August 3rd, 2015
Even though I’ve been researching and writing about the golden years of Hollywood with my “Garden of Allah” novels for ten years, every now and then something happens that makes me feel I’m still just a teenager growing up a million years ago (aka the 1970s) and a million miles away in (aka Melbourne, Australia). One such time was when I learned of the discovery of traveling trunks that once belonged to Alla Nazimova.
And it happened again this week.
I posted a photo of an outdoor ice-skating rink in Westwood called the Tropical Ice Gardens on my website’s photo blog.
I later heard from a Louella Rehfield who told me that she started skating there when she was seven, and said that it was a great rink. Then she mentioned she’d been to the Garden of Allah Hotel. And then she added a P.S.
“Louella Parsons was my aunt. Do you remember her?”
I sat there staring at my screen, slowly taking in what had just happened. Louella Parsons’ niece had just written to me! I had no idea Louella Parsons still had any family left – her daughter never married – so this happenstance took me by surprise . . . to say the least.
After a few emails back and forth, I asked her if she’d be open to letting me interview her. She readily agreed. She was so lovely and gracious, and we had a wonderful chat. It touched on all sorts of aspects of life in LA and Hollywood, from Louella Parsons to LB Mayer and Charlie Chaplin, to the Garden of Allah, Ciro’s, and the Brown Derby. I figured people who are as into the golden years of Hollywood as I am would find it fascinating.
So here now is our conversation:
Martin Turnbull: Are you LA born and bred?
Louella Rehfield: No. I was born in Chicago. In fact, my aunt was from Illinois.
And how were you related to Louella Parsons?
My father and Louella were brother and sister.
Did she make the move out to LA first?
Yes, in 1925. She started working for Essanay Studios in Chicago as a scriptwriter in 1915, then later for WR Hearst, which was when she started to write a gossip column. She invented it—for better or worse! But then she came down with tuberculosis, so she moved west to Palm Springs in 1925. She recovered, and moved to Los Angeles, and she married Doc Martin in 1930. She bought the house on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills and stayed in that house until she had to be hospitalized when she developed an early form of Alzheimer’s.
She lived on Maple Drive the whole time?
So then at some point did your father move your family because Louella was there?
Because Louella was there, and also because this was the top of the Depression. He’d been a glove salesman, and people couldn’t even eat, let alone buy gloves. So he packed the family up in our 1937 Studebaker and drove to California. I will never forget my first feeling of Los Angeles was going through San Bernardino and the aroma of orange blossoms was so great.
So it really did smell of orange blossoms?
Oh yes, because San Berdoo at that point was mostly orange groves.
All oranges and no smog, huh? How old would you have been at this point?
I was six.
And then what happened?
We found a wonderful house to rent in Westwood.
Did your father find work in California?
My aunt got him a job working for the Westmore Brothers.
The make up guys?
Yes. She got him a job as a traveling salesman.
So the Westmores were making their own cosmetics and he sold them?
He would go traveling up and down the coast selling them to beauty shops and drug stores. Unfortunately, he was not very good at it and after about three or four years, Perc Westmore had to fire him. By that time, my aunt had a radio show, which was sponsored by Jergens Lotion, and she got him a job. His function was to get a movie star and have her endorse the product, and he worked there for a long time.
So if you were from Illinois, were you raised ice-skating?
No. What happened was, when I was six, Sonia Henie had just won her first Olympic title, and turned professional. She was doing a touring show, which my parents took me to see. The minute I saw her, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Soon after, we moved to LA in 1937 and ended up living around the corner from the Tropical Ice Gardens in Westwood—the one that you posted about. I hit the ice, and I never looked back.
That photo of the Tropical Ice Gardens made it look like a pretty big rink. Was ice-skating big anyway, or was it big because of Sonia Henie?
It was because of Sonia. She revolutionized ice-skating for so many of us.
So you skated competitively?
Yes I did, and in fact the first three times I competed, I won! At 9, 10, and 11!
Later, I started working for my aunt. She had this radio show. Fifteen minutes, every Sunday evening. Walter Winchell was on from 6 to 6:15, and she was on from 6:15 to 6:30. That was when I had my first job. I started working weekends for her when I was about 16. We were all having dinner one night at La Rue, which was a fabulous restaurant. It was with the sponsors of her radio show, and the sponsor announced that they were going to go into television. Well, my aunt rushed me off to the Ladies Room, where she could try and deal with this. She knew she couldn’t do television and so this was the end of her radio show. It was also the end of my father’s job at Jergens. But I continued working for her on the weekends. I got paid $25 a week, which was good money then. She was a very generous lady.
What were you doing for her on the weekends?
One of my main jobs was to listen to Walter Winchell and make sure none of the stories he was using were ones that she was using. So I’d listen to Winchell and take notes, and if he had a story she was using, I had to rush in and tell her.
So that would be the end of her story then, and she had to find something else?
Yes. And she’d do interviews with stars, which she had taped previously. One Sunday, the engineer came out of his booth just before the show went on live radio and announced that he had inadvertently erased tonight’s interview. I learned the greatest lesson from that: When you’ve done something wrong, just admit it. Don’t try and make up excuses. Just tell them what you’ve done.
How did your aunt cope with that? What did she do?
She was fine because of the way he handled it. He was straightforward and told her what happened. They got another tape from another show and used that, so it worked out fine.
All of us on the outside, not part of the family, have this view of Louella Parsons as being quite a ruthless woman who wielded great power, and wielded it absolutely. What I’m really curious to learn is how you saw Louella Parsons from your perspective, almost on the inside looking out. What was your experience of Louella like?
It varied. Sometime she was so wonderful, and sometime she was so mean to me. Something would happen and she’d say, “What do YOU know??” Ten minutes later she’d be so nice and so sweet, and generous and kind. She was the most generous woman I’ve ever known. And she LOVED Hollywood. If anyone did anything that was against Hollywood, she would never forgive them.
So Louella’s loyalty was ultimately to the Hollywood film industry?
Exactly. Well put.
At the Moulin Rouge (which used to be Earl Carroll’s) on Sunset Blvd. From left to right: Barbara Ettinger, Mecca Graham, Louella Rehfield, her husband Jerry, Louella Parsons, and Ed Ettinger. (circa 1952 or 53.)
Let’s say you were at La Rue with your aunt, did people approach the table to schmooze with her?
There was no sucking up to Louella going on in public?
No, at least not at the restaurants we went to.
Which ones were your regulars?
The Brown Derbys, La Rue, and of course Chasen’s because that was the one closest to her house. Dave Chasen was as sweet a man as you could imagine. He gave me a bunch of his restaurant silverware as a wedding present.
What was the atmosphere at Chasen’s like?
The thing I remember most is that when you walked into the lobby, facing you was a full-sized painting of WC Fields dressed up as Queen Victoria. It was great! I don’t know what happened to that picture.
Did you have a favorite restaurant around town?
I loved all of them. I loved Don the Beachcomber in Hollywood.
When you read my books, you’ll find several scenes set at Don the Beachcomber. What was it about Don’s that you liked so much?
The food was marvelous!
You hear about their strong rum-based drinks, but not the food. So it was good, too?
Oh yes. For the food, I guess Don’s was my favorite, but I loved La Rue, and Chasen’s, and of course I adored the Brown Derbys, because I spent so much time at the Hollywood Brown Derby. I also worked for the advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, which was half a block from the (Vine Street) Derby. My aunt had a staff meeting once a week to which I was invited. It was in the private room, so I have some great memories of that place.
What was the food like at the Brown Derby?
Great American food. You’re familiar with the Cobb Salad? Bob Cobb was a marvelous man.
I’ve always pictured that at the Brown Derby, there was a lot of table-hopping and a lot of hi-how-are-you-ing. Would that be an accurate description?
I don’t ever remember table-hopping.
Was that more of a nightclub thing, like at Ciro’s or the Mocambo?
Yes! I spent lots of time at those places.
From left to right: Maggie Ettinger (big time Hollywood publicist and cousin of Louella Parsons,) Orry-Kelly (Warner Bros costumer and subject of new documentary,) Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and friend Mecca Graham at the Cocoanut Grove.
Did you have a favorite nightclub?
I loved Ciro’s.
And what was it about Ciro’s that you liked so much?
Herman Hover, who owned it, was doing things that nobody else was doing. They always had great entertainment.
I envy you that you had the chance to experience places like Ciro’s at the height of that era. If I got into a time machine, I’d run straight to Ciro’s.
And you would be dead-on right to do that. The thing that impressed me was that he hired African-American performers like Pearl Bailey, who I met. Oh, and I saw Lena Horne at the Cocoanut Grove, and she was so marvelous. I also saw Sammy Davis Jr. with his family before he became a soloist. He knocked the socks off everyone with his enormous talent.
You mentioned to me that you went to the Garden of Allah.
It was when I was working for Young & Rubicam. My job was to do publicity on the television shows they were sponsoring. Our Miss Brooks was one. Eve Arden was a doll.
I’m so glad to hear that, because she’s one of my favorites.
You couldn’t pick a nicer lady. She was the best. She’d just had a baby when I was working with her on Our Miss Brooks. She had a very nice husband. I remember one day she came into work and she said she’d been up all night with the baby, but you would never have known it. She gave her usual great performance. She was a professional, and a lovely, lovely lady.
What was your job? What did you do?
I would write stories about the shows I was assigned to, and send them back to New York, and they would try to plant them anywhere that would get them publicity.
And that led you to the Garden of Allah? So we’re now talking about the 1950s?
Yes, 1951, just when the transition from radio to television was happening. I can’t remember whom I was interviewing at the time, but I remember the Garden of Allah. I was so impressed with that place. My god! It was wonderful! But it was also a little spooky.
Good spooky. Atmospheric. Knowing that people on the order of Bob Benchley, whom I adored, stayed there. And so many of the New York people if they came to town to work on a film, they would stay at the Garden of Allah. So it had that New York-y kind of atmosphere.
Did you read the biography that came out about your aunt: “The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons” by Samantha Barbas?
Yes, I did.
Did you think it was an accurate portrayal of her?
I thought it was very well done. I liked it very much.
I’ve always had this impression that although Louella’s public profile was a bit cut-throat and ruthless, there must have been another side of her. I never saw it, until I read that biography. I thought, “That’s what I always imagined. If she liked you, you saw a different side of her.”
Well, as far as human beings are concerned, she was so far ahead of Hedda Hopper, who was really a nasty woman. It wasn’t just that she and Louella were rivals, but Hedda was a very mean-spirited lady. Most everyone who was in Hollywood knew it. But my aunt wasn’t mean-spirited. She hated it when people did something that reflected badly on the industry. That’s what got her down on Orson Welles. She loved WR (Hearst).
Did she ever talk about Hearst? Did she talk about him in glowing terms?
She absolutely flat-out loved him.
So she was a very loyal person, then? Very loyal to her boss?
Yes, she was.
Did he treat her well, do you think?
Yes. They had a great relationship. She spent time up at San Simeon, many weekends. I wish I’d had the opportunity to do that, but I was too young. However, I do remember an evening at Marion Davies’ home in Beverly Hills. Marion was such a sweet lady who became such a terrible drunk. It all centered around the fact that Phoebe Hearst would not divorce him because she was Catholic, so Marion had to be his mistress for however many years that was. Marion took to drink and WR hated that. Marion liked me and I liked Marion. One night we were at my aunt’s house and I was sitting at Marion’s feet, talking with her. She was wearing a diamond ring. I don’t even know—40 carats, maybe? She took it off and gave it to me! I said, ‘Marion, I cannot accept that.” I finally got her to put it back on her finger where it belonged.
She wanted to give it to you, not just let you try it on?
She wanted to give it to me. Of course, if I’d taken it, the chauffeur would have been around the next day. She was drunk, the poor thing.
Do you think that was partly because she was frustrated with the Phoebe situation? If Phoebe hadn’t have been so Catholic and would have agreed to a divorce, Marion would have married Hearst?
Oh, absolutely. They even had a child together, Patricia Lake.
What else did you do for your aunt?
My mother and I used to be in charge of delivering Christmas presents for my aunt. Because, if she received a Christmas present, she had to give them something back. That was part of her culture. So we would be racing over to Bing Crosby’s house on Christmas Eve.
Do you think they were giving her a gift because of who she was, or did they genuinely like her? Or was it a mixture?
I think it was a mixture, depending on who they were. She was very close friends with LB Mayer and Joe Schenck. In fact, LB married one of my family’s best friends, Lorena Danker. Her husband, Danny, had a heart attack at around the age of thirty-seven and Lorena was beside herself. They had one child who was a dear friend of mine all through those days, so Lorena was around all the time at Louella’s house. She was welcome any time of the day. So anyway, Lorena first set her hat for Joe Schenck, but Joe being the smart man he was, he wouldn’t fall for her at all. So then she set her hat for LB – and succeeded, and became Mrs. LB Mayer.
What was Lorena like?
She wasn’t the greatest beauty in the whole wide world, but she was the most charming. And she stayed with him until the end of his life.
MGM was close to where we lived, as was Twentieth, so they were the studios we spent most of our time at. I do have a story about MGM. It was my 12th birthday, and my aunt asked me what I wanted. I told her I would love to see Gone with the Wind again. This was, of course, well before any re-releases and home videos or anything like that. So Louella set it up. I went to the Thalberg building at MGM and to one of the projection rooms. I sat there all by myself and got to see Gone with the Wind. Oh! It was just great!
So if the MGM and Fox lots were the two studios you spent the most time at, would you go there in the company of your aunt? Would she take you onto the studio lots if she was doing an interview?
She didn’t drive so she had somebody drive her. The butler, Collins (who was a whole story himself) took on the chauffeur duties, except on Mondays and Tuesdays when either my mother or I would drive her wherever she was going. She’d put tomorrow’s column to bed at one o’clock – her office was in her house – and then she’d get dressed and go out for the afternoon. So one of us had to drive her.
Would you sit in on the interview, or go to the commissary, or what would you be doing?
I’d try to be as unobtrusive as possible! The one I remember the most was at Warner Bros. when they were filming A Streetcar Named Desire. I got to sit in Vivien’s dressing room while my aunt interviewed her. And of course I adored her.
But I’ll tell you the one person in Hollywood who paid attention to me as a human being: Paulette Goddard.
I’m so pleased to hear that, because she’s one of my favorites, too.
What happened was, my aunt had a ranch up in Northridge. She used to spend the weekend there whenever she wasn’t working. Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin were there one weekend, and I got to meet them. I adored Chaplin. I think the world of him, and I hate what our government did to him. That horrible man who was head of the FBI all but kicked him out of the country. But I think things worked out okay for him with Oona and their home in Switzerland.
So now that you’ve retired and moved away from Los Angeles, do you miss it at all?
I’d guess the LA you grew up in is probably a long way from the LA of now.
There’s just no resemblance at all.
I think you’re one of the lucky people who got to experience LA and Hollywood at its peak. There are a lot of people who are likely to be reading this interview who are very jealous of you, Louella! Can I assume that you were named after your aunt?
Yes, I was. When my daughter was born, my aunt said, “Of course you’re going to name her Louella.” And I said, “Of course I’m not!” But I did compromise. Diana’s middle name is Louella.
Well, Louella, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me. It’s been wonderful. For someone like me who’s been reading and writing about this era for so long, it’s such a thrill to get to speak with somebody who experienced it first hand.
I’m so glad we had this opportunity. And I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing. I can hardly wait for my first book of yours to arrive.
Well, see, now I’m getting a bit nervous because I’ve only written about it, but you actually experienced it. Louella pops up a lot in the first few books, so when you’ve read them, I’d love to hear if you think I’ve portrayed life back then accurately. You were there! You lived it!
I will let you know. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you, too!