There are days when you are in desperate need of vicarious living. While the world marvels at the latest solar eclipse, you wonder whether there’ll be any sun at all his spring, the prospects for your upcoming trip to Cornwall looking decidedly grim. So, you grab a book from your shelves and, presto, you assume the identity of some personage whose existence strikes you as being rather more colorful than your own present self. I wouldn’t have minded trading places with a certain Val Gielgud, who, on this day, 29 March, in 1938, “as nearly as possible passed out over the soup!” I should add that the soup was served at the home of Isabel Jeans, Hollywood actress, and that Mr. Gielgud, brother of distinguished thespian John Gielgud (whom I heard only last night in a 1951 radio production of Hamlet) and a noted radio writer-director in his own right, was on a month-long tour of Tinseltown.
Now, I’ve never been much of a namedropper, being that the only vintage Hollywood notable I’ve been around for any longer period of time was stage and screen actress Viveca Lindfors, whose dog Willie I used to walk during my college days in New York City. I’ve got pictures of the dog, but no mementos of his owner, save for a few messages she left on my answering machine. Gielgud, on the other hand, found himself surrounded by luminaries and duly recorded each encounter in his 1938 diary, excerpts of which he later shared publicly in his biography Years of the Locust. When he was not nearly passing out in a bowl of soup, he was dining or gambling or drinking among the late greats of the motion picture industry.
“So this is Hollywood!” Gielgud exclaimed upon his arrival in Beverly Hills on 26 March 1938. He was visiting his friend, Eric Maschwitz, a novelist-playwright then at work on an adaptation of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. “One’s first impression,” Gielgud noted,
is of a place without form and void, sprawling, unfinished; a forest of oil-derricks; wide roads and fast cars; low houses; far more lights than Budapest, infinitely less effective. Whirled up to Beverly Hills, where Eric has a charming little house that belongs to [screenwriter] John Balderstone. Our nearest ‘stellar’ neighbour in Rodeo Drive—nomenclature perfect—is Rosalind Russell, who has a big house about two blocks away, marked by a police patrol. Fears of Kidnapping or just Publicity?
In this manner the diary continues. On 17 March, Gielgud recorded having had lunch “at a tennis club, where Cesar Romero, looking regrettably unshaven, was playing backgammon with a concentration that seemed [. . .] excessively gloomy.” He then went on to dine at “‘La Maze,’ where among other people were Greer Garson and Tilly Losch.” Tilly Losch? Okay, I had to look that one up. Turns out, she was a Viennese-born actress-ballerina who played Lotus in The Good Earth. From there Gielgud sauntered over to the “Clover Club—dancing and gambling—which reminded [him] of a cross between a Corner House and one of the minor circles of hell. Charles Bennett and his wife, and [Henry] Wilcoxon among others. Dolores Costello, looking tragically passee, Claire Trevor, and various large-size executives with remarkable names represented the Studios. Most people were quite simple and normally drunk.”
On 28 March, Gielgud lunched at the Brown Derby, where he met director Lewis Milestone. In the evening, Eric “collected a party [ . . ] of people whom [Gielgud] had at one time or another known in London: Isobel Jeans [is it Isobel or Isabel, now?], looking as always just out of a band-box; Reggie Gardiner, of train-imitation fame; Heather Thatcher; Greer Garson, very decorative in a pink hat and green gloves.”
In the days to follow, he also spent some time on the MGM lot, where, as he put it, “[o]ne expected to run into Garbo or Shearer or Tracy any moment—and had to be contented with a sight of Robert Young.” Sure, he was less than impressed when being “introduced to John Barrymore, who looked pathetically old and flabby,” but he also got to shake hands with the “certainly most decorative” Dorothy Lamour, “that admirable actor Lloyd Nolan,” and “Una Merkel, who turned out to be as amusing in real life as on the screen, with the most charming manners to boot.”
Within a few weeks, the visitor from Britain got to drive around town alongside glamorous Anna May Wong, with whom he is pictured above. The lucky devil! I’d sure have risked conking out in a bowl of wontons for a few afternoons with Ms. Wong.
On 21 April 1938, Gielgud left Hollywood for New York City, where, on 30 April, he directed his play “Fours into Seven Won’t Go” for the Columbia Workshop. I don’t always agree with Gielgud’s view of American radio, or America in general. In fact, I find his attitude rather haughty and his dismissals too sweeping; but I sure envy his Hollywood excursion, of which I might have more to write anon, should I find myself in need of another dose of hobnobbing by proxy . . .