The role as Social Lioness

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A birthday gathering in Central Park. Photo: JH.

Monday, May 3, 2021. It was a bright sunny Sunday, yesterday in New York with the temps hovering around 80; and into the 60s by late night. There were forecasts of rain but aside from the briefest sprinkle, nada jotta.

These times are/have been such that I’ve had to deeply plumb my memory to keep this car on the road to reading. I can’t complain because life’s been kind to many of us although very hard for many others. All of it has been a flip from The Way Things Were to: What Now? Nevertheless, the show must go on Dave, he sez to himself in sometimes harsher words.

Duane Hampton pretty in pink.

And so. For my backstairs queries I had a couple of nice meals recently. First with Duane Hampton whom I hadn’t seen in about a year even though she lives only a few blocks away. She didn’t look any the worse for it. In fact, I was glad I took my camera with me because she was … what can I say? … pretty in pink? 

No kidding. Then after a few blasts of goodness, she set me straight on my still-at-that-moment-unexpressed opinions about the State of Things these days. I begged forgiveness and then we had one of those dinner conversations that cover so much territory that it ends up discussing your knee operation. Or my PT. Or the slipt-n-fall.

Unfortunately for my curiosity Duane had not a word of dish or info or even tragedies; the things that enhance any story. So it was great getting together, like breathing fresh air again.

Then on Friday noontime I went to lunch with Maria Cooper Janis at Sette. I also hadn’t seen Maria in at least a year. And she’s been right here all that time, at home with her husband Byron with whom she celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago.

Maria still doesn’t look like she’s even old enough to have been around that long. Her manner of comportment and conversation always make me think that she had a good mother. I never met Maria until after I’d come back here in the early ‘90s from living in California in Los Angeles. But because of my life out there, she and I knew several people in common with her life growing up in Hollywood. 

Maria Cooper Janis en masqued and free again.

To me these “people” were figures, personalities from another time in our 20th century American history. To Maria they were people she’d known as friends and neighbors who lived and worked and played in the same world. In the first half of that century the industry had all the markings of a “company town” when filmmakers settled like a community, in Los Angeles and thereabouts. Maria’s father, Gary Cooper, was one of the biggest and most adored and rightfull respected male stars for decades until his early death at age 60 in 1961.

Over lunch we talked about Edie Goetz (Gets) who was a good friend of Maria’s parents Gary and Rocky Cooper. Edie was the eldest of two daughters of  Louis B. Mayer of  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. At one time when “talkies” were in full flourish from “Silents” Mr. Mayer’s Studio was the crème de la crème of stardom, glamor and “more stars than there are in Heaven …” 

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

Mayer started out in the business in Haverhill, Massachusetts around the turn of the century, running a Nickelodeon. This was at the very beginning of the motion picture technology when the public was first getting a look at the “moving pictures”. These were just up from miracles. 

Mayer and his wife Margaret and two daughters, Edith and Irene who were eleven and ten respectively, moved to Los Angeles in 1919 when he was 30 — and already fully a recognized member of this new business that would grow beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

The two Mayer sisters had a sibling rivalry that never “righted” itself. It’s difficult to say who was wrong but they communicated briefly for most of their adult lives. Irene married David Selznick the great film producer, and she enjoyed her “place” in the community of Stars, just a certain”nigge” above her elder sister.

Within their parents’ later prosperity, and in the nature of the growing business, the girls had access to New York business and even Society figures among the younger set who were the first to grow up with the industry.

There was always a “competition” between the two. Irene was the pretty one but Edie was the princess, and as her father prospered and became the mogul that he was indeed, Edie, then married to Billie Goetz, a founding executive at 20th Century-Fox and later owner of Universal which he sold to Jules Stein, and she was now the Princess of Hollywood.

Sisters Edie (left) and Irene Mayer at their Santa Monica beach house in 1927.

What always intrigued me, the northeastern boy of an Irish son and a Polish daughter, was how the second generation of the film industry, the Mayer sisters, etc., took on very comfortably, the role of the Social Lioness. I later learned from Edie, that Dorothy Hirshon, nee Hart, Hearst, Paley, was the  example of how and what in that department. She was the Southern California girl who went East with her first husband, Jack Hearst and had the learning eye.

Mrs. Goetz played the role to the hilt. She became the role. She gave the greatest dinner parties I’ve ever been to. Everything was done for the all the right reasons: pleasing the guest, each of whom appreciated by Madam. The guest list even late in her life, long a widow, was always interesting to this young (late 30s starting out) guest. 

One chef was once considered the greatest chef in Southern California. The service was impeccable and matter-of-fact to make anyone feel comfortable. I remember a dinner when one of the guests was a young art director in from New York on a job, and brought by Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique.

Edie’s table setting had fingerbowls at the placement. When everyone was seated, the visiting art director picked up his finger bowl with both hands and drank from it. There was no sniveling at the table of course, but no one missed the move. Then, as he set it down, our Hostess picked up her fingerbowl and briefly drank (or seemed to) from it.

Edie in her library. She never changed Billy Haines’ original designs or furniture and despite the formality of her evenings, the mood was always convivial and relaxed. 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.
The invite list and menu from a 1975 dinner party hosted by Mrs. Goetz.

Her butler, Lodge, came from the Royal Household staff at Buckinghan Palace. The house was spacious and comfortably grand, on the mansions-side in dimensions, all  Technicolor, like  a set from an MGM musical where the “star” lives. The art was everywhere but only as a part of the decor – Monet, Manet, Renoir, Mondrian, van Gogh, Picasso, Corot. Degas, Bonnard, Gauguin, all with soft-ish lighting like an MGM movie set.

After dinner came the screening: when everyone was comfortably seated, and the lights of the room slowly began to lower, and in the distance you could hear an orchestra playing, coming closer; and at the other end of the room the ceiling opened and a wide screen slowly and silently lowered into the increasing darkness — with the MGM orchestra playing as if they were in the room. And then it stopped; there was silent, the room was dark, and the film credits suddenly lit up the screen, and we were captivated in Hollywood.

The invitation was for 7:30. Cocktails were served in the Billy Haines designed library with the van Gogh self-portrait over the fireplace and family photos in the bay including LB Mayer on the lot standing between William Randolph Hearst and Winston Churchill. At 8:15 the butler announced that dinner would be served and guests crossed the large living room as the butler opened the double doors to the dining room. Unlike the photograph, the room was always lit only by the candles and the lights above the paintings, giving the entire room a soft pinkish-yellow glow. Mrs. Goetz sat at one end under the Degas — with the Bonnard on the north wall. Dinner was served by a butler, a footman and a serving maid. The Goetz chef was said to be the best in Southern California. At about 9 to 9:15 guests returned to the living room for the film.

Over the latter years of her life, I came to know Edie more clearly. At my suggestion, and amazed that she agreed, I suggested I interview her on a weekly basis (a Saturday afternoon) about her life and her family and her husband with whom she had a lasting and important relationship.  

She had a reputation in the community as it was in all its glory (1930s through 1970s), and from adolescence. She could be snobbish, but as I got to know her, right underneath that was the kid from Haverhill who made the big trip across the continent to become a princess, acquired a “mid-Atlantic” accent and lived in a make believe empire that flashed through the 20th century for all to see.

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

It so happened that Maria’s mother, Rocky Cooper was a close friend of Edie Goetz. The couples very often dined together back in the late 40s through the ‘60s with the Coopers, often also with Anabella and Tyrone Power, and Gloria and Jimmy Stewart. 

So there we were a lunch, Maria and I, exchanging notes and anecdotes about Edie. Their community in which Maria grew up, had a number of international connections so that people visiting from New York, or Europe, or South America, if they had the right connections or celebrity, often stayed with the Goetzes and people of their ilk.

Gary Cooper and daughter Maria in front of their house on right, behind the Goetz estate on Baroda Drive in Holmby Hills.

Years after all that, back in the mid-80s when I was frequently interviewing Edie about her life (and taping it), one night she invited me to go with her — to take her to RJ Wagner’s 53rd birthday party. When I went to pick her up, I had to wait in the library (under the controversial van Gogh self-portrait). Her butler (Harold) Lodge — Edie preferred the sound of the g — came into the room to tell me when Madam would be down. 

I asked him how he liked living in Southern California after being Yorkshireman who’d worked for the “Family” in London.

“Oh very much, sir, very much …”

And then I had the temerity to ask him very casually how he liked “working for Madam …” Expecting something complimentary, although …

And he replied again, “Oh, very much sir, very much. She’s very much like the Queen,” he added.

“Like the Queen?” I asked somewhat puzzled. “How is she like the Queen?” 

I wasn’t going to laugh but it makes me laugh thinking about it now. Because I knew Edie would have been very impressed to hear that.

“Oh, not Her Majesty,” he corrected, “much like the Queen Mother.

“Staff, sir,” Lodge politely added, “Staff comes first.”

Edie with her staff.

I could see he meant it. And I thought of Edie and her ten in staff even as her hostess days had been winding down with time. That night as we were driving over to Wagner’s house (that he shared with his wife Jill St. John) in Mandeville, I decided to tell Edie about my conversation with Lodge and how he compared her to the Queen Mother. I can still see her in the car as she put both palms to her head and like a young woman overcome by a compliment, “Oh my God!” I made her day.

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