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In My Mother’s House: Images of a Hollywood Childhood

ISSUE:  Spring 1985

There is a passage in Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s final novel, that urges the benefits of passing one’s childhood in a well-loved place. Pitying the heroine whose unrooted early years have left her without inner guidance in a venal, aimless milieu, the author is prompted to reflect: A human life, I think, should be well-rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth,. . . a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.

I marked these lines in my copy of the novel with the sense of my own deprivation. My childhood “spot” was a large Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills, California. But how can George Eliot’s prescriptions apply to a place like Beverly Hills, a film-world town where not a single family goes back for generations and even the palm trees are arrivistes in an artfully transformed desert? What does such a place offer? What does it determine? I retain my early memories—of our house, friends, a fig tree in the back yard, even as George Eliot would have it, a series of cherished dogs. But do these suffice to anchor a life? More than anything else, Beverly Hills for me is the place that I was happy to get away from. At 15, fortified by notions of culture and opportunity culled largely from 19th-century novels, already my taste in fiction, I went East to a Connecticut boarding school where we all had blue blazers, sports tunics, and riding gear, was grafted onto the East coast, and never again spent any amount of time in California. To have grown up then out West, in Beverly Hills among the film people, became an autobiographical tidbit, obtrusive yet incidental, always potentially embarrassing, to be disclosed with discretion depending on my faith in the listener.

It was at boarding school that I discovered how my background could be a source of interest and oddity for others. Most of the girls were Northeasterners and seemed to me insulated in a privileged enclosure of mutual acquaintances at well-known schools. Boarders from California, of whom there were only four, included a tennis and basketball star— eventually captain of both teams—from a well-to-do San Francisco family, two not at all preppy Santa Barbara sisters, one with a reputation, merited or not, for being rather loose, and finally, myself, small and a little mousy, fingers invariably spotted with ink, the student with the highest average in the school and a home in Beverly Hills where my mother, Sheilah Graham, worked to pay for my acquisition of an Eastern patina through her job as a Hollywood columnist. The word of this connection soon got about, and if my oddity did not diminish, at least my usefulness increased when I was able to obtain autographed photographs of their movie idols for the star-struck girls. These hung on the walls in the cell-like dormitory rooms.”To Anne, Best regards, Paul Newman.” “For Lynn, Best wishes for success from Gregory Peck.” One friend, home with me over a vacation, actually lunched with Rock Hudson at his studio. We have a photograph of the occasion: a resigned Rock Hudson seated between the two girls, my friend turning toward him, her face sweetly joyous with excitement, myself turned away, a look in my eyes of assiduous blankness, indifference a personal necessity.

I think that I could much more plausibly, more usefully too in terms of a guiding heritage, have come from somewhere else—Connecticut, perhaps, or Pennsylvania. I had an eighth-grade classmate at the California school where every morning as a prelude to the required Pledge of Allegiance, we would face eastward, stretch out our arms, and recite a Hindu Salutation to the Dawn, who did much better than I as a product of Beverly Hills. Already at 13, effusive, beautiful and fast, she was vibrantly consummate in artifice, I remember her entrance at one of the school’s well-organizied, well-chaperoned semiformal dances. Chestnut hair cascading about her face, she awed the rest of us with the height of her heels and the low cut of her strapless, scarlet gown. My heels on the same occasion were one inch high and my gown, which was pink, had a box neck with tulle ruffles on the straps. The girl’s older sister was a starlet who dated Lance Reventlow, Barbara Hutton’s playboy son, and whose picture would appear with his in movie magazines. Their father was a movie producer, their mother an alcoholic. Later on in life I would hear intermittently about my classmate: she had married, divorced, remarried, then divorced again a young Los Angeles millionaire, then married someone else much older than herself with whom she had moved to the Caribbean and set up as partners in a liquor-export business. A friend who saw her at 30 reported that she was still beautiful and that she was living, at this point between marriages, in an apartment in Hollywood where the walls were covered with mirrors, the rugs and furniture were white, and where there were also several white cats. Visiting on the same occasion was another classmate whose family yacht had once taken our whole eighth-grade group to Catalina Island. As an adult, this person raised chihuahuas and casually proclaimed her wealth in the clutter of rings on her fingers.

Not everyone of my acquaintance from California has had a bizarre and vulgar destiny. But if they haven’t, then what is their connection with the place? Many have led lives with at least the continuity of affluence, having achieved wealth of their own through luck or application, in marriage or in careers which are surprisingly often Hollywood careers—in film, in television, in the music and recording business. Others are the logical failures, dead as suicides or, less dramatically, simply unsuccessful people, drifting, curtailed by famous parents, not up to the steadfast effort of tending their own lives.

As for myself, the intent to do and be something quite different goes way back. At 11 or 12, sitting with my mother before bedtime in my recently redecorated room, I asked a question. Did she think that I would grow up to be an intellectual? The prospect struck me as not beyond my reach, but I did not underestimate the challenge. My mother’s answer, perhaps purposely vague but nonetheless reassuring, included her standard encouragement that “my time would come” with the addition in this instance that if I continued to study hard she was sure I could be whatever I wanted.

What I wanted was to be part of a world of subtle grace and thoughtfulness. In one of my private fantasies I imagined having a father—not our own who was divorced from my mother, lived far off in England, and was a fairly crass man of business—but an intellectual father whom I would seat in my scenario at the foot of our oblong mahogany dining table, and there, dignified and subdued, he would lead the family in discussions of politics and culture. Now that I think of it, it is odd that my fantasy never displaced my mother from the head of the table—or at least the end that I considered the head because that is where she sat, the end at which the housekeeper would set the dinner platter and which I associate with my mother’s presence and absolute predominance. I cannot remember her role in the imaginary discourse. I think that I had her simply sitting there, listening to my well-modulated patriarch.

We were, in fact, my mother’s children, the beneficiaries of her success, the well-cared-for dependents of her household. In 1947, drawing on all her savings, she mustered a down payment on an old but elegant Beverly Hills Spanish-style house, and there we lived for close to 12 years with the assurance in many ways, particularly in the beginning, of utter order and solidarity. It wasn’t simply that the white stucco walls had a fortress-like thickness or that we were accommodated with pets and bicycles and a Ping-Pong table on the back veranda. It was the orderly life of the house, the reassuring points of reference for me in the people who worked there: my mother whom I would always seek out briefly after school, never afraid to interrupt her, on my way outside to play in the high, wall-enclosed backyard; the housekeeper in the kitchen, making pastry dough or cooking or ironing laundry; the secretary tapping out my mother’s daily column on her typewriter in the bookcase-lined den; the Filipino gardener, working shirtless out of doors, adjusting the sprinkler system or trimming the edges of the manicured front lawn. It was a house full of industry, a self-sustaining enterprise, in which my part, taking it serenely for granted, was to go my own way within its enclosure.

For what we lacked—which was not a great deal, but our house had no tennis court or swimming pool—we had access to the private courts and pools of movie people in the area. My mother arranged for us to swim in the pools of James Mason and Anne Baxter and to go with our tennis teacher to the courts of Dorothy Lamour, Robert Stack, and Kirk Douglas. The stars were never home—or at least not visible— only the servants and the dogs. I was particularly drawn to Anne Baxter’s shaggy black Newfoundland, wistfully observing us from behind a wire enclosure, as if he too wouldn’t mind a dip to cool off from the California heat, yet with too much dignity to make a fuss, unlike Dorothy Lamour’s yapping little poodles. But their barks dissolve in memories of the overriding stillness. The streets of Beverly Hills were tree-lined and hushed. Children played under the supervision of servants in their walled-off back gardens.

It is only when I push beyond these pictorial recollections to the greater stir and tension of the place that my own lack of ease reasserts itself. Not that there wasn’t the beguilement of privilege. We took full advantage as a family of Hollywood’s wooing and propitiation of my mother, who, given her own start in life in an orphanage, was happy to share all conceivable advantages with her children. And so my brother and I tagged along for film previews and lunches at the studios, weekends in Palm Springs, and even the trips to Europe. Fringe benefits were a family pastime. We exploited them as it suited us, yet still in our minds stood aloof from Hollywood cant and shallowness. It was easy to mark the separation between ourselves and someone like Zsa Zsa Gabor, who sat in our living room advising against animation of the face because it caused wrinkles, yet managing to emit great gushes of insincerity.”Dahling, vat lovely cheeldren!” Such people became items in my mother’s column.”My paragraphs,” she would call them. For her, the banter was part of work, not cause for worry. For me, it was somehow more threatening, offending my stubbornly held notions of a world of greater taste and truth and also my own sense of self-importance. I did not like standing idly by while silly people talked with my mother. It was a bore and also an indignity to be so unobserved by people I had judged and found wanting. I recall the poor press agent who patiently ignored my scorn as I sat wedged in a corner of the lunch table at the Beverly Hills Brown Derby, eating the steak that had been ordered for me. He was confiding about the stars to my mother in what I considered a grating, officious, ignoble manner. My mother I did not fault since this was simply her part in an expedient masquerade. But the press agent, as far as I was concerned, was irretrievably implicated in the avidity for publicity, the lack of respect for privacy, the self-seeking and insecurity which marked the typical Hollywood conversation.

Often on such occasions the press agent lunching with us would ask celebrities to our table. Tony Curtis, Doris Day, Hitchcock, or Lucille Ball would get up from where they were relaxing or talking business, stride toward my mother with a “Dahling, how are you?” and proceed to promote themselves before retreating with a “So lovely to see you.” My revenge for the perfunctory notice taken of me was my own satiric observation of the process: star, press agent, and columnist so seemingly caught up in the effusions of the moment when the sole end in everyone’s mind was business— the items in my mother’s column which would publicize. Yet when anyone—a star or even a press agent—showed an interest in me that I deemed sincere and intelligent, I suspended my usual suspicion, absolved the person of phoniness, and expanded in my mind the small circle of Hollywood people whom we considered genuine and worthwhile. Ingrid Bergman was nice to me when I met her in Paris. My mother interviewed her in the bar of the Hotel Raphael while her three children by Roberto Rosselini played on the floor of the dark oak room. She asked me questions about my school which her daughter Pia Lindstrom had attended, and I did my best to give informative, clever answers. I also liked Maureen O’Hara, my mother’s more intimate friend—they had met on the set of How Green Was My Valley and struck up a close bond. Maureen attended our annual Christmas Eve parties at which I would play carols on the piano. I remember her seated in one of our quilt-upholstered arm chairs, beautiful to me with her red hair, pale complexion, and Irish accent. She confided in my mother as a friend, not a columnist, the details of her romance with a Mexican businessman who draped her in jewels and bought her a house, or so she thought, in Mexico while promising to divorce his wife and marry her as soon as his children grew up. When they did, he asked for the jewels back, and she discovered that the house in Mexico was not in her name. She brought a lawsuit against him and they compromised, she keeping most of the jewels and he the house.”I do hope,” said my mother in a telling slip of the tongue, “that Wendy will be happy in her marriages.”

The fact that the stars led flamboyantly unsettled lives or that the smooth serenity of Beverly Hills had its precarious underside in the movie business—all ostentation, uncertainty, and hustle—would most likely have been forgivable if as a family we had remained immune to these currents. But we didn’t. I wonder how many other Hollywood children have experienced my own sense of the disruption of an idyll, the gradual inroad into privileged, smooth-edged young lives of turbulence and insubstantiality. A husband of my mother’s came and went. He moved in his possessions, carrying innumerable shoes in cardboard boxes up our curving staircase with its iron-wrought banister and on to my mother’s bedroom. I sat on the stairs and watched his intrusion. The wedding reception at our home was so splendid that one Hollywood paper named my mother “Hostess of the Year.” Marilyn Monroe put in an appearance, arriving hours late as usual, and had her picture taken kissing my little brother. Three years later the stepfather was evicted—although he had in some ways proved quite helpful to my mother, he was not, in fact, a good man, and I welcomed his departure with a grim kind of glee. He and I had been particular antagonists, covert for the most part, though once when he had kicked the dog, I had openly defied him, and my mother, watching the scene, had feared that he would strike me. But he hadn’t. And at last, thank God, he was gone.

Nonetheless after that, things were never the same. I was alarmed to see my mother cry from the strain of the divorce. Also around the same time, I began to perceive the embattled nature of her job—the irascibly asserted demands of her newspaper employers, her brinkmanship with irate stars stung by her items into the threat of lawsuits, her exercises in self-assertion over sycophantic press agents. I was angry at what I considered her failure to sustain a protected world, and I buried myself more determinedly than ever in interests and fantasies which posed an alternative to Hollywood.

And finally, we left. We folded up our tent. With my brother set to follow me back East to boarding school, my mother rather suddenly, in 1959 when I was 17, sold the Beverly Hills house and set up in the East with considerably more modest homes in New York and Connecticut, still continuing to write a column but from a broader base. Our old house was bought by newly wed Warren Cowan of the Rogers and Cowan Agency and Barbara Rush, the actress. They renovated it from top to bottom, changing even its basic shape by the addition of a major wing. They also built a swimming pool in the backyard. And once we left Beverly Hills, it was as if we had never been there, perhaps because we had only been part of the place, tenuously at best, by virtue of our mother’s job. The whole enterprise had seemed solid enough, but it was precariously dependent on one woman’s effort. As long as that effort was sustained, it was not a fragile construct, but it was, nonetheless, a construct with fragile roots. We were self-created in Hollywood like many other people living there—all the stars with changed names. Our home, for all the life within it, for all the solidarity of its walls, was very much like a stage set. And this particular tour de force was over.

And then for years, that I had grown up in Beverly Hills meant nothing to me, save perhaps a certain standard of living. But even this had left its wry aftertaste. Our perquisites were in great part the spillover of my mother’s position in Hollywood—we had no substantial family wealth. When I myself chose a less well-paying occupation, I faced the awkwardness of being left with habits of affluence which I no longer had the means to support.

Of course, one could always try oneself to be rich and famous, and the fact that I suspect I would succeed if I tried is undoubtedly a reflection of my past. But another part of the Hollywood legacy is the loss of faith in this impulse. My brother had a flash of success when at 23 he published a novel about youth, sex, and alienation which was then sold to the movies with my brother himself engaged to write the screenplay. On the crest of his good fortune, he bought a green velvet suit, ate out in expensive restaurants every night, married a movie star’s daughter, and set off with her in first-class passage on an Italian ocean liner bound for Naples—I went down to the New York pier to see them off. A year later, his money all spent, he retreated to a cabin in the woods north of San Francisco. And there he has remained ever since, though no longer married to the actor’s daughter, herself yet another Hollywood child who currently lives still further to the north in the California mountains and makes her living as a Tarot card fortune teller. My brother has held a job for some years now as the second cook in a rural Czechoslovakian restaurant. I am not saying that he is satisfied with this in many ways marginal life—his most recent passion is jazz piano composition and he would like to sell his songs, but he is unwilling to do what he and I both know to be necessary—to engage in those humiliating efforts of self-promotion. For both of us, dreams of success partake of a fantasy of purity. One writes a brilliant book—the only motive being love of truth and language—and the success, if it comes, is simply one’s dessert—it has not been a greedy calculation.

A diffidence about striving for power, a fear of preeminence has been identified as a particular problem for women, a part of their acquiescence in their suppression within the culture. In my case and also that of my brother, this same sort of diffidence is linked with our Hollywood past. We had such great scorn for the people around us who were so avidly, so crassly, sometimes so poignantly scrambling that it is difficult to give ourselves over to any unironic efforts of self-aggrandizement. Our mother was an untrammeled, self-made woman, committed to the notion of her own destiny, a taker of risks with the underlying courage of one utterly responsible for herself. A great reader, her literary models, the characters in whom she recognized herself, were those who plunged into life with sufficient resilience to withstand the consequences. I, on the other hand, respecting her bravado and achievement but in need of a different fiction, have been drawn to books like the novels of George Eliot in which the aspiring individual is always tempered, contained, judged within a moral framework, and the only permissible happiness comes with the subsuming of egoism in the identification with some greater common good. And thus I became a professor and dean at an Eastern college.

Hollywood, I think, has been an important place for me but largely in a negative way—in the cultivation of doubts and antipathies. It showed me, as I went about the task of constructing a self, what I must work hard not to be. Or to put this a bit more concretely, however I might admire a star like Ingrid Bergman, transcendent in dignity and beauty, the admiration was passive; it called for no action; it bore no relation to my own sense of self. On the other hand, I felt it within my power, and I would do everything which that power allowed, to be as different as possible from the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor. And so spurred by a generalized specter of vulgarity and self-absorption, I strove to turn my own egoism to more civilized and intelligent account, yet at the same time always a bit afraid of what I might want, what I might be if I ever relaxed my diligence and discipline.

Recently, however, I have had a shift in thought concerning the women of Hollywood, the garish women as well as the beautiful transcendent ones, that has helped to make the stubborn fact of a Hollywood past seem both more palatable and more useful. This change is connected with a recent Christmas visit to Palm Beach, Florida, where my mother now maintains an apartment for the winter in a pleasant oceanside condominium. It always startles me to reencounter Palm Beach, a place so much like Beverly Hills in the sparkling stillness of its pastel-colored mansions enclosed by their well-tended lawns and high walls and hedges. But since we don’t own one of these mansions and since it annoys my mother that she is poor by Palm Beach standards, she retaliates with the pronouncement that it is an indignity to be, as she puts it, a second-class citizen in a place where the first-class people are so third rate. Palm Beach, she points out, is not a place where people work or necessarily owe their wealth to any personal talent or exertion. The women organize charity balls and dress for parties. And yet my mother lives there, and I visit her at Christmas for a one-week stay of indolence and sunshine.

The contrast, of course, is that Beverly Hills was an industry town. Its residents, including women like my mother, were successful professional people. And if sex was often a blatant issue in their lives, gender at least was not a prohibition. The familiar names that have entered this piece—Anne Baxter, Dorothy Lamour, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman, Maureen O’Hara, even Zsa Zsa Gabor—are the names of working women, successful working women with whom as a child growing up in Beverly Hills I came into contact. They may have been helped or hindered by husbands or lovers or studio moguls; they may have appeared in roles on the screen as every man’s desire and right. But these nevertheless were women who made their own money and as often as not bought their own mansions. Perhaps a third of the houses on our block were owned by women—not just the stars but women writers, costume designers, agents, and others. It is the significance of this simple perception and proportion that has caused me to think a bit differently about my.own connection with Hollywood and the efficacy of a Hollywood childhood in a life that has taken an intentionally different turn but that has always involved both the fact of work and a stress on its importance.

Visiting my mother two Christmases ago in Palm Beach, I found the achievement of Hollywood women crystallized in a peculiar image. My mother invariably has a few biographies and autobiographies of the stars, which publishers send to her, lying about on her coffee table. On the occasion in question, one of these was Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford’s best-selling memoir of her relationship with her mother. I picked it up and read it through, though resentful of the encroachment into my vacation of such a vituperative tale. A mother’s monstrosity is not a comfortable subject, and I was happy as I read to contrast Joan Crawford with my own mother, who, simply to launch the list of differences, never drank. But there was one image in the book which touched a strange chord of memory. Christina Crawford describes the care which she and her brother took, if they wished to play outside in their back yard in the mornings, not to make noise which might disturb their mother sleeping in her bedroom upstairs. Although my own mother always woke up early, the part of the description which to me was utterly familiar was the focal point of the mother in her bedroom, her presence irradiating from that center and asserting its force over the rest of the household. My own mother’s room was spacious and extremely comfortable. Even when she was married, it was furnished to meet her own needs—a dressing-room annex was built for the husband’s. Her day would always start with breakfast in bed, not in spoiledness or indolence but in conservation of her energy which would be called upon later in demanding ways. She was enormously productive even before rising from her bed: talking with her children, scribbling ideas on spiral notepads, making phone calls, and generally planning the day’s activities. There was one phone extension on the bedside table and a second on the enormous desk which occupied a part of the room more officially given over to work. In another corner of the room was a reclining chair where my mother would often sit, at its full backward tilt, in the late afternoons. She also used to rest by stretching out flat on the floor, and I would come in and lie next to her and chat. This main room was part of a suite which also included a dressing room and a bathroom and, finally, the husband’s annex, off to the side.

There is no question in my mind that my mother had a room of her own. She had, in fact, a whole house of her own, an emblem of her strengths and independence. I speak about my own mother as a particular case but also as an example of a successful woman in Hollywood. It is possible that my viewpoint is naive, based as it is on the selective memories of childhood—and that a less impressionistic analysis could place the women of Hollywood in a more ambivalent light. However powerful a figure Joan Crawford may have loomed to her children as she slept off her hangovers in her bedroom, it is difficult to avoid the acknowledgment of her perversity and instability. Then, too, one might ask, is it a sign of vulnerability or of an essential autonomy to rival Moll Flanders in the number of one’s husbands? I have never forgotten a spread in a late 1950’s fan magazine of Lana Turner pictured in succession with each of her five husbands (she has since had two more), each younger looking than the preceding one as she, intersecting with their curve toward youth, starts off young and gets progressively older, in the end much older than the last and youngest husband. The pictures suggest a quest, an appetite, a bizarre reversal of familiar gender roles. They also in a strange way validate Lana Turner. She is the center of interest, the important personage. The figure of the husband is that of an interchangeable appendage. But what does it feel like to marry seven husbands? I know that I myself wouldn’t like it. Still, it is possible that the most desperate or aimless experience can always be ordered into a convenient fiction—of glamour, of struggle, of survival. At the end of the career and the marriages comes, if nothing else, the vindication of the autobiography. Lana Turner, I note, has recently published her own “true” story, Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth.

My story has been an effort to define a legacy. I realize that a part of this legacy is a perspective about women, an impression of their capacity. It never occurred to me from my experience as a child in Hollywood to think of women as at a disadvantage or as tactically located outside the center of power or interest. As the daughter of a Hollywood columnist, I saw a great deal of activity that I considered wasteful or absurd, and I came to dislike the general assumptions of the Hollywood world. But my childhood was too replete with women of some energy or purpose, women who commanded attention, for me to have escaped an incorrigibly feminocentric vision of reality. I knew the dominance of my mother, who for so long sustained our household and our lives, ably seconded by those subsidiary figures of authority, the cooks and the secretaries. I felt the presence of the stars, living up and down the streets of Beverly Hills in their mansions. I noted other women, too, less famous ones but merged for me in a general impression of female effectiveness: the clever woman who produced my mother’s radio show; the woman screenwriter, a family friend, with a house and tennis court at Malibu and a charming, unemployed husband; yet another friend who owned a lingerie shop in Beverly Hills which specialized in silk and satin nightgowns for the celebrities and whose retired husband, nicknamed Pops, took long naps after lunch; and then finally, just a further example, the third ex-wife of J, Paul Getty whose earlier career as an opera singer was in evidence during the carol singing at our Christmas parties and who showed great personal courage when her son went blind and died.

If many households, many cultures, contain strong women, the anomaly of women in Hollywood was the flagrance of their scope and freedom and, in so many cases, the truly picaresque dimension of their lives. Or perhaps the central paradox is that they were picaresque and professional at the same time. I myself was wary of picaresque adventures. I determined to value balance, self-containment, clarity of purpose, continuities, the challenge of marrying one husband. Nonetheless, the self, the female self, looms from my childhood as a bold conception. And since I did indeed want to work and to do well in my chosen terms and, all in all, to lead a life in which my own efficacy mattered, this conception, the residual imprint of Hollywood with its mansions and its palm trees long behind me, has proved, I find, a legacy of substance.


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