A mid-20th century Hollywood “star” I came to know

Featured image
Lights, Camera, Action! at The Corner Bookstore on 93rd Street and Madison Avenue. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Still cold outside in these concrete them thar hills of Manhattan. 30s and 40s according to the thermometers.

Meanwhile, back at the Oscars. Why not? It’s getting headlines in the tabs. Will slapping Chris up there on the stage during the actual Oscars ceremony.  A friend of mine who watched the movie melee said “It made the night!” Otherwise …

Not having been a viewer I first saw it in the NY Post. I hadn’t read the copy yet so I didn’t know it wasn’t some kind planned activity to get people’s attention. These days the spotlight seems to be on the violence. Just like in the movies or real life. All New Yorkers are well aware of it. At this time in our history.

Then when I realized that the “slap” wasn’t a set up or a joke to garner attention for the evening …? After all, Mr. Rock is a comedian.

The judgments are out and Will is not garnering praise. To me it is a Hollywood incident, the kind you’ve seen in a thousand movies. The kind that strikes a million eyeballs! I was thinking that was its allure to me. And I loved living out there, and living near that part of the world (film fantasy). Will’s slap was the  21st century’s version of Norma Desmond shooting her scriptwriter boyfriend, bequeathed to history by Billy Wilder. That’s Hollywood. Sunset Boulevard continues alongside its history.

This daytime drama-extraction reminded JH who reminded me of a portrait of a female, mid-20th century “star” I came to know when I lived out there. Lizabeth Scott. She departed only five years ago at age 92. It was a long, in many ways ordinary, life except it was a life lived in and with Hollywood.

Lizabeth Scott and I had a “friendship” when I lived in Los Angeles. I use quotation marks around the word because it was a Hollywood friendship. Hermes Pan, choreographer and Fred Astaire’s dance collaborator used to  refer to such relationships as “I loved ya honey but the show closed.” He always laughed when he said it, and it did amuse him. It’s the nature of the business, of that business and the personalities who are drawn to it and can manage to progress and even triumph in it. It’s a microcosm of itself.

Talking to the star, Lizabeth Scott, the night we met in November 1978, at a cocktail party in Beverly Hills.

Lizabeth was the first movie star I met when I moved to Los Angeles in 1978. By “met” I mean: got to know; a friend. We were introduced by our mutual friend Luis Estevez. He had invited us both to join him one evening at a cocktail party in Beverly Hills at the home of a local restaurateur named Marilyn Lewis. It was a big party with a lot of Hollywood people.

The picture of the two of us was taken that night. I don’t know how I ended up with it although I’ve had it for years. I was unaware of the camera, as you can see, because I was full of enthusiasm about this move I’d made from East to a new world in the West, and I was charmed by this famous face talking to me with that voice that I remembered from her movies.

She kind of took me under her wing that night, introducing me to people at the party, telling me about them afterwards. She spent much of the evening with me at her side, so that we fell into conversation. She was a curious person: where are you from, why are you out here, what do you like to write …? The questions were perfunctory but always related to the business, the industry. I was flattered by her attention because I knew no one, everything was new, and I was green.

I was taken by what seemed like an extreme mid-Atlantic accent that movie stars in her youth were schooled-in. The talkies were a little more than a decade in existence when she arrived in Hollywood in 1944, and many of the female stars who came to Hollywood via Broadway were already equipped with the “class” actress personality. This was a mark of success, and Lizabeth was bound for that. That was what she wanted.

A studio still, used for autographs.

In her low husky voice she always called me — in a clearly discernible whisper: “Dyyy-vid.”  And because of that accent, I was curious to know her background. I asked her where she was from. “Scraahn-in!”  she retorted out of the side of her mouth, out of character, as if calling up a local Pennsylvania accent. Aha! humor … (She’d been born Emma Matzo, daughter of a prosperous grocery store owner in Scranton. She took the name Elizabeth Scott — later dropping the E when she moved to New York in her late teens to pursue an acting career.)

I was still a young kid when she was at the top of her game in the movies, and in her late 20s. Like a lot of children of the ’50s, I was obsessed with movies and movie stars, and knew about her from the plethora of movie magazines that were very popular in those years. So it was a very curious experience just knowing her. A privilege really.

She was known — publicity-wise, in the movie magazines — to be the girlfriend of a movie mogul named Hal Wallis. I didn’t know what that meant, nor that Wallis was married to a former star named Louise Fazenda, or that he had “discovered” Lizabeth and been very much a part of her career and her success.

In those days we all went to the movies every Saturday for the matinee, which was always a double-feature: the A picture, and the B, which was usually a Western. Lizabeth Scott was, in this little boy’s eyes, a real movie beauty, not like any of the ladies who were my mother’s or my sisters’ contemporaries, or any girl I knew. It was a dramatic beauty, an edgy sort of femininity that was fascinating to the boy. And the voice had a mystery, although at that tender age I wouldn’t have known to describe it that way.

And it was a mystery. One that Lizabeth kept and maintained all her life. By the time we met, her career had been over for almost twenty years, although she still had name recognition, and that face.

Lizabeth Scott in Stolen Face (1952).

Our relationship had some of the basic hallmarks of the “Sunset Boulevard” syndrome — although never as intense as Billy Wilder’s script: an older, washed up movie star meets young writer worried about where his next meal was coming from. He’s vulnerable and it’s her show.

It wasn’t quite that bad for me (although there were moments) and I never considered her “washed-up,” a term that had left the parlance by the time I moved out there. Her last picture, “Pulp”  starring Michael Caine, in which she had a small but memorable role, was released in 1972. But I was fascinated; it’s like moving into a novel and living there every now and then.

Michael Caine and Lizabeth Scott in Pulp.

I referred to “Sunset Boulevard,” Wilder’s film allegory about Hollywood life because it accurately and cinematically describes the phenomenon of film stardom of that era, and how movie stars held such an influential position in our culture and national psyche.

Yet, despite that great “power,” almost all female stars encountered its dilemma at some point in their careers: Age.  Age was usually the career killer; 35 or 40 was “old.” For her, whoever she was. Few women, especially, ever made it beyond a decade or so without losing their “rank.”

Adolph Zukor gets birthday hugs from Dorothy Lamour, left, and Lizabeth Scott at film industry dinner in Los Angeles, 1953.

With that loss of rank came the stark reality of not only public rejection (at the box office) but even more importantly, in the community, the neighborhood, in a word — which is what Hollywood was; basically small, insular town. Most specifically this fading attention in a career came from the same producers and directors who had once been “thrilled” (outwardly anyway), along with their wives and associates, to do business with these stars. The classic phone-stopped-ringing.

Many female stars survived the transitions through matrimony. Others did not fare so well. Others left town and took up being a star elsewhere, like New York. Lizabeth never married, but she had one thing: money. When her earning power was excellent, she saved and she bought stock. This was back when the stock market was at its longtime lows from the Great Depression. And she never wanted to leave L.A.

With Van Heflin in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
With Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury.

I don’t recall how our friendship came to pass after meeting that night at Marilyn Lewis’ party. It was in her hands. She was, after all, still in charge of the role of “movie star” and had a remoteness, despite her warmth and politeness. She must have invited me to join her at some event where she needed an escort. Naturally I was happy to fill the role. It might have been a cocktail party given by Ellen and Ian Graham who often entertained at their home in Beverly Hills.

She lived in a smart A-framed two story bungalow on Hollywood Boulevard up in the hills above the Chateau Marmont. It was not an Italianate mansion like Gloria Swanson’s in “Sunset Boulevard. It was a pristine, immaculately maintained cottage with that classic 180 degree view from her front door of the Los Angeles basin, all framed by her manicured gardens and hedges. Behind was a large swimming pool, and inside was a cheerful, faux-rustic interior of bleached white beams, white brick fireplace, ’50s modern furniture; ample in space and impeccably maintained, and devoid of anything personal such as photographs.

She’d lived in that house from the late 1940s/early 1950s to the end of her life. I remembered seeing it first in the fan magazines I looked at. Set on a hillock above the boulevard and semi-hidden behind greenery and wooden gates painted white that opened to a 30 or 40 foot driveway, it looked like a movie star lived there. Over the years I’d been there many times. It was always immaculate and perfectly set.

When first getting to know her, I’d see her when she called to ask if I’d like to go with her to an event. It was always interesting to this fan/writer/escort. It was at Lizabeth’s invitation that I met the Dalai Lama at a private reception at the Los Angeles County Museum where she was an important donor. Despite her faded star, she had “retired” — although I never heard her use that word — a wealthy woman. She lived comfortably, drove a shiny black Jag which she loved and kept in mint condition, and kept herself in sumptuous furs and dazzling jewels, and wore expensive designer clothes that looked like they were made for her by Oscar, Blass,  Chanel, and her friend Estevez.

Lizabeth; circa 1960, photographed poolside in Beverly Hills by Ellen Graham from her book Talking Pictures.

She was a very private person. Nothing was ever said but the way she conducted (which is the word for it) our relationship, it was clear to me. As curious as I am, I rarely asked her anything personal about her life unless she opened the door to question. There had been a long time boyfriend named Bill Dugger, a wealthy oilman from San Antonio. She referred to him with great regret as if to suggest that she was ill-fated in that department. In 1969, they were planning to marry after spending a lot of time together over two years, when he died suddenly. He’d remembered her generously in his will although his sister contested it and two years later in 1971 the judge ruled in the sister’s favor.

But long before that, back in the early 1940s, Hal Wallis, then head of production at Warner Brothers had seen her in a show on Broadway and was taken by her. Film people in those days saw all the Broadway shows because they were always searching for new talent for their burgeoning industry — all kinds of talent from writing, directing, composing, to acting, singing and dancing.

Hal Wallis was a force when he spotted the beautiful young 22-year-old Lizabeth.  From 1931 up through the mid-1970s, he was the producing talent behind scores of some of the most famous films of those decades. After he’d seen her, he asked to meet her. The first meetings did not gel. She had a theatrical offer and committed to having a stage career, she passed up the chance. Nevertheless fate brought them together not long after, and Hal Wallis became the young girl’s mentor and perhaps a kind of Svengali.

He was twenty-years her senior and married to his wife of fifteen years when they met (he would remain married until her death in 1962). But Lizabeth was at least his protégé. She was groomed to be a girl of the moment in wartime America. There were three — Lauren Bacall, Lizabeth, and Veronica Lake. They resembled each other. It was a new look; a fresh look. Forty years later Lizabeth was in Ralph’s Market on Sunset Boulevard shopping one day when a woman came up to her and asked if she were Lauren Bacall. “Yes!” she answered smiling, and moved on.

Lizabeth Scott and Hal B. Wallis.

She never mentioned her relationship with Hal except to refer to him when recounting a professional moment, specifically indicating that his word was the wise one, and the one she tended to follow almost religiously. The relationship publicly never became more than a mentoring. Hal Wallis died in 1986. A couple of weeks after his death, I went with Lizabeth to a reception and dinner at the Museum. During the cocktail hour we sat down so Lizabeth could have a cigarette. Sitting there, no one nearby, she began: “I got a letter from Hal’s lawyers today.”

That was pretty personal for a private person to say to a friend who is just a friend on her terms, an escort. But I knew if she’d volunteer that much, she was in the mood to tell me more.

So I asked her.

“Did he leave you anything?” (Their relationship had effectively ended almost thirty years before.)

“Yes!” she said in her lowest, sexiest, husky, enthusiastic tones.

I asked: “Will it make you rich?”

Richer!!” she replied proudly. Not unlike that character she played in so many roles where the girl gets what she wants but has worked for it.

In that brief exchange she told me quite a bit about herself. I never asked for details, knowing that they would come only if she wanted to. She never did. I wasn’t surprised.

Over the years that followed, I began to make a professional life for myself and my social horizons widened. There was an occasion when I had accepted an invitation of hers and later had to withdraw. I didn’t hear from her for a few months after that. I knew I’d disappointed her, maybe even hurt her feelings. Then I saw her one day at another one of the Grahams’ poolside cocktail parties. I apologized and tried to explain. She wouldn’t hear it. She was furious.

“David,” she said that quiet yet powerfully deliberate tone, “I’m finished with you, finito!”

I felt bad about that because I liked her. I got her. I watched my words. That wasn’t hypocrisy on my part. It was my understanding of her “role” in life. She was an actress. A movie star. In the old days of the studios when the studios catered to their stars and the fans adored them. This is a unique experience and not an unfavorable one to most people’s way of thinking. The Kardashians are a perfect confirmation.

Lizabeth was a serious actress, a serious businesswoman — acting being her business. She was committed to it not unlike a great chief executive. It was her life. When it faded away from her, she kept her hand in it as long as it was possible. And even when it wasn’t she remained attached to the world that she grew up in of industry people. It was still her town.

None of this could have been easy, although I never heard a word about it, Sometimes when we’d go to a film screening and there were photographers, she was always ready and enjoying it. There were the inevitable moments when the photographer she thought was about to take her picture would really be getting ready for Jane Fonda who happened to be behind us in the entrance line.

With Elvis in Loving You.

Lizabeth just moved on but I could see the bare truth as she was seeing it. It was over. She knew it, but still; this was her life. This was what the young girl back in Scranton had dreamed of, and it was a life she achieved. And then it was this: Jane Fonda. Lauren Bacall.

Our friendship wasn’t finished, however. I can’t remember why, but she called me again a few months later, and invited me to join her for a big dinner honoring Rock Hudson who was being given an award by Elizabeth Taylor. It appeared that Lizabeth led a solitary life, but she was quite sociable and she liked the company of people. She obviously loved California life. I could understand that. I liked it too. She had a younger sister who used to come from the East to visit and stay a couple of weeks. She had the social life where I was sometimes invited to join. But otherwise I knew nothing else about her private life. Nor she about mine.

Bogie and Scott.

Privacy was an obvious issue for her, aside from her name. There had been a terrible, famous moment in the late 1950s when Confidential Magazine, famous for its stories about the sex lives of movie stars, socialites and politicians, printed a story about a client list from a call girl service which had Lizabeth’s name and telephone number, implying that she hired call girls. If anything could destroy a film career in those days it was revelations of homosexuality, male or female. The matter is entirely ironic in retrospect and from the vantage point of 2015, but this was another time and another crime be it moral or legal. It was later proven that the so-called Liz Scott phone numbers (there were two) were not hers but of a public library and a corporate office. It was fake. There was a lawsuit and it was settled out of court. She never spoke of it to me and I never asked her about it. But the damage was done.

One night driving her home from a party we’d been to, she remarked apropos of nothing we’d been talking about, “and you know David, I am not a lesbian.”

By the time we knew each other that case was thirty years old. Stories of people’s sex lives are, or used to be, rampant in Hollywood. But there was a certain discretion maintained, even demanded by the studios. This was a great wound which she put behind her valiantly.

I lost touch with Lizabeth about ten years ago. Her place was on the Hollywood firmament. Besides being a serious and committed professional, hardworking, diligent woman about her business, she liked the whole world. This often happens to movie people — at least those from the studio days. It’s like working in your home town, and in many ways, the place they call Hollywood is like someone’s home town. She’s got a Star on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. It was a long life.

Scott in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

When I was thinking about writing this Diary, my friend Bob Schulenberg sent me a YouTube link to a series of interviews Lizabeth gave about her career in the mid-1990s. There are 8 of them. They were done in Janet Leigh‘s house. The room was rustic and not very well lit. She looked well although the lighting wasn’t very good which I’m sure would have disappointed her. But the interviews are the Lizabeth I knew, still having that starry-eyed girlishness, the eternally serious young lady.

Recent Posts