As Samuel Pepys would have told you, don’t look to the leading ladies and gentlemen in history for the truth. You want to know about Cleopatra’s amours? Ask a handmaiden. Henry VIIIs temper? Ask the fool. The same rule applies to golden age Hollywood. It’s the bit players and the has-beens who have nothing to lose and thus tell their stories unabridged. Candid star memoirs are few and far between: Louise Brooks’s Lulu in Hollywood, Gloria Swanson’s Swanson on Swanson and, latterly, Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking being notable exceptions.
Twins Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse, both of whom I know and like, have since childhood corresponded with the survivors of the silent and silver screen. What began as obsessive autograph hunting developed into correspondence, telephone calls and visits to Hollywood to meet the ladies and gentlemen for whom one suspects the twins were a lifeline. Their knowledge of Hollywood history is encyclopaedic and the twins have been rewarded by becoming part of LA lore themselves.
Their fabulous book I Used to be in Pictures: An Untold Story of Hollywood (ACC Editions) was published earlier this year. Not only is their collection of autographed black and white studio portraits and stills unique, Austin’s essays about encounters with these forgotten if not fallen idols make life-enhancing, heartbreaking and occasionally risqué reading.
Howard and Austin didn’t set out to be the Indiana Jones’s of Hollywood’s Norma Desmonds. They corresponded with legendary leading ladies such as Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn. They attended pool parties with Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, lunched with Ginger Rogers and Elizabeth Taylor sent felicitations when Austin got married.
But as the essay about a wheelchair-bound Ginger Rogers wryly suggests, the vanity and mendacity of big stars never fades. Of the Great Depression years in the early 30s, Rogers says ‘the world I shared with my beloved mother was a magical one’. It later emerges that Ginger Rogers’s ‘beloved mother’ was one of Hollywood’s most vicious Communist witch hunters during the McCarthy Era ruining careers such as Rose Hobart’s who we also encounter in the book.
The ladies who leap out from the pages as great raconteurs include Joy Hodges – the star for whom Lorez Hart wrote Have You Met Miss Jones? - whose unguarded comments to Austin and Howard speak volumes. Of the famously manic depressive Frank Sinatra, Hodges says wistfully ‘he’s happy when he’s singing. Otherwise, less so…’. Rudolph Valentino’s co-star Patsy Ruth Miller – who received the twins in bed – almost casually betrayed that off-screen the Latin Lover was prudish and disapproved of women wearing short skirts and smoking.
Cult 50s horror TV hostess Malia ‘Vampira’ Nurmi rewarded Austin and Howard inviting her to a Hollywood party with heavy hints that James Dean and Brando were lovers. When Dean, who called Vampira his ‘black Madonna’, fatally crashed his Porsche Spider ‘Little Bastard’ Brando sent her a wreath with a card reading ‘you’re dead too’.
Equally compelling to hear ‘the most beautiful woman in pictures’ Billie Dove evoke house parties at San Simeon; the palatial castle William Randolph Hearst shared with mistress Marion Davis. Dove says she and Dietrich carried a gun to protect them from Hearst’s wild animals who roamed the largest private zoo in the world. Of another magical night at Hearst Castle, Anita Page was appalled that Jean Harlow – who she calls by her birth name Harlean – tried to bed her date William Powell adding ‘Harlean could be like that’.
Setting aside ‘Pocket Venus’ Mildred Shea (of which more anon), Anita Page is the star of I Used to be in Pictures. Once bigger than Joan Crawford, Page tells the tale that Crawford would intercept her fan mail and burn it. She delivers delicious gossip such as ‘she (Crawford) hit on me at the Chateau Marmont’ adding for colour that Crawford had a vast collection of amuse lit.
Page is the closest encounter the twins have comparable to Billy Wilder’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Surrounded by acolytes, Page is given her ‘ready for my close up, Mr DeMille’ moment by the boys. This episode makes Austin question whether he and his twin are complicit in the charade but I suspect Austin and Howard bought so much more pleasure to these old broads’ lives than they took.
While Page is delusional, Mildred Shea (best known as the maid in Cukor’s The Women) is outrageously blunt. Austin sets the scene in her Belgravia eerie where a vicious cat called Rosebud rules, picture frames are thick with dust and lipstick and Shea holds court like an ageing flapper in a pre-Hayes Code talkie. Shea makes Mae West sound like Greer Garson and flirts like a floozie with Austin.
Shea’s Hollywood stories remind one of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon minus the prurience and gossip. Anger dug dirt vicariously. Shea was the leading lady in all of her salty stories. Errol Flynn ‘stained’ her dress having chased her round his apartment, Johnny Weismuller showed her his assets in the Hollywood Hills and even her own mother rather unfairly as it happens called Shea ‘nothing but a Hollywood whore’. Mildred Shea knew them all: Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Hearst and Marion Davies, Garbo, Howard Hughes and Alfred Hitchcock. She was an expert witness to history as now are Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse.