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.

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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.

That crazy book man?

 

What has happened to my peaceful office where Maebelle and Tallulah napped while I typed away on a new book or spent hours researching the whereabouts of a lost silent film siren?

That was then …..

working on mae

 

This is now ….

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Maebelle and Tallulah are no where to be found this afternoon. Ms. Taylor, our other poodle puppy is almost 16 and sleeps most of the day on the sofa.  Tallulah walks by occasionally and peeps in before moving on, her tail tucked low as if she is dusting the floor. They know something is going on in our little family.

Charlie, Maebelle, Ms. Taylor, Tallulah, and I are moving across town in less than a month. On this Sunday afternoon, I’m asking myself, “How the hell did two people accumulate so much in the 14 years we’ve been in this house?”

I’ve spent the past three days packing books, biographies to be exact.  By the time I got from Mary Astor to Florenz Ziegfeld, I had packed and taped 30 boxes.  Those are only the biographies. There’s still hundreds of reference books and countless clipping and biographical files packed away in two filing cabinets.

Thirty boxes of biographies

Thirty boxes of biographies

It’s not the best of times to be moving.  I’m on a roll in my research, I’m writing the companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels, and I’m leaving for LA in a couple of weeks to tape a show for Lifetime. Yeah, my dust is really stirred up.

My office is calmer days.

My office is calmer days.

I’ve been buying books since the 1970s. Perhaps it has become an obsession over the years. I’ve hauled suitcases full of books back from those (almost) extinct used bookstores in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s always room for one more. Now, I’m not so sure there is.

We’ve all heard about those crazy cat ladies, and I’ve known a few along the way. When things are back to normal, when I’m back from LA, when we’re settled into the new house and I’m back to writing my new book, I’m going ponder the nagging question, “Am I really that crazy book man that Charlie always said I was?” Now, however, I’m too busy; I won’t even go there.

Michael (L) and writer Jim Parish in a bookstore in Los Angeles in the early 1990s

Michael (L) and writer Jim Parish in a Los Angeles bookstore in the early 1990s

 

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

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

Michael in Manarola

Michael in Manarola, 2013

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

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

 

Gibson1

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

 

Marjorie Daw

Marjorie Daw

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

 

 

Virginia Lee Corbin

Virginia Lee Corbin

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

 

Alice Lake

Alice Lake

 

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

Helen Lee Worthing

Helen Lee Worthing

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

Lottie Pickford

Lottie Pickford

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

 

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

Mary MacLaren

Mary MacLaren

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

 

Fontaine La Rue

Fontaine La Rue

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

 

Belle Bennett

Belle Bennett

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

 

Edwina Booth

Edwina Booth

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

 

Marie Walcamp

Marie Walcamp

Florence Deshon

Florence Deshon

 

Evelyn Nelson

Evelyn Nelson

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

 

Jetta Goudal

Jetta Goudal

Valeska Surrat

Valeska Suratt

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

 

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon

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

 

Lolita Lee

Lolita Lee

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

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

Author Stephen Michael Shearer: The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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Glorious Gloria

Glorious Gloria

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

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

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

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

Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson

Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson

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

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

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

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

Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson

Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A swedish advertisement for The Love of Sunya

A swedish advertisement for The Love of Sunya

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

Gloria and her carnation

Gloria and her carnation

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

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

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

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

With daughter Gloria and first grandchild

With daughter Gloria and first grandchild

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen and Pat Neal

Stephen and Pat Neal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in Hollywood?

Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful woman in Hollywood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Carole Lombard

Carole Lombard

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

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

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

Thelma_Blog2

Thelma Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucille Ricksen signed this portrait for her father.

Lucille Ricksen signed this portrait for her father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Michelle at a recent book signing.

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

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

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

One of my own Bette Davis treasures.

One of my own Bette Davis treasures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle and her parents at a recent book signing.

Michelle and her parents at a recent book signing.

Ben Turpin: A chat with his biographer, Steve Rydzewski

It’s really up to us, all of us wonderful people out there in the dark, to keep silent films and the talented group of professionals who made them alive. I give a bow of thanks to Steve Rydzewski for returning Ben Turpin to the spotlight in his new book, For Art’s Sake: The Biography & Filmography of Ben Turpin.

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Steve brings the cross-eyed comic into focus and entertains us with hundreds of photographs. Add a copy to your bookshelf.

After reading For Art’s Sake over the summer, I got in touch with Steve with some questions I had about his interest in Ben and the 40-plus years of research he put into his project.

Michael:  Your interest in Ben Turpin goes back to when you were 12 years old. How did you become interested in Ben and how did your interest grow into fascination?

Steve: I grew up on Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. I even wanted to be an animator when I’d grow older. But one Sunday morning in 1969 when I was twelve, I started watching an old program called The Funny Manns that showed clips of forgotten silent comedians. It was the same jumpy music as the cartoons, same sound effects, the wild movement, exaggerated characters, and the laughs. I don’t think I knew any of the actors at that time but later found out it included Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Billy Bevan, Mickey Rooney, and others. Out of all of them I enjoyed Ben the best in clips from Yukon Jake and The Dare-Devil. It actually took me a while to put Ben Turpin’s name to his face! Once I did I started collecting 8 and 16mm films, or whatever gauge if I didn’t have a particular title. Then I learned of some Hollywood bookshops where I could buy stills, lobbycards, and anything else if I could save up for it.

Then when I wanted to read up on Turpin, I couldn’t find hardly anything on him. That’s when all my searching began, seeking out every published article and interview that’s taken years to accumulate. I’m still searching!

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Michael:  What’s the story about Ben’s crossed eyes?  Was he born cross-eyed? Or did he cross them so much as a kid that they stuck?

Steve: No, Ben wasn’t born cross-eyed. After three years of crossing his eyes playing comic strip hero Happy Hooligan on stage, multiple times a day, it stuck. Clowning his eyes was a popular part of the act. Today’s eye specialists may say impossible, but Ben insisted he awoke one morning with his right eye stuck inward. He was about 34 at the time.

Michael:  Ben’s comedic routines were very taxing on his body, weren’t they? Tells us a bit about the falls that he perfected for the camera.  Did the strain he put on his body have a lasting impact on him?

Steve: Physical comedy is rough comedy, yes. Turpin had been an eccentric dancer and furious tumbler on stage. He was young and healthy in the 1890’s, and almost 40 when he entered the movies with Essanay in 1907. He continued doing falls his whole life.

The one he’s most famous for was his 108 (Ben’s best one of his eight different falls). It’s a rapid tumble that starts in a standing position, you go into a forward – still standing – somersault, and fall on your ass, back, or head. I’m sure Turpin had his share bangs, bruises, and ointment.

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Michael: How many of Ben’s films still exist and are available for viewing?

Steve: There are about 122 of Turpin’s films still around. That includes all his small cameos, and starring appearances, complete and incomplete. About 25% of those titles are in archives, the rest are in circulation on DVD or VHS from various sources.

Michael:  What are your favorite Ben Turpin films?

Steve: My favorites are probably Yukon Jake (1924), Ten Dollars or Ten Days (1924), The Dare-Devil (1923), Our Wife (1931) with Laurel and Hardy, Ben’s early Vogue Doctoring A Leak (1916), his later short for Weiss Brothers Holding His Own (1929)… I like ’em all!

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Michael:  Is For Art’s Sake your first book?  What is your next project?

Steve: Yes, this is my first attempt. And no, there’s nothing else on paper or in mind. I did contribute a few things to the soon-to-be released biography of comedian, Larry Semon, by author Claudia Sassen. Another forgotten talent finally getting his due.

Michael: How much cooperation did you get from Ben’s family?

Steve: Ben’s family? For years I spent time trying to locate his descendants with no luck. Two years prior to the book’s printing, I at last found a relative, Ben’s grand-nephew, in Florida, Richard Knies. He was one of my several motivators to finish the book! Although just child at the time, Richard told me a few things that I quoted in the book.

Michael: Most comedians are very different in their personal lives as compared to their screen persona. How was Ben in his personal life?  Was he a joker?

Steve: Everyone often said that Ben was quiet and humble off-screen and many people thought him “genuine.” When he’s the center of attention, he can turn it on. And was he a joker, off the stage? Definitely!

Michael:  Ben’s story is really a success story, isn’t it? He did what he loved, made a lot of money, and kept his sanity until the end.  How did he make a success in Hollywood and remain virtually unchanged in his personal life?

Steve: Yes, it was a rags to riches story. And it couldn’t of happened to a better guy. Ben learned a lot during his early, long and lean years. He loved traveling, loved acting, and stayed happy till the very end. Perhaps his financial success so late in life, after years of living from paycheck-to-paycheck, taught him something about money.

Mr. and Mrs. Ben Turpin

Mr. and Mrs. Ben Turpin

Michael: Ben always credited Charlie Chaplin with his break into films.  How did they meet and how did Charlie help?

Steve: Yes, Turpin often acknowledged Chaplin for giving him that big break. Turpin met Chaplin when Charlie was casting for players for his first Essanay comedy, His New Job, in early January 1915. Ben impressed Charlie. They took a liking to each other, both on and off the screen, and Chaplin’s shorts were big hits. Turpin was grateful that Charlie asked him out to California. Ben’s appearances in Chaplin’s comedies also attracted attention and things only got better for Turpin.

Ben claimed Chaplin was a demanding director, but soon realized why he was such a perfectionist. Turpin later admitted he learned about delayed action and reaction, timing, and expression from Charlie. Surely there were others, but Ben’s big break was best.

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Michael:  Ben was already 48 when he joined Mack Sennett in 1917. By 1926, he was bringing in $3,000 a week from Sennett. What did he do with his money?  Did he live the extravagant lifestyle of 1920s Hollywood?

Steve: Ben was a better saver than a big spender. He enjoyed real estate and invested a lot in residential and commercial properties. For a while he was one of the top dogs in Hollywood! But no, he didn’t live the Hollywood lifestyle. Maybe if he were a younger man, or if he were single. But by the 1920’s and in his fifties, he settled for a more quiet lifestyle.

Michael: During your research for For Art’s Sake, what did you learn about Ben that surprised you?

Steve: For the life of me, after reading and re-reading the Turpin manuscript so many times, I forget the surprises! I’m sure there were many things that at first amazed, later only fazed, and obviously faded from me! But there’s some interesting little things in there that still make me laugh.

Michael:  What is the one question you would ask Ben if you could have met him during the writing of For Art’s Sake?

Steve: “Ben, can we go through your life and career from the beginning?”

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