Role models of greatness.
Monday, June 13, 2022
Some of his best known images were of Greta Garbo at lunch, Cary Grant helping columnist Hedda Hopper move into her new home, bodybuilder/actor Steve Reeves shaving, playwright Moss Hart climbing a tree, Howard Hughes having lunch at “21” with Janet Gaynor, Ginger Rogers flying first-class, plus legendary stars Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, Jean Harlow, writer Dorothy Parker, boxer Gene Tunney, author Thomas Wolfe and the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family.
Zerbe’s mother was Susan Eichelberger*, the child of a successful railroad lawyer in Urbana, Ohio, and his father was a prominent and prosperous businessman, owner of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Coal Company. Two of his uncles were lawyers in Urbana, another the Superintendent of West Point. Jerome’s mother was so beautiful and possessed of such a captivating voice that, while once visiting New York City, she received a serious offer from a theatrical impresario to star in a play, and she accepted. When her parents found out, they dispatched an uncle to return her to the “safety” of Urbana. Her family’s social standing was such that they subscribed to the mandate that a woman’s name should appear in print only three times: at birth, upon marriage, and at death.
*There is a street named Eichelberger in Urbana, Ohio.
Young Jerry Zerbe was driven to public school in the family limousine, which got him beaten up by bullies. He survived well enough to make it through Yale. A supreme social networker, he gained important social prominence in New Haven, which later would serve him well in New York, London and Paris, where he studied art. Soon after graduation from university he went to Hollywood to try his hand at drawing portraits of famous film stars. He was befriended by Gary Cooper, Hedda Hopper, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Marion Davies and Paulette Goddard. Soon enough he picked up a camera, photographing stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as mere hopefuls, who, before they became famous, would pose for him with few, if any, clothes.
He was for years the official photographer of Manhattan’s famed Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center and fabled nightspot El Morocco, the places to see and be seen at the time. Zerbe pioneered the business arrangement of getting paid by a nightclub to photograph its visitors, before giving away the photos to the gossip pages of print media. For over 40 years, Jerome Zerbe traveled the world taking pictures of celebrities, amassing an archive of over 50,000 photographs.
Below: 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor (center) and first husband Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, Jr. (right) at El Morocco in 1950.
After taking up residence in New York City, he served as art director of Parade magazine and photographer and society editor for Town and Country. Zerbe also contributed photographs to Life and Look magazines and was a Navy photographer during World War II. He was the author of several books of photographs, including Happy Times (1973), which includes his photographs from the El Morocco years. A trip to Paris to photograph estates and country homes (and their occupants) led to a secondary career as an architectural photographer.
In 1988 Jerome Zerbe died at age 85 at his New York City apartment on Sutton Place. Oh, I forgot to mention that Jerome was credited with having invented the vodka martini.
Below: Lovers Cary Grant and Randolph Scott photographed "at home" by Zerbe (1933):
Romantically, Zerbe’s most significant relationship was with syndicated society columnist and writer Lucius Beebe (1902-1966), who made almost embarrassingly frequent and flattering references to Jerome in his newspaper column “This New York,” read by millions each morning. Beebe was so wealthy and possessed of such a confident personality that he became one of the first members of high society who lived as an openly gay man. When questioned about his sexual orientation, Beebe (photo below) could slam down his drink and shout, “Go to hell,” and that would be the end of it.
Beebe also wrote 35 books, and I just now got around to reading one that's been on my Kindle for well over a year: The Big Spenders: The Epic Story of the Rich Rich, the Grandees of America and the Magnificoes, and How They Spent Their Fortunes (1966)
Written in florid, effusively dated language, this was Beebe’s last (35th) book, detailing how über-rich Americans blew through their vast fortunes in rather eccentric ways. Part of the fun of reading this is being introduced to characters now long forgotten. We all know the peccadillos of the Astors and Vanderbilts, but Beebe introduced me to Mrs. Kate Moore (1846-1917), an heiress from Pittsburgh, who became one of the leading figures in Paris high society, especially among the expatiate Americans. She entertained lavishly, and she commissioned the great society portraitist John Singer Sargent to paint her several times. Sargent wrote to Henry James about her in 1884, “I am dreadfully tired of the people here and of my present work, a certain majestic portrait of an ugly woman [Mrs Kate Moore]. She is like a great frigate under full sail with homeward-bound steamers flying.”
Beebe’s comment about this inveterate social climber, who bought her way into society, “(she) departed from life as she would from the Ritz, handing out tips to everyone.”
Then there’s Spencer “Spec” Penrose (1865-1939, owner of Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor Hotel), who maintained active membership in the Pacific Union, San Francisco’s most exclusive and expensive gentlemen’s club on the top of Nob Hill, as long as he lived. When asked why he remained a member of a club he never used, he replied, “My God, man. I might want a drink out there.” The idea of drinking in public never occurred to him, and the thought that he might not want a drink at any place, any time, was equally unthinkable.
After graduating last in his class at Harvard, he was enticed to Colorado in the 1890s by his Philadelphia neighbor Charles Tutt, and Spec was soon engaged working in Tutt’s real estate offices in Cripple Creek. He and Tutt went on to make unfathomable fortunes in gold, copper and mineral milling. So flush with cash, Penrose once left himself a note on his bedside table not to spend more than a million dollars the next day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Penrose made a personal assay of Cripple Creek, a howling wilderness and suburb of hell whose Myers Avenue was the widest-open red-light district anywhere outside Butte, Montana, and whose three booming railroads were daily rolling up the hill with palace cars filled with additional girls, madams, hard-rock miners, anarchists, three-card monte men, tippers of the keno goose, whiskey salesmen, confidence-game artists, eastern capitalists, newspaper reporters, and real estate speculators. Penrose liked what he saw.”
Once he had left Philadelphia and resettled to Colorado in 1892, “the only criticism anybody had was of Spec’s clothes. He wore beautifully tailored riding breeches and English boots that cost $100 a pair. Apprised that the community considered him a dude in some respects, Penrose at once sent East for a suit of evening tails and a half dozen opera hats and started dressing for dinner. There were a few catcalls at first, but most of the roughnecks who took exception to his attire were out of the hospital as good as new in two or three weeks.”
After being rebuked by the management of the fabled Antlers hotel in Colorado Springs for riding his saddle horse up the front steps and into the lobby bar, Penrose’s gesture of retaliation was to build the Broadmoor Hotel in 1918 (at the then cost of $3,000,000), all the while stealing from The Antlers the hotel manager and its chef de cuisine, paying them double the salary they had been making at their former employ.
“Once in the 1930s Spec stopped briefly in Philadelphia to see a friend and visit his birthplace at 1331 Spruce Street. It had not been occupied for years, and not a piece of furniture had been moved in over a half century. An ancient butler met the master at the door as though he had only left that morning. A venerable cook appeared to get her orders for dinner. Penrose had kept it that way as a sort of family shrine, a memorial to his youth impervious to the hostile winds of change.”
Upon his death in 1939, Penrose’s $125,000,000 fortune was the largest sum ever filed for probate in the Rocky Mountain region.
If you are fascinated by this sort of thing, this is your book. The Big Spenders. Available in e-reader formats.
Tuesday, May 31, 2022
William “Billy” Haines was born the evening of January 1, 1900, in Staunton, a railroad town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (my home state!). Although it is still possible to stand in awe before the house he was born in, the small city of Staunton doesn't make a fuss over its famous citizen, likely because so few people are still alive who remember his meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom.
He has my never-ending admiration, because he stood up to movie studio heads, refusing to "pretend" to be straight for the sake of the publicity machines. He chose dignity and respect for his lover over hypocrisy and ill-gotten fame. Haines, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Farley Granger and others were all told that their movie careers would be over if they came out of the closet. Out of those men, only Haines had the courage to defy the studios; the others chose to enter into sham, studio concocted relationships or marriages to cover up their sexual orientation.
While Cary Grant and Randolph Scott and their like tried to put one over on the public, Haines chose an honest life and did one better for himself. He switched careers, becoming fabulously wealthy as an interior designer to the stars. While he never left the glamorous world of Hollywood, he never again stood before a camera. Surprisingly, he had not longed to be a movie star, nor did he dream about being a decorator. Haines, an exceptionally bright and talented young man, recognized opportunity when it was thrust in front of him, and he took advantage of it. He lived by his wits, always seeming to make the right moves. Astonishingly, he reached the pinnacle of success in successive careers for which he had no training.
Haines was the grandson of one of Staunton's most prominent citizens, but at age 14 (!) he ran away from home with his boyfriend and opened a dance hall in Hopewell, VA, a city so known for wickedness and lawlessness that it was called "Sin City." His place of business, like everything else in the town, was burned to the ground in a great fire in 1915. Rather than go back to Staunton, he struck out for New York City, where he took a factory job at age 16. A tall, exceedingly handsome young man, Haines soon returned to Virginia to help support his family; his mother was pregnant, and his bankrupt father was in a mental institution following a breakdown. At 19 he returned to NYC, where an elderly gentleman arranged a job for Billy at a brokerage firm. He lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village for two years, becoming friends with Archie Leach (later known as Cary Grant), who was then in a gay relationship with costume designer Orry-Kelly.
Restless and opportunistic, Haines found work as a model. He sent in his photograph to the "New Faces of 1922" contest sponsored by movie producer Samuel Goldwyn – and won. A screen test followed, and he packed up and moved to Hollywood, where he became one of the leading silent film stars of the 1920s and 1930s. Haines was named the leading male film star for 1930. His closest friend was Joan Crawford, much less well-known at the time. William Haines appeared in over fifty films, was the first MGM star to speak on film, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, just a few feet from the entrance to the Roosevelt Hotel, where the Academy Awards were first presented in 1929.
Haines with co-star Joan Crawford in West Point (1928):
However, gossip about his openly gay life threatened his leading man image, and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum: deny his homosexuality by engaging in a sham marriage or be shown the door. Haines refused to lie about his personal life, and Mayer did not renew his contract. He never worked in films after 1934, but pursued a stupendously successful career as an interior designer, which made him a multi-millionaire. Billy's life-long adage was, "One could be forgiven for illiteracy, but never for lack of good taste."
His Hollywood clients included prominent figures of the film community such as Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, studio head Jack Warner and director George Cukor. His social standing was decidedly A-list. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were frequent guests at his house. In 1969, most importantly, he was hired by Ambassador Walter Annenberg to design the interiors of Winfield House in London, the official residence of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The million-dollar commission received international attention. In a career that continued until his death in 1973, he achieved fame as one of the most influential interior decorators of the 20th century. William Haines Designs remains in business to this day, with main offices in West Hollywood and showrooms in New York, Denver and Dallas. Many of his original furniture designs are still produced for the high-end interior design trade.
Haines also made a name for himself outside of the Hollywood social circle of clients. His celebrated oval "Desert Living Room" showcased at the 1930 World's Fair in San Francisco featured geometric shapes, much leather, custom designed furniture and walls clad in Joshua wood. Photo below:
As well, he completely transformed the home of Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale in Beverly Hills. When purchased, it was a Spanish revival structure with red tiles on the roof, arched openings everywhere and stucco-clad exterior walls. In the late 1950s Haines gave it a total makeover inside and out, in a style he had created -- Hollywood Regency. Betsy Bloomingdale retained the Haines interiors until her death on July 19, 2016. Trivia: in December of 2016 out and proud polymath Tom Ford purchased the Bloomingdale estate (as seen from the rear, below) for $39 million.
From the mid-1920s Haines lived openly with his lover Jimmy Shields (his former movie stand in) for nearly 50 years. Joan Crawford described them as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." Haines died from lung cancer at the age of 73. Two months afterward, a grief-stricken Shields put on Haine’s pajamas, took an overdose of pills, and died in his sleep. Their ashes are interred side by side in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica, CA.
Billy Haines with his great friend and actress Anita Page (above).
William Haines, dashingly handsome, acting opposite his best friend Joan Crawford in a flirty, comic scene from Spring Fever (1927), below. Haines and Crawford remained devoted friends until Haines’ death in 1973. Every time she changed husbands, Haines redecorated her home. Kept him busy.
Friday, April 8, 2022
Hollywood’s Rogue Bisexual
I have revised this post with information from more recent sources. So many readers have questioned the veracity of facts presented below that I have moved my bibliography to the front of this post.
The Contender by William J. Mann (2019; 718 pages)
Brando's Smile by Susan Mizruchi (2014; 512 pages)
Brando: the Biography by Peter Manso (1994; 1,118 pages)
Thus began a bizarre, intimate relationship with fellow actor Wally Cox that would last a lifetime -- for 40 years until Cox's death. Both men were born in 1924, and for many years they were roommates. After Cox died in 1973, Brando kept the ashes for safekeeping, because he wanted his own ashes to be commingled with Wally’s when the time came. Sure enough, in 2004, Brando’s family honored his request. The Associated Press reported, “The ashes of Brando’s late friend Wally Cox, who died in 1973, were also poured onto the desert landscape of Death Valley as part of the ceremony of scattering Brando’s ashes.” Brando not only kept his friend’s ashes for more than 30 years, but, when lonely, would sometimes dine with the urn, holding conversations in which he would perfectly imitate Cox’s distinctive voice, even at times keeping the urn under his car seat.
Unlike many bisexuals (like Cary Grant), who denied their homosexual activity all their lives, Marlon Brando brazenly admitted it. In a 1976 interview, Brando said, “Homosexuality is now so much in fashion it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me.”
Brando was bisexual and possessed of a voracious libido. There were plenty of homosexual experiences to report – among his partners were Burt Lancaster, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Leonard Bernstein, Noël Coward, Clifford Odetts, Christian Marquand (especially Christian Marquand), Tyrone Power, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift (on a dare, they once ran naked down Wall Street together), James Dean and Rock Hudson. Striving for a balanced diet, however, his conquests also included Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner, Gloria Vanderbilt, Hedy Lamarr, Tallulah Bankhead, Ingrid Bergman, Rita Moreno (especially Rita Moreno), Edith Piaf and Doris Duke (the world’s richest woman at the time).
By the age of 23 Brando had achieved stardom as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's stage play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). When he reprised this role in the 1951 film version, Brando received an Oscar nomination for best actor. As success piled upon success, Brando had a hard time dealing with his fame and celebrity. By the time of his death, the American Film Institute had named Brando the fourth greatest male film star, and Time Magazine included him in its list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, near the end of his career he had lost interest in acting; he took on roles only for the money.
He was a generous and tireless advocate for social justice, particularly for the rights of African-Americans and Native Americans. He supported statehood for Israel, and in 1946 he performed in Ben Hecht's Zionist play, A Flag is Born. When Brando read in a newspaper that actress Veronica Lake had fallen on hard times and was working as a cocktail waitress in Manhattan, he had his accountant mail her a check for $1,000; she never cashed it, out of pride, but framed it and hung it on a wall to show to her gay friends.
The roles he lived off-screen were even more provocative than those he created on film. When filming Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti in the early 1960s, he fell in love with the place and purchased a private 12-island atoll. He married the Tahitian actress who played his love interest in the film and became fluent in French, her native tongue (he conducted many interviews in French). Rita Moreno, a long-term lover, responded by attempting suicide.
The world knew of his predilection for “dark-skinned women”, particularly those of Tahitian and American Indian descent. That Brando had a skinny, bespectacled male lover called Wally didn’t fit the image. Yet he once admitted that he had never been happy with a woman, adding: “If Wally had been a woman, I would have married him, and we would have lived happily ever after.” Wally Cox was the only person Brando allowed to berate him – many was the time that Cox would put Brando in his place.
In later years he admitted, “I searched for, but never found, what I was looking for either on screen or off. Mine was a glamorous, turbulent life – but completely unfulfilling.” At the time of his death at 80 years old in 2004, he weighed well over 300 pounds and was suffering from diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, congestive heart failure, liver cancer and failing eyesight. I found a photo of a hugely bloated, fat Brando taken shortly before his death, but I couldn't bear to post it. I'd rather be in denial of what came at the end of this remarkable life.
Born 1924, Omaha, Nebraska
Died 2004, Los Angeles, California
Brilliant, stubborn, eccentric actor
A performance on the night of December 3, 1947, made theatrical history. A Streetcar Named Desire opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in NYC, and no one could remember an actor or actress so electrifying an audience. For days people had lined up around the block to buy tickets. Theater doyenne Jean Dalrymple said, “From the moment Brando walked out on stage, all eyes were riveted on him. He was like an animal in heat, with those tight jeans and sweaty T-shirt. His Stanley was violent and crude, totally mesmerizing. I don’t recall having seen such utter rapture in a drama. It was more than a new star being born – we were devastated by the performance, as if a quart of our blood had been drained from us. I knew that I had witnessed Broadway history – in this performance acting, and theater itself, had changed for all time.”
Marlon Brando, at the tender age of 23, gave a performance that caused people to leap to their feet in a 30-minute ovation after the curtain went down. Jessica Tandy (portraying Blanche) was furious, because she knew the applause was not for her. In the audience were Cary Grant, David Selznick, Montgomery Clift, Edward G. Robinson, Geraldine Page, George Cukor and Paul Muni – all gasping for air. Tandy, whom younger readers might know from her Oscar-winning performance in Driving Miss Daisy, somehow coped with Brando's wildly erratic performances, each varying from night to night.
Note: Elia Kazan also directed the 1951 film version. This time Blanche was portrayed by Vivien Leigh, an actress with whom Brando had greater chemistry than Tandy. For younger readers who might know Brando only from his role in The Godfather, this clip will be a revelation. But don’t take my word for it, watch Brando in action:
Marlon Brando & Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire: