'Letters From Hollywood': When Film Stars Slid Into Each Others' Telegrams The new book Letters from Hollywood offers a peek inside the inner workings of the film industry through 137 communiques from luminaries like Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis and a very young Jane Fonda.
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In Golden Age Hollywood, Film Stars Slid Into Each Others' Telegrams

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In Golden Age Hollywood, Film Stars Slid Into Each Others' Telegrams

In Golden Age Hollywood, Film Stars Slid Into Each Others' Telegrams

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Letters, memos and telegrams from the Golden Age of Hollywood are collected in a new book that shows Ingrid Bergman was a so-so typist, Katharine Hepburn's signature was indecipherable and Marlene Dietrich signed her letter to Hemingway, Your Kraut. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the book is a delicious peek into very famous people's private lives.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: On screen, Audrey Hepburn was perfection - the bangs, the long cigarette holder in "Breakfast At Tiffany's," the lavish hat at Ascot after the poor girl coats in "My Fair Lady."


MARNI NIXON: (As Eliza Doolittle, singing) Lots of coal making lots of heat, warm face, warm hands, warm feet, oh, wouldn't it be loverly (ph). Oh...

STAMBERG: She recorded all the songs, by the way, but Marni Nixon sang them in the movie. Anyway, perfect Audrey, it seems, had bad feet. In 1963, seeing the "My Fair Lady" script for the very first time, she wrote the director in perfect schoolgirl penmanship that she was beyond happiness with it - exclamation marks, underlinings (ph), caps - delighted. One little thing - Hepburn asks for the designer's sketches of her shoes.

BARBARA HALL: (Reading) I tell you why.

STAMBERG: Film historian Barbara Hall reads Hepburn's letter.

HALL: (Reading) One is an awful lot on one's feet when working. And since my days in the ballet, I have had trouble with me feet unless properly shoed (ph).

STAMBERG: So she asks if her private Paris bootmaker can make her movie shoes. Do we need to know this, that poor Audrey Hepburn got sore feet and (laughter) needed special shoes?

HALL: Well, I think it's the kind of thing that is great to learn about an actress. We think of them - sort of put them on a pedestal. But really, she was a regular person, and obviously a very, very charming one.

STAMBERG: And a great star who knew what she needed to do her best work. Bette Davis was like that - Warner Bros.' biggest star, two Oscars, famous for this immortal line in "All About Eve."


BETTE DAVIS: (As Margo Channing) Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

STAMBERG: Years before "Eve," Bette Davis was exhausted, overworked - no rest for the queen of Warner's.

HALL: They just kept putting her in more and more films.

STAMBERG: Again, Barbara Hall, co-author of the book "Letters From Hollywood."

HALL: She felt like she needed more time between projects.

STAMBERG: Bette Davis wrote - again, by hand - to studio head Jack Warner protesting her contract. Studios owned their stars in those days. Davis wanted to make fewer pictures every year, more time off between pictures. She ended her very firm letter...

HALL: (Reading) Would appreciate your not communicating with me. It upsets me very much.

STAMBERG: And she adds, also arguing with me is no use. Another letter-writer in this collection is Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win the Oscar for best supporting actress as Mammy in 1939's "Gone With The Wind."


HATTIE MCDANIEL: (As Mammy) You been brave so long, Miss Scarlett. You just got to go on being brave.

STAMBERG: McDaniel was a busy actor in the 1930s and '40s, always playing a maid or servant. In 1947, she thanked gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for printing kind words about her, but others criticized her for taking so many servant roles. McDaniel wrote...

HALL: (Reading) Truly, a maid or butler in real life is out making an honest dollar, just as we are on the screen.

STAMBERG: McDaniel goes on.

HALL: (Reading) I only hope that the producers will give us Negro actors and actresses more roles, even if there will be those who call us Uncle Toms.

STAMBERG: The NAACP and other civil rights organizations had started pressuring studios to get rid of stereotypical roles like McDaniel was playing, the only parts African Americans could get then. The protests had a bitter result for the Oscar winner.

HALL: Hattie McDaniel found that she was getting fewer and fewer roles because they weren't writing as many roles like that in the immediate postwar years.

STAMBERG: Finally, at least the last correspondence I've picked from the 137 items in this book, a telegram to director William Wyler sent in 1937 by an extremely precocious star-to-be.

ROCKY LANG: (Reading) Warner Bros. Studio, I admire your pictures, and I would like to work for you.

STAMBERG: Rocky Lang, co-author of the book, reads the cable.

LANG: I am 18 minutes old, blonde hair, blue eyes, weight eight pounds, and I have been called beautiful. My father was an actor - Jayne Seymour Fonda.

STAMBERG: The real author of the telegram was Henry Fonda. In his reply to the new baby, director Wyler contradicted the cable. Wyler typed, your father never was an actor. He also said he wanted to make a test of little Jane as soon as possible. Guess she passed the test. Correspondence from "Letters From Hollywood," the subtitle is "Inside The Private World Of Classic American Moviemaking." Peter Bogdanovich, director in "The Last Picture Show," writer, actor, film historian, wrote the book's foreword. I asked him one question.

The decision to publish them - I mean, they were very personal letters - star to director, star to studio head - is it an invasion of privacy now to publish them?

PETER BOGDANOVICH: I don't think so. It's history.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


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