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"It's the Pictures That Got Small"Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood's Golden Age$

Anthony Slide

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780231167086

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231167086.001.0001

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(p.25) 1932
"It's the Pictures That Got Small"

Anthony Slide

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In these diary entries written between June and December 1932, Hollywood screenwriter Charles Brackett reveals that he was “impelled” to keep a diary after reading the Civil War diaries of his great uncle, William Corliss (1854–1915). Brackett says the best he can offer in substitution for the war is the Depression. He also talks about his interview with producer Jed Harris about his play, Present Laughter; his travel (by car) to Stockbridge to spend the day with his wife, Elizabeth; the suicide of Smith Reynolds, the bridegroom of blues singer Libby Holman; his weekend stay at the farmhouse of George and Beatrice Kaufman in Manhasset, Long Island; the relationship between Alexander Woollcott and Charles Lederer; and the telephone call from Otto Liveright telling Brackett about a new Hollywood offer; and his meeting with George Cukor and Constance Bennett.

Keywords:   William Corliss, Jed Harris, Present Laughter, Smith Reynolds, Libby Holman, Otto Liveright, George Cukor

June 7

The University Club, New York City. Impelled to write a diary by my pleasure in reading the diaries kept by my Great Uncle William Corliss through the Civil War Years. I begin today, though it has not been a particularly significant day.

The best I can offer in substitution for the war is the Depression, an event that seems less violent since the formation of a great bond pool last week, headed by Mr. Thomas Lamont.1 In fact, I have not heard anyone say that a revolution was imminent since I got off the train this morning at 7:30. There is even less conviction in the statements that America is going off the gold standard.2

It was a clear, cool day. I lunched with John Mosher at the Algonquin [Hotel], read the manuscript of a serial to Otto [K.] Liveright, my agent, in the afternoon, and decided that if worked upon it might make a saleable story.

Had a game of squash with the professional at the Club. Dined with Alex[ander] Woollcott at the Marguery.3 After dinner we went to see Reunion in Vienna4 which we had both seen and enjoyed before. Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt have not let down their superb performances. I was again irritated at the shoddy framework [Robert] Sherwood has given the (p.26) play, which becomes so excellent whenever the two chief characters have anything to do. Afterward I went around to see Lynn and Alfred in Lynn’s dressing room. She was looking particularly lovely in the false eyelashes she wears on the stage. They told of Ethel Barrymore’s referring to Helen Hayes as “that monster.”

Still later I stopped in at Tony’s,5 my favorite speakeasy. … I was amused that Tony, the proprietor, mentioned among the cheerful signs of returned prosperity, the fact that John D. Rockefeller Junior6 has made a statement that he regards Prohibition as an unfortunate and discredited experiment.

June 14

… After luncheon I had an interview with [producer] Jed Harris about my play [Present Laughter]. It was an experience. It began by his slapping my face (metaphorically), and ended in a perfect Balcony Scene. I hope he is to be my Svengali but had been warned of his utter unreliability. At least he criticized the play from a high impersonal plane. I should like to work with him, suffering or no suffering.

[On June 22, Brackett leaves by train for Saratoga Springs, New York.]

June 26

Sunday, Saratoga: [Brackett travels by car to Stockbridge to spend the day with his wife, Elizabeth, “who is recuperating there from a sad and trying winter.”]7

En route I meditated on the advantages of having so good-tempered and non-domineering a wife.

June 29

—Saratoga Springs: Went to dinner at the [Monty] Woolleys’. After dinner the radio was turned on and the guests listened to the Democratic Convention, everyone registering great enthusiasm for the Democratic stand (p.27) against the 18th Amendment, and Monty Woolley fuming and raging as if personally insulted at any expression of dry sentiment.

[On July 5, Brackett takes the train to New York, where he stays at the University Club.]

July 6

—University Club: Dwight Wiman8 told me by the telephone of the suicide of Smith Reynolds, the 20-year-old bridegroom of Libby Holman,9 the 28-year-old blues singer. We had known them both. At the wedding of Smith’s sister Nancy to Henry Walker Bagley, Dwight and I were groomsmen. …

The Reynolds children seemed to me perfect examples of what too much money and too little discipline can produce. The brothers hopped into the bedrooms of the guests to drop eggs on their heads or frighten them with shotguns. One brother had killed a man in a motor accident in England, and having served in an English jail, was being chaperoned by an appointee of the English Court. The night of the wedding they celebrated by throwing heavy benches from a balcony to the floor of the hall.

I first knew Libby as a nice, big girl who wore spectacles and had a couple of college degrees, but who, due to a trick voice, produced by an operation for tonsils, wanted to sing torch songs. She had made a couple of phonograph records but had no real success. When people of a certain set wanted a fourth at bridge they would telephone her and she would come and play, always jolly and amusing. Then Dwight featured her in the First Little Show [1929] and she became a glamorous femme fatale to the people of New York and I suppose eventually to herself, although she continued to keep much of her humor. I remember her entering a party one evening after she had played in Three’s a Crowd [1930] and saying, “Well, you should have heard me tonight. Did I put over my big song. It was like the Perfect Tribute. Not a soul applauded.”

(p.28) Smith Reynolds, when he came to New York, evidently felt a Theda Bara lure in her and they were married. I am sorry to report that [lyricist] Howard Dietz tells me that early in the acquaintance Libby said, “If the Cannon girl got a million out of this, why shouldn’t I get five million?” Some of the tabloids hint vaguely that she may have shot the boy, but that is utterly ridiculous. …

Had a consultation with Jed Harris about my play which I left, entirely discouraged. He isn’t going to be able to give me the architectural help I had hoped for. … [John] McLain gave the interesting information about Smith Reynolds, when last in town, was making inquiries about methods to increase his virility—a first-heard fact which seems to offer a clue.

July 7

—University Club: … the talk was all of the Reynolds business. My idea of the case is that after some disagreement, the boy said, “All right, I’ll shoot myself,” and that Libby, having been bored with that threat many times said, “You’re always saying that—go on and do it.” I think she honestly believed that was the wise way to stop such nonsense. He was exactly the sort of boy who hadn’t brains enough to take a dare and, probably a little tight, pulled the trigger. It seems to me that this accounts for Libby’s collapse, as well as his death.

July 9

—George & Beatrice Kaufman’s, Manhasset, Long Island: Spending the weekend at a charming Normandy farmhouse George and Beatrice10 have taken here. …

The creative group of Long Island has been rocked by a row between Edna Ferber11 and Beatrice Kaufman. It seems Miss Ferber walked about the Kaufman house the other evening, looking at groups engaged in playing bridge, backgammon, etc., murmuring, “I suppose you call these brilliant people … I’m sure I don’t know why I came … Never saw anything so dreary in my life …” [ellipses in original]. Finally Beatrice said, “Then why not go (p.29) home?” Thereupon Miss Ferber flew to a telephone and commanded that her chauffeur return for her. He didn’t come for about an hour, and it must have been an awful hour. Since then Miss Ferber told a group of Beatrice’s friends that Beatrice Kaufman was as dangerous to the community as a maniac loose with a carving knife in his hands, and had referred to her as “a python.” All of which does not change my liking for Edna, who has always been grand to me and whose robust temperament delights me.

July 10

Sunday: The morning papers provided us with a text for the day printing the information that the doorknob of Libby’s room at Reynolds had blood stains on it (which someone had attempted to clean away) and that a towel with marks which appeared to be blood had been found in the bathtub. Her testimony of being in a state of coma in which she only remembers a pistol shot, and Smith’s saying “Libby” is not encouraging to her defenders, but I still am convinced of her innocence. … I said, rather unkindly, when I learned that there were evidences of someone’s having washed, “Well, that in itself should clear Libby”—for Libby was never a soap-and-water girl. …

[The following day, Beatrice Kaufman drove Brackett back to New York.]

August 3

A telephone call from Otto [K. Liveright] this morning informed me that Leland Hayward12 had called him from Los Angeles to ask if I would go to the Coast for four weeks at $750 a week. I said that I would, and I will hear tomorrow whether Hayward clinches the arrangement. I’d enjoy the trip but feel that excursions into the cinema are departures from my regular career and probably a mistake.

[On August 8, via train and taxi, Brackett visits Neshobe Island, Vermont, “which is owned by a sort of club which revolves around Alex Woolcott and Neysa.”]

(p.30) August 10

… I am amused to watch the relationship between [Alexander] Woollcott and [Charles] Lederer.13 Lederer is the nephew of Marion Davies, a good-looking, partly Jewish boy who had a precocious college career and graduated to great amorous triumphs among the beauties of Hollywood. He has all the qualities that entrance Woollcott—Semitism, sexual promiscuity, pertness. He likes and is amused by Woollcott and Woollcott exerts himself to the utmost to entertain and enthrall him. I know that actual sex is out of the picture, but Socrates must have felt the identical stimulation.

August 15

… Went to Passport to Hell, a movie with Elissa Landi and Alexander Kirkland. Kirkland used to play in the stock company with Walker Ellis. He always called himself “Billy” Kirkland and I believe I was the person to advise him to use his magnificent name. It gives me a proprietary interest in him and I am proud to say that he did extremely well.

September 7

… Otto Liveright telephoned to me this morning that a new Hollywood offer is on the table, advising me to accept, which I agreed to do though I have not now much inclination for the West Coast. I go to New York tonight [from Providence, Rhode Island] to discuss my play with Jed [Harris], a project which interests me much more.

[On September 10, Brackett takes the train to Providence, Rhode Island. “Telephoned Otto temperamentally that I didn’t want to go to California and could I get out of it—to realize in the midst of his protestations that I was more or less bluffing, so packed my big suitcase, expressed it and bought my ticket to New York.”]

[On September 12, Charles Brackett left New York for Los Angeles; his plane started from Newark at 10:00 a.m., stopped en route in Cleveland, Chicago, and Salt Lake City, and arrived in Los Angeles the following morning.]

(p.31) September 13

California was a long sage-green valley. We landed at Los Angeles at 11:40. I was met by Harry Ham,14 who represents Leland Hayward’s firm out here, Joyce-Selznick.15 Harry Ham brought me to the Chateau Elysee16 where a room had been reserved for me. …

Harry asked me where I wanted to have luncheon and, knowing my fan magazines, I said “The Brown Derby.”17 We were unable to get in and lunched at Al Levy’s Tavern instead. I then went to the studio [RKO] and met Adela Rogers St. Johns18 who is the author of the story on which I am to work. “Author” is a vague term in this instance, as the story is an article she wrote about Jack Dempsey and Estelle Taylor19 having been forced apart by the fight racket. “The champion’s wife was always wrong,” Miss St. Johns explained in her rather perfervid vein. Miss St. Johns (she is several times married and has three children) is a snub-faced, alert woman. … She, George Cukor (who is to be the director) and I then went to Miss [Constance] Bennett’s20 dressing room for a conference. Miss Bennett is a business-like beauty (well, hardly a beauty, for one can always see the bulbous-nosed, square face of her father Richard Bennett hanging over her delicate features like a doom) and I was delighted to find her intelligent. Cukor is amusing, also intelligent, in his way. Joel McCrea,21 a long, good-looking youth, was in the dressing room (it’s a suite really) and on the telephone, asking Miss Bennett if it were true that she is to become a mother, and if the father was Neil (p.32) Hamilton.22 Miss Bennett had a snort for that. We had what is known as a story conference and was more of a discussion of Joan Crawford, then I looked up David Lewis, an RKO executive I used to know in New York. … I had dinner here with David Lewis, who has a larger apartment, and went early to bed.

September 14

… At the studio I met Cukor and Miss Bennett and told them my version of the story. They seemed to like it. Miss St. Johns appeared and on being told my version had what approached being a ground fit. That wasn’t her story at all! Comedy wasn’t wanted for Miss Bennett. She’d seen it as a tragic melodrama. Miss Bennett said she wanted not to have to snivel around. An excellent young woman. …

I walked home, wrote to [wife] Elizabeth and dined again with David Lewis which was a mistake, as one meal in company with that morbid young man is enough for a long time. To such extremities does loneliness reduce one. Afterwards he took me to Ramon Novarro’s23 house on a hill near here. It was built by Frank Lloyd Wright and as improved by Novarro is as viciously ugly a human habitation as I have ever seen—gilded Venetian blinds are the note. Novarro is a rather touching queenly creature who of course adores his house and obliged with a few songs, which he sang excellently, occasionally translating the French for us. There was a company of young men who reminded me of Margalo Gillmore’s24 response to the Englishman, who said, “Well, at least I discovered Ralph Forbes.”25 “Where were you looking?” Margalo asked, “Under rocks?”

September 15

A morning spent talking with A.R.St.J. [Adela Rogers St. Johns], looking up Bob Benchley, having my shoes shined, in an effort to kill the time that should have been a conference with Mr. [David O.] Selznick (p.33) and Cukor but which they could not give to such a conference. I had an engagement with Ilka Chase26 for luncheon at the Ambassador but as the conference was postponed indefinitely at 12:30 we had to have luncheon in the studio commissary, where Bob Benchley joined us.

Later, hearing a great deal of the picture Rockabye which Constance Bennett has just finished, I asked to be allowed to see the preview with Bob, George Cukor and Mr. Selznick. Bob and George had specified that they be allowed to laugh as much as they pleased. It was a mawkish, artificial story but not as outstandingly bad as I had been led to believe. The roars of laughter of Bob, George and Mr. Selznick’s reluctant admission that they were justified strike me as promising well for RKO pictures. It was decided to scrap a little more than half the picture. To scrap it all would have been desirable, largely because of the appalling performance given by Phillips Holmes.27

September 16

… finally had the conference with Mr. Selznick, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Cukor and a man named ? [sic] who has written swell movies. My ideas for lightening the picture towards a comedy fell absolutely flat and I had to agree that the story blocked out by Miss St. John and P. [sic] will make a far more interesting picture, though not such a good vehicle for Miss Bennett. I am out as far as work on the picture is concerned, until they have done more work on the script. The conference brought on a violent attack of the Hollywood blues. It was particularly funny, as [screenwriter] Gene Markey had advised against selling myself to Hollywood at luncheon, said how stultifying it was after a length of time, how dangerous to smother one’s talent in cream. I had admitted that I feared for my conduct under temptation. It seems probably that that form of temptation will not be put upon me.

September 17

I read the scenarios given me as possibilities for a Constance Bennett picture and returned them to [producer] Kenneth MacGowan with an obscene phrase. He agreed that they were pretty bad. There was a copy of Little Women on his desk. I said that production of it seemed to me the (p.34) most promising project of the studio, and he asked me to read it and make a treatment. It is certainly a long cry from American Colony, my last novel and the only one by which I am known to Hollywood.

… George Cukor motored me down to the Del Rey Beach, to swim at the cottage of an actor named Andy Lawler.28 Johnny Weissmuller was there with a brother and a friend. Weissmuller is certainly the most magnificent physical specimen I ever saw, and to see him twist like some sort of flying fish through the breakers was a stunning sight. As Harpo [Marx] is like some woodland creature, he is like a creature of the sea.

On the way into town Cukor stopped at William Haines’ house, a pretty, very interior-decorated little place. Haines and the man in business with him were there and fed us tea. I may note of both these groups and their connecting link, George Cukor, that the language is something novel to me, and the attitude towards life something that makes me feel like [the eighteenth-century preacher] Jonathan Edwards. Nevertheless, they are all highly amusing people.

September 18

… went over to the Sam Goldwyns’ to see a picture. The Walter Wangers, Gary Cooper and the Countess di Frasso,29 [actress] Gwili Andre and several other people were there. Mr. Goldwyn excelled, if anything, the comedy reports I had heard of him. I liked Mrs. Goldwyn, and confirmed my impression that the Countess di Frasso is the most unattractive, vulgar carnivore in North America. The picture, which was Bill of Divorcement, directed by George Cukor, gave me a new respect for George’s ability.

September 19

George called me early this morning to say that he might need my help in rewriting parts of Rockabye. I hurried over, and he handed me three scenes from the hasty draft Jane Murfin had made. Before I set to work on them, however, he found in his mail a notice of a sale at some big (p.35) shop downtown and, collecting Jane Murfin, Ilka and myself, he took us all downtown. We wandered through the shop, raging at the enormous prices and roaring at the hideousness of much of the merchandise. ZaSu Pitts was there and I was introduced to her, with the disappointment almost inevitable to meeting comediennes. …

September 20

Worked at various scenes for Rockabye all morning. Lunched with George, [screenwriter] Bart Cormack and David Lewis at the commissary. Turned out another scene and went to a Rockabye conference in David Selznick’s office. We went over the script scene by scene, appraising the vitality of every one, throwing away many, rushing in reliable story ideas at shots that were dull. It was a very illuminating business.

September 21

At the studio all day, working at Rockabye sporadically and waiting for George Cukor to be ready for conferences most of the time. Jane Murfin and I ended about 6:30 with a spurt of hurried writing. …

September 22

… On getting to the studio I found a telegram addressed to Charles Antibes Brackett inviting me to dinner at Malibu Beach this evening and signed Alexander Theatre Guild Kirkland. I telephoned an acceptance and at 7 o’clock a car came and carried me down a very tortuous road to the beach house of Alexander—a small place decorated smartly in red, white and blue … the Jesse Laskys appeared for dinner. We had champagne cocktails and Alexander, rather tight, told Mr. Lasky about my play The Cocktail Crowd so effectively that Mr. Lasky almost bought it on the spot. Alexander insisted on driving me home himself, stopping in at a garage to show me his enormous racing car. He is making sixty thousand a year and spending most of it. “It’s such fun to be rich,” he said, which I found an engaging and comprehensible speech.

September 23

An agitation at the studio to entirely re-do Rockabye with Joel McCrea in the Phillips Holmes role proved to be impractical because of expense. There was a long conference in David Selznick’s office in which it (p.36) was decided to eliminate a scene which I felt was the only thing to give the story any distinction.

September 24

A day at the studio, which was meant to have been a very busy one but which proved to be a series of delays while George Cukor did other things. … More delays all afternoon. Finally a meeting at which it was revealed that the estimates for remaking Rockabye were wrong. David Selznick, a rather pathetic, harassed figure. Complete indecision as to whether to remake it with Joel McCrea, go on as we had planned with Holmes, or just patch up the horrible original with a few scenes.

September 27

Wrote a fairly good trial scene as an opening for Rockabye, took it to the studio. George Cukor didn’t think it quite dramatic enough and at about 4 o’clock he, Jane Murfin, Kubec Glassman and I went into conferences with David Selznick on the story of the picture which is to go into production day after tomorrow. It was decided to make radical changes. Kubec Glassman to make most of them. All we had was a respectable hokum story and it seems to me that that is being thrown away. What will take its place I cannot guess. I hadn’t before realized the unarchitectual and unstable quality of George’s mind, and it seemed to me that David was yielding to his flightiness rather than holding it down. My connection with the picture was over anyway but I am immensely curious to see what they will make out of it.

Came home and read at Little Women (I am getting the flu) and dined with [humorist and writer] Corey Ford, who exults in expressing his hatred of Hollywood. Later I went to What Price Hollywood?, the picture in which George Cukor directed Constance Bennett, and revised my opinion of the quality of his mind. It is a swell picture. Evidently he feeds himself with many ideas, then uses the best in a kind of brilliant improvisation.

September 28

Felt wretchedly—stuffed-up head, aching joints. I finished Little Women, wrote a brief synopsis, took it to Kenneth MacGowan, but was stopped by George Cukor, who outlined some scenes he wanted written. Had (p.37) luncheon at the commissary with Ilka, who has the flu also and then stopped in at Constance Bennett’s bungalow, where she and George were having luncheon and had coffee with them. …

September 29

At an interview with [producer] Kenneth MacGowan, he again commanded that I make a draft of Little Women, bearing in mind that it might be modernized, a modifying clause I refused to hear. … I worked on the opening scenes of Little Women, which I think should begin with the identical opening lines of the book.

… Mercedes de Acosta30 came in to dinner in one of her little uniforms. I don’t know what it represented—a black cloak, a tight black hat, something white about the throat, and black trousers peeping daintily beneath the cloak. Someone in New York once called her Miss Dracula, and the costume was perfect for that title. She came here on a Metro-Goldwyn contract. I met her at RKO the other day when she was looking for a job. Her stay out here has apparently been one long series of amorous triumphs, however. Her first words were that she was late because Marlene Dietrich had arrived at her house with so many presents which she must stop to admire—a Marie Laurencin31 painting, a great vase of flowers, a watch, etc. As the eyes of Mercedes were very bright, I wondered if she had been kicking the gong around or something of the sort. Her enchanting sister, Mrs. Phil Lydig,32 was supposed to be slightly druggy. I have an idea, however, that with Mercedes it was merely good, unhealthy exaggeration. Her conquest of Garbo when she first arrived here rang through the groves of Lesbos in the East, and she had to mention it, flaunt it. According to her, the expiration of her Metro contract was a kind of Liebestod for Garbo. She is very definitely worried about money, now.

My idea of the best pun ever made in America had Mercedes as its subject. She was in the throes of a grand passion for [actress] Eva Le Gallienne, who was then playing in [Ferenc] Molnar’s play The Swan. Someone saw them (p.38) leaving the theatre and asked, “Who is that?” “A social Leda,” replied some anonymous but inspired wit, “and her Swan.”

October 2

I worked on Little Women all morning, had luncheon with Corey Ford, insisting that he eat with me, and going out to buy sandwiches, as luncheons are not served in the hotel on Sunday. Wrote more in the afternoon. David Lewis took me to cocktails with Ruth Chatterton and George Brent. She is a shorter person than I had thought, innately affected—one of those people to whom naturalness, as it is ordinarily interpreted, would be completely impossible—but charming. …33 George Brent, unlike his suave self on the screen, is a quite tough-faced Irishman. …

October 4

… Worked until noon, then lunched at the studio where the tepid conversation of Kenneth MacGowan and the averted eyes of Pandro Berman told me that something was amiss. Learned during my interview with Noel Gurney that RKO was not anxious to retain my services unless my work on Little Women proved to have been exceptional. Also by indirection that Myron Selznick, after his talk with me yesterday, had done nothing.

Ran over the draft of Little Women, hurriedly making obvious corrections and took it down to be typed. …

I’ve thought it amazing that I was so little affected by the RKO news and far too logical, but I now find myself deeply depressed by it and by my lack of ability to “sell” myself, when I know myself to be a more valuable piece of merchandise than many that are sold here at large figures.

October 6

… I was working on Little Women when a telephone call summoned me to the studio to do a horror scene for Secrets of the French Police. It was a welcome chance, I must admit. Eddie Sutherland is the director and he had to chaperone every word of dialogue, because the villain is played by [Gregory] Ratoff, who speaks with a tremendous accent.

(p.39) The striking picture of the day, and one which illustrates the condition of Hollywood language at the moment, was of Jobyna Howland, the great, brazen looking old trouper who plays the mother in Rockabye. She stood talking to gentle little Jane Murfin. Jobyna’s dog was nearby and Jane asked if it was male or female. “A bitch, of course,” Jobyna roared. “They’re so much more wonderful than male dogs.” “In what way?” asked Jane, who used to own Strongheart. “Oh, a male dog is always licking his balls, or takin a drop of p-p [sic] off his dingus.” …

October 8

Worked on Little Women until 12:00 when I had a call from the secretary of one Willis Goldbeck, my supervisor, asking if I had gone back to work on Little Women after the day I put in on Secrets of the Paris Police. I replied that I had, and felt unspeakably affronted at being treated like a schoolboy trying to pass without doing any work. …

Went to the studio for luncheon, sitting next to Willis Goldbeck and not mentioning my wrongs. … Went to the Ambassador Hotel for a haircut and took a bus back to Hollywood, wondering if I were not the only author who ever rode anywhere in Hollywood on a bus. Noel Gurney, the man at Joyce-Selznick who is handling me, telephoned that David Selznick has given him permission to offer my services elsewhere and that he will begin to do so on Monday.

October 11

… After a consultation with Kenneth MacGowan about Rockabye, in which he seemed embarrassed, I returned home and found from my agent that my contract with RKO expired not Thursday but today. I intend to rewrite my draft of Little Women while waiting to see if another contract develops, because I have nothing better to do with my time and because it strikes me that it would agreeable to perform one small gesture in Hollywood on behalf of good work instead of shoddy work. Perhaps money means more to RKO than it does to me but I have an idea that they just think I can’t do any good work anyway. At least don’t care for my kind of work.

October 12

Worked on Little Women, went to the studio and was impressed by George Cukor to find a quotation from Romeo and Juliet for the heroine of (p.40) Rockabye to say to the hero, and to write a scene incorporating it. … Came to my room and did some more work on Little Women, the bogus enthusiasm of yesterday having slipped from me. …

October 13

Worked more casually on Little Women. Went to the studio for luncheon. Was hailed by Connie, George and Joel and asked to luncheon in Connie’s bungalow. “A stinking luncheon,” she pronounced it in advance. … The luncheon consisted of scrambled eggs and sausage. The sausage, Connie claimed, were high and she wouldn’t eat them. There was cabbage she thought too strong and celery she loathed. A rather small chocolate cake, contributed by Jobyna Howland, was all she liked. She and George were both exhausted but it was a droll, charming party.

October 14

… I took the faintly rewritten script of Little Women to the studio and left it to be typed. No one of interest was in the commissary so I sat at the table with Sam Jaffe,34 as loathsome a yellow kike as I ever saw. He was wearing a black suit with white polka-dots all over it and talking about his cinematic discoveries. …

… Went to the house David Lewis and James Whale35 have taken, for dinner. I went for dinner, but they have not taken it for that function. Ah, my immortal grammar! It is very Spanish, with a red ruled living room whose long windows look out on magnificent views on three sides. To see David ordering about his butler gave me great amusement and pleasure. David Manners36 was there, a young man I thought even more dislikeable than when I first met him, and Dorothy Arzner,37 the only woman director came in later. A fine, sad, abstract-minded spinster. She drove me home, stopping en route to show me her house, a Greek house immensely appropriate to the Vestal of the Cinema.

(p.41) October 15

Spent the morning at the office of Joyce-Selznick, arranging for transportation and watching their promises of contracts glimmer and go out. Went to the studio and said goodbye to David Selznick, who said that he felt when a writer “of known attainments” was brought out and the studio was unable to get anything from him that he felt it was the studio’s fault—a kindly-meant speech but not the most tactful in the world.

Had luncheon in the commissary, said goodbye to a million people. Saying goodbye to defeated New Yorkers is done rather well in Hollywood. Returned to my room and worked on my story of the decadent little group and had a grand time. David Lewis dropped in with a farewell present of two neckties. He has been a great comfort to me in my bondage.

[At 9:55 p.m, Brackett takes the plane from Burbank, making stops in Cheyenne, Iowa City, Chicago, Cleveland, and arrives in New York, by train from Toledo, on October 17.]

October 18

… Called on Otto [K. Liveright], and together we went to the office of Leland Hayward, a very Renaissance apartment with stone staircases winding between filing cabinets. Leland sat at a long carved table, surrounded by telephones, and between telephone conversations assured us that it was merely a matter of hours before I had a MGM contract. He had been talking it over with Irving Thalberg and it was all set. On the way out Otto warned me to add the customary shakeful of salt to that statement. I had already done so.

[At 3:00 p.m., Brackett leaves New York for Providence, and 45 Prospect Street, and a reunion with his wife and daughters. On October 27, he travels to Saratoga Springs, and on November 14, he travels by train to New York.]

October 27

I have thought sadly today of two of my stupidities: the fact that I am unable to realize the smallness of my own accomplishment, and the fact that I have very little sense of the passage of time. It has been months since I have had anything published, yet I always think of myself as a flourishing author and a well-known one.

(p.42) November 8

Elizabeth and I went to the polls and voted two straight Republican tickets. … Returned to our radio, we learned for the Democratic landslide, which seems to have swept Roosevelt to the Presidency. Elizabeth said, “Well, if that’s what the silly old country wants, let it have it,” which I thought was generous of her, and retired muttering savagely, “Babies, Just Babies”—the name of a magazine edited by Mrs. Roosevelt. My only consolation in the election is an unreasoning conviction that Hoover was a bird of ill omen. Those frightful statements that “no President ever entered office under such favorable auspices,” which were to be heard everywhere four years ago, claimed their revenge of him.

November 16

… I took a copy [of Brackett’s as yet unproduced play, Present Laughter] to George Cukor, to satisfy George’s personal curiosity, and found George in a story conference with Jane Murfin, Harry Wagstaff Gribble and Elsa Maxwell, who is to the play the Duchess in Our Betters, Connie’s next picture. I had met Elsa Maxwell years ago at a miraculous party Allie McIntosh gave at Antibes, and I have heard the most affectionate and enthusiastic things about her from Cole Porter and Monty [Woolley]. She is a squat, monstrously plain woman with boundless gusto, a whisper of financial peculations in her past. As the rest of us sat chatting, she would be called to the phone and to our ears would be wafted such words as “Yes, Mrs. Vincent Astor for dinner at 8:00—no, Mr. Astor isn’t asked.” Again, “Will you tell Mrs. Van derbilt that I will be there at five? Mr. Joe Burden wants to come.”

Her success has been entirely social, as the entrepreneuse of great parties, and an entertainer at the piano who mingles with the guests intimately. My impression this time was of a hollow, shoddy woman, anxious to show off her social connections, not funny in the least. …

November 18

… I went back to Tony’s. … David Selznick, a little cozy, said I was the only author he had ever known to leave Hollywood like a gentleman—which pleased me inordinately. …

[On November 19, Brackett leaves by train for Providence and his family. He returns to New York on November 22.]

(p.43) November 22

… At the Coffee House … I had some conversation with Charles Hanson Towne,38 who won me by quoting a line from American Colony. I am of course an old whore in my ability to like people—there are almost none that I really dislike, and a kind word weakens my latent softness to the mawkish point. …

I went to see Autumn Crocus, with Francis Lederer and Patricia Collinge. It seemed to me that Lederer gave the best performance I had ever seen a man give in my life. After the play I went back to see Patricia, who is unhappy in her role because she was again called “sweet” by the reviewers. Lederer was being interviewed. I inquired of Patricia about his accent and then heard from his speech, as it was wafted from his dressing room, that it was too thick for him to play anything but a Teuton. …

November 23

[back that day in Providence]: … Elizabeth advises me to put Present Laughter away for the time at least but I still feel some need for laying its ghost.39

November 25

… As I write, I am just about passing into my 40th year, and I am as discouraged about my career as one can be who is cursed with a foolishly sanguine disposition. I have an interesting, scattered life, and I have gotten nowhere and I am getting nowhere. I wish I knew the answer.

December 1

… my idea that a retreat to 605 N. Broadway [Saratoga Springs] was indicated for the Brackett family. Then we should try to live on a thousand dollars a month—not a pitiful statement in the year 1932, but as we are used to spending nearer three thousand a month, we will find it hard.

[On December 19, Brackett takes the night boat for New York.]

(p.44) December 20

After a very fair night’s sleep I went to John’s [Mosher] apartment, had breakfast with him and a long talk. Stopped at Otto’s for a preliminary conversation [regarding serialization of Present Laughter], went to Edmund Devol’s, where I met Laurette Taylor, who lived up to her reputation as an utterly enchanting person when sober.

[That same evening, Brackett returns by boat to Providence. He and the family visit New York, by train, on December 26. There are visits to the theater and to movies, and a return to Providence, by night boat, on December 29.]


(1.) Thomas W. Lamont (1870–1948), banker associated with J. P. Morgan & Co.

(2.) On January 30, 1934, Congress passed the Gold Reserve Act, nationalizing all gold, and effectively removing the United States from using gold as a standard economic unit, and, thus, taking it off the gold standard.

(3.) At 47th Street and Park Avenue; Brackett and Woollcott would have paid approximately $2.75 each for dinner there in 1932.

(4.) Reunion in Vienna by Robert Sherwood (1896–1955), produced by the Theatre Guild, opened in New York on November 16, 1931, and starred the legendary husband and wife theatrical team of Lynn Fontanne (1887–1983) and Alfred Lunt (1892–1977).

(5.) Owned by Tony Gardella and located at 42 E. 53rd Street.

(6.) John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960), philanthropist and only son of oil baron John D. Rockefeller.

(7.) Institutionalized at the psychiatric facility, the Austen Riggs Center.

(8.) Dwight Deere Wiman (1895–1951), producer of The Little Show and other Broadway successes; he and Brackett had been friends since World War I.

(9.) Libby Holman (1904–1971), notorious American torch singer and actress, who in 1931 married Zachary Smith Reynolds, heir to the R. J. Reynolds tobacco fortune; he was seven years her junior.

(10.) George S. Kaufman (1889–1961), legendary playwright, theatrical producer, and director; despite many highly publicized affairs with, among others, Mary Astor, he remained married to Beatrice Bakrow from 1917 until her death in 1945.

(11.) Edna Ferber (1885–1968), playwright and novelist, whose works include Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant; like George S. Kaufman, she was a member of the Algonquin Round Table and Brackett wrote of her as “our little flower girl.”

(12.) Leland Hayward (1902–1971), major theatrical and motion picture agent; in the mid-1940s, he sold his agency and became a Broadway producer (South Pacific, The Sound of Music, etc.).

(13.) Charles Lederer (1906–1976), a prolific screenwriter, the son of Marion Davies’ sister, Reine. With the separation of his parents in 1912, Charles and his sister were raised by Marion Davies (1887–1961), a brilliant screen comedienne and the mistress of William Randolph Hearst.

(14.) Harry Breden Ham (1891–1943), former actor and producer who joined the Joyce-Selznick Agency in 1931.

(15.) Frank Joyce (1892–1935), brother of actress Alice Joyce, co-founder in 1928 of Joyce-Selznick Agency, with Myron Selznick (1898–1944), brother of David O. Selznick, and noted for management of top Hollywood actors and actresses.

(16.) Luxury residential apartment hotel at 5930 Franklin Avenue in Hollywood; now owned by the Church of Scientology.

(17.) The most famous of the chain, and the second to open, located at 1628 North Vine Street, Hollywood.

(18.) Adela Rogers St. Johns (1894–1988), journalist, fan magazine writer, novelist, and screenplay writer, who published her autobiography, The Honeycomb, in 1969.

(19.) Screen actress Estelle Taylor (1894–1958) and boxer Jack Dempsey (1895–1983) were married from 1925–1931.

(20.) Constance Bennett (1904–1965), leading lady of American silent and sound films, sister of actresses Joan and Barbara and daughter of matinee idol Richard Bennett (1873–1944). She, Cukor, and St. Johns did collaborate, without Brackett, on What Price Hollywood (1932).

(21.) Joel McCrea (1905–1990), major screen star of sound era.

(22.) Neil Hamilton (1899–1984), leading man in silent and early sound films, best remembered today for recurring role in Batman television series of the 1960s as Police Commissioner Gordon.

(23.) Ramon Novarro (1899–1968), Mexican-born film star of the 1920s and early 1930s, murdered by two hustlers he had invited to his home; the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed house was at 5609 Valley Oak Drive.

(24.) Margalo Gillmore (1897–1986), British-born actress.

(25.) Ralph Forbes (1896–1951), somewhat nondescript British-born leading man of stage and screen, married at one time to Ruth Chatterton.

(26.) Ilka Chase (1900–1978), New York socialite and accomplished actress of stage and screen.

(27.) Phillips Holmes (1907–1942), insipid leading man on screen from 1928 until his death while training with the Canadian Royal Air Force.

(28.) Anderson (Andy) Lawler (1902–1959), gay actor romantically linked to Gary Cooper in the late 1920s.

(29.) Countess Dorothy di Frasso, famous for being famous and for her love affairs with Gary Cooper, Bugsy Siegel, and others; parodied in The Women.

(30.) Mercedes d’Acosta, sometimes Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968), wealthy Spanish-born socialite whose only claim to fame are her love affairs with famous women, including Greta Garbo (1905–1990) and Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992).

(31.) Marie Laurencin (1883–1956), French painter, stage designer, and illustrator.

(32.) Rita Lydig (1880–1929), whose second husband was the wealthy Philip M. Lydig, twenty years her senior; noted for her extravagant lifestyle.

(33.) In an August 1944 letter to Alan Campbell, Brackett was to describe Chatterton as “sadder than a ghost.”

(34.) Sam Jaffe (1901–2000), primarily a Hollywood agent, but generally considered to have been responsible for saving Paramount from financial ruin in the late 1920s.

(35.) First reference to both David Lewis and James Whale.

(36.) David Manners (1901–1998), somewhat dull Canadian-born leading man, best known for roles in horror films such as Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932).

(37.) Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979), American film director; also editor and screenwriter, generally identified as a lesbian.

(38.) Charles Hanson Towne (1877–1949), American poet and writer.

(39.) On December 6, Brackett begins working on a novelization of the play.