I was visiting the listing for Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel on the University Press of Kentucky’s website yesterday (yes, I do that), and noticed that a couple more blurbs had been posted. They’re from two of four authors I had submitted earlier in the year who had received a copy of the manuscript about a month ago.
I am enormously grateful to these busy people for taking the time to read the book and write a blurb. I may have been cheating a bit with Mark Vieira who has been a friend for years, but I do admire him tremendously as an author and think his book Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince is one of the best Hollywood bios out there. If anyone can spot a pile of tripe, it’s Mark, so if the Dvorak book is not up to snuff I’d like to think he would not have sent in this blurb:
Ann Dvorak has always been an enigmatic figure, whether you’re looking at her electric vitality in the 1932 Scarface or her feline grace in 1947’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. Fifteen years separate these unique performances, and there’s no one like Ann Dvorak, yet the story of her career remains untold. In Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, Christina Rice corrects this oversight. We learn about the ambitious young dancer, how her unusual looks and singular intensity pulled her into acting, and how her path to stardom ended in regretful obscurity. This is a compelling story, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes sad, but Christina Rice tells it honestly and objectively. Her dedicated research makes it possible to see both Ann Dvorak and her milieu with clarity. Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel is a sensitive biography of a real talent.–Mark A. Vieira, author of George Hurrell’s Hollywood
Susan Doll is not someone I know personally, other than a couple of email exchanges, but I enjoy her posts on TCM’s Movie Morlocks immensely. Plus, she holds a Ph.D. in film studies, so her opinion carries a lot of weight with me. I was relived to see what she had to say:
Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel is more than the biography of an overlooked movie star. Author Christina Rice has meticulously researched the life of Dvorak, whose strong, self-reliant characters made her an important presence in the pre-Code era. Written in a reader-friendly style, Ann Dvorak explores the highs and lows of the actress who dazzled viewers in the classics Scarface and Three on a Match. –Susan Doll, author of Florida on Film: The Essential Guide to Sunshine State Cinema
So, my baby is officially out in the world and so far the response has been positive. Fingers crossed it passes the litmus test with all of you.
On August 30, 1934, Ann Dvorak started production on the Warner Bros. feature Murder in the Clouds. It was her sixth and last film with Lyle Talbot.
I’m suffering from Ann Dvorak one-a-day burn-out, so that’s all I have in me for today.
On August 29, 1931 Ann Dvorak signed a contract with Howard Hughes’ Caddo Company. Howard Hawks had selected her to play Cesca in Scarface opposite Paul Muni a few weeks earlier, and the contract officially made her Howard Hughes’ property.
She would only make one other film for Hughes, Sky Devils, before her started loaning her out to Warner Bros. Mere months after signing Ann, Hughes would sell her contract to WB, which she was less than thrilled with. It was downhill from there.
At least in August 1931, the world was hers.
Today’s stop on our tour of Ann Dvorak’s Los Angeles takes us to one of two schools Ann attended during her formative years. The Elliot School For Girls, which promised “character building,” was located in a converted home at the corner of Gramercy & Pico, which was probably an old Victorian residence. Unfortunately, I have yet to locate a photo of the school, so what we have for reference is an old Sanborn Fire Insurance map from around 1921.
Ann’s attendance at the Elliott School For Girls was a last minute revelation that came in the stash of personal items I obtained in May. I recall seeing the school referenced on one piece of studio publicity, but since that was the lone mention I did not follow up on it.
Ann’s personal items contained letters from a friend who attended the school with Ann and recalled how the pair would sneak into the kitchen at night to snack on olives and chocolate cake. I am not sure how long Ann attended, but she would eventually graduate from a different school.
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As you can see, the area now has multi-unit residences, but at least now when you’re cruising down Pico, you’ll have an excuse to think of Ann Dvorak.
On August 27, 1943, Ann Dvorak and Leslie Fenton boarded the S.S. Mauretania in Liverpool and headed back to the Unites States. Fenton, a British citizen by birth, had enlisted in the Royal Navy and returned to his homeland in September 1940. His wife followed him in December.
By August of 1943, each had endured their fair share of war-time misery and were ready to come home. With Fenton having recovered from injuries sustained during the Battle of St. Nazaire resulting in an honorable discharge, the time seemed right.
When the couple went aboard the Mauretania, Fenton identified himself as film director, his occupation both before and during the war. Ann on the other hand, listed herself as a journalist. Even though she had made movies while in England, Ann had also served as a war corespondent, which is the post she clearly felt was more important. She had harbored a desire to be a writer from a young age and despite the horrors of the war years, the experience had enabled her to fulfill a lifelong dream.
Today’s Ann Dvorak location takes us out of Downtown and into the East Hollywood area. When Ann’s mom, Anna Lehr, abandoned live theater for films, she split her time between Los Angeles and New York, usually opting to leave her young daughter on the east coast with relatives. By the early 1920s she had found a new squeeze, an advertising man named Arthur Pearson, was winding down her career and had decided to settle in Los Angeles permanently with her only child.
The trio would live in a handful of places between 1922ish and 1932. Their first recorded residence was 733 N. Harvard Blvd. which was a stone’s throw from the Robert Brunton Studios, known to you and me today as Paramount Pictures. To look at a Google street view today is to see a charming 1920s duplex. However, in my eight years as a reference librarian, I’ve learned a thing or three about property searching and know better than to trust any current address in my evolving City of Angels.
Above is a snippet from a 1950 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map which shows our charming duplex whose street address at one time was 735 & 737. What this magnificent map reveals is that once upon a time, 733 N. Harvard was actually a two story dwelling/auto garage sitting at the back of the property. So, when Ann Dvorak, Anna Lehr, and Arthur Pearson were first living in L.A. they were resided above a garage. Modest beginnings for our fair Ann, don’t you think.
In looking at the satellite view, we can see that the unit/garage is still there, though there have been some additions made from when Ann lived there. So, when I become rich and eccentric and begin offering bus tours of Ann Dvoraks’s Los Angeles, we’ll be able to visit.
Today’s stop on the Ann Dvorak tour of Los Angeles still finds us Downtown, about a block and a half east of yesterday’s Orpheum Theater. Once upon a time, you could stand at the northeast corner of 5th and Olive and feast your eyes on the stunning Philharmonic Auditorium which stood for almost 70 years (a full history of the building can be found over at Big Orange Landmarks).
From 1915-1920, the Auditorium was leased by producer William H. Clune who operated the space in party as a movie theater which was called both Clune’s Auditorium and Clune’s Theater Beautiful. In 1915, Clune ponied up the cash for Donald Crisp to film an epic version of Ramona, based on a popular work of fiction by Helen Hunt Jackson.
The prologue of the film featured the title character as a tot, and a four-year-old billed as “Baby Anna Lehr” was hired for the job. Of course this youngster grew up to be our divine Ann Dvorak, but Ramona is technically her film debut. The film had its world premiere at the Philharmonic Auditorium on February 7, 1916, meaning this was the first theater to ever screen an Ann Dvorak film.
The local papers were mightily impressed with Baby Anna Lehr. The Los Angeles Express ran the above headline (please note that in 1916 it was ok to use swastikas as a decorative border) and the Evening Herald noted, “Of all the Ramonas, the most charming and heart luring is the child of four, played with rare childish artistry by little Miss Anna Lehr. Probably the most disappointing feature of the entire production is the fact that this sweet youth remains on the canvas only a few brief moments.”
Sadly, there are no complete copies of Ramona known to exist. And while the Library of Congress does have one reel, it’s not the one with Ann. And as for the Philharmonic Auditorium?
You guessed it – a parking lot since 1985.
The summer is winding down and the kids are back at school (at least in L.A. they are). But, before it’s gone I thought we could take a road trip around this fair city that Ann Dvorak called home for a good deal of her life and where I have spent all my days.
I have always had a love/hate relationship with Los Angeles, though the love usually wins out. One of the main reasons I have always appreciated living here is because so much of Hollywood’s history is still tangible. Where else can you find a self storage that was once a Mack Sennett sound stage, drive past the studio that Chaplin built, our wander down the same alley that Buster Keaton did?
There are also many sites connected with Ann Dvorak that I thought we could explore. When I first conceived of doing this months ago, I envisioned driving around the city with my SLR camera and documenting all these places. Then reality set in – I have a full-time job, an awesome but exhausting toddler, and there’s this thing called Google Street View, so I am making life easy on myself.
So, sit back and enjoy some posts exploring Ann Dvorak’s Los Angeles.
Our first location is in the Historic Broadway Theatre district Downtown. It was in the spring of 1914 that Anna Lehr performed on the stage of the Orpheum Theatre in a vaudeville show called “Little California.” Lehr had been travelling all around the Orpheum circuit with her daughter Ann, who was only two at the time. When the show came to L.A. in March, there is no doubt that little Anna McKim was set up in a crib backstage while her mother performed.
Fortunately, the theater, located at 630 S. Broadway is still standing though it ceased being an Orpheum venue in 1926 when a snazzy new building was constructed a few blocks south. Now known as the Palace, it’s still gorgeous and I was fortunate enough to see a screening of Sunset Blvd. in 2011 and it really is a magnificent movie palace. Fingers crossed that this minor Ann Dvorak “landmark” will be open to the public on a more regular basis soon.
Last week, I confessed to what I feel is my biggest shortcoming as a biographer which is my less than stellar interview skills. However, there are two people who I suspect may have been foolproof when being asked questions about Ann Dvorak. Unfortunately, I was not able to interview either one of them.
Karen Morley was a close friend of Ann’s in the 1930s when they were both under contract to MGM. Even though Morley was getting ingenue rolls and seemed to have a bright future, she has no problems rubbing elbows with Ann who was a chorus girl which some on the lot considered a lowly position. Karen even tried to help Ann get better roles, and it was she who introduced Ann to Howard Hawks which lead to Ann getting cast in Scarface.
Since the pair had been such good friends and Karen played such a pivotal role in Ann’s life, she probably would have had some wonderful insight. However, she passed away in 2003 and I was not able to speak with her. While it is disappointing , at least I do not feel guilty because I did in fact try to contact her. Sometime around 2000 she appeared at a screening of Dinner at Eight. At the time, I wasn’t too knowledgeable about Ann and did not put two and two together. Once the light bulb went of in 2002, I called the theater and got the name of her “manager” and left numerous messages that were never returned. I still see this guy around town and secretly shoot daggers into the back of his head. I also tried sending her a letter, but that came back as un-deliverable. At least I tried, and there was a newspaper interview with her from the late 1990s that I was able to quote, so that’s something.
The other person I did not interview is what I consider my biggest failing. It’s been my deep dark secret up until now, and I wasn’t even sure if I should admit it. Howard Fenton was Ann’s brother-in-law from her first marriage. Even though the union dissolved in the mid 1940s, Ann stayed in touch with Howard until she died.
Now, I first conceived of writing an Ann Dvorak bio back in 1998, but did not start seriously researching until around 2002. Even then, I was in grad school and working full time, so Ann was there but not a top priority. I recall one night, maybe around 2003-2004, when I was up late trying to work on homework, though mainly avoiding it. I knew Leslie Fenton (hubby #1) had passed away in Santa Barbara. I also knew he had a brother named Howard. A quick search on White Pages .com for “Fenton” and “Santa Barbara” turned up a listed for Howard Fenton. Did I jump for joy and place a call the next day? Nope. I thought, “Naw, it couldn’t be,” and moved onto the next thing to distract me from my “History of Books” course.
Flash forward to 2006, and I am having tea and cucumber sandwiches with the owner of Ann & Leslie’s Encino ranch home. We’re talking about Ann, and he says, “You know who should talk to? Howard Fenton, who last I heard was in Santa Barbara.” Howard had actually visited the property on a couple of occasions and exchanged letters with him. The first thing I did was feel like an idiot for not jumping on this lead years before, and the second thing I did was look Howard up – to discover that he has passed away less than two months earlier. I immediately wrote a letter to his widow and received a response from her caretaker stating that Mrs. Fenton was too incapacitated to speak with me.
Perhaps Howard was also in a bad state when I first looked him up online, but I don’t know for sure because I didn’t try. He knew Ann Dvorak for close to 50 years and was quite fond of her, and for some reason I didn’t try to contact him when I had a chance. It’s probably my biggest regret about this book. He did write an article about Ann and Leslie, and I do have the letters her wrote later on which reference Ann, so at least I do have that. However, my supreme loathing of cold calling people is probably what thwarted me in the end, and because of that, I more than likely missed out.
Then again, maybe he would have told me to buzz off. I like to think so, because it makes me feel better about the one that got away.
Everything seems to be running smoothly over at the University Press of Kentucky, and Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel should be meeting the projected November 4th release date. Just to be on the safe side, the official release party is going to be held on Tuesday, November 12th from 6-8pm.
I am going to have the party at Downtown’s Central Library, which serves as my home away from home and is where I did a hell of a lot of research for the book. Plus, there are many people in the building that have had to endure A LOT of Ann Dvorak for the seven years I have been working there. The least I can do is give them an easy way to come and celebrate with me (or give them a difficult way to avoid me and Ann, depending on how you look at it).
It’ll be a modest set-up with plenty of “authentic” Ann Dvorak cuisine being served, which should actually be kind of disgusting if you recall the “Dvorak Cooks!” post from guest blogger Mary McCoy a few months back. Even if raw walnuts are not your thing, it should still be a fun shin dig and I hope some you loyal Dvorak devotees will be able to make it. If not, I’m planning some out of town events next year and maybe will be coming somewhere in the proximity of your town.