Confessions of an Ann Dvorak Biographer, Pt 2 – The Ones That Got Away

Year of Ann Dvorak: Day 235

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.

2 Comments

  1. Mike August 23, 2013

    I’ve made a comment similar to this before, but if your book is as good as the backstories, we got a winnah!

    Perhaps leaning heavily on just one (or a few) interviews for a biography is not the ideal situation. The opinions of those one or two aren’t subject to the balancing out that multiple perspectives would give. Yeah, it probably would have been helpful to obtain one on ones with Karen Morley and Howard Fenton. But not doing so certainly won’t compromise the book.

    In the acknowledgements to his biography of Carole Lombard (“Screwball”), author Larry Swindell writes that when he was initially toying with the idea of a Carole bio, he mentioned it to Garson Kanin. Who promptly told him, “oh, you must do it. But for God’s sake, hurry”. Larry soon afterwards started the project, and thankfully, was able to interview some warm bodies for the book. You didn’t really get this opportunity, but as I say, Ann fans will be okay with it.

  2. admin August 23, 2013

    Thanks for your continued support Mike, I really appreciate it.

    When I read “Screwball” a few years back I remember thinking, “Thank goodness he did that when he did!” During this whole process, I was sweating bullets because I was not finding many people to interview. In the end, I found some, but I feel strongly that the primary source documents I found were my saving grace.

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