In October 1951, Grace Kelly, just beginning to make a name for herself, decided to have a night out on the town at famous Manhattan nightclub, Stork Club. Also at the club that night was Josephine Baker, internationally renowned singer, dancer and famous ex-pat who was in the States to perform a series of concerts after years living in France.
Unfortunately, Baker wound up leaving the eatery after an hour of non-service; she stormed out claiming she had never received her dinner because of her race. Some dispute this, but one person who did not was Kelly. Observing the scene, she was shocked and left, too. From Mental Floss:
When the racist staff refused to wait on Baker, Kelly, who was dining with a large party of her own, flew into a rage and walked out of the club in support of Baker.
(Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Image Source: BlackPast.org)
And no, I absolutely do NOT mean last year's controversial Nate Parker flick, "The Birth of a Nation". I'm talking the D.W. Griffith, 1915 film that celebrates the supposed end of the "treachery" that was Reconstruction and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. From Wikipedia:
The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915.
LBJ LIBRARY PHOTO BY KEVIN SMITH
I love the above picture. I love that in 1968, Eartha Kitt, singer, dancer, Catwoman, invited to one of those oh-so proper "Ladies who Lunch" type-lunches by THE First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, wife of LBJ, at the White House, and kept it really-real on the Vietnam War. From The Hollywood Reporter:
Debuting on Broadway in 1943, Kitt, born dirt-poor on a South Carolina cotton plantation, built a multifaceted show business life that included stage acting, dancing, singing (a come-hither 1953 hit version of "Santa Baby") and movies. When she made the 1958 film Anna Lucasta with Sammy Davis Jr., THR said her performance "is best summarized by the word 'great.' " In 1953, Kitt was making $10,000 per week ($90,000 today) singing at the El Rancho Vegas casino/hotel. By 1968, she was playing Catwoman on ABC's Batman — and was famous enough to be invited to the 50-women luncheon the first lady hosted (with seafood bisque, chicken and ice cream on the menu) to discuss "What Citizens Can Do to Insure Safe Streets."
Joan Crawford in 1959, by Eve Arnold.
I wrote about FX's "Feud: Bette And Joan" during my Lenten series of blog posts. I just watched the finale, "You Mean All This Time We Could've Been Friends?", and I'll admit, I may just have shed a tear or two at Jessica Lange's heartbreaking portrayal of the last days of Joan Crawford.
To be clear, I was far less impressed with "Feud" in it's entirety. While the casting was on point (how fun was Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper?), and the settings were great, the pacing on a whole was off. Some episodes zoomed by ("And The Winner Is..."), while others seemed like slow-moving, unnecessary filler ("More, Or Less"). Also unnecessary was all of the MANY times the audience was explicitly told just how sexist Hollywood was. Hopefully, there will be less telling and more showing, for the next "Feud".
My friend Brittany passes on this excellent piece on Crawford by Angelica Jade Bastien at Roger Ebert.com, published last year:...
Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in "Feud: Bette and Joan" (FX)
I have a thing for Classic Hollywood. "Singin' in The Rain", "North by Northwest", "Double Indemnity", "Carmen Jones", "The Seven Year Itch", "It's A Wonderful Life"- there is something so wonderful about the films of the 1940s and 50s.
There is also something to the films of the 60s and 70s, too, but something decidedly different. With the collapse of the Old Hollywood studio system and the massive changes in society concerning sex, civil rights and technology, the movies tended to be less polished formality and more... "The Graduate". Goodbye George Bailey, helloooo Mrs. Robinson.
And crammed right between the time of A-line crinoline skirts and miniskirts with go-go boots, there was "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?". Starring Classic Hollywood actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, it was released in 1962, and capitalized on the fact that its protagonists were over-the-hill, relics from an era gone by....
My latest Audible book streaming through my headphones is "Marilyn Monroe: The Biography" by Donald Spoto and narrated by Anna Fields.
Since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by stars who, despite talent, money, fame and beauty, were downed by the suffocating weight of their own inner psyches. Perhaps it was a weird fascination for an elementary school student, but it was there, and only grew as I got older.
If I had to guess as to why, it probably had something to do with my mother's severe depression. She was (and is) my first exemplar of femininity and beauty. She was a star in my mind, gifted with a lovely soprano singing voice that at times verged on the operatic. She drew, painted, sketched and did calligraphy. She made music and art. That was beauty. She was beauty.
She was also acutely depressed, and at other times, quite anxious. Before giving birth to any of us kids, she had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown that left her hearing an array of voices that so frightened her she stayed in bed with fits of tears and screams interspersed with prayers to God for relief.
I learned of this episode in my mom's life fifteen years later, when I was 8, from her mom during a summer visit. It scared me. So horribly scared me that I had reoccurring nightmares about it for years. It also launched in me a desire to understand why. Why had Mommy, with a speaking voice not too different from the soft, childlike one Marilyn affected in many of her films, lose it? And how did she regain it, enough to have us three and become the neighborhood Kool Aid mom? Would she crack again? Would I, one day, also suffer a similar fate?
I read about Dorothy Dandridge, Judy Garland, and of course, the patron saint of the troubled star, Marilyn Monroe. There was a lot to sift through about the Blonde Bombshell- the affairs, the failed marriages, the glamour and the barbiturates. Beyond that, there was a very sad childhood with an absentee mother, an unknown father and foster homes.
While listening to "Marilyn Monroe: The Biography" this week, I learned something about her early years with her first foster family that I hadn't known before. Something that my mom had in common... something that I had in common.
We all spent some of our most formative years belonging to Pentecostal Holiness churches.
Let me pause here to say, most definitively, that growing up a Penny Pentecostal is NOT a one way ticket to Crazytown. Millions of people have and are fine.
This information sticks out to me because it's like I found another former member of the club that shaped me so- my childhood, adolescence and even on into adulthood. What makes this information ever more startling is how Marilyn came to embody so much that many Pentecostals stridently abhor- the makeup, the cut and dyed platinum coiffure, the tight clothes, and all that jewelry. All that unGodly glamour in a shapely 5'5 package.
Over in the Entertainment section of "How Stuff Works", Susan Doll recounts: "
Norma Jeane's mother, who most often used the name Gladys Baker, placed the infant Norma Jeane in the care of Ida and Wayne Bolender of Hawthorne, California. Life had not been particularly kind to Gladys. She had had two children -- Berniece and Hermitt Jack -- by her first marriage to Jack Baker, but he had taken the children away from her and moved to Kentucky prior to her marriage to Edward Mortenson. Supposedly, Baker had left a note for Gladys that read, "I have taken the children, and you will never see them again." The absence of her first two children caused Gladys great pain, and her inability to take care of Norma Jeane added to that heartache and stress. Gladys's family had a history of mental instability. Both of her parents, Otis and Delia Monroe, finished out their lives in mental institutions, and Gladys's brother, Marion Monroe, suffered from a problem diagnosed at the time as paranoid schizophrenia. Gladys battled demons of her own and spent much of her adult life in institutions. ... Ironically, perhaps, when Gladys boarded out Norma Jeane to the Bolenders 12 days after the baby's birth, it was because of financial difficulties -- not mental ones. Gladys went back to work at Consolidated Film Industries, paying the Bolenders five dollars per week to look after her baby. Each Saturday, Gladys would take the trolley to Hawthorne to visit Norma Jeane, who remembered Gladys as "the lady with red hair" rather than as her mother. A devoutly religious couple, Wayne and Ida Bolender lived a comfortable existence in Hawthorne, a less-than-fashionable suburb of Los Angeles. Wayne worked as a postal carrier and was fortunate enough to remain employed throughout the Depression. In his spare time, he printed religious tracts.Here comes that Old Time Religion...:
Marilyn would later remember the couple's devotion to their religion as one that approached zealousness. She claimed that as the young Norma Jeane, she had to promise never to drink or swear, she had to attend church several times a week, and she was repeatedly told that she was going to Hell. Norma Jeane quickly learned to hide from the Bolenders if she wanted to sing, dance, or act out a fantasy life "more interesting than the one I had." Though Norma Jeane regularly attended church with the Bolenders, she was taken by her grandmother, Della Monroe, to the Foursquare Gospel Church to be baptized by the flamboyant evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Della, a devout follower of Sister Aimee, had her granddaughter christened "Norma Jeane Baker."By the way, if you're unfamiliar with Aimee Semple McPherson, who had an altogether fascinating career that mixed Hollywood theatrics with preaching the Good News, check out this "American Masters" episode:
Spoto takes great pains to link Marilyn's early upbringing in holiness- which demanded a certain form of outward perfection to exemplify supposed inner godliness- to her later years spent chasing a level of flawlessness that fed her anxiety and depression. Of course, only Marilyn knew if that was true, but it's an interesting thought to ponder.