Today would have been Ann Dvorak’s 107th birthday. Yesterday, one of the few living connections to Ann was lost when actress Mary Carlisle passed away at the age of 104. Mary only interacted with Ann briefly in 1929 when they were both on the MGM lot. Mary wanted to get her foot in the studio door as a chorus girl and was referred to Ann who was Sammy Lee’s assistant choreographer at the time. Ann was only 18, but had become a mother-hen to the other dancers, so she stayed up with Mary all night teaching her a time-step. When the two minors had to get their contracts approved in court, they were photographed together. Mary would go on to appear in dozens of films, travel the world with Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, and run the Elizabeth Arden Salon in Beverly Hills. The tie between Mary and Ann was thin one, but Mary’s connection to the Golden Age of Hollywood was iron cast.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Mary over the last few years. When Mary moved into the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, my friends Darin and Darrell immediately took to Mary, and they affectionately became “her boys.” At least one of them visited her every Sunday for the last 5 or so years. At first, when she was merely in her late 90s and was still able to get around, she was a guest of honor at the release party for my Ann Dvorak book. She was beyond gracious and it was incredible to have someone who knew Ann in the room. Later, when it became too difficult for her to leave the grounds of the Home, she would still hold court and dazzle us with her wit and tales of Hollywood giants. I would sometimes bring my daughter Gable to visit, and when I would call out her name, Mary would respond, “Did you say Gable? I knew Clark Gable. What a handsome man!” It’s not everyday my daughter can speak with someone who knew her namesake.
Even though she retired from film in the early 1940s, Mary carried herself like only those born of the studio system did. One year, Darin brought her to my Mom’s for Thanksgiving. The house in Glendora had belonged to my grandparents, and even though my grandma had passed away in 2005, her absence is always acutely apparent. My grandma was of the same era as Mary Carlisle, and even though she wasn’t schooled by the Hollywood studio system, she was a trained opera singer (and once auditioned at MGM) and still carried herself in that same elegant manner. On the Thanksgiving Mary was there, it was almost like having grandma with us again, which was so meaningful. However, at one point during dinner Mary leaned over to Darin and whispered, “Why does our hostess keep leaving the room?” When Darin responded that my Mom was preparing the meal, Mary followed-up with, “Where is her serving staff?” We undeniably had a movie star in the house!
As each year goes by, we have fewer living ties to Hollywood’s past. However, there are so many out there who make the effort to ensure that these people and their contributions to do fade from memory, and I take great comfort in that. RIP Mary Carlisle, and thanks to “her boys” Darin and Darrell for letting me play a walk-on part in her story.