Looking Back

Romance Writer Weekly

This week’s topic is, “If you could spend an afternoon with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?”

I always find this a loaded question because it’s easy to fall into the trap of naming someone you think makes you sound smart. Same with “What famous figures would you invite to a dinner party?” Back In the late 70’s, Steve Allen did an excellent take with his Meeting of Minds series on PBS. The show is, sadly, not available on streaming or for purchase, but you can find a few episodes on YouTube.

If you’re not trying to appear smart, the decision comes down to someone you care about or someone you wish to learn from. (I am omitting my husband from this list because we spend most afternoons together.) After some consideration, I’ve narrowed the list down to two, both women instrumental in Hollywood’s early days.

Frances Marion was a screenwriter, journalist, war correspondent, author, and film director. The first person to win two Oscars for writing, her films include Poor Little Rich Girl, both the 1917 and 1936 versions, Son of the Sheik, The Champ, Anna Christie, and Dinner at Eight. She wrote scenarios for many of Mary Pickford’s best known films. During World War I, she documented women’s contribution to the war effort on the front lines, and the first woman to cross the Rhine after the Armistice. She was there when Pickford married Fairbanks, watched as talkies over took silents, and retired from screenwriting in 1946 to write novels and stage plays.

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, date unknown, but probably late 1910s, early 1920s
Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, two of the most powerful women of the Silent Era

June Mathis was another screenwriter, perhaps best remembered for recognizing the sex appeal of a young Rudolph Valentino. The scripts she wrote are not as known as Marion’s, save for Four Horsemen of the Apocalype and Blood and Sand, but she rose to become the only female executive at Metro/MGM, heading their Scenario Department. She wrote the original script for the silent version of Ben Hur, though fired when the production transferred from Italy (after experiencing huge cost overruns) back to Los Angeles. She did not see the advent of sound in film, dying of a heart attack in 1927.

An afternoon with the ladies would provide fascinating conversation. For Ms. Marion: What was it like be so close to the front lines during WWI? Why leave her growing career in Hollywood to step into situations many thought too dangerous for women? Tell me about being part of the suffrage movement? Why did you decide to walk away from the film industry?

For Ms. Mathis: What first caught your eye about Valentino? How did it feel being the only female executive at Metro? Why did you hand Eric von Stroheim’s Greed to a routine cutter? Did you believe the film would not work in a length acceptable to cinema operators? Did you resent Thalberg firing you from Ben Hur, or did it not come as a surprise as you pushed for the filming to be done in Italy?

For both: How did you handle being a woman in a business where the female pioneers were being slowly squeezed out during the 20s and 30s? What changes did you witness? Also, who do you believe shot William Desmond Taylor?

But if we have an afternoon, why not have a party? Invite Anita Loos, author of the stories in Gentlmen Prefer Blondes. Mabel Normand, brilliant comedienne with a tragic life. Best not mention Taylor’s murder if we include her. Marion Davies would prove a fun addition, Ziegfeld showgirl, long-time mistress to William Randolph Hearst, another brilliant commedienne who all too often found herself nudged toward “serious” roles. Most decidedly not the woman portrayed in Citizen Kane. (Orson Welles later said he played a “dirty trick” on her.) Dorothy Arzner would be an interesting addition. Editor (including Mathis’ Blood and Sand), director, she would become the only woman making feature length films in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, working with actors such as Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Lucille Ball, the latter early in her career.

Of course, no gathering of powerful women from the early days of Hollywood would be complete without Mary Pickford, actress, icon, one of the founders of United Artists and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts &; Sciences. Of all the ladies mentioned, she might be most familiar, seen by many as the image of silent-era Hollywood.

A garden setting–the lush lawns of Pickfair are, alas not what they once were–with tea, cakes, and perhaps some stronger libations to get the tongues flowing. Six women who wielded power which shaped the entertainment taste of a nation, five of them living long enough to watch the industry change and the roles they held as directors and producers becoming the exclusive domain of men. For me, fascinated with the history of this strange and crazy industry since childhood, the afternoon would be a golden one. I’d definitely be taking notes.

So hard to narrow down a list, and these ladies were not my first choice. What about you? Who would you like to spend an afternoon with, living or dead? Leave a comment below about your choices. Then, visit Leslie Hachtel to discover her choice of an afternoon companion.

Leslie also has a new project coming out, along with A.S. Fenichel. Not a novel, but a cookbook entitled Love in the Mix: A Cookbook for Romance Readers to Benefit ProLiteracy. Seventy romance authors have come together with personal recipes to help raise money for ProLiteracy, who help adults learn to read. Being unable to read doesn’t only deny one the pleasure of being transported to other times, other places, and the lives of fictional characters, but prevents one from filling out a job application or being able to receive benefits. The cookbook is now available for pre-order, arriving September 14, 2021.

That’s it for this time. Until we meet again, stay safe, stay healthy.