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.

Valentino MEM_0008

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

Mae Murray’s 1960 Radio Interview

As I celebrate the publication of my new book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, I wanted to share with you an interview Mae Murray gave in 1960 as she celebrated the release of her first biography by Jane Ardmore, The Self-Enchanted.

The interview can be found on YouTube in three parts.  Follow the links below.  Enjoy!  It is great to hear her voice!

Mae Murray Radio Interview — 1960 (Part I)

Mae Murray Radio Interview — 1960 (Part II)

Mae Murray Radio Interview — 1960 (Part III)

Cover2

Mae Murray: Her Story is Out!

Yesterday’s mail brought an advanced copy of Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips. I’m thrilled with the outcome.

If you have pre-ordered, you should be getting yours very soon.

Take a look.

Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stungs Lips sits atop the countless documents, files, and photos I used to create the book.  Her birth certificate is in the right of the photo.

Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stungs Lips sits atop the countless documents, files, and photos I used to create the book. Her birth certificate is in the right of the photo.

Inside flaps.

Inside flaps.

Back cover.

Back cover.

Spine.

Spine.

Inside

Inside.

Inside.

Who is this woman?  What important role did she play in Mae Murray's life?

Who is this woman? What important role did she play in Mae Murray’s life?

Mae’s story can finally be told!  Check it out . . .

Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stungs Lips sits atop the countless documents, files, and photos I used to create the book.  Her birth certificate is in the right of the photo.

Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stungs Lips sits atop the countless documents, files, and photos I used to create the book. Her birth certificate is in the right of the photo.

Mel Neuhaus Reviews Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips

Review by Mel Neuhaus, film writer for Examiner.com.

 

MAE MURRAY:  THE GIRL WITH THE BEE-STUNG LIPS  by Michael G. Ankerich 

Let’s cut to the chase.  By that I mean let me begin by stating that this biography is an awesome work that boggled my cinema-addicted mind.  I don’t offer faux praise for nothing.  The subject is possibly the most celebrated elusive character in the history of motion pictures.  Mae Murray was one of the major stars of the silent era – a trend-setter, an icon – a model/idol for strong women who aspired to imitate her.  Joan Crawford worshiped her; ditto Louise Brooks.  Girls worldwide wanted to dress like her, dance like her.  Why so secretive?  Mae’s deadliest sin was her vanity, and despite her gorgeous looks, was nearly 40 when she made her landmark film The Merry Widow.  To call her a master of the cover-up is an understatement.  She effectively destroyed all traces of her lower East side New York roots.  As many as two dozen different stories of her birth and upbringing filled fan magazines for decades – mostly fabricated by Murray herself.  She left no paper trail – astonishing since she was a Follies star in 1906, which, according to her accounts, would have made her a ten-year old Ziegfeld girl.  I personally know several established writers who futilely attempted to tackle Mae as a bio subject…and all valiantly failed – throwing up their arms in frustrated defeat.  There just wasn’t any factual material out there.  Until now. 

That’s why this book is so astounding.  Mr. Ankerich must have spent decades researching this fantastic volume.  He not only gives us the truth of Ms. Murray’s youth, but reveals why she opted to spiral into the weird lifestyle she inhabited.  We learn about her parents and her brothers (which up to now few even knew existed!).  Ankerich even tracked down her family’s survivors – and got some incredible warts-‘n-all interviews!  

Here is an outstanding story of a woman whose many fashionable hats included Follies girl, Jazz Age baby and motion picture superstar before sadly sinking into dementia (becoming a victim of her own delusions of grandeur).  Mae Murray not only personified the Jazz Age (she’s the one who introduced the bee-stung lip look, which, to this day, identifies the fashionable females of the era), but served as a warning application of the age-old adage “don’t wish too hard for something…”

 Many believe that Murray was yet another casualty of sound.  But it wasn’t that simple.  Mae wasn’t done in by talkies (she was actually not bad in the few she appeared in).  Mae Murray was her own worst enemy.  Even in her youth she lived in a make believe fairy tale world.  She was as far from reality as oil is from water.  That seemed to work when she was in vogue, but later seemed to peg her as the role model for Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.  Truth be told, she wasn’t – it was actually worse.  In effect, Mae Murray, in her later years was a hybrid of the most horrific of silent diva borderline insanity:  part Norma Desmond, part Baby Jane Hudson.  She once stated that she was the biggest star at MGM.  She probably was; but it was Mae who walked out on Metro to pursue life as a bogus princess with one of the notorious ‘marrying’ Mdivanis.  All silent goddesses seemed to crave a royal title – and like Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri, Murray succumbed to the charms of a fake Prince, so she could further live out her dreamworld existence.  The ‘prince’ quickly stripped her of her bank account, her career (Louis B. Mayer’s not-a-promise-but-a-threat truism of “walk out on me and you’ll never work in this town again!” decree) and what was left of her sanity. 

It’s obvious from Ankerich’s slant that he wants to like Mae Murray – but his painting the factual tapestry of her life pretty much denies this.  Mae Murray was a beauty to be sure.  She was also a magnificent dancer.  And, while she had that special something that the camera loves – she was never much of an actress (her demands of way too many pouting and primping close-ups were the subject of much parody, even at the time of her greatest fame); but that didn’t matter…she was a star.  That said, even her most ardent admirers admit that, in addition to the bee-stung flapper, she is likely to be have been the inventor the Hollywood prima donna.  It took a genius like von Stroheim to finally get a great performance out of her – and although, like everyone she clashed with – their relationship was a difficult one – the 1925 Merry Widow firmly entrenched MGM as the premiere studio in Hollywood (as much due to Murray – as to von Stroheim and co-star John Gilbert).  Murray made life hell for almost everyone she encountered including her numerous lovers (with Valentino perhaps being a notable exception), co-workers, family members and dwindling friends.  Her promiscuity perfectly fit in to her mist-enshrouded mind; her son, conceived while she conquered the boudoirs of Europe was thought to be the result of coupling with the iniquitous groom-to-be Mdivani.  While this is indeed possible, no one – not even Mae – could correctly guarantee that this was the case.

Few crossed Mae Murray; as celebrated for her grace on the dance floor and movie screen, she was also infamous for her suing offenders at the drop of a chapeau (and everyone on the planet was apparently a potential offender).  Her lawsuits were legion – and quickly became a joke within the movie colony and overall show business community.  Love her or hate her, Mae Murray was an original – and this book is a real keeper. 

Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips works on many levels.  For those who know of her, it’s a revelation.  At last a reliable narrative of her life.  The voluminous footnotes alone are a treasure trove for hardcore classic movie fans.  But for readers simply intrigued by her looks, the era and cinema in general – this book unfolds a jaw-dropping chronicle of an amazing person in an amazing era…actually many amazing eras (New York City in the 1880s-Hollywood from the 1920s-1960s).  The high level of the research cannot be applauded enough.  The segment on the making and production of The Merry Widow alone is worth the purchase.  Utilizing reader’s reports, unpublished memoirs of Hollywood players and more could in-and-of-itself constitute a separate book (the ego-driven battles between such formidable opponents as Murray, von Stroheim, Gilbert, L.B. Mayer and Thalberg is an engrossing tale that makes one wonder how the movie ever got completed at all!).  So biography aside, this is an excellent examination of the beginnings of serious filmmaking – the birth of Hollywood – and thus becomes extremely valuable as an historical document of the most talked about industry of the 20th century.

Available early December 2012

Blogging for a Good Book reviews Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels

Check out this latest review of and recommendation for Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels.  Thanks, Neil!  Glad you enjoyed the book.

 

Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels: the Lives, Careers and Misfortunes of 14 Hard-Luck Girls of the Silent Screen, by Michael G. Ankerich

October 29, 2012 by Neil

Bud gets this Halloween week started with a post that goes back to the dark side of the silent film days:

A small-town girl comes to Hollywood looking for stardom. She hits the big-time in her first starring role and fame and fortune are hers forevermore. It’s the old Hollywood fable. But there is another old Hollywood story, one that is far more common. In this scenario, the ingenue hits town, maybe has some success, maybe not, but there is no happy ending to her tinsel town tale. Booze, drugs, poor choices in men, personal problems or simple bad luck sends her on the downward slide to obscurity where the ending is almost always tragic.

Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels byMichael Ankerich explores this dark side of the film industry with short biographies of fourteen silent movie actresses who found moderate success in the 1920s only to hit hard times in the ‘30s. For these poor souls, theDepression years really were depressing. Among the ladies detailed are:

Agnes Ayres: This once popular actress is best known for co-starring with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. But she put on weight, lost her looks and was prone to diva behavior and nervous breakdowns so the film industry gave her the heave-ho. She died alone at the age of 48, physically and emotionally depleted from years of struggling to regain the spotlight.

Barbara La Marr: La Marr, who played seductive vamps onscreen, was known asThe Girl Who Was Too Beautiful. In her brief, scandal-plagued life she burned through five husbands, numerous lovers and a vast quantity of drugs and alcohol. She died at 30 from some mysterious wasting disease leaving behind a child and an unmatched reputation for living hard and fast.

Mary Nolan:  Mary had a hard knock life, much of which she brought on herself with her predilection for stimulants, drama and bad, bad men. After a brief stint as a Ziegfeld Girl she went on to become an international film star. But Mary had masochistic tendencies and her rendezvous with sadistic men did not lead to 50 Shades of Grey love affairs.  Instead, unsurprisingly, they resulted in scandal, severe physical injuries and continual pain that she numbed with narcotics. Poor Mary wrecked her career, lost her money and ended up singing in cheap saloons before the inevitable sad fade out at the age of 42.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the dark nature of these stories they are compulsively readable, poignant scandal sheets from the early years of the film industry.  The depressing nature of the stories is mitigated somewhat by the writing which is not mean-spirited or salacious. The author Ankerich is clearly sympathetic to these ill-fated starlets.

Each section is sourced, includes the actresses’ filmography and there are plenty of illustrations.  Recommended for film buffs or anyone with an interest in women’s history or celebrity scandals.

Michael G. Ankerich talks about Mae Murray and his upcoming biography

Lottie, my film buff friend who lives in Atlanta, interviewed me several years ago about Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels.  Last week, while I was working on the index for Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, Lottie asked me whether she could read the proofs. I let her have a look. After reading through the text, she asked if she could have the first interview I gave about the book.  I said, “Okay.”  Here is some of our conversation.

Lottie: Why Mae Murray and what intrigued you about her?

Michael: Why not Mae Murray?  I couldn’t think of a better subject to explore and spend a couple of years with.  I think what intrigued me most was the span of her career. She worked in every phase of entertainment. She was on the stage as early as 1904; she was in the Follies of 1908 and 1909; she was there for the birth of cabarets and exhibition dancing; she worked again for Ziegfeld in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915; she began huge star in silent films; she worked in vaudeville; she did radio and television.  What an amazing career this woman had, yet so much is unknown about her today.  There are many misconceptions about her career and her private life.

Mae’s reflection

Lottie: Why is that?

Michael: That’s the way Mae wanted it.  She was very clever about concealing the truth: the truth about such incidentals as her beginnings, immediate family, the details around the birth of her son. Early in my research, I came across a quote from a writer who had interviewed Mae in 1920. The writer, Delight Evans, began her story this way: “To begin with, everything, or nearly everything that has been written about her, is wrong.”  She was right.

On the set of Fashion Row.

Lottie: So, she was a challenge from the start?

Michael: From the very start.  When I set out to write this biography several years ago, I became a little queasy when fellow writers would say things like, “How you write a biography when no one knows when and where she was born?” Or, how can you complete her life story without talking with her son, who has refused to talk with the media about his mother?”  Those were valid questions that only made me more persistent in uncovering the facts.

Lottie: In the end, you were able, as I understand it, to locate those important documents in her life.

Michael: Yeah, I had the marriage certificate of her parents before I found Mae’s own birth certificate.  In time, I was able to examine the marriage certificates for all four of her marriages and death certificates of her immediate family.  These documents were critical in piecing together Mae’s path through history.

The ever mysterious Mae Murray

Lottie: From what I’ve read about Mae, she could have been born in Portsmouth, Virginia, New York, or Europe.

Michael: Yes, she said once she was even born on her father’s yacht as they sailed around the world. She said often that she was in a convent in Chicago.

A very young Mae Murray.

Lottie: Right, so how did you pinpoint where to look for her?

Michael: I dug down into the weeds and found a person I thought might be her nephew, Mae’s brother’s son.  I made contact and he verified that he was indeed Mae’s nephew.  He basically told me the story of the family and all the pieces of her early life fit together. Sadly, this nephew died about six months after we spoke. He was the closest member of her family left who knew the story.

Lottie: What about her son, Koran? Didn’t he know the story?

Michael:  Koran, or Daniel Cunning, as he is known today, knew nothing about his mother’s early life.  Mae never told him the circumstances around her own birth.  When I told Daniel about a first cousin, he had no idea he had one.

Lottie: So, in addition to silent film buffs, Mae’s son will also learn a lot from your book?

Michael: I think he will. Mae all but divorced herself from her immediate family when she was a teenager.  So don’t believe claims that she had a fairy tale upbringing.

Lottie: The early publicity says that Mae’s son has never spoken to the press.  How did you score the interview with him?

Michael:  By his own admission, he has not spoken to the press.  He has a dislike for the press that stems back to the early 1940s when he was thrust into the middle of the spotlight as a teenager. After living with a family who cared for him (following a double mastoid operation), Mae decided she wanted her son back. She fought the Cunning family and Koran’s father, David Mdivani, in court for several years.

Lottie: Why did he talk with you?

Michael:  I believe I sent him a letter, which he didn’t answer.  I then made contact with his daughter, Cee Cee, who helped me make contact with her father.  I think Daniel came to realize that I wanted to write a biography about his mother that told the truth. It would not be a hatchet job, but it would also not be a whitewash.

The cold, rainy day that Mae’s granddaughter, Cee Cee, and I went looking for Mae’s relatives in a local cemetery.

Lottie: Given the research you’ve done, when and where was Mae Murray born and what type of childhood did she really have?

Michael:  Next question.  All that is in the book.

Mae and her first husband married in 1908. He didn’t make it to her selective memory.

Lottie: How does The Self-Enchanted, Mae’s biography, compare with your book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips?

Michael: I’m glad you said biography.  Many people make the mistake of saying that The Self-Enchanted was an autobiography.  It wasn’t. Jane Ardmore worked with Mae over a year in the late 1950s to bring her life into print. Ardmore did the best she could with a subject who remembered what she wanted to remember. Mae was terrified of dates, so she never wanted to talk about the Follies of 1908. There is also the story where Jane Ardmore asked Mae about her first husband, William Schwenker.  “Never heard of him,” she  replied. Mae had a very selective memory.

Mae Murray, more than simply a series of poses

Lottie: She’s also been written off as a flake, not much of an actress.

Michael: Nothing could be further from the truth.  I hope my book will encourage film buffs to view the films of Murray’s that are widely available.  I’m not only thinking about The Merry Widow, which was certainly her finest performance, but others, such as A Mormon Maid and The Delicious Little Devil.  A Mormon Maid is very much a drama and she carries the role of Dora brilliantly.  The Delicious Little Devilgives Mae a chance at comedy, and she runs with it!  She’s delightful in it. Her talkies, I admit, are rather hard to watch.  Here was a women pushing fifty and still wanting to play 20-year-old ingenues on the screen. She is over the top in Bachelor Apartment.

Mae and Bob Leonard (R) meet with writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez on the roof of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The writer penned a screenplay for one of Mae’s films.

Lottie: Were her alleged fights with director Erich von Stroheim on the set of The Merry Widow for the sake of publicity?

Michael: They were not fights, they were battles. It was a very stressful and tumultuous set for most of the production. To his credit, von Stroheim was able to tame Mae in a way that he pulled from her the best performance of her career. At least from the films we can see and use to judge her work.  It is unfortunate that they never gave each other the credit they deserved, but Mae was one who could hold a grudge. There is a radio interview with Mae in 1960 that I was able to transcribe for the book.  Even at that late date, she was still boasting about “that man” and how she fought him tooth and nail.

Mae with Erich von Stroheim (L) and Benjamin Glazer. shortly before the filming of The Merry Widow began. Take a close look. They are smiling. Not for long!

Lottie: What impresses you about Mae Murray?

Michael: It has to be the commitment she had for her work.  No one worked harder at being a star than Mae Murray.  I’m not only talking about her work in front of the camera. While she was married to Robert Z. Leonard, she had her hands in everything. She produced some of her films; she wrote some of the scenarios; she would travel to New York to personally select gowns, furs, and negligees she would wear in her pictures. With Bob Leonard, she was there helping to sell her early pictures for Tiffany to distributors. She would confront critics if she didn’t like a review and she would blast any talk of censorship. There are many examples of her dedication to her work in the book. She was very serious about her profession.

Mae and Bob Leonard outside the Manhattan studio (1921).

Lottie: She was called temperamental.

Michael: And she was!  She could be impossible at times. When asked about it, she would insist that she was simply protecting what had been given to her: the chance to bring  joy and entertainment to her fans.

Mae and other major stars did a cameo in Married Flirts. (L-R), Norma Shearer, William Haines, Mae, Bob Leonard, May McAvoy, Conrad Nagel, Robert G. Vignola, Pauline Frederick, Harry Rapf, Hobart Henley, Mae Busch, John Gilbert, Mario Carillo, Aileen Pringle, Paul Nicholson, and Patterson Dial.

Lottie: What disappoints you about Mae Murray?

Michael: It would have to be the way she treated her family, especially her son, Koran. Without going into too much detail, because it’s thoroughly documented in the book, she withheld valuable information that every human being has the right to know. Mae went to her grave without ever telling her son when he was born or the circumstances around his birth.  It’s one thing to keep those details from the press, but it’s another when the information directly impacts someone you bring into the world. Knowing those details gives us context and a solid footing into our place in the human race. To have withheld that information, in my opinion, bordered on cruelty.

Mae adored her close-ups.

Lottie: Her son’s birth created a  lot of buzz around Hollywood.  What’s the real story?

Michael: We wouldn’t have time in this interview to cover it.  Those details are in the chapter “The Lion’s Roar, the Baby’s Cry.”

Mae and her prince, David Mdivani.

Lottie: If you could invite Mae to cocktails and spend some time with her, what would you ask her?

Michael: Those things she refused to discuss. I would want to know more about her early years.  Chances are, however, that I wouldn’t get very far.

Lottie: What would Mae think of your book?

Michael: I’ve asked that question with every line I’ve written in that book. I don’t think she would particularly like it.  I spent a lot time uncovering facts and details that she tried to cover up. She would sue someone at the drop of the hat, so we’d probably end up in court.  Not that there’s anything that would hold up in court, because I have the research and documents to back up what I’ve concluded.  Let me reinforce that this book is not a shredding of a silent film icon.  Last year, on a research trip to Los Angeles, I spent time at Mae’s grave at Valhalla Cemetery.  I sat there and had a conversation with her.  Well, it was pretty one sided.  I think I said something like, “Mae, I don’t think you’d like this book very much.  It will not always be flattering, but it will be fair.”

Mae Murray

Lottie:  Do you think you came close to understanding who Mae Murray was as a person?

Michael: That’s a question I didn’t expect, Lottie. I think I have come close to uncovering the real Mae Murray. Who knows?  How does a biographer ever capture something as complicated as the life of another human being. It seems an almost impossible feat.

Mae was not all seriousness. She could have some fun. One Sunday afternoon, on the set of Fascination, she and Vincent Coleman (L) switched roles. They filmed the scene. Sadly, it didn’t make it into the final film.

Lottie: Having read the proofs of Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, I can say truthfully she had anything but a normal life.

Michael: Reminds me of the quote, “Everyone is normal, ’till you get to know them.”