Thursday, September 14, 2017

Princess Grace, 35 Years Later

By Mary Claire Kendall

Grace Kelly in High Society (1956)

Princess Grace - Grace Kelly died tragically 35 years ago today.  She was just 52.  Here's how Wikipedia recounts those sad days:

"On September 13, 1982, while driving with her daughter, Stéphanie, to Monaco from their country home, Roc Agel, on the French side of the border, Princess Grace suffered a stroke, which caused her to drive her Rover P6[21][22] off the serpentine road down a mountainside. The accident site is located at 43°4335N 7°2410E.[23] Grace was pulled alive from the wreckage, but had suffered serious injuries and was unconscious. She died the following day at the Monaco Hospital (renamed Centre Hospitalier Princesse Grace – "The Princess Grace Hospital Centre" in English—in 1985), having never regained consciousness; she was 52 years old. It was initially reported that Princess Stéphanie suffered only minor bruising, although it later emerged that she had suffered a serious cervical fracture.[24]

Grace was buried in the Grimaldi family vault on September 18, 1982, after a requiem mass in Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Monaco.[25] The 400 guests at the service included representatives of foreign governments and of present and past European royal houses. Diana, Princess of Wales represented the British Royal Family. Cary Grant was among the members of the film community in attendance. Prince Rainier, who did not remarry, was buried alongside her following his death in 2005.[26]

In his eulogy, James Stewart said:  
You know, I just love Grace Kelly. Not because she was a princess, not because she was an actress, not because she was my friend, but because she was just about the nicest lady I ever met. Grace brought into my life as she brought into yours, a soft, warm light every time I saw her, and every time I saw her was a holiday of its own. No question, I'll miss her, we'll all miss her, God bless you, Princess Grace.
Yes, God bless, Princess Grace

Note: This piece was originally posted on September 14, 2012, the 30th anniversary of Grace Kelly's death.
__________________

22. Rover P6 Club (September 13, 1982). "Princess Grace of Monaco, P6 fan | Rover P6 Club". Newsite.p6club.com.     
24. "BBC On This Day September 14th 1982". BBC News. September 14, 1985.  
26. "Monaco Cathedral". Service Informatique du Ministère d'Etat (Monaco Minister of State Information Service. July 28, 2008. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda’s friendship: A valuable lesson for a divided nation

Originally published on July 2, 2017 on FoxNews Opinion.

By Mary Claire Kendall

Two Hollywood greats, James “Jimmy” Stewart and Henry “Hank” Fonda, offer a valuable lesson for today’s polarized America.

The two, “Hank” and “Jim,” were best friends. (Only Fonda called Stewart “Jim.”)  
Stewart died twenty years ago this Sunday, July 2—some 15 years after, Fonda, who died on August 12, 1982.

“I talked to Fonda once about Jimmy, how they got along so well, considering that they were polar opposites politically,” Peter Bogdnovich, director, actor and writer, told me. “And Hank said, ‘We just don’t talk about politics. We just don’t talk about it.’”

James Stewart and Henry Fonda in London on December 8, 1975, while both
were doing plays in the City’s West End.
Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence birthed America on July 4, 1776, the 241st anniversary of which we celebrate this Independence Day, said of such politeness that “giving a pleasing and flattering turn to our expressions… will conciliate others and make them pleased with us as well as themselves.”—something that Stewart and Fonda’s generation understood and practiced. Indeed, when I commented, “It seems like the manners were better then,” Bogdanovich said, “A lot better.” 

“They were delightful together,” he said. “Both had such a good time together” in their bachelor years and then later joined by their wives, about which Bogdanovich writes in his book, Who the Hell’s in it?: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors.

Fonda and Stewart met at the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts in the summer of 1932 when both were starting their acting careers. (Albeit Stewart, ostensibly there to play his accordion in the “tea room,” was reassigned to the stage, setup and acting, to preserve patrons’ nerves.) The two went to New York together when the show “Carrie Nation” debuted on Broadway, and then stayed on, suffering through some lean times. Then Fonda, who had studied acting, watched incredulously as his roommate Stewart, a Princeton graduate, class of ’32, kind of fell into Broadway roles. 

Stewart followed Fonda to Hollywood in 1935, where they also roomed together. “Greta Garbo moved next door and put up a huge stone wall, and they dug a hole under the wall,” said Bogdanovich. Or at least tried to.

Garbo’s wall notwithstanding, they both rose quickly—Fonda again looking on in amazement at Stewart’s great fortune in getting bit parts; then, in 1938, being plucked from relative obscurity to co-star in Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You” followed by his iconic performance the next year as Jefferson Smith in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Hollywood at the time, considering the latter film too radical, passed over Stewart for a well-deserved Oscar, giving it to him instead for his performance in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). Soon thereafter he was drafted and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, commanding some 11 of 20 bombing missions he flew.  

Fonda also served in the U.S. Navy during the war—for three years, initially enlisting as a Quartermaster 3rd Class on the destroyer USS Satterlee because, he said, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” Previously, he and Stewart had raised funds for the defense of Britain. 

Whereas their politics were different, Fonda and Stewart had the same sensibilities vis-à-vis sharing their war experiences. “Most of the (Hollywood) people in the war wouldn’t talk about it,” said Bogdanovich. “John Ford wouldn’t talk about it. Neither did Jimmy. And, I asked Fonda about it. But he didn’t answer. None of them volunteered anything.” Asked why, he said, “It was too painful. Too much. They didn’t want to appear to be trying to be heroic, bragging on themselves… They didn’t do that. It was just too serious of a situation to deal with it frivolously or in a casual way.”

Stewart remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and was promoted to Brigadier General on July 23, 1959, retiring on May 31, 1968, and then supporting the presidential bids of his other good Hollywood friend, Ronald Reagan—frequently visiting “Ron” at the White House during his presidency.

After Fonda died and Stewart aced a scene in Right of Way (1983), co-starring Bette Davis, he looked heavenward and said “Thanks, Hank.”

And, thanks to both for their example in keeping politics in its place for the sake of friendship and civility.

Mary Claire Kendall is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, recently published in Madrid under the title También Dios pasa por Hollywood.


Monday, July 31, 2017

The Timelessness of “High Noon”

By Mary Claire Kendall

Gary Cooper in the film trailer for High Noon, 1952

If ever there was ever a moment for the classic Western High Noon (1952), starring Gary Cooper, it is now. 

“High Noon” premiered 65 years ago this month in New York City. Since then, presidents from Dwight David Eisenhower on have emulated the example of Marshal William “Will” Kane (Cooper) when faced with political dilemmas and high-stakes fights.

As the film opens, Kane is poised to get out of Dodge with his new bride, Amy (Grace Kelly) after handing in his badge. Then the telegraph office breaks the news that newly freed Frank Miller, whom Kane sent to prison years earlier, is arriving on the noon train intent on deadly revenge. Kane briefly leaves town, as everyone urges, only to realize escape is no solution. After he returns to face Miller, not one townsperson will join him. So he faces Miller and his gang alone, killing them all. As townspeople resurface offering hardy congratulations, Kane removes his tin star and pitches it to the dusty ground. Contrary to legend, he does not step on it. 

More than the storyline, the making of the film itself was a political allegory for the tension-filled early 50s when America was fighting the Cold War against its sworn enemy, the Soviet Union (USSR). Birthed 100 years ago through the Bolshevik Revolution, the USSR ended in 1991, with former Hollywood star President Ronald Reagan playing his historic role in the communist state’s dismantling.  That Russia, the USSR successor state, shows signs of wanting to reconstitute its empire is, of course, presently creating an equally charged political atmosphere.

“‘You’re never going to work in this blank, blank town again, Cooper, if you do this film,” his daughter Maria Cooper Janis said John “Duke” Wayne told her father in the summer of 1951, an anecdote she shared at last month’s Film Forum  featuring “High Noon.”  

Both “Coop” and “Duke” were Republicans, staunchly anti-communist and co-founders, along with Reagan, of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the goal of which was to ensure Hollywood stayed true blue, while eschewing red communist ideals.

The issue for Wayne was he deemed the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, insufficiently blue. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had subpoenaed him in June 1951 as he was finishing the screenplay and wanted him to testify that September during filming.

“Like the marshal in ‘High Noon,’ (Foreman) really didn’t want to be a martyr,” said Glenn Frankel, author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making ofan American Classic.  “He had a wonderful career in Hollywood… But, the naming of names and the betraying of friends was… a bridge too far.” As he struggled with this, said Frankel, “you can see lines, you can see the themes emerging… He sees himself as the marshal. And, he sees the four killers coming to get him (the marshal) as the committee (HUAC). And, he sees the sort of cowardly citizens of Hadleyville as similar to (how) some of his friends and business partners… were treating him in Hollywood.” 

His decision was simple. He would disavow his communist party membership—he had joined when he was young and it was in vogue; but he would not name names.                                                                           
But, that was a ‘bridge too far for Duke.’ 

Coop, on the other hand, Kane-like, told the film’s producer, Stanley Kramer, if they dumped Foreman, he would walk. 

“He thought a lot of the stuff that was swirling around was just not on the level,” said Maria. “People were getting so worked up, so hot under the collar and paranoid about everything. He understood the seriousness. But he also felt it was way overblown.”

In the end, Cooper was too big of a star to lose. So they made the film, based on Foreman’s script, and, under Fred Zinnemann’s direction, turned out a masterpiece, especially visible on the big screen, that drew seven Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Cooper.

Cooper, said Maria, unavailable to attend the Oscars as he was filming on location in Mexico, “calls up Duke Wayne and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to win, but, in case I do, would you mind picking up the Oscar?’… ‘Sure, Coop, I will.’” Coop, of course, won, while Duke “gave his agent hell,” said Maria, “for not getting him the part.”

All of which shows, though opposing sides, even of the same party, might believe we’re falling off a cliff—for entirely different reasons—steadiness not overreaction, (and humor) will save the day.


Mary Claire Kendall is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, published in Madrid under the title También Dios pasa por Hollywood.

Monday, May 29, 2017

'Yankee Doodle Dandy' Seventy Five Years Later: Memorial Day Reflections

By Mary Claire Kendall

Seventy-five years ago this Memorial Day—May 29, 1942—the classic thrice-Oscar-winning film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) premiered in New York City to great fanfare. 

And, what a different time it was. 

Or maybe not so different.

Like today, America was at war against a totalitarian menace, the brutal dictator Adolph Hitler. Now it is Islamic terrorists, like cancer cells throughout the world, bent on world domination, as exemplified by the ruthless attack a week ago today against young innocents in Manchester, England, killing 22, and the horrific attack, at week’s end, on Christian Coptic pilgrims in Egypt, killing 29, whom Pope Francis called “martyrs.” “A piecemeal World War III,” said the Pope in 2014 of these ongoing assaults.

When Yankee Doodle Dandy was released, America’s sons and daughters were in harm’s way, prompting James Cagney, the film’s star, to lead the cast in frequent prayer on the set. Just like prayers are said on some Hollywood sets in response to today’s peril. Many of Cagney’s fellow stars, like James Stewart, were playing real-life roles in defeating Hitler and fellow fascists. Stewart, commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force in ‘42, would fly twenty treacherous combat missions over Germany, eleven as squadron commander, rising to colonel by war’s end, while losing some of his men and suffering consequent hidden wounds. He “prayed a lot,” too, he told Johnny Carson over 40 years later. That’s about all he would say about his war experience.

Cagney and company were, of course, also singing America’s praises in the star-spangled film directed by German émigré Michael Curtiz about the life of renowned showman George M. Cohan (1878-1942). Cohan graced America with his musical compositions, plays, acting, dancing and singing about all things great and American in a Broadway stage career that spanned some four decades starting in 1901, after hoofing it in his family’s vaudeville show. His entertainment career was capped by a big comeback on June 29, 1936, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented him with a Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions during World War I in building morale, especially through “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (1906) and “Over There”(1917). Cohan was inspired to write the latter song just as America was entering “the war to end all wars” that erupted 100 years ago last month, the PBS retrospective of which painted quite a different picture.

Besides these two classic songs, the film featured “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” both from the play “Little Johnny Jones” (1904), among other tributes to the American spirit. Cohan died on November 5, 1942, after the film had rocketed to success. It was an idea, based on “Little Johnny Jones,” he pitched to Samuel Goldwyn, with Fred Astaire playing the lead. While Astaire demurred, it wasn’t long before Jack Warner, deeply affected by the war in Europe and looking for patriotic fare, approached Cohan. The rest, as they say, is history.

Yet, the film itself might have been history, but for Cohan’s wife Agnes. George M. had demanded non-negotiable final approval on the final film. But he deferred the decision to his wife, who, after watching it, reportedly turned to her husband and said, “Oh, you were so good, Georgie.”

Cagney’s prayers, both for film’s success and that of America in her campaign to defeat totalitarianism, were answered more than he could have hoped!

So, too, on this Memorial Day as we honor our fallen heroes, we pray for our nation—that, inside Hollywood and out, we might rise to the challenge these perilous times pose.

And, then some.


Mary Claire Kendall is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, recently published in Madrid under the title También Dios pasa por Hollywood.


NOTE: This piece was published on FoxNews Opinion on May 29, 2017 under the title “A Memorial Day Anniversary for ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Oasis in Newburgh

Wonderful “Oasis” event on Wednesday, April 12 at St. Francis of Assisi in Newburgh, New York!  great turnout, engaged audience, and big sales (i.e., one case of 52 books).  

Mary Claire was the guest of Fr. William Damroth, Pastor of St. Francis of Assisi. After presenting prepared remarks, per below, Mary Claire read the Betty Hutton chapter from her book, Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends. After the Q&A Fr. Damroth summarized by noting the message of these stories is to “never give up” on anyone. There is always the possibility of healing and recovery, grace and faith.  

All in all a memorable event that Mary Claire will always cherish.

Mary Claire delivering prepared remarks


Remarks at St. Francis of Assisi
Newburgh, New York
By Mary Claire Kendall
Wednesday, April 12, 2017, 6-8 PM


I’m Mary Claire Kendall, author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends.  Thank you Fr. Bill Damroth for inviting me here tonight. Such an honor. And, it’s so nice to be back in Newburgh, where I visited with my parents in the 80s and 90s when my uncle was a resident at the VA Hospital at Castle Point.

A Replica of Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes
on the grounds of St. Francis of Assisi 
Three years ago, almost to the day, a week before Easter, I told my mother I had decided to dedicate my book to her grandmother Lillian Webster Keane.  

She was delighted. My great grandmother had raised my mother, whose mother, my grandmother, died when my mother was just 6 months old on the eve of FDR’s inauguration.

Lillian was a convert. As blueblood as they come. Her father was a Webster from Orono, Maine, who had stumped for Abe Lincoln fresh out of college.

My great grandmother Lillian grew up in Washington after her father, an “orator,” who had championed the cause of temperance, relocated there.

She was knitted into the Catholic community in Washington, D.C., attending Old St. Patrick’s just up from Ford’s Theater where President Lincoln had been assassinated some 25 years earlier. She became close to the priest who had heard the confession of Mary Surratt, one of the alleged conspirators to assassinate Lincoln.  He always maintained, they had hung an innocent women.

The headlines are one thing, but there’s the story behind the story.

That’s the same with my book, Oasis.  While I uncover nothing as historically significant and controversial as the Surratt story, I do dig down a few layers below the surface to tell the story behind the story.

My dear mother died three months after I told her about the dedication.  On the 49th anniversary of her grandmother’s death.  

Shortly before she died, she told me, she would be helping me from Heaven.   I feel it strongly. 

And, my parents are like a tag-team. My mother Claire in heaven working with my father, Paul, still on earth, here with us tonight.

Ten years ago when I started down this road, I reached out to Betty Hutton.

She was not long for this world. 

That summer, after Newport Life Magazine greenlit an article about the now deceased Betty Hutton, I reached out to her friend, A.C. Lyles.

He was a legend at Paramount, having worked there since 1936—and before that at the Paramount Theater in Jacksonville, starting in 1928 at age 10!

A.C. knew all the stars. Betty. Gary Cooper, who had helped A.C. get out to Hollywood. James Cagney, who, along with Ronald Reagan, were his best friends in Hollywood. And, Spencer Tracy. (A.C. said my next article should be about Spence and his son John. It was!)


All of the legends I write about found healing and recovery in the Catholic faith and are testament to what it is to live with the realization that you are a child of God, with all the attendant grace after living without it.  As my great grandmother Lillian wrote in her diary, the Catholic Faith “lightened the burdens of life.”

The truth is, the lives of the stars I write about in Oasis were difficult.

Exceedingly so—all the glamour and celebrity notwithstanding.  But, in the process of suffering the slings and arrows that only Hollywood can thrust stars’ way with such precision and sting, God was forming them, priming them for the time when they would finally look up and ask for his help.

Because that’s really all God wants any of us to do. He loves us so. But, stubbornly, we want to do it all ourselves.

Then the crisis hits.

Every legend I write about had some kind of crisis that brought them face to face with their human weakness and need for God.

It’s just that simple. They were human beings like you and me. With an immortal soul. Which, it seems, is one of the biggest revelations in my book.  I jest, of course. But, not entirely. It seems the life of the soul is not so interesting to Hollywood.  That’s what a big magazine publisher essentially told me when I was trying to sell my Gary Cooper story in 2008. But, as my friend Harry Flynn, publicist to Bob Hope and other stars, says, “My book shows the soul behind the billboard.” And, that’s what makes it new and unique. Imagine that!

They all travelled long and winding roads, including: 

Often difficult childhoods.  Universally challenging climbs to the top.  Celebrity and fame. And, what that does to a soul! And, the predictable problems, with the Hollywood publicity machine often ginning up as many headaches as headlines—the two sometimes one and the same. 

But, in the amazing way that God brings good out of evil, these problems, in fact, were what led these stars to Him.  Usually after meeting a priest and/or getting married to a devout Catholic or becoming friends with someone who guided them into the Church.

The fascinating thing is how their life trajectories pretty much ran a predictable, similar course. Like the dramas in which they starred, with the standard elements: setup, plot point, complication, resolution. It’s the drama of life.  As Hemingway wrote, “Every man’s life ends the same way, and it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.” 

Ah, but the details are rich and varied.  

A few comments about each star.

Alfred Hitchcock.  Born into a devoutly Catholic if irreverent family, he was the only one who did not undergo a religious conversion, per se. Then, too, he only made cameos in his films. As he became the legendary director he was, he drifted somewhat from the faith of his childhood only to return, poignantly so, in the sunset of his life, when he reached out to a priest, Fr. Thomas James Sullivan, he had met while directing The Paradine Case in the mid-40s. Fr. Sullivan was “priest to the stars” and told a young friend, Fr. Mark Henninger, whom I interviewed for this book, “He wants to come back home.” Fr. Henninger joined him on these visits with the Master of Suspense. “The most remarkable sight,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal, where his brother Dan Henninger is a columnist, “was that after receiving communion, he silently cried, tears rolling down his huge cheeks.”

Gary Cooper. Elegantly handsome man. Most gorgeous actor on A.C. Lyle’s wall of stars. [A.C. was longtime Paramount executive—best friends with Ronald Reagan and James Cagney.] But, all the traps in the spiritual combat were perfectly laid to trip Coop up. But, through grace, he surmounted them in perfect Cooper fashion. And, it was not a deathbed conversion. “No way,” said his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis. It was just eminently good timing as with virtually every story in this book. Because, in fact, he became ill about a year after his conversion. Like Hemingway, he liked to carry a crucifix. When he was very ill, in the waning days of his life, and talking with Hemingway’s friend, A.E. Hotchner, he clung to his crucifix, asking Hotchner to tell Hemingway his conversion “was the best thing I ever did.”

Bob Hope. The entertainer to beat all entertainers. And, when it came to the spiritual life, the drifter par excellence. In the end, he came face to face with his need for God.  Like many in this book, it was a gradual process. During World War II, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, told me that Bob became very close to Cardinal Francis Spellman and was amazed that the troops gave him bigger applause. That and the dedication of the troops got him thinking.  Five decades later he finally took the plunge.

Mary Astor. Lovely woman who had a difficult childhood—always escaping.  Her parents viewed her as a cash cow, and eventually she began escaping with alcohol, only to be rescued by God.  She had a special devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, who was pivotal in her conversion. And, she was very devoted to the Eucharist, realizing how much strength she derived from this beautiful sacrament.

John Wayne. Invincible, willful, loving and saintly.  His was a long, long journey to finding God, which played out dramatically ’til the very end. And, while this is true of everyone, his story is particularly dramatic. As he was nearing the end of his life, after heart surgery in Boston, he was introduced to St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei, which for those who don’t know means “Work of God.”  He was the “saint of ordinary work.” I find this anecdote absolutely amazing because if you boil down John Wayne, at his core is a good hearted hard worker.

St. Francis of Assisi statue on
grounds of namesake church
Ann Sothern. The ultimate survivor. Watch her films and you get this about her. Read her faith journey and you will understand what lies behind that gutsy exterior. A woman of character who found God and, in so doing, survived. Now, Hollywood was teaming with Catholics in the 30s, 40s and 50s—Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, John Ford, Fred Zinneman, and, of course, Hitch, Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Rosalind Russell, Ethel Barrymore and on and on—which made it more likely that Ann would become a Catholic, as with so many in this book. It’s important to keep that context in mind as you read Oasis.

Jane Wyman. Hers was also a difficult childhood that bred in her a steely and quiet determination. She had lots of problems, rooted in her childhood. And, when she found the Catholic faith, fairly early on, she was a changed woman and there was no turning back.  Many people in Hollywood led her to the faith, including Loretta Young and her sister Sally Forrester, whom she attended mass with. She loved going to Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in the Hollywood Hills. Her nanny was also an influence. [Amazing story of how I came upon her nephew Fr. Joseph Flynn while visiting San Francisco as I was finishing the book. A miracle of my mother I’m convinced.]

Susan Hayward.  A red headed fireball with acting talent on par with Sara Bernhardt. Born into poverty in Brooklyn, New York, like her idol Barbara Stanwyck, she had an incredibly difficult childhood. And, she identified with Bernhardt, who lost a leg. Hayward was terribly nearsighted and as a child, running into the street to rescue her penny kite, she was hit by a car and disabled, ending up with a terrible limp because her leg was set improperly. Her father, a fallen away Catholic who never lived up to his wife’s dreams of success, was loving but weak, and died young. After many difficult years personally, she finally found human and spiritual love, when she met Floyd Eaton Chalkley, a southern gentleman and devout Catholic. But, she died much too young in her mid-50s. Always kept black onyx crucifix, a gift of Pope John XXIII, close by. Gutsy talented star.

Lana Turner.  She, too, had a difficult childhood. You see a pattern here. She became a Catholic at a young age on her own. And, after she was “discovered” and became the “sweater girl,” she grew up much too fast, and the problems only compounded. She did not make great choices in the husband department, but was always looking for love and stability in men. Then, one day, later in life, she looked inward, and found God. As she said—one of the most insightful comments in all my research—she knew God was within her because all the joy and love had to come from somewhere.

Betty Hutton. Known for Annie Get Your Gun. An extremely difficult childhood. Was fiercely determined to escape poverty by using her talent, and did she ever! In unique Hutton fashion! But, the problems continued to multiply. She was always looking for the father she never had. He abandoned the family when she was 2 and then wired a suicide note with $100 when she was 18. As the priest who helped her turn her life around, Fr. Peter McGuire, said, “You’re just a hurt child.” He tutored her and she finished High School and later got her M.A. and taught. She also became a Catholic, not going anywhere without her rosary. She was so insecure and her newfound faith gave her such confidence. She also overcame her addiction to prescription pills. Her story is a real example for what ails so many today.

Ann Miller. She also had a difficult childhood and an incredible heart, and took her mother, who was legally deaf, under her wing, supporting her starting when she was 11 or 12. You know that film, You Can’t Take it With You?  She was just 15! And, God rewarded her. She was baptized just before she died by Fr. Padraic Loftus, now Pastor Emeritus at St. Mel in Woodland Hills, CA.

Patricia Neal. Now, she had a stable childhood. The book is bookended by stability. And, like Hitch and Coop—and everyone else in this book—she had incredible talent; but was always looking for love, robbed of her innocence an early age, when she trusted the wrong guy. Then she fell in love with Gary Cooper who healed that scar, but it was not a proper relationship, for which both suffered—including Cooper’s family. But, out of that suffering came a beautiful story of love, healing and forgiveness. She became a Catholic shortly before she died and was buried at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where her “best friend,” Mother Dolores, lives in consecrated life.  Read this story and you’ll be moved and inspired.

Read all these stories and I think you’ll come away enriched.

Service at St. Francis of Assisi on September 11, 2016
for victims of 9/11, 15 years later

A note about the reading process, which is, of course, quite different from the writing process. But the two are complementary. As Charles Scribner Jr., whose grandfather first signed up F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote, “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind. For learning purposes there is no substitute for one human mind meeting another on the page of a well-written book,” he said.

I hope my book will help you stretch your minds… and warm your hearts.

And, now I commend to you Oasis, and would be delighted to answer your questions.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Celebrating Betty Hutton's Heart

By Mary Claire Kendall

Betty Hutton Annie Get Your Gun.jpg
Publicity photo of  Betty Hutton for Annie Get Your Gun

Now, like never before, America needs individuals of mettle and resolve.

Ten years ago today, one such person left this world. She played the brassy, gun-toting Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), airing on TCM this coming Wednesday. Her name is Betty Hutton. And, while she is little known, her story is very relatable. 

She hit rock bottom when she became addicted to prescription pills while making The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) . She was dealing with multiple stresses: the dissolution of her marriage, work on this very challenging film and the need to lose weight given that “the skimpy circus costumes revealed everything,” as she wrote in her autobiography Backstage You Can Have

Dexamil increased her energy level while reducing her desire to eat. “An amphetamine, later known as street speed (it) was given out freely” at that time, she wrote. Unaware of the side effects, she rushed to the doctor to get a prescription for this “simple pep-me-up” that would also “control my weight” and increase self-esteem, making her, she wrote, “more sociable and quite self-confident.” But, the side effects were crippling.

Next up was Dexadrine, which the Air Force was giving its pilots to stay alert and focused on long missions. “If it was good for our men in uniform, it had to be right for me!” she wrote.  

Not. She had the delicate and sensitive constitution that enabled great performances, but was ill-equipped to roll with the pharmacological punches. And, so she fell down, down, down, after tearing up her Paramount contract in 1952 in a fit of pique. Then, one day, 20 years later, she looked up in the rehab center where she was recovering—having entered skin-and-bones, wanting to die. She saw this saintly priest checking in his bombed cook. And, she said, “He’s going to save my life.” So he did.

Her story was first told to me by the late A.C. Lyles, who was Ronald Reagan’s best friend, starting at Paramount Pictures. A.C. had made his way to Hollywood at age 18, and landed a job as Adolph Zukor’s office boy, rising fast, because he was good. Later, he was the first one to tell “Ronnie” he thought he would be president one day, but he ought to run for Governor of California first! Soon Reagan was changing his registration to the GOP, when a woman at a local gathering told him he sounded like a Republican. And, he asked A.C. to follow suit. The rest, as they say, is history. 

A.C. told me about how Betty prepped for the role of Holly, the trapeze artist

“Cecil B. DeMille was going to make a picture, The Greatest Show on Earth, about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the lead lady not only had to be a good actress but she had to be a good aerialist,” he said. (Sadly, Ringling Bros. is closing this year.) Betty was the former not the latter. “So she went to Stage 5 and talked to friends at Paramount and they did a rigging for her and she went there every day for 8, 10 hours, even down on weekends and she brought in… one of the premier aerialists of the world. Betty was there for weeks without anyone knowing because they locked the stage doors.” When she was ready to perform for DeMille, “She sent a big wreath of flowers… (about 8 feet tall),” said A.C. “And, she said, come to Stage 5, I have surprise. And DeMille went over to see” her act, which was “tremendous. She was actually a professional and he was just not only amazed but intrigued.”  

“So he gave her the lead,” said A.C. “And she got top billing above Charleton Heston and so many big, big stars and the picture won Cecil B. DeMille the Oscar.” (DeMille beat out High Noon and The Quiet Man, starring Gary Cooper and John Wayne, respectively.) “And, Betty was just great in it. She not only acted but she did all of those aerial stunts herself… which made it great for her role in the camera because you can actually see her performing.”

Today we celebrate Betty Hutton’s heart.  The kind of heart that will save our country.

***

Mary Claire Kendall is the author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends. She will appear on Rita Cosby’s show on WABC on Sunday, March 12, to talk about the stars she writes about in Oasis, which include Alfred Hitchcock, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Mary Astor, John Wayne, Ann Sothern, Jane Wyman, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Betty Hutton, Ann Miller and Patricia Neal. 


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Betty Hutton's Miraculous Recovery


Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley (Photo Credit: Betty Hutton Estate)

By Mary Claire Kendall
Child, never forget this moment—this happiness—not even if they’ve broken your heart and you’re trying to put the pieces back together again… you’ve a brave heart, child. And brave hearts, like all rare and fine things, are easily broken. 
—Miss Gibbs (Constance Collier) to Pearl White (Betty Hutton), The Perils of Pauline, Paramount Pictures, 1947 

Betty Hutton, glittering Hollywood star of the 40s, was born 96 years ago today, and died ten years ago this March 11. Hers would have been a tragic ending—like so many in Hollywood—but for a miraculous intervention.
All Heart
TCM host Robert Osbourne opened up his “Private Screenings” interview with Betty Hutton in April 2000, noting she was someone who wore her heart on her sleeve, to which she replied: “I like to make people happy. It does something to my soul.”
She was all heart—and, as a consequence, totally vulnerable.  It was the secret of her success—and her suffering.  This vulnerability—and strength—was revealed in a conversation, recounted for Osbourne, that she had with Al Jolson in 1936, when she was 15, visiting New York: “‘Mr. Jolson, I am so scared.’ And, he said, ‘Good, kid.  I throw up before each show.’ He said, ‘Betty, if you lose that, you’re through.’”
A Star Is Born
Betty got her first break closer to home in Detroit  with Vince Lopez’s Orchestra as lead vocalist.  But, she was soon back in New York at Billy Rosa’s Casa Manana, dazzling audiences—including Buddy DeSylva, who tapped her for Cole Porter’s Panama Hattie on Broadway starring Ethel Merman.  When Merman cut Hutton’s number, DeSylva confided to Betty he was slated to head Paramount production and promised to make her a star—if she would stick with the show.  She had film experience having made a couple of Warner Bros. shorts with Lopez in 1939 in which she was dubbed “America’s No. 1 Jitterbug” for her mugging and wild gestures.
In 1940, Hutton arrived in Hollywood, then a relatively small orange-tree-scented town, and signed a contract with Paramount the following year. Her trademark exuberant performance in 1942’s The Fleet’s In wrapped in bundles of talent and energy—“a vitamin pill with legs,” Bob Hope quipped—made her Paramount’s top female star almost overnight.
As her good friend the late A.C. Lyles, an 85-year Paramount veteran told me, her “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry” number “just exploded on the screen and… from there she just became one of the most important stars we’ve ever had at Paramount and made picture after picture after picture”—a dozen by 1950 including The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943) and The Perils of Pauline (1947).
Along the way she became a hit recording artist with such chart toppers as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief”—one of the “great songwriters” who worked with her—and a popular live performer, as well.
“I just performed with all my heart,” is how she described her approach to Osbourne.
She epitomized the fresh, innocent American spirit: can do—“Oh, I couldn’t sing good, but, boy, I sure sang loud,” was one of her famous lines—and completely unselfconscious—“Gosh, Mom, isn’t that a lucky break” was her constant refrain.
It was, in fact, her mother Mabel’s unlucky breaks that sparked her entry into show business.
Betty with her mother and older sister
(Photo Credit: Betty Hutton Estate) 

Hardscrabble Early Life

Born Betty June Thornburg in Battle Creek, Michigan on Feb. 26, 1921, Hutton never knew her father; he had skipped town when Betty was two.
Her earliest memory—“like it was yesterday”—dated back to when, at age three, she spontaneously broke into song to distract a drunken man threatening to beat up her mother at the “Blind Pig” she ran during Prohibition. Soon, little Betty, joined by sister Marion, began belting out such favorites as “Black Bottom” at her mother’s Speakeasy—in constantly changing venues two steps ahead of the police.
In 1929, the family moved to Detroit to look for greener pastures.  But, life was hard and Mabel was hard drinking—forcing Betty to sing on street corners for “nickels and dimes.”
Her mother discovered Betty had real talent at age 9 when she sang in a school production—her first public performance.  As a result, according to reports, she started taking Betty around Detroit to perform for any group that would listen. Or, as Hutton told it, “I quit school when I was nine years old and starting singing on street corners because my mother was an alcoholic.”  Later, when her mother took her to see a Charlie Chaplin silent film, she thought, “I’m gonna be a star and my mother will stop drinking.”
Hutton reminisced for Osbourne that when they returned to Michigan for the Let’s Dance opening, her mother, seeing the extremely heavy police presence protecting Hutton, now “a big star,” humorously assessed their changed fortunes by quipping, “at least this time they’re in front of us.”
In 1950, Betty Hutton got the starring role and role of a lifetime in Annie Get Your Gun when Judy Garland was too exhausted to continue filming.

From Pinnacle of Success to Rock Bottom
Her 1950 success in this film version of George Gershwin’s hit musical about Annie Oakley should have paved the way for much greater success. But, as Hutton summed it up, Annie Get Your Gun “killed the performer in me.”  The whole experience, she said, “was the heartbreak of my life.”  While none of her pain was evident on screen—she projects a confident actress at the peak of her career—the cast and crew, she revealed for the first time in the Osbourne interview, were “terrible” to her.  MGM did not even invite her to Opening Night in New York.
Not coincidentally, De Sylva, who had firmly managed her career—the only one to do so—died of a stroke that same year and, in 1952, Hutton walked out of her Paramount contract. “Paramount was Betty’s security blanket,” said Lyles.  “And, when she left Paramount, she left a lot of her strength and a lot of her support.”  “She never really recovered from that in many ways,” he added. “Her career didn’t recover from it and she had all kinds of difficulties, which is sad—sad.”
In Paramount’s place were many gigs and hoped-for comebacks along with the painkillers she began taking after injuring her arm while filming Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning Greatest Show on Earth.
By 1971, two years after Garland, who had become a good friend on the Vegas circuit, died of a drug overdose at age 47, Betty Hutton—age 50, surveying four shattered marriages and a wrecked career—was on track for the same fate.
“I almost didn’t care anymore. I didn’t want to go on,” she told Osbourne.
Her mother had died in 1967 in a fire the same year Hutton declared bankruptcy. Soon Hutton found herself on the street in between living in seedy hotels, until one hotel, kicking her out, took her to this minister who agreed to care for her until she got stronger.
“All she had was a shopping bag with a few things in it,” said Carl Bruno, executor of her estate. “I’ll never forget it. She was in one of those leather coats that the women wore in the 70s with the fur collar.  And, it was all crinkled and peeling.  I mean it was really very sad. And, I had no idea who she was.” Worth $10 million in the 50s and early 60s, she had lost all her money.
Over five years, she regained much of her strength—and singing voice—and then got a gig performing Annie Get Your Gun at a dinner theater outside of Boston.  But, one night, while performing, she collapsed on stageher 20-year addiction to prescription drugs and hellish private life, conspiring against her with frightening finality in a seeming replay of Garland’s fatal downward spiral three years earlier.
Miraculous Intervention
“I was on so many uppers and downers there weren’t enough pills to put me up or bring me down,” Hutton said.  “I wanted to die.”  When she entered a Boston rehab hospital, the 5’4” star recalled for the Herald News, “I weighed only 85 pounds and looked more dead than alive.”
Then, something miraculous happened.
Ironically, it was 25 years after she had played silent screen heroine Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline, whose death defying feats were directed by George McGuire.  
On the verge of giving up, she looked out the window and was struck when she saw this priest calmly showing his ailing employee such affection and respect. And, she thought, “I’m going to meet that man. He’s going to save my life.”
The priest’s name was Fr. Peter McGuire. He was the pastor at St. Anthony’s Church in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. He had come to Boston to the same rehab facility, where he was checking in his cook, Pearl.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Professor James Hersh, Salve Regina University’s Philosophy Chair, who knew Hutton well. “I can see why she was so drawn to him…”
Fr. Maguire initially had no idea he had made any particular impression on Hutton.  He didn’t even know who she was.  But, the minute Pearl was well enough to converse, she asked about him and learned he was a saint who helped everyone.
Hutton knew salvation when she saw it and soon decamped to Newport—as far from the Hollywood limelight as anyplace.  As she said on Good Morning America in August 1978:
… if I hadn’t gotten (to Newport), I wouldn’t have made it.  They didn’t expect me to be super great here.  These people… took me in their homes, their little homes, and held me in their arms and kissed me and hugged me back to life.  And, that’s New England, boy.
(Photo Credit: Betty Hutton Estate)

“Thank God,” said Lyles, “for Fr. Maguire because he probably saved her life…  And, that was a period of hardship and work for her but it was a period that really, I think, saved her.”
Hutton, whose father abandoned the family when she was two, told Osbourne, “I never found me until Fr. Maguire…  I (was) the product,” she said, “like hamburgers, hotdogs…  Father said, ‘Betty, you’re just a hurt child.  Let’s start from the word go.’”
She lived at the rectory during her five-year long recovery—cooking, washing dishes, making beds, cleaning, and enduring this lowly role by pretending she was playing The Song of Bernadette.  In the process, she discovered “Christ is my heart” and converted to Catholicism.
In the early 80s, Hutton settled into a beautiful estate overlooking Newport Harbor and, for once in her life, enjoyed just being “Betty.”
“Her private life,” Hersh explained, “had been the source of so much pain that she was sort of setting it right. And, Newport was the place to undergo that transformation (and)… recapture who she was not on stage.”
The process was painful.
As Hersh tells it, one day in his Philosophy of Imagination course, they were discussing what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung calls “the shadow” where “right under the surface of the unconscious is an archetypal figure that everybody has that represents what he called our ‘inferior character traits’—everything that we work as individuals to overcome.”
“Boy,” said Hersh, “that hit home with Betty.”
For her class presentation, she disappeared and came back in tights with top hat and cane and “did a little soft shoe” singing “Me and My Shadow” a cappella.  “It was so tender,” he said, “because she was singing with tears just streaming down her cheeks.” The students, he said, were confounded. “But, I knew who she was and I knew what she had been through and seen her films and then to see her in this situation was an extraordinary experience.” 
Hutton described for him the “wall between her show biz experience (where she found happiness on stage) and the real world.”  It was obvious, he said, “she was looking for a father.”
“People loved her,” said Hersh.  “They really appreciated what she was as herself.”
One friend, who has remained anonymous, said “Betty loved the coming and going; the yachts, conjuring up images of her Hollywood days; the Canadian geese; the serenity of the water; and Newport Bridge in the distance, especially since it was designed by a woman.” And, she loved whipping up marvelous dishes from the Time-Life Good Cook series for dinner parties with close friends.
Fr. McGuire’s Tutelage
“Fr. Maguire,” Betty told Osbourne, “had the heart to understand me… he knew all the background of the alcohol.”  And, for the first time in her life, she said, she didn’t have to pretend she wasn’t upset.
“Father said, ‘Betty, you’re just a hurt child.  Let’s start from the word go.’”  As she recovered, Fr. McGuire led her to God. “He loved me, Bob.” He had “Christ’s love—it totally surrounds you… like… the wonderful men… Jesus said in the Bible he was going to leave… (whom) I had never met…” The Catholic faith gave her great peace and serenity. “I don’t move anywhere without the rosary because… I’m scared inside…  I’m never secure.  And, that’s the way you have to be, Jolson said.  You can’t give ‘em your heart if it’s not there, Betty.’”
Once she recovered, Hutton performed for Catholic gatherings and began to study under Fr. Maguire’s tutelage to master the grade and high school subjects she never learned as a consequence of leaving school as a child to sing.  “(He) taught me from the 9th grade (her highest grade) to the 12th grade.”’

New Roles
“In Newport,” Hutton told Osbourne, “with Father I began to work with all troubled people… If I can take a soul that nobody wants any part of and pull them up by their bootstraps; that is a joy.” Amazingly, she would have worked with residents of the old Paramount Theatre at 77 Broadway across from City Hall—alive with her films decades earlier, now converted into low-income housing and a Salvation Army Thrift Shop.
In September 1980, she returned to Broadway for the musical Annie, playing Miss Hannigan for two weeks.  Her grandchildren came to see her, which was “one of the great thrills” of her life, she told the Providence Journal-Bulletin.
Two years later, she performed at Capitol Records’ 40th Anniversary tribute, where she was the “emotional highlight,” the New York Times reported.  The following March, she starred in PBS’s Juke Box Saturday Night clutching the rosary Father Maguire had given her.
“God’s plan,” she told the New York Times, would determine her showbiz future.
God had other plans.
Fr. McGuire, she told Osbourne, had “put all these books in my hands and when I felt I was ready I said, Father, I want to go to college.  He said, ‘you’re ready now.’”
In September 1983, at age 62, Hutton enrolled as a student at Salve Regina University.  Just like in her films, Hersh said, Hutton had “huge childlike energy” and “loved learning… and threw herself into it.”
The following September, she was awarded an honorary doctorate, and graduated from Salve cum laude with a Masters Degree in Liberal Studies in May 1986.
(Photo Credit: Associated Press)

The day she graduated, May 18, 1986, she was “visibly nervous,” as she waited in the front row, the Providence Journal reported.  But once “at center stage, a beaming Hutton opened her arms, blew one smooth, small kiss and bowed to her wildly applauding classmates… Grasping the diploma with both hands, she kept her left hand clenched around a strand of green ceramic rosary beads (the ones Fr. McGuire gave her.) Before descending to take her seat, she lifted the diploma heavenward and raised her eyes in a silent gesture of thanks.”
After graduating, Betty taught drama at Salve, which she said, “was a neat job because then I could begin to give Betty to them—not just the commodity, the hotdog.”  She also taught at Boston’s Emerson College.
“Practically all the stars are in trouble,” she told priests she met in Rhode Island, as reported by AP.  “You happen to see me talking honestly to you. It’s a nightmare out there! It hurts what we do in our private lives.”
On July 8, 1996, Father Maguire—the father she never had—died, after battling diabetes and heart disease for years.  After his death, Hutton could not handle the pain of his absence. So, in March 1997, she moved to Palm Springs, where she lived until her death on March 11, 2007.
“The next time… there’s… thunder and lightning, that’s Betty raising hell with God,” about the movie she wants to make in heaven with Bing and the gang said Lyles at her memorial service.
A fitting image. For God, Lyles agreed, was always her best manager.
***
Originally published in Forbes on March 11, 2013, with first paragraph of this version, published February 26, 2017, appropriately edited. A much shorter version of this article, “Being Beautiful Betty,” was published in Newport Life Magazine in May 2009.  Additionally, the author wrote about Betty Hutton for Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register in 2007 and 2011, respectively.  Betty’s story was included in “Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends,” by Mary Claire Kendall, published by Franciscan Media in 2015, and republished by Ediciones Rialp in Madrid in late 2016 under the title, “También Dios pasa por Hollywood.”