If nothing else, 2020 taught us that we took for granted simple joys like a firm handshake, or recreationally licking subway floors. And while we’re learning lessons, winding our merry way through the holidays into 2021, I say we lean into the insanity and take a year off from traditional, cloying commercialism. Really, darlings, doesn’t it all ring just a little too hollow this time around? I say we really commit this year and shake it up with some good old-fashioned austere, sacrosanct solemnity. Why don’t you find old carols about obscure biblical characters society stopped singing centuries ago for a reason! Why don’t you actually make a fruitcake! Gift a loved one myrrh, if you can find it!
In times of doubt like these, I derive a great comfort from thinking of that pearly-gated paradise we all dream of someday being welcomed into: Beverly Hills. Thirty times bigger than Vatican City, that choice little enclave celebrated Christmases during Hollywood’s Golden Age with 30 times as much pageantry, a kind of psuedo-papal pomp unseen outside the Holy See. And with the vivid exception of cheapskates like Cary Grant and Clark Gable—who got in touch every December 26 to swap unwanted monogrammed gifts—is it any wonder the neighborhood knew the true meaning of Christmas? With leading ladies like Irene Dunne and Loretta Young preaching their piety for decades, nitty-gritty catholicity was never limited to just December in sunny old California. It was a year-round crucifix fixation, and what sterling examples they set for us all to follow!
It’s Better to Give Than Receive
On semi-regular visits, columnist Louella O. Parsons was only too happy to excuse herself from Vegas’ craps tables to attend 5 PM mass in the casino chapel, but despite the 10-foot light-up Virgin Mary lawn ornament displayed in her Maple Drive backyard, she wasn’t Hollywood’s most observant Catholic lady. Still, she was its most powerful. Overcoming a pronounced lack of talent as a writer, journalist, and speller to essentially invent film reporting, Lolly quickly became a fixture in her adopted community. They say those who gossip shan’t inherit the Kingdom of the Lord, but in all actuality she was first and foremost an eager fan of filmmaking who ached to keep the world at large au courant with Filmlandia.
Unlike her arch-rival Hedda Hopper, who relied on a network of spies and used her gossip rag for legislative ends—and was so far right politically she once accused gunslinging John Wayne of being soft on communists—Louella was simply taking a motherly interest in her neighbors, passing along reports of their well-being to her dozens of millions of readers and listeners. This same maternal instinct compelled her to make friends from all walks of life, not just with high and mighty Stars. From pregnancy testing lab technicians to hotel bellboys, switchboard operators to nightclub waiters, hospital nurses, bartenders, and the stars’ more cooperative friends and family, Louella never met a stranger, and with just plain old chit-chat and chutzpah was able to share with the world her love of Hollywood and its occupants, or even her disdain for some of the town’s dimmer stars. And for decades Hollywood reflected that same adoration right back to her every Christmas.
Even if major studios hadn’t rushed out internal memos reminding staff to pick up a present for potently devout and devoutly potent Louella, her living room would still be quite literally filled floor-to-ceiling with presents from everybody who was anybody, or at least desired to be one. Detractors may call it a seasonal “shakedown,” but they’re ignoring what all Stars and executives knew instinctively: it’s far better to give than to receive. A handpicked present would keep an actor, film, or even studio in Lolly’s good graces and guarantee a favorable mention in her column, and you just can’t put a price on publicity, or making an old woman smile on Christmas Day!
In her autobiography No Bed of Roses, Oscar-winner and sister-hater Joan Fontaine tries to get us to believe that Louella was actually “a lady to be feared, to be pampered and cosseted by studios and stars alike,” before detailing a story that underscores the importance of giving. It seems that making the rounds in her chauffeured station wagon one Christmas, studio to studio, Lolly and her driver stumbled out of the last of the office parties to find her car had been looted! “Thousands of dollars’ worth of perfume, wine, silver frames, alligator handbags, monogrammed lingerie,” all stolen from under poor Louella’s nose. On December 26, her driver returned to each of the studios with explicit instructions to fill the car a second time with duplicate gifts. In the spirit of the season, it was!
If Lolly’s abiding, behind-the-scenes faith served as the impetus for her highest calling, great ladies in front of the camera wore theirs as a badge of honor. Christian Scientist Joan Crawford once remarked to biographer Roy Newquist that “[Rosalind] Russell is the best example of a practicing believer; her Catholicism is very strong, but she doesn’t impose it on others. Not like Loretta Young and Irene Dunne,” all three parishioners at the Church of the Good Shepherd, often crudely referred to as “Our Lady of Cadillacs.” “[Dunne and Young] seem to be rehearsing to play the next Virgin Mary,” Joan finished. But the two could hardly be blamed if their cherished piety provided a port in the storm of public life, or a leg-up in the competitive world of show business!
Remember the Reason for the Season
One celebrated star of screen, stage and television, portentously born just five days before Christmas, never lost sight of her Higher Power, even when others tried to distract or humiliate her. When scandal-free Irene Dunne passed away after 91 years and one marriage, a chorus of obituarists raved about her graciousness and gentility. And they were mostly right! “Always a nominee, never a winner” Irene was known around the Hills, Holmby and Beverly, as a philanthropist and lady, but especially a Catholic.
Though she retired to a life of wealth, charity, and relentless rosaries in 1962, she explained in 1977 that she “never formally retired, but an awful lot of the girls my age soldiered on in bad vehicles. [I] couldn’t run around with an ax in my hand like Bette [Davis] and Joan [Crawford] did to keep things going.” And when the faith she held onto so dearly for nine decades was disrespected on a mid-‘50s tip to the Middle East, Dunne demonstrated that same willingness to quit, abandoning her pedestal of propriety to let another star have it between the eyes.
Just two years after the Pope personally bestowed upon Dunne her papal knighthood, she was one in a caravan of stars—including Carol Channing, Merle Oberon, Hedda Hopper and Lolly Parsons, Ann Miller, Sonja Heine, and Olivia de Havilland—who descended on the Bosphorus to celebrate the 1955 grand opening of the Istanbul Hilton. Ann Miller recalls the gala event in her 1972 autobiography, detailing “a rather unpleasant experience with two of Hollywood’s star ladies, both much older than I … [one] a very devout Catholic.” Though she selfishly refuses to name the two, the only devout Catholic of the bunch was Miss Dunne, and the other can be inferred to be the legendary Olivia de Havilland, though in the spirit of the season I refuse to speculate so wildly.
As the weeklong Istanbul fête wound down, Irene graciously extended an invitation to young Ann to fly on to Jerusalem on a solemn trek of holy meditation, along with Lolly Parsons and the other star. Miller phoned MGM to let them know her change in itinerary and the small group started on their way, but a routine 2 AM layover in Lebanon quickly devolved into a Crusades-level catfight, the proper Ladies versus the overeager Starlet.
MGM tipped off the Lebanese press that their contract actor Ann Miller would be landing. Lifelong show pony Miller deplaned to a phalanx of photographers in all her youthful, coiffed and maquillaged glory, while Irene and the other middle-aged Star were caught off guard, their hair in curlers. Ann was whisked off to her hotel, leaving the three women stranded, half-asleep and decidedly makeupless, on the tarmac. Somehow managing to make it to her suite, Irene phoned Ann to let her know exactly what she thought of the ridiculous spectacle.
“You little bitch,” Ann claims the devout Catholic began. Paraphrasing, Dunne accused Miller of arranging the entire embarrassing ordeal and branded her a shameless publicity seeker. “We don’t have a major studio behind us the way you do,” the daily churchgoer continued. “If we’d known about the photographers, we would have had our makeup on and our hair in place.” Ann alleges that she was called a “little bitch” a second time before the Catholic star lady continued, “We’re going on a holy trek and we don’t want you traveling with us. If you’re along, there will be nothing but photographers everywhere and that isn’t the sort of thing one does when visiting the Holy Land.” Naively writing that she can’t believe someone could be so “vicious and vitriolic,” Miller tellingly neglects to sympathize with Dunne’s understandable frustration.
While the others stayed on in Lebanon to give Ann and her precious press a respectful berth, Miller was taken captive as a spy and briefly imprisoned. After the owner of the Jerusalem’s only movie theater rushed to her defense, he and Ann concocted a scheme to humiliate the aging stars on their arrival. A barrage of reporters with empty cameras were assembled outside the plane, and as Irene Dunne, Louella Parsons, and the second star who may or may not have been Olivia de Havilland emerged, each made up and nary a hair out of place, they suppressed their surprise and graciously deigned to pose for the photogs. Ann Miller, leaving town on the very same jet plane, caught Irene’s eye. Neither said a word to each other as they passed, and the matter was dropped. Two years later, for her inborn diplomacy and continued support of the Republican Party, President Eisenhower made Irene Dunne a United Nations delegate.
While her legacy as a lady endures, inextricably tied to her faith, for all her lifelong devotion Irene Dunne still paled in comparison to her best friend, a Star of comparable magnitude unfairly called “Attila the Nun” behind her back by so-called friends and neighbors: Oscar-winning Loretta Young.
Vanity Has its Price
Poor, sweet Loretta Young, born Gretchen (her sisters lovingly called their family breadwinner “Gretch the Wretch”) was submerged into the terrifying reality of filmmaking as a toddler. When the bookings picked up, her shrewd, single mother started snapping up real estate to provide Loretta the Landlady with a hard-won nest-egg for her Golden Years. In the period between, she made a point to become so closely, publicly tied to her lifelong Catholic faith that Marlene Dietrich, who despised Young with a decades-long passion, once tastelessly quipped to her daughter, “See that big ugly church on the corner over there? Loretta Young built that. Every time she ‘sins’ she builds a church. That’s why there are so many Catholic churches in Hollywood!” The biggest shrine of all, though, had to have been her Bel Air home, with holy water fonts dotting each doorway and enough hagiography and ecclesiastical icons to write off the manse as a house of worship come tax season.
Her star rising, she filmed Call of the Wild in the summer of ‘35 with married Clark Gable, then-reigning Best Actor Oscar winner for whom she nursed a slight but forbidden affection, a rebound from her romance with equally-Catholic, married Spencer Tracy.
(The legend goes that before a dinner-and-dessert date with married-but-separated Tracy one night in ‘34, Loretta stopped off at a church confessional before the night started, Spencer parked out on the curb. When the priest refused to grant Loretta absolution for not only dating a married man, but engaging him carnally, she hopped back into the car and had Spencer drive her down the block to a priest who would forgive her. From there they had their date.)
It was revealed only recently that Gable, “The King” of Hollywood and allegedly a former gay-for-pay hustler who married and discarded older women en route to the top, drugged and ravaged Young. Never for one moment considering terminating the pregnancy, Loretta the Madonna secreted herself off to Europe, then home to one of her many Los Angeles rental properties to give bar birth in private. Almost immediately the poor, fatherless newborn was put up for adoption, though could dear Loretta be blamed? The love of one small child could never possibly take the place of scores of fans’.
Like other publicity-conscious professionals, Loretta Young took time during the 1937 shopping season to decorate the Christmas tree of a local orphanage. One tiny tot caught her eye, probably because of her resemblance to co-star/attacker Clark Gable, and Loretta brought the infant home, her good deed inspiring close friend Joan Crawford to bite the bullet and corral a brood of her very own (Mommie Dearest and Christina, Darling would pay Loretta rent for a time in the early ‘70s).
A little light addition and subtraction wasn’t beyond figures-obsessed Hollywood, and the tight-knit town deduced in no time that the adopted girl’s birth coincided with Young’s mysterious trip to Europe and still more mysterious illness which kept her out of the public eye for nearly all of 1936. While Judy Lewis publicly confirmed her lineage in 1994’s Uncommon Knowledge, Mother Loretta spent the next 60 years compensating for the less-than-immaculate conception with a holy vengeance, “Attila the Nun” wasn’t just a sobriquet; it was a lifestyle.
Prominent Republican booster Loretta had a head for business but no patience for sin. After two decades in film—and one Oscar—an aging Young shrewdly shifted her talents to the small screen in the early ‘50s, to the further ridicule of the town, earning another fortune as her own producer and becoming the first Oscar winner to snag an Emmy. “The most absurd concoctions every fag designer could invent,” close friend Joan Crawford later said of Young’s notoriously telegenic wardrobe. “My God, those gowns wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in real life!”
Closing each show with a biblical passage, Loretta made a concerted effort to let the world know just how wholesome and reverent she really was. It worked: Her show ran for nearly a decade, picking up another two Emmys along the way.
Loretta launched a righteous anti-pornography crusade in the ‘60s, joining up with Citizens for Decent Literature, so it only stood to reason that she would sue to keep a brief clip of an old film of hers from appearing in the film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel, Myra Breckinridge, in 1970. As her career slowed, her religious involvement accelerated, but she was drawn back into the judicial arena in October 1973 when her son Christopher was arrested along with an unlucky 13 other men for “engaging in an act of sex perversion with a 13-year-old boy,” and for filming a related series of criminal films. Through some kind of Divine Intervention, the 29-year-old walked away with a small fine and short probation instead of life in prison. Three short years later, Mother Loretta was in talks with Martin Scorsese to play Mother Cabrini, the first American to be canonized as a saint. Scorsese, who had just directed Ellen Burstyn to an Oscar win, said he envisioned Cabrini as a “hustler” on the streets of New York. To preserve her impeccable image, Loretta balked, opting to stay in sanctified semi-retirement instead.
In a swan song typical of that extinct breed of Golden Age actress, Young won a 1987 Golden Globe for the TV movie Christmas Eve, a seasonal classic for men of a certain grace. Twelve years after that, Loretta finally admitted to a biographer Hollywood’s worst-kept secret: Judy Lewis was her biological daughter by Clark Gable, though she asked that the information be withheld until her death. When Young died in 2000, obituaries had a field day taking jabs at her legendary Bible thumping, writing facetiously that she was so very near the canonization she herself wanted so much. For all we know, she just might have been.
What Have We Learned
Across cultures, winter is a time of rest and celebration, but when done right it’s really a season of stark penance and strict dogmatic observance. Those Stars of yore, glittering as brightly as the one that led the Magi, implicitly understood this. Led by faith, these ladies stood as pillars of their community and the world beyond: Louella, who knew the vital essence of giving. Irene, who refused to let her God become a cheap publicity stunt. Loretta, whose own imperfect life led to a faultless faith she shared with one and all. And if, after following in their footsteps, your family, friends, and neighbors still don’t see you in a more saintly light, take comfort in the fact that they’ll never get to Beverly Hills, much less heaven.