Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ebay Shopping: Vintage Celebrity Letters edition

Good morning!

How's March treating you? I am still kicking. Today I thought I'd pop back in and show you a few of the things I've been drooling over in my free time (such as it is) that I in no way shape or form can afford-- letters from classic Hollywood celebrities on eBay!

Many, many moons ago (or not that many, maybe like a year and a half ago), I came across a letter from Tyrone Power to a screenplay writer back in Hollywood on eBay. Power was filming a movie in Spain and, to say the least, having a bad day. Typed out under his scrolled initials on his personal notepaper, he vented for two pages about the lackluster scripts and the general listlessness that has settled in on him after forming his own production company a year or two previous. He went on to describe how he felt everything had been for "f-cking nothing" before apologizing for being in such a black mood and closing with some tidbits about what he would be doing in the next month or so. The content itself, the fact of the letter existing was riveting to me-- homeboy has been dead since 1958, and here, I think maybe five or six years before his untimely death from a heart attack while filming overseas, was a letter from a person who didn't know how his story would end, who wasn't the two dimensional almost obscenely handsome guy from all those Loretta Young or swashbuckler pictures, but a real person with feelings and moods and all the rest. This was someone who sounded like me gmail chatting at the end of particularly crummy shift at the library. And you could own it! You could have in your hands the same letter written by the same guy the letter so plainly illustrated. I was hooked! And I was disappointed-- I think it had a buy it now of $300. I may be profligate with my money in the service of a good, selfish cause sometimes, but that's $150 a page, guys. It sold, and my heart was sad...but ever since, when I have a free half an hour or so to binge, I stalk around on the Movie Memorabilia listings looking for similarly revelatory evidence of the lives movie stars lived in and around their famous careers.

1) Charles Boyer, 1946

One of France's best Hollywood exports, I've spoken before at length about how Charles Boyer is near the top of historical mystery dates I'd like to open the door to-- I have an original autograph of his in my collection, but wouldn't I give my eye teeth for this two page letter, currently. Only $600! Or $28 for 24 months-- it sounds so much less expensive like that (also if I start buying on celebrity autographs on time I would never stop). The letter is in French, which is less difficult for me to decipher that Boyer's tiny, elegant handwriting, which sometimes makes m's that look like w's and forms q's as p's. Nevertheless, I got out my magnifying glass and made good progress with what the letter said. Here's a taste for you, an exclusive transcription and traduction by yours truly:
Je ferais à vous dire combien ma femme et moi étions près de votre peine. Puisse le destin favoriser la cause pour laquelle Raoul s’est battu avec tant de ferveur jusqu’à son dernier jour. (I would have you know how much my wife and I feel your pain. May fortune favor the cause for which Raoul fought with such feeling to his last breath).
Interesting stuff, right? Boyer wrote this letter in 1942, to the mother of a friend, Raoul, who it sounds like was killed in action during WWII. It's very beautifully written in a way that reminds you of how eloquent people used to be in print (as opposed to say my habitual "where you at you've been gone forever don't forget fries" text sent to my husband during his time at the grocery store). I wish I could find out more about who Raoul was but the context clues (including a mention of Geneviève Tabouis and the French language newspaper Pour la victoire) have turned up goose eggs so far. I appreciate that Boyer is as beautifully spoken off screen as I would have imagined him to be, and that this heartfelt condolence letter made its way to eBay where I could read it.

2) Claude Rains, undated
2 Page Letter By claude rains
This letter is far less literary, but I'm obsessed with it because of who wrote it-- my OTHER, and possibly top of the list, crush, Claude Rains. It's $500 or only $45 for 12 months (this is obviously a shorter loan term and seems more expensive, lol). In searching for an autograph of his for sale online, I've found many examples, all of which were in the high three digits or low four...but god willing, I'll locate some less pricey cocktail napkin or coaster he scribbled on eventually and add that trophy to my autograph wall. I think Rains may have the worst Hollywood handwriting I've seen so far-- his autograph is usually just a hasty scrawl at the bottom of an 8 x 10 (or, cheekily in this case, along the collar of his photographic self's dress shirt). This, however, is a full on letter, on his personal stationery! It reads (I think) :
Dear Charlotte [?? something "man"],
Your treatment of Mr. Johnson is a beautiful work of art and I shall treasure his works even more! Here is your check. I have an idea—culled from your library (such a lovely place for work)—a glass case for maybe the open book. If and when you can, could you give it a thought and tell me where to go for such a rarity? Always my most grateful thanks and real appreciation. You are a great packer too. 
Sincerely, Claude Rains 
I love how excited he sounds about this glass case to display her book on (probably) Ben Jonson, an early modern playwright. Can you just hear him reading this letter aloud?

3) Errol Flynn, 1956

This one is a pip simply because Errol Flynn is POPPING. OFF. on a producer of his mid fifties' tv show, Errol Flynn Theatre. Don't be fooled by the letterhead and may look like slash WAS official correspondence, but the tone is decidedly unprofessional (and FANTASTIC as a result). Lots of celebrities had anthology tv shows in the fifties'-- Boyer was part of Four Star Playhouse, which included Ida Lupino, Dick Powell, and David Niven to round out the quartet; The Barbara Stanwyck ShowDouglas Fairbanks Presents, The Joseph Cotten Show, and Robert Montgomery Presents all featured the title presenter as an occasional actor to bring new faces to the screen and try to hang on to the relevance of their forties' motion picture stardom. What surprises me is that I've never even heard of this one, in which Flynn and third wife Patrice Wymore would turn in thirty minute live performances of adapted material (I found an episode on that I plan to watch after posting this). I've never heard of it (or retained memory of it) and I've been through AT LEAST four or five books on Flynn, he's one of my favorite movie stars! You can read the letter itself, but in sum, Flynn is up to here with the lack of quality and corniness of the scripts presented pre-production for this series... throwing around terms like "old hat", "corny", "ordure", "mediocre" in a scathing but somehow still lighthearted memo. Speaking as someone who has watched a lot of 1950's tv in my day, I can attest to the low grade material that was sometimes placed in front of tv dinner eating maybe this was more of the same. However, the hilariously literate way Flynn, a published author in his own right outside of his acting work, lights 'em up makes me wish there was a book collecting his correspondence-- if this was a throwaway business communication, I'd love to see some of the personal stuff.

Whoever bought this for $220, kudos! You have a treasure on your hands.

4) Katharine Hepburn, undated
Katharine Hepburn Letter Signed

The jerkiness of Hepburn's imprecise script in this letter seems to mimic to me her own idiosyncractic speech pattern...I like to think of all those either ellided or staccato tones as recreated here by the individual letters. Look at the e's in "feel" and the general rectangularness of each line! I'm no graphologist, but that has to mean something to a handwriting expert. Ebay seller "historydirect" transcribes most letters, God bless them , so this is an easy one to read if you're looking at the listing:
"I came back from Florida to be greeted by your huge Stowaway treat - then found the grapefruit & the tangerines - You are obviously quite insane & must be going broke rapidly. They are all so good but I worry that you spend too much on me- Your letters always make me feel fine & your story of the broken dish - oh how often i've done just that. Trying to catch up with the endless letters. Affection." 
"You are obviously quite insane and must be going broke rapidly" is such a cheeky little line, I love it. I revere Katharine Hepburn...but I hated...hated... HATED her autobiography, "Me". One, for its ersatz ee cummings tone and composition-- two, for the fact that, considering this is someone who had to have lived THE MOST AMAZING LIFE, she was surprisingly tight lipped on anything I had any interest in, and all too open with things I had no interest in. The audiobook was a little better because you could hear her perform the otherwise almost too self-indulgent text, but I still give it failing marks-- Garson Kanin's book about Tracy and Hepburn was about a million times more interesting. Just FYI. Yet another person I wish had a book of letters collected so that we could see more of "the real [insert name here]".

5) Clark Gable, 1938
Clark Gable Typed Letter Signed 1938
I thought this would be a boring letter because it's typed, but it's pretty interesting! Lots of typed correspondence like this is strictly business-- contracts, "I hereby do" whatevers, etc etc. Or else professional blurbs under the guise of letters-- I've seen ones from silent star Colleen Moore and another from the aforementioned Tyrone Power that was really less a personal letter and more a press release for an upcoming project. However! "The King" wrote this letter on his personal letterhead to the editor of Sports Afield magazine, in November of 1938, a little more than a year ahead of the release of Gone With the Wind. It reads:
"I hate alibis and this isn't an alibi-ing letter. I feel as though I have no good excuse for not having written sooner. I arrived home Sunday morning going directly from the station to the studio and haven't been idle one day since then. This has been the busiest and most difficult picture I have ever made. Still have three weeks to go. I am writing this between shots on stage. Needless to say I had a marvelous time up there with you and all the fellows from Minneapolis. Haven't been duck shooting down here but once. There were no ducks as usual. The pictures they sent to me I have distributed around the local duck hunters just to let them know there are ducks in some parts of the country. When I told Harry Fleischman about all the ducks and mallards he looked at me with a movie studios eye; however, having seen as many as I did I had a convincing ring in my voice, I know, because now all the guys here are saying, 'when you go up there again, take me with you.' Received Clara's letter giving me all the news. Are Murphy and Walt still working out in the club house every afternoon after the shoot? Give them my regards and tell them I hope to bend the elbow again with them next year. Are you going to spend the winter here in California or in Florida? If you are coming out here let me know because I'll have to kill the Fatted Calf'. Had a letter from Nick Mahler the other day regarding some skates that he was sending to me. Nick is a swell lad and never seems to stop doing things for someone. That was a swell party he threw and I enjoyed meeting all of his and your friends. Quail season opened here today but unfortunately I am stuck here as usual. All the gang went up by Bakersfield to warm up their guns. I think they will get their limits as quail seem plentiful here this year. Imagine the ducks are in at your place by now pretty thick. Wish I could be there for a couple of days shoot with you, however I am grateful for the fine shoot that I had. Kindest regards to all the gang and to yourself and Clara." 
Is that not a great letter? Like the others, can't you just hear him saying it? I love the jocular tone and the little jokes like "The pictures they sent to me I have distributed around the local duck hunters just to let them know there are ducks in some parts of the country." Gable was an avid outdoorsman who was frequently shot for Photoplay and other fan magazines in full hunting gear, tramping around his farm or up the country with his gorgeous wife Carole Lombard or friend Gary Cooper in tow. I'm always surprised and heartened to see my movie idols turn out to be kind of like they are in the movies-- doesn't Gable seem like a hail fellow well met? Somebody wire me $2,200 so I can keep this encased in lucite under my pillow.

6) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. , 1987
This is one of my favorites because the idea of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Laurence Olivier being good enough friends to play little jokes on each other even into their respective eighties' is adorable to me. DFJr, former husband of Joan Crawford, wrote this letter to Crawford's former personal secretary. In it, he reveals that he and "Larry" used to pal around with frequent Crawford co-star Robert Montgomery (the often tuxedoed-in-1930's-movies father of Bewitched actress Elizabeth Montgomery), but apparently hated him. DFJr thought it would be a lark to send Olivier a picture of Montgomery made out to him personally and asked if the secretary had one of "any size, kind or description" for him to follow out his little prank. I live for it. The handwritten postscript is funny too: "PS. How and where are you!" Above, I've added pictures of Olivier and Fairbanks with Lillian Gish at an awards ceremony in the late 80's, Robert Montgomery in his prime, and Betty Barker, the assistant and recipient of the letter. I'm still getting a kick out of how cheeky this is days after I initially found it, so there.

7) Natalie Wood, 1974
This is a GREAT and suitably bubbly letter from a pregnant Natalie Wood, on holiday in the south of France with her husband Robert Wagner. The addressee is Dr. Joseph Milstein, an LA ob-gyn who I think may have been her doctor...hence all the details on the pregnancy? It's very friendly either way.

The letter reads:
Dear Joe,
Greetings from the South of France & Happy New Year! R.J. had 2 ½ weeks off so we flew here for a terrific holiday! It’s gorgeous here & London is absolutely pre-war, miserable, cold, & everyone has a tight lip! I might mention that before we left London I weighed in at 143 and when Gordon Bourne finished fainting he recorded the baby’s heartbeat, announced that since the heartbeat was 130 it would be a boy, and gave us the cassette. After R.J. and I finished fainting we wondered if he could be right & decided he had a 50/50 chance to be – or 106 to 100 if my current readings are correct! Here in France they have all kinds of special creams for the prevention of dreaded stretch marks & so far much of my holiday has been spent in the religious application of the aforementioned creams! I’ve been feeling great and we have a lovely flat in London & only 1 more month to be there so all goes well! Hope you had terrific holidays and every good wish for health, happiness & all good things for you & your family for ‘74
Love from R.J. and Natalie
Spoiler: the doctor was wrong, and Courtney Wagner was born March 9, 1974 (three months after the letter was written!). Only slightly creepy for the way things ended up for Wagner and Wood. :( Still, I love seeing her very legible handwriting and reading about how excited she was to have this baby, having been through the same myself what seems like yesterday.

8) Cary Grant, undated

Ugh! This may be the one I wanted the most out of the whole batch. An Affair to Remember: My Life with Cary Grant is the ne plus ultra of celebrity girlfriends/wives memoirs, in equal parts romantic, dishy, and well-told-- I have read it at least four times, and that's coming from someone who never likes to re-read anything. Its author, Maureen Donaldson, is the intended recipient of this note on Faberge letterhead, written to her it sounds like slightly after the breakup of their four year relationship. The handwriting! The writer! (As I just sigh my dreamiest sigh). 

It says:
This-- the enclosed-- will relieve a little of the pressure. Now concentrate on your work, your reputation, and the daily [promise?] of self pride! You looked well and I was very pleased to see you.
I know, from several biographies I've practically committed to memory as well as Donaldson's book, that the man was probably no picnic to live with in real life, but my GOODNESS the suavité. "You looked well and I was very pleased to see you", coming from Cary Grant? Stop IT. I think this must have originally included a check ("the enclosed") and was probably a nice gesture from a very wealthy (though notoriously tight fisted) man to his ex girlfriend, who was at the time starting a career in photography. Speaking of, I googled "Maureen Donaldson" in Getty Images to see if I could spot any photos of her and Grant out on the town, being stalked by paparazzi-- instead, it came up with A BLUE MILLION late 70s/early 80s publicity photos she took of some people who took off, and some who didn't! Click here to see early Jim Carey, Jodie Foster, Heather Locklear, and more.

Well! I think I have talked your ear off enough for today. What did you think? Which is your favorite letter? Is there an old time Hollywood actor or actress you'd just love to snag a memento of? What kind of weird things do you look up on eBay when you're not really looking for anything in particular? I'd love to hear from you!!

I'm glad to be back on the semi regular and hope to keep in the habit of writing. Take care, and we'll talk again soon!

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