last month when Charlie announced that we could now access all episodes of Dark Shadows through his Roku–is that the right word? I thought he was pulling my fangs until he pointed the remote at the TV and brought Barnabus Collins into our den.

I am hooked once again. I write fewer blogs and have even put reruns of Judge Judy on pause.

I bought a book chronicling the recollections of Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans) and a fabulous biography of the Bennett sisters by Brian Kellow. Read this book.  It is well researched and an easy read. You’ll love it!


I’ve also reread Joan’s memoirs.


The other night, I pulled my Joan Bennett file.  I had some correspondence with her over the years.  I’ll share some of it with you.

Joan as a blonde.

Joan as a blonde.

After all this time, the show still holds me captivated.  We’ve both aged pretty well, I must say. I study the characters through these aging eyes of mine. While I wonder what I ever saw in Barnabus Collins, I’d give up my vampire teeth in a minute for a pair of those 1930s movie star lips — that Joan Bennett pucker!

Michael and Joan....Michael trying out the Joan Bennett pucker.

Michael and Joan….Michael trying out the Joan Bennett pucker.


Here is the earliest Joan Bennett autograph I have. Signed in 1932.  How many others can you name?



I asked Joan whether she ever made silent films.

I asked Joan whether she ever made silent films.

I asked her what was the best advice anyone had ever given her.

I asked her what was the best advice anyone had ever given her.


I asked Joan to autograph several photos for me.

I asked Joan to autograph several photos for me.


Joan and Duke, early 1930s.

Joan and Duke, early 1930s.


Starlight, Starbright: Studying Portraits of the Silent Film Era – 1

It was the breathtaking images of silent screen stars that first turned my head.  It was way back in the 1970s.  I found a copy of Daniel Blum’s A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning studying these unique and mysterious creatures who beckoned me back to “their” Hollywood.

This is the first post devoted to those enchanting picture players of the silent screen.

I’ll start with an autographed photo I recently added to my collection.  It’s of Betty Blythe, an actress I’ve been researching of late.  She’s quite intriguing.  I love her handwriting. 

Betty Blythe and that unique handwriting of hers.

Another one of Betty Blythe.  In some portraits she reminds me of Barbara La Marr.

Betty Blythe

The quite handsome George Walsh.

I devoted a chapter to Martha Mansfield in Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. She was indeed a tragic figure in the history of Hollywood. What a beauty!

Martha Mansfield

When I first wrote Claire Du Brey in the late 1980s, I had never seen a photo of her. She replied that all of her collection was at the Motion Picture Academy Library.  In her note to me, she said she started in films in 1913 and that Rudolph Valentino was a “gentleman.” As far as the coming of sound, it had no negative impact on her career.  She worked into the early 1960s.  People ask me about the film players I regret not interviewing.  One was Claire Du Brey.  She must have had quite a story.

Claire Du Brey

An interesting study of Jack Pickford. Wonder if the rumors were true?

And, finally, Mae Murray, in a portrait not long after she came to Hollywood. Mae and I became pretty close in the last three years.  Read my biography of her, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, next month.

Mae Murray

Remembering Kitty Carlisle and the Jewels of a Jewel

By Michael G. Ankerich

Some of the treasures Kitty Carlisle collected over the years were auctioned yesterday through Sothebys.   The auction house reported today that Kitty’s jewels doubled their overall low estimate. Her Art Deco diamond sautoir brought $146,500 (est. $60/80,000).

Some of Kitty’s treasures. No, my bid didn’t come close!

For me, an old fan of Kitty Carlisle, it’s kind of sad to see her favorite pieces being divided and sold to the highest bidder. Oh, the stories those little baubles could tell!

I guess it reminds me that Kitty is no longer with us.  Seems hard to imagine that delightful spirit of hers could have been mortal.

The glamorous Kitty Carlisle



One of my favorite childhood memories was To Tell The Truth.  Not really the show itself, but I was mesmerized when Kitty made her entrance every evening.  To put it simply, no one could make an entrance like Kitty Carlisle.  She would step from backstage , give Garry Moore a peck on the cheek, then glide across the stage in chiffon, feathers, or furs, not a hair out of place. She flashed that famous smile to the audience and camera as she made her way to the panel.  Of course, I thought Kitty was greeting me — only me.

After the introductions, I would stick around to see the show, or I would go to my room and finish my homework.  I had seen her entrance.  That’s all that mattered.

Kitty Carlisle doing what she did best.


To joggle your memory, check out this video compilation of her entrances.  Bring back memories?

When actor William Janney came to Atlanta in the early 1990s to give me a week-long interview for The Sound of Silence, he left with me a 1932 photo of Moss Hart and friends relaxing at the Santa Monica Beach Club.  It was signed to Bill Janney by one Lester Sweyd, who is sprawled in the sand beside Hart. Vivian Gaye is lounging beside Hart, and Richard Hemingway, Randolph Scott, and William Janney are kneeling behind.

Moss Hart and friends at the Santa Monica Beach Club, 1932.


Not knowing whether Kitty, Hart’s widow, had the photograph in her collection, I made a copy and mailed it to her Manhattan apartment.  I asked about the others in the photo and complimented her on her autobiography, which I had recently read.

Kitty’s book


About a week later, Kitty’s note arrived in the mail.


It read, “Dear Mr. Ankerich – Many thanks for your letter and the photograph. You must read Moss’ autobiography, ‘Act I.’ The best autobiography (not by me, but by everyone else!) You will learn all about Lester Sweyd .  I have no idea who Richard Hemingway is — probably an actor. Thank you so much for your kind words about my book.  I’m thrilled you like it. But wait till you read ‘Act I.’ You have a real treat in store. Again all my thanks and warm regards, Kitty Hart.

Almost 15 years passed.

One Sunday morning in 2005, as I was making my way through the New York Times, I came across a recent photograph of Kitty. Still lovely, still smiling, still stunning.  I guess she would have been about 95, and here she was doing her own one-woman show.

Kitty in 2005. What an inspiration!

I wrote Kitty another letter, telling her that it was uplifting to see her active and still enjoying life. Yeah, I told her she hadn’t changed any since those unforgettable entrances on To Tell The Truth.

The next week, this letter appeared in my mailbox.


A little over a year later, in 1997, Kitty left us at the age of 96.

Maybe I’m getting old(er), but in this world of instant celebrity–here today, gone tomorrow–they just don’t make them like Kitty Carlisle anymore.  Sad, but true, today’s celebrities aren’t even cheap imitations of my childhood favorites.

Although I’m not keen on getting old, I’m really glad I came along when I did!

Kitty and Moss in Times Square, another favorite photo.



Barbara Kent: My Last Silent Film Interview

Barbara Kent was the last of the silent personalities that I had the pleasure of interviewing. I thought she might the final one, because there was pratically no one else living that I hadn’t already spoken with.

My favorite Barbara Kent photograph.

Since Barbara never talked to anyone about her career, I had little faith that she would talk to me. She did! It turned out to be her only extensive interview after her career ended in the 1930s. Barbara was very generous with her time and photographs.

I wrote extensively about Barbara and our interview in my book, The Sound of Silence, but I wanted to share some details with you  around the interview and some of her memorable quotes.

Next month will mark the one year anniversary of Barbara’s death at 103. Here is her obituary. I had intended to publish this entry in mid-October, but, alas, this time next month, I will be bound for Morocco (not Bound in Morocco, as in the silent film) for a long, much needed excursion. As it turns out, sharing this information with you today is perfect.

Last week,  The New York Times had an article about the release of one of Barbara’s finest films, Lonesome.  Check it out. It’s one my Christmas wishlist.

With Glenn Tryon in Lonesome.

I contacted Barbara Kent by mail at her home in Palm Desert in 1996. I was doing some research on her film with Marie Dressler, Emma (1932), and wanted to ask the former actress what memories she had about the film. I told her that I would call on such-and-such a day and time. I made it a practice to never call anyone without first testing the waters. (Well, Billie Dove was an exception, but that’s another story).

On the appointed day, I rang the number. Barbara’s husband, Jack, answered the phone.  Barbara was expecting my call, he said, but she was out on the greens playing a round of golf.  I was to call back later in the evening and she would be happy to chat.

Before that, however, Jack wanted to tell me about the woman he’d called his wife for over 40 years.

“She’s amazing,” he said. “You should see some of her pictures now. This coming year, she will be 90. She plays golf three times a week. When we’re in Washington (they had a home there) in the summer, she goes crabbing with me. She’s the most agile gal you ever saw.”

Barbara Kent Monroe

Not long before they married, Jack taught Barbara how to fly a plane. “I was a flyer. Barbara said to me, ‘I’ve got to learn to fly if we’re going to get married.’ I gave her some lessons and she was flying before I knew it.”

Jack didn’t remember Barbara from the movies.  He didn’t recall ever seeing her on the silver sheet. In fact, when they met, Barbara wasn’t anxious to talk about those years. Her first husband, Harry Edington, died in 1949. Edington, an agent for such stars as Garbo, John Gilbert, and Marlene Dietrich, was her final connection to Hollywood. She put the movie business behind her and rarely talked about the flickers.

“It’s so long ago. You forget all those things when you’re not with picture people any more, and I haven’t been with them in ages,” Barbara explained to me early in our conversation.

Barbara Cloutman had her parents to thank for getting her into the movies. They’d moved to Hollywood from a small town in Canada when Barbara was a teenager.

“There was a beauty contest and my folks sent my picture in to the newspaper and didn’t tell me,” she said.  “I won the contest.”

Barbara wins the contest.

Part of the responsibility of winning the contest was modeling a piece of jewelry for a Hollywood department store. Agent Paul Kohner introduced himself and invited her to Universal for a screen test. The rest, as they say, is history.

Her first film was Prowlers of the Night (1926), a Western with Fred Humes.

Barbara Kent in her first film, Prowlers of the Night, with Fred Humes.

Then she was loaned to MGM, where director Clarence Brown cast her as Hertha in Flesh and the Devil (1927). The film became a personal favorite.

Barbara, John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, and Lars Hanson in Flesh and the Devil.

“John Gilbert was very nice to work with,” Barbara recalled.  “Garbo was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived.  She was absolutely gorgeous. She was a very quiet person. More than aloof, she was shy. So was I.  I was very timid.”

The cast of Flesh and the Devil.

Clarence Brown, the director, was especially patient with his star. “He directed her (Garbo) in a whisper,” Barbara said. “He was so careful with her. That’s the way he directed all of us. He had the same style when he directed me in Emma. He was a quiet man anyway.”

Her other two favorite films were comedies with Harold Lloyd: Welcome Danger (1929) and Feet First (1930). They met at a party after Christmas in 1928.

With Harold Lloyd in Welcome Danger (1929).

“I remember him standing up beside me,” Barbara recalled. “I didn’t know why. Afterwards, I realized he was sizing me up to see how tall I was, because he wasn’t a very tall men himself.  I’m only 5′ 2”.

Welcome Danger was shot as a silent film when talkies were revolutionizing the industry. Fearing it would be a box office failure, Lloyd had the cast dub dialogue straight into the film.

Another scene from Welcome Danger.

“Lloyd was very easy going, and as an independent producer, if something went wrong, we just did it over and over until we got it right,” she said.

After her contract ended, Barbara began freelancing. Her career took a downward turn in the early 1930s. “I preferred being under contact,” she said. “You didn’t have to worry about working or getting a job.”

Barbara Kent, early 1930s.

After she left Universal, she missed the family atmosphere at the studio.  “Carl Laemmle was a very nice man. He spoke quite broken English in a German accent, but he was very nice and respectful of me.”

Freelancing, Barbara found herself working in low-budget films on Poverty Row. After she met and married Harry Edington, Barbara worked in a handful of other films.

She called it quits in 1941 after her work in Under Age.

“It was a short career, and I was never terribly enthusiastic about being an actress,” Barbara admitted. “I think I was too shy. You have to be an exhibitionist to be in pictures.  That wasn’t me.”

Barbara Kent, 1927.

Barbara Kent was a patient interview subject, but about 30 minutes into our second conversation, she called a halt to further reminiscing that day. “Please excuse me, but I really have to go.” She was late for a hair appointment, after which she was meeting friends for dinner at the country club.  They were friends who never knew she once had a career in Hollywood.

When I asked about photographs, Barbara said she had boxes of stills out in the garage.  “I’ll make it a point to get out there and dig some out for you.” She did!  I’m sharing many of these in this blog. They are from her personal collection.

I’ve included the highlights of my conversation with Barbara Kent in this entry.  To read the full story, including her memories of working with Gloria Swanson in Indiscreet, check out The Sound of Silence.

Barbara, Gloria Swanson, and Arthur Lake in Indiscreet (1931)

Barbara Kent’s biographical sheet at MGM.

Miss Lillian and the First Lady Offer Advice

Yeah, yeah, I know this blog is supposed to be about silent film personalities, but I did warn you in the beginning to expect me to occasionally stray from the path. This is one of those times, the week of the Democratic Convention.

In keeping with the festivities going on in Charlotte, North Carolina, I wanted to share some of my treasures from a First Family.

When I was a budding teenager, I wrote letters to scores of personalities asking them for advice that they would give to a young man just starting out in the world.  Over the years, I have thought of the notes I received from former First Lady Rosalyn Carter and Miss Lillian, the President’s mother.  I must have read them a thousand times.  Now, as a middle-aged gent, I can say the words they offered were (and are) sound advice.

Here’s what the First Lady had to say …..



Here I am with Ms. Carter in the late 1990s in Plains.

The First Lady and Michael


Here’s what Miss Lillian sent my way …



Here’s a little something I received from Amy while the Carters were in the White House …



And, of course, the President himself.  I’ve been in his Sunday School class in Plains at least three times over the years.  His wisdom and generosity over the years continue to amaze me.

Here’s photo he signed when working on a Habitat for Humanity House.