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Women in Early Hollywood.

Writer Cari Beauchamp is the author of the new book, "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood" (Scribner). She was the highest paid writer, male or female, for three decades, and was also the first woman to win an Academy Award twice for screenwriting. Her stories were directed by George Cukor, John ford, and King Vidor. She was married four times (she has said, "I spent my life searching for a man to look up to without lying down.") But her friendships with women in Hollywood were legendary.


Other segments from the episode on July 14, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 14, 1997: Interview with William Christenberry; Interview with Cari Beauchamp.


Date: JULY 14, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071401NP.217
Head: William Christenberry
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

For over 35 years, artist William Christenberry has been working on a piece called "The Klan Room" on the iconography of organized racism. The room is given over to nearly 400 objects, including hundreds of dolls menacingly dressed in the hooded disguises of the Klan.

The Klan Room is just one manifestation of Christenberry's obsession with the rural South. He was born in Hale (ph) County, Alabama during the Depression. Many of his sculptures are miniatures of abandoned shacks and boarded up general stores and diners.

A retrospective of his work called "Reconstruction" is now on exhibit at the Museum of American Art in Philadelphia. The show includes his Klan Room. He told me about the dolls he has dressed in hooded robes.

WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY, ARTIST: I guess for me, when I conceived the idea of a doll, in this case or originally, it was a "Barbie" doll dressed as a Klansperson.

But the Barbie did not flex or bend at the joints, and in 1964, "GI Joe" made his appearance on the scene, and I'll never forget going to a Zayre Department store in Memphis where I was living at the time, and I bought 20 GI Joe dolls one night.

But it began to really mushroom then, with the three-dimensional objects. The three-dimensional objects thing then being put into buildings, architectural forms that oftentimes replicated the hooded head and sort of a pointed-top building. And recently, I was able to -- or asked to be a part of a wonderful place in Philadelphia called the "Fabric Workshop" where they can do anything you ever dreamed of with fabric.

And we made there, or I began there, a number of dolls that are much tougher, meaner, uglier -- where I appear to sort of punish them by pouring wax on them, binding them up, sticking pins in them and the like. But it's meant to be a composite or a tableaux. I don't think it can be photographed adequately, or I don't think you can sense what it's about unless you walk into the space.

GROSS: Well, it's funny you say that because when you walk into the space, you definitely feel like you're in the space of another orbit. I mean, there's just -- first of all, in the exhibit that I saw, the light is kind of dim and maybe has a slight reddish tinge to it -- that that might be the -- my imagination or the effect of the works in there.

But you're out of your element when you're in there. You're surrounded by this presence of Klan iconography.

CHRISTENBERRY: I hope so. That's the intention -- is to create a feeling. There have been some very strong feeling, hopefully, of revulsion or repulsion. The lighting -- you're correct. We spend a lot of time wherever this is exhibited with the lighting -- a lot of red light or red gel (ph) over white lights; a few spotlights, white lights -- but trying to create an environment, a feeling.

GROSS: What was the presence of the Klan in your life when you were growing up in Alabama? How open were they where you were? Did you ever see -- knowingly see Klanspeople?

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, in the late '50s, you would hear rumors of Klan meetings, but usually they were secret meetings -- maybe way out in the country or in the attic or loft of an old building, an old warehouse. But it was in 1960 in my home town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama where I first encountered the Klan at the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse.

And it was enough to frighten me. I still have almost nightmares about that meeting. I didn't see but one Klansman, but out of that encounter came a lot of work and that stimulated or -- helped stimulated this need on my part to, as I've said many times, come to grips with that aspect of evil that we call the Ku Klux Klan.

GROSS: So what were you doing there? They were holding a meeting and you were curious?

CHRISTENBERRY: I'll tell the story. I read in the Tuscaloosa News. I left Alabama in '61 and went to New York for a while. But in 1960, I was still there teaching at the University -- teaching drawing and painting.

And I read in the Tuscaloosa newspaper that there would be -- on the front page down on the left-hand bottom of the page -- that there would be a Klan rally down at the county courthouse. So I said to a friend, I said: "why don't we go down there and see what it's like?" I was curious.

And we got down there that evening, and there was no evidence of any Klan activity. The street lights were on. There were cars out front. I didn't see many people and I certainly didn't see any people dressed as Klansmen.

And I said to my friend: "let's go inside. Let's go look inside." He said: "no, you go." Obviously, he was a little fearful and he was Jewish and I think he thought twice about going in there.

So I started up these old marble stairs -- second level, nothing; third level, just as I got to the stop of the steps, to my left, standing as a sentinel was a Klansman in full robe and hood. And he didn't -- he didn't turn his body to look at me.

He just -- he didn't even turn his head. He just turned his eyes to the right and looked at me through those eye-hold slits. And I just ran back down the steps. And that was my first encounter ever with a Klansman.

But by the '60s, certainly by the mid-'60s, the Klan was being forced out of cover so to speak, trying to improve their image, if that's possible. And you could go -- we could go to open meetings. I attended two meetings in Memphis in the summer of '66 and one in -- outside of Tuscaloosa in 1966. And the one in Tuscaloosa, or outside Tuscaloosa, was -- how shall I say -- full blast theater. It was an amazing experience.

GROSS: Share some of the images from that that really made an impression on you that you've been trying to recapture in your art since then?

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, I think always it's been that hooded head form. I've been for a long time, and continue to be, very much interested in the mask -- any kind of mask -- throughout mankind's history.

And this hooded head that the Klan uses -- this hood that where the apex of the triangle is at the top, which sort of reverses the structure of our head. In other words, we can imagine our head, the human head, having a triangular form of sorts, the apex of the triangle being our chin.

By reversing what we think of -- what we know as our head, they have made this thing somewhat, well, I think unbelievably frightening.

GROSS: Have you ever held a real Klan robe in your hands?

CHRISTENBERRY: Yes, I have one that was given me by a collector of political memorabilia, and it probably dates -- it's his guess -- from the '20s. For some reason, he believes it came from West Virginia. It's a pretty frightening thing, especially the hood, because all around the eyeholes is hand-stitched and it's muslin. It's not satin like the contemporary Klan. It's a frightening object.

GROSS: There's a little booklet in your current exhibit -- a booklet for responses from gallery-goers. And the booklet says: "some people have told me that this subject is not the proper concern of an artist or art. On the contrary, I hold the position that there are times when an artist must examine and reveal such strange and secret brutality."

What are the negative reactions that you're referring to there?

CHRISTENBERRY: I've not often had anyone say to my face that I shouldn't be dealing with this subject matter, but it's come back to me often, even from -- often from intelligent, sensitive people -- who believe that art should not or artists shouldn't be involved with such things.

One of the several artists that I admire so much in terms of dealing with the -- how shall I say -- the reality of their times were Goya and then Picasso with "Guernica." In our time, there's a very strong German artist named Anselm Kiefer (ph) who was born the year World War II ended, 1945, and he's been trying through his work to come to grips with his country's Nazi past.

So it's hurtful when I'm told this or I get word of this, but very few people have said that directly to me. There have been reactions in exhibitions where someone that I didn't know would argue that this should be dealt with or not. But most of the time, it's been in a round-about way.

GROSS: You live and teach in Washington, DC and in 1979, your studio was broken into and a lot of the Klan work was stolen. From what I understand, the thieves were never found, but you suspect it was the work of the Klan. Why do you suspect that?

CHRISTENBERRY: No, no I do not.

GROSS: You don't suspect that?

CHRISTENBERRY: That was my first fear. That was my first and greatest fear when it happened because the theft was devastating, not just in terms of the loss, but the effect it had on my wife and then-small children; the nature of the theft; the obsessiveness of it. The door was locked back up. There was no vandalism.

I would have -- I could better have understood the theft if I had found the room vandalized and things broken or strewn about. And therefore, initially, we couldn't help but think: could it have been the Klan? But I don't think so now.

I think it's somebody that probably just wanted, in the wrong sense of the -- the negative sense of the word -- to possess the work. And that's frightening, too. But no, I don't -- I think the Klan would really liked for me to have known that they took it, because they have a tendency to leave calling cards and the like.

GROSS: My guest is artist William Christenberry. A retrospective of his work is now on exhibit at the Museum of American Art in Philadelphia. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with artist William Christenberry. His work evokes the rural South of his childhood.

The Ku Klux Klan work is just one part of your work. There's a lot of your work that's really tied up with, in a way, a South that no longer exists -- abandoned country stores; abandoned diners; abandoned shacks; small wooden churches that are closed up. Why does this architecture of the past capture your imagination?

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, I want to say right up front that it's not nostalgia for the past. I have very strong, mostly positive, feelings about where I'm from and a deep affection for where I'm from -- the way I was brought up in a very closely-knit family; the storytelling tradition that I grew up with.

But I tend to gravitate toward the things you mentioned because I -- I don't know if I achieved this -- but I see a kind of poetry or poignancy in these things that are disappearing. The South is changing rapidly. It's becoming a more affluent part of this country. Unfortunately, too, it's beginning -- that's not unfortunate -- but it's unfortunate it's beginning to look like almost everywhere else.

And these things that I've photographed; that I've made sculptures of; that I've drawn and painted, are not -- got -- not going to be around much longer.

GROSS: Now, was this architecture being used when you were growing up? Was the -- were the diners actually...


GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CHRISTENBERRY: Yes, and the churches -- the country churches. The Christenberry family church -- the church my father attended as a child -- still stands. It was built towards the end of the Civil War -- Providence Methodist Church. But it's truly, as the hymn says, the "church in the wildwood." It's so far back out in the country now and hasn't been functioning in any capacity for the last 30 years or more.

GROSS: What does it look like now?

CHRISTENBERRY: My -- one of my cousins, distant cousins, bought the church and a few acres of land around it, and he's done a pretty good job of being certain that it -- the roof is not -- doesn't have a hole in it and sort of maintained it, thank goodness. So it hasn't changed that much. It's just way, way back out in the country, but a beautiful structure.

And I, for some reason -- I can't explain this -- have this fascination with this kind of pyramidal form; this triangle that keeps coming back in a positive way and a negative way.

GROSS: Positive in the architecture; negative in the hoods of the Klan.

CHRISTENBERRY: Yes, yes, exactly. It was -- I remember in drawing class many years ago, in the early '50s at the University of Alabama, my instructors would point that out, about this pyramidal form.

Now, at that time, I was not involved with -- in any expression regarding the Klan nor was I involved with drawing or painting the vernacular architecture at that time. It came later.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is artist William Christenberry. It's interesting -- the county you grew up in -- in Alabama, Hale County -- is the county that "let us now praise famous men" was inspired by.

It's the county that Walker Evans documented in photographs and James Agee wrote about. And this is a very influential, now famous, book about Southern poverty. And you discovered this book when, I guess, you were a young man.

CHRISTENBERRY: In 1960, to be exact, when the second printing -- the first printing of 1941 was remaindered, so I didn't discover it until the second printing came out in 1960.

GROSS: Now over the years, you've taken photos of some of the same buildings that Walker Evans photographed and some of the same places that he photographed. But the interesting thing is, he seemed so interested in capturing literally the faces of poor people -- capturing their faces, their bodies, who are they; who are these people?

Very few people in -- I can't really think of any people, actually, in the photos and the sculptures of yours that I've seen -- you're really interested in the buildings and the exteriors of the buildings and the advertising on and around the buildings.

CHRISTENBERRY: Also I'm interested in -- how shall I say? -- mankind's touch or mankind's effect on these things, more than I am in the people. Be very truthful with you, I've never had any real desire to photograph people.

I don't know why that is. I sometimes say this rather jokingly. Maybe it's because I feel uncomfortable being photographed myself, but that's not a good excuse. But I do like or do tend to look at the effect of what people have done to the landscape or to a structure, and certainly what time and the elements -- how that -- they have affected these things.

GROSS: Oh, absolutely -- yeah, in a lot of the exteriors of the buildings that have influenced and inspire you are really weathered, and there's advertising signs that have peeled off...


GROSS: ... or sheet metal advertising signs that have rusted and the paint is dulled. I'm interested in your interest in signs, and in advertising. And a lot of the ads, you know, are for archaic...


GROSS: ... for archaic products like "Grapette" (ph) soda and "Snuff" which I don't know if people use any more; 31 cent a gallon gasoline.

CHRISTENBERRY: Right. Well, 31-cent gas -- that picture was made in 1964 and that -- you do see through my work, in my work, a good bit of evidence of the passing of time and how things have changed. But I've always loved old signage, especially signage, as you said, that is weathered and been effected by things. It's what I call "the aesthetics of the aging process."

And I have quite a wonderful gathering. I don't really like the word "collection" -- it -- of these signs that I've begged, borrowed and sometimes stolen -- not stolen, really, but you'd say to an owner of an old country store, this is back in the '60s and '70s when these things were very prevalent: "I really like that old coca cola sign out there, and would you take 50 cents for it?"

And he usually would say: "you'd really like that thing? Well, if you see any more, just take them." They were glad to get rid of them. And now that's a vanishing aspect of outdoor advertising. It's changed dramatically. And would you believe these objects now have monetary value, even in the condition that they're in, that I like so much.

GROSS: Well, one wall in your current museum show is totally taken up with six sheet metal ads for Royal Crown Soda.


GROSS: And I have to say, I thought they were just really beautiful.

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, when you see them in that context...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CHRISTENBERRY: ... not just in a museum context, but put on a wall like that. Here we have one -- to the left would be in pretty good condition; then by the time you get to number six, it's essentially -- it's the same sign, but through that stage -- those stages -- has now total rust.

And I just thought that was -- I still think that's a beautiful thing. So we grouped them -- or I grouped them like that, kind of to show the passing of time and how things are affected by nature and whatever.

GROSS: You went to New York in the early '60s to see art, to study art. That coincided with the early days of pop art. I wonder what influence pop art had on you?

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, I -- that's a good question. Sure, I was in New York -- '61, '62 -- which was a pivotal time in American art because it was a transition time between abstract expressionism and the coming of pop art.

I was so heavily into abstract expressionism as a student. And even at the time I moved there, de Kooning and Pollock and Franz Klein -- artists like that.

But the effect of pop was more -- I never felt a direct influence. Obviously, it's there. It was more the expressionistic tendencies and also what we call "neo dada" -- neo-dadaism.

GROSS: Until you saw pop art, did you think that these weathered signs and abandoned buildings could be the subject of art?

CHRISTENBERRY: I can't deny that it probably influenced me or affected me. I just never felt real -- a real influence from, say, some of the pop artists that we readily know, like Warhol.

Although I have to tell you, I did make a piece in 1975, and I think that's the exact year that he made or grouped 32 paintings of Campbell's soup cans -- I found between '71 and '75, 32 "Top Snuff" signs in various and sundry places in the countryside and I grouped those in kind of a tongue-in-cheek reference to his hand-painted Campbell soup cans.

So there's certainly a relationship like that. But it was more the influence, I feel, of de Kooning early on and then after that, artists that I discovered, not in New York, but after I went to Memphis -- Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (ph). And they were fellow Southerners. They were at least born in the South, so I had this attraction or this thing in common.

GROSS: William Christenberry -- his retrospective is at the Museum of American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He'll be back with us on the second part of our show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with artist William Christenberry. A retrospective of his work is now on exhibit at the Museum of American Art in Philadelphia. Many of his sculptures and paintings evoke the disappearing rural South that he grew up in. One of the pieces is literally from his childhood.

One of the walls in the current museum show in Philadelphia is given over to the pages of a calendar that your grandfather had. And this also, just as a found object, is -- it's beautiful and the calendar was published by a company specializing in laxatives...


GROSS: ... and so some of the ads -- one of the ads reads "let's shake on this: When you are in need of a good laxative that is economical too, Black Draft (ph) is the friendly, favored choice. Popular with four generations."

Did you remember this calendar on your grandfather's wall?

CHRISTENBERRY: I do. My grandfather Christenberry was bedridden the last several years of his life with asthma and a heart condition, but he kept that beside his bed, that calendar, and periodically he would take it down and with pencil write in important dates in the family's history. The earliest date I've found is 1866. He writes "Mammy Duncan's birthday." That would have been his wife's mother's birthday.

So this was in our family after his death, and as you can see in the exhibition, it's very fragile. It's on old newsprint. The calendar dates 1947.

And in 1973, one of my father's older sisters had this, and I was -- I knew that, and I asked her -- we called her Aunt Sister, always felt that was a good name -- I said: "Aunt Sister, I would like to be considered to have this eventually. Could it possibly be handed down to me?" And she said: "I think you should have it."

And I immediately framed it archivally because I knew it would not hold up if it were not protected. And in 19 -- that same year, I had the idea: why not sort of pay homage to him -- to D.K. Christenberry? And I -- I put up the 12 months framed, a walking stick that he had carved, and a receipt for taxes paid in the year 1949 for $29 and some few cents.

So it's called "Calendar Wall for D.K. Christenberry" and it's a very valuable thing to me because it is a fascinating record of the history of the family, both the tragic and the comic.

He had a sense of humor. He also must have been a rather sensitive man, because he would sometimes record the first dove coo of the spring or the first whipoorwill (ph) call or when he bought his first pickup truck. It's a wonderful history and I value it very much.

GROSS: I -- not knowing your family, I like it as just being evocative of a time, of a place, and also of an advertising style.

CHRISTENBERRY: Mm-hmm. Yes. They -- just -- if you -- you can look at Calendar Wall on two levels -- from a distant, it -- to me -- aesthetically is beautiful -- the aging of the newspaper...

GROSS: Yes, yeah. Mm-hmm.

CHRISTENBERRY: ... that chrome yellow ink; the red ink; sort of the scarlet red ink; and the black ink, of course. And then you get up close to it and begin to read it -- to participate with -- at a different level with it.

So I think it works. I don't show it too often because -- I don't exhibit it too often because it's sensitive to light now. But certainly in this retrospective, I felt the need to have it there.

GROSS: You have a series of works called "dream buildings" that are little miniature buildings that you've designed; that have come to you in dreams -- at least I know the first one did.


GROSS: And the first one is just particularly eerie. It has that kind of pyramid top -- that shape that you've described as a shape that has obsessed you for many years.


GROSS: And there's no windows, so it's kind of -- like, the building is masked. You've said you're interested in masks. In some sense, the building's wearing one because there's no windows there, and it's totally covered over by -- or a lot of it is covered over by old signs and things like that. Dreams -- buildings don't come to me in dreams. I don't dream about buildings.



GROSS: So tell me what it was like to have, you know, a dream about a building and what the message of this building was in your dream?

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, I think every artist, certainly visual artist, would like to be able to tap the source of the dream more often, but I can't. It just -- when it happens, it happens. And this was 1979, just two weeks after the theft of the Klan work that we mentioned earlier.

And I was -- one night I dreamed that I was on a back country road, and I'm in Washington when I have the dream. And I dreamed that I'm on a back country road and I came around a curve in that road and here before me was a building with no windows and no doors, with an unbelievably pitched roof. And it was covered with these outdoor advertising signs that I loved so much.

And I got up the next morning, and the dream is as clear as a bell. And I decided I was going to make that building, and since '79, that first one that you mentioned, I have now made 23 dream buildings -- all variations on that original dream -- and I was not conscious until several weeks into making that first one that really what I was doing was replicating the hooded head.

I think it shows the drama -- or, not the drama -- the intensity of that theft in that I -- it certainly was within me a lot.

GROSS: This is the theft of many of your Klan works.

CHRISTENBERRY: That's right. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I know when you were a child you lost one eye in an accident, which means that all these years you've been an artist, you've been working without depth perception. How do you think it's affected your art, only seeing two dimensions?

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, only in recent years, because of publications and the like, has this word gotten around that I only use one eye. The eye that was injured in a freak accident when I was 14 -- I have no lens, but what I see is like late, late, late Monet. It's beautiful.


There's no -- there's like a camera being totally without focus, but a lot of light and the most exquisite colors. But I don't use that eye. I can't use that eye. But people that now know the story or know that I only see out of one eye ask me that question: how has it affected your work? I have no idea. I really don't. I have no way of knowing that.

GROSS: So if you see all these colors and blurs in that eye...


GROSS: ... do you keep that eye covered a lot of the time?


GROSS: It must be pretty distracting, though.

CHRISTENBERRY: It can be, because really when I'm looking at something, I'm seeing two of those things. I'm seeing the good one -- the perfect one with my good eye; and I'm seeing a blurred, ghost-like form with the other, if I concentrate on that. If I don't concentrate, your mind blocks it out. It blocks it out.

Now, focusing a camera, and since 1970 -- I started out using a little Brownie camera. That's how I started making these things, and the original Brownie pictures, color pictures -- they were always color -- really were references back in the studio for those big expressionistic paintings at the time.

But in 1977, I began to use an eight-by-10 camera, where you really have to focus under a dark cloth, and that still, as long as my left eye is in good condition, it hasn't posed a tremendous problem.

GROSS: A lot of your work is about the passage of time, and you're in your 60s now, and in that sense time is passing in your life as well.


GROSS: And I wonder if you see the past differently as you get older -- if the meaning of the past or the pull of the past changes for you?

CHRISTENBERRY: I think it becomes more intense. I was 60 this past November. And as I get older, now realizing more and more -- not dwelling on it -- but realizing more and more my own mortality, all of these things become more intense, and unwavering in my desire to, as I said at the beginning, come to grips with every aspect of what I'm trying to do.

But this passing of time element -- oh, it's only been 12 or 15 years ago that I really began to look at, in my work or through my work, the fact that what I've been doing is, in essence, sort of recording, in a way, in one way or another, the passing of time.

So now being 1997, I will go back to the places that I photographed if they still exist and -- from 1967 or '77 or '87, you never know. Many of those things that I've dealt with are gone and are going rapidly, as the place changes so much. But it is still something that I most desire to do, and not so much show the passing of time, but to deal with the things that I know and care so much about.

GROSS: So are you going back to the South this summer?

CHRISTENBERRY: Oh, yes. Oh, yes -- in August we'll be going. We don't know the exact date, but I can't pass that up. It's -- we've lived in Washington since 1968, and we're close to 30 years of making that trek, first with small babies and now, as the children get older, they don't go as often with us. But I will always go back.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CHRISTENBERRY: Thank you very much.

GROSS: William Christenberry's retrospective Reconstruction will be at the Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia through August 31.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about a new history exhibit exploring the South during reconstruction -- the period just after the end of slavery and the Civil War.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: William Christenberry
High: William Christenberry is known for his portrayal of the American South in his work. He has spent 35 years rendering images of the architecture and the landscape of his birthplace, rural Alabama, in drawings, sculptures, and photographs. His art deals with Southern heritage with both affection and aversion. One of the most compelling and disturbing projects which he has been working on since 1962 is called "The Klan Room." This collection of pieces which includes the iconography of the Ku Klux Klan is Christenberry's response to the terror that this group inspired in him and in its victims. By using the Klan's images, he attempts to dissolve the power they give the group. His show "Reconstruction: William Christenberry's Art" will be at the Museum of American Art -- of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts -- in Philadelphia until August 31.
Spec: Art; Race Relations; The South; History; Ku Klux Klan
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: William Christenberry
Date: JULY 14, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 071402NP.217
Head: Without Lying Down
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: You may be surprised to hear that one of the most powerful screenwriters in early Hollywood -- the highest-paid screenwriter for several years -- was a woman. She wrote over 200 films, including the first "Stella Dallas" and "Anna Christie."

She won Oscars for "The Champ" and "The Big House." She wrote hit films for her friend Mary Pickford, including "Poor Little Rich Girl," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," and "Pollyanna."

But her name is not well known, which is something her biographer is trying to change. My guest, Cari Beauchamp, has written a new biography called "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood." The Museum of Modern Art in New York is now showing a retrospective of Marion's films.

Beauchamp says that Marion's success is in some ways not so surprising. Women wrote half of the Hollywood films produced before 1925. I asked Beauchamp why it was easier then for women to break into screenwriting.

CARI BEAUCHAMP, AUTHOR, "WITHOUT LYING DOWN: FRANCES MARION AND THE POWERFUL WOMEN OF EARLY HOLLYWOOD": Women, remember, in the teens and early '20s were also directors and producers. And I've come to conclude that the reason for that was that filmmaking was more collaborative; that women thrived in that collaborative setting.

It wasn't filmmaking by committee, because everybody did have their role, but it was collaborative and it was way before the time that we think of now as the "auteur" days of the director -- of the great director or of a single person putting their stamp on a film.

These people truly did work together. One of the most joyous times for Frances was in 1917 when she was signed as the exclusive screenwriter for Mary Pickford, and she and Mary Pickford and their friend Mickey Neelan (ph) who was the director created half a dozen films in two years that set incredible box office records, and here I'm talking about Pollyanna, The Little Princess and films like that.

But at the time, what's truly amazing to me is that Frances was 28, Mary was 25, and Mickey was 26.

GROSS: And the medium was very young, too.

BEAUCHAMP: The medium was very young. That was another key for why women were allowed in and -- not only allowed in, but then once they were in, were nurtured and flourished -- was that very few people took the movie-making business seriously as a business.

It was so quick -- it was growing so quickly, and films would be an idea one week, before the camera the next; in the theaters the next months. It was a very quick turnaround. And that Wall Street didn't really start to pay attention until the middle '20s.

GROSS: You mentioned that Frances Marion wrote a lot of films for Mary Pickford, and Mary Pickford had this, oh, sweet, naive image on screen. Wasn't she called "America's Sweetheart?"

BEAUCHAMP: Yes. That was her tag-line.

GROSS: But off screen, she was a real dynamo, from what I understand.

BEAUCHAMP: She was an incredible woman -- truly incredible woman. And having seen all of her films now and, of course, reading all the scripts, I grew to have tremendous respect for her talent. She also was, in many ways, encaptured by this image.

She would play roles like Pollyanna; of the "glad girl" -- the little sweetheart -- and her fans would love it. And then she would try to stretch with a film like "Stella Maris" (ph) or "The Love Light" where she played a -- falling in love with a German -- married woman falling in love with a German spy. And the fans did not like to see their "little Mary" in those type of roles.

And so while she personally felt the desire to stretch and prove herself this great actress, she was forced time and time again by, for commercial purposes, to return to the little girl role.

GROSS: Did Frances Marion...

BEAUCHAMP: ... and I think eventually she suffered from that.

GROSS: Did Frances Marion write a lot of those little girl roles for her? And did Frances Marion try to help her out of that image?

BEAUCHAMP: Frances wrote both. She wrote over half of all of Mary's films, and while they -- they were such good friends. Not -- to think of them just as a writer and a star doesn't begin to say it because they were -- they lived next door to each other for a while.

Then they lived within a block of each other. They would go to the studio together at seven in the morning. At night, Frances would read to Mary, while Mary had to spend an hour a night taking care of those golden curls -- washing and setting them.

They would figure out which film they were going to do next together, but more than that, Frances was there at the party in New York where Mary first met Douglas Fairbanks.

GROSS: When Frances Marion started writing movies in the silent era, what did it mean to be a screenwriter -- in the days before dialogue?

BEAUCHAMP: Well, I was frankly surprised when I went -- when I found scripts from as much as 19 -- as early as 1915 that were 60 pages in length. So what Frances would write would be the actions -- the pantomimes.

Frances prided herself in having a minimum number of titles needed -- those sheets that -- where people would read what people were saying -- because she felt strongly that if there was enough pantomime, you didn't need those explanations.

GROSS: The transition to sound films was a crisis for a lot of silent film stars because suddenly they had to speak -- people would hear their voices. What was the transition like for Frances Marion? As a screenwriter, she had to write a different type of screenplay.

BEAUCHAMP: Well, in some ways, they had to make -- they had to make dialogue instead of titles, but they were freer in certain ways because it didn't have to fit on that little single card anymore. But films still had to move.

Actions still had to be portrayed on the screen, and so for a while, studios went through -- for six months to a year -- they went through a minor crisis, bringing in dialogue coaches and Broadway stars who had had practice speaking.

But it was really just a crisis much more for the actors and actresses than it was for the writers. And Frances made a relatively easy transition. In fact, Irving Thalberg at MGM gave her the assignment of writing Greta Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie. And she also had the assignment of writing Norma Shearer's first two talkies, and Norma Shearer was not only the queen of the lot, but Irving Thalberg's wife.

So that underscores the importance of Frances to MGM.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite of Marion's screenplays?

BEAUCHAMP: I love Stella Dallas. I also adore her "Scarlet Letter." I think some of the talkies are a lot of fun, but the silents are just gorgeous. Maybe one of my favorites, I think, is a film called "Zander the Great," (ph) which she wrote for Marion Davies.

And I think the reason that I like it so much is it opens with the scene of Marion in absolutely no makeup doing a bicycle routine worthy of Mack Sennett (ph) -- very funny, very clever.

It's the film of all of Marion Davies films where I think her incredible natural comedic talents come through. And it shows what Marion Davies could have been, as a talent, if Hearst had let her.

GROSS: William Randolph Hearst.

BEAUCHAMP: Right. And Hearst and -- William Randolph Hearst and Frances Marion worked together for 15 years off and on. Frances prided herself in going to different -- working with different studios and different producers; not being tied to just one, although she did do most of her work with MGM.

And Frances Marion and William Randolph Hearst had what I affectionately call a "15-year tug-of-war" over the proper kind of roles for Frances -- for Marion Davies. Hearst always wanted her in massive costume epics where she played this glamorous woman, and Frances fought very hard to have her scrubbed down playing natural comedic roles, which she thought showed her talent off the best.

GROSS: Marion Davies had a long-time relationship with William Randolph Hearst, although he was officially married to somebody else, but he and Davies even lived together.

BEAUCHAMP: Right. He and -- had had five sons by Millicent Hearst, and left them in New York from 1915 on, really, and lived with Marion Davies in California. And then, of course, built the San Simeon -- the incredible castle that they lived in and ruled from for over 30 years until Hearst's death in, I guess, 1953.

GROSS: My guest is Cari Beauchamp, author of the new biography of Frances Marion. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest Cari Beauchamp is the author of a new biography of Frances Marion, one of the most successful and prolific screenwriters in early Hollywood.

When Frances Marion was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, how much was she making?

BEAUCHAMP: Well, she set the record originally in 1916 by being paid $200 a week, which at the time set all kinds of records. But very quickly thereafter, when she was signed in 1917 as Mary Pickford's exclusive screenwriter, she was paid $50,000 a year. Two years later, Hearst hired her to write for Marion at $100,000 a year.

So, I mean, even now, these are not small salaries and you can imagine what that bought in 1919.

GROSS: Why did Frances Marion earn so much? Did she have a style that was considered to be her specialty? Was she considered to have a golden touch?

BEAUCHAMP: She had a golden touch in a way, although she didn't really have to doctor other people's films. I mean, she always was looking at other films, but she wrote her own.

What Frances -- I think, made her films so special was she had a knack for creating characters that grabbed the audience very quickly. She gave her characters clever little quirks that endeared them to the audience.

Her bad guys, particularly, always had a fun little something that endeared them. Wallace Beery in "The Secret Six" is a big gangster, but he always drinks milk. And the same with Wallace Beery in "The Big House."

She has a scene where he cries and -- over his inability to read. I mean, these were some would say little, you know, feminine touches to these macho male characters, that Frances excelled in.

She also excelled in story structure. She could -- she loved writing the beginning and the end, and then filling it in the middle. She loved the full -- the arc of the story and which is one of the reasons her frustration grew in the early '30s when the production code started to mandate more and more regulations of what you could or could not do with your characters.

GROSS: What ended her career?

BEAUCHAMP: Well, Irving Thalberg's death in 1936 was sort of the beginning of the end for Frances, in the sense that -- not that he had protected her so much -- as -- and she called him "my rock of Gibraltar" -- but that he respected her. He -- and respected Anita Loos and the other women writers that he worked with so well and encouraged.

He -- in fact, when Irving died, Frances was on a leave of absence in Europe and I found a draft of a contract in her personnel file in MGM that said that when she returned in January of '37, she was to sign an exclusive contract to write, direct and produce for Irving Thalberg for the next five years.

Well, Irving died in September of '36, so that was -- we're unable to know what would have happened. But we do know that when she came back in January, Louis B. Mayer changed her contract to a week-to-week agreement. And Frances had been spoiled. She -- and she was the first to admit it.

She had worked wonderfully for years -- casting her films; working with these other actors; writing specifically for their talents; and working with them in a very collaborative way. And all of a sudden, she was on a week-to-week situation where she not only was to write her own scripts, but to be available to any director, any producer, to work on whatever screenplays they wanted doctored. And she found that very stultifying.

GROSS: By the time Frances Marion retired from screenwriting in 1946, I think the door had closed for women in a lot of ways. I mean, this was a period when you're not seeing so many women writing screenplays or directing. Is there -- what do you think are the factors that helped close the door, if you agree that that's what happened?

BEAUCHAMP: Well, I do agree that's what happened. I think it was a rather slow process, but I think it was not just in Hollywood. It was nationwide. And it happened to "Rosie the Riveter" -- it happened to all the women who had come forward in World War II. And with the return of the soldiers, women returned home. And that was a very huge cultural/social phenomenon.

GROSS: Yeah, but Frances Marion got started long before World War II. That's not what...

BEAUCHAMP: Oh, of course she...

GROSS: ... what helped her in or other women.

BEAUCHAMP: No, but it was -- it helped wipe out women from the studios in so many ways that I have found in my conversations with women in Hollywood today, where they have said: I thought I knew Hollywood history, and I thought women in Hollywood began in the '50s with Ida Lupino -- which is fascinating to me -- that they had a vague image of yes, Mary Pickford also ran her own studio, but the women of Hollywood are -- were for the most part thought to begin with Lupino in the late '50s, because women were so wiped out, not just Frances and not just screenwriters, but women in the publicity department and as assistant directors.

They were, except for Dorothy Arsner (ph) -- the one and only woman on the list of directors under contract in 1942.

GROSS: The Museum of Modern Art is currently doing a retrospective of Frances Marion's movies. What's it been like for you to see her movies with other people in a nice theater?

BEAUCHAMP: Oh, I tell you, it's -- for me, it's been the biggest thrill of this entire project. I mean, holding your own book in your hands in nice; getting lovely reviews is nice. But walking into Zander the Great a little late last week and seeing over 400 people laughing their heads off to Marion Davies was absolutely chilling to me.

It was the biggest thrill I've had, to know that these films are still drawing these kind of audiences. The Museum of Modern Art is very pleased with the incredible attendance they've had. It's averaging -- it's a theater that holds 480 people; it's averaging over 400 a screening, even for silent films without piano in the afternoon.

And there's 30 films being shown now, and their plan is to show another 30 films in January and February that will mostly be the silent films written by Frances and her group of women friends.

GROSS: Well Cari Beauchamp, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BEAUCHAMP: Well, thank you very much.

GROSS: Cari Beauchamp is the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Cari Beauchamp
High: Writer Cari Beauchamp is the author of the new book, "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood." She was the highest paid writer, male or female, for three decades, and was also the first woman to win an Academy Award twice for screenwriting. Her stories were directed by George Cukor, John ford, and King Vidor. She was married four times who has said, "I spent my life searching for a man to look up to without lying down." But her friendships with women in Hollywood were legendary.
Spec: Movie Industry; Women; Hollywood; Frances Marion
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Without Lying Down
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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