|Lincoln Center. 10:30 PM. Photo: JH.|
|Monday, February 14, 2011. Valentine’s Day. It’s Fashion Week in New York and we are very pleased to have daily dispatches especially for the NYSD from Ellin Saltzman, one of the great fashion directors in the history of Fifth Avenue retail. Ellin’s approach is to tell you what she saw and why she liked it (or why she thinks it works). Her reports are about the runway, not the celebrities decorating the front rows. This is back to the fashion business.
The new issue of Vanity Fair about Hollywood has an article by Matt Tyrnauer on Janet de Cordova who died two years ago this September. Janet’s husband Freddie de Cordova, who for years had been Johnny Carson’s executive producer, died in 2001 at 90.
I knew Janet and Freddie casually when I lived out there. They were, like me, frequent dinner guests of Edith Mayer (Edie) Goetz, the eldest daughter of Louis B. Mayer , who had become the closest thing that Hollywood had to a dowager queen.
|Edie Goetz in her Billie Haines decorated library in her Delfern Drive house in Holmby Hills.|
|At that time there was still a social set in the film colony that resembled a model based on the society that once existed in New York. Although they rarely, if ever, socialized with other wealthy groups in Los Angeles, Hollywood had a social hierarchy not unlike New York’s. There were different tiers – but all related to the film and television business.
Janet and Freddie in the early 1980s were charter members of the then aging A-List – meaning those directors, producers and stars remaining from the “Golden Age” – from the 30s through the early 60s. They were also, because of Freddie’s connection to Johnny Carson, invited by a lot of the younger hostesses. Both groups were equally impressed with the de Cordovas' wide array of friends.
Although they were being “replaced” as new generations always succeed, the “aging” group still reflected the style of earlier times when the Studios reigned and controlled the community.
They were encouraged, as always happens when an abundance of money comes into one’s life, to create lives reflecting their successes. They built big houses, employed important architects. Some collected art in what would become a major way; others acquired race horses (Fred Astaire, among them), ranches, as well as income producing real estate. And they entertained, mainly at home.
There were different social cliques. Veteran film people (including stars) had very little to do with the television people. Few television stars had the same cachet as major movie stars, with these people. Robert Wagner (always fondly referred to as R.J.) was an exception.
The top tier was run by wives who gave the dinner parties and had the proprietary guest list. Before the breakup of the studios, the guest list was related to the studio. At the top were stars, producers, directors. Rarely a writer (they had their own group, the hoi-polloi of the Hollywood social set).
“How it was done,” how one gave an excellent dinner party, was no small matter with these people. Style was as important as costume, makeup and set decoration. Each woman had her style but it was acquired through a good and clever eye and ear. There were standards. There was good china, good crystal, good silver. And it was served properly, according to the rules of “How it is done” by the right butler with the right chef in the kitchen.
By the time I came upon this mother lode of late 20th century Los Angeles culture and social habit, Hollywood was well into its transition and transformation from the “Golden Age.” It was run by a new generation which even included several women in powerful executive roles, led by Sherry Lansing, first the first woman president of a studio – 20th, and later Paramount. The richest man in town was a television producer, Aaron Spelling, who lived with his wife and son and daughter in the biggest mansion in town and never, rarely if ever, invited another soul to dine at his baronial table.
|Diana Lynn, Ronald Reagan, and Bonzo, in the Freddie de Cordova-directed film, Bedtime for Bonzo.|
|The studios no longer ruled. The agents and the stars did. A former not-quite-major star had been elected President of the United States. The wild times of the 60s and early 70s brought drugs onto the scene. Drugs brought a relaxing of the rules of behavior and fashion. All of which remained. The de Cordovas had a front row seat to all of it, and they enjoyed it. Janet loved it the way you love a good drama. She tasted all the wines adequately, and had an eye and ear for the comic subtexts as well.
According to Matt Tyrnauer’s report, they didn’t have such a great marriage. That surprised me because when they were out, they were the perfect team – friendly, welcoming, full of anecdotes about other friends and members of the community, often with reports on where they’d had been a few nights before and whom they sat next to (I remember once it was John Travolta – then the biggest star in Hollywood – Janet was very charmed by him.)
She always told her stories with amusement. For example, she had a friend, mother of a movie star and wife of a famous performer, very genteel and diffident; now widowed. And alone. Her friends wished she could find a man. Wealthy, still beautiful, but practically a virgin, friends felt sorry for her for the poor lady.
One afternoon Janet told me that she’d just learned the lady wasn’t a “virgin” after all – this “lonely” widow – but instead was having a wild international affair with her daughter’s brother-in-law, a much married man several years her junior.
She was a perfect character out of a Hollywood novel, the other side of Nathaniel West lore. Small town girl, good looking young and blonde, comes to Hollywood, looking for a career. Classic 20th century Americana. Some make it onto the big screen. Some make it to the altar with a rich man, or a movie star, a director, producer, studio head. Some end up working the counter at Norm’s.
Janet – whose past I didn’t know about until Tyrnauer’s piece – married four times, and finally settled down with a guy who was never quite “big Big” but still knew how to work it. Together they worked it and it was a very good life together. They were always great fun to be around. There was often laughter, sometimes even raucous, such as when Freddie was at Mrs. Goetz’ very formal table. He was irreverent, sometimes bombastic (in his sly irresistible way) but with the timing of a wit. It was a good time.
It was well-known about Freddie, that several years before he married Janet, he had a long relationship with the wife of a star. A son was born of that union, although the woman remained married to her husband. One night at Edie Goetz’ dinner table, the subject came up because the son was working in Washington and Freddie mentioned that he had talked to the young man that day about what a great job he had. He recounted it innocently when someone at the table jokingly asked him when he was going to acknowledge that the boy was in fact his son.
Freddie was quiet for a moment, and then began to deny it when Jimmy Stewart’s wife Gloria, said “oh Freddie, that’s the worst kept secret in the history of Hollywood.”
Over the years I went up to the de Cordova house a few times to interview Janet for different profiles I was working on. At 3 in the afternoon, she would be in bed, in a pretty white bedjacket, underneath the lacy white duvet. Hair and makeup perfect. Ready for her closeup. Freddie was sometimes in the house, I was told, although I didn’t see him. Gracie, her famous maid and housekeeper, was only present when necessary. I knew very little about their relationship except that Gracie rolled all of Janet’s joints for her and did a perfect job.
We got onto the subject of Edie Goetz, always an interesting topic, one of the great characters of old Hollywood. Many passed harsh judgment on Edie because her level of pretension had transformed her to where she really seemed to believe she was the princess her father had treated her like.
She lived like royalty in her Delfern Drive mansion with her staff of ten, surrounded by her huge art collection of Degas, Cezanne, Picasso, Gauguin, Vuillard, van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Modigliani.
She had lost her crown, however, about ten years before when her beloved husband Billy Goetz died at 66. Everyone loved Billy Goetz. He was a jokester with an inner elegance that flattered his wife and amused his friends – men and women – with his irreverence.
When he was alive, his wife played her royal position to the hilt. One afternoon, while on the subject, Janet recalled to me the time that Lauren Bacall, newly widowed, had been having an affair with Frank Sinatra when he suddenly dropped her for an Englishwoman, Lady Adelle Beatty.
One night shortly thereafter the breakup, Janet de Cordova recalled, she was in the ladies room at the same time as Miss Bacall, at Romanoff’s, the Beverly Hills restaurant, when Edie Goetz came in with Lady Adelle. Edie was effusively and loudly congratulating Lady Adelle about “how wonderful she was for Frank, and what a changed man he was since she started dating him, and how good it was for him, etc.”
At this point Bacall was behind a closed door and out of sight, and never came out until Mrs. Goetz and Lady Adelle had departed.
The next morning Janet called Edie to tell her that Bacall happened to be in the powder room at the same time and heard everything!!
“I know darling,” replied Edie, “That’s why I said it.”
Hollywood. It was never a script. That was Janet de Cordova’s life. She loved it and lived it, every moment she could of it.