13 June, 1922
A Hollywood party and a famous friend!
I’m Claire and this is Letters from Callie, a fictional screenwriter in 1922. If you thought Hollywood was always a boys’ club… you need to read this newsletter 😎
TW: suggestion of sexual assault
I was incredibly sad and concerned to read of the storm in New York city yesterday that resulted in the deaths of several people — I heard that the ferris wheel at Clason Point Park collapsed! I have such wonderful memories of riding it with you on the day it opened. I do hope nobody we know was amongst the injured?
Well, life in the movie colony continues apace. I attended my first real Hollywood party this evening, and I am writing this now in bed with my ankle on ice as a consequence of it.
How it came about was this:
You’ll remember that Hildy and her family grew up in the shade of the Keystone Studio. It seems that the family were adopted by the players — Hildy says that she and Fred made quite a fortune when they set up a lemonade stall at the edge of the studio lot. They sold juice and cookies to Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton, and Mabel Normand.
Miss Normand adopted Hildy as a little sister. She helped her with homework, lent her books and even paid for extra tuition when it appeared that Hildy wouldn’t graduate. Hildy has therefore been quite distressed by all the terrible rumours suggesting that Miss Normand had a hand in William Desmond Taylor’s death. She says that Miss Normand has been too busy grieving her dear friend to pay any attention herself.
Yesterday evening, Hildy called me up and said that Miss Normand had invited us both to accompany her to a real Hollywood shindig. Of course I accepted immediately. Miss Normand picked us up from Hildy’s apartment in none other than a lilac limousine! I was only just recovering from my shock at the sight of the spectacular vehicle when the Queen of Comedy herself enveloped me in a tight hug that nearly swept me off my feat. She insisted that I call her Mabel.
She is much smaller than she appears on screen, only a little over five feet and delicately boned. Do you remember us discussing an article one day a few years ago, that claimed she had been badly injured when Fatty Arbuckle sat on her on set? I can quite believe it. I think she would be injured if I sat on her.
However, she burbles over with such warmth and enthusiasm that it makes her seem quite a giant.
Her car is, of course, one of the very best, capable of reaching speeds of seventy-five miles per hour. I am quite certain we hit such a speed at least once, as we whirled around bends and corners on two wheels, with Hildy and I clinging on for dear life. Mabel likes to drive with one hand, the other gesturing with a cigarette in a long silver holder as she talks, and every time she laughs the car swerves alarmingly.
The home of our host (a producer who works over at Universal) was high above the city in the wilds of the Beverly Hills. Ever since Pickford and Fairbanks purchased the Summit Drive property upon their engagement (can you believe that was three years ago and the renovations are STILL ongoing!), the area has become quite sought after. It won’t be more than a passing fad, I suspect, as the journey so far away from civilisation is simply too laborious.
Even if passes VERY quickly with Mabel Normand at the wheel!
The mansion itself was like nothing I have ever seen before. It was modelled after a Tudor stately home in England, and consisted of at least twenty rooms (ten of which are bedrooms, each complete with their very own, ornate bathroom). The grounds are extensive, featuring a cactus garden, a rose garden, and a swimming pool. Every piece of the furniture is enormous, from sofas to hassocks and lounging chairs, almost as though the owner had said to the furniture-maker: “give me regular furniture, but double the size.”
The party was already in full swing by the time we arrived. It seemed that news of the Volstead Act has not reached these hills as bow-tied waiters quite brazenly passed around trays of champagne and cocktails. Did you know that as soon as the 18th Amendment was passed, Mary Pickford and her mother went and bought out the contents of an entire liquor store?
I was positively dazzled by the array of celebrated faces in attendance — I spied Chaplin deep in conversation with his leading lady Edna Purviance, Mary and Doug held court over by the swimming pool, whileLillian Gish and John Gilbert (his friends call him Jack!) played a rather lively game of croquet on the lawn, cheered on by that young Italian who did awfully well in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse picture last year.
He greeted Mabel with a ‘ciao, bella’ and a kiss on each cheek, then bowed to Hildy and I as she introduced us. I’m already learning that sometimes screen luminaries can be a let down in person, but I will tell you this: Rudolph Valentino is every bit as handsome and charming in life. I felt positively light-headed when he smiled at me.
He was squiring his producer and mentor June Mathis for the evening. She is a warm, personable type with eyes that spark with intelligence, and, of course, one of the greatest scenario writers working today. I was thrilled when Mabel introduced me as a fellow writer. She wished me luck and said to call on her at Metro if I were ever in need of advice, or had a story that she really must read. I could hardly find my voice to respond!
Well, then Fatty Arbuckle arrived. You’ll know, of course, that he was recently found Not Guilty of causing the death of poor Virginia Rappé after his third trial. The word amongst those in the know, however, is that he is lucky the eventual charges were so trumped up that they were unable to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. Mabel, of course, worked closely with him for many years, but I could see the effort it took for her to greet him politely, and the only person I witnessed speaking warmly to him was Chaplin.
Hildy quietly whispered to me that she had detested the man ever since he made her brother Fred cry. You see, assistant directors from the Keystone Studio would often poke their heads into the Atherton yard to ask if any of the kids felt like being extras that day. One day, Hildy, who was around six, and Fred, just three, agreed.
They were to play the children of a woman that Arbuckle was attempting to seduce, and they needed the little boy to cry in the scene. Well, Fred was a contented, jolly sort of child, and he did not feel like crying that day. Hildy asked the director to give her a moment explain to Fred what was required of him, and to show him how to pretend to wail for the camera.
But Arbuckle did not want to wait even that long. “I’ll make him cry,” he announced. He bent down and yelled and growled in Fred’s face, so terrifying the child that he was quite inconsolable for days.
I had every intention of steering clear of the disgraced comedian, but unfortunately the feeling was not mutual. When the band started, Hildy and I danced together at the edge of the crowd, but then she was greeted by an old friend and quite suddenly I found myself in Arbuckle’s arms. I allowed him to turn me around the dancefloor once, firmly stepping back each time he tried to pull me closer.
“Nobody likes me any more,” he whispered in my ear, with such a mournful tone that I felt sorry for him a moment. “Don’t you think that’s unfair?” I patted his arm with I smile I hoped was a little bit reassuring, then he insisted on giving me a tour of our host’s home. Mabel and Hildy were deep in conversation with one of the Keystone production managers, so I didn’t see how I could politely decline.
I reluctantly followed him up the sweeping, gold-encrusted staircase. Once upstairs, his bold advances indicated he had learned nothing from the scandal; he was positively dogged in his efforts to entice me into one of the ten bedrooms. I didn’t know what to say. We were alone on the second floor and I was beginning to realise that I had made a terrible mistake.
Somehow or other, I found myself backed into one of the bedrooms, so I quickly slipped into the bathroom. There was no lock on the door, but given the cocktails the actor had consumed, the closed door was enough to befuddle him for a moment.
The window was large and opened onto a low sloping roof. Just as I heard the door handle begin to rattle, I clambered through the window. “Hey — where’d you go?” I heard as I carefully made my way along the roof to its lowest point. As you know, I’ve spent a lifetime clambering up and down fire escapes all over Hells Kitchen, so I judged I could make the jump into a copse of bushes. I managed it successfully, though my ankle bore the brunt of my uneven landing. It is sore and bruised but does not appear to be broken.
So there you go. My first real Hollywood adventure. What do you think?
Yours as always,