When Tinseltown Still Glittered

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maggy danced with Fred Astaire. Bertha took Ginger to tea at Louella's. Barbara covered up for Grable.

When Hollywood was HOLLYWOOD and stars were STARS, these publicity "girls" were touched with glitter from being on first-name terms with Cary and Tyrone, Bing and Rita.

Their job: To create images for the sex goddesses and matinee idols and protect those images from a hint of anything tawdry or just boring.

Before tell-all TV and People magazine, "Hollywood was a place where glamour was manufactured," says Bertha Kelly, and "everyone was busy, busy, busy keeping the cover on the truth."

The girls' club was the Hollywood Women's Press Club, now 67 years old and best known for its Golden Apple Awards, given each year to the top stars and top discoveries, and its Sour Apple Award, bestowed on the star "who most believes his or her own publicity." (The 1994 winner: Howard Stern.)

We gathered some of the girls together to relive those halcyon days. They're in their 70s and 80s now, and many of their mega-stars are gone. But, ah, the memories. . . .

Maggy Maskel Ferguson, at 87 the matriarch, started with silent pictures in the '20s, having snagged a secretarial job at Paramount after winning a national typing and shorthand contest sponsored by Underwood.

By 1939, when she was at Columbia Pictures, "There was a young woman named Rita Hayworth who seemed to be not doing very much." Ferguson, sniffing stardom, persuaded Time-Life's film writer to do a making-of-a-star feature.

Hayworth made the cover of Time. A love goddess was born.

And remember that full-page Life photo of Hayworth in a satin nightgown kneeling on a bed? Ferguson, again:

"I convinced (Life photographer) Bob Landry to do a layout on 'movie star buys first home.' " Never mind that Hayworth and then-husband Ed Judson had only the sparsest of furnishings. Ferguson had a plan.

Before the shoot, she went to studio wardrobe, picked up a satin slip Loretta Young had worn in a film and had some black lace sewn on the bodice.

On shoot day, Landry, appalled, surveyed the half-empty house, but Ferguson whisked him to the bedroom and told Rita, "Get up on the bed, on your knees. . . . Just give us a little bit of Mona Lisa, not a lot of choppers." The photo was a wartime icon.

"I lied," Ferguson says, but "I knew I could get one photograph that would kill 'em."

Barbara Best, who now manages Marion Ross, arrived at 20th Century Fox when "Grable was the hot thing. She'd worn out every publicist in the 45-person department." Curious about finding Grable's set closed one day, Best was told that Grable and co-star Dan Dailey had been indiscreet and that Grable's husband, Harry James, had given her a black eye.

Says Best: "I think we kept it pretty quiet."

The studio publicists knew which skeletons were in which closets and they kept secrets. "If you were suspected of having anything to do with Confidential, you could lose your job," she says.

On the set of "Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hay," a 1948 Fox film, Best struck up a conversation with a blond bit player lounging by the pool, found her intriguing, wrote a long story about her and was berated by her boss, "Why do you waste your time on these nobodies?" The nobody: Marilyn Monroe.

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World War II had opened the doors of studio publicity offices to women. And at men's salaries--$300-$400 a week. They earned it just for dealing with archrival columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the doyennes of Hollywood gossip, who could make or break careers.

Recalls Kelly: "You would take the stars to Louella's house or Hedda's house." At Louella's, "Collins the butler would bring in coffee or tea" and, for Hedda, something a tad stronger. "By the end, she'd get a little schnockered and start asking weird questions."

The publicists were to wrap the stars in mystique. Kelly remembers Ginger Rogers' mother saying, "You will never take a picture of my daughter washing dishes. My girl's a movie star."

Much that was written was pure fiction. Kelly, who worked for 25 years for publicist Robert Taplinger, says, "I'd write stories about my own life and put stars' names on them, like about Jeanette MacDonald doing all her Christmas shopping the day before Christmas."

Starting in the steno pool at Columbia in 1936, Gail Gifford climbed to the publicity department, where her star list included Cary Grant. He was in therapy; she was in therapy; he sensed a bond. In the late 1950s, Grant was experimenting with LSD for depression and "once he gave me a thick report"--his LSD diary. "I was very amused because one page was missing."

Later, Gifford spent 27 years at Universal Pictures, where she toured with Piper Laurie and worked on all the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies.

She accompanied Leslie Caron to Paris--"Three weeks at the Crillon and my only work was to go with her to Yves St. Laurent to get the wardrobe for her next picture. Now, that is fun."

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Sara Jane Paxton, then newly arrived at Fox, remembers befriending Tyrone Power, then a young contract player who was "wandering around the lot, sort of forlorn."

After 14 years at Fox, she wed screenwriter John Paxton ("Murder My Sweet," "On the Beach") and they lived in Europe many years. She enjoys recalling how producer "Cubby" Broccoli chided her husband for turning down the James Bond movies, telling him he'd have been a millionaire.

Replied Paxton: "If I had written the James Bond things, none of you would have been millionaires."

Jane Lait (now Messler) and husband George, former New York journalists, came to Hollywood on their honeymoon, en route to cover the Nuremberg trials. Instead, they stayed. He became publicity director at Columbia and she did publicity for the Philco radio show with Bing Crosby.

Crosby was a challenge, a Sour Apple winner who scorned publicity types but, Jane Lait says, "was so wonderful to me."

The Laits also were West Coast stringers for Walter Winchell, which, she says, "made us quite popular in the industry."

The publicists' perks included press junkets and expensive gifts. The studio was like a family. At Fox, Best says, "Darryl Zanuck knew the name of everybody on the lot." Today, the stars are independent and hire their own press agents.

Sometimes publicists went beyond the call of duty. During the Cold War, one of Gifford's jobs at a film confab in Argentina was to keep the studio's starlets away from a very handsome Russian actor.

In the early '30s, Ferguson was working for David Selznick, who had brought a young dancer named Fred Astaire out from New York. She approached Astaire on the set, explaining that she wanted to write a story about how he designed those fancy steps.

"He said, 'C'mon, I'll show you,' " and led her onto the floor. "The first time he ever danced with a broomstick," she observes wryly. Associated Press sent out the photo with a caption: "Anyone can learn to dance."

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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