When Hollywood glamour takes on New York

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The Great Lawn with the Great City behind. Photo: JH.

Thursday, December 3, 2020. Colder yesterday in New York; in the low 40s and then dropping mid-evening into the 30s with a RealFeel of 29 degrees: very cold.

The Beautiful Jean. I had dinner on Tuesday night with Mary Hilliard, one of our favorite photographers who’s been covering New Yorkers  — here and abroad as well as in Palm Beach. In conversation about her business we wandered through personal association to Jean Howard, a major beauty of mid-20th century in Hollywood, New York and across the sea. Later on in the evening, after dinner, Mary sent me this photograph she took of Jean in 1989 at Mortimer’s restaurant with its owner Glenn Birnbaum and Lauren Bacall. It was a party for the publication of Jean’s first book of photographs, a photographic memoir, “Jean Howard’s Hollywood.”

Mary Hilliard’s photograph of Jean Howard with Glenn Birnbaum and Lauren Bacall, 1989.

The title was apt in the sense that the little girl born Ernestine Mahoney in Fort Worth, Texas in 1910, who went on to become, in her uniquely quiet way, one of the most celebrated beauties (and personalities) in her world – in her time.  I never heard the details of her childhood, but her father was a traveling salesman, her mother had a serious drug addiction — it may have been morphine; this was in the second decade of the 20th century — dying when Jean was still very young.

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Jean, “more glamorous than I ever had a right to be.”

When she was old enough, because of her mother’s condition, her father often took his daughter on his trips to the big cities, and especially New York. The bright lights caught the young girl’s imagination, and as fate had it, when she was 21 she was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in his 1931 Ziegfeld Follies. It was the last of the Follies, which lost its dazzle with the Depression.  But it was the beginning of a brilliant career/life in the world that was just unfolding for everyone, and for now Jean Howard.

I don’t know where Louis B. Mayer first met or spotted her — very possibly while attending a performance of the Follies. It was easy for him to be introduced to her. Now a successful mogul in his late 40s, and shining with stature with his own Studio, Mayer had begun cheating on his wife Margaret, mother of his two daughters, Edie Goetz and Irene Selznick. He was looking to return to his own youth with such a beauty by his side.

Jean, however, did respond to his wishes to have her tested for a studio contract. She accompanied him to events and even traveled to Paris with him, although at her insistence chaperoned by a slightly older friend. She was not interested in being his wife or girlfriend. The frustrated Mayer threatened to kill himself by jumping from their hotel window if she didn’t marry him. Jean and her friend were on the first ocean liner back to New York.

It was about the same time she met a young, handsome and successful talent agent named Charles Feldman. He spotted her one night at a nightclub in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and sent a note to her the following morning asking if he could see her the following evening to discuss a very important matter. I don’t know Jean’s side of the story, but she agreed.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles K. Feldman, c. 1939.

You could tell by the note he sent her, knowing the after story, that he was flummoxed on the sight of her. She was a great natural beauty, with charisma suggesting that it was total. I had first read about her in a Cole Porter biography published in the early ’60s and I first met her in 1978 at a small dinner at the home of Merle Oberon and Rob Wolders in the Malibu Colony. It was like walking into film history for this writer. 

The guests were William (Willie) Wyler and his wife Tally, Luis Estevez, the fashion designer, and a close friend of Merle’s who was an old friend of mine and had arranged for my presence — knowing my curiosity — and Jean Howard and her second husband Tony Santoro, a guitarist she met when she heard him in a small café on the island of Capri where she was often a guest of  Mona Bismarck.

The story of their meeting in that café is classic. Tony was a very nice, soft spoken man, about fifteen or maybe twenty years her junior. When she told me the story of the night, she was with two gentlemen friends of hers, rich Americans of middle age both of whom had their eye on the guitarist. They even flipped a coin over him. Invited to their table after a set, Jean and Tony were at the right place at the right time. They returned to Beverly Hills together and remained in residence to the end of her life.

Marlene Dietrich and Ann (Mrs.) Jack Warner captured tete-a-tete at a Hollywood nightclub party, photographed by Jean. Many of her original photographs were stored in shoe boxes until she willed them to the American Heritage Center upon her death in 2000.

I don’t know much about Jean’s professional career. I knew her because of her association with Cole Porter, and that she was married to Charlie Feldman who owned the Ashley-Famous Agency and produced the first Woody Allen film. Meeting her that night at Merle’s was fascinating to me because there was a natural serenity in her presence and her beauty was outshone by her presence. She was open and curious, but warm and friendly, and you had the feeling that she was always like this. It was a subtle charm.

As I got to know her throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was in her thrall. She had the sophistication of her environment and the ole Texas girl quiet razz-ma-tazz right underneath — while maybe slipping in an interesting and sharp insight about a personality she was describing. And there was that easy gentle, quiet laugh that came out of that smile. She lived in a wonderful hacienda style house at 2000 Coldwater Canyon which she and Charlie Feldman bought in 1935. When I knew her the house had been long ago decorated by Elsie De Wolfe/Lady Mendl, who during the Second World War had returned from Europe to the U.S and settled in house just down the road from the Feldmans. She gave the Feldman hacienda style and the California classic feeling; quietly comfortable.

A section of Jean’s living room in Coldwater Canyon. Photo:

That was when Beverly Hills was mainly countryside and 2000 Coldwater was one of the few houses in the area. After they divorced, Jean and Charlie shared use of the residence six months each until he finally, having remarried, gave it to her.

There was a black baby grand in one corner of the music gallery overlooking the courtyard. On it was a single silver framed portrait of Cole Porter with the handwritten inscription: To the beautiful Jean” and signed “Love Cole”.  

Jean later was heir to several bequests in Cole’s will. His wife Linda left her collection of jewels to Jean as well as other items of furniture that fit in to Lady Mendl design. Nights at Jean’s dinners often ended around the piano with the local talent (Judy Garland, Richard Burton, Sammy Davis, and many others over the years). It was relaxed but it was, in keeping with the fashion of the times in Hollywood, long dresses, suit and tie, maybe black tie at times.

Jean Howard with Cole Porter and Howard Sturges, Athens, 1955. Jean Howard Papers, American Heritage Center

There was one such dinner party on the night of July 13, 1960 when John F. Kennedy was nominated for the Presidency downtown at the LA Memorial Coliseum. Jean’s guests were celebrating his nomination, and her guests had finally gone home long after midnight when the nominee himself arrived at a side door of the rambling hacienda, solo, and happy to be there.

She took up photography sometime in the late ’40s or early ‘50s. It was out of interest, but not from the point of view as a hobby. She was trained by a female photographer well known in the community. Jean lived and worked around professionals all her life. 

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in one of Jean’s most published shots. The full frame features over a dozen Hollywood luminaries.

The objective was to Be Your Best to your audience. This was assumed in all her work. Her book “Jean Howard’s Hollywood” is now a classic, a piece of art in the sense that her photographs reflect the feeling I’ve described about being around her. She clearly made a life for herself as a hostess. And it had a quiet glamour that was Hollywood — a name in that age for one of the most glamorous places in the world – and she was a great hostess. Everyone felt comfortable in her presence. It came with her personality.

Looking at Mary’s photo of Jean taken at the book party in Mortimer’s with Glenn Birnbaum and Lauren Bacall (who is photographed with Humphrey Bogart in the book) taken in the early days of their marriage, I was looking at a much older Jean than I had seen in the days I had got to know her. But the face, which looks so perfect, was the same face, and the perfection — perhaps assisted later in her life — was the same. It was in the eyes, the way she looked at you in conversation, the eyes on you; that was the charisma.

She was in her 79th year in that photograph of Mary’s. I was reminded how a few years before she had told me that she was proud of the fact that as she was getting older she had been  honest about her age. But by 78, she wished she’d cut a few years off much earlier, thinking maybe that would even return herself to that energy and perception. She died shortly before her 90th in 2000.

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