Hollywood Lives, Part I

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A head of steam on Fifth Avenue. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022. Very cold in New York and getting colder. I went to Zabar’s to pick up some staples. It was that harsh cold that you try to escape from. I was glad I went out into the world, however briefly, but glad to be home where it was warm.

From the late ’70s through the early ’90s, I lived and worked out in Los Angeles as a writer. I got into a conversation over the weekend with a friend who had been an aspiring actress which she put aside when she got married and began a family. She wondered what it was like for a woman in that business. It was a subject that fascinated me also. Looking through my files I happened upon a piece I wrote about the subject back in the early ’90s when I was back in New York …

“In Hollywood, if your husband dies or divorces you, you may as well get your best girlfriend and go to a movie because it’s all over.”

Janet de Cordova in 2009, the year she died. Portrait by Jonathan Becker.

Janet de Cordova said that. Janet, who was married for decades to Freddie de Cordova, the director of the Johnny Carson show, and Reagan friend (he directed Ronnie in “BEDTIME FOR BONZO”) — was a longtime observer of the passing parade in filmland. “Without a man to depend on,” she said, “a woman doesn’t have a place in Hollywood.”

The exception, of course, is the female star. As long as she remains a star. However, stars wane. The ones who don’t are either dead or Garbo, and even she’s dead now too.  The public is worse than a fickle husband. When it leaves, a girl has even fewer choices. Blow town or kill yourself are two on a very short list.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard) was the only woman in Hollywood who ever had the last word. She shot her lover down when she realized he wasn’t interested. But poor Norma was just a figment of Billy Wilder’s and Charles Brackett’s imaginations.  What’s more, the man she shot was merely a writer, which in Hollywood sits even lower than womanhood on the power scale.

“You’re trying to say you don’t want me to love you!”

In that era of the liberated woman, Hollywood women may have more independence, but not more influence and power. Go to the movies and look up on the screen if you really want to see where they rate with the men who make movies. Another Forty-Eight Hours, Lethal Weapon II, Robocop II, Total Recall.  Seventy years ago when Clark Gable resumed his career after WWII, the movie marquees across the nation trumpeted “Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him.”  The Garson being Greer. 

If that were today, the Garson would  be Joe or Jack or Jerry because leading men are now more likely to have a buddy and that ain’t no lady. Mel Gibson built his career on buddyhood beginning with Gallipoli. Two against one or two against the world is now, it would seem, wildly more erotic or romantic than Heathcliffe and Cathy in Wuthering Heights.  I don’t mean they’re gay. They’re just guys being guys.  Something which women will never be — barring a sex change, of course.

Meryl Streep went on record with the grim facts in a speech she made (in 1989) to the Screen Actors Guild.  She pointed out that 71% of all roles in television went to men. The combined income of men that year were more than double that of women.

In the old days when the studio moguls who created the Studios ruled, some wives had real power and status. L.B. Mayer, who ran Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for 25 years, was quite literally King of Hollywood. His two daughters Edith, know as Edie, and Irene were the princesses of Hollywood. They had power that came through consolidation in marriage. Irene married David O. Selznick and Edie married William (Billy) Goetz.

Bill and Edie Goetz on the terrace of their Holmby Hills mansion in the 1960s.

Mrs. Goetz and Mrs. Selznick held court in their dining rooms. Using the social cachet of being their father’s daughters wherever these little Marys went, the lambs were sure to go.  Their “entertainments” were like tiny perfect productions – carefully orchestrated, carefully invited; not just some “little something I threw together.” There was protocol. People who went to the Selznicks or the Goetzes were more than Somebody. This was where people got met and business got done.

Both sisters lived in mansions built for them as wedding gifts from their father. Servants and studio people kept their lives running smoothly and efficiently. They often dressed in jewels and couture gowns from New York and Paris recreating the image of the great society hostesses, all things being exquisite – the china, the silver, “the best food in town.” Doilies fingerbowls, the whole shmeerl

Mrs. Goetz particularly, lived more like a star than the stars themselves (who had to go to work everyday). She had a fulltime household staff of ten. Rising at noon she took breakfast in bed surrounded by her secretary, her manicurist, her personal maid, and her hairdresser. When she daintily hoisted her tiny frame from the mattress, her fine cotton sheets were immediately changed. After she napped for an hour in the late afternoon, the new sheets were removed and pressed to perfection for her bedtime.

Mrs. Goetz, who was born in 1905 and died in 1988 never once in her entire eighty-three years cooked a meal or drove a car. That’s what chefs and chauffeurs were for.  Even her devoted husband made jokes about her doings. Others found her positively Machiavellian. Still others said she was the meanest bitch who ever lived. Whatever, Stand By Your Man was her coda, and she exemplified female power in Hollywood. She and Bill Goetz called each other “Snoogie” (their friend Ernst Lubitsch used the name on a character in two of his films); and Bill made fun of her habits at table surrounded by guests where Edie laughed the loudest.

David and Irene Selznick in the early years of marriage.

The two Mayer girls were hardly the personification of sisterhood, however. They competed even with each other, each insisting she was her father’s favorite, each brutally mimicking each other in private. Jokes and snickering aside, people were impressed; all kinds of people, even their father. Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, came for lunch and croquet or to dinner, all the time.  IF they were invited. Lucky were the New York bankers and their wives who came to sup at the same table with Tyrone Power or Lana Turner or Frank Sinatra.

Mayer’s first wife of thirty-odd years eschewed the power play and it cost her dearly. After her husband left her for a much younger woman, he was invited to his daughters’ soirees and dinner parties, but Mother wasn’t. Margaret Mayer was a simple hausfrau, a lovely woman who grew up in Haverhill, Mass. where her husband came from and where her girls were born. Her girls loved her and revered her. But she was a woman, and look what happened to her!

Selznick with his second wife, Jennifer Jones, in 1958.

Edie Goetz had a greater hand than her sister in her husband’s success because he was not, like Irene’s husband, a wunderkind. But Bill Goetz was an original partner in 20th Century-Fox and later owned Universal-International Pictures which he eventually sold to Jules Stein.

Irene Selznick’s reign was the shorter than her sister’s because in the mid-1940s, after fifteen years of marriage David Selznick left her for another woman — a star of the moment — Jennifer Jones. Irene had the ingenuity and the sense to pack herself off to New York where she made a new life and triumphed over her lot by producing Tennessee Willliams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” starring Marlon Brando on Broadway.

After Irene left town, Edie Goetz held sway with few rivals for another twenty years, or until her husband died. “I’m finished,” is what she sobbed to her secretary on the day of her husband’s funeral. “I’m nothing without him.” She was in her mid-sixties, too old to lure another powerful husband. Although for a short while she had a girlish (and self-deluding) fix on Frank Sinatra, an old family friend. (Sinatra was famously attentive to the widow’s of his friends.)

Edie knew the score. But even then she still had some of the fight in her. One day her “good friend” Merle Oberon was in town from Acapulco where she lived in socially splendid retirement with her Mexican industrialist husband. She had her two teenage children with her on this trip. Looking for something to do, she asked her friend Mrs. Goetz if they might all come to dinner and a movie one evening (movies were screened in one’s screening room). Something cozy; read: long evening dresses, jewels and footman behind every chair.

Edie (left) in the 1970s with Fred Astaire and Gregory Peck.

“Why I’d love to have you darling,” replied Edie in her sparkling crystal, just slightly Mid-Atlantic accent.

A few days later, a more celestial (male) wind blew into town: Sir Laurence Olivier. Larry to his friends. Edie, always sensitive to the slightest change in the weather, wanted to give a dinner. There was one problem. The only night Larry had free for Edie was the night Merle and the kids were coming.

Furthermore it seems that some kind of low-grade feud, dating back to the filming of “Wuthering Heights” existed between Oberon and Olivier. They were never “close friends.” For Mrs. Goetz, the solution was obvious. Merle was a great star who had even entertained Prince Philip at her dinner table, but Larry was Sir Laurence and a man! Gable’s back and Garson’s got him.  Mrs. Goetz had no recourse except to cancel Merle.

Edie in her Billie Haines-designed library with the van Gogh self-portrait over the fireplace. Everybody, no matter who they were in the world, were simply “A Guest of Mrs. Goetz,” the ultimate hostess. Photo: Eliot Elisofon/Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

“But I can still come,” the movie queenly Merle, now vulnerable, said to a her friend of thirty years, “Larry and I worked together darling.”

“I know darling, but the problem is, you see, Larry doesn’t like you.”


When you can make a star stay home in Hollywood, that’s power.

Harry Cohn with second wife Joan Perry Cohn, who would soon own the studio.

When Rita Hayworth was signed to a contract at Columbia Pictures, the studio owner Harry Cohn also signed up a very pretty blonde named Joan Perry. One day Cohn called her into his office and told her, “I’m going to make Rita Hayworth a star and you my wife.”

Lucky Joan or what? Harry Cohn had his way, (which was the only way he ever had it until the Grim Reaper came a-knocking), and the little girl from Medicine Hat, Wyoming became The Little Woman.

The new and beautiful Mrs. Cohn, half her husband’s age was instantly exalted to a higher and potentially more lasting position in the community than La Hayworth. She also was assigned a round-the-clock detective who went everywhere she went. Hubby fretted about kidnapping, whatwith the woods full of handsome young bucks in the mood for good looking blondes.

Harry Cohn died unexpectedly at fifty-six, leaving his wife the majority stock in Columbia Pictures. Now a woman owned the studio. Still, she felt the need for a man and soon found herself another Harry — Harry Karl, a rich shoe manufacturer who spent money like water. The marriage lasted a month. Joan Cohn Karl got $100,000 and a fur coat. It was a pot of gold compared to what Debbie Reynolds got when she divorced the same man twenty years later — $6 million of his gambling debts.

Undaunted Mrs. Cohn Karl tried marriage a third time to the famously outrageous Laurence Harvey, a movie actor not known for being dull or placid. The bride’s wedding gift to her husband was a multiple picture deal at Columbia.

Laurence Harvey doing what he did best, preying upon older women.

In return for her marital generosity, Mr. Harvey gave his wife several years of his boozy and abusive ways. He’d pad around her mansions, trusty champagne magnum in hand, their friends in attendance, and call her every name in the book including a few anti-Semitic ones. Which was ironic since Harvey was Jewish and his wife wasn’t. After all that, he left her for much younger woman. Joan Cohn sold the Beverly Hills mansion that Harry Cohn left her, and moved to Montecito, far from the madding crowd.

Compared to what happened to poor Margaret Mayer or poor Rita Hayworth, Joan Cohn Harvey got off easy.  She must have known Janet de Cordova.

Part II tomorrow. The rise of women in the film industry.

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