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An Excerpt from Gloria Stuart: I Just Kept Hoping Chapter 1
According to legend, my seaside hometown was named Santa Monica because its streams were so sparkling and full it reminded the Spanish fathers of Saint Monica's tears for her son's salvation. Santa Monica was put on the map by the explorer-soldier Portolá. Santa Monica Bay is a crescent, with Point Dume to the west and Palos Verdes to the south. It was called the Bay of a Thousand Candles by Cabrillo and other Spanish explorers, because the Indians built their campfires on top of the Palisades. These bluffs run between 50 and 250 feet high, then slope gently down to the beach. Palm trees along the top of the Palisades were not very high when I was not very high. Looking at them now, they're very, very tall. The Palisades palms fill me with nostalgia and a sense of growing old.
In the sea, when I was a child, there were seals and dolphins very close to shore, and the whales were very evident going south. There were acres and acres of rosy seaweed above the water, and we were always warned never to swim into a bed of it, that we would be caught and entangled and probably drown. That seaweed disappeared during the First World War, because it was harvested for medicines. Mama said iodine. And it has never reappeared. There are very few seals anymore, or sea lions, or dolphins. I don't remember sharks ever being spoken of. But certainly over a period of years we have had sharks in the Santa Monica Bay. And every once in a while way offshore you can see a few whales going south. But today, Heal the Bay is the new ploy. Against pollution, you know, chum.
There were pelicans and gulls over the ocean -- still are, but cranes in the wetlands around Venice are rare. Tiny blue butterflies, once in the thousands, are now nearly extinct.
When we stood on the Palisades, we looked across to China. Behind us were the San Gabriel Mountains, snow-covered in winter. There were no houses on the beach. The Santa Monica Pier was there, and way in the distance, to the south, a Pier off Ocean Park, now gone. Then way, way in the distance we saw the Venice Pier -- until it burned. My brother came home after dark one night from his newspaper bike route with the news the Pier was burning. Daddy bundled us up into the car -- an early open Studebaker -- and drove down to the Venice beach.
It was a Fire! The beach was crowded with people, and, as the great dome over the ballroom at the end of the Pier collapsed into the sea, we all ooh ohh ohhed sadly, secretly thrilled at witnessing something so spectacular.
The aquarium went, too. I remember Mama saying she hoped "the poor things" made it into the ocean.
Skies were clear blue always -- no smog. In the spring, from Sixth Street, where we lived, as far as we could see, fields of poppies, Indian paintbrush, johnny-jump-ups, wild iris, monkey faces, clover, and great patches of lupine and mustard gently rolled up toward the hills to the east. Today they're called the Hollywood Hills, but in those days, they were just The Mountains.
And off to our right, to the north, the Santa Monica Mountains, far enough away to silhouette darkly against the horizon. There are still deer in those mountains, coyote, rabbits, squirrels, possums. There were mountain lions, rattlesnakes, king snakes, garter snakes. On the road along the Pacific Ocean, up to Topanga Canyon, I remember hundreds and hundreds of what we called Our Lord's Candles. Yucca, very tall with white blossoms. Picture ten-to-fifteen-feet-high bare stalks covered with dozens of lily-shaped waxy flowers. They dotted the hillsides singly up and down the slopes. Today, one or two to a hillside. Maybe. We used to dig one up after a weekend in my family's cabin in Topanga, and plant it on the front lawn at home. Eventually it was against the law to remove yucca from the mountains -- which it should have been in the beginning.
Once, our father was driving us up the narrow road toward Topanga Canyon to watch one of our almost yearly brushfires, when we were stopped and he was commandeered to help fight that fire. Taken right out of the car that minute by two forest rangers! We didn't see him for several days, and I remember Mama driving us back up to find out about him, and the forest ranger saying he didn't know where Daddy was, but no one had been killed. My father didn't do that again. He decided the fires looked even more spectacular from what is now known as Pacific Palisades.
An orphan at fifteen, Mama went to work in the Ocean Park post office three years later. She became a clerk for the postmaster, Mr. Stilson. He and his wife befriended her. Around that time, my aunt Nellie Deidrick was listed in the Ocean Park telephone directory as a "seamstress." Uncle Jesse Deidrick was a "grocery clerk."
Then Frank Stewart, a law student moonlighting as a postal inspector, walked into Mama's life. He was a stern and handsome Scot born in The Dalles, Oregon -- The Dalles is perched on the great Columbia River, and was the end of the Oregon Trail. Frank Stewart's family were farmers (related, Mama said, to Mary, Queen of Scots), but he went to San Francisco to study law, then came down to Los Angeles. In time, he proposed marriage to Alice Deidrick. Mama proudly told how her friends Colonel and Mrs. Scofield gave her a first-class wedding, complete with a silver flat-ware service, a huge brass samovar, cut-glass crystal bowls, china, even monogrammed linens -- all for a nobody postal clerk! My dear father booked a drawing room on the Southern Pacific Railroad train for San Francisco for their wedding night. It's not my idea of "thoughtfulness." All those whistles and tunnels.
In nine months, me.
(When I was in my twenties, Mama confided that on her wedding night and for almost a week after, she was so terrified at the prospect of intercourse she cried most of the time and couldn't cooperate!)
I was born around eleven o'clock at night on the Fourth of July, 1910. My mother said, "Honey, it was getting so close to midnight, the midwife kept saying, 'Push harder, harder' -- I had to have you on the Fourth of July!" I was delivered on the dining room table (it seems a curious place, now that I think of it). Years later, I had my tonsils removed on that same table.
Eleven months after me came Boy. Boy's real name was Frank. Two years later came another baby boy, Thomas, named after both Mama's and Daddy's fathers. When I was three, suddenly Boy and I couldn't leave the house to play with our neighborhood friends. Our tiny brother was very sick and we were quarantined -- it was spinal meningitis. Tommy died, but all it meant to me was that we could go out and play again.
In those days, women wore lockets holding a lock of hair. Years later, I realized that the blond curl in Mama's locket was from Tommy.
The attention my looks received probably affected the filial relationship between my brother and me.
I vividly remember sitting next to him on a bench in Palisades Park complete with an enormous stand-up, six-inch-wide pink-striped silk hair ribbon clamped to my blond Dutch cut -- we were six and five -- with passersby admiring me, and Boy loudly piping up, "Look at me! Look at me!" And he was a handsome little boy. But nobody noticed.
Despite this, I confess I was jealous of my brother when I was little. That's because Mama spent most of her time with him, driving him around to confer with doctors and charlatans, faith healers, and orthopedic specialists. She was searching for a way to heal Boy's leg. He had suffered an attack of infantile paralysis at the age of eleven months. It was misdiagnosed as a broken leg and put in a plaster cast, where it withered.
My father had been determined that Boy not use his paralysis negatively. But the methods Daddy used seem to me today very unwise -- certainly unhappy. He devised games for the two of us after dinner. In one, we stood together, Daddy threw a beanbag across the room, and we scrambled for it. I always won. I was taller and almost a year older than Boy and not handicapped. Sometimes, Daddy threw pennies. I got those first, too.
Daddy also took Boy to the Ocean Park Plunge, a bathhouse where Boy learned to dive from a very high springboard -- one small withered leg clinging in midair against his good one. The ocean waves were too strong for him, though he could wade out in calm water and dive over a wave, then swim in deeper water. But I was the original seal, riding the waves, diving under the big ones fearlessly. If I believed in such things, it's not surprising that I was born under a water sign.
Once, as a child, I asked my mother why I wasn't a princess. Her answer, "Because you have to be born a princess."
And I asked, "How do I do that?"
It has occurred to me that everything that I have wanted to do, to excel in, has had to do with theatrics. Starting with wanting to be an actress to display myself. For applause.
For me, giving parties, for example, is almost the same as going on stage. The door opens, the audience arrives, the curtain goes up, you walk out of the kitchen, and you have lines. In both cases, if you're good, there is applause, a feeling of great satisfaction, involvement, happiness, and recognition.
One of my favorite entertainments was a dinner party I gave in the 1930s for a Major Grey -- but not the Major Grey of chutney fame -- when he visited from England. He was a friend of a friend of ours, and I thought it would be very amusing to have a curry dinner, and to serve the other Major Grey's famous chutney.
Back in those prewar days, when we entertained, my friends and I outdid each other with finger bowls. Beautiful French or English or Irish crystal finger bowls set on flowery plates. Flowers floated in the bowls -- sometimes, in green- or blue-colored water. Plus exquisitely fine linen doilies, probably four inches across, with beautiful lace edges and embroidery.
For Major Grey's dinner, it occurred to me it might be fun to have a duck with the finger bowls -- a live duck, because ducks eat, then sip water in between nibbles.
So the finger bowls were finally served, naturally with little flowers. And then the lovely fat mallard duckling was let loose on the table. I put some duck food in my finger bowl, and "it" -- I don't know whether it was a she or a he -- ducked in and out, other guests followed, sprinkling duck food into their finger bowls. Major Grey loved the party. "This is really Hollywood!" he said.
Once, an interviewer asked me the inspiration of my frequent party-giving, especially my holiday celebrations. I suddenly knew it was because, when I was a child, Mama celebrated everything.
On May Day, we painted berry baskets and filled them with flowers from our garden, then left them early in the morning on neighbors' porches. For Decoration Day, we made wreaths of greens and took them down to the Santa Monica Pier to toss into the ocean in memory of "the brave men who gave their lives for our country," as Mama put it. April Fools' Day meant salt in our father's sugar bowl, a full purse on the sidewalk attached to an invisible thread attached to a lamppost -- Mama! Lincoln's Birthday we reread the Gettysburg Address at dinner. Washington's Birthday fresh cherry pie and the retelling of the story about the tree -- "I cannot tell a lie."
And, of course, for my Fourth of July birthday, Mama always made me a three-story red, white, and blue cake topped with candles and sparklers. My lawyer father had many Chinese clients and friends who sent me wonderful fireworks, which we set up in the backyard. One year, one set, lighted on the end, spelled out letter by letter, "Happy Birthday Gloria!"
Mama was a wonderful cook. When I was growing up, Sunday dinner would be a roast of chicken, lamb, pork, or beef. Mashed potatoes with creamy gravy made with chicken or beef fat, fresh green peas, hot biscuits with butter and jam or honey. In spring, there would be wild mustard greens gathered from the vacant lot next door. (Boy and I hated vegetables -- I still do.) For dessert would come Mama's fresh devil's food cake, or a fresh lemon cream pie, or, if we were really lucky, her superb fresh coconut cake. It took six hours to make that cake, because she started by grating fresh coconuts.
To help her prepare these dinners, Mama usually had Indian help, girls from the reservation near Riverside who also helped keep our house clean. For some reason, they always seemed to be named Penny.
Even though Mama gave our family a lovely calendar of celebratory days -- and there was always room for spontaneous excitement -- strange to say, I have no memory of my mother's laughter. But I do recall the first time she was in tears. We were eating dinner around our dining table, Mama said something, and my father said, "Alice, shut up!" We three burst into tears. That, then, was the equivalent of today's "Alice, fuck off!"
There were more tears after my father had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, and Mama had to take Daddy to a sanitarium. For over a year we drove up to see him every Sunday, an hour's ride or so. Daddy was considered contagious, so Boy and I had to stay outside the screened porch while Mama went in and sat with him. We played jacks and marbles and read our children's books, and munched Cracker Jack or Animal Crackers.
When Daddy finally came home, he spent most of the day in a darkened living room, sitting in a fat brown leather upholstered chair. Even before his illness, my father was close to being a dour Scot, and he'd spent most of the time he was home in his study, reading his big law books. But he had never sat in a chair for so many hours before and I wondered about it. I know now that he must have been depressed.
When I was nine, my father was nominated to be a judge. I don't remember which court it was, but Boy and I understood that this was something exciting for our family. For Mama, it meant a secure future for the first time in her life, a position in Santa Monica social circles, a rainbow arching the blue sky.
As it was and still is in small, closely knit communities, an important part of Mama's social life was going to church. Her family had, for generations, belonged to the Christian Church. Boy and I went to Sunday school at Santa Monica's First Christian Church for a while with Mama. Then, when I kicked my third-grade teacher at Roosevelt School in her behind and was expelled, Mama put me into Catholic school for the fourth grade. But I didn't have to go to church, just morning prayer. Daddy had been a Presbyterian, but left that essentially Scottish church to become a Christian Scientist. Eventually, my father took Boy and me to Christian Science Sunday school. Mama was taking from the Episcopalians by then, but she didn't object to our going off in another direction. So my religious education was a patchwork.
Daddy believed Christian Science had helped cure him of tuberculosis. One evening not long after his appointment to the bench, as he was coming home from a Christian Science church meeting, a car backed into him and severely injured his leg. There were no antibiotics then, and nothing stopped the spread of infection. My father died two weeks later, leaving Mama with two children, no savings, and no means of support. I was nine, and Boy eight. Mama was thirty-five.
Mama rented out our house. We never saw the inside again, or our yard that had been teeming with animals -- rabbits in a hutch, chickens in their coop, a goat, pigeons, our dogs and cats, peanut-eating blue jay "Charlie," and frisky gray squirrels. We also had a swing and a teeter-totter, and I had a little electric stove in a play-house my father had built for me -- I baked all sorts of cookies and made wonderful little doughnuts (interesting that Mama let me cook with hot oil, but she did). There was a peach tree I grew from a kernel -- by then, it was five or six feet high. And the Rain Barrel. It furnished Mama and me soft water to wash our hair with occasionally (shampoo was unknown).
We moved across the alley into a cottage on a friend's back lot. It had a small kitchen and bedroom, and a very small bathroom. I slept with Mama and Boy slept on a cot.
That Christmas an Elks club basket was delivered to us in the little cottage. Mama cried all day. My father had been an Exalted Ruler at the Elks club, and she must have felt complete humiliation.
Mama went back to work in the post office -- in Sawtelle this time, part of West Los Angeles. In a year or so, one of her customers began to court her. Fred J. Finch was a large, gruff man, lacking my father's refinement. But he wasn't as dour, either. He was a successful businessman, owning a large funeral parlor in Sawtelle, and had interests in a Santa Monica bank. He loved taking Mama on trips in his showy Pierce-Arrow.
Mama accepted Mr. Finch's proposal and they were married. I was "in summer exile" at my aunt Nellie's home in Dinuba and met my stepfather weeks later.
He was initially kind to Boy and me, and, after several years, Mama and he had a baby girl, Patricia Marie.
I was so introspective that period, so self-preoccupied, I don't remember the pregnancy, the birth, Patsy's existence.
I always hated being "ordinary," which was reflected in the fact that I had the highest demerit record of any student in the history of Santa Monica High School up until that time! One reason was because I kept breaking the dress code. I just simply couldn't stand navy blue middies and skirts. I wanted to wear my own things. So I did. And I would be given a demerit or sent home to change. I was in revolt. So what else is new?
In those days -- the days of flappers! -- my high school friends and I were trying very hard to be very sophisticated like Clara Bow, the "It" girl (from the 1927 film of that name). We formed a sorority in school, which was not allowed, but we had one anyway. We were the (to us) top thirteen girls at school, and we called ourselves the "Damma Goto Helltas."
To date a boy with a red Stutz Bear Cat was the number one priority. Four of my friends had roadsters. After school, we'd drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to a hot dog stand. Around four-thirty we'd have hot dogs, then we'd drive back to an ice cream parlor and have a triple triple chocolate soda. Then we'd go home and a have dinner, and then every so often, after dinner, we'd have a secret meeting with snacks. And, if possible, go outdoors and smoke cigarettes -- Milo Violets, purple-paper-wrapped cigarettes with gold foil tips! I soaked blotters with Coty's Emeraude and layered Milo Violets in between. Emeraude cigarettes! We were intent on being wild! On weekends, we and our dates snuck into speakeasies, lying about our age. We read George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, and pretended we believed in nothing; prattled as often as anyone would listen to us about nihilism. There's no point in anything. Live for the moment, enjoy! enjoy! Hedonistic notions. Quite childish, quite immature, but very compelling for us. We wanted to be terribly intellectual, to be connoisseurs -- critics of the novelist, critics of the artist, critics of the composer, critics of the whole scene.
I wanted to be a writer, so the summer of my high school junior year, 1926, I signed up for classes in short story and poetry writing.
And asked to be a "girl reporter" at the Santa Monica Outlook. Hired, but no salary. Did high school and church news.
I also enrolled in an acting class where I met my first lover, Carl Meyer.
What a summer! I was on my way.
I wanted desperately to go to college. Translation: Leave Home.
Mama was agreeable, actually eager for me to go to college. But there wasn't money for it. My stepfather, who had been a thorn in my side from Day One, had a suggestion, which he made often enough -- "You want to do something big and great, I'll get you a job in a circus washing elephants."
Yes, I did want to do "something big and great." I'd wanted to as long as I could remember.In spite of Fred J. Finch, I made it to college. Mama secretly borrowed two hundred dollars from an old friend of my father's, Dr. Howard Levengood in Santa Monica, and made me promise not to tell my stepfather. It was enough to cover two semesters of the University of California at Berkeley (tuition: $25, room and board: $75). Books would be extra, of course, but not fatally so. My brother became Frank Finch, finished college, and became a top sports writer for the Los Angeles Times.
As for doing "something big and great," well maybe all the things I've done haven't wound up being great, but I've tried my damnedest. And I've never stopped hoping -- as an actress, an artist, a printer, even as a writer -- for great roles, great adventures, great things.
I became a movie star -- capital M, capital S -- by the time I was in my twenties! Then, sixty years later, I landed a role in the most successful film in history and was nominated by several groups of film aficionados as Best Supporting Actress.
And still nary an elephant in sight!Copyright © 1999 by Gloria Stuart
So Much to Do...
It's been a long, eventful life for former and current movie star Gloria Stuart. She had her first go-around at stardom in the Hollywood heyday of the 1930s and '40s; then, after taking off 30 years or so to pursue painting, travel, and political activism, she again began to act in the 1970s, eventually garnering a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in "Titanic." Still going strong today at the age of 89, Stuart has now added authorship to her list of achievements. Her candid memoir, I Just Kept Hoping, is peppered with anecdotes about such memorable figures as Shirley Temple, Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. I spoke to Gloria about her life, her two careers in the movies, and her secrets for living so long and so well.
An Interview with Gloria Stuart
Barnes & Noble.com: You made three films with director James Whale: "The Invisible Man," "The Old Dark House," and "The Kiss Before the Mirror." What can you tell us about him?
Gloria Stuart: I'm very happy I was in those films.
You know, James is a cult figure in England. There are a lot of James Whale fan clubs. Actually, right after I had read for Jim Cameron for "Titanic," I had booked a month in London. I went right away, and there were two wonderful James Whale organizations that I met with. He's getting his due now, thanks to "Gods and Monsters."
bn.com: What did you think of "Gods and Monsters"? Was it, in your view, an accurate portrayal of Whale?
GS: Oh, yes, it was. Ian McKellan captured James's elegance, the beautiful manners, the beautiful tailoring, the precision, the whole thing. Of course, no one could be James, but he came awfully close.
bn.com: The special effects in "The Invisible Man" hold up remarkably well today for a film that was made in 1933.
GS: Yes, people who see it today -- it runs every so often -- they say, gee, it's not an old hat movie at all.
bn.com: I'm wondering -- did the processes that went into creating those special effects slow down the pace of moviemaking at all?
GS: It was never evident. Only James and the cameraman and I guess all the process people at Universal -- the rest of us never had any inkling of what was going on. We did do a lot of shooting in front of black curtains.
Now, I wasn't on the set when the bandages came off or anything like that, so I have no idea about that. But it was very, very secret. I wasn't on the set when they were finagling the bandages off, and so forth.
bn.com: That would've been fun to see.
GS: Yes, it would've! Claude [Rains] may have known [how it all worked] but he never said so.
bn.com: You and your second husband, Arthur Sheekman, were good friends with Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot, his wife at the time. What can you tell us about Bogie that we might not know?
GS: That you might not know? He's been covered so thoroughly! [laughs] I don't think that the period in his life when he was married to Mayo has been covered, generally, as much as his time with Lauren [Bacall]. What I can say about Bogie is that he and my husband and I were good friends, affectionate friends. We admired him very much, and he admired my husband very much. He liked my cooking.
He was, I would say, an intellectual. He read in great depth, was a brilliant chess player. He was a gentleman, you know -- beautifully raised, beautiful manners. I think the problems he had with Mayo Methot were very unfortunate. But you know, she was a sweet, dear person, too -- except when she was drinking.
It changes people. My friends tell me that, if I've had a couple of glasses, I'm not Miss Goody Two-shoes, either. [laughs]
bn.com: Did you ever have the sense, in those days, that Bogart had what it took to become the sort of icon that he is today?
GS: No, but you know the same thing is true of Julie Epstein. Julie is probably one of the two best-known screenwriters in the world for having cowritten "Casablanca." It was always fun and games and jokes, and even Julie had no idea that they had written the classic film.
bn.com: It's still my favorite film of all time, I have to admit.
GS: It's mine, too! Very few films have that kind of impact worldwide. I remember a few years ago, on one of the film's anniversaries, Julie went all over Europe and parts of the Orient as the guest of movie people, making appearances for having cowritten "Casablanca."
You know, an English film critic said something that was so funny. I published a little miniature book with my private press where Julie wrote about the last ten days of filming "Casablanca," when they didn't have a finish. And it opens with a quote from a British film critic: "This is the worst best movie that was ever made." [laughs]
bn.com: Well, I'll go along with the "best" part of that statement. I suppose the film could be said to be perhaps overly sentimental, but sentiment, when it's done well, can be awfully effective.
GS: It's very touching. And of course it was during a very crucial time in our history.
bn.com: Your husband, Arthur, was a close friend and colleague of Groucho Marx and his brothers.
GS: He was wonderful to my husband. They were really devoted to each other.
bn.com: Many stories have been told about Groucho but not so many about Harpo.
GS: That's because he and Susan got married and adopted four children and he was a papa and she was a mama. We used to spend weekends -- and sometimes two weeks at a time -- with them down in Palm Springs. He'd get up in the morning and have breakfast and then he'd practice the harp for an hour or two and then he and Arthur would go out on the golf course. Of course, playing a round of golf with Groucho and Harpo was falling-down time. They were so funny. And they didn't take it seriously -- the balls went every direction. And my husband couldn't play either. It was such a treat to spend a couple of hours with these clowns.
Then we'd have lunch and Harpo would take a nap. And Harpo painted, you know -- very seriously. And we'd paint -- I was painting at the time. And Susan was making frames like mad. Arthur would work in the study on whatever he was writing. And then we'd have dinner -- barbecue or whatever -- and then we'd go to bed.
And that was Harpo's life. Once in a while, he would go to Vegas. But he was really retired.
He was so adorable. One of my favorite things he said was, "I can't add C-A-T and I can't spell '2 and 2 are 4.' " [laughs]
bn.com: Are you still in contact with his wife?
GS: Oh, yes. I spoke to her about ten days ago. She's fine -- she's 90! She's about a year older than I am. She's coming to my book party at Rancho Mirage. The public library there is giving me a big book party in October.
She's wonderful. She was head of the library; she was head of the art association; she was head of the hospital. She was intent that all the children in Palm Springs -- and it's a very mixed pot down there -- that they all got a good education. She's been honored by the Palm Springs Rotary and all those organizations for her contributions.
She was a Follies girl, you know.
bn.com: You describe at some length in the book a trip around the world you took in the early 1940s. How did your experiences on that journey impact the rest of your life?
GS: I'll tell you how it impacted my life: I never want to go back to some of those places as they are now. I did go back to some of the places, like Hong Kong and Shanghai, but I don't want to go back to Bali or India -- I did go back to India but it was an entirely different kind of trip. Bali was so pure and life was so pure and simple in the parts of Italy that we were in, and France, and it isn't like that anymore.
I feel sorry for people -- they never will know what Bali was like. They never will know what Hong Kong was like -- with one hotel, the Peninsula. They will never know what Singapore was like with one hotel, the Raffles. And there were no high-rise buildings, there were no traffic jams; there was nothing. They were colonial outposts -- very gracious. Saigon was adorable -- very French, very sophisticated, but small. And Angkor, of course, had no tourists at all.
bn.com: I guess no place stays the same, though.
GS: No. I mean, Los Angeles is ugly. Santa Monica is ugly. It wasn't back then. It was green fields. We had deer in the backyard in Santa Monica. [laughs]
bn.com: You've been involved in many arenas of creative endeavor: You've acted on stage and screen, you've written, you've done a bit of song and dance for the troops during the war, you've painted and worked with découpage. Which of these disciplines brought you the most satisfaction and fulfillment?
GS: My printing. I'm now printing James Cameron's Academy Award acceptance speech. Do you know about miniature books? There's a very large group of collectors all around the world. They have an international prize they give every year; I won it one year for design. These books are very expensive; they start around $200 and go up as high as $3,000 for a book two-and-a-half inches by one-and-three-quarters. And the paper is handmade, with leather bindings and handset type and handmade illustrations and so on.
And I've done three. I wrote one called Boating With Bogart, and then Julie wrote the one I mentioned about the last ten days of "Casablanca." And then James Cameron gave me his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards for "Titanic," and I'm doing that. To me, printing the book and designing the book is just -- I can't wait to get up in the morning and I hate to go to bed at night when I'm printing. I'm very grateful to Ward Ritchie [the man who introduced her to printing] for that.
bn.com: In her recent memoir, Esther Williams revealed that Jeff Chandler, with whom she was romantically involved for a time, was a cross-dresser. You are similarly forthcoming in your book. Were there stories that you kept to yourself?
GS: There's so much that I didn't tell and wouldn't tell. I don't see what is gained by disclosing such things. I know that there were several actors who were cross-dressers, but it didn't seem to me to be contributing to name names. It didn't shock me at all. Heavens, women go around in men's clothes and nobody falls down in a dead faint.
bn.com: I suppose there was a time when they did.
GS: Well, when [Marlene] Dietrich first wore a pantsuit to an opening -- a tuxedo -- it was headline news all over the world. But I don't think anybody worried about that. We all knew about her sex life. We all knew about Garbo. You know, we all knew it, but it was no big deal.
bn.com: Movie stars and celebrities were allowed more secrets back then, weren't they?
GS: Well, Jimmy Starr, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hoppper -- they kept their mouths shut! And there weren't radio -- well, there was Jimmy Starr and Walter Winchell but if you've ever heard any of those tapes, it was a Sunday afternoon picnic.
We knew who was living with whom, we knew who had had an abortion, we knew who had an illegitimate child. But nobody ever said anything! It was none of our business.
bn.com: Is it at all bittersweet to see your younger self in your early films?
GS: Oh, no. I'm so amazed that I'm as old as I am. And fortunately I'm a little nearsighted so when I look in the mirror in the morning, I don't really see the wrinkles and the bumps and limps. No, it doesn't bother me at all. My husband always said to me, "You're either the vainest woman in the world or the least conceited because you never look in the mirror!" It's never concerned me; I just accepted it. I'm lucky, I guess, but it's just never concerned me.
I think it's nice that I was very beautiful. I mean, it was very satisfactory; I didn't have to worry.
bn.com: Well, you still look great. In fact, they had to age you for "Titanic"!
GS: That's true; James wasn't sure I could look 101. I said, "You haven't see me before breakfast, James."
bn.com: So how was it to see yourself looking much older onscreen?
GS: Oh, I thought it was wonderful. Greg Cannom [the old-age makeup specialist on "Titanic"] is amazing. He's fantastic! He's won two Academy Awards.
bn.com: You remain, at the age of 89, very vibrant and active. Have you secrets to share for contented aging?
GS: Well, I think the gift my mother gave me -- Mama was very gung ho all of her life. I don't know about my father; he died so young. I don't know, I just can't stop. So that has to be a gift. I mean, I don't take lessons in how to succeed. I never have. I've never had to go to a psychoanalyst. Thank God for them, because they are wonderful and helpful, but I've never felt the need for one. I'd love somebody to solve my arthritis, though. I'm on a new pill and it's wonderful; maybe it will work. [laughs]
bn.com: The book makes it clear that you have a real fondness for gardening.
GS: Oh yes. My gardeners were here this morning; I got up at 5:30 and we worked until about 10. I'm growing vegetables for the first time. I have so many tomatoes that they took some home. And chili peppers. And kale and cucumbers. And, oh, wonderful zucchini.
bn.com: Are you still working with bonsai?
GS: Yes, my bonsai master and his wife were here two weeks ago because it was time to prune the spring and summer growths. One of my trees is in the international collection at the Huntington Library. It's imported, a Japanese cork-barked elm. It was given to me by my first bonsai master in 1944 or '45. So it's about 50 years old. And it was quite old then. It's one of a kind; it's really quite extraordinary.
bn.com: Did you ever imagine, during your first go-round in Hollywood, that you might be involved in a hit of the magnitude of "Titanic"?
GS: No. No, that's why I quit. I couldn't stand what I was doing. I knew that I could do it, if I were ever given the opportunity, but no, of course not. I went without an agent for six years before giving it up completely.
And I didn't miss it. What do you do? You wipe the slate clean and start over again. I brooded enough about it. Besides, the printing is so wonderful and I've had such great success with it -- I mean, instant kudos, instant acceptance. The Getty and Victoria and Albert and the New York Public Library Special Collections and Princeton Special Collections and the Clark Library here and the Huntington Library -- in just a few years. So there's no way I would sit around and mourn the fact that I didn't have a good part.
bn.com: And the better parts continue to come your way.
GS: Well, they're charming. I'm leaving for Vancouver Monday; I'm going up to do a funny old lady in a film with Dyan Cannon, an FBI-CIA mystery. So that'll be fun. And then I start on the book tour.
bn.com: Is there a particular role that you didn't get in the course of your career that you wish you'd gotten to play?
GS: I would say, maybe, the role that Margaret Sullavan got in "The Shop Around the Corner" at Universal. It was so many years ago, but, yes, I would've loved to have played that.
bn.com: In which of your films did you do your best work?
GS: Oh, "Titanic."
bn.com: Which of the actors or actresses you've known or worked with over the years is least like the image we have of them today?
GS: Oh, I don't know! Maybe Cagney. He was very quiet. You know, they called it the Irish Mafia at Warner Brothers -- Pat O'Brien, Frank McHugh, and Cagney, and a couple of other Irishmen. And on the set, there was a lot of fun and laughter. But Jimmy was one of the men that introduced me to the idea of a union. He was a big liberal, and an intellectual, really, I think. Very reserved, was married to the same dear wife. He wasn't the gangster type or anything like that.
bn.com: And which actor or actress would you say mostly closely resembled their public image?
GS: Probably [Marlene] Dietrich. I would think so. I didn't know her. But I'll tell you something about Dietrich that always impressed me. I was at an opening down at the Biltmore -- that was our only legitimate theater in those days -- and everyone was there: [Norma] Shearer, [Joan] Crawford, Ann Harding, Claudette Colbert, all the great leading men. Because it was Katherine Cornell opening.
Everyone smoked in those days, and we were all out in the foyer and in front of the theater. And Dietrich pulled up and got out of a limo, and it was like the waters parted. She walked in, you know, and everybody stood back! Crawford, who was always "on," Shearer, who was beautiful and important -- all the greats were there and they all moved back as Dietrich made her way into the theater. It was fantastic!
I've never forgotten that. And you know -- smiling, simple, no prima donna act or anything -- just there.
bn.com: How do you feel about the increased freedom that exists in filmmaking now, compared to the old days, in depicting sexual matters and violent scenes?
GS: It's fine with me, but I think that access for kids to some of that material is just horrifying. They can film anything they want to, but that children have access to it...
I was in Japan -- I was flying kites at an international kite event with my grandson -- and he told me that there were all kinds of things on Japanese television, and that was a long time ago. I guess it's all over the world.
bn.com: But when a film is meant for an adult audience, you don't have a problem with it?
GS: No. As long as the story is interesting, that's all. For example, the new Kubrick picture I found very interesting. A lot of my friends weren't crazy about it, but I found it very interesting. It dealt with aspects of life that I was not aware of.