Finding Audrey

A while back I received an email from Brenda Janowitz, author of The Grace Kelly Dress, The Liz Taylor Ring, and six other books. Brenda explained that she had found inspiration for her new novel in part from my book Dutch Girl, which was nice to hear, although at the time I couldn’t imagine what she meant. Brenda sent along an advance reading copy of this new book, called The Audrey Hepburn Estate, and I wanted to pass along my thoughts about a reading experience that, for me, touched all the bases.

The story will be familiar to fans of Hepburn’s filmography: the parents of Emma Jansen worked for a family that owned a Long Island estate called Rolling Hill and Emma grew up living over its garage. Years later she returns to the grand house as it’s about to be torn down, setting off an adventure with childhood friends, including the grandson of the estate owners and the son of their driver. Dark memories are confronted and secrets revealed along the way and at various points, the plot evokes parallels to the life of Audrey Hepburn or characters she played.

As you can imagine, I’m all about historic preservation and loved the subplot about passionate attempts to save the crumbling Rolling Hill mansion. Just reading about the place and those dedicated to keeping it standing made me want to join the effort because who needs yet more luxury condos or another apartment building? Must we always bulldoze the past in the name of commerce? Oh, it’s in disrepair so we might as well flatten the old building. I’ve gotten involved in many efforts to preserve historic places, whether it’s a home or part of an old fort or a viewshed as once experienced by George Washington; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. To me this aspect of the plot really resonated.

But there were still more goodies in store—mysteries related to Rolling Hill connecting back to the Netherlands in World War II, and secret passages in the old mansion, and was the place in fact haunted? So, what do you get when you round all the bases; that’s right, you hit a home run, and that was the treat Brenda Janowitz gave me. She handed me a page-turner of a book inspired in many ways by Audrey Hepburn, cleverly so, with a satisfying result. Time and again I smiled at a subtle Audrey allusion and then realized at book’s end that Brenda had included a “Finding Audrey Hepburn in The Audrey Hepburn Estate” epilogue taking the reader chapter by chapter through Hepburn references, parallels, and Easter eggs. I thought to myself, what a great device—the reader ends up not only with an entertaining novel but also an Audrey Hepburn primer, and I have no doubt Audrey herself would have been enchanted by this story because she loved to read and loved a great mystery.

The Audrey Hepburn Estate by Brenda Janowitz will be released in the United States on April 18, 2023. Good luck with it, Brenda, and thank you for an evocative reading experience that will inspire a new generation to learn more about one of the most inspiring people of the twentieth century.

Like Audrey’s character in Sabrina, Emma once lived above the garage of a grand estate.


Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story.

I was reminded how much I miss Audrey Hepburn the other day when The Nun’s Story played in the U.S. on TCM. As you probably know if you’re a Hepburn fan, she never considered herself an actress and always classified herself a dancer. If she’d had her druthers, she’d have been a Balanchine girl, or at the very least a choreographer, but fate had other plans and thrust her into the limelight as an actress who occasionally enjoyed opportunities to dance in her films.

The book was a big deal at around the time of the film’s release.

I lived with Audrey Hepburn for five years writing first Dutch Girl and then Warrior, and that’s why I say I miss her. Any author will tell you that strong relationships are formed during the creation of a biography and you’re living with your subject, hearing her voice, walking in her footsteps, making sense of her decisions—and sometimes yelling at her, “You fool! Don’t do that!”

Audrey was one tough woman, hardened by all the trials of life smack-dab in the middle of a world war. She lived by instinct, and I can argue instinct was her superpower because she used her instincts to make a living as an actress and mold her own personality into whatever character she portrayed, even without formal stage training as an actress.

And there it all was in The Nun’s Story, where the non-Catholic Audrey portrayed long-suffering Sister Luke, a woman of passion and talent trying to live a life of humble obedience serving others in Europe and Africa. It’s a beautiful performance, always understated, with never a false step that I could see, and it earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Best Actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

If you’ve read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, you know what Audrey endured in the war. The parallels in the plot of The Nun’s Story always startle me—in the last reel of the picture, World War II breaks out in Europe and Sister Luke is stationed in the Netherlands when the Germans march in. We hear that the Nazis have swept through Holland and forced a capitulation, and then that Sister Luke’s father has died in the fighting. When another nun starts to work for the Dutch Resistance, Sister Luke tries to look the other way but still sanctions the actions of her colleague. Finally, Sister Luke leaves the order so she can do her own fighting on the outside, and the last shot we see is this young woman walking out into the streets of the Netherlands toward an uncertain future.

Peter Finch plays a doctor in the Belgian Congo for whom Sister Luke develops feelings, especially after he helps her past a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis.

Imagine what she was thinking as she made this picture. Imagine her motivations for these scenes, as when German soldiers swarm onto the set. She had seen that uniform every day for years. Her uncle and cousin and many friends had been executed by men in that uniform. German soldiers had caused so much pain and hardship that the sight of those costumed extras, and the plot of invasion and death, could only have produced visceral reactions.

In preparation for making the picture, Audrey met with the author of the book The Nun’s Story, Kathryn Hulme, and through Hulme formed a friendship with Marie-Louise Habets, whose story was fictionalized by Hulme. Like Hepburn, Habets was born in Belgium and lived through the war in Europe. After leaving the convent, Habets did indeed join the Dutch Resistance, as did Audrey Hepburn. Until publication of Dutch Girl, the world didn’t fully grasp Audrey’s role in the war—after all, she was only 15 so what could she have done? Well, she did a lot, as it turned out, displaying toughness and discipline that would serve her through a variety of situations over a lifetime, including her work in The Nun’s Story. This was my third viewing of The Nun’s Story and I appreciate it now more than ever for reminding me of my very dear friend Audrey. We had some times together, you and I. They are with me always and I’ll cherish them, and you, forever.

Audrey was self-conscious about the bags under her eyes, but they served her well here as a nun under relentless pressure as both her health and faith begin to fail.

Going Camping

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is my hero. She and I have shared the stage twice, the first time 20 years ago in Presidents Day interviews on KDKA Radio Pittsburgh talking about George Washington, and then more recently in a joint interview with Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Geist on MSNBC’s Morning Joe discussing the holiday tradition of It’s a Wonderful Life and the circumstances of its creation just after World War II. Recently I saw Doris on C-Span as she donated the DKG and Richard Goodwin papers to the University of Texas at Austin Library. Doris said something to the effect that “it breaks my heart” that so few people are studying history these days. It breaks mine, too. And it probably breaks yours, because if you read my columns you are, de facto, a history-lover.

History’s my thing. I’d much rather retrace old footsteps than blaze a trail of my own. When I go to Gettysburg, I hear the guns. When I visit Warner Bros., they’re making The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca. On a street here in my hometown, I fixate on the spot where the Flathead Gang blew up an armored car in 1927.  If you don’t get history, my friend, you can rest assured that I won’t get you.

Recently I was invited to appear on a holiday edition of History Camp, an hour-long video interview series, discussing Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe and the circumstances around the making of It’s a Wonderful Life. This show will air Thursday, December 22, at 8 p.m. ET.

It’s an understatement to say that I admire the work of this nonprofit, The Pursuit of History, which stages on-location workshops at historic sites in Boston, Philadelphia, and other places, and provides virtual events, including its weekly author interview series. A quote on their website states, “We create and present these innovative programs because we believe that more people gaining a broader understanding of history has never been more important.” I share this belief, that the accumulated knowledge and wisdom provided by history can guide us in uncertain times—like now. I encourage you to sign up for their emails, donate to the cause, and begin walking in historic footsteps. Pursue history with this group, from the Egypt of Tutankhamun to Radio City Music Hall, from Valley Forge to Camp David. These people believe in preserving the past, just as I believe, and you probably believe. It’s common sense that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But learning about history is also Fun with a capital F. The best stories are the true stories, crazy twists of fate, people defying odds, and outcomes that changed the future of individuals and nations. Come on, take my hand. Let’s jump through the portal and revisit the past in The Pursuit of History.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

The Masked Man

Dec. 17 update: My friend Walt Powell sent me this treasure: an autographed photo of the Lone Ranger pitching Amoco gasoline in the late 1960s. Note gas pump nozzle in his holster! That day at the Dodge dealership, I did not think to get the Lone Ranger’s autograph; thanks to Walt’s generosity, now it’s as if I did. Thank you, Walt. Hats off–white hats, that is–to Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger, for remaining relevant during the most turbulent period in American history.

The time I met the Lone Ranger in person, it struck me all at once that he was in color! He wore a powder-blue shirt and matching pants, with a red kerchief around his neck. I was maybe 10 or 11 and Clayton Moore was appearing for Dodge at a dealership only 10 miles from my house, and so my dad took me to meet him. It remains a vivid memory for several reasons, first and foremost because at that time we didn’t have a color TV and so I had only ever seen The Lone Ranger TV show in black and white. But man, oh man, seeing him in color—wow!

The Lone Ranger and Tonto as I was used to seeing them, in black and white.

Now, if you recall (that is, if you’re ancient enough to recall) a Lone Ranger feature film was released in 1981, and at that time they forbad Clayton Moore from appearing as the Lone Ranger for copyright reasons, but his promotional work for Dodge preceded that controversy, and he looked just about exactly like the hero from television. There he was in the mask, white hat, and blue outfit, with two gleaming chrome-plated Colt .45s.

It astonished me that my dad could stand there and chat with the Lone Ranger as if the Lone Ranger was just a person and not a legendary hero of the Old West. And that Saturday, late in the morning, for whatever reason, there was nobody there to see the Lone Ranger but my dad and me, so there was my father engaged in this serious conversation with the masked man who had bested Butch Cavendish and his gang and so many other villains, which increased my admiration for my dad by, like, 5 billion percent.

Among the things your future Hollywood historian did not ask Clayton Moore, aka the Lone Ranger, while in his presence: What are your best stories from Warner Bros., where you had bit parts in five pictures in 1938? How did you make the transition from WB to MGM, where you worked in a half-dozen pictures in the golden year of 1939? Talk about your rapid rise to become a king of serials at Republic in The Perils of Nyoka, The Crimson Ghost, The Ghost of Zorro, and many others. In the contract dispute when you walked off The Lone Ranger series for a year, did you fear you’d never wear the mask again? What were the differences working on the weekly TV series from 1949-57 vs. the splashy Lone Ranger Warner Bros. feature films of 1956 and 1958? Noooo, none of that. As an idiot pre-teen, I didn’t dare squeak more than “Hi” when my dad introduced me to the Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger in color, as I saw him that day.

One of the upper cable channels is back to showing The Lone Ranger and I’ve been DVRing them. The last season was in color, and I’ve been admiring the pretty-good stories and the abundant action. By that last season, they had polished the production to high gloss and Clayton Moore had matured as an actor. In retrospect, however, he was no match for Jay Silverheels as Tonto, a god of a human generations ahead of his time—brave, wise, loyal, and able to match the Lone Ranger’s heroics move for move, punch for punch, and shot for shot. How many times did Tonto save his white friend’s bacon…a hundred maybe over the course of the series. The presentation of Tonto as a hero whose indigenous roots gave him an advantage over friend and foe alike stands out to me today as astonishing and progressive.

My father died in 1982 and Clayton Moore 17 years later. The Dodge dealership where I met him was razed decades ago and I couldn’t even find a photo of the place to post here. And the silver bullet given to me by the Lone Ranger that day, which was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, has likewise been lost to antiquity. All I have is the memory of a Saturday when two heroes met and stood toe to toe, the Lone Ranger and my dad.

My Hero

Clem graduates Gunnery School in 1943.

When I began researching and writing about Jimmy Stewart in WWII, my friend Walt Powell referred me to Clem Leone, who had served in the same bomb group as Stewart and actually flew with him on a training flight. Walt warned me that Clem could be tough and did not suffer fools—after the war he had become a schoolteacher while also rising to the rank of major in the Maryland National Guard.

Clem agreed to meet with me at his home in Gettysburg, PA—that was in 2014 when he was a sprightly 90 and still bowling every week. He told me his incredible war stories, which included bailing out of two flaming B-24s. I took furious notes during our meetings and then wrote up the Leone storyline for inclusion in the book that became Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. During my first visit, he took me on a tour of a room in his house converted into a war museum, with beautiful scale models of a B-24 and an FW-190, which he pointed out with a certain pride as the German fighter that shot down his plane over Gotha in 1944. Also on display were his medals and uniforms and the ring from the parachute that had saved his life.

We met up again after I had sent him a printout of the narrative and he corrected key points. In those places where I had taken the wrong path (for example, had two characters looking at each other as they floated to earth after bailing out of the plane), he would point at me and say, “That’s not history, that’s Hollywood!” The rigors of working with Clem led to a 100% accurate depiction of life in a bomb group stationed in the English countryside because Clem had no interest in self-aggrandizement. He was what they call a straight shooter.

I’ve written about Clem many times here because he’s simply the most remarkable person I ever met. I love the guy, and for whatever reason, he grew to love me. He considered seeing his war story captured in Mission to be, as he said, “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Clem and I shared the podium for a Mission book presentation in Gettysburg in November 2016, which ranks up there with the launch party for Dutch Girl in Velp as the most memorable, gratifying experience of my literary life. Seeing the outpouring of love and admiration from the entire town as he told his story, and then as we sat signing books together afterward, was an inspiration.

Clem tells his story to adoring friends and fans in Gettysburg.

I next saw Clem at his 95th birthday party in July 2019, an event so jam-packed with well wishers that Clem and I had to shout our happiness to see each other over the din. Since then, I would call him occasionally just to check in, and he was always sharp as a tack. He told me at one point he had dismantled his museum and donated it here and there, with some pieces going to the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA. Always the practical fellow, he told me all his funeral arrangements had been made, and chuckled while he said it.

On three or four occasions I heard that Clem was on his last legs and I would call up, full of concern, and there would be that ironic chuckle and he would sound exactly like his old self until I began to understand that any guy who could survive two bailouts, betrayal by a double agent, imprisonment in a German luft stalag, and a death march across Poland, was going to be hard to shove out of this world.

I always laugh when I think of the time he told me his daughters wanted to buy him a ride in a vintage B-24 at an air show sometime in the last 10 or 15 years. He barked in return, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new—I’m not going to get inside one that’s 70 years old!” That, my friends, is a survivor.

You know where I am going with this. My hero, Clement Francis Leone, died this past Tuesday after a fall in his home that led to a series of medical emergencies. Were it not for that mishap, I know he would still be with us. The world is a gray place without you in it, Clem. May you enjoy your reunion with Sylvia and the boys of your ship, Wacky Donald, who went on to their reward on February 24, 1944.

Clem and me.

Mystery Brothers

Epstein brothers Julius left and Philip right in 1944.
Julius Epstein (left) and his twin brother Phil (right) during their heyday at Warner Bros. They were rock stars before there was such a thing as rock stars and this portrait would have been at home on any 1970s rock album cover.

Full disclosure: I am loath to watch any Bette Davis picture. In my mind, of all the actors who haven’t stood the test of time, she heads the pack. Rules the roost. Stands head and shoulders above the rest. I’m the first to acknowledge her perfection in All About Eve, which I find to be one of few perfect pictures ever. But in general, Bette and I don’t mix well.

This is the price—141 minutes in the dark with Bette Davis—I was willing to pay last night to watch her 1944 film Mr. Skeffington for the first time, having successfully steered clear of it all my life. My interest certainly wasn’t Davis, but rather Julius and Philip Epstein, twin brothers who wrote and produced Mr. Skeffington as their successful follow-up to key involvement in the writing of Casablanca. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the Epsteins, who are shrouded in mystery and legend to what I feel is the detriment of Hollywood history.

As a researcher, I’m shocked how little survives about these two screenwriters beyond the few stories repeated ad nauseum about their verbal fencing with Jack Warner, their completion of each other’s sentences, and their general brilliance as both writers and wits. They were also individuals with separate lives and families and that part is just gone from the record because they were only screenwriters in a town ruled by the stars, and neither cared to blow his own horn. Nor did they date starlets or write tell-all memoirs. They were in their 30s when they co-wrote Casablanca (for which they shared an Oscar with Howard Koch) and produced Mr. Skeffington. Then Phil died suddenly and horribly of cancer at age 42, leaving his collaborator Julie to go on another 48 years alone. That part of their story rips my guts out because of how close these guys were. Julie said that after Phil died, he never successfully recaptured the collaborative spirit with any other writer. Imagine that degree of loss for not only a twin brother but also a twin creative spirit.

Every line in Casablanca that you know is coming and still don’t see coming is thanks to Phil and Julie. “Waters? What waters?” “OK don’t have a drink.” “That is my least vulnerable spot.” Etc. Sure other writers had their hand in the Casablanca script and made critical contributions, but the wit that greased the skids and propelled the story was theirs. No, Jack Warner didn’t care for the Epsteins, but he knew they were good and agreed to make them producers as a reward for the success of Casablanca. And so, in my investigation into what made the Julius and Philip Epstein tick, I watched Mr. Skeffington.

What struck me was how ambitious this project was as their first attempt at co-producing, this epic spanning 30 years, and the social issues it took on—anti-Semitism, narcissism, mental illness, and finally, Nazism. It’s the story of a flighty woman who’s the belle of the ball in the beginning and turns down suitors right and left but marries a Jewish businessman played by Claude Rains to keep her mentally ill brother from going to jail. Several reels and relationships later she’s an old hag and reunites with Rains who has proven time and again during the course of the picture that he’s much too good for her.

The screenplay rings true as pure Epstein, or at least what I have come to understand of the Epsteins, who were brilliant, creative, energetic, and socially conscious. They threw everything into the story including the kitchen sink and every other fixture in reach and veered from comedy to tragedy so fast you could lose your lunch. Davis is Davis, affected and unbelievable at every stage of the story, so it’s left to Claude Rains and the always able Walter Abel to lug this picture on their backs for a long running time; no easy chore, but they’re up to it. When the inevitable payoff comes, I managed some tears only because Rains made it all work. He’s so damn good.

Bette and Claude. Ever the pro, he lugged the picture on his back.

And OMG Davis; what a ham. I know this is a Warner prestige picture, and Davis naturally got all the studio’s A-picture roles. But this time she was simply miscast as a raging beauty. I never bought her as a “catch” in this picture and found her shrill and unsympathetic from start to finish. The part called for Lana or Rita or Linda Darnell or somebody who could start out radiant and gorgeous, although none of these actresses had Davis’s range to fully execute the maturation of the character. But why was Bette so (frankly) bizarre in this picture? Supposedly, decades later she apologized to the surviving Epstein for being impossible during production of Mr. Skeffington; I only learned this morning the reason for a performance that feels today massively uneven.

Make-up aged Bette and make-up aged (and ever-able) Walter Abel.

The director of Mr. Skeffington, Vincent Sherman, documented its production in his book, Studio Affairs. By the time he wrote this memoir in the 1990s, Bette was gone and the story could be told. After completing the 1943 picture Old Acquaintance that they worked on together, Bette and Vince had been about to embark on an affair (both were married) and her husband, affectionately known as “Farney,” intervened and asked Vince to back off. Bette then felt doubly betrayed by both her husband and her lover when Vince deferred to Farney. One thing led to another and Bette and Farney engaged in a horrible screaming match and soon Farney dropped dead of a brain aneurism, for which Bette blamed herself. Soon thereafter, Mr. Skeffington began production and Davis was impossible for Sherman to deal with—she brought a toxic mix of guilt and resentment to the set every day that made the production of Mr. Skeffington a living hell for the entire cast and crew. For me watching all these decades later, this vibe is evident in the negatives exposed back then. Sherman concludes his chapter on Bette Davis by saying, “For some of her fans, it [Skeffington] has become one of their favorite Davis vehicles. I remember it as a turbulent, frustrating experience; I vowed never again to get emotionally involved with any actress I was directing.”

Watching the film as an exploration of the Epsteins as writers and co-producers, I came away from Mr. Skeffington impressed by their vision and ambition. The picture proved a big success at the box office (according to John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows, Mr. Skeffington made a boatload of money, $1.2M in domestic profit). Despite this fact, Julie and Phil retired from the producer role after this one shot, which speaks to the sweat and blood required to go from mere screenwriters to producers responsible for every aspect of a motion picture. It was for them a bridge too far, and they realized it.

Remaking Robin Hood

Title card from Ivanhoe.

I watched the 1952 version of Ivanhoe last night. It’s the first time I really consumed Ivanhoe because I will now admit, I’m not a big MGM guy or a big Robert Taylor guy, so I have seen bits and pieces of Ivanhoe over the years but never sat down and watched it until last night. And what I saw was good and then almost-great.

What really became a thing for me as I watched was realizing that Ivanhoe was a sort of remake of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood a mere 14 years—and a world war—later. In that regard, Ivanhoe is a more adult, grittier picture presented to audiences now grounded in darker cinematic themes. But there are many similarities between the pictures in that both main characters face the same time period with only slightly different points of view. Robin of Locksley’s POV as a Saxon nobleman is replaced by Wilfrid of Ivanhoe’s as another Saxon nobleman, and they share the same plot: the Normans under Prince John are in power in England because King Richard is being held prisoner for ransom by the Austrians. Combating the bigotry and injustice of the Normans is an outlaw named Robin Hood who has an army of Saxon guerrilla fighters in the forest who are determined to end the oppression of the French invaders. Robin Hood, or “Locksley” as he is known here as played by British actor Harold Warrender, is a prominent character in the screen version of Ivanhoe as he was in Sir Walter Scott’s source novel, and Locksley’s band works in coordination with Wilfrid of Ivanhoe to bring down Prince John. Spoiler alert: just as in The Adventures of Robin Hood, a regal King Richard appears at the last minute to stare down his slimy brother, end the Norman reign, and declare that great things are ahead for England. We had seen Richard briefly in reel one, imprisoned all alone in an Austrian castle, which makes his appearance at the end with 100 immaculately and identically costumed knights really stupid. It’s like they were supposed to report to another movie and got sent to the wrong location.

The storybook way Richard rides in to bring the narrative to a swift conclusion works against every gritty moment that came before in Ivanhoe. It’s way too pretty and way too pat and much more like something out of the pre-war Flynn picture.

Guy Rolfe as Prince John in Ivanhow.
Guy Rolfe as Prince John–he’s half Richard Harris, half Peter O’Toole, and 100% black-hearted.

As much as I love the Flynn version and the way he built a winning team—an invincible winning team—he was so damn competent that the outcome was never really in doubt. Robert Taylor’s older and more weathered Ivanhoe, on the other hand, wins a lot but loses sometimes and when he loses, he bleeds. Up to the final confrontation, you feel like this is a real dude doing real things.

Just to ruffle feathers, I’m going to state a personal preference for George Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert over Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne as a villain. As laid out in Robin Hood, Sir Guy kept saying, “I’m gonna get that Robin Hood.” “I’m gonna hang that Robin Hood.” “That Robin Hood is in sooooooo much trouble!” but we never got a sense that Errol Flynn was really in trouble because he won every battle large and small except for the time he was bored and wanted to be caught so he could escape to piss Sir Guy off. Robin Hood’s wits and athleticism rendered Sir Guy into a villain who was all bark and no bite. But Sanders’ Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert is a brawny, earthy villain with a realistic perspective and a palpable lust for the “Jewess” Rebecca, played by Elizabeth Taylor. Where Rathbone’s Sir Guy had a glancing crush on Maid Marian—something more alluded to than depicted—Sanders is like, I want this girl and she’ll do whatever I say this instant! And I mean, whatever I say! His was a dark, domineering corruption of courtly love well past anything dreamed of by Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

George Sanders as de Bois Guilbert in Ivanhoe.
The awesome George Sanders as an equally awesome de Bois Guilbert, Ivanhoe’s rival.

Then there is de Bois Guilbert’s fellow Norman knight, Sir Hugh de Bracy, played by a Robert Douglas who seemed to get off on this type of character—he played basically the same snarling evildoer in Adventures of Don Juan just four years earlier. What a pair Sanders and Douglas make as foes for Wilfrid of Ivanhoe! You just don’t know what these two will do next, except it’s probably going to be lethal.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was conceived as a fantasy with sequins and tights, and you never really lost the feeling this was a comic book shot in Hollywood USA. I’ll go a step further and say you could watch the 1938 Flynn Robin Hood with today’s series of Marvel pictures and see Sir Robin as another gravity-defying superhero. Wilfred of Ivanhoe, not so much. There is literal and figurative gravity in everything about the setup of the story and the action driving it. There are bitter interpersonal conflicts, and the oppression of the Saxons by the Normans isn’t depicted through a few token outrages—it permeates the people and times. Check out the Ivanhoe trailer.

In Ivanhoe, there are two women love interests for our hero, creating a triangle, whereas for Flynn’s Robin Hood there was only Maid Marian. It’s interesting to me that MGM cast in the Marian/female lead role Olivia de Havilland’s sister and bitter rival Joan Fontaine, years older at 34 than Livvie was at 21, but sporting similar braids and looking almost creepily alike, although the interpretations of the actresses were quite divergent. Livvie’s Marian was warm, charming, and ingenuous while Joanie’s Rowena was typical of this actress—pretty but aloof, distant, and at times unengaged. Then there was Elizabeth Taylor’s Rebecca, way younger and more passionate and ready at any moment for Ivanhoe to carry her off to destinations unknown. Whatever he wanted was OK by her.

Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor in Ivanhoe.
Rebecca to Ivanhoe: Take me, I’m yours!

As conceived in 1937 at Warner Bros., Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was to open with a grand jousting tournament that established the enmity of Sir Robin and Sir Guy, but for budgetary reasons this sequence was cut from the production. Ivanhoe gives us not one but two jousting sequences, one a full-scale, thrilling set of jousts with Ivanhoe unseating Norman knights bang, bang, bang, one after another. They look painfully authentic because they were, thanks to location work in England and historical accuracy provided by the British Museum. We feel the grounding of this picture in medieval times because it was shot entirely in England with the supporting players cast there and real castles used along with a modern fortress replica constructed just for the production.

The combat depicted in Ivanhoe is raw in its brutality, up to and including the final confrontation between Sir Wilfrid and Sir Brian. Just, ouch. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, a single feint and sword thrust dispatched Sir Guy after a lengthy, well-choreographed duel. In Ivanhoe, Sir Brian dies hard after many minutes of lance, ax, and chain-and-ball attacks. It’s a vicious conclusion and praise must go to George Sanders for whipping up surprising sympathy in his final moment as he declares his love to Rebecca and then expires. And up until the very last few feet of run time, we don’t know if Ivanhoe is going to choose distant, aloof Rowena or hot young Jewess Rebecca. OK, I will leave one outcome in Ivanhoe unspoiled. You’ll have to see for yourself.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine in Ivanhoe.
Ivanhoe to Rowena: This is a really tough call. I mean, you’re pretty and fair and all that, but she looks just like Elizabeth Taylor. How can I say no?


Watching Roman Holiday this past Friday evening, I was blindsided. I hadn’t seen this picture since the release of Dutch Girl, and for me the experience was much like rounding a corner on a city street and running into a long-lost friend. Here was young Audrey just seven years removed from the wartime Audrey I had sat with for three years, in whose footsteps I had walked in the Netherlands. That was the first and strangest experience the other evening—seeing this Audrey put me in a time warp and in my mind flashed scenes of the war from Dutch Girl and then memories from the ceremony in Velp in September 2019 when Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and I attended the unveiling of a historical marker and statue of Audrey at the site of her wartime home. I came out of the viewing of Roman Holiday thinking to myself, I’ve had an interesting life intersecting with interesting lives.

Audiences had every right to expect a happy ending from this poster art for the romantic comedy, Roman Holiday.

Other things really hit me during what must have been my fourth or fifth viewing of this classic picture.

I thought about Audrey during a long, demanding location shoot in Rome, her first interaction with a city that seems on celluloid to be friendly and welcoming. She wanders the streets alone, a princess nobody recognizes, and people are nice to her and she is nice to people. A couple of ironies hit me—of all the places in the world, she would end up living here in Rome with her second husband. And maybe because of the profound experience of making this first Hollywood film here, she naturally assumed she was already a member of the club, citizens of Rome. But real life, real Rome, would be cruel to Audrey. The marriage became an unhappy one, and as documented in my book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, Romans never warmed to a movie star turned wife and mother.

Audrey’s inner circle as well as Luca revealed that she was treated badly by the locals. Her friend, writer Anna Cataldi of Milan, told me, “People in Rome, they were not nice to Audrey. They were absolutely not nice. She needed desperately to have friends and warmth. People were awful to her.” Luca said, “I believe that, for certain Roman social circles, the fact that she was too much a housewife, too ‘square,’ took its toll more than her celebrity.” He described the city as a sea of clannish neighborhoods with no appetite for outsiders.

I’ve never asked Luca, who lives in Rome, if he talked with his mother about various spots in the city where Roman Holiday was shot. If it were my mom, I might just be a little haunted by the Spanish Steps where Anya sat eating gelato, or the other familiar locations where ingenuous Audrey Hepburn made her first important picture. Luca sometimes checks in on this blog so maybe he’ll provide the answer.

Audrey and leading man Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps.

A couple of other aspects of Roman Holiday struck me this time. One was the “guy code” on full display. When a princess on the lam falls into their lap, press men Joe and Irving are out to get a hot story, complete with pictures. But when Joe falls in love with said princess, his principles intervene and he can’t cash in, which would betray her. Fair enough. But the guy code comes into play when Joe leaves it up to Irving whether he sells the Pulitzer-level photos he had taken of Ann’s Roman adventures. And for Irving there’s no decision. He does the honorable thing and foregoes the money and fame that would surely result and instead, gives the photos to the princess. Irving isn’t in love with her, his friend is, but that’s good enough for Irving. Boom—guy code. I honestly don’t know how many Irvings remain in the world today, this narcissistic gladiatorial arena of TikTok and Instagram where the number of clicks and the number of followers have become the raison d’être of…everyone? Surely not, but it seems that way sometimes.

The story itself impressed me on this viewing for the fact that boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and girl eschews a happy life with boy because of a commitment to duty and country. It’s such a bittersweet twist and not what one would expect walking into the theater in 1953 to watch a romantic comedy. The ending is downright somber as Gregory Peck walks away with hands in pockets, alone and heartbroken. They have both done the noble thing, which may have been expected in 1953 but not so much today (see previous paragraph). This conclusion packs a punch because of its real-life aspect; so often, great love stories don’t result in the predictable happy ending, with 50 years of marital bliss. It doesn’t make such romances less real, valid, or momentous.

Standing next to Joe (Gregory Peck), Irving (Eddie Albert) is about to abide by the Guy Code and hand an envelope of “commemorative photos” to Princess Ann.

One final irony that hit me this time: Ann’s coming of age, represented by her voluntary return to royal duty after a 24-hour escape and holiday, sees her take control of her personal space from “the Countess,” her stone-faced lady in waiting. At this time in her life, Audrey was beginning a lifetime project of taking control of her personal space from “the baroness,” Audrey’s mother, Ella, Baroness van Heemstra. So very many ironies in this aspect of the story. Ella’s younger sister Marianne, Baroness van Heemstra (Audrey’s aunt), served as lady in waiting to Princess Juliana of the Netherlands before and during the war. Indeed, Audrey had grown up amidst a noble Dutch family set apart from the common people, which gave a young actress character insights to offset a decided lack of acting experience. In that regard, 23-year-old Audrey Hepburn served as a technical advisor on the production of her own first major motion picture.

When in the final sequence Princess Ann demands that the Countess retire from the royal chamber, it made me smile—in her lifetime Audrey would never experience such a symbolic moment with her own oppressor. Yes, the tables would turn late in Ella’s life when she became ill and dependent on her daughter’s good graces, but Audrey would remain oppressed and bitter until her own passing. Never did she dare to say, “You may retire, Baroness.”

I have no problem admitting I cried my eyes out at the ending this time, probably more than at any past viewing, because of all the intersections, emotions, realizations, and memories. I didn’t see any of it coming; I just sat down to watch a romantic comedy on a typical Friday evening.

The bittersweet ending Roman Holiday: Joe Bradley walks away alone.

A Nightmare in Dreamland

I remember how taken I was with David Stenn’s Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow when I read it back at the turn of the century. As you may know, I generally despise biographical books—so-and-so was born, her parents did this that and the other; she turned 2 and this happened; at 8 that happened, blah blah blah. If I want somebody’s chronology, I’ll look at Wikipedia. Bombshell proved an exception, which shouldn’t be surprising because the book was written by TV scenarist and producer David Stenn and edited by Jackie Onassis during her time at Doubleday. Jackie had also edited Stenn’s other Hollywood biography, Runnin’ Wild, the Clara Bow Story.

My respect for Bombshell emanated from what I recognized as Stenn’s tenaciousness as a researcher and passion for telling a story. I wanted to be like David Stenn! So when I started down the path of writing a book about the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard, I sought David out because he had nailed the personality of Clark Gable and written authoritatively about him in Bombshell. It’s been 10 years now since he and I spoke, but I remember several conversations with David and appreciated his time, laser focus and advice. Speaking with him was like reading his work: He gave 100% of his attention to me and my topic, and his advice is embedded in my book Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and my other Hollywood biographies, Mission about Jim Stewart and Dutch Girl about Audrey Hepburn.

But life goes on and I had lost track of David Stenn until last week when my friends CB and Marina were talking about a documentary called Girl 27. Their prompting nudged an “Oh, yeah!” out of my brain—that David and I had discussed MGM and its scandals of the 1930s. A couple were untold stories that had really captured his imagination.

The other evening, I sat down with the 80-minute documentary Girl 27, released in 2007, with David Stenn directing and serving as on-air storyteller. Girl 27 is one of however many—thousands, certainly—dark stories of Hollywood’s past, this one concerning Patricia Douglas, a young teenager living in L.A. who had gotten some work as a dancer in the movies. One day she answered a casting call for dancers to appear in cowgirl costumes for an evening job at the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City (also the location of MGM). But the job didn’t turn out to be motion picture production. Instead, a lavish party had been devised by MGM to entertain its exhibitors and salespeople from around the United States—hundreds of white men in town to be wined and dined. The dancers were to be eye candy for the dignitaries.

As described in an interview for Filmmaker magazine, David Stenn had come across page-one headlines as he was researching Bombshell about young dancer Pat Douglas crying rape following this event. But after a couple days of newspaper coverage, the story disappeared, as had Douglas.

Lots of things annoy me. On that list is the labeling of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executives Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling as “MGM’s fixers.” I’ll spare you the F-bombs going off in my head just writing this term. Eddie Mannix wasn’t somebody‘s hit-man; Eddie Mannix was a vice president at MGM and right-hand man of Louis B. Mayer, who ran the most powerful studio in Hollywood. I remember watching the movie Hollywoodland and there were Bob Hoskins as Mannix and Joe Spano as Strickling sitting there stone-faced mumbling plots like wiseguys over the fact that Mannix’s wife Toni was banging actor George Reeves. But IRL Mannix ran much of a city-sized movie studio while Strickling oversaw publicity. Once in a while, a tiny aspect of their jobs involved cleaning up messes caused by studio employees, in one case the rape of Pat Douglas by a Chicago exhibitor named David Ross at the evening party on the Hal Roach lot in 1937.

The MGM field guys came to Hollywood with the clear indication from Mayer and Co. that Hollywood was opening its arms in every way possible. Liquor flowed in rivers that night, and undoubtedly many of the ambitious cowgirls on hand were ready, willing, and able to further their careers any way they could. But Pat Douglas wasn’t one of them. Pat showed up to dance, with the servicing of strangers from out of town the very last thing on her mind. She was a virgin who didn’t drink, and when David Ross forced liquor down her throat, she rushed outside to throw it back up. Later he dragged her to a car and raped her, with Douglas discovered by a parking attendant who called for an ambulance. Douglas was taken to a rinky-dink local hospital where she received a douche to cleanse her. But she had been raped and naïvely went public with this fact.

Pat Douglas agrees to appear on-camera in her Las Vegas apartment after 65 years of anonymity.

Those were the headlines David Stenn discovered, and because he had been immersed in MGM history writing the Harlow story, he knew exactly who would have covered up the incident and how they would have done it. Sixty-five years later, the case as cold as the trail, Stenn went to work employing his furious research skills and Girl 27 tells the story of what he found. He located Pat Douglas’ daughter, as well as the children of the parking attendant and the son of the attorney who was supposed to represent Douglas. Stenn turned to Judy Lewis, illegitimate daughter of Loretta Young and MGM’s Clark Gable, to understand the nature of Hollywood cover-ups. And ultimately, much to his surprise, Stenn found Pat Douglas still alive, a Las Vegas shut-in age 85.

Girl 27 has many spooky aspects. It’s spooky to see Mannix whispering in Mayer’s ear in MGM footage shot during the exhibitor convention of 1937. It’s spooky to see David Ross isolated in that same film footage as he stepped off the train in L.A., this sinister rapist on the prowl. But it’s spookiest of all to sit with haunted Pat Douglas, who at first wouldn’t even speak to Stenn on the phone but who ultimately appeared on camera, this wreck of a human tortured by one man and one night for the remainder of her life.

Girl 27 tells a huge, powerful story about the darkness of Hollywood. In fact, I have found that Hollywood was more darkness than light, a reality obscured by the fact that only the shimmering motion pictures remain while the flawed humans who created them have all passed on. In the Pat Douglas case, Eddie Mannix and others at MGM did what they had to do to protect the brand. If one young woman had to be wrecked along the way, that wasn’t so bad. They paid off the parking attendant, the doctor who attended her, and the attorney serving as her mouthpiece, and poof, the case went away.

By the end we in the audience are screaming for justice, but that’s a view for a different century. Monday morning quarterbacking. Back in 1937, the entire world and not just the movies were black and white. Back then if you were raped you had asked for it; Douglas herself confirmed that. Hers became a life of hatred and mistrust courtesy of one nightmare evening in a place so often referred to as the dream capital.

The Pluses and Minuses of Time Travel

First seen through a windshield in 1973. (Hooker, looking at the bad guy: “He’s not so tough.” Gondorf (alarmed): “Neither are we.”)

Did you ever notice that some movies are like a time machine? And I mean very much like Rod Taylor’s contraption. You step into the movie, and it transports you instantly to another place and time—where you were when you saw it and how old you were, and you reconnect with your sensibilities back then and can feel who was sitting next to you at the theater. You can see the room if you were watching it on TV and remember your self back then. Who you were and what the world was like.

As the years pass this happens to me more and more. For example, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a Universal horror B-picture released in 1943, isn’t very good. In fact, it’s downright bad, with plot inconsistencies to give you a headache and some questionable casting. But it’s my favorite because every time I see the Universal logo and hear the fanfare, I’m 10 again and staying up late to watch Chiller Theatre on WIIC in Pittsburgh Saturday night at 11:30, after the news. What a struggle it was to stay awake back then after marauding through town all day and playing hours of baseball in any pick-up game I could find.

I never did get to see House of Frankenstein as a kid because I’d always manage to fall asleep. What I remember about House of Frankenstein is imagining how spooky it was as my friends (made of sterner stuff) stayed awake all the way through and described the horrific goings-on. But I must have made it through Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man at least once for the memories it evokes of the living room in the house where I grew up, a place long ago demolished. The living room and being alone in the dark watching the TV and wondering if the Wolf Man was going to bound down the stairs and tear me apart.

I managed to survive my youth without the Wolf Man tearing me apart in the dark.

Watching The Sting takes me back to Cuppies Drive-In and watching the screen over my dad’s right shoulder and my mom’s left and through a windshield, with the tinny sound of a speaker attached to the driver’s-side window. The Sting shoots me into their world, and I feel my parents as they absorb the time and place—the 1930s during the Depression when they were young. I have to credit the accuracy of the time period recreated during production of The Sting in 1972 because my parents never had the spell broken by something inappropriate to the 1930s. They loved The Sting. In fact, they loved the movies, which is where I caught the bug. That fact makes the time machine experience of particular movies bittersweet because for fleeting minutes they’re alive again and in their prime and then, poof, gone. And here you are, alone, murmuring, “Damn.” For a little while it’s as if you could reach out and touch them as we all sat at the drive-in watching The Sting. The time machine is that powerful a piece of mental machinery.

I still can’t watch JFK because I saw it with my friend Tom during a dark time in my life, as a relationship was falling apart. Those were black, black days and seeing any reference to JFK picks me up and tosses me back into the pit of despair; better to walk a wide circle around that one. I remember my good friend John telling me a similar story about breaking up with his girlfriend at the time Gray Lady Down was released. He told me this a couple of decades ago, but I bet he still can’t stand to watch Gray Lady Down, and I get it.

This and the accompanying music is all it takes to send me back in time.

Why is it that those long-ago movie experiences made such an impression? I can remember more recent pictures seen in theater settings that don’t result in the same time transport. I guess it all ended with Star Wars—every time I see that distinctive title screen and hear the first note of John Williams’ fanfare, it’s 1977 all over again and a new world of adventure opens. I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it. I was right there at the vanguard and saw Star Wars in first run six times in the spring and summer of 1977, and every time I’ve seen it since, that’s where I am, at the Showcase East in Monroeville queueing up. Just a kid. I remember reading about Star Wars and this evil character named Darth Vader and thinking, “No, he’s too scary. What if I can’t handle it?” I could imagine myself running screaming from the theater. But I hung tough and made it all the way through Star Wars and can reconnect with my youthful self by sitting down and popping in a Blu-Ray. It’s pretty cool to be able to do that.

I can’t be alone, right? So what are your time-machine movies and where do they take you?