Back in the day when I enjoyed the safety and security of a tenured Associate Professorship at DePauw University, I was thrilled to learn that Jack Kennedy was coming to visit our campus.
No, not that Jack Kennedy.
Our Jack Kennedy—I can call him that because he was a distinguished graduate of the University—was a novelist and a screenwriter who had changed his name to Adam Kennedy in order to distinguish himself from the late President and who was returning to campus to talk about his work.
His most recent achievement?
A screen adaptation of his own novel, The Domino Principle, as a Stanley Kramer film starring Gene Hackman.
As a certifiable film fanatic, I was beside myself with excitement when Jack and his lovely wife Susan arrived on campus. I got to know both of them well in a short period of time and reveled in their stories of TinselTown, where I myself desperately wanted to be.
I remember two of those stories in particular.
The first had to do with Jack’s credited work on a now-forgotten movie called The Dove.
Jack attended the premier with Susan. After watching a few minutes of the film unreel, she turned to her husband and asked, “Jack, did you write any of this?”
“God, I hope not.”
Now, it was my secret hope that I would one day join the ranks of Hollywood writers (and directors—yes, like everyone in the world, what I really wanted to do was direct).
…in spite of this obvious “trigger warning” which should have sounded in my mind like the tocsin on a battleship under attack…
…Jack and Susan’s story merely strengthened my determination to find a magic carpet and ride it to the glamorous, beckoning capital of the film world.
Their second story was more personal.
It was actually Susan’s story.
Her mother, you see, was Carmel Myers.
Who? you ask.
Well, as a crazed film freak, I was possibly the only person among the DePauw faculty and students who could answer that question.
Carmel Myers was the female star of the silent version of Ben-Hur.
How did I know?
Well, my other obsession was F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I had done my graduate work in American literature at Princeton simply because Fitzgerald had gone there.
The subject of my doctoral dissertation?
Scott Fitzgerald, of course.
I knew who Carmel Myers was because she had also been the inspiration for Rosemary Hoyt in Fitzgerald’s masterful Tender Is the Night.
I just about did a backflip in my excitement to know that I was sitting there talking to…CARMEL MYERS’ DAUGHTER!
Now Susan did tell me that in spite of the fact that her mother’s career had ended forty years before and that she’d been completely forgotten by the American public, she saw herself as a queen and expected to be treated like one.
Susan’s story should have been a flashing red light.
The tocsin sounded…
But once again, I…
…I failed to hear it.
Nothing could change my mind.
I ignored the lessons buried in the Kennedys’ stories.
I ignored the warning of a colleague who’d done time in TinselTown and who said, “DON’T DO IT! You’re not tough enough.”
The latter part of his advice, of course, made me all the more determined—“Godammit,” I said to myself, “I’m plenty tough enough.”
And so I did it.
Henry Higgins probably said it best: “What an infantile idea. What a wicked, brainless thing to do.”
I did it, and that’s how, a few years later, I found myself working with Bruce Willis, who taught me a few lessons about star ego and the powerlessness of writers in Hollywood.
Let me quote me in Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody—a frightfully entertaining book I couldn’t recommend more highly.
(Okay, so there might be just a tinge of the aforementioned ego in that last comment, but what can you expect? I did, after all, spend a quarter of a century in Hollywood.)
…let me quote me describing my first meeting with Bruce, a meeting that took place in his mobile dressing room on the 20th Century Fox lot.
“Big as the motorhome is, it seems claustrophobic. I’m having a hard time getting my breath, and I feel crowded, like a commuter in a crowded subway car.
“Then it hits me.
“It’s just star ego.
“It fills the room and leaves very little space for anyone else.”
(For further detail, consult Chapter 90, “What Price Hollywood?” You won’t regret it. I guarantee it.)
All of this is by way of saying that I have great expectations (the working title of my book—a book you really don’t want to miss) for FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Ryan Murphy’s look at the rivalry between two fading stars who took show biz ego to dizzying new heights.
Though I know very little about Crawford, I do have two stories about Davis.
The first came from A. C. Lyles, who saw Wings as a film-struck Florida teen, wrote Paramount founder and head Adolph Zukor a letter asking for a job every day for four years, was rewarded with a position in the mailroom and eventually worked his way up from office boy to publicist, producer and ambassador of good will—the official greeter of Paramount for decade after decade.
When Queen Elizabeth came to town, it was A. C. who arranged a banquet for her at Paramount, a banquet attended by all the studio’s top stars, including Bette Davis.
Lyles himself sat at the same table as “Miss Davis.” (Nobody, not even A. C., dared call her Bette.)
It was the table closest to the dais where the Queen and her entourage were dining, and as the evening wore on, A. C. noticed (it would, he claimed, have been impossible not to notice) that Miss Davis was unhappy.
He turned to her and asked, “Miss Davis, you seem upset. What is it that’s bothering you?”
Miss Davis drew her self up and replied, with appropriately dramatic outrage, “She doesn’t seem to realize that there is more than one queen present this evening.”
She was right, of course.
Hollywood ego does not allow for the presence of more than one queen in any one room, and that, my friends, is, I’m sure, the basis for Murphy’s “Duel”—a series that might be best described by Davis herself in the classic All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Bumpy and, I suspect, breathtakingly entertaining.
My second Davis story is tied directly to her rivalry with Crawford. It came to me from my friend Robert Ellis Miller, who lived in the same apartment building as the aging star and who happened to be present when Miss Davis returned to the building after the news of Joan Crawford’s death was reported.
A small army of reporters swarmed her and wanted to know how she felt about Crawford now that she was gone.
Miss Davis once again drew herself up and announced, in a tone and posture that dramatized how dim-witted she knew them to be, “People don’t change just because they die.”
So there you have it…
…my meditations on star ego.
If you should want more (and who would not?), you can find them in that wondrously entertaining tome, Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, where I really put the screws to the impossibly bloated egos of TinselTown.