October 3, 2014 – Recently, a very gracious and charming neighbor invited me to a cocktail party in her spectacular 1920s era English cottage (just down the street). I had heard through the grapevine that the house had been built by Suzanne’s grandfather who had some connection to Hollywood’s golden age, but had never bothered to inquire further. (Note to self: Always, always, inquire further.) “Some connection” would turn out to be a woefully inadequate description. As we toured the gorgeously appointed interior, libations and canapés in hand, I spotted a framed photograph of a man posing with Cecil B. DeMille and inquired if that was the grandfather in question. I was subsequently flabbergasted and delighted to discover that I was in the home of Victor Milner, Academy Award-winning cinematographer of the 1934 Claudette Colbert version of Cleopatra, and the man who shot one of my favorite films of all time, The Lady Eve, starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and written and directed by the incomparable Preston Sturges. Well, we had a thing or two to discuss once that cat was out of the bag, including how my adoration of all things Stanwyck had led to my specifically working her into my novel, City of Whores, along with a reference to The Lady Eve. After Suzanne had read the book, she dropped off a lovely handwritten card (recall I used the words “gracious and charming” to describe her). With her permission, I’m sharing an excerpt. For those of you who’ve read the book, you’ll know the Dexter she refers to is the stage name of my protagonist. For those of you who haven’t, what is wrong with you?
“The only thing better than a good book is one you can’t put down. Thanks for the many enjoyable nights I spent reading City of Whores. I particularly liked your style and the cadence of your phrasing, which when combined with the storyline was so riveting I felt as if I wasn’t just reading, but was really there.
Your characterization of Barbara Stanwyck was particularly apt. The kindness with which she treated Dexter was well known in my family. One day during a break in Lady Eve, my grandfather was talking to Ms. Stanwyck (who he affectionately referred to as “Missy”) when he received a telegram on the set. In it, he learned that his son, my dad, who was a pilot, had been in a terrible plane crash, and was in an ICU in Texas with burns throughout his body. At the time, the movie was already over budget, and the production was under a great deal of pressure to finish the film. It was pretty close to wrapping with only scenes of the principal characters remaining.
Barbara Stanwyck did everything possible to encourage my grandfather to leave the set and go to his son, but my grandfather was resolute about finishing filming. He knew if he left he’d be instantly fired, and might not get work on another film in the future if this happened. The next morning, however, when he came on the set, it was announced that Ms. Stanwyck was horribly ill. She stayed “sick” for 10 (ten!) days until my dad was out of ICU—making it possible for my grandpa to see him. What a lady. And that was only one story, albeit my favorite.”
I just adore everything about this story, and am both thrilled and a bit awed to receive such nice words from a lovely neighbor with Hollywood in her DNA. When I called to ask if I could share this on my blog, she immediately said yes, and told me she’d dig around for more stories and material related to her grandfather.
I fully intend to inquire further this time. Stay tuned…