Life is Good at Hollywood Forever: A Chat With Karie Bible, Tour Guide

If you know me at all, you know I like to hang out in cemeteries. I’ve haunted graveyards all over the world, but my absolute favorite is Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In the middle of crowded and congested Hollywood, it is a haven of rest, for sure, but also a lovely park and a place to spend some quiet time with the Hollywood greats.

The truth is, friends, I’d rather be here than at Universal Studios or Disneyland — any day!

When I’m in Los Angeles researching a book, my pattern is pretty much the same. I have breakfast at Denny’s on Sunset and Western, then head down to Hollywood Forever to walk around and let the bacon and pancakes settle. Then it’s off to the Academy Library for a day of research.

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In 2013, I was a guest speaker at the annual Valentino Memorial Service at Hollywood Forever. I was so excited to meet Karie Bible, a devoted film historian who leads the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Walking Tour. As I figure it, she just about has the coolest job imaginable.

Let’s find out!

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Karie Bible

Michael: How long have you been tour guide at Hollywood Forever? 

Karie: I’ve been giving tours several times a month since February 2002.

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Michael  on his first visit (with Charlene) to Hollywood Memorial (now Forever), about 1986

Michael: My first trip to Hollywood was in the mid-1980s. Then it was Hollywood Memorial Cemetery and was among the first places I wanted to see. When was your first visit and what were your first impressions? 

Karie: When I first visited the cemetery, I was pretty emotional. A co-worker of mine had recently died at a young age and I was very upset about it. When I walked into the gates of the cemetery, I looked around and my mood started to change. I didn’t see the place as sad or morbid. To me it was a peaceful, beautiful oasis and a place to celebrate life. I fell in love with it immediately.

Michael: On that first visit, I was interested in one person: Valentino. Of course, I saw Barbara La Marr, William Desmond Taylor, and Marion Davies. But there really is so much more to see, isn’t there?

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A selfie at Valentino’s crypt, about 2014

Karie: There are tons of things to see! There is a story behind every single grave there. The cemetery has beautiful architecture, unique headstones and hosts a ton of creative people.

Michael: Tell me some of the highlights of your tours. Have you made any surprise discoveries? 

Karie:  One of my favorite things is seeing the look of joy and excitement that people get when they see the grave of a star that was meaningful to them. One day I was giving a tour and speaking to a large group about Valentino.

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Karie at Valentino’s crypt

There was a girl in the group who was about 20 years old. When I started talking about Valentino’s life, tears began pouring down her face. She finally turned around and ran out of the building. I was a bit shocked and couldn’t imagine what I could have said to upset her. I asked her boyfriend if she was ok. He said, “She just gets very emotional about Valentino.” It is a pretty big testament to his charisma and star power that ninety years after his death young girls still cry and react emotionally at his grave.

On another day I had an elderly lady who actually taught Jayne Mansfield’s children. She said that there were many celebrity kids at the school, and that Jayne was the ONLY famous parent who ever showed up in person. Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 4.08.46 PMShe said Jayne was active at the school and a really loving, caring mother. That was a beautiful story and certainly makes her seem much more human. While these people may be icons, sex symbols, etc. they are, in fact, people.

Michael: What questions do you get most from those taking your tour? 

Karie: People often ask me about the peacocks and many of the graves with the faces etched into the marble. Those things add so much character to the place.

Michael: Yeah, I want to get to the peacocks in a minute. Any estimate as to the number of tours you’ve given? 

Karie: I couldn’t even begin to tell you. I do about two or three tours a month and it has now been 14 years. That isn’t counting private tours, the special art deco tour and other things.

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Karie in tour!

Back in 2013, I started getting kidney stones right before I gave a tour. I didn’t want to let the people down who had booked and I figured that the show must go on! I gave a 2 ½ hour tour with massive kidney stones. I was in so much pain that I really don’t remember very much. I have done the tour so many times that I sort of went on autopilot. I was rushed to Cedar’s Sinai right afterward.

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Johnny Ramone’s monument

Michael: What’s the most unusual monument or tombstone? 

Karie: None of them seem unusual to me, but I think that Johnny Ramone’s grave seems to draw a lot of attention. I’ve given many tours to seniors who don’t even know who he is, but that can’t stop looking at his grave.

Michael: On a recent tour, I was looking for the grave of Mae Murray’s brother. I was almost attacked by a gigantic peacock. I’ve since seen their cages. I have to admit they are beautiful creatures. What’s the story behind them and their home at the cemetery? 

Karie: Someone told me that the peacock is a symbol for eternal life. That would make sense because cemeteries are always filled with symbolism and nothing is just there arbitrarily. If you look near the flower shop, there are peacocks in the stained glass and even peacock feathers painted on the dome over the building.

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Watch for the peacocks; they have the right of way!

Michael: What’s the story around the big, black car that sits up front?

Karie: That is an antique hearse that the owner Tyler Cassity purchased. I think it is from 1939. As far as I know it still works and is put to use.

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Michael: Are there any unmarked graves of silent film stars there? I believe Florence Lawrence’s grave was once unmarked, but she now has a marker.

Karie: Yes there are still unmarked star graves. Getting a marker can be a complicated process that involves getting permission from the family (if there are any still alive) and raising money. The cemetery has been great about helping make that process happen. I know that silent comic actor Ford Sterling was recently marked and Ann Sheridan was as well. Tyler and his staff recently got a marker for the grave of Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway, Ernest Hemmingway’s second wife. Historian Allan Ellenberger does an excellent blog about Hollywood history and written about it. http://allanellenberger.com/sins-of-the-mother-the-story-of-pauline-hemingway/

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 5.04.16 PMMichael: Have all the film related graves, niches, and crypts been identified? 

Karie: To my knowledge, yes they have been identified.

Michael: Are there any missing old timers that may be there?

Karie: Not that I know of. I always preface things by saying that, as you never know!

Michael: What mysteries are there? What are your favorites? 

Karie: The grave of William Desmond Taylor would count as a mystery. It is one of the most famous unsolved murders in Hollywood history. There have been so many books about it, but I think it will always remain a mystery.

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William Desmond Taylor

I love Valentino, but I feel a deep connection to all of the people there. I spend a lot of time at the cemetery and I’m very passionate about film history. There are so many pioneers buried at Hollywood Forever who were at the ground floor as the art form and business of Hollywood was being created. Many of them worked behind the scenes as writers, cinematographers, composers and crew.

Michael: I understand. My passion is researching the lives of those from the very beginning.

Karie: So many of these people go unappreciated. A great number of them were discarded and forgotten. They deserve better.

Michael: Have you ever met any relatives of some of the permanent residents of Hollywood Forever on your tour? Who were they? 

Karie: Several years ago, I was giving a small tour and as I was at JScreen Shot 2016-04-01 at 4.02.20 PMohn Huston’s grave. I turned around and Angelica Huston was standing right there.
She was cleaning up the flowers and grass around her father’s grave. I didn’t want to bother her, but she was very gracious and a total class act.

Michael: If you were an early actor or actress died in Hollywood, what choices did you have? Rosedale, I know. What others? 

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Karie: Hollywood Forever (originally named Hollywood Memorial Park) was founded in 1899. Forest Lawn Glendale came along in 1906. Calvary Cemetery was established in 1896 and Evergreen Cemetery in 1877. I think that Home of Peace has been in their current spot since 1902. Grand View Memorial Park dates back to 1884. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting, but those are the ones that come to mind.

Michael: Are there any haunted areas of the cemetery that you are aware of? Tell me the stories. 

Karie: People often ask me that question. I’ve been there a long time and I’ve never had a paranormal encounter of any kind. There have been rumors that Clifton Webb walks down the corridor of the Abbey of the Psalms Mausoleum or that you can hear actress Virginia Rappe weeping. Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 4.01.29 PMTo me, the history is fascinating enough and I really don’t want to focus on the paranormal. (By the way, read Room 1219 to learn more about Virginia Rappe, the actress who died after the party thrown by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. It is an excellent read!)

Michael: So, give the cemetery a little plug for my readers? Invite them to take the tour!

Karie: The “Cemetery of the Stars” tour at Hollywood Forever is a great overview of the cemetery. It includes the big names including Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Marion Davies, Tyrone Power, Vampira, John Huston, Johnny Ramone, Peter Lorre, Mel Blanc and many more! Hollywood Forever is a beautiful place and one of the most unique cemeteries in the world! Learn more about dates and times for the tour at www.cemeterytour.com.

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Watch for these beautiful birds

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A stunning view of the Hollywood Sign awaits as you exit the cemetery.

 

 

A Visit to Spahn Movie Ranch

By Michael G. Ankerich

My morbid curiosity is a side of me that most friends and family don’t understand. I simply had no choice, friends!  I grew up watching Dark Shadows, and the first scene from a movie I remember seeing was a decapitated head rolling down the stairs in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I remember burying my head into my mother’s lap and not coming up until “The End.”

I’d rather see low-budget movies (just watched The Town that Dreaded Sundown for the fourth or fifth time) about hauntings and serial killers than comedy or the commercially popular latest and greatest epic.

The really fun part is when it spills over into real life.  I love hanging out in cemeteries and going to those places where creepy and bizarre things happened. On my first trip to Los Angeles, back in the 1980s, one of the first places I asked to visit was Cielo Drive, where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered in 1969. On my next venture west, I found the La Bianca murder house.

You cannot imagine the disappointment when I trekked to the corner of Alvarado and Maryland in Hollywood only to find the courtyard apartment where William Desmond Taylor was murdered in 1922 was a parking lot. Or, when I went to the apartment house where Marie Prevost died and was unable to go inside.  We learn to live with life’s little disappointments.

High on my list was the site of Spahn Ranch, which had once been a 500-acre movie ranch for filming Westerns and numerous television programs.

Spahn Ranch in the day

Spahn Ranch in the day

You know the story. By the late 1960s, little filming was actually done on the desolate property in the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains above Chatsworth. Its owner, 80-year-old George Spahn, blind and ailing, now used the ranch for horse rentals.

It was in 1968 that Charles Manson and his followers, “The Family,” came to live at the ranch.  Spahn allowed them to stay rent free as long as they help out with chores. This abandoned, isolated ranch, 20 miles from Los Angeles, became the primary residence of Manson and the Family during the time they committed the Tate-LaBianca murders until Manson’s arrest in 1969 during a raid on the property.

The dilapidated buildings of Spahn Ranch burned to the ground in 1970. Mother nature reclaimed the property. It eventually became part of Santa Susana Pass State Historic Park.

On previous trips to LA, when I was traveling alone, I had been reluctant to explore the area. It was not on any tourist map, and I frankly was not excited about stepping on rattlesnakes or getting lost in the wilderness.

In October 2014, Charlie came with me. I was in LA for the second time. The first time was in the spring when I flew out to film an episode of The Ghost Inside My Child.

Charlie and Michael high above Hollywood

Charlie and Michael high above Hollywood

Garage where Thelma Todd was found dead

Now, I’ve coaxed Charlie into experiencing some rather wild adventures over our 23 years together, but I don’t think he took seriously my idea of visiting Spahn Ranch on this trip. When we left Hollywood for the coast that morning, just days before Halloween, I had the ranch on my radar for the afternoon.

On our way to Malibu, we stopped in Pacific Palisades and located the garage where Thelma Todd was found dead way back in 1935.

Later that morning, we hiked in Malibu Canyon and rested at the site where they filmed the exteriors for M*A*S*H.  After lunch at Duke’s on the coast in Malibu, we turned inland on Topanga Canyon Blvd. for the Valley.

As we neared Chatsworth, the terrain turned mountainous and rocky. Right before we reached Ronald Reagan Parkway,  we turned left onto Santa Susana Pass Road and headed west.  When we got to Iverson Road, I knew we were there. I looked to the left. Nothing to indicate it was Spahn Ranch. We turned right onto Iverson. Just ahead, we pulled into the parking lot at Church at Rock Peak. Leaving the car, we set out on foot, back down Iverson toward Santa Susana. Just passed the guardrail, we skidded down a bank and found ourselves in brush and brambles.

 

 

Spahn Ranch, then and now

Spahn Ranch, then and now

As the shadows grew longer in the waning light, I led Charlie down a trail toward the dry creek bed. It had to be here.  But where? At one point, the bed was at the bottom of a gully.  I had no choice but to go down and explore. Charlie said he’d wait on me. If I found what I was looking for, holler for him.

Clinging onto a branch, I lowered myself down toward the creek bed. When I let go, the leaves and loose rocks sent my feet out from under me (maybe the wine from Dukes had something to do with my unsteadiness).

I tumbled to the bottom, scrapping my shine and breaking the arm of a pair of Revos on the way down.

Scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones

Scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones

So overgrown with vines and limbs was the area, there was no way to travel along the creek. I carefully pulled myself out of the ravine and met Charlie back on the trail.

Daylight was fading, but not my determination. We walked back toward the road and took another trail that led down into the creek bed. Then it came into view, the cave where the Manson family took their now infamous photo.

The Cave, then and now

The Cave, then and now

It felt creepy being there, that’s about the best way I can describe it. Although decades had passed since the horrible crimes, a sense of evil still hung in the air like a fog. It was time to go.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Iliad Books in North Hollywood — one of my favorite haunts, then had dinner in Studio City at Vitello’s Italian Restaurant. After we turned over the car to the valet, I motioned for Charlie to follow me around the corner from the entrance to the restaurant.

“You know what happened here, don’t you?  As I figure it, it happened right about there.”

“No, what happened here,” he asked reluctantly.

“This is the place where Robert Blake’s wife, Bonnie Lee Bakely, was shot to death while she waited for Blake, who had supposedly returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left behind.  Interesting, huh?”

Charlie had had enough.  “Come on, I’m hungry.”

My own directions to Spahn Ranch

In the event that you have an afternoon to spare and want to make your own visit to the site of Spahn Movie Ranch, follow my directions.

  • Type 22601 Santa Susana Pass Road into your GPS. That will get you close to the ranch.
  • Be careful if you park alongside the road.  Better yet, park discretely in the church parking lot (Church at Rock Peak).
  • Back on Santa Susana Pass Road, walk to the end of the white guardrail.
  • Leave the road and follow the trail into the brush.  You’re there! Now, explore. Be careful.  Watch for rattlesnakes.

 

Spahn Ranch, a bird's eye view

Spahn Ranch, a bird’s eye view

 

Your map to Spahn Ranch

Your map to Spahn Ranch

 

 

 

 

Interview: William J. Mann tackles murder, morphine, and madness in Tinseltown

Interview by Michael G. Ankerich

 

William J. Mann serves up a delicious plate of M’s in his new book, Tinseltown.

Mary, Mabel, and Margaret.

Murder, Mystery, and Madness.

Mary and Momma.

I devoured every morsel of the buffet.

The unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 is one of the reasons I stepped back into the silent film era — and stayed! It’s the classic whodunit.

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Who did it? Was it Mary Miles Minter? Mabel Normand? Charlotte Shelby, Mary’s mother? Starlet Margaret Gibson? His valet? Drug dealers? Gangsters?

Bill Mann, one of my favorite authors of old Hollywood, thinks he has solved the mystery.  You’re going to have fun with this one, friends! Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood reads like a novel, yet the dialogue is not drawn from the author’s imagination. The words between the quotation marks came from the mouths of those who spoke them.

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Bill reconstructs the riveting case using primary sources — including witness testimonies from police records, coroner’s inquest files, newly uncovered FBI records, and court records and transcripts.

Running alongside the murder mystery are complex and interesting portraits of legends like Adolph Zukor and Will Hays, the first czar of Hollywood.

So who killed William Desmond Taylor?  Listen in on my conversation with Bill and find out.

My collection of William J. Mann books

My collection of William J. Mann books

 

Michael: I first started reading your books in the 1990s.  I must have read The Men From the Boys when I was coming out or shortly after. Then I read your novel around the “afterlife” of Florence Lawrence. Two of my favorites are your William Haines biography and Behind the Screen, about gays and lesbians in Hollywood. I’m intrigued by your body of work and the range you’ve covered. Most writers find an era or genre, but you’re all over the place.  What do you look for you when you’re selecting a subject to write about?

Bill: It’s always about the story. Is it a good, compelling story? Can I say something new? I think being a novelist helped me discern the story within a life or within a topic. For example, when my editor wanted me to write about Streisand, I was reluctant. Not really my thing. But when he suggested we call it “Becoming Barbra” that hooked me — because I could see the story, of an unknown, unlikely kid becoming a huge star in just five years time. So it’s always Story, Story, Story for me.

Hello, Gorgeous

Hello, Gorgeous

Michael: So let’s talk about Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. After over 92 years of wondering, do you really think you’ve solved the mystery of who murdered William Desmond Taylor?

Bill: Would my evidence stand up in a court of law? I don’t know. After nearly a century, so much of the evidence I present is necessarily circumstantial, since so much physical evidence is gone. I was fortunate to find FBI records —not on the Taylor case per se, but on some of the figures around him, which helped me to draw some key conclusions. Also, the fact that so many newspapers are now digitized I was able to find proverbial needles in the haystack that allowed me to make connections. There will be people who disagree with my conclusion, and that’s okay. I have always said that I submit Tinseltown into the lore of “Taylorology” and will let people draw their own conclusions. No one really wants cold cases solved. That strips away so much of the fun for armchair detectives. There was a lot of pushback to the recent claims that the identity of Jack the Ripper was discovered. But I do think that my solution is the only one that doesn’t contradict other available evidence and the only one based on surviving documental evidence, even if it’s circumstantial. That’s really important—to show where and how you drew your conclusions. I have got something like 800 footnotes and will be posting a lot of the primary documents I used on Taylorology, courtesy of the really brilliant Bruce Long, who more than anyone has kept the taylor case alive.

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Michael: In the history of Hollywood, has there ever been anything like the murder of a leading director, a mystery that has gone unsolved for so long?  The one that comes to mind is the mystery around the death of Thelma Todd.

Bill: I am very intrigued by the Todd case, but even that wasn’t as huge as the Taylor case. The reasons are a few: one, Taylor was really very prominent, a key figure high in the industry with the support of bigwigs like Zukor and Lasky. Two, the scandal ensnared so many other leading figures in the industry. Three, and most important, it occurred right at the moment when the stakes were so high for the film industry, when not only the threats of bad publicity and censorship hung over the movies but also federal regulation. That’s why it was so important to contain the fallout from all the scandals of the 1920-1923 period, and Taylor’s death was, in my opinion, chief among them.

Michael: Why are we still interested in a story that happened so long ago?

Bill: I think we’ll never tire of whodunits. And the characters in this story are just so complex and fascinating. Mabel Normand—I fell in love with her. So strong, so resilient, so full of integrity, so ahead of her time. Mary Miles Minter, so young, so deluded, so abused, so tragic. Margaret Gibson, so determined, so ambitious, so cunning. And Adolph Zukor— he created the movies as we know them, and he always so desperate not to lose everything and go back to being penniless and irrelevant. Will Hays, too, really fascinated me. Hardly the prude and puritan he’s long been considered, he was actually quite pragmatic, progressive, and nonjudgmental.

Mabel Normand

Mabel Normand

 

Mary Miles Minter signed this photo to "My Mammy"

Mary Miles Minter signed this photo to “My Mammy”

Margaret Gibson / Patricia Palmer

Margaret Gibson / Patricia Palmer

Michael: How hard was it to sell this type of idea to your agent / publisher?

Bill: I thought it might be terribly difficult. After chronicling three huge names — Hepburn, Taylor, Streisand — this was a bit of a departure and I know how publishing works. They always want an easy sell. So I worked on the idea for several years before I sold it. I’d stay up at night when I was tired of writing about divas all day. In that way, I had the story all fleshed out, and to my great surprise and pleasure, we had several editors bidding when we finally offered it. The editor I ended up with, Cal Morgan, at HarperCollins, is a real advocate of early film studies and popular culture histories. He’s been fantastic.

Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby

Mary Miles Minter and her mother, Charlotte Shelby

Michael: When I interviewed those still left from the silent film era, most believed that Taylor’s murderer was Charlotte Shelby, the mother of actress Mary Miles Minter. She was an easy scapegoat, not the most loved in Tinseltown. It doesn’t sound like, after reading Tinseltown, that Mary ever referred to her mother as Mommie Dearest. In the long line of stage mothers, was she really that bad? Does she get a bad rap from film historians?

Bill: I think she was pretty monstrous to Mary. Some of the things I write about in Tinseltown—like burning Mary’s doll when she was a child—are just shattering.

Mamma and Mary

Mamma and Mary

But I think we also have to respect her professionally. Pretty much all on her own, Shelby took on the system and won—a rare example of a woman succeeding in an industry dominated by men, and winning on her own terms at that. A strong, forceful woman is always going to attract more enemies than a strong, forceful man.

Michael: The murder of Taylor impacted so many lives. Besides the obvious, Taylor himself, who, in your opinion, ended up the biggest loser in the whole Taylor murder saga? How and why?

Bill: Well, so many suffered, but I would say it was Mary who really ended most tragically. Obsessive, a bit of a manic-depressive, terribly self-absorbed and delusional— but after her horrible childhood and the abuse she endured in the press, you can understand how she ended up that way. Her life after Hollywood was so sad. Taylor’s death followed her right until the end of her life.

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Michael: Another intriguing part of Tinseltown revolves around censorship and the influence of the religious right on the film industry during those days.  It seems that, every so often, this influential group latches onto a cause and creates headlines. I think of abortion and gay rights in our day, but in the early 1920s, it was the content of movies, movie stars, and bathtub gin, wasn’t it?

Bill: In many ways, Hollywood of 1922 reminded me so much of Hollywood in 2014. Stars becoming better known for off-screen exploits than their on-screen work; religious conservatives were decrying “Hollywood values” and the effect they were having on the nation; companies were buying each other up; and the government was trying to get a cut from all that cash. I think the reformers who were trying to censor movie content and censure star behavior recognized the secular, modern world that Hollywood was creating, and they were trying to stop it. Of course, the influence of the movies couldn’t be stopped. So much of the public in those pre-mass-market days hadn’t seen beyond their local communities. But Hollywood opened a window for them and after seeing the big wide world, they weren’t ever going back to more provincial views. I think an analogy can be made to movements today that are trying similarly to stuff the genie back into the bottle. Just ain’t gonna happen.

Michael: I want to touch on several of your other books. Was How to be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood the first biography that you wrote about a living person? How does that compare to writing about someone, say William Haines, who had already lived their life?

Bill: With Elizabeth, her people—her friends and family—were very cordial about me writing the book; some spoke to me; some did not. But Elizabeth was too ill at that point to cooperate. It does make it more sensitive writing about someone who’s still alive. Part of the reason I loved researching and writing Tinseltown was because I did not have to beg or cajole anyone to talk to me. They were all dead.

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Michael: I thoroughly enjoyed The Biograph Girl: A Novel of Hollywood Then and Now, which has Florence Lawrence, filmdom’s first movie star, who supposedly died in 1938, still alive at 106. Where did your inspiration for that book come from?

Bill: It was just a wild idea I had one day. Florence Lawrence had always fascinated me. She was so huge, so adored—and then so utterly forgotten. She had started this whole crazy business of stars and celebrity — well, with some help from Carl Laemmle who rigged up the first movie-star publicity stunts for her. I just felt she ought to get one more shot at fame.

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Michael: You dedicated The Biograph Girl to your mother and father who bought you your first typewriter when you were only nine. Were you writing then and how influential were they in your development as a writer?

Bill: I absolutely was writing then, back in those prehistoric days before computers. I thought a typewritten set of pages would look more like a “real book” than all the ones I’d been writing out in pen. My Mom and Dad absolutely loved that I became a writer. My Dad passed away last year but he would read every volume and ask lots of questions afterward. I just gave my Mom Tinseltown. At 88, she was insistent that all this was “before her time.”

Michael: You always credit your husband, Tim Huber, in your work. How interested is he in old Hollywood?  Does he share your interest?

Bill: He loves it through me. After 26 years together, he’s seen enough classic Hollywood films with me to know quite a bit. But every once in a while, while we’re flicking through Netflix, he’ll say, “Can’t we watch something from this century this time?”

Michael: How and when did you first become interested in Hollywood of the silent film era? Were there writers whose books inspired you back then? Who and which ones?

Bill: When I was a kid, those of us who loved silent film and early sound film really struggled to find anything to increase our knowledge about these wonderful movies, which were almost completely inaccessible. So I devoured the books of Kevin Brownlow and Anthony Slide. I was also really fascinated with the very early films, and had a correspondence with Charles Musser, whose research into the nickelodeon era was so groundbreaking. I remember him being surprised that this teenager was so interested in Edwin S. Porter and Georges Melies!

William J. Mann

Keep track of William J. Mann through his website, williamjmann.com

Michael: What’s next for you? Are there any projects in the works that you can tell us about?

Bill: My next book is my first non-Hollywood project. It’s called Alice & Eleanor: The Wars of the Roosevelts, about the rivalry between those two first cousins, one Republican, one Democrat, one beautiful, one plain, one gregarious, one shy—and both brilliant. But what I’m discovering is that Washington and Hollywood aren’t really all that different. They’re both about the creation and merchandizing of public images. That book will be out in 2016, hopefully in time for the presidential campaign.

* * *

Bill and I never got around to discussing who committed the murder.  That, my friends, is up to you to discover for yourselves!

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

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

Michael in Manarola

Michael in Manarola, 2013

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

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

 

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

 

Marjorie Daw

Marjorie Daw

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

 

 

Virginia Lee Corbin

Virginia Lee Corbin

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

 

Alice Lake

Alice Lake

 

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

Helen Lee Worthing

Helen Lee Worthing

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

Lottie Pickford

Lottie Pickford

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

 

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

Mary MacLaren

Mary MacLaren

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

 

Fontaine La Rue

Fontaine La Rue

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

 

Belle Bennett

Belle Bennett

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

 

Edwina Booth

Edwina Booth

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

 

Marie Walcamp

Marie Walcamp

Florence Deshon

Florence Deshon

 

Evelyn Nelson

Evelyn Nelson

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

 

Jetta Goudal

Jetta Goudal

Valeska Surrat

Valeska Suratt

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

 

Peggy Shannon

Peggy Shannon

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

 

Lolita Lee

Lolita Lee

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

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

You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave

I’ve been back from Los Angeles for over a month now, but I feel that part of me is still there. Like that line from Hotel California, “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

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I first came to Los Angeles almost 30 years ago. In many ways, part of me never left.

Hollywood, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, the Valley, they have a certain pull on me. They’re places where you can just be. I’m beginning to think my most recent former life may have been 1920s Hollywood.  Don’t ask me who I was in that time.  I’m still figuring it out.

My most recent trip to LA was late August.  It revolved around a speaking engagement at the annual Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service, a book signing at Book Soup on Sunset, and research at the Academy Library (or “Aunt Maggie’s” as Eve Golden likes to call it).

I’m working on a companion volume to Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels. The working title is Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood.  The book should have been on the shelves by now, but I keep adding new actresses to the marquee.  Fontaine La Rue and Mona Lisa have joined the table of contents. Yes, Mona Lisa!

My Mona Lisa autographed portrait

My Mona Lisa autographed portrait

When flying west, I try to get a window seat on the plane so that I can be sure to see Los Angeles and Hollywood when they come into view.

Here’s my first view of the Los Angeles area in the mid-1980s.

The first time I set my eyes on Los Angeles

The first time I set my eyes on Los Angeles

Here is my view last month as I approached the city.

Los Angeles from the air, 2013

Los Angeles from the air, 2013I think I see the Hollywood Sign in the middle left of this one

I think I see the Hollywood Sign in the middle left of this one

On the day that I fly into the wild blue yonder, I try to take the earliest flight I can get. That way, I am in Los Angeles by 9:30 a.m. By the time I get my luggage and the car and head into Hollywood, it’s lunch time and I’m pumped.

I’ll never forget the day in the late 1980s when I landed at LAX and had to rush to get to the Days of Our Lives set at Sunset and Gower, known in the 1930s as the Gower Gulch. As a newspaper reporter, I had interviewed Drake Hogestyn, the actor who played Roman Brady, at a charity baseball game in South Carolina earlier that year. I was also his bowling partner in a celebrity tournament.

Not sure what Drake and I were discussing in this photo.  Probably our pitiful bowling score. We didn't win.

Not sure what Drake and I were discussing in this photo. Probably our pitiful bowling score. We didn’t win.

Drake invited Denise (she worked with me at the newspaper) and me to stop by the set and say hello on my next trip to Los Angeles.

Drake signed this photo for my mom

Drake signed this photo for my mom

After we put the top down on our Chrysler LaBaron, we headed into Hollywood. Our traveling companions dropped us off at Sunset and Gower and went to check into the hotel while we visited with Drake. It was a fun afternoon with Drake cutting up with the rest of the cast. By the time he was ready to leave the studio for the day and drive home to Malibu, it was getting dark.

He asked us how we planned to get to the hotel.  We were hoofing it!  Concerned for our safety and the distance to the hotel, Drake insisted on driving us to the Holiday Inn. Before we left the studio, he drew a map of Hollywood and the surrounding area.

Drake's map and photo as he signed photos for his fans

Drake’s map and photo as he signed photos for his fans

I crawled in the back of his jeep; Denise took the front. Drake was stopped by fans as we drove out of the parking garage.  He sat behind the wheel and signed autographs and talked to his fans.  He was an awesome gentleman.

Drake and Michael at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood

Drake and Michael at the Holiday Inn in Hollywood

But, I digress. That was a long time ago. I want to tell you about August 2013.

It has become a tradition for me to watch the sun go down behind the Hollywood Hills on the first night I’m in town.  I find a place to prop at the Griffith Park Observatory and watch the sky turn purple and orange as the sun sinks behind the hills.

Here’s how it looked last month.

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The nightlife comes to life

The nightlife comes to life

The Sign rests for the evening

The Sign rests for the evening

The day after I arrived in Los Angeles, I was guest speaker at the annual Valentino Memorial Service. Read about that here.

The next day, Chris and I planned to drive around Hollywood until my book signing that afternoon at Book Soup on Sunset Blvd. We spent the morning hiking the Hollyridge Trail.  The walk up was hotter than the hinges of hell. We came with no water.  What were we thinking?

Michael and Chris on the Hollyridge Trail

Michael and Chris on the Hollyridge Trail

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The Hollywood Sign from above

The Hollywood Sign from above

After I dragged my hot, tired, sweaty self to the top, I stood amazed at the view.  I thought about the 1920s and what it must have looked like in those days of early Hollywood.  Take a look at this comparison. Look closely and you can see Beachwood Drive in the photos (in the middle left third of both photos). That long straight road takes you into the Hollywood Hills and near the Hollyridge Trail.

The view from the Sign in 2013

The view from the Sign in 2013

The view in the 1920s

The view in the 1920s

Mack Sennett Beauties enjoying the view

Mack Sennett Beauties enjoying the view

Before going the book signing, Chris and I hydrated ourselves and stopped off in Beverly Hills at Church of the Good Shepherd.  The sacred place is a who’s who of Hollywood when it comes to weddings and funerals.  In June 1926, Mae Murray married her prince, David Mdivani. Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri were best man and bride’s maid.  Two months later, Hollywood’s brightest stars crowded into the church to say goodbye to Valentino.

Approaching the church from the side. Chris swore this beam of light my camera picked up was a  welcoming sign

Approaching the church from the side. Chris swore this beam of light my camera picked up was a welcoming sign

 

I took a seat in a pew.  Chris  stretched out at the altar to soak in the spirit of peace

I took a seat in a pew. Chris stretched out at the altar to soak in the spirit of peace

 

The book signing at BookSoup was fun.  I wish I could say I got writer’s cramp from signing so many books, but I’d be lying to you.

Michael and Mae at BookSoup

Michael and Mae at BookSoup

Here I am at the booksigning with Chris and Miles Kreuger. Miles knew Mae and provided the anecdote that opened Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

Here I am at the booksigning with Chris and Miles Kreuger. Miles knew Mae and provided the anecdote that opened Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

The rest of the week went something like this.  I did research at the Academy Library during the day. The library is closed on Wednesday, so Richard and I hiked the Hollyridge Trail to the Hollywood Sign.  This time, we saw some shirtless gents scale the fence and to get a better look at the Sign.

Two teens stripped bare-chested and scaled the fence. They took photos right before they went over.

Two teens stripped bare-chested and scaled the fence. They took photos right before they went over.

IMG_0338I was content to pose once more with all of Hollywood at my back. I could see me scaling that fence. I’d catch my privates halfway through the jump and have to shriek for a helicopter to fly over and pull me out of the links.

Michael over Hollywood

Michael over Hollywood

In the afternoon, I drove to the beach to spend a few moments with Thelma Todd. There in the sand, with her beach house in sight, I thought of poor Thelma and how her untimely death in 1935 stills cries for justice.

Michael and Thelma's house

Michael and Thelma’s house

Thelma’s house back in the day.  It’s changed very little over the years.

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Thelma's place

A panoramic view with my lone shadow in the middle

Malibu and Duke’s was my next stop. I got a table by the sea and sipped chilled white wine.

An old haunt of mine

An old haunt of mine

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Late in the afternoon, during a tedious rush hour, I went down to Culver City and found the old entrance to MGM. I looked around and wonder whether this was the street that a naked Mae Murray ran across during her war with Erich von Stroheim on the set of The Merry Widow.

The gates to MGM

The gates to MGM

The gates in Mae Murray’s day.

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Before my time in Hollywood ran out, I drove south to Holy Cross Cemetery. I looked for Pola Negri in the Great Mausoleum. The building closed before I could find her. I walked and walked in the baking sun looking for Ramon Novarro. The markers all began to look alike. I never found him.  Next time!  With the help of the cemetery office, I found one actress I had come here to find: Fontaine La Rue. If you have followed this blog, you know about my frustrating quest to determine what ever happened to this siren of the screen.  I will tell you more about her in my new book.

 

Fontaine La Rue, an screen siren who has held my attention for a long time

Fontaine La Rue, a screen siren who has held my attention for years

Of course, I spent time with friends. I had dinner one evening with writer Jim Parish and Allan Taylor, the godson of Margaret Mitchell. They are my oldest Hollywood friends. We’ve been buddies since the 1980s. I had lunch with Susie and Bob Archer. She is the niece of actress Marjorie Daw, to whom I am devoting a chapter in my book.

The last evening, I told myself it had to be an early night. I had a 5:25 a.m. flight to Atlanta, which means the clock was set for 3:30. Wishful thinking.  I sat up until almost midnight with Andre Soares, the author of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro. We finished our Thai dinner, then went around the corner for a milkshake.  When Andre and I get to talking about silent film stars, the night slips away.

It’s always sad when I pull away from the hotel, enter the freeway and head for the airport. Part of me stays behind.

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The line from the old Eagles song is true. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Remembering Valentino, making new friends

The highlight of my recent Hollywood adventure had to be the annual Valentino Memorial Service, an event that pays tribute to the life of Rudolph Valentino on the anniversary of his death,  August 23, 1926.  Not only was I there this year, I also had the honor of speaking about the friendship of Valentino and Mae Murray, who is the subject of my most recent book.

I had a reserved seat right up front. Incidentally, Valentino's "autograph" was made by a stamp that once belong to Valentino. He used it to stamp photographs. It is now in Tracy Terhune's awesome collection.

I had a reserved seat right up front. Incidentally, Valentino’s “autograph” was made by a stamp that once belong to Valentino himself. He used it to “autograph” photographs. It is now in Tracy Terhune’s awesome collection.

On my first trip to Hollywood way back in 1986, the first thing I had to see was not Universal Studios, the footprints in the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, or even the Hollywood Sign. It was the tomb of Rudolph Valentino.  Since then, no trip to Hollywood has been complete until I have visited Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, now Hollywood Forever.

In a lot of ways, the event was like a reunion. I met many friends that I had only corresponded with through Facebook and email. I also made scores of new buddies.

Chris Cipollini took this Polaroid photo during the service.  The more I look at it, the more I think Chris captured a ghost or two

Chris Cipollini took this Polaroid photo during the service. The more I look at it, the more I think Chris captured a ghost or two

I enjoyed meeting and talking with actor Christopher Riordan, who is just as handsome and charming today as he was in television and films going back to the 1950s. He’s still active today in television and is working on his memoirs. 

Christopher and Michael after the service

Christopher and Michael after the service

Christopher in a GQ layout

Christopher in a GQ layout

Sharon Evans and Rick Rogers sang Sheik of Araby

Sharon Evans and Rick Rogers sang Sheik of Araby

Chris Cipollini read his own piety

Chris Cipollini read his own piety

Michael Espinoza and Bracha Loren brought the house down with their Argentine Tango

Michael Espinoza and Bracha Loren brought the house down with their Argentine Tango

For those of you who didn’t make the service this year, I am providing a transcript of my remarks (in italics).  I intermingled a number of readings from Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.

For those who didn’t get to the service this year, mark your calendar for next year! It’s a must!

The program

The program

I bring you greetings from all the Valentino fans in Georgia. It is an honor for me to be with you.

I’ve been coming to LA for almost 30 years doing research and interviews for my books. On each of these trips, I’ve visited Valentino’s crypt. Sometimes twice or more in one visit. So I have lost count of the number of times I have been here.

My very first visit to Valentino's tomb. This was the trip that I interviewed Dorothy Revier. But first, I had to see Rudy's tomb.

My very first visit to Valentino’s tomb. This was the trip that I interviewed Dorothy Revier. But, first, I had to see Rudy’s tomb.

Another visit from several years ago

Another visit from several years ago

Today is different, of course. It’s usually just me, Rudy, Barbara (La Marr), William Desmond Taylor, and a few others hanging and floating around.  I can usually hear my footsteps echoing down the corridor. Today, the room is full and I am a little nervous.

I want to talk briefly about Valentino’s friendship with Mae Murray, who is the subject of my new book.  

Their friendship was a unique one. It lasted from the day they met until his death in 1926. About 13 years.  Longer than any of Mae’s four marriages.

They met while they were both dancers in New York.

(From Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips)

“It was while out with Olive Thomas at the Knickerbocker one afternoon that a young Italian caught Mae’s eye. She pointed him out to Olive.  ‘Damn beautiful, isn’t he?’ Olive said.

   Valentino

Valentino

 ‘He was a magnificently built man and his disposition was as delightful as his physique,’ Mae remembered. ‘Just to see his expressive hand lying on the back of a chair was art. Rudy and I had a unique understanding. We were attracted to each other from that first afternoon. Call it sex if you will, but more correctly, call it a dancing friendship, which is why our bond lasted.’

Their paths went in different directions when Mae came to California to make films in 1916.

Mae used to take credit for discovering Valentino for the movies when they worked together in The Delicious Little Devil and The Big Little Person. He was, however, already working in films when they became reacquainted.

She had always been attracted to Valentino. She especially liked the Latin lover type. She urged him, on the set of The Delicious Little Devil, to take charge of his magnetism. 

(From Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips)

‘Because magnetism is like a light,’ Mae told him. ‘Some people have a 60-watt bulb. Some have 150 watts. You have a full one hundred and fifty. Never doubt it.’

In the fall of 1924, two monumental events happened in Mae’s life. She was awarded the starring role in The Merry Widow and she divorced Robert Z. Leonard, her husband, director, and business partner.

After the filming wrapped on The Merry Widow in May 1925, Mae took a walk on the wild side. She was back and forth to Europe and was rather reckless in her personal life. Perhaps it was inevitable that her friendship with Valentino exploded into passion. The press hinted at marriage. Their responses are telling.

(From Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips)

‘Marry again? Absurd!’ he said. ‘While I am what you might call domesticated, I have observed that a man in my profession is happier when he is single. I have no present intention of marrying Miss Mae Murray or any other woman.’

Mae was a little more cryptic. ‘Everybody just loves Rudy.’ ‘Do you?’ a reporter asked. ‘Ah — you see — I think he’s wonderful. Of course, I have to admit that marriage is possible. Tomorrow, who knows what might happen. Rudolph and I are very old friends. We knew each other before we went on the screen–when we were both dancers.  Why we’re childhood friends. Sweethearts?  Well — ‘

Somewhere along the way, Mae, as her nephew so eloquently put it, ‘got knocked up’ and slipped away to Paris to give birth to a son. She returned alone to the States, an unwed mother, a major Hollywood star, a gullible, vulnerable woman, desperate for love and attention.

You know the story. Prince David Mdivani stepped in to fill the void — and his pockets. He became her fourth husband.

Rudy and Pola Negri (L and R) were best man and maid of honor at Mae's marriage to David Mdivani

Rudy and Pola Negri (L and R) were best man and maid of honor at Mae’s marriage to David Mdivani

The day she said, ‘I do,’ Valentino invited the bridal party to his Falcon Lair estate. The two rode together to the church. On the way, Rudy leaned over to Mae. ‘Do you really want to do this?’ he asked.

With Pola (Negri) as maid of honor and Rudy as best man, Mae became Hollywood royalty.

Only two months later, Hollywood lost its greatest lover. Mae said she had lost her soulmate. 

‘Rudy Valentino has become an immortal,’ she later told a radio interviewer. ‘While many didn’t see him or know him, they, through the years, have felt him because he was a true mystic. I don’t mean a sanctimonious mystic, but a force. With us, it was an even deeper quality because I think I have a little mysticism in me, too.

Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, fall of 1925.

Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, fall of 1925

Mae blamed her friend’s death on his professional ups and downs and his torrid personal life. ‘You can be hurt so deeply in life, she said in 1960. ‘He, like me, had a few enemies who wanted to destroy him, and he was super sensitive, just like John Gilbert. I thank God that what happened to me didn’t take my life. It was a hard fight, but it didn’t take my life.’

I believe Mae was at Valentino’s funeral, but I wonder whether she came here to mourn his loss over the years. She had connections here. Both her brothers are here, but she attended neither funeral.  That is, however, another story for another day.

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After the memorial, we all drove over the hill to Tracy’s home in North Hollywood. Here’s a peek into the afternoon festivities.

Caroline Rupprecht, Michael, and Rebecca Eash get acquainted while sitting on Valentino's sofa

Caroline Rupprecht, Michael, and Rebecca Eash get acquainted while sitting on Valentino’s sofa

Chris Cipollini poses in  Valentino's chair and with his shirt

Chris Cipollini poses in Valentino’s chair and with his shirt

Here I am with Jeremy Terhune, Tracy Terhune, and Frank Labrador

Here I am with Jeremy Terhune, Tracy Terhune, and Frank Labrador

If you haven’t already, check out Tracy’s book, Valentino Forever: The History of the Valentino Memorial Service.

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Tracy and everyone involved in this great event, thanks for a lovely time and for the fitting tribute to the life of Rudolph Valentino.

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From Hookers to Grannies: An Interview with Stella Stevens

Hold onto your life jackets!  Hollywood just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the release of The Poseidon Adventure (1972).  Stella Sevens, Carol Lynley, and other cast members gathered in Hollywood late last month to reminiscence about the classic disaster film.

Stella in The Poseidon Adventure.

Stella in The Poseidon Adventure.

The recent reunion brought to mind the interview I did with Stella Stevens at her home in Beverly Hills in December 1994.  I had the interview set up before I got to town. When I arrived at her home at 2 p.m. on the dot, I rang the bell.  I knocked and knocked — and knocked!  I gave up with disappointment, and drove up Coldwater Canyon and into the Valley.  I called from a pay phone (we didn’t have cellphones then) to leave Stella a message that I had been there.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I was there,” I said.  “I ran the bell and knocked.”

“I didn’t hear you, dear.  I was in the back getting ready for you.  Can you come back?”

I did, and we spent a good part of the afternoon talking about her long career in Hollywood.

In my recent book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, I wrote that Mae was the ideal image of a movie star in the 1920s.  Stella Stevens fits my image of what a movie star was supposed to look like  in the 1960s — blonde, sultry,  and drop-dead gorgeous!

Stella Stevens: My vision of the ideal 1960s movie star.

Stella Stevens: My vision of the ideal 1960s movie star.

Several weeks later, after I’d returned home, Stella sent me a can of chocolate gourmet coffee she had served during my visit, as well as a jar of her calamunda conserves.

I got together with Stella several more times on my treks to Los Angeles.  Once I took Charlie to meet Stella.  He was gaga, as he had been an admirer since The Poseidon Adventure.

Michael, Stella, and Charlie at Stella's Beverly Hills home.

Michael, Stella, and Charlie at Stella’s Beverly Hills home.

Later, Stella and I met up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for some event.

Stella and Michael on the town ...

Stella and Michael on the town …

We’ve kept in touch over the years, mostly by exchanging Christmas cards.

Three of Stella's Christmas cards.

Three of Stella’s Christmas cards. You can tell that Stella is an animal lover.

Our interview was originally published in Films of the Golden Age.  Here’s how it went.

stella21

From Hookers to Grannies: A Chat with Stella Stevens

by Michael G. Ankerich

Stella Stevens is struggling to find words to describe her latest film role, that of an 85-year-old grandmother who returns from the dead to avenge her death.

“It’s the most fun I’ve had on a film in years,” she tells me as we sit in the den of her Beverly Hills home in early December 1994.

This vague description, however, isn’t exactly how Stella feels about her part; it’s not adequate for one who is known for being so outspoken and uninhibited.

Dressed in a form-fitting exercise suit and looking as curvaceous and gorgeous as ever, Stella pulls the words from her racing imagination and leans forward on the edge of the sofa as she emphasizes her point.

“This film for me was like an orgasm, after all these years of just being called maybe the best thing in a bad picture.”

I should be shocked, but don’t forget the “O” word comes from someone who knows the value of shock treatment, of raising eyebrows, of saying just what she thinks. After all, didn’t she pose nude for Playboy in 1960 and announce once she was running for President of the United States? She also reportedly arrived at an awards show clad only in a transparent negligee and told an inquisitive interviewer that fans should pick up a copy of Kama-Sutra to get an idea of what she does in her private life.

Stella in The Granny.

Stella in The Granny.

The Granny, she reminds me, is the first film in years in which she has the title role, and that it is an unusual role in that it appears to be a recent trend that is shifting Stella Stevens’ career from sexpot to character roles.

In addition, Stella retains a more than casual integrity in the film’s impact on her career, particularly after a psychic reading more than 25 years ago.

While in England in 1970, just after The Ballad of Cable Hogue wrapped, Stella was told by a fortuneteller reading her Tarot cards that she would be remembered for a film in which she would replace another actress originally cast, but who, because of illness, would have to abandon the project. “I waited throughout the 1970s, through the ’80s, and it gets to be 1994. I get a call from my agent who tells me they had cast Shelley Winters in a film, but that she developed a case of the shingles and couldn’t do it. That’s how I was cast in The Granny.”

Whether the film, being dubbed a comedy-horror, will have the impact Stella thinks it might, the film can only enhance her budding cult-figure status, which has been nurtured by The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and such exploitative films as Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975) and Chained Heat (1983).

In reading Stella’s entry in film encyclopedias, she appears to have been a successful working actress for 35 years, not bad when you consider the average life of a career is less than a decade. What is not recorded in the entry, but is apparent when she opens up to you, is the pain stemming from her struggle in trying to make people understand what Stella Stevens is really all about.

After a failed teenage marriage, which produced a son, actor, director  and producer Andrew Stevens, Stella moved, much to her parents’ objection, to Hollywood, where she embarked on a movie career. They, along with her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, practically disowned her when she did the Playboy layout.

The results of appearing in the magazine firmly established her as a sexpot (a term she despises) in the eyes of Hollywood and stunted her deep-rooted ambitions for directing films.

She believes her association with Playboy, which resulted in several lawsuits over the years and to no end of ill feelings with the magazine, closed more doors than it opened.

Stella in Rage.

Stella in Rage.

Her talent, however, could not be denied. She displayed an early comedic  flair as Appassionata von Climax in Li’l Abner (1959), and she proved herself a dramatic actress in Man-Trap (1961) and Too Late Blues (1962). She relished the opportunity of working with Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor (1963), but loathes everything associated with Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), which she insists she has never seen.

Rage (1966) established her as the whore with a heart of gold, and by the time she played Hildy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, she had almost perfected the art. She is memorable in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) as the ex-prostitute wife of Ernest Borgnine and in two films considered controversial in their day: Stand up and Be Counted (1972) and Slaughter (1972).

Stella in The Poseidon Adventure.

Stella in The Poseidon Adventure.

In the late 1970s, her film appearances decreased. She worked extensively in television throughout the 1980s, notably in made-for-TV films and on such series as Flamingo Road and Santa Barbara.

On her own, she wrote, directed, and produced a full-length documentary. While the experience was rewarding creatively, the film did not spawn her long-anticipated directorial  career — she waited another 10 years before being handed the megaphone.

Now in her late fifties, Stella insists there are many untapped resources yet to be discovered in her. True, she has been successful, but Stella Stevens is clearly agitated these days that Hollywood has not made better use of her talent. Her goals are clear: she wants to direct, to write, and to act. She has written a children’s musical, which she hopes to direct, and is working on a novel and cookbook.

“I guess you could say I’m still waiting to be discovered,” Stella says in all seriousness. Determination and stubbornness are legendary in the actress. Don’t look for Stella Stevens to rest easily in the annals of Hollywood history. She is a modern woman, constantly reinventing herself, taking inventory of her potential and turning her talents into action. Keep an eye on her, but don’t stand in her way.

“I’m one of the most stubborn and determined people I have ever known, not mean-spirited, but spirited enough to fight the elements or the odds against me,” she says.

Stella Stevens was born Estelle Eggleston in Yazoo City (not Hot Coffee), Mississippi. While references differ over her year of birth, she insists it’s 1938. The Egglestons moved to Memphis when Stella, an only child, was four.

She lived behind a movie theater growing up, and says she practically lived there, seeing every film over and over. Although she thinks she had film making on her mind since she saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a child, she didn’t take it seriously; her aspirations were to be a writer.

Growing up alone, because both her parents worked, Stella became aware of responsibility early on. She learned to cook and run the household, and she says she was old enough to be on her own by the time she was 12.

When she was 15, she married her childhood sweetheart, Herman Stephens; at 16, a son was born; and at 17, the couple divorced. Although her marriage failed, Stella had high hopes for herself.

She returned to night school, earned her high school diploma and entered Memphis State College, declaring an English major. During her first year of college, she joined the drama group, stumbling upon an opportunity that changed her life forever.

On stage at Memphis State University in Bus Stop.

On stage at Memphis State College in Bus Stop.

Stella: I remember thinking, thank God, I am looking for something I could become interested in that wouldn’t peter-out. After some time in the drama group, I tried to change my Southern accent to proper English, so I wouldn’t sound so Southern.

Michael: How did your peers react to your changing your speech?

Stella: Everyone in Memphis laughed at me, thinking I was uppity, that I thought I was better than everyone else and wanted to talk a different way. But, I saw it as my only way out. Besides being a housewife in Memphis for the rest of my life, I don’t know what else the alternative was. I didn’t seem to have one.

Michael: The alternative you discovered was acting.

Stella: Yes! My destiny was either New York or Hollywood. Because of Andrew (just a toddler then), the thought of going to New York and trying to be in the theater there seemed like a horrible, grungy life. I could just picture myself in a hovel in Greenwich Village. It was one or the other, or it was to stay put in Memphis forever.

Michael: Did your parents support your ambitions of being an actress?

Stella: No, they did not! They had the attitude that I had to get it out of my system, that I was a bit crazy to do it. They were concerned about me. My mother said she hoped I would fail in Hollywood and would come back to  Memphis where I belonged. I was encouraged to have better sense and stay home in Memphis, but I couldn’t do it.

Stella in How to Save a Marriage -- And Ruin Your Life

Stella in How to Save a Marriage — And Ruin Your Life

She arrived alone in Hollywood–she didn’t know anyone there, with only the hopes of securing a contract with 20th Centruy-Fox and possibly playing Jean Harlow in a biographical film the studio was considering. The Harlow project didn’t materialize then, but Fox was interested in Stella.

Dick Powell directed Stella’s screen test, a scene she had written from a Harold Robbins novel, 79 Park Avenue. Her efforts earned her a six-month contract with Fox.

Michael: What do you remember about Dick Powell and the screen test for Fox?

Stella: Dick Powell told me that he loved making the transition from actor to director, because he wouldn’t have to hold his tummy in any longer. I remember that wonderful smile of his and his dimples. He was just the most gentle and sweet and funny man in person.

Michael: What work did you do in that six months with Fox.

Stella: I worked for four months on Say One For Me (1959), however, no one told me to pick up a work card, so no one eve knew that I worked. At the end of the six months, they looked through everyone’s cards and it didn’t show that I had worked a single day. So, they dropped me.

Not long after  Stella was back on the lot with a photographer doing a photo shoot, when she passed director Edward Dmytryk and the assistant director she’d worked with on Say One For Me. She was soon called back to the studio for a small part in Dmytryk’s remake of The Blue Angel (1959).

Stella’s performance in the two films went virtually unnoticed. It was her next role, that of Appassionata von Climax, in Li’l Abner (1959) that caused Hollywood, especially Paramount, to take notice. The studio, on the basis is her strong performance, signed her to a five-year contract.

With her career skyrocketing, Stella should have been soaring. She was, however, suffering miserably. For months, she had been embroiled in a nasty custody battle that questioned her fitness as a mother. At one point, she defied court orders and “kidnapped” Andrew from Memphis and brought him to live with her in Hollywood.

Stella and son Andrew

Stella and son Andrew

That episode, which grabbed national headlines, was eventually resolved (with her gaining custody), but only after legal battles with her ex-husband and headlines like, “I Stole My Baby” (Modern Screen), October, 1959.

Those battling her in Tennessee believed Hollywood was no place to raise a child. Their case only strengthened after Stella’s nude layout appeared in Playboy. An editorial in the Memphis newspaper called the layout, Stella’s “mistake.”  She responded at the time, “It was my decision and mine alone. If it was a mistake, I’ll learn from it. If it was not, I’ll profit from it.”

Her appearance in the magazine, as it turned out, caused her years of grief and eventually led the two parties to court. Her relationship with the magazine soured quickly over her fee. She contends she only received $500 of the $3,000 promised her. The remainder was to be earned as a hostess at Playboy parties. Later, she says, Playboy officials reprinted the photos on trading cards with her wrong birth date and place.

Michael:  Is Playboy still a bad word after all these years?

Stella: It is a bad word. It’s a disappointing word, because I’ve never done business with anyone who has so overtly lied to me and tried to take advantage of me.  It happened to me so many times. It’s like, fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me three times, I’ll a fool. I kept trying to give them a chance to treat me nicely, but they never did. It’s just sickening.

Stella

Stella

Michael:  Looking back over these years and weighting the advantages and drawbacks it has had on your career, was it a mistake for you to do the layout?

Stella:  It was a double-edged sword. It did as much harm as it did good. To try and have a career as a serious actor after being in that magazine was very difficult. To try and become a director has taken me over 30 years, something that other people with far less talent have done far sooner. They did not, however, start out as sexpots. That starting point (as a sexpot) is so far below level. You might think it elevates someone to call them a sexpot, but it does not.  It’s a derogatory term.  It’s hard, after that, to just come up to being a human being. When “Sesame Street” first came on the air, I begged to be able to do the alphabet–anything.  They would not allow me on there. I wasn’t allowed in certain magazines. I was blackballed from anything decent after that.

Michael: What was the public’s reaction to the layout?

Stella: It’s like I was overloaded with horrible fan mail that was gross, obsessive, and horrendous. It turned me off to fan mail so much that I wouldn’t answer it for years. That has changed and I get very nice mail but I still have a deep-seated aversion to opening anything that comes in.

Michael: In the beginning of your career, you worked with some of the industry’s finest directors, people like John Cassavetes, Norman Taurog, Vincente Minnelli, Jerry Lewis. Did you realize then the valuable training you were getting?

Stella:  Yes! I wanted to be a director even then and every director I worked with taught me more and more, with the exception of Norman Taurog, who taught be how to not behave on the set and how not to act as a director.

Michael: Let’s talk about some of the films you made. In Man-Trap (1961), you play the juicy role of a nymphomaniac  the alcoholic wife of Jeffrey Hunter who seduces his ex-marine buddy (David Janssen).

Stella and Jeffrey Hunter in Man-Trap.

Stella and Jeffrey Hunter in Man-Trap.

Stella: Nina (the character) made quite an impression at the time. It was the total opposite of what I was. I was such an introverted, bookish sort of person who wanted to learn to become a good writer and here was this woman who was a nymphomanic, which I was intrigued with.  Some of the most fun parts I’ve played have been nymphomanics.  It was very risque at the time.

Michael: Edmond O’Brien, the veteran actor, was sole-directing for the first time.

Stella: Yes, and I liked him a lot. He was a nervous man.  He had good ideas and was so energetic and so excited about doing it. I believe he did a really good job with the film.

Michael: Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) gave you good exposure, didn’t it? You worked with the veteran director Norman Taurog, and the King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley.

Stella:  I don’t know whether it did or not. I’ve never seen the picture. I swore to my dying day I would never see it, and I never have.

Michael: What were the problems with it?

Stella: In the first place, I didn’t want to do it, and I told the studio I didn’t want to do it. They threatened to put me on suspension, but promised me that if I would do it, I would get a film with Monty Clift. So, of course, I said I would do the film.  They bribed me with Monty Clift. It was a very disastrous experience for me. They knew I didn’t want to do the film and they treated me very badly, the worst I’ve never been treated on a film.

Girls! Girls! Girls!

Girls! Girls! Girls!

Michael: It’s funny that you criticize Norman Taurog. At the time, he said you were the best comedienne to hit Hollywood in 1o years.

Stella: I thought that anyway, and I didn’t need him to tell me. What I remember is him screaming at me at the top of his lungs in front of the cast and crew because I accidentally had a can of hairspray emptied onto my head while the hairdresser was styling my hair, all this making me late to the set. As I was walking toward him to apologize for being late, he screamed at me, “Young lady, when I say 9:30, I don’t mean 10:00; you get here on time.” It embarrassed me in front of everybody.

I’ve never been talked to or treated like that. Also, a lot of things went wrong with the music, including the fact that they gave me a rehearsal disk of a record, which played from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. My machine didn’t play those, so I didn’t get a chance to rehearse. The next morning, I had to lip sync the song and I hadn’t ever heard it. While I’m standing by the piano struggling to get through this, I asked the choreographer what I am to do while I lip synched the song. He stands there and shaking from side to side, says, “Just do the twist.” I said, “Thank you very much.”

Michael: Was Elvis sympathetic to your situation?

Stella: No, he was not! He was drunk and whatever else he was, but he was not sympathetic. He was drunk in Hawaii and on the set when he sang “Return to Sender,” or at least acting like he was and telling me he was. He was drinking Hawaiian Rum Punches, and they punched him just about out. He was also showing me what he called his Bible, his book of color plates of every pill and capsule ever made and sold by pharmaceutical companies. Drinking and taking pills seemed to be his main interest.

Michael: You got through the film thinking you would get a chance to working with Montgomery Clift.

Stella: That film turned out to be Too Late Blues (1962) with John Cassavetes directing. I love the film and consider it one of my best parts. I didn’t squawk about the part.  Bobby Darin was wonderful in it–he was a very good actor, but it was not Montgomery Clift.

Stella and Bobby Darin in Too Late Blues.

Stella and Bobby Darin in Too Late Blues.

Michael: Darin is the jazz musician who falls in and out of love with your character, a vocalist, who, dealing with the entanglements, eventually falls into prostitution. Cassavetes enjoyed delving into the psychology of human relationships.

Stella:  Yes he did, and so did I, because I was originally from the theater and thought all this meant something, showing all this behavior we did. I thought it had a greater purpose, and he seemed to feel the same way.  I wanted to work with him again.  I begged him to please make a movie where I could work with Gena Rowlands. Nothing ever came of it. I loved him and wanted to work with him again, but he made movies, and if he had ever wanted to work with me, he would have called. So, it was possibly one-sided adulation on my part. We started that film down in Mexico, Sol Madrid (1968), together (Cassavetes had a role in the film), but John got hepatitis and had to be replaced by Rip Torn. We were almost together on that one.

Stella and Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.

Stella and Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.

Michael: The Nutty Professor (1963) with Jerry Lewis is one of the films people remember you from.

Stella: A lot of people tell me I’m very good in it. That’s because of Jerry’s assistance in molding my character into what it was. I was scared to death (during the filming), because I didn’t know what to do.  I thought I had to be funny and when I look back at it today, I kind of cringe at a few of the things I did. I can see that I just kind of stumbled my way through it.

Michael: Jerry Lewis starred, wrote, directed and produced the film. It’s been called one of his masterpieces.

Stella: He was a working genius and he was marvelous to watch in action. It was also a biut tiring to have to wait for him to circle back down from all the 20 things he was doing and get back to the one you were doing. However, he was a great influence on me as a director. He told me everything he did, and he took me to every daily.

Being a budding writer, I’m very sensitive to the sounds of words,, because I speak the writing that is given to me. So, as you hear it, images sometime form in your mind. Originally, Jerry had written my character name name as Stella Payne. I said I didn’t want to be named Payne, so he changed it to Purdy, Stella Purdy.

Michael:  You worked three times with Glenn Ford: The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963); Advance to the Rear (1964); and Rage (1966).

Stella: Glenn was always fun to work with. I believe it was on Rage that he asked for me. I was under contact to Columbia at the time. My role, as Pearla, the whore, was a very good one. She was the first whore with the heart of gold that I played. That kind of stuck until I did Flamingo Road (the television series) when the reviewers said I had established the prototype of the whore with a heart of gold.

Stella and Glenn Ford in Rage

Stella and Glenn Ford in Rage

Michael: Rosalind Russell wrote in her autobiography that she didn’t care for Where Angels Go…Troubles Follow (1968), which had been a sequel to The Trouble with Angels (1966). As one of the nuns in the film, what did you think about it?

Stella: This film was a showcase for me as Sister George. I thought it worked quite well, and she (Russell) was funny and wonderful, a very giving actress. I loved working with her. I’m surprised she was disappointed, but a sequel is perhaps disappointing to someone who was in the original.

Michael: You worked first with Shelley Winters in The Mad Room (1969).

Stella: Yes, and I said I would never work with her again. There’s where I broke my vow ( they later made The Poseidon Adventure together).

Michael: What was the problem with her on that one?

Stella: She was under a lot of stress at the time. Robert Kennedy had been shot during the filming of it, and she had a very bad reaction to it. She had been soothing her nerves with white wine and shouldn’t have been. She doesn’t do that any more. She was quite well behaved on The Poseidon Adventure.

I have to tell you this funny story. Shelley saw me the other day and asked me how The Granny, the film in which I replaced her, turned out. I said it turned out great, that it was a wonderful part and that I had a lot of fun doing it. She told me she had been ill (with the shingles) and didn’t think she would have had the strength to have done it. Then she says, “Stella, give me your number. I get so many scripts that I can’t do. I’ll tell them to call you.”

Stella and Jason Robards in The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

Stella and Jason Robards in The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

Michael: Your role as Hildy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), again a whore with a heart of gold, is considered among your best roles, and your on screen interaction with Jason Robards has been called your most mature relationship on celluloid.

Stella: It was a very interesting role and a unique experience. I can’t say it was a great experience, but it was something to live through.

Michael: Did you and Robards discuss off camera the workings of your on-screen relationship?

Stella: Not so much. The boys stuck with the boys and the girls with the girls on that picture. This was like a segregated film in that regard. The men were so upset that we came out there to their desert, where they had been chewing and spitting and telling dirty jokes. They drank and fell asleep in the bar and woke up and went back to work the next morning. They just acted badly. They played cards and peed out the windows and did everything they could to be macho men. Something like 32 people got put on the bus and sent home.  Finally, the union told Sam (Peckinpah) that if one more man was fired, they would close down the picture.

Michael: Cable Hogue was quite different from the bloody violence Peckingpah had portrayed in The Wild Bunch (1969).  How did you find him as a director?

Stella: I appreciate him as an artist. I loved The Wild Bunch  and I loved the man, as mean and hard as he was. He had poetic  eyes, as far as the camera was concerned. He put visual poetry on the screen as a background for whatever he shot. He was not a great comedy director, and he kept calling Cable Hogue a comedy. I kept looking at him until finally I said, “Sam, this is not a comedy; the hero dies at the end. This is a love story. It may have some funny stuff in it, but it is not a comedy.” He, however, always called it a comedy.

Ernest Borgnine, Stella, and Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure.

Ernest Borgnine, Stella, and Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure.

Michael: Did you realize The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was going to be something special when you were making it?

Stella: Yes, we all knew that. There was no question about it. And, when I got the script and saw that I died six pages before the end, I remember saying to my agent, “The fat lady gets a nomination, whomever they get to do it.” They said Shelley Winters was doing it, and I said I was not going to do the film. Then, they said I wouldn’t have to be in any scenes with her one-on-one. I did it, and I’m glad I did.

Michael: Did you have fun with the part?

Stella: As agonizing as it was, it was a lot of fun.

Stella with the cast of The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

Stella with the cast of The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

Michael: Did you do your own stunts?

Stella:  Yes, and it was a little scary going underwater, but we had men there in the tank with us. Ronald Neame was our director, and he was a wonderful, supportive, inventive, clever, sweet dear man. No matter how hard the work was, we gave him our all and more. There was never enough we could do for him.

Michael: Did you have any qualms about doing those sizzling love scenes with Jim Brown during  the interracial relationship your characters had in Slaughter (1972)?

Stella: I didn’t have any qualms about it, but I got some bad fan mail from the South.  I had been damned for so long for being so unusual and strange anyway. My father had not spoken to me since Playboy magazine came out. It was over 20 years that my father didn’t speak to me, so everything I did in their eyes was wrong anyway. It was just another thing.

Stella and Jim Brown in Slaughter.

Stella and Jim Brown in Slaughter.

When I saw the love scenes, I was disappointed, because I thought it was too dark and you couldn’t see anything. It could have been photographed much better. I was told that in the movie he did with Raquel Welch (100 Rifles), he had a towel put between them, because he didn’t want to touch her flesh in the nude love scene with her.  I can tell you, we didn’t have anything between us except good feelings and fun.

Michael: You did the film Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), an early film about the women’s liberation movement. Were women’s rights  an importment issue to you then?

Stella: Truthfully, for the first nine or 10 years I was in movies, women hated me. Men, who had seen Playboy magazine or other pin-ups or semi-nudes of me, were mostly my fans. It seems like women resented me. It went beyond sex. I’ve always been a woman who liked men things. Men, to me, have the most fun life. I didn’t like being a girl when I was a child. I was the biggest tomboy in the world. It seemed that everything that was fun to do were the things men did.

I made a concerted effort to try to win women over, and I decided the only weapon I had was just myself, being a woman. I did quite a few things to help the image that I was actually a woman and not to be hated by women and that I was not after their husbands.

Stella in Stand Up and Be Counted

Michael:  It was about the time that you announced you were considering running for president in the next election.  Were you serious about being the first woman president?

Stella: It was serious comedy. I’ll put it like that. To tell you the truth, I think I would have been a better president than many I’ve seen. I know there will be a woman president one day, and I hope I’m her friend. I hope someone comes along I can believe in as much as I believe in myself.

Michael: What happened on Nickelodeon (1976)? Why did it bomb at the box office?

Stella: What damned the film worse than anything is when they released it, they had a screening where they charged the moviegoers a nickel admission. It made everybody think it was worthless. The movie itself seemed over embellished. Every single shot had 35 things going on at one time, and it’s very hard to pick out the single, simple theme of the story like that. It didn’t have any spirit to it. Also, there were values that were out of proportion. Peter (Bogdanovich, the film’s director) told me he had fought with the studio because Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neal got such-and-such amount of money and he needed to get more than they did because he was the director. It was also not a great time for Peter, because the studio wouldn’t let him have Cybill Shepherd in the film, and he wanted her in it.  He was fighting with them, and to have huge, horrendous battles with the studio when you’re trying to create something, it’s just detrimental.

When Stella relocated to her ranch in Washington in 1976, the community believed she was abandoning Hollywood, retiring from the screen. She admits work wasn’t coming in like it had, and she was discouraged that her profession had not given her a chance to direct during her 17 years in Hollywood. It had nothing to do with retiring; instead, she was regrouping, getting in touch with the real world.

Stella: In Washington, I had human contact for the first time in nine or 10 years. There’s a joke that California people don’t know their neighbors. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I had no friends. All the people I knew were those I worked with, those who told me to keep my mouth shut, to be careful and to not say anything or my jobs would be taken away from me, or someone would go and rip it all from under me. It was just a dog-eat-dog world.

I’m a loner, quite frankly, but I have to keep feeding my brain. When you have no one to talk to and no one to learn from and no interaction between people, how can you learn to be a better actor or a director?

Michael: You directed your first film in 1979, The American Heroine, a documentary that dealt with the lives of strong American women and the inspiration they had on their families and communities.

Stella: I like my documentary, although I could never get a release on it.  This, again, was my thrust, because I could not get accepted, not only by Hollywood, but by women in general. I suppose it was a personal film, but it was a great learning experience for me,  because I had to learn all those parts of putting a film together that I would never been able to do had I not been compelled to direct something.

Michael: Even with this film under your belt, you had a hard time convincing Hollywood to allow you to direct.

Stella: Yes, and I would imagine they still don’t think I can do it. I have gone into despair many times, and the only thing that has kept me going has been working as an actor.

Stella and the Flamingo Road cast.

Stella and the Flamingo Road cast.

Michael: In the 1980s, your career took a different path.  You appeared on the prime time series Flamingo Road (1981-1982), and in about two dozen television movies. Was there a reason?

Stella: Yes, I had an agent who was strong in the area of television, and I didn’t do a lot of feature films during this time.

Michael: You directed your next film in 1990, The Ranch, in which your son, Andrew Stevens, appeared.

Stella: That’s right.

Michael: He directed you in The Terror Within II (1992).

Stella: It’s a bit of Hollywood trivia. It ‘s the first time a mother has directed her son in the first film she directed, and he directed his mother in the first film he directed. I don’t count The American Heroine, because I was actually hired to direct The Ranch.

Michael: How was giving and taking direction from your son?

Stella: The amazing comment Andrew made when he worked for me was, he told people on the set I was enormously patient, and he never realized that. I also like working for Andrew. I think he’s a very patient director. It was a major breakthrough in our relationship because I have my life and he has his, and the only way we can ever really get together and enjoy life’s work is to be there and to create something together. (Andrew also directed and appeared with his mother in the upcoming Illicit Dreams).

stella30

Michael: Do you remember what you said to Andrew when he said he wanted to be an actor?

Stella: I think he told me he wanted to be a movie star.  I encouraged him to be an actor and not to aim for the movie star part, because that wasn’t a very substantial thing to wish for. If you really become a good actor, I said, then you would really become a movie star, if you know your craft.

Michael:  Tell me the truth, Stella.  How do feel about playing so many prostitutes on the screen?

Stella:  I always loved to play the opposite of what I was, and I loved the fantasy of doing something I would never have dared do in life. It’s something I would have never had the guts to do in real life because sex is such a personal thing to me. I just couldn’t make a business out of it. I’ve always admired the psyche of women who could say, “Okay, jump on, jump off.”

stella16

Michael: You mention your writing ambitions. Will we ever see a Stella Stevens tell-all book on the shelves?

Stella: I’ve been relunctant to do that. I’m writing a novel, which contains a character based on me. I feel much more comfortable with that right now, rather than revealing all.

Michael: So many of your contemporaries are gone. Some have died of drug and alcohol abuse and others faded into obsucirity. You have been working rather steadily since coming to Hollywood 35 years ago.  What’s been the key to your survival?

Stella: I’m sure some people took an easier road out, probably settled down with a nice guy and either had kids and a nice life of entertaining friends. I have been alone all of my life since I divorced Andrew’s father. Being alone, maybe that’s part of my survival. It’s totally out of necessity that I must keep going. I have nobody else but me. So, if it’s just me, the fates of the gods have thrown me into the position and made me do that. I had no choice. I’ve just been this sort of tomboy out in the world, making my own way.

Stella and companion Bob Kulick

Stella and companion Bob Kulick

Michael: You’ve been linked in the gossip pages with many men over the years. Yet you’ve never remarried. You’ve remained single throughout your Hollywood career.  Why?

Stella: I never found anybody with whom I could truly have a halfway balanced relationship with as I do with Bob.  (Stella has been involved with composer and music producer Bob Kulick, formerly with the group Meatloaf, for more than 10 years). He’s extremely supportive of me, and he truly loves me, which is nice.

Michael: How do you sum up all these years of working in the film and television industry?

Stella: It has not been a happy career for me. I have felt like a failure for not being able to contribute what I thought was my best talent, bringing out the best in other people as a director.

A stunning Stella Stevens

A stunning Stella Stevens

Michael: You’ve made over 50 feature and television films.  You’ve been working in this business for over 35 years.

Stella: You see, I wanted to be like my favorite actresses: Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. I wanted to be like a burst of youth and then when I got a little crow’s feet or age, I’d be off the screen. But I also had the plan of being a director. But, you know, Bob Hope and I did a movie together [A Masterpiece of Murder (1986)], and I saw him at 83 cracking jokes and having fun. I said then that I never wanted to quit. I want to be like this man. I want to go on forever.  I want to die on a movie set.

Michael: It sounds like, and I hope I’m right, we haven’t heard the last from Stella Stevens.

Stella: I feel like I’ve just keyed the car, just scratched the surface, and that the whole auto is still sitting there in front of me.

Stella in the 1990s

Stella in the 1990s