That skyline in the early-morning July sunshine. New York City.
There it was; but was I there? Was I actually there at
the shipís rail, neatly scrubbed and polished, standing with a
small, solitary band of Pender-troupe boys--none of whom had
slept all night for fear of missing the first glimpse of
America? The excitement. Those skyscrapers I had seen so many
times before. Oh my, yes. In England. In Bristol. In the films.
That familiar silhouette, of
which the highest edifice, the most prominent spire, in that
year of 1920, was the Woolworth Building. If any happy medium,
any fortune-telling gypsy, had prophesied I would marry the
heiress granddaughter of its founder, no palm would have been
crossed with my silver. Father always advised me to
strike a happy medium, and it would have been the perfect
excuse. Thatís a very feeble joke, which I set up purposely,
and not very well either; but itís the kind of joke only an
ex-vaudevillian such as I canít resist. All right, donít
forgive me. I donít care.
I used to apologize for every
little thing I said or did, or hadnít said or hadnít done,
or forgotten to say, etc.; I used to apologize for living. Now
Iíve given it up ó I mean, apologizing. Not living; Iíve
only just started that.
Lady Elsie Mendl, a dear
nonagenarian, toward whom I gravitated for amusing conversation
and relaxed relief at many a dreary dinner party, often adjured
that one should ďnever explain, never complain.Ē
One afternoon, when she was 91
years old, I carried her in my arms down a narrow winding back
stairway in a wing of her exquisite villa in Versailles and, not
being able to see, but only gingerly feel the steps beneath my
feet, I was troubled for my precious cargoís safety. Yet Elsie
chattered unconcernedly and gaily about her plans for
redecorating and entertaining and living. That was about
a year or so before her death. Any words of philosophy from such
a woman are worth consideration. So nowadays I accept the
consequence, whether reward or penalty, or whatever I say,
write, or do, and ďnever complain, never explain.Ē
After customsí inspection, at
which I had absolutely no treasures to declare, one of producer
Charles Dillinghamís representatives herded us directly to the
Globe Theater where we waited around, stealing wide-eyed glances
at Broadway and Times Square, while our mentor, Bob Pender, went
into grave discussion with his old friend Fred Stone, the
versatile star of the musical comedy that was rehearsing there.
It transpired that, because of Mr. Stoneís change of routines
in his new show, our act was to be placed in Mr. Dillinghamís
other production, which was about to open at the New York
So off we scurried to present
ourselves at the Hippodrome, then on Sixth Avenue between 43rd
and 44th streets: the worldís largest theater; playing daily
matinees and night performances, except Sundays, to 10,000
people a week, more than 2,000,000 people each season. It
contained a revolving stage a city block wide and possibly a
half block deep, on which appeared only the most renowned and
spectacular acts of those days, selected from every nationality
and country: ďPoodlesĒ Hanneford and The Riding Hanneford
Family; Marceline the clown; The Long Tack Sam Company of
Illusionists; Joe Jackson the tramp cyclist; Powers Elephants,
an amazing water spectacle in which expert girl swimmers and
high divers appeared and reappeared in an understage tank
containing 960,000 gallons of water; a highly trained ballet
corps of 80 members; a chorus of 100 singers ó and us; our
little petrified troupe of English music-hall knockabout
comedians, pantomimists and stilt-walkers.
There were more than 1,000 people
in the cast and approximately 800 nonperforming employees. It
was necessary for everyone, from stars to roustabouts, to punch
a time clock so that, by curtain time, each person would be
accounted for or, if there were absentees, replacements speedily
rearranged in the various acts and chorus formations throughout
It was an astonishing assemblage.
A talented, colorful family of colorful, spangled performers in
a mammoth, colorful extravaganza and, from opening night to
closing, our troupe was an unexpectedly big, colorful success.
In the show ó and in the family. That remarkable international
family. We loved them all, and reflectively they loved us. What
you give you get.
Because of our youth, we
teen-agers lived under the jurisdictional eyes of Bob and Mrs.
Pender ó across the hall from them, in a sort of long Pullman
apartment, in which each of us had to go through one anotherís
bedrooms to get to the bathroom. The fellow at the end had the
comfort of being closest, but the discomfort of the trafficís
full concentration. I was the farthest away, nearest Eighth
We had rotating duties. I learned
to keep accounts for, cater for, and market for, to wash dishes
for, to make the beds for, and to cook for every other occupant
of that apartment, according to the daily allotted task. Well,
thanks to my Boy Scout training, I knew how to cook a stew. You
see, certain vegetables took longer to cook than others, and the
meat went in at a different time from the potatoes. Right.
Stew was my piece de
resistance when the weekly turn came around for me to cook.
Perhaps I should have been a chef. Thereís that stew; and
Iíve done rather well with ham, too, donít you think? Iíve
always imagined it might be helpful to own a restaurant, in
which one could serve healthy portions of rare opportunities,
fresh viewpoints and sweet talk, buttered up, mixed emotions,
dry wit, shredded ego and warm handshakes ó which gives you
some idea of the kind of word games we play in Hollywood between
scenes in order to keep the cast happy, while we waste all those
millions and millions and millions of dollars I keep reading
Itís well publicized that none
of us in Hollywood knows what he is doing ó according to all
those who arenít doing it with us. Wonder who gets all that
wasted money, by the way? Itís spent. Somebody gets it.
Somebody benefits somewhere in our industry. Never mind; it
gives two or three vociferous journalists a fine opportunity to
mind someone elseís business, while exposing their envy and
lack of exact knowledge. Wonder why that small group of writers
(theyíre males too; fancy that) are so concerned about the
doings of actors; and if they themselves have ever
Over a long period of time a
general image of a public figure emerges no matter what truths,
semitruths, or actual untruths have been written about him. The
press has treated me extremely well over my long period
of time, and Iíve had pleasant and mutually benefiting
relationships with almost all its members.
Only a very few are guilty of the
sensationalism that attracts the unhealthy mind. But those few
cause, even if undeliberate and subconscious, momentary harm,
and Iím appalled at the unconscionable way they twist and
distort facts. Why does the printed word take on such
authenticity? They besmirch their profession in much the same
manner that a few tasteless producers color public opinion about
the whole of Hollywood.
In recent years much inaccurate,
biased and, alas, too often, vituperative copy has been written
about Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn
Monroe, and recently in the Letters to the Editor column of a
magazine I came across this: ďSirs: To those who helped
make Marilyn Monroeís life happy, thank you and God bless you.
To the ones, and you know who you are, who helped toward her
destruction, there is nothing I as an individual can say.Ē
Makes you think?
It saddens and astonishes
me that the very people who frenetically fight to acquire the
luxuries of life, so obviously resent those whoíve already
acquired them. It lurks behind their every word and action. But
what man can stand anotherís success if he feels that his own
lack of it suffers by the comparison?
Well, itís a free country.
Everyone has a right to air his ignorance and dissatisfactions.
There have been writer-directors,
writer-producers, film cutter-directors, director-producers, and
cameramen-directors; but let actors become actor-producers ó
oh, it shouldnít happen to a worser, lessable fellow; and all
the resenters and dissenters club together. With clubs.
When I hear someone question or
damn the trend toward independent production of todayís stars,
Iím reminded of a group of remarkably capable people of the
previous era: Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas
Fairbanks, who not only studied their craft thoroughly and made
films of their own choosing ó quite successfully, too,
according to the publicís reaction ó but banded together to
manage their own studio, distributing company and circuit of
theaters as well, under the United Artists banner. Their
retirement from active film-making was the beginning of that
organizationís decline; and only recently, with a new
aggregation of independent companies, in which artists share in
the profits, has it again begun to flourish.
To anyone with knowledge of the
film industryís inner workings, itís ludicrous to blame upon
stars the troubles that beset some major companies. Indeed, one
trouble is that there are insufficient stars. But
articles written about the men most responsible for
mismanagement of studios and production, for worldwide
distribution leases and methods of bookkeeping, for lack of
forethought in light of changing conditions, and reluctance to
build new stars; or for the sales of films to the movie
theaterís greatest competitor, television, would bring little
revenue to the writer or attention to his words, because the
names of the men who were at fault are without reader interest.
So the stars it is.