The Movie Star

On a warm afternoon in July of 1995, my phone started ringing. It was a man I knew telling me that his mother had died that morning. Although the news was not unexpected, it still saddened me. A chapter of my life had closed.

I sat there for a few minutes thinking about his mother, whom I had known for just over a decade. We met when I was 21 and she was 80, and it was the beginning of a fascinating friendship that was marked by happy days and heated conversations, a feeling of giddy delight and almost unbearable stress, sometimes enjoying being pampered and sometimes being rigidly controlled. But I guess that’s the way it goes when a guy who is young and naive falls under the spell of a once famous movie star named Patsy Ruth Miller.

The memories of that friendship are as clear to me now as if it happened last week. Hardly a day goes by that she doesn’t cross my mind, and I am very grateful to her for giving me a brief glimpse into a world that was exciting and glamorous.  I remember very clearly the first time I met her. It was a crisp October day in 1984 and my knees were trembling as I stood outside the bright red door of a very large beach-front house in Stamford, Connecticut.  I had spoken to her on the phone several times and when she invited me to actually meet her in person at her home, I was thrilled and hurriedly booked a flight from Michigan where I was a senior in college.

Moviegoers had not seen her on the screen since 1931, but during the 1920s she had been world famous and by the 1980s was one of the few surviving stars of the silent screen, that long-ago era of Pierce Arrows, jazz babies and speakeasies. She had acted with Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Lon Chaney, appearing in more than 70 movies during a career that lasted a decade, beginning in 1921 when she was just 17 years old.

What will she be like now? Will she like me?  Will I make a fool of myself?

I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. Expecting a foreign-accented butler or a uniformed maid to answer, the door was opened by an attractive older woman wearing beige slacks, a white blouse and a soft pink sweater.

“Are you Jeff?” she asked in a voice that was husky but warm at the edges.

“Yes ma’am,” I responded rather meekly. “Are you Patsy Ruth Miller?”

“The one and only,” she smiled.

Short, grayish-brown hair framed her surprisingly unlined face and her big brown eyes, a famous feature when she was a movie star, still sparkled with vitality. They studied me for an instant as mine studied her.

“Well, just don’t stand there. Come in!” she finally said, opening the door wide.

As I entered the foyer with its marble floor, I could see into the next room, through a window, across a gently sloping lawn and down to the harbor with its blue water shimmering in the bright October sunlight. The large window framed the scene as though it was a painting.

She put me at ease by offering me some honey-roasted peanuts from a crystal bowl and a glass of Coca-Cola. She had a friendly manner, refined and yet relaxed at the same time. It amused her that I could recite the titles of so many of her films and we were soon chatting like two old friends. It was a magical afternoon spent talking about her career, with me asking questions and she obviously enjoying the opportunity to re-live memories from long ago. She regaled me with stories of her leading men, her romances and her life in Hollywood. I hung on her every word and felt my pulse quicken at the mention of such fabled people as Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Charlie Chaplin.

In mid-afternoon, after a lunch of hamburgers and potato chips was served to us on trays by a middle-aged maid with black hair and freckles, a car pulled into the driveway. The doorbell rang and the maid led a white-haired woman into the room. She was tall and thin and slightly stooped, needing a cane to maintain her balance. Miss Miller rose from her chair and the two women greeted each other with a light kiss on the cheek. I was introduced to Jane Cacciapuoti.

“And who is this young man?” the guest inquired in a reed-like voice, looking at me with curiosity. Her face was angular, with brittle skin pulled over prominent cheekbones. Her eyes were a pale blue and they sparkled within a web of little wrinkles.

“This is Jeffrey,” Miss Miller explained. “He is interested in silent movies and so I’ve been telling him about old Hollywood. He’s in college.”

“Well, he’s come to the right place,” Mrs. Cacciapuoti laughed and I listened with rapt attention as they started comparing notes. I quickly realized that Mrs. Cacciapuoti, as Jane Grey, had also been in Hollywood during that period, working as a fashion reporter for Harper’s Bazaar, and had formed close friendships with several stars, including Renee Adoree, whom she described as “ethereal,” Aileen Pringle and especially Gloria Swanson.

They had also dated the same man, an actor named Ralph Forbes. They pronounced his name as “Rafe,” and from the way their eyes twinkled as they discussed him, it was obvious that their memories of him were very special.

“He broke up with me to marry Ruth Chatterton,” Mrs. Cacciapuoti said. “Oh no, dear,” Miss Miller countered. “I was the one he was dating before he married Ruth.”

They never could reach an agreement, but both said that his marrying Miss Chatterton had been a mistake, calling her a “man-eater!”

As she was leaving, Mrs. Cacciapuoti took my hand and whispered, “Pat can tell you all about Lon Chaney, but if you want to know the real story of Gloria Swanson and her adopted baby, just ask me.” Regretfully, I never saw her again.

When the sun began setting and the sky turned pink, it was time for me to leave, but I really hated to go. She drove me to the train station and before I could open the car door she grabbed my hand. “I have an idea,” she said. “You have asked me so many questions about my life as a movie star and perhaps there are other people out there who would be interested in my career. Years ago I started to write my memoirs but never finished. Maybe I should get back to work on the project. Would you like to help me?”

My eyes widened with surprise and delight, and I managed to get out the words that I would be honored. As we parted, she kissed me gently on the cheek. I graduated from college the following May and a few days later I was once more standing in front of that big red door.

An association began that lasted almost three years as we worked on the book, she dictating and me typing. Pages of the memoir she had started and abandoned years before were scattered around the house in drawers and boxes, making it difficult to piece it back together. Some of those pages were used just as they were while others were re-written and a few were thrown out. And for long periods of time while we were working I lived with her, sometimes in Connecticut, where she spent the summers, and sometimes in her lovely condo on the grounds of a country club in Palm Desert, near Palm Springs, where she enjoyed the winters. When we were in California, she would occasionally hire a limousine and take me with her up to Beverly Hills where we would spend a weekend with her brother. Winston Miller had been a screenwriter and lived on Rodeo Drive next door to Gene Kelly in a house built in the French style, and painted a light pink. One afternoon in Palm Desert a white-haired gentleman dropped by and I was introduced to Charles Farrell. And one morning a man appeared at the back door and wanted to borrow the cook for the afternoon. It was Skippy Homeier. If it sounds like a dream come true, in many ways it was. But in other ways it was a nightmare. She had a way of controlling me by making me completely dependent upon her. If I struggled occasionally against the reins, she would become overly sweet and flirtatious and would put a few bills in my hand, sending me out to see a movie. Miss Miller’s masseuse was a delightful young woman named Dori and when I was given a night off for a movie, I would usually call her. The laughter we shared on those evenings was always just what I needed.

I was particularly irritated by some of her attitudes. She leaned very far to the right politically, was a charter member of the John Birch Society and often made unkind remarks about Jews, blacks and other ethnic groups. When she had first invited me to visit her in person, she ended the conversation by asking “are you black?” “No ma’am, I am white,” I answered, “not that it should make any difference.” “Oh, but it would make a difference,” she said. “Oh yes… a big difference.”

Sections of the book were written, then changed or discarded or re-written entirely. It was often an exasperating experience trying to please her. Some days her mood was light and on other days it was very dark. I never knew what to expect. And making it even more uncomfortable was a feeling that her interest in me was more than professional. She often invited me into her bedroom late at night to watch television and wanted me to lie down on the bed next to her. She’d be wearing a negligee, open wide at the neck to show some cleavage. I did sit on the edge of her bed, but I kept my feet on the floor. She also enjoyed lounging by the pool while I was swimming and always had a towel handy to dry my back, which made me feel rather self-conscious. And every night she wanted to kiss me on the lips before she went to bed. But I must admit that it was flattering in a strange sort of way to be admired by a woman who had once been a movie star and I did not discourage her flirtations. She didn’t know that I was gay, but even had I been straight, I would not have succumbed to her womanly charms which, by that stage of her life, had lost much of their luster.

Despite certain problems, Miss Miller and I did become close. We developed a special kind of friendship. I treated her with respect and had a sympathetic feeling for her. I sensed that, despite her “tough lady” exterior, she was actually rather lonely and probably a little sad that the parade had passed her by. She was particularly annoyed that she had not been invited to be part of the “Night of 100 Stars” television special when some of her contemporaries (Billie Dove, Lillian Gish, Laura La Plante) had been, and she wondered if Hollywood had forgotten her. “I know I was not one of the big stars, like Gloria Swanson or Mary Pickford,” she said to me one night as she sipped a CC and soda. “But I think I did OK. I was popular, and I received so much fan mail that it took two secretaries to handle the flow. Letters used to arrive from all over the world.”

I don’t know why she took a special interest in me. She had been contacted by other young people who had discovered her films and tracked her down, and although she was flattered by their attention, she didn’t seem inclined to pursue a friendship with them. I was naïve and unworldly, but I was attentive and helpful and a good listener on evenings when she had one too many cocktails and was in the mood to talk. I didn’t gush or look at her with a dazzled expression. I wasn’t afraid to challenge some of her political views or get into philosophical discussions. Maybe that is what she liked about me. I’ll never know. It wasn’t always easy to discuss serious issues with her as she was a fearless debater. Her formal education had ended when she was 16, but she had acquired an impressive amount of knowledge during her long life and could hold her own with anyone, regardless of the topic. She spoke French very well, but it was her master of the English language that could cut you off at the knees. She used words as a weapon and she could decimate any opinion or viewpoint with which she did not agree. I only noticed one person who was not intimidated her her vocabulary, and that was her daughter-in-law. Not surprisingly, they did not see each other very often.

Later on, as the final curtain was falling on her life, she did develop friendships with a few other young fans, particularly Austin Mutti Mewse and his twin brother, Howard, two young men from England who visited her several times and have written a delightful book about their experiences getting to know the stars of yesteryear. She also liked Michael Ankerich, who interviewed her at length for his book on silent movie stars. And a young couple whom she nicknamed “the wow kids” amused her so much that she gave them one of her most prized possessions, a large framed portrait of Alla Nazimova that had been autographed to her in 1921.

The finishing touches were put on the manuscript in 1987 and she asked me to stay on with her, as a sort of chauffeur and secretary and companion, but I said no. I needed to be free. She was very annoyed with me, and even took my name off of the book as a form of punishment, but we eventually repaired our friendship and I saw her often during the last few years of her life. She even allowed me to stay in her big Connecticut house one winter while I attended graduate school at New York University.

When the manuscript was ready to be submitted to a publisher, it was sent to several firms, but it was returned each time with a rejection letter. Even securing a literary agent had no effect. It seemed that no one was interested. But to her rescue came an offer from Philip Riley, who had asked her a few years earlier to write the foreword for his book on an early Lon Chaney film. He wanted her to write another foreword for him, but she sweet-talked him into a much larger project. He agreed to finance the publication of her memoirs and they spent the entire summer of 1988 finalizing the details. I’m sure that Mr. Riley had the very best of intentions but, unfortunately, it was a much bigger job than he was equipped to handle and he filed for bankruptcy. The books were ready for distribution, but they could not be released from the printer until a very large bill was paid in full. Miss Miller had to pay the bill herself and “My Hollywood, When Both of Us Were Young” was finally delivered to stores. And it was a handsome book, with a lot of heft. A large hardback, it was lavishly illustrated with photos from Miss Miller’s own files. But there were problems. Mr. Riley was on the verge of a nervous collapse and had not proofread the galleys carefully. There were lots of errors. Some photos had the wrong captions and long passages of prose were out of place. It was an embarrassment. The few minor critics who bothered to review the book were impressed with its design and found the memories of Patsy Ruth Miller to be very entertaining, but they did point out the numerous typos and other problems. Miss Miller did her best to promote the book and made several personal appearances, even being interviewed by Leonard Maltin on “Entertainment Tonight.” I also contributed to the publicity campaign and wrote a career profile of the former star for a magazine called “Films in Review.” One sentence in that article returned to haunt me and later played a role in a million dollar lawsuit.

In the article, I wrote about meeting Miss Miller and collaborating with her on the manuscript, relating a few of her anecdotes that had not made the final version of the book. I wrote about a double-date with Joan Crawford, encountering a sad and lonely Mae Murray on a busy New York City street and that one of her leading men (Charles Ray) fell in love with her, even though he had a wife at home. In the article I made it clear that she wanted to focus on nice stories about the people she had known and not write a “and then I slept with” book. “I’ve had three husbands and I’ve had lovers,” I quote her as saying, “but my private life will remain private.” The quote was accurate.

That article was published in the April issue of 1989. A couple of years later, a book appeared called “Hollywood Be Thy Name” which chronicled the lives of the Brothers Warner and their very famous studio. Patsy Ruth Miller had been under contract to Warner Bros in the 1920s and for a couple of years was their most popular star. In the book, it was written that Patsy Ruth Miller and Jack Warner, the head of the studio and a married man, had enjoyed a sexual affair. When I bought the book, I called her right away and read the passage to her. She was livid, denied the allegation and sued the author and the publisher for one million dollars. The lawsuit never went to trial. During the deposition, she was asked about that one sentence in my article. She said she had been misquoted. “What I said to young Mr. Carrier was that I had boyfriends,” she explained. “I would never have said ‘lovers.’ He probably thought it sounded more sophisticated to use that word.” The lawyers were not convinced.

Her case was dismissed and the quote from my article was given as the primary reason. The day the decision was handed down, she called me. As soon as I answered, she said, “You stinker. You have cost me a million bucks!”

Despite the publicity, book sales were weak and I don’t think she received even one royalty check. She spent the rest of her life trying to find someone who would re-print a corrected copy of her book, but to no avail. She even wrote a few chapters of new material. A few years ago, Mr. Riley negotiated a deal with a small publisher to put out a limited number of new copies, but none of the mistakes were corrected. And it wasn’t until 2016, almost 30 years after the book first appeared, that it was finally reviewed by a renowned critic. Writing for “The New Yorker,” Richard Brody apologized for discovering the book so late but said it was a “masterwork of the genre.” How I wish that Miss Miller had been alive to read that review.

During one particularly trying day as she and I were working on the manuscript, she became frustrated and wondered if all the work we were doing was worth the effort. “I haven’t been famous for 60 years,” she sighed. “Will anyone even care that I used to swim in Nazimova’s pool with Valentino or that I was the first movie star to date Howard Hughes?”

I thought of that comment when, soon after her memoirs were published in late 1988, she appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for a book signing party and the showing of one of her films. It was the 1923 classic, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, in which she was Esmeralda opposite Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo. Stuart Oderman, A well-known pianist, was on hand to accompany the film and a lot of people had gathered for the event. I was there, too, and I watched with pride as a limousine pulled up in front and she stepped out to greet a cheering crowd. She was swathed in white fur and looked radiant as she blew a kiss to the fans. The years had melted away and in that moment she was once more a glamorous movie star!