When I started my career in Hollywood, I knew that they were there and I knew that their power meant life or death for a movie or a starlet. Unfortunately, I ran head long into Louella. My manager was her boyfriend.
Jimmy McHugh was a successful song writer who had penned such hits as "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby," "Don't Blame Me," and "I'm in the Mood for Love." Living comfortably in Beverly Hills on his royalties, Jimmy managed a few starlets and female singers. He took an interest in my career and became my Svengali.
Jimmy was also Louella's escort to many gala Hollywood affairs. She was invited to all of them, of course. Jimmy was usually on her arm. Did they do any more than show up at parties and premiers? Did they fuck? Thinking back on Jimmy's bald head and Louella's pinched face and raptor eyes, it's a frightening thought.
Here's how Louella ascended to her position at the Hearst papers as the most powerful movie-slash-gossip columnist around. She acquired lifetime tenure with Hearst because she was on board the newspaper magnate's yacht, Oneida, when a series of mysterious events occurred. In celebration of the 43rd birthday of film director Thomas Ince, William Randolph Hearst, fifteen guests-including Hearst's live-in girl friend Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin-and a complete jazz band, embarked on a cruise from Los Angeles to San Diego. Ince, the story goes, was caught paying too much attention to Marion. Hearst got the gun he always kept on board and shot Ince in the head. Ince's body was taken off the boat in San Diego and immediately cremated. The first stories in the Hearst papers said he became ill and died at home, but too many people saw him being taken off the boat. Chaplin's secretary swore that she saw a bullet hole in Ince's head. Everyone on that cruise that day was taken care of for the rest of their lives. Louella's payoff was the permanent column.
Louella was recently widowed at the time she was going out with Jimmy McHugh. Her late husband had been a doctor with an interesting special practice. He took care of abortions and venereal disease cases for the movie studios. All very hush-hush. When I was a showgirl in New York as a teenager, one night backstage the other girls were all a-twitter with the news that "Doc Martin" was in town. When I asked who he was they said he was Louella Parson's husband. He breezed into town occasionally looking for young girls to, um, date. "He pays!" the girls squealed. (My comment at the time was something like, "You mean you can get paid for that?" I was a late bloomer.)
When Jimmy was my manager, Louella became jealous of the time and attention that he paid to me. Jimmy sent me to one of the best acting schools in Hollywood-Ben Bard's Theater-personally gave me voice lessons, and got me screen tests at the major studios. However, there was never a quid pro quo between Jimmy and me. Never once in the many times we were together at his home, at the theater, at dinner-anywhere-did he make a romantic advance to me. (By now you know that you can trust me. I'd tell you!) Besides, he was far, far from being my type, and it never entered my mind to go to bed with him. Louella, however, was unconvinced. She began a campaign of terror against my budding career.
First she pressured Ben Bard to get me out of his acting school by threatening to boycott his plays and his students who were aspiring to stardom. At the same time she twisted Jimmy's arm (or whatever appendage) by threatening that he could be replaced by someone else on her arm at the many functions to which he accompanied her. Jimmy had made his career as a songwriter in relative obscurity. Now, he was enjoying the limelight.
At about this time Jimmy got me a screen test at Paramount. The material I tested with was a scene from Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife." A couple of days before the test, I was fitted for wardrobe by the Academy Award-winning costume designer Edith Head. Seeing that I was big-busted, she arranged for me to wear the gown that Elizabeth Taylor had worn in "A Place in the Sun."
I pulled out all the stops on that screen test. It felt right. I drove home and waited for the answer. Two days later the phone rang and Jimmy said that Paramount loved the test and they were going to offer me a contract. I was walking on air.
It wasn't long, though, before the bubble burst. The negotiations seemed to be taking a long time. Jimmy called back to say they'd hit a snag: some of the executives at Paramount thought I looked too much like Marilyn Monroe.
My heart sank. Everything was falling apart: pushed out of Ben Bard's and now Paramount was turning sour. The next day they made their decision. They would not sign me. I was desolate.
You can't give up, a voice inside me argued, you can't quit now.
I was scheduled to start at another acting school where Jimmy had enrolled me on the sly. Harry Hayden and Leila Bliss ran the Bliss-Hayden Theater in Beverly Hills where Marilyn Monroe, Debbie Reynolds, Veronica Lake, and many other successful actresses had been showcased early in their careers. When I showed up Harry and Leila immediately offered me the ingenue role in William Inge's play "Come Back, Little Sheba"-the role of Marie that Terry Moore played (and for which she was nominated for an Oscar) in the film version. We opened in three days.
During that frantic rehearsal I found out that Paramount had not turned me down because of my superficial resemblance to Marilyn. Louella Parsons had pressured them into not signing me by making it clear that if they did she would never again give Paramount, its pictures, or its stars a line of publicity in her column.
I was furious with her and furious with Jimmy for being so craven as to knuckle under to her. Time was short, though, and I had no time to waste on anger before opening night. I took it out instead on memorizing my lines and getting in character to be Marie, and Miss Parsons and Mr. McHugh bedamned!
We played to an enthusiastic first night audience and the crowd obviously liked me. The next day Jimmy got a call from Phil Benjamin, a casting director from Universal who had been in the audience. Benjamin thought I would be right for the role of a nightclub singer in a Universal picture called "Forbidden" starring Tony Curtis and Joanne Dru.
Things began happening fast. I drove to Universal the next day and met Benjamin, veteran producer Ted Richmond, and the director Rudy Mate.
"Can you sing?" Mate quickly asked.
I responded by singing "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby."
He smiled approvingly. "You're going to have to start right away because we've got to shoot this scene, " he said. It was Friday.
My mouth dropped open. "Oh, my God!"
Benjamin said, "They'll give you the song and the movements. Go home and work on them. You'll get fitted for the costume on Monday."
"When will we shoot it?" I gulped.
"On Monday," Mate said blithely, already walking quickly across the room. "Now, here's how I want you to move..."
Things were moving so fast that my head was spinning. The song was "You Belong to Me." That weekend was blur of rehearsing the song and the movements in my parent's living room, and chewing my fingernails down to the quick.
Monday morning I woke to the day that would change my life forever.
At the studio the wardrobe people sewed me into the long white satin gown while makeup people glued on fake fingernails. I was in a fog, concentrating on my song while everyone orbited me pinning, sewing, dabbing, retouching.
Finally I was led onto the elegant nightclub set, and when Tony Curtis, Joanne Dru, and the other actors were in place, Rudy Mate shouted, "Action!"
I barely remember anything about the actual performance. I just put my heart and soul into singing "You Belong to Me." The next thing I knew, Mate shouted, "Cut! Check the gate!" There was a pause while the camera operator checked for dust or hair in the small opening ("gate") where the film passes in front of the camera lens.
"The gate's clear!"
It was over in one take, but my new life was just beginning.
Ted Richmond came over and told me what a great job I'd done. "Everyone one thinks you're just dynamite, Joan. We've been talking about a contract for you here at the studio." He gestured to a group of men disappearing through the back door of the sound stage. As luck would have it, the top executives-including Milton Rachmil, head of Universal's parent company, Decca Records-had flown out the day before from New York to meet with the local studio execs.
Time really began moving fast. The next day Ted called to say that the executives had seen the rushes of my scene and were, indeed, going to offer me a contract. They began negotiating with Jimmy McHugh.
I was teetering between ecstasy and terror. Ecstatic that I was being offered a contract; terrified that Louella would swoop down on me again with a thunderbolt. But this time Fate was in my corner. Louella had left for Europe to have cosmetic surgery. While the evil bitch was getting her face lifted, her eyelids tucked, even her fat sucked, I was signed to Universal Studios. McHugh negotiated a comfortable 7-year contract with 2-year options and a handsome salary (for 1953) of $260 a week.
By the time Louella returned from her surgical sabbatical, it was too late to keep me from getting in the door, but she would try mightily to shove me back out of it. She lavished praise on my sister glamour girls while studiously ignoring me.
The final blow Louella struck, however, was the lowest blow of all. I had been a starlet for a while at Universal and had gotten used to my new name: Mamie Van Doren. One day I was called into the head office and told that there was a story about to surface in the sleaziest tabloid of the day: Hollywood Confidential. The story was that my mother and I had been prostitutes. I blanched. I assured the executives that there was not a shred of truth to the story. I left and headed straight for the office of my friend and attorney, Jerry Giesler.
Giesler was a legendary lawyer in Hollywood. He was as smooth as Perry Mason, as crafty as Johnny Cochran, and as fearless as Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird." Jerry listened to me tell him through tears of fury what was about to happen. And then he did a strange thing: he calmly put his arm around me and said, "Don't worry about it, Joan, um, Mamie. Go home and get a good night's sleep. I'll take care of it and call you."
When he called the next day, he said, "You have nothing more to worry about from Hollywood Confidential."
"Just like that? Why?," I asked incredulously.
"I phoned the gentleman who is the editor at that fine publication and introduced myself and you. I then told him that I hoped he was very sure of his source of the story about you and your mother. Very sure. Because he would most certainly have to prove the story in a court of law, and because I was very sure that he could not, he had better get out his checkbook or you and your mother would most certainly be the new owners of Hollywood Confidential."
"And he assured me that the story would not ever, ever run."
"Did he tell you where the story came from?"
"It's better you don't know, Mamie."
"Please, Jerry. Please."
"He swore me to secrecy. It was Louella Parsons."
"Damn her. But it's over?"
"I assure you, it is."
Louella Parsons died on December 9, 1972. Almost no one noticed. By then Hollywood had changed a great deal. But when told about her death, many veterans of this industry town still breathed a sigh of relief and secretly hoped that someone had driven a wooden stake through her heart.