THE LOW, SPRAWLING Spanish-style house, hidden by tall hedges along Coldwater Canyon, has been the scene of some of Hollywood’s most glamorous parties. The stars who passed through its doors included Tyrone Power, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Jennifer Jones, Merle Oberon, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Judy Garland. For more than half a century, it has been the home of Jean Howard (above), legendary hostess, professional photographer and chronicler of stars at play when Hollywood was still a small, close-knit town. She has brought together her experiences in “Jean Howard’s Hollywood,” a book of her photographs from the early 1930s to the early ‘60s to be published by Harry N. Abrams next month.
“I think of Hollywood as a person,” says Howard, seated in her living room, which retains the chinoiserie accents and tortoise-shell-paneled pedestals that were the trademarks of Hollywood’s premier decorator, former silent star William Haines. “In the ‘30s, Hollywood was still sort of a teen-ager and was still growing up in the ‘40s. Hollywood came into its own in the ‘50s--really achieved its maturity. I call them the Nifty ‘50s.”
Howard, now 78, became a witness to that history when she came to Hollywood from Dallas in 1930 to break into movies. She became a Ziegfeld girl and an MGM starlet but gave up acting after her marriage to super-agent Charles Feldman in 1934. Although they were divorced in 1946, she and Feldman remained friends and continued to host parties together. In the mid-'40s, Howard studied photography at the Art Center in Los Angeles; later, she won assignments from such magazines as Life and Vogue to cover films in production and shot portraits of such great ‘50s stars as Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly. All the while, Howard kept up with her busy international social life as seasoned party-giver and party-goer.
While looking at the photographs in Howard’s book, it is difficult not to be dazzled by the sheer glamour of her celebrated subjects, captured so unobtrusively with her camera. She assures you that her friends were as relaxed as they seem in the pictures. It’s also difficult to ignore two elements that date the photographs: the omnipresent cigarettes, and the dress, formal even for casual lawn parties. “People dressed reasonably,” Howard says. “In those days, men always wore jackets and ties in the evening, and the girls wore cocktail dresses.
“I think Hollywood parties today are purely for publicity,” Howard says, “but our parties were purely for fun. They were usually on Saturday night, so you had Sunday to get over them. If there were parties on Sunday, they were always early, because everybody had to get up on Monday morning and go to work.”
Certain parties stand out in Howard’s memory. “One of them was a most wonderful tea dance George Cukor gave for Vivien Leigh,” she says. “It began at 4 o’clock, and he had found enough good-looking single fellows who could dance, and not one woman was left sitting down. The husbands could go off and talk business, and we women could dance and dance .
“Jack Warner had a party almost every Sunday night, and they were my favorites. You would see some rushes and a movie. Jack was the first to have a screen that came up from the floor. Jack didn’t just show Warners pictures but the best movies before they were released, and nobody was allowed to comment during the movie.”
During the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Howard received a phone call from Pat Lawford, John F. Kennedy’s sister: “Jean, I’m in a terrible spot. Jack suggested I call you. Jack would like to see a lot of people, and we haven’t enough room.” Howard told Lawford that there would be “no problem” and hastily assembled 60 members of Hollywood’s elite to honor the next President.
“The party ended at around 4 in the morning, and as I was straightening up, I heard a scratch on the window. It was Jack. He said that every place was closed and asked if I could scramble him some eggs. I did, of course, and we talked till dawn.
“Charlie was a great friend of Jack’s, and later on, we were invited to the White House. I think Jack was paying me back for the scrambled eggs. . . . I couldn’t very well take my camera to the White House, but Jack said, ‘Why don’t you photograph me? After all, I am the President.’ ”
Howard intended to take the President up on his offer, but history intervened, and for her, as for many others, his assassination brought an end to a carefree era.
Photographs copyright 1989 Jean Howard. Reprinted by permission of Harry N. Abrams Inc., N.Y.