Gloria Swanson in Hollywoodland: A Silent Star’s Hideaway

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Swanson--Fashion Icon and Silent Film Star--in an undated portrait

Gloria Swanson is best known for her blockbuster role as the 50-year-old, over-the-hill film goddess Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” but her early, wide-ranging Silent film career deserves equal notice. Unlike most actresses of her era, Swanson excelled in both comedic and dramatic roles, beginning in comedies as a 17-year-old at Essenay Studio in Chicago. She soon moved to Los Angeles, where Mack Sennett turned her into a Keystone star. But Swanson wanted to be more than a comedienne: she was determined to be a romantic leading lady. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1919 hit, “Don’t Change Your Husband,” she became one.

She was only 20 when DeMille made her a dramatic star, but she had already been married and divorced, having entered a disastrous 2-month marriage (at 17) to Wallace Beery. Beery not only raped her on their wedding night but, upon discovering she was pregnant, gave her an abortion-inducing drug. She would soon embark on the second of six brief marriages, only the last of which, undertaken in her late 70s, lasted longer than five years.

Joseph P. Kennedy: Patriarch, Ambassador and Failed Film Producer

Nevertheless, it was her not-so-secret romance with Joseph P. Kennedy, circa 1927-1930, that cemented Swanson’s reputation as a femme fatale off-screen as well as on.  Kennedy was not only a permanently married Catholic but a father of seven children (with two yet to come). Such was Swanson’s appeal that he rapidly became not only her paramour (she was married at the time to the poshest of her husbands, the Marquis Le Bailly de la Falaise de la Coudraye) but her film producer and business partner. Swanson and Kennedy’s most famous collaboration, “Queen Kelly,” was considered a disaster upon its release but later grew to be considered one of Swanson’s best films.

Swanson in "Queen Kelly"

When the couple split in 1930, it was over money–Kennedy’s flagrant spending of Swanson’s, which the actress complained about throughout her life. Fortunately, Swanson was a canny investor in real estate. In addition to her magnificent Beverly Hills home–the 22-room King Gillette mansion at 904 N. Cresent Drive–she at various times owned valuable properties in London, New York and Portugal, and seems never to have owned fewer than two houses at a time. 

She also had a secret home in Los Angeles: this mid-twenties Norman manor in Hollywoodland.

Swanson's Storybook Hideaway/Hope Anderson Productions

Although it was never her official residence, Swanson certainly spent time at the house, a fact confirmed by an elderly neighbor when the current owner bought it during the 1970s. It seems more than likely that the house was a love nest for Swanson and Kennedy, a place for them to enjoy each other’s company out of the public eye. She couldn’t have chosen a better location: even if her neighbors knew about the affair, they were unlikely to have gossipped about it–privacy having been a hallmark of Hollywoodland since its beginnings in 1923.

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L. Frank Baum: The Wizard of Hollywood

January 7, 2011 § 4 Comments

 

L. Frank Baum/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Lyman Frank Baum was a former poultryman, actor, playwright, newspaper reporter, editor and traveling salesman who transformed his life in middle age by writing The Wizard of Oz. A groundbreaking best-seller that dispensed with the moralizing and scaremongering that had characterized children’s literature, The Wizard of Oz came to be considered the first modern children’s book, an instant classic whose appeal never faded. 

Though invented in Chicago, the Emerald City of Oz is in many ways similar to Hollywood at the turn of the century:
There were lovely patches of green sward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sat and fluttered in the trees and bushes. 
But the comparisons between Hollywood and Oz went beyond natural beauty and climate. For the tens of thousands of Chicagoans who relocated to Southern California between 1900 and 1930, Los Angeles represented a new kind of city. Unlike Chicago, Los Angeles was free of machine politics (a feature ensured by its weak mayoral system) and rigid social hierarchy–just like Oz. Writes Kevin Starr:
Oz was beautiful; it was also a tidy, prosperous utopia, recognizably mid-American in its benevolent technology and bourgeois prosperity….Unbothered by poverty, served by proper machines in lovely gardens, cared for by a benevolent political order, the citizens of Oz were able to concentrate on the business of living, which for them was the life of emotion and imagination….
 By moving to Hollywood, Frank Baum underscored its connection to Oz. (In the same vein, he named his cocker spaniel Toto.) Although he, his wife Maud and their four sons were already part-time Californians, having spent six previous winters at the Hotel del Coronado, they now would be full-time citizens of a real-life utopia.

Baum built his dream house at Cherokee and Yucca and named it Ozcot. The house featured an enormous fireplace, a library and solarium and, in typical Midwestern style, a large attic. As he had for the Hotel del Coronado, he designed beautiful lighting fixtures for the dining room. In the large garden, Baum grew dahlias and chrysanthemums that brought him fame as a serious, prize-winner horiculturalist.  He also raised chickens, as he had in his youth.

Ozcot/Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Baum joined the Uplifter’s Club (now defunct but still remembered by local old-timers), as well as all the other clubs in Hollywood, and was an enthusiastic civic booster. Not content to be merely a famous author, he founded his own studio, the Oz Film Manufacturing Company, with fellow Uplifters in 1914. The studio produced ten films that were technologically advanced for the day, including the original, silent “Wizard of Oz,” before going broke and being sold to Universal.

Going broke was a familiar occurrence for the Baum family. Although Frank Baum was a prolific writer of novels–including 13 sequels to The Wizard of Oz–short stories, plays and poetry, he had money problems throughout his life. The product of a wealthy family, he lost vast sums on failed theatrical productions, one of which, “Fairylogue and Radio Plays” drove him into bankruptcy. The mind that created Oz (named for the O-Z drawer of his filing cabinet) was not adept at business of any kind. (From 1888 to 1890, the Baums owned a general store in the Dakota Territory; even that potential goldmine failed.) The funds for Ozcot, and probably the Oz Film Manufacturing  Company, came out of Maud’s inheritance from her mother, the feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and her father, a merchant. Maud, a Cornell graduate, took up sewing to keep the family afloat as Baum veered in and out of debt. 

Baum, second from left, with principals of the Oz Film Manufacturing Company/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

 Frank Baum had suffered from heart problems for years, and the stress of his failed studio probably contributed to the stroke that killed him in 1919, at 63. His last words purportedly were, “Now we can cross the Shifting Sands,” a reference to his best-known book.  Although the Technicolor version of “The Wizard of Oz” would not appear until 1939, Maud and their sons were alive to see its success–and to reap $40,000 of its income .

Additional Sources:

“The Man Behind the Curtain: L. Frank Baum and The Wizard of Oz,” by Linda McGovern, literarytraveler.com 

Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920′s. Oxford University Press, 1990.

 Gregory Paul Williams, The Story of Hollywood. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005

 

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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