Hollywood - A SHOWMAN’S EDUCATION - Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire

Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan - James Maguire (2006)


Chapter 6. Hollywood

EVERYTHING SEEMED BRIGHT THAT SATURDAY in September as Ed, Sylvia, and six-year-old Betty left New York to begin their new life in Hollywood. Ed was going out to cover the kingdom of glamour for the paper with the largest circulation in America; it was a plum assignment and at age thirty-five he was at the top of his game. The three of them boarded the deluxe 20th Century Line in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, carrying only the essentials for the three-day trip. Their belongings had been sent along to the house Ed had rented in Beverly Hills. The three-bedroom Spanish-style bungalow at 621 North Alta was modest by comparison to many in the elite neighborhood, but it allowed Ed proximity to the stars he would cover, not to mention the status of a Beverly Hills address.

Ed filed columns during the trip out, wiring them back to New York from cities along the way. As closely as he scoured the passengers for a scoop, he found nothing more substantial than a tidbit about Pandro Berman, a young RKO film producer in the next compartment who had just delivered the first print of Katharine Hepburn’s Stage Door to New York.

By the second day of the trip the inactivity was weighing on Ed, who was used to a nonstop schedule. He sat in the dining car and chatted with the chef, J.A. Day, whose trout and turkey dishes Ed raved about, but the banter didn’t stem the brooding: “As I devoured them, I recalled the time in 1918 when I ran away to Chicago to join the Marines and worked in Thompson’s Cafeteria in the daytime and the Illinois Central freight yards at night … Pass me another trout, please, Mr. Day, I’m feeling morbid.”

As Ed’s beat on Broadway had been the nightclubs and theaters of the Main Stem, on the Coast he would haunt the movie sets and celebrity nightspots of the film colony. The studios, of course, were eager to give him access, knowing his column anecdotes would stimulate interest in upcoming pictures.

On his first few days on the job he received a whirlwind tour of the movie lots. On the 20th Century Fox lot, he met nine-year-old Shirley Temple, then in her second of three years as the country’s top box office draw, having charmed audiences with 1935’s The Littlest Rebel and 1936’s Poor Little Rich Girl. Ed reported that the “curly-haired youngster” took breaks from filming Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to satisfy the California state law requiring four hours of school a day. He said hello to composer Irving Berlin having lunch in the Fox commissary while working on Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and on the MGM lot he watched a Christmas scene being filmed for Navy Blue and Gold, starring Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore.

On the RKO lot he visited the set of Bringing Up Baby, the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn comedy that featured a one hundred sixty-five pound leopard. Ed reported that one of the bit players had been on a drinking binge, so director Howard Hawks decided to play a practical joke, summoning the actor to the office, placing the sleeping leopard on a chair, then leaving the partially inebriated fellow alone with the big cat. The incident may or may not have happened (it sounds suspiciously prepackaged for visiting reporters), but it’s exactly the kind of thing RKO hoped Ed would write about; by giving him access and feeding him morsels they were generating free publicity.

By the end of his first week he had set up a Sunday golf date with Fred Astaire. The outings with Astaire at the Bel-Air Country Club would become a constant, with Ed and Fred typically joined for a foursome by other film colony members, like Douglas Fairbanks or David Niven. Ed often wrote about his matches with Astaire, as when he described the dancer’s golf technique: “ ‘I am not envious generally,’ says Astaire, ‘but I do envy anyone who plays good golf.’ Later, on the course, he shows us how he hit those golf balls during his dance in ‘Carefree,’ and after his preparatory dance he whaled a drive two hundred fifty yards straight down the middle. Can you imagine how nutty he’d drive an opponent if before every shot he did a jig?” And, after a later outing: “Fred Astaire and your correspondent are feeling very happy this bright February morning, incidentally … we teamed up at Bel-Air against Randy Scott and Tyrone Power, and beat them in a harrowing match that will go down in golf history (at least our golf history)….”

Also in his first week he visited the MGM lot to chat with Joan Crawford and director Frank Borzage, who stopped work on Mannequin for the publicity effort. Sullivan and Crawford had tangled in New York a few years earlier, when Ed tried to enlist her to appear in a charity event he was hosting and she refused. He had taken journalistic revenge, writing in his column, “One wonders how Joan Crawford has gotten this far in show business with so little talent.” Crawford had hit back, sending an open letter to a fan magazine decrying Sullivan’s efforts as “cheap, tawdry, and gangster journalism.” But on the set of Mannequin, all was apparently well between the screen goddess and the new Hollywood columnist. Crawford, according to Ed, greeted him warmly: “ ‘The night we had dinner at 21 in New York I said you belong in Hollywood,’ remembers La Crawford, ‘And here you are.…’ ” For Ed, who had so often attacked “phonies” in his column, his report of an affectionate meeting with Crawford was a remarkable about-face.

But life was different on the Coast, and Ed knew it. Although he came to Hollywood as an established columnist for a major newspaper, he was a guest in a world owned by the film colony’s reigning gossips, Louella Parsons and her new archrival Hedda Hopper. Parsons, syndicated by Hearst, and Hopper, syndicated by the Chicago Tribune and published in the Los Angeles Times, ruthlessly dominated Hollywood stars, exacting homage and wielding the power of their huge readership with an iron hand. There were other gossips in Hollywood, including Jimmy Fidler, the actor turned radio host, and legions of scribes for movie pulps, but none had the studio access that Parsons and Hopper did. The manner in which these two enthroned columnists plied their trade defined the gossip business in Hollywood, and Ed was bound to live in the system they perpetuated.

The two women had taken very different paths to their lofty perch. Hopper, born Elda Furry in rural Pennsylvania, had been pretty and slender as a young woman and enjoyed modest success in theater and film through the 1920s and early 1930s; by 1936 she was a middle-aged single mother with a child to support. She launched a gossipy radio show on a Hollywood station, mining her network of film and stage connections (and employing creative guesswork) to provide a scintillating dose of celebrity Stardust. As the show grew in popularity she parleyed it into newspaper syndication. Hopper was known for her passion for large hats and her ability to hold long, bitter grudges.

Parsons, born Louella Oettinger in rural Illinois, dreamed of being a reporter from a very young age; in her teens she covered social events for the Dixon, Illinois, Star. Heavyset and ungainly, she married a well-to-do real estate agent, moved with him to Iowa, had a child, and promptly divorced. Parsons relocated to Chicago, remarried, and worked her way up through the newspaper business, shifting to New York as her career took off, eventually landing a job as the motion picture editor for Hearst’s New York American. There she became friends with actress Marion Davies, the romantic partner of William Randolph Hearst. After socializing with Davies and Hearst in Hollywood, the newspaper magnate syndicated Parsons’ column. By the mid 1920s, just as silent movies were set to give way to talkies, Parsons was established as the top Hollywood gossip.

While Parsons was there first, Hopper, with her network of contacts, quickly grew to challenge her gossip supremacy. It was even rumored that the studios had created Hopper, feeding her choice tidbits, to counterbalance Parsons’ overweening influence. But regardless of the competition between them—and they loathed each other—they were essentially mirror images of one another. Both women had a symbiotic relationship with the studios, relying on a regular dole of access and timely news and in turn helping promote films and stars. And both women held as sacrosanct the studios’ unwritten rule: don’t damage our property, that is, our stars.

MGM, Universal, and other star factories spent huge sums building mere actors and actresses into semimythic screen idols. To report that any of these investments were tarnished with an undue fondness for alcohol or a questionable sexual proclivity would have been an unpardonable act of corporate vandalism. Doors would have shut and phone calls would have gone unreturned. So Louella and Hedda lived within carefully prescribed boundaries. Romances, studio news, and benign glimpses of personal lives were promoted; even the whirlwind of divorce, as stars changed partners as casually as ballroom dancers, helped create a glow of ardent sexual energy that pushed ticket sales. And certainly each tilled her own trademark brand of cattiness. But reporting actual scandal was strictly prohibited (unless, of course, the studios gave tacit approval).

Both Louella and Hedda needed to be treated with ultimate care by those in their fiefdom. Sidney Skolsky learned this the hard way. Leaving the Daily News for Hearst’s Daily Mirror placed him in direct competition with Louella. After one of Skolsky’s early columns contradicted a Parsons scoop, she intimated to Hearst that Skolsky was a communist; he was let go after his contract expired and was unemployed for most of a year. (Skolsky called Hearst shortly after Parsons’ claim, attempting to reclaim his job, asking the newspaper magnate, “Are you sure she didn’t say ‘columnist’? You know, she has a difficult time pronouncing words. ‘I know what she said,’ Hearst snapped. ‘You’ll work out your contract, and when we’re through with you you’ll be nothing.’ ”)

Ed understood the tender treatment the queen bees required. In the rare instances he mentioned Louella or Hedda—all the papers frowned on acknowledging rival columnists—he tossed them peace bouquets, much as a visiting explorer paid homage to a local potentate. In a typical chummy aside, he wrote, “Dr. Harry Martin, who is Louella Parsons’ hubby, seriously ill from pleurisy (he is a swell guy, this ‘Doc’ Martin, and the whole town is pulling for him).”

On Broadway, Ed had played by the rough-and-tumble rules of the Main Stem. Broadway columnists were fevered fellows, up all night, working a typewriter and a shot glass with equal fervor, always leading with their elbows. They picked fights, with performers, with each other, or with anyone else, as part of doing business. They weren’t happy if they weren’t in the middle of a minor or major skirmish. This quotidian jousting was a perfect fit with Ed’s personality. But the Hollywood columnists, under the Parsons-Hopper system, were well-oiled and well-feted adjuncts to the studio machinery. The emphasis was less on conflict and more on promoting studio product.

The charge that Ed had leveled against Eddie Cantor back in New York, accusing him of stealing material from another performer, was good for boosting readership on Broadway. But that kind of ad hominem attack could damage a performer, and thus was not allowed by the studios. In fact, a month after arriving in Hollywood, Ed wrote a column in homage to Cantor, who had matched his legendary vaudeville success with Hollywood stardom. “I know of no performer more deserving than Cantor, and I say that although he and I have severe differences of opinion,” Ed purred. Likewise, his assertion in his Broadway column that Joan Crawford lacked talent. As a Broadway wise guy he could be a cur to Crawford and no matter. If he did that in Hollywood he never would have gotten near her; her studio would have frozen him out—a death knell for someone on the movie beat. “There are certain things you shouldn’t do in Hollywood,” he wrote in a column about actors offending studio heads and being thrown out of work. He clearly understood the same rules applied to columnists.

In their first few weeks away from New York, Ed and Sylvia didn’t like California. They were homesick, and in addition to missing their friends they missed the city’s tempo. By comparison, Hollywood moved at a pastoral gait, and the two felt out of place. Their young daughter, however, loved it. This was the first time she had lived in a house, and she relished the freedom to play outside whenever she wanted, taking great pleasure in the bungalow’s nice yard and garden.

As they had in New York, Ed and Sylvia hired a live-in babysitter to take care of Betty as they dined out, which they did almost every evening. This post was first filled by a woman Betty remembered as a dominant German governess, who was nice to Ed and Betty but not to Sylvia, and so was summarily dismissed. She was replaced by a succession of paid companions; one was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles.

After Ed and Sylvia gained a circle of friends, they began to enjoy California. They entertained at their house frequently, inviting stars Ed had become friends with for dinner, drinks, and frivolity. To help, they hired a live-in cook and butler, a couple named Jack and Melissa. (Jack, after working for the Sullivans for a while, confided to Ed that he had spent time in prison for a minor offense, but Ed said he didn’t care, he wanted him anyway.)

The Sullivan get-togethers were spirited affairs, and Betty remembered her parents acting silly and young. Groucho Marx, whose huge success in vaudeville turned into even greater fame in Hollywood, became a personal friend. He and his wife Ruth came over for dancing lessons with Ed and Sylvia, and the foursome clowned around the house as they went through their dancing paces.

Virtually all of Sullivan’s Hollywood social circle, like Ed himself, had worked in vaudeville in New York, and most were duplicating that success on the Coast. Bob Hope had toured the Keith-Albee circuit and starred on Broadway before coming to Hollywood in 1937; he played golf with Sullivan and asked him to be the godfather of his daughter Linda. Jack Benny, a popular vaudeville emcee-comedian who starred in a raft of 1930s romantic comedies, was a regular Sullivan houseguest. (Mrs. Hope, Mrs. Benny, and actor Hal Le Roy’s wife came over to give Sylvia decorating suggestions when the Sullivans moved in.) Barbara Stanwyck had been a Ziegfeld chorus girl before launching a Hollywood career that earned her four Academy Award nominations. Likewise frequent houseguests Dick Powell and his wife Joan Blondell: Powell enjoyed great success as a musician and emcee in New York before Warner Bros. hired him for string of “nice guy” roles; Blondell played vaudeville for more than ten years before landing a contract with Warner Bros., which cast her as a bubble-headed blonde (or gold-digger) throughout the 1930s.

Over drinks and laughter, the Sullivan party goers played whimsical games. Sometimes they cavorted through hide-and-seek around the house and in the yard. On one occasion the group devised a ploy with Barbara Stanwyck’s wedding ring, a gold band, hiding it in various rooms and attaching a tiny electric current to it so that anyone picking it up would get shocked.

The line between Ed’s personal socializing and his professional duties was blurry, since his beat included a full schedule of Hollywood gatherings. Dinner parties at the Marx’s, for instance, were a regular social event for Ed, which he also reported on: “Midnight—the guests have departed. Chico [Marx] and I are at the piano singing ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now’ when there’s an interruption. Mrs. Marx suggests that we shut up. We did, but it cost her two Scotch and sodas.” As a teen in Port Chester he had reported on the baseball games that he himself played in, and now he was mixing his reportage and his life in a similar way. His social circle fed him news tips and in turn benefited professionally from his friendship; Joan Blondell was one of a handful of screen stars who got far more column exposure than they otherwise would have.

His job, as it had been on Broadway, was to allow his readers a glimpse into a fabulous world they would never enter. “I wish you could attend some of these Hollywood parties with me,” Ed confided, explaining how ruthlessly fame-driven the film colony’s social scene was. “The hostess often doesn’t know more than ten percent of her guests … Ninety percent of them have been invited solely because they have won success in their last picture, or because their husbands are powerful at some studio.”

At a typical see-and-be-seen soiree hosted by Countess Dorothy Di Frasso, a wealthy Italian socialite, Ed’s listing of the guests surely gave his readers a vicarious thrill. On the dance floor, fox-trotting to a seven-piece swing band, were Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, and a handful of similar screen luminaries. Late in the evening, Groucho Marx corralled Ed and a few others and challenged them to come up with more than three words with the suffix “dous.” The revelers quickly named three (“tremendous,” “stupendous,” and “horrendous”) and Ed asked his readers to help by sending him some more. His mailbox was soon so deluged he had to cancel the request.

He became a connoisseur of the Hollywood party, to the point that he quibbled with the local experts:

“Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., in listing the best hostesses in Hollywood, rates Doris Warner LeRoy, No. 1; Carmen Considine, No. 2; and Mrs. Harry Lachman, No. 3 … Throw his selections out and rate them this way: No. 1, Joe Schenck; No. 2, Dorothy Di Frasso; No. 3, Mrs. Hal Roach; No. 4, Mrs. Jack Warner; No. 5, Edward Everett Horton, and you’ll have a truer picture of what goes on out here …”

As Ed had haunted nightspots like Jimmy Kelly’s and Dave’s Blue Room in New York, his home away from home in Hollywood was the city’s trendiest gathering places, like the Clover Club, the Brown Derby, and the House of Murphy. Hollywood’s equivalent of Manhattan’s Stork Club was the Trocadero, owned by the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, Billy Wilkerson. A troop of autograph seekers stood vigil outside this Sunset Boulevard club, besieging any screen star heading to a celebrity appearance in its oak and red-cushioned bar. The famed paparazzo Hymie Fink was often on hand to snap glossies for Photoplay and other fan magazines (the stars reportedly loved him because he would rip up a bad photo). Ed fed his column’s voracious hunger for celebrity gossip by table-hopping among terraces full of star-laden get-togethers at the Troc.

Ever the show organizer, Sullivan also used the Trocadero as a venue for an All-Broadway revue he produced to benefit the film actors’ relief fund; he organized this show just a month after arriving in Hollywood. Whatever other altruistic aims he had, the benefit show helped introduce and ingratiate him within the film community. (But he would not, of course, produce vaudeville shows in Hollywood; the idea of a live stage show was merely quaint in the movie colony.)

If Broadway had served up plenty of grist for the gossip mill, Hollywood offered all the more. Based on Ed’s column, the sexual merry-go-round of partner hopping was even more rapid on the Coast than on the Main Stem:

“Don’t be startled if Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck get married the same week that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard take the leap … That should be about St. Patrick’s Day, as Mrs. Gable gets her divorce March 6.”

“Greta Garbo really told off Leopold Stokowski when her name was dragged into his wife’s Reno [divorce] action. ‘It’s a disgrace—you are trying to ruin me,’ she burned over the long distance phone. Incidentally, Garbo and Boyer in Conquest make all other screen lovers look sophomoric … Jimmy Stewart is helping Virginia Bruce forget her stock losses … Joan Bennett’s most persistent honey is that New York attorney, but he’s married.”

“Howard Hughes making passes at Arleen Whelan, but the red-haired eyeful is true to her Richard Greene.”

Especially titillating was the love triangle between contract players Tyrone Power, Sonja Henie, and Janet Gaynor, which Ed chronicled as if he were privy to their diaries. In one episode he informed readers, “Tyrone Power and Sonja Henie started spooning as soon as Janet Gaynor stepped on the eastbound train.” In his reporting, starring in a picture together seemed to produce a combustible form of romance: “The Ross girl and Eddie are a real life combination … Gloria Blondell and Ronald Regan [sic] are an item … Rochelle Hudson, the Oklahoma oucham-agoucha, and Norman Krasna are a four-alarm blaze.…”

As in his Broadway column, his blind items allowed him to include truly salacious items without fear of a libel suit. “A Filipino manservant will be named by a famous star as a housewrecker,” he wrote, going several steps further with, “One of the local writers, always panning movie stars for deserting their wives and taking up with younger girls, has deserted his for a sixteen year old.” If his readers wanted still more, he willingly obliged: “Hollywood dance director who invaded that girl’s apartment and tore her face apart in a sadistic orgy was saved because the girl refused to tell the police … she feared the publicity.”

His chronicles of the personal peccadilloes of the famous frequently involved interviews of the stars themselves, as when he spoke with Joan Crawford a year after moving to Hollywood. His kind column treatment of the actress had won him extensive access. When he interviewed her in August 1938, Crawford was at the tail end of her third of five marriages.

“I asked Joan Crawford yesterday if she’d ever try Love again. She shook her head emphatically: ‘I don’t believe there’s a man in the world who has the capacity for taking love seriously for more than a few months. Girls can and do, but not men.’ I suggested that perhaps her own driving ambition for a career had overpowered Daniel Cupid. She said: ‘I was most ambitious to make a success of marriage.’ ”

After speaking with her, he wrote an extended analysis of Crawford’s troubled relationship with Franchot Tone, a serious dramatic actor on the New York stage. “Undoubtedly he must have resented (as any young husband would) the fact that his wife was a star.” Perhaps, he theorized, it was alcohol—Tone liked vodka and Crawford reportedly didn’t drink (though she later drank heavily), or perhaps it was something as simple as “the noise he made brushing his teeth … on such trifles was [divorce capitol] Reno constructed,” Ed noted.

He concluded his analysis—doubtless devoured by his readers, for Crawford was now blazingly popular—by describing the actress as she rehearsed for 1938’s The Shining Hour. Despite being on his best behavior, Ed found a way to tweak the screen star. When she and co-star Tony De Marco practiced a ballroom dance on a deserted soundstage, Ed wrote that Crawford was dressed in “a black evening dress, cut low in the back [which] revealed her shapely and tanned shoulders and back … Solemnly sitting on the blue chair was a tan daschund who persisted in hopping down to the dance floor and following his mistress as she whirled and pivoted. ‘He chewed through his leash,’ explained Joan. ‘He’s Franchot’s dog.’ There was no connection between the thoughts.”

Sullivan also gave his readers behind-the-scenes peeks at the wheeling and dealing that took place just off the movie lots. “Business perked up all over the country last week, and the movie moguls have rehired the yes-men they fired during the slump,” he reported in the summer of 1938. Adding glitter to his coverage were details about Hollywood’s astronomical pay scale, like reports that Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., received $100,000 to appear in The Rage of Paris, and Rouben Mammoulian made $178,000 for directing High, Wide, and Handsome (a major flop). He noted that Universal’s Mad About Music was heading toward an impressive $3 million gross.

Ed frequently recounted anecdotes about films in progress, tidbits gathered by visiting the set. “[Jack] Haley had the afternoon off from [The] Wizard of Oz. He’s playing the Tin Man, and he’s supposed to be a rusty tin man. The prop man suddenly observed that there was no rust on the tin, so Haley had to take off his costume while they rusted it.” Ed saw “four midgets on the MGM lot for [The] Wizard of Oz … You grow accustomed to all sorts of sights in this town, but your correspondent can be pardoned a start of surprise when he rounded a corner and found the passageway jammed with the little men.…”

No film of the late 1930s reached the mania of pre-release publicity of Gone with the Wind. Ed followed every twist and turn of the production’s progress, as the studio dribbled out news bites like breadcrumbs in an effort to mesmerize the public. The suspense over who would land the coveted role of tempestuous Scarlett O’Hara became as much a soap opera as the film itself, with dozens of actresses considered for the part. “I spoke with blonde Miriam Hopkins this afternoon and asked if she had won the role of Scarlett O’Hara,” Ed wrote in September 1937, reporting an inconclusive answer. His detective work was ongoing; at the end of 1938, he confided: “Carole Lombard still has the inside track on Scarlett O’Hara.” Finally, in January 1939, he informed his readers that the odds were “1,000 to 1” that Vivien Leigh would win the role.

The next day he received a letter from David Selznick, the film’s producer. “Dear Ed, in reference to your paragraph yesterday, Vivien Leigh is by no means cast as Scarlett. There are three other possibilities.” But Selznick’s note was coy. He detailed the many reasons Leigh would be superb for the role (and in fact just four days later he announced Leigh would play Scarlett) and he asked Ed for his support: “If she gets the role, I’d like to think that you’ll be in there rooting for her.” Ed would indeed root for the picture, exhaustively covering the tidal wave of audience interest that led up to its release. He reported, for instance, that months before its release a Hollywood nightclub hosted parody script readings, and had renamed its mens’ and ladies’ rooms as Rhett and Scarlett. After premiering for capacity houses, the film won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, a record that stood for sixteen years.

Ed saw virtually every film churned out by the studios. His viewing ranged from Jimmy Cagney gangster movies like Angels with Dirty Faces to the lighthearted musicals of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, from westerns starring taciturn strongman Gary Cooper such as Cowboy and the Lady to big-budget star vehicles like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant’s Holiday. While he wasn’t a film critic per se, he sprinkled his reactions to recent releases through his column and doubtless sold tickets to the films he praised.

For those he didn’t like, he could have fun with a pan, as in his reaction to 1938’s Rich Man, Poor Girl: “Answer this question: In the boating party in this comedy, what falls overboard and is lost? Answer: The plot and the MGM stockholders.” He was contrary enough to describe Luise Rainer’s performance in The Great Ziegfeld, for which she won an Oscar, as “hammy.” Sometimes he simply dismissed a picture altogether, opining that the soon-to-be-forgotten Pacific Liner “hardly qualified as palatable entertainment.” If a film did poorly at the box office he dubbed it a “floperoo.”

More often, Ed employed his one-line reviews to cast kudos on his favorites, as in his yearly wrap-up prior to the 1938 Oscars. Among the dozens of film performances he praised were “Edward G. Robinson’s college professor in I Am the Law,” “The charge of the Scots in The Bucaneer that sent chills up your spine as the thin line advanced,” and “Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller, and her pa in Pygmalion, although they should have eliminated her cockney father’s last scene … His first scene was dynamite, when he came to Howard’s house to blackmail him for dough.”

The studios invited all the leading columnists to pre-release screenings, and Ed’s reaction to a round of screenings in May 1938 prompted some members of the film colony to question his judgment. He saw eleven films that month, soon-to-be released pictures from MGM, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, and Columbia. Of all of them, his favorite was Alexander’s Ragtime Band, a bubbly musical about the early days of jazz, in which Tyrone Power and Alice Faye hoofed and warbled their way through dozens of sunny Irving Berlin tunes. “Reel for reel, this had more solid, down-to-earth entertainment value than any of the others, and the cavalcade of Irving Berlin hit tunes gives this picture an added nostalgic value that raises it to the classification of GREAT flicker,” he wrote.

His opinion that this straight-laced ice cream sundae of a musical was the best of the eleven caused guffaws among the film colony intelligentsia. He listed only a few of the other contenders, including Toy Wife, starring Luise Rainer; Kidnapped, starring Arleen Whelan; and Holiday (which he also liked), so the full list is not known. But when Ragtime’s premiere that summer proved a box office bonanza, Ed confronted his critics. “When this reporter, after the local premiere of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, declared that it was the greatest entertainment ever produced in Hollywood, you should have heard the derisive hoots at the Beverly Brown Derby,” he wrote in August. “The picture, of course, is cracking records all over the country. One master mind from MGM … declared that the picture would end the Zanuck legend by costing his studio a fortune … Uh-Huh!”

He had been vindicated by the box office response—his taste, as it so often would, coincided with that of the mass audience. But he couldn’t let the issue go. Having been mocked, he would bring up the movie again and again, reminding his readers of the accuracy of his opinion. (Indeed, over time the film would become a minor classic.) That September Ed was back in New York for a month to emcee the annual Harvest Moon dance competition, and after he spoke with Berlin he quoted the songwriter at length:

“Listen Ed, don’t think that Zanuck and Joe Schenck and I will ever forget that you were the first writer to say Alexander’s Ragtime Band would be a smash hit. After the picture started clicking, the rest of them climbed on the bandwagon, but you said so the night of the preview, and you didn’t hedge on the prediction. Hollywood thought it was a flop; you were right and I’m as pleased for your sake as for mine.”

A few nights later he was at Billy Rose’s Casa Manana nightclub to see a live performance from the Ragtime musical, and reported that, “the house comes down” in response to the music. Back in Hollywood in January, he overviewed the year’s best film moments, including “Alice Faye and John Carradine in the taxicab scene in Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

Ed hadn’t moved out to Hollywood merely to report on movies—he wanted to make them. He had come to transform himself from a reporter into a player, perhaps even a movie star, and he started work as soon as he arrived.

He crafted the story line for a romantic comedy called There Goes My Heart, and by March 1938, six months after moving to the Coast, he had found financial backing and signed contracts with the film’s lead actors. He partnered with Hal Roach, a powerful independent producer who had written and directed films since 1915. Roach’s successes included the Our Gang series of humorous shorts and the highly popular Laurel and Hardy comedies; toward the end of his life he would receive an honorary Oscar for his countless film productions. (And on Roach’s ninety-fifth birthday an Ed Sullivan impersonator was hired to attend.) Films with Roach’s backing got wide national release. In 1938 Hal Roach Studios switched its distributor from MGM to United Artists; There Goes My Heart would be his first film to be released by UA.

Roach hired bankable stars, Frederic March and Virginia Bruce, to play the romantic leads. The rakishly handsome March received a Best Actor nomination for 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway, won Best Actor for 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for 1937’s A Star Is Born. Bruce, whose striking good looks earned her a spot as an original “Goldwyn Girl,” played a supporting role in the 1936 box office smash The Great Ziegfeld. Filmgoers knew her as the vampish society blond in the Jimmy Cagney vehicle Winner Take All; after a volcanic kiss with Cagney she had seductively inquired: “You could stand a cold drink after that one, couldn’t you?” The director of Sullivan’s film was Norman McLeod, who had directed the 1931 Marx Brothers romp Monkey Business, among other successes. Roach hired two veteran screenwriters, Eddie Moran and Jack Jevne, to punch up Ed’s story line.

When There Goes My Heart opened on October 13, 1938, it enjoyed modest box office success. Unfortunately for Ed, its greatest weakness was its story line. The film’s plot was widely criticized for being too close to that of It Happened One Night, the 1934 Frank Capra classic starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert (a rare winner of all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay). Some called Ed’s story the work of a plagiarist, and certainly his tale was close to that of the 1934 hit.

Both plots center on an unlikely pairing between a worldly reporter and a rich heiress, thrown together by unlikely circumstances. In the original, after the requisite bickering and misadventures, they realize they’re hopelessly in love, though she needs a nudge from her father to complete their union. In Ed’s story, the young lovers end up shipwrecked on a small island, and continue skirmishing until a wise minister appears out of nowhere to convince them they’re destined for one another. Recycling plots with minor variations is, of course, a standard Hollywood practice; if that were outlawed, studios would quickly cease production. (Dorothy Parker once observed that the only “ism” that Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.) But Ed had taken a well-loved storyline and made it maudlin and semipious, even by the standards of romantic comedy.

That didn’t bother the critic from his own paper, the Daily News’ Kate Cameron, who described the film as “a hilarious and dexterous game of tossing a fast quip and pulling a smart gag,” opining that “the picture achieves its purpose beautifully.” But The New York Times’ Frank Nugent, voicing an opinion echoed elsewhere, took a different view. Dismissing it in a review titled “The Original Sin of Hollywood Is Unoriginality,” he described There Goes My Heart as “virtually a play-by-play repetition of It Happened One Night.” He observed archly that the movie “seems to be based on an Ed Sullivan yarn—and not, as we supposed, on the [It Happened One Night author] Samuel Adams Hopkins story.” Worse, the shameless remake was hardly funny, he wrote.

It’s likely that Capra’s It Happened One Night had resonated deeply with Ed; its story is not dissimilar to his own life. When he met Sylvia he was something of a worldly newspaperman, and Sylvia was the heiress of a well-to-do real estate entrepreneur. Their unlikely pairing, after extended squabbling, became a love story. But regardless of how honestly Ed may have come to the story for There Goes My Heart, its apparent unabashed borrowing prompted plenty of chuckling in the film colony.

The critical barbs didn’t stop Sullivan from diving right back into another film project. In fact, his second movie embodied his hopes for still greater acclaim: he included a major on-screen role for himself. On May 11, 1939, just seven months after the debut of There Goes My Heart, Universal released Big Town Czar, based on a story by Ed. The tagline of the gangster melodrama screamed from its movie poster: “DICTATOR … Of the Sinister Empire Behind the Big City’s Bright Lights!”

The cast and crew, a step down from Hal Roach’s, were characteristic of the production staffs churning out B movies. Director Arthur Lubin had supervised a handful of undistinguished crime dramas for Universal in the 1930s, and scriptwriter Edmund Hartmann had just finished the Lucille Ball drama-comedy Beauty for the Asking (Ball was a little-known contract player at the time). Lead actor Barton MacLane, with his bulky torso and doughy face, had been typecast as a tough guy gangster or cop; his greatest successes wouldn’t come until the 1940s, when he appeared in the Humphrey Bogart classics The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The love interest, Eve Arden, was also still on her way up in 1939. Her first career break had been two years before, when she landed a minor role in the drama Stage Door, starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. Her wisecracking portrayal worked so well in rehearsal that her part was rewritten to make her a friend of the lead. She brought this same tough-girl quality to Big Town Czar.

If There Goes My Heart’s story had come from Ed’s life, Big Town Czar seemed to mine even deeper ground from his personal history. Ambitious gangster Phil Daley knocks off his chieftain to take control of the mob, only to realize he lacks what he really wants: the respect of his working-class Irish parents and his sweetheart; Ed was estranged from his father and his mother had died. Phil, as Ed had in real life, has a brother named Danny. Phil takes a paternal approach toward Danny, wanting to protect him, but to no avail. As the real-life Danny had died in infancy, so the film Danny dies, in this case in a hail of dum-dums after he fixes a prizefight for Phil. When a rival gangster loses big money on the fight, he sends his henchmen to kill Phil, but they kill Danny instead. Phil feels guilt that the death meant for him befell Danny; thoughts of the infant death of real-life Danny would stay with Ed throughout his life. In the end, Phil faces the electric chair, and on his way to the death chamber realizes crime doesn’t pay. Ed plays himself in the picture, the knowing columnist as a one-man Greek Chorus, noting the unchanging nature of moral certitude as he pens his memoirs at the end.

One other element of the film relates closely to Ed’s life. Echoing the theme of racial equality he had espoused in his sports columns, the film featured gang warfare by both white and black gangsters, with both outfits equally competent—a highly unusual twist in a 1930s movie.

A few months before the film’s release, one of Ed’s rivals back in New York, a columnist for the New York Journal-American, imagined the consequences of bad reviews with a barely disguised schadenfreude. Sullivan, the writer noted, will play himself in the upcoming release. “Now watch all the film writers he panned get even. He wrote the opera himself, and it better be good or he’ll be a two-time loser.”

And so he was, given the blistering reviews and tepid box office. The notices for Big Town Czar were even more damning than those for Ed’s previous picture. “Story has many weak moments and slow spots,” observed Variety, calling the film suitable for “lower-bracketed action houses where patrons like their melodrama spread rather thick.” The New York Times’ Frank Nugent called it “a bustling little melodrama, all puffed up with its own unimportance.… It was written by Ed Sullivan in his best water-under-the-bridge style, which, as you know, is extremely first-personal, quite sentimental, and edifyingly moralistic.” As for the performances, most of them were passable in Nugent’s view. However, “The only word for Ed Sullivan’s portrayal of Ed Sullivan is ‘unconvincing.’ ” It was a humiliating blow for someone thinking of branching into acting—a critic had pronounced him unable to play even himself. He was not, apparently, destined for a career in front of the camera.

Christmas was always a last-minute affair in the Sullivan household. Ed’s daughter Betty remembered that the tree was never bought until late on December 24, and the final mad scramble was usually accompanied by irritated arguments and something verging on domestic panic. But in one of their Christmases in Hollywood, Ed endeavored to change this. On the morning of December 24, he told Sylvia and Betty he had already bought the tree—breaking all previous family records for advance preparation. However, when mother and daughter went into the living room to see his purchase, they found a short, shapeless, near-death evergreen. It might have passed muster back in their small New York apartment, but in their three-bedroom Californian home it resembled an underfed waif.

Betty’s heart sank at the sight of the scrawny pine. Sylvia, wanting domestic peace, recommended that Ed and Betty drive down to Wilshire Boulevard and choose a better tree, which they did. Wilshire that week was full of big tree lots, so father and daughter quickly found a healthy replacement. Betty, thrilled, could hardly wait to have it in their living room. But before they brought it home, Ed decided to have it sprayed white, a new trend in Christmas trees that year. The tree seller told them to come back at 7 P.M. for the sprayed evergreen.

When Ed and Betty went to pick it up, however, Ed realized he had neglected to jot down the lot’s address. He told her not to worry—they would easily spot a white tree among all the green. But when they parked on Wilshire and started searching the lots, they walked among a forest of white trees. Everyone wanted a sprayed evergreen that year.

They searched and searched, to no avail. Betty, tearful, felt they would never find their tree, and had visions of a giftless Christmas; with no tree, where would the presents go? “We went down Wilshire and we finally found the tree, but it was hard,” she recalled. After all the worry, there it stood—and to Betty’s eyes it was gorgeous. They hurried home with it. As was family custom, Ed decorated the tree very late in the evening, then woke up Betty around three in the morning to see his handiwork. She remembered the tree that year as beautifully and extravagantly decorated, her clearest memory of any of the Christmas trees they had.

Although Ed’s nascent film career was sputtering, his newspaper career had never been better. Covering Hollywood gave him a far higher profile than he had ever enjoyed on Broadway. He met virtually every major film star, and interviewed many of them.

In late 1937, he drove forty miles outside Hollywood to Malibu Lake for a long one-on-one with Katharine Hepburn. Then 30 years old, Hepburn’s career was at low ebb; after her first Academy Award for 1933’s Morning Glory, she developed a reputation as difficult and distant. Some fans complained that she wore slacks all the time and refused to put on makeup; some reporters claimed she wouldn’t pose for photographers or give interviews. Her audience began drifting away and her box office value dwindled.

Her interview with Ed was an attempt to warm up her image, and she spoke at length about her many struggles on stage and screen. She recalled that when she first worked on Broadway she felt so painfully shy that she wouldn’t eat in restaurants.

Ed asked her about her image as a “spoiled brat,” and she claimed that she had never refused to pose for photos or give interviews, but that she objected to the fabricated romantic gossip. After their afternoon together the columnist summed up his thoughts:

“Let this be entered in the records. The people who work with her are nuts about this girl. She’s generous, breezy, a good two-fisted curser, informal. She won’t take any shoving around, and if she thinks she’s being imposed upon, she’ll let it be known quickly. She is a bit affected, but no more so than any other star in this colony, and considerably less affected than most. The sensitive, aristocratic features are just as compelling off screen as on, the blue eyes just as alert. I’d say that she was a thoroughly nice person, suffering from no malady more serious than youth.”

About a year later, Ed interviewed Walt Disney over a two-hour lunch at Hollywood’s Tarn O’Shanter Inn. The two men would have oddly parallel lives. Like Sullivan, Disney was born in 1901 and lied about his age to take part in World War I (but Disney’s lie succeeded and he joined the American Red Cross). Decades later, Disney’s television show was a direct competitor with Sullivan’s for the Sunday night audience. Unlike Ed, on that August afternoon in 1938, the film producer was awash in success; the previous year’s release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been wildly successful. “We ate out on the porch, and ladies and children clambered out of cars with Canada, New York, and Illinois license plates, and asked him for his autograph, grinning happily and appearing a trifle dazed by their good luck in having Disney drop out of the skies,” Ed wrote. “ ‘We’ve traveled six thousand miles,’ bubbled one nice-looking lady, ‘and this is the nicest single thing that has happened to us.’ ”

Disney spoke about his struggles in the Depression, about having to show a preview of Snow White to save a shaky bank loan, and about needing to ask employees to return part of their bonus during the bank panic. He explained his policy of barring visitors to his studio, claiming that people didn’t seem interested enough when touring the facility. The exception was writer H.G. Wells, who was thrilled by the carpentry shop, and Charlie Chaplin, who spent the day entertaining the animators.

“I asked him what he learned from the industry-shaking success of Snow White,” Ed wrote. “His brown eyes twinkled. ‘I’ll tell you what it has taught me, Ed—a deep respect for the juvenile audience. I never had it before. You see, I figured it was idiotic to make pieces for children, because a 10-cent or 15-cent audience is unimportant to this business. So all of our work was slanted principally at an adult audience. Snow White, road-showed at prices ranging from 85 cents up, proved that parents would pay even those prices for their children’s attendance.” Disney’s comments that day marked still another thing the two men would have in common; like Disney, Ed learned a profound respect for the juvenile audience.

The day that Ed drove out to interview W.C. Fields at the actor’s mansion became a favorite memory of his, so much so that decades later he recounted it to Peter Prichard, a young talent agent he spent time with in his older years. Ed arrived at Fields’ house at about 11 in the morning. The butler ushered him into the foyer, told him Mr. Fields would be with him shortly, and offered him a cocktail. Ed demurred, noting the early hour, but the manservant insisted. “Mr. Fields would prefer that you have a drink.” Ed complied, finishing his drink, and over the next forty-five minutes servants brought him to two more locations in the mansion; at each spot he was arm-twisted into downing another cocktail. Finally he was brought out to the pool, where Fields was holding court. The comic offered him yet another tipple. “I’ve been waiting forty-five minutes and I’ve already had three drinks,” Ed protested. “Yes, my dear boy, let me tell you one thing,” replied the heavy-drinking Fields, explaining why he had plied Ed with alcohol, “Always meet a man on a level playing field.”

Ed, as a onetime sports writer, brought the conversation to boxing, but Fields turned it back to the virtues of Bacchus. The actor explained that boxer Max Schmeling’s storied loss to Joe Louis was due to his abstemious habits:

“After the Louis Massacre of Schmeling, Fields held forth long and earnestly on the conclusion to be drawn from Schmeling’s explanation that the first blow to the kidney paralyzed him. ‘It simply bears out what I’ve always contended,’ said Fields, ‘A kidney needs a good alcoholic lining to stand up under wear and tear. Schmeling was the victim of clean living. I dare say that if Louis or any other professional slasher dealt me such a blow that their hands would crumple from the impact.’ ”

As Ed began work on his third film in the fall of 1939, he wrote a long column about critics, detailing how scathing they could be and how wrong they often were. He gave myriad examples of their blunders and overly acid commentary:

“An Indianapolis poison-penner scored this direct hit on Tyrone Power in Jesse James: ‘Young Tyrone played his role as if Zanuck had been undecided to cast him or Shirley Temple in the part …’ A Kansas City assassin, with a grudge against Don Ameche, wrote: ‘Ameche, through eight reels, laughed and laughed while his audience endeavored with some difficulty to locate the reason for his merriment. This reviewer concludes Mr. Ameche’s laugh stems from sadism.’ ”

Ed himself was a critic of sorts, and he charitably included a Sullivan fumble.

“When Tobacco Road opened on Broadway, I remarked smugly that it would be fortunate to last out the week. It is still running.”

The point, of course, and one he wanted to convince himself of, was that past pans don’t prevent future success. After the dismal reviews of his first two films he certainly hoped that this was true as he started production on Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me, his new romantic comedy. Universal, for its part, appeared to have no great hopes. The studio funded the project but kept its investment to a minimum. Co-stars Tom Brown and Constance Moore were undistinguished contract players. Brown, who had been acting since his first silent film at age ten, had been typecast as the boy next door; he played fresh-faced Danny in Big Town Czar. Moore, previously a big band singer, recently scored a career high point in W.C. Fields’ 1939 comedy You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man; she would play lead in a string of B movies in the 1940s. Director Harold Schuster had been a film editor for most of his career, becoming a director just three years earlier. Scriptwriter Edmund Hartmann had churned out sixteen scripts in his four years as a screenwriter, one of which was Big Town Czar.

In Ed’s story, a fast-talking press agent schemes with an out-of-work chorus girl to publicize a clothing line. He dubs her “Miss Manhattan” and hires a young man to play “Mr. Manhattan,” staging a fake wedding for publicity. After a series of nutty stunts, the press agent realizes that he loves “Miss Manhattan” and he eventually proposes to her. All the while the young lady is equally fond of her press agent, as the movie’s tagline trumpeted: “When she saw him wink, her head said ‘NO’ … but her heart didn’t stop to think!” Interspersed with the general zaniness were musical numbers, most notably the title song.

When the movie opened on April 26, 1940, it was a clear flop. It’s likely that the daily headlines screaming of war in Europe dampened the reception to this frothy piece of cinematic cotton candy. But it might not have done well at any point. “This is the season for fashion shows, and that is about all you get with Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me,” pronounced The New York Times’ B.R. Crisler, calling it a “cut-rate, bargain-basement story” and “a limp and foolish little picture, inexcusable on any other grounds than as a chaser to follow the main picture.” Variety felt likewise, dismissing it as a “picture that’s deficient in every department, except implausibilities.” Worse yet, there was no box office success to offset the critical fusillade.

As the movie’s notice faded, so did Ed’s hopes for a film career. As he knew from his days on Port Chester’s baseball fields, three swings meant the batter was out. He felt his failure in movies deeply. Winchell had received huge offers from Hollywood for his story lines, Skolsky had appeared in a handful of pictures (and later produced The Eddie Cantor Story and The Jolson Story). Ed had produced nothing but a string of flops. His dream of moving to California to become a star had come to nothing. In truth, his Hollywood reporting had pushed his star far higher, yet that didn’t seem to matter to him. Fame was what he had come for, but as he had neared it, it had scurried from his grasp.

In the late spring of 1940 his sisters Helen and Mercedes took a train trip to Hollywood to visit Ed. The sisters were looking forward to a family reunion, but Ed was in a sour temper and in no mood to be the jovial host. His mind seemed elsewhere. After less than a week, Helen and Mercedes left for Yosemite. Ed was hurt by their departure, but the sisters wanted to enjoy their vacation.

His ulcer was acting up; he had developed an irritated stomach several years back that had grown steadily worse since moving to Hollywood. He made light of it in his column—reporting that a piece of baked halibut from the MGM commissary “swims upstream”—but it was a serious concern. At times he was completely incapacitated by intestinal pain, forced to spend a half day in bed at his doctor’s orders.

Although discouraged, he hadn’t completely given up on a film career. With his track record at Universal he knew he would find no interest there, but in June 1940 he sold a short to Warner Bros., Ed Sullivan’s Hollywood Revue.In November the studio released another short with a Sullivan story line, Alice in Movieland. But selling two preview pictures was a major step down from creating the story line for full-length features.

In his Daily News column, he had made no mention of any of his three features, not even as United Artists’ and Universal’s publicity machines were promoting the films with quarter-page newspapers ads in the News. (He did, however, toss positive column tidbits to their stars, writing a glowing laud for Frederic March.) Ed presumably didn’t want to further impress the News management that he was pursuing a second career while working for them.

But they noticed. By the premiere of his third film, the News management had grown restive with Sullivan’s Hollywood tenure. It became a replay of Sidney Skolsky three years earlier. Like Skolsky, Ed had used his column as an entree into a film career. And, as Ed had lobbied to replace Skolsky, now John Chapman, another News columnist, began lobbying to replace Sullivan. The News agreed. It was time for Ed to come home.

Sullivan and the News got into a tussle. He didn’t want to return to New York. Failing in films was bad enough; having to return to the Broadway beat after covering Hollywood was a big step backward. He had come to enjoy life on the Coast, particularly those almost-daily trips out to the Santa Anita racetrack, where he sometimes wrote his column. Several months earlier he had written a column entitled “The Typical Hollywood Male,” which described the many qualities of this mythic creature—and the portrait was close to a self-portrait. He is, wrote Ed, between thirty and forty years old, he is liberal, his wife likes Chinese or French food, he himself like an Eastern cut steak. He tends to lose when he bets on horses. Furthermore:

“Having come to Hollywood with a sense of superiority to the movies, he is alarmed deeply when he finds himself becoming convinced that the movies are a greater and more important medium than the stage which spawned him … Having come to California with a sneering attitude toward California’s climate, he finds himself perturbed by the fact that the state has exercised its mellifluous charms … he never quite shakes off these reproaches; never is quite happy when he should be most happy … So he compromises; he squares his ambition and his reproaches by agreeing that he isn’t going back East because the California climate is better for his children.”

Ed dug in his heels in the summer of 1940. After being summoned back East, he fired off a wire to Daily News publisher Joseph Medill Patterson: he would not be returning to New York. Managing editor Frank Hause visited Sullivan in Hollywood in an effort to coax him back to Broadway. “I pointed out to the great Port Chester athlete the advantages of the Broadway beat, and the Daily News growth and prestige,” Hause later wrote. Whatever else he said, it must have been convincing. Hause soon sent a wire back to Patterson with Sullivan’s words: “I acted hastilly [sic]. Please ignore earlier telegram. Am returning New York.”

The decision made, Sullivan moved quickly. In early July, Ed, Sylvia, and Betty boarded the Chief—the same train they had traveled out on—to move back to New York. Nine-year-old Betty was truly disconsolate at leaving. It wasn’t Hollywood she missed; Ed had introduced her to Shirley Temple and she found the experience less than thrilling. It was having her own house and yard she so loved, and the freedom to play outside whenever she wanted, unlike being cooped up in a New York apartment. “I was heartbroken,” she said. “I remember pulling out of Union Station, and saying to my parents, ‘Are we coming back, when are we coming back?’ ” Ed, clearly, was no happier than his young daughter at having to return to New York.

He had written a column in late 1938 about winning and losing, and how losing had to be kept in perspective. It was part of a series he called “Listen, Kids,” in which he gave advice about life to “youngsters,” as he called them. (That he sometimes addressed his Hollywood gossip column to children was an oddity, but he saw his audience as all-inclusive.)

“Don’t place too great an emphasis on defeat, and don’t yield to the American habit of overemphasizing victory, because one is no more important than the other,” he advised, noting that Warner Bros. had fired Clark Gable and Universal had fired Bette Davis. Considering his funk at having failed at films, he probably needed his own advice during the trip east. The scores from victories and defeats, he noted, are not written in indelible ink. “Through life, you’ll encounter your share of both of them, and you’ll find that defeats are really the prep school of victories.”