Mary Desti Dempsey: Preston Sturges’s Mother of Invention

October 6, 2009 § 2 Comments

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three.

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three./From "Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges," Touchstone copyright 1990.

Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1898 to a beautiful mother (and fabulist of the first order) named Mary Dempsey and an unreliable father named Edmund Biden, which seems straightforward but wasn’t, at least to Sturges in his early years. Because his  father left the scene when he was an infant, his mother led Sturges to believe his stepfather was his biological father. She also claimed to have been 15 when Preston was born–she was actually 27–and 16 when she entered medical school, which she wasn’t, and didn’t. But those fibs were mere warm-ups for the Big Lie: deciding she was descended from Italian nobility–on the grounds that Dempsey had to be a mispronunciation of the princely “d’Este”–Mary Dempsey opened a cosmetics business in Europe called Maison d’Este. After threats of litigation from the actual d’Estes, she modified the firm’s name to Desti and used it as her middle name. Sturges summed up the situation by writing:

My mother was in no sense a liar, nor even intentionally unacquainted with the truth…as she knew it. She was, however, endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed ferverently. Often, twice was enough.

When Mary Dempsey was between marriages, she took the 2 1/2-year-old Preston to Paris, where she ostensibly planned to study theater. On her first day in town, Mary met a Mrs. Duncan whose daughter, Isadora, was a dancer. Isadora Duncan and Mary Dempsey not only became instant best friends but maintained a lifelong bond that outlasted their many relationships with men.  Though Mary soon returned to Chicago to marry Solomon Sturges, she managed to exact an agreement to live with him only half the year. The remainder of her time–which often stretched well beyond six months–would be spent in Europe,  accompanying Isadora to Bayreuth and other venues.

The result was that Preston Sturges not only spent his formative years in Europe but at one point, after being left for a long period with a French family while his mother traveled, spoke English with a French accent. After his adored stepfather divorced Mary in 1911, he spent nearly all his time in Europe. By the time his mother had married a Turk, learned a secret Ottoman skin cream formula from her new father-in-law and started Maison Desti, Preston was a full-fledged expatriate child, fluent not only in French and German but able to fend for himself during his mother’s frequent absences. The culmination of his European childhood involved running her shop in Deauville as a 15-year-old on summer vacation. When WWI broke out in August, he packed up the business and got himself to New York just ahead of the fighting. (His mother had gone to the front to volunteer as a medic, citing her non-existent Chicago medical credentials.)

Eventually mother and son were united in New York, but the pull of Europe was too strong for Mary to resist. One night in 1915 they were seeing Isadora off on a ship to Italy when she called from the deck, “Mary! If you don’t come with me, I don’t know what I’ll do!” Despite having no money and only the clothes on her back, Mary Dempsey walked up the gangplank, saying to Preston, “Do the best you can, darling. Keep things going. I’ll send you some money as soon as I can!”

Anyone familiar with Preston Sturges’ heroines can see where he got his inspiration. His movies are loaded with smart, hilarious and devious babes who bedevil the hapless and innocent men who love them. In “The Lady Eve,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a shipboard fortune hunter who snags a rich but naive heir (and snake expert) played by Henry Fonda. Madcap adventures ensue. “The Palm Beach Story” features two Mary Dempsey-like characters, the gold-digging runaway wife played by Claudette Colbert and the talkative, much-married heiress played by Mary Astor. A key scene in the movie, in which Colbert leaves the rowdy Ale and Quail Club car and returns to find that it, along with her clothes, has been left on the tracks, was taken from Sturges’s life. As a boy traveling by train through Germany, Preston and his mother had left their compartment–and all their belongings, including two dogs, some canaries and a parrot–for the dining car and come back to find it gone.  This presented a problem, not least because–like Claudette Colbert–Mary Dempsey had left her purse in the missing car. Madcap adventures ensued. Fortunately,

…everything was straightened out when we pulled into Cologne, where a soldier with a bayonet was guarding our pile of stuff, with the parrot insulting him in French.

Preston Sturges inherited not only his mother’s enthusiasm for culture and her sense of humor but her impulsive nature. Like her, he married often and sometimes suddenly, as in the case of his third marriage, which occurred during a brief separation from another woman with whom he’d spent a decade. The maternal source of his behavior seems obvious, though apparently not to him. In his memoir Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges, he wrote:

And yet, except that she chose the schools in which I was placed and made a few wise remarks which I remember with pleasure now but thought totally inconsequential at twelve, Mother had absolutely nothing to do with my development or what I grew into. Strangely, Father, though he was not my true progenitor, had very much more to do with the shaping of my character than Mother ever had.

This jaw-dropping lack of awareness didn’t serve Sturges well in his personal life. He found domestic happiness only in his fourth marriage, which lasted from his early 50s until his death at 61.  He had a talent for alienating friends and co-workers, abruptly cutting off relationships that had lasted for years. His hasty departure from Paramount, home to all his hits, was a mistake from which he never recovered. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1959, Sturges was struggling to pick up the pieces of a brief but astonishingly fertile and lucrative career. Twenty minutes before his death, he wrote:

…I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don’t croak.  

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The Double Indemnity House, from Book to Film to Reality

September 14, 2009 § 4 Comments

The "Double Indemnity" House/Hope Anderson Productions

The "Double Indemnity" House/Hope Anderson Productions

Few houses in the movies are better known than Barbara Stanwyck’s Spanish Colonial in “Double Indemnity.” The director Billy Wilder first shows it in an establishing shot that highlights not only its architectural features but its distinctive site–a hilly corner lot on a sparsely-built suburban street.

Though the script states the house is in Los Feliz, it is actually located in the Hollywood Dell. I’ve always thought the house beautiful and well-suited to its penninsula-shaped lot, but  Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the screenplay, could not have agreed less. Here’s how they introduce it in a voiceover by insurance salesman Walter Neff ( Fred MacMurray):

It was one of those California Spanish houses

everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This

one must have cost someone about 30,000 bucks–

that is, if he ever finished paying for it.

Their opinion of the house plummets when Neff goes inside. Wilder and Chandler describe the interior as:

Spanish craperoo in style…. A wrought-iron staircase

 curves down from the second floor….All of this,

architecture, furniture, decorations, etc., is

 genuine early Leo Carrillo period.

James M. Cain, who wrote the book on which the movie is basedno doubt concurred because his own description is even more withering:

It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest

of them in California, with white walls, red

tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was

built cock-eyed. The garage was under the

house, the first floor was over that, and the

 rest of  it was spilled up the hill any way

 they could get it in.

Interestingly, Double Indemnity locates the house not in Los Feliz but in Hollywoodland, where Cain himself lived.

James M. Cain's House, to the left of the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

James M. Cain's House, to the left of the Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Whether Cain’s contempt for the house was based on some hatred of Spanish architecture or the fact that Hollywoodland began as a tract development– albeit an expensive one–is unclear. But it does seem ironic that he should have disparaged the place for spilling up a hillside when his own Norman-style house–five stories’ worth–spilled down another hillside a mile away. 

In any case, the Double Indemnity House looks much better today than it did in “Double Indemnity.” Mature landscaping and the presence of other houses have softened its exterior, eliminating the sun-baked starkness that made it a believable setting for adultery and the hatching of a murder plot. And, as shown in a recent spread in the LA Times, the vibrant interiors have come a long way from the white walls and heavy Mission-style furniture featured in the film. In fact, the house radiates prosperity and warmth.  At Christmastime, decked in wreaths, garlands and lights, it is among the most beautiful in the neighborhood. 

  

James M. Cain’s Beachwood Years: A Hard-Boiled Writer in Hollywoodland

August 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

James M. Caine

James M. Cain (1892-1977) came late to the writing that would earn him lasting fame; his first novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” was published in 1934, when he was 42. By the time he was 40, Cain had been–to varying degrees of failure–a singer, insurance salesman, teacher, newspaper reporter, playwright and magazine editor (at the New Yorker, where he lasted a year). Unhappy with literary life in New York, he signed with Paramount and hopped a train to Hollywood, arriving in 1932, the trough of the Depression. Though he would remain a screenwriter for the next 15 years,  only three of his screenplays–the now rarely seen “Stand Up and Fight,” “Gypsy Wildcat” and “Algiers”–made it to the screen.

Then came “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a blockbuster of a book. Cain had found the themes–loser men, dangerous women, violence, sex, financial desperation–that, recombined in all his future novels, would make him a successful writer. The money that rolled in purchased this magnificent Norman manor on Belden Drive where he lived with his second wife, Elina Sjosted Tyszecka:

cain house
Cain house (with turret) and Hollywood Sign/Hope Anderson Productions

Ironically, his bestsellers didn’t make him a success at screenwriting–in part because Cain remained contemptuous of movies and the people who made them. Though his novels were perfect for the movies, they were adapted by other screenwriters; the excellent results brought acclaim to their stars. The 1946 adaptation of “Postman,” by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch, made an icon out of Lana Turner. “Double Indemnity,” (1944) by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder (who also directed) was a huge success for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and is considered by many to be the greatest example of film noir. “Mildred Pierce,” (1945) by Ranald MacDougal, William Faulkner (no less) and Catherine Tunney, was a triumph for Joan Crawford, who won an Oscar for her portrayal as a long-suffering working mother with an unhealthy attachment to her sociopathic daughter. It also made a star out of Ann Blyth and became an enduring classic–so enduring that a new “Mildred Pierce” mini-series starring Kate Winslet has just been announced. 

 Cain reacted to his literary success by drinking even more heavily–he was a lifelong alcoholic–and grousing about being labeled a “hard-boiled” writer along with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. “I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise,” he wrote archly in 1947. It’s true that his novels don’t feature detectives or mysteries (except to the extent that readers wonder what attracts losers to sociopaths and vice versa). But what else do you call a novelist whose books deal with adultery, violence, incest, conspiracy and murder?

Raymond Chandler, forever linked to Cain through “Double Indemnity” and the “hard-boiled” designation, returned the favor. “He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking,” he wrote of Cain. Chandler, though also an alcoholic , had a much more successful career both as a screenwriter and novelist and lived out his life in Los Angeles. 

In contrast Cain had burned through Hollywood by 1947. Washed up as a screenwriter, he divorced his third wife, actress Aileen Pringle, married his fourth, opera singer Florence MacBeth Whitwell, and returned to his hometown of Anapolis, MD. There he continued to write, though none of his later work matched his early novels’ popularity or critical acclaim. He outlived Whitwell and died of a heart attack in 1977, at 85.

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