New York Times Book Review
Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywoodby Cari Beauchamp
Cari Beauchamp masterfully combines biography with social and cultural history to examine the lives of Frances Marion and her many female colleagues who shaped filmmaking from 1912 through the 1940s. Frances Marion was Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter—male or female—or almost three decades, wrote almost 200 produced films and won Academy Awards for writing "The Big House" and "The Champ."
New York Times Book Review
Washington Post Book World
Los Angeles Times
Until now Frances Marion has been largely absent from the screenwriters' pantheon, despite a five-decade career that yielded 325 scripts, many for top films (The Champ, Son of the Sheik, Dinner at Eight). Seasoned film reporter Beauchamp (coauthor, Hollywood on the Riviera, 1992) spends no time taking umbrage. Instead she jumps into Marion Benson Owens's two early marriages, a fateful encounter with Marie Dressler as a reporter for Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, and early days in Los Angeles, where she met lifetime friends Adela Rogers and Mary Pickford, and director Lois Weber, who renamed her Frances Marion. After her first scenario in 1915, an already crowded life became dizzying: It included stints with Famous Players, First National, and MGM, new friendships with Hedda Hopper and Anita Loos, and a happy and creatively fruitful marriage to 1920s western star Fred Thomson until his death in 1928. Beauchamp admirably marshals her research and writes with tempered prose. Still, when her subject is so well placed that she witnesses young George Gershwin playing a new piece called Rhapsody in Blue and introduces directors to a tall guy named Frank (later Gary) Cooper, it's hard not to become a little breathless. There's also a gossipy, epic quality that inspires page-turning: Will entertainment mogul Joseph Kennedy hurt Thomson's career? What will Marion do at MGM after her beloved friend Irving Thalberg dies? At the book's conclusion, what stands out are the friendships. As Marion says, " `Contrary to the assertion that women do all in their power to hinder one another's progress, I have found that it has always been one of my own sex who had given me a helping hand when I needed it.' "
A triumph of discovery in the often strip-mined quarry of film history.
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Without Lying Down
Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood
By Cari Beauchamp
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1997 Cari Beauchamp
All rights reserved.
Marion Benson Owens first publicly documented her creative talents at San Francisco's Hamilton Grammar School "when I was caught drawing cartoons of my teachers on the blackboard and was expelled from all public schools." As a rule, she was very well behaved, having been taught early "the hypocrisies of social graces." Yet while others might see her dismissal as something to be ashamed of, Marion was always to view it with a sense of accomplishment. Just twelve years old, she had been set apart from those she considered "fastidious and dull" and that was definitely a step in the right direction.
San Francisco in 1900 prided itself on being a cosmopolitan city, but the well-off and socially active Owens family at times stretched the limits of social acceptance.
Her father was born in 1857 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where his parents had immigrated from Missouri when the Iowa Territory opened. Len Douglas Owens arrived in a prospering San Francisco at the age of twenty-four and quickly established himself in the advertising business. He was anxious to channel his ambitions and install himself in society, and Minnie Benson Hall, almost ten years his junior, had the bearing and the background to help him achieve his goals.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Minnie was the daughter of Charles and Aimee Grizwald Hall, who had "come around the Horn" to California from New York following the Gold Rush of 1848. Music was the foundation of the household. Charles owned a piano factory and played concert violin and Aimee was an accomplished soprano and pianist.
Minnie was not yet eighteen when she married the twenty-seven-year-old Len Owens in 1884. Over six feet tall with carved Welsh features, Len was the extrovert, serving on the board of the Olympic Club and becoming a champion pistol shooter and all-around outdoorsman. Minnie prided herself on creating a household that was a center for artists and visiting musicians like Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, the Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba, and Enrico Caruso.
Their large house on O'Farrell Street also became home for Minnie's aunt and uncle, George and Jane Benson, when they moved from New York shortly after the Owenses were married. George worked at a local lumberyard and Aunt Jane was a help as the children arrived; Maude in February of 1886, Marion on November 18, 1888, and Len junior in May of 1890.
Len senior organized a bicycle club for men and they rode all over northern California on the weekends. He became an investor in Aetna Springs, a six-hundred-acre ranch in the Pope Valley, and by 1896 he was the sole owner of the property. He created the Aetna Springs Mineral Water Company to bottle the water from its natural springs, promoted it as a drink of great "medicinal value" to those suffering from "neuralgia, indigestion, rheumatism, dyspepsia and many other ills," and distributed it through his new drug and supply company south of Market Street.
Len's advertising business was also flourishing. He brought in Tom Varney and Charles Green as partners and their firm specialized in creating and posting signs on fences and in trolleys and streetcars. While Minnie was most comfortable in her roles as hostess and mother, Len's life now took him everywhere but home. In the fall of 1898, he assured his wife he would always support her and the children, but he wanted a divorce.
Minnie and the Bensons stayed in the house on O'Farrell and the children continued to go to Hamilton Grammar School, less than two blocks from their home. Just before her twelfth birthday, Marion's father told her he was marrying again. His fiancée, Isabel, was the eldest daughter of the celebrated and wealthy lawyer Edgar F. Preston. Eighteen years younger than Len, Isabel had never been married before and, unlike Minnie, was an outdoorswoman who shared his love of horseback riding and bicycling.
Len and Isabel were married in June of 1901 to what the newspapers called "the excitement of the exclusive set," and in spite of its being his second marriage, they were listed in the bible of society, the Blue Book. Unlike those in eastern cities, San Franciscans were proud not to attach a negative stigma to personal preferences and took their attitude as an outward sign of their sophisticated nature.
Marion responded to her father's remarriage by adopting an "I don't care" attitude that culminated in her dismissal from school a few months later. She turned more than ever to her adored great-aunt and -uncle.
Aunt Jane, in her early sixties, was an amateur spiritualist and held weekly séances in the parlor. With the lights down low, up to a dozen elderly women held hands around the large round table and the sessions opened with a rendition of "Nearer My God to Thee." Young Marion played the part of the channeler, using her free-floating imagination to give voice to historical figures and friends and relatives who had passed on.
Uncle George was a retired seaman with a full white beard and a vocabulary honed by his years at sea. He barely tolerated his wife's dabbling with the other world and disapproved heartily of involving Marion in it. To give their niece what he considered a needed balance in her education, George took her with him to visit his old seafaring friends in the saloons of the Barbary Coast, where she listened to their stories of shipwrecks and the voyages of their youth.
A bout with polio kept Marion at home for several months and she became a prolific reader. Tutors for Spanish, French, and music were brought in, but most of her waking hours were consumed with reading and writing in her daily diary, which she kept hidden under her mattress.
While the family encouraged original thoughts, it was made clear that they should be kept to oneself to avoid offending others. Many evenings, the dinner table was enlarged for her mother's guests and Marion learned early to be comfortable in an adult setting and how much easier things were for women and girls if they simply smiled and kept quiet. At the end of the day, there was always the diary to record what she really thought.
When Marion recovered from her polio, her mother decided it was time for her to be sent fifteen miles south to St. Margaret's Hall Boarding School in San Mateo. With a reputation as an excellent preparatory school for the elite eastern women's colleges, St. Margaret's offered a strict academic curriculum, and the annual tuition of $500 assured economic exclusivity.
Established by the Reverend and Mrs. George Wallace in 1891, St. Margaret's advertised aim was "to prepare its pupils to adorn the family and social circle, not only with intellectual culture, but also with graceful manners, refined tastes and Christian character" and to "secure a foundation for the super-structure of a noble womanhood." While christian character with a small "c" would always come naturally to her, the daily dose of Episcopalian liturgy failed to inspire her. "I belong to no established faith—I never have," Marion would make clear to anyone who asked.
While schooling society's daughters in their simple white uniforms, St. Margaret's itself was rather stark, consisting of several wooden buildings fronting a wide dirt road laced with fruit and palm trees. The girls wrote and staged plays and were frequently taken to local lectures, allowed to visit the stores of San Mateo when chaperoned, and invited to dinners and dances at the large estates nearby.
Marion took the train to San Francisco on occasional weekends and school vacations. She and her brother and sister were welcome at her father's new home at 3232 Jackson Street, but the addition of two half brothers, Edgar, born in 1902, and Francis the following year, made Marion uncomfortable and gradually she reduced her visits.
In the summers, she traveled with her mother, going to Alaska one year and Mexico the next. Marion was becoming an astute observer of human nature and developing a radar for hypocrisy in all its forms. The stark contrast between the poverty of the people of Mexico and the riches of the churches seeded a lifelong resistance to organized religion, but she was thrilled to trek into the mountains with a group of Yaqui Indians, learning only afterward they had journeyed farther from the cities than any white women had previously dared. She took pride in improving her Spanish and furthering her belief, first instilled by her mother in particular and San Francisco in general, that women could go where their interests led them, as long as they outwardly appeared to behave themselves.
In boarding school, Marion excelled at languages and music and blossomed as an artist under the tutelage of Charles Chapel Judson. When Judson, a respected painter active in the San Francisco Art Association, was asked to join the faculty of the newly created Mark Hopkins Art Institute, Marion begged her parents to allow her to transfer there.
After three years at St. Margaret's, Marion was chafing to move on. She was drawing constantly, sketching every face she saw, as well as writing poetry and short stories. Family friends like the writers Jack London and Ella Wheeler Wilcox encouraged her to send off samples of her work to various publications and her poem "California's Latest," by Marion B. Owens, an ode to Luther Burbank's daisy and illustrated with her own drawings, took up an entire page of Sunset magazine's May 1905 issue.
That fall, the sixteen-year-old Marion was accepted at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute and the fact that it was housed in San Francisco's most stately mansion and run in cooperation with the University of California at Berkeley gave it increased credibility in her parents' eyes. She moved back in with her mother, Maude, Len junior, Aunt Jane, and Uncle George, where she was able to be a part of her parents' society, spread her wings with her fellow students, and participate in the burgeoning Bohemian community.
San Francisco in 1905 was the largest city west of the Mississippi. One third of the population of 400,000 had been born on foreign soil, one third were children of immigrants. Almost 20,000 Chinese lived crushed into five square blocks and knew better than to go beyond Powell or Broadway. Danish, German, Polish, and various other recent European immigrants were almost as densely packed into tenements south of Market Street.
The rival Hearst and de Young families owned two of the three morning newspapers, and five weekly magazines provided a showcase for local writers. With its numerous theaters and urbane attitude, Will Irwin called San Francisco "the gayest, lightest hearted and most pleasure loving city in the western continent."
The Mark Hopkins Art Institute, quickly earning a reputation as one of the finest art schools in the country, became a magnet for society's children, students from the new Leland Stanford University and the University of California and the literary and artistic hopefuls who migrated west seeking kindred spirits in the city that would become known as Baghdad by the Bay.
The art institute occupied an entire city block, its castlelike structure standing five stories high, topped by an elaborate tower with a magnificent view of the entire bay. Marion took her classes in the smaller rooms upstairs while the large first-floor salons were used as galleries. The murals on the walls, painted originally for Hopkins by the same Italian artists imported to decorate the saloons and brothels of the Barbary Coast, added a unique dimension to the decor and in the fall and spring, all of society flocked to the art institute's major exhibitions.
In her off hours, both with friends and alone, Marion explored the city. She found the Italian area of North Beach provided reasonably priced three-course meals and bottles of table wine for twenty-five cents, and in the saloons and dining halls of the Barbary Coast, the buffet lunch was free when you bought a glass of beer for a nickel. Delmonico's had a downstairs dining room, a second story with rooms for private parties, and a third floor with a discreet row of bedrooms for customers who couldn't or didn't want to go home, but the grandest of all establishments was the Palace Hotel. Built around a courtyard with an interior sparkling with cut glass and marble, it boasted telephones and bathtubs in every room. And from the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street, boats crossed the bay to the small towns of Oakland and Berkeley or over to Marin where Marion sketched Mount Tamalpais and the Pacific Ocean.
Yet for all the wealth of intellectual stimulation and artistic inspiration, Marion's attention became increasingly focused on her tall, young art teacher. Wesley de Lappe had only recently moved with his parents to San Francisco from Santa Rosa and family pressure to become a serious businessman lessened when he was hired as the art institute's youngest instructor.
At five foot two with chestnut hair and deep blue eyes, the pretty, accomplished seventeen-year-old Marion had many admirers. Yet Wesley didn't seem to notice her at all. Determined to catch his attention, Marion selected an outrageous hat covered with huge ostrich feathers for San Francisco's Easter festivities and gave it full credit for finally turning Wesley de Lappe's head. Less than two weeks later, on April 18, 1906, she and Wesley were sitting on a park bench, delaying the inevitable return home, when a loud, rumbling sound was heard throughout San Francisco that was to change their lives and their city forever.
Streets literally opened up, buildings shook and crumbled. Marion and Wesley were petrified, but close enough to her home to reconnect with her family and physical safety. Almost every brick chimney in the city fell or was in danger of dropping onto the masses of people as they fled into the streets, screaming helplessly or wandering in quiet shock. Everyone was clutching someone or something: clothes, family silver, irreplaceable photographs, or jewels. For Marion, it was her ostrich feather Easter hat and Wesley de Lappe.
As devastating as the initial shock had been—later estimated to be 8.3 on the Richter scale—the fires that followed were what devoured the city. Gaslights crashed to the ground and electric wires short-circuited, sparking blazes everywhere. Water hydrants were useless; the underground pipes had been shattered by the quake.
Dynamite blasts vibrated throughout the city as a quarter-mile firebreak was created at Van Ness Avenue. The flames continued for three days and two nights and when they finally burned out, Chinatown, the Barbary Coast, the financial district, and the wooden tenements south of Market were nothing but ashes. More than 1,000 people died, 250 city blocks were devastated, and 300,000 men, women, and children were left homeless. "You have to forget the idea that there was a fire in San Francisco," W. R. Hearst wrote. "There was a fire OF San Francisco."
The impact of the earthquake was not only physical. An atmosphere of equality and community spirit akin to the aftermath of war resulted as tents were pitched in vacant lots and parks and among the ashes of the Nob Hill estates. Debutantes and shopgirls, stockbrokers and beer hall bouncers all lived side by side for months. Children stood in lines several blocks long for free fruit and milk and the Red Cross distributed tins of food. Looters were shot on sight and bottled water became more valuable than gold.
Marion would later say that her family "lost everything" in the earthquake, but while their economic security was gone, their house remained standing. The Mark Hopkins Art Institute was obliterated, as was her father's drug company and his warehouses. Len Owens had sold his interest in his advertising firm to concentrate on developing Aetna Springs as a summer resort, but now all available building materials were needed in the city and the economic demands of recovery left few with discretionary income for vacationing.
Her mother was forced to forfeit any remaining hope of sending Marion to an eastern college. With her school and most vestiges of normalcy gone from the city, marriage became the next logical step, a way for her truly to be on her own. She openly enjoyed Wes's "maulings," as she called their lovemaking, and soon he was convinced that setting a wedding date was his idea.
Excerpted from Without Lying Down by Cari Beauchamp. Copyright © 1997 Cari Beauchamp. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Cari Beauchamp is the coauthor of Hollywood on the Riviera(1992).
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