Three years ago, author, producer and filmmaker, Rocky Lang, received a note from Howard Prouty, an archivist at the Motion Picture Academy’s “Margaret Herrick Library.” He’d found a letter written in 1939 by Rocky’s late father, Jennings Lang, who would go on to become a prominent agent and movie producer.
As if it were fate, seeing his dad’s letter mapped out the next three years of Rocky’s life. The result is a fascinating book of 137 letters, telegrams, and memos in chronological order from some of the most powerful, talented and famous men and women in Hollywood’s Golden Era. (1921 to 1976.)
As Lang recalls, “There before me was a letter written by my father to the highly renowned literary agent H.N. Swanson. He’d just gotten off the bus in Los Angeles, had a hundred bucks in his pocket and was looking for a job.”
The clever and concise first paragraph of Rocky’s father’s missive could be a writing tutorial. “Dear Mr. Swanson: Whenever someone says that the only way to become an agent is to be an agent’s nephew, I become angry with my uncles. But just being angry doesn’t seem to help. You see, Mr. Swanson, I want to be an agent.”
Jennings Lang did become a Hollywood agent, and a prominent one at that, representing the likes of Joan Crawford and Humphrey Bogart. He would also produce such notable movies as “Slaughterhouse 5,” “High Plains Drifter,” “Play Misty For Me,” and “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here.” In addition, he would have the historic distinction of giving Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg their first jobs as directors.
Staring at his dad’s letter, Rocky thought, ‘Wow, there are millions of documents here, 13 million photos alone and all sorts of letters. What a great thing — to tell the history of Hollywood through letter-writing.”
Fate stepped in again as Howard put Rocky in touch with accomplished film historian/archivist, Barbara Hall. Hearing the unique idea, she eagerly agreed to co-write/edit the proposed book. For fanciers of Hollywood movies, the painstakingly researched project resulted in a wonderfully unique page-turner.
Among the 137 missives are ones from: Cecil B. DeMIlle, Paul Newman, Bette Davis, John Huston, Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Alfred Hitchcock, to name but a few. But first some notes about the book itself. With the 175 color and black and white illustrations, “Letters” would make a beautiful coffee table display, that is, were the literary contents not so compelling.
While many of the letters are impressively witty, just about all reflect the lost art of letter writing. (Today it would be a book of selfies and texts.)
One could describe “Letters” as “heavy reading.” I say that because the 352-page book uses the finest paper and binding and, as a result, weighs a whopping 5 1/4 pounds. (I put it on the scale in my building’s gym and drew odd stares from neighbors on the treadmills.)
Seeing these celebrities’ sentiments in the first person is a fascinating experience. And many who wrote longhand, as did Alan Ladd, possessed exquisite cursive. (That said, every correspondence is accompanied by Lang and Hall’s typed version and background info explaining the context.)
My favorites letters include one from Paul Newman to Ray Stark and William Wyler turning down the lead in “Funny Girl” opposite Barbra Streisand. Newman humorously confesses he can’t dance a step or sing a note.
More faves: A future 2-time Oscar-winner, 17-year-old Tom Hanks, writes to legendary director George Roy Hill. Hank emphasizes he’s classmates and close friends with Hill’s niece and nephew and describes how Hill could “discover’ Hanks into stardom. In a return letter, Hill offers an alternate scenario He’s driving to get away from his “insane” nephew and niece but runs over Hanks whom he revives and turns into a star.
On December 21, 1937, Jane Fonda (actually Henry) sent a telegram to director William Wyler indicating she wanted to work with him. “I’m 18 minutes old; blonde hair blue eyes; weight 8 pounds and have been called beautiful. My father was an actor.” Wyler wrote back his congratulations but added, “Your father was never an actor. “
Among many profound insights, including letters about the dark “black list” era, we also learn Ingrid Bergman was a so-so typist; Katherine Hepburn’s signature was indecipherable; Audrey Hepburn, while perfection on screen, in real life had very bad feet from ballet in her youth; Marlena Dietrich signed her letter to Hemingway “Your Kraut; and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli was unimpressed with Sean Connery and wanted Cary Grant to play Bond.
NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg describes “Letters” as “A delicious peek into very famous people’s private lives.” I say, If you have interest in Hollywood’s Golden Era, this book is likely for you. (Just don’t weigh it in front of your neighbors.)
Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking, compiled and edited by Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall, Foreword by Peter Bogdanovich, is available wherever books are sold and at Amazon.com. Jack is at email@example.com.