23 May, 1922
I’m Claire and this is Dragonflies — a series of letters home by a Callie, an aspiring screenwriter in 1922 blending fact & fiction. If you thought Hollywood was always a boys’ club… you need to read this newsletter 😎
Do I have some news for you!
This past Saturday, I attended my very first Hollywood party! It wasn’t quite one of the glamorous shindigs one reads about in newspapers, but it was most certainly a gathering of real movie people. How it came about was this:
You remember I mentioned my two former roommates who got themselves an apartment out in Edendale? Their names are Lillian and Maud, and the three of us get along splendidly.
Lillian hopes to work in the art department, that is, designing sets and costumes for pictures. She makes all her own clothes herself and models her style on a young French woman named “Coco” (Lillian says this is a nickname, for her real name is Gabrielle). Coco is only just beginning to be known in the United States, but Lillian says that she is responsible for the fashion to drop corsets and instead wear loose fitting dresses. If that is the case then I too am a fan of Miss Gabrielle, for if I were crammed into a corset in the California sunshine I would not be happy. Do you remember the first high school dance we went to without our corsets? How free we felt! Lillian’s grandmother is French and her family travel to France every summer (they are quite well off, but Lillian remains down-to-earth and friendly), so she knows of which she speaks.
Maud hopes to be a film director, and has already secured employment with none other than the Lois Weber company over at Universal. Now follows some real Hollywood gossip, for Maud has learned that Miss Weber has obtained a divorce from her husband and collaborator Phillips Smalley. I don’t know why, but I have never particularly liked Mr Smalley, so I feel pleased that Miss Weber is free of him.
After working so hard since their arrival in Hollywood over ten years ago, the pair have spent the past six months or so traveling the world together, and quietly decided to part upon their return to the United States. Maud has been so far engaged in very dull work organising files in the office, but she has been promised that if she does well, she might be selected to assist Miss Weber herself on her next production. Maud doesn’t yet know what this production will be, but it will have to be pretty impressive to follow up “The Blot” which Miss Weber released last year — did you ever see it?
Between the two of them, I am learning so much about my new industry. It was Lillian who introduced me to the Hollywood Studio Club. Mrs DeMille hadn’t yet arrived for the day when I was there last week, so I am yet to meet her. I did sign up for all three talks being given at the club next week, so I have high hopes for all I am soon to learn!
Oh — if you were wondering, Elizabeth, the roommate who was terrified of Los Angeles, lasted two more days hiding in her room, then her brother showed up to take her home to Oklahoma and that was the end of her. It transpired she had written him on her very first day and never even told us — charming! Ruth, my other current roommate, the one from Chicago, is a fun sort, but she has already found a boy-friend, so I don’t see very much of her. I am lucky that Lillian and Maud haven’t forgotten me since their move or I should be quite alone.
Anyhow, I got home from a most disagreeable day at work on Friday to find a note from Maud instructing me to present myself at their apartment at lunchtime the following day. It was all very mysterious, but I obediently rode the streetcar out to Edendale (it had to stop twice for cows wandering across the street — they really should control them better), and rang the bell. It turned out that Lillian and Maud have made friends of the family next door and had secured an invitation for all three of us to attend a backyard “cook-out.”
This family, the Athertons, are quite something. Their home has stood on Glendale Boulevard since long before any studio came along, and the family grew up alongside the picture colony — every one of the six children featured in pictures as a baby!
The father, Fred Sr, had previously been a farm laboror, so he was perfectly suited to take on the role of cameraman. It requires a tremendous amount of strength to not only carry the heavy camera, but crank it at an even pace so as to ensure a steady picture, so only the very strongest men need apply. Mr Atherton has worked for almost every studio on the city, and for the past few years, he has been employed exclusively by Paramount.
As we entered the party, Maud whispered to me that he had been working with William Desmond Taylor when the director was slain — she warned that he is deeply saddened by the death of his friend and colleague, so not to bring up the topic of the investigation at all.
I felt a little nervous as I was introduced to him, worried that I might accidentally blurt out a query as to whether it is true Mr Taylor enjoyed the company of men and was shot in a lovers’ tiff.* The newspaper man on the street corner had been shouting about that as I left the office on Friday, so it was fresh in my mind. Mr Atherton is so terribly kind and gentle, however, that I was able to keep such thoughts to myself. He is an enormous man, with shoulders almost as broad as I am tall, and such sadness swam in his eyes as he shook my hand that I almost felt like sobbing myself.
Mrs Atherton, or Thelma, as she instructed I call her, was really a marvel. She too has worked in movies all her life (when Lillian asked who took care of the children, she waved vaguely and said “oh, they managed” as her daughters rolled their eyes and laughed). She has worked most every role the pictures offer, but is now an extremely important “film clipper” for the Goldwyn Company. Film clipping is ideally suited to women, she explained, as carefully slicing one-eighth-of-an-inch from a reel of film requires a both high level of attention to detail and nimble fingers.
When she heard that I was a scenario writer, she insisted I must spend some time in the clipping department to learn how film-stories are told through “the edit.” It is not enough to simply transfer a story onto screen, she explained, one must truly understand how emotion and tension is conveyed by slicing a sequence of shots together. I must have looked as overwhelmed as I felt, for Thelma offered then and there to give me a tour of her department, and a lesson on clipping secrets!
And now I am writing to you by moonlight as I lie wide awake with excitement. Ruth came home hours ago and fell asleep as soon as she climbed into bed, but every time I close my eyes, more and more images from the party dance through my mind. Everyone was so friendly and joyous as though the very California sun streamed in their veins.
Hamburger sandwiches were served with iced lemonade and pie. As the sun set, some men took up fiddles and everybody danced — men, women, all! The air seemed to glow with a pinky blush and we could smell the orange groves burning — farmers set smouldering fires every night to keep coyotes from their stock.
I discovered a mutual love of music with the Athertons’ eldest daughter Hildy, and we plan to take in a concert together soon. She tells me that an open air ampitheatre is set to open in the Daisy Dell area of the Hollywood Hills and that she plans to secure tickets for the opening of the season in July. I danced two dances with her brother Fred jr, and though he isn’t a man of many words, I sure wouldn’t mind if he called me up.
Well, I guess I should leave this letter here and try to get some sleep before morning. With love to you and everyone back in New York,
It would mean SO MUCH to this wee project if you could share this post — on social media, or forward on to a friend who might enjoy it! Thank you 💖
* Unsubstantiated, but one of the many rumours!