“I’ll be taking the 10:59 train to Katonah,” I said into the phone. “Shall I take a taxi to your house?
“Oh no, dear,” said the voice on the other end. “I’ll be at the station to meet you. You won’t have any trouble spotting me. I’ll be the old lady with white hair.”
It was the spring of 1992 and I was living in New York City. After some effort, I had finally tracked down Joy Hodges, who had appeared in several films in the late 30s, and then headlined a few Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 50s.
I had spent the last few weeks trying to find her because she had given Vincent Price his first on-screen kiss. She had the second female lead in the 1938 comedy, SERVICE DE LUXE, which was Price’s movie debut. They shared several romantic scenes and I was very interested in her memories of that experience. I had recently signed a contract with Greenwood Press to write a book on Vincent Price’s career and was already corresponding with Adam West, Gale Storm, Nan Grey and Phyllis Kirk. Their information was invaluable, but I was determined to find the actress who had been with him at the very beginning.
The internet was not yet available as a resource, so I had to rely on an old-fashioned method — the library! The New York Public Library at Lincoln Center had a very large file on her and I spread out the clippings on a table and studied them carefully. She had started as a band singer for Ozzie Nelson in Chicago, then showed up in Hollywood, where she sang for the Jimmie Grier Orchestra at the Biltmore Hotel. Her name first appeared in a movie cast list in 1935 and for the next five years she appeared in almost 20 films, her name moving higher and higher in the credits until she was the leading lady. In the 1940s, between stints on Broadway, she entertained at the Stage Door Canteen and sang with the Glenn Miller Band. I found several references to her in the 1950s, mostly relating to television, and she surfaced again in the 1960s starring in the national tour of a play called NEVER TOO LATE and as a guest star in an episode of “Perry Mason.” She ended her career on Broadway, replacing Ruby Keeler in the hit musical NO, NO NANETTE in 1972, finishing the run. I also learned that she had retired to the community of Katonah in Westchester County, just north of New York City. The last of her three husbands had been Eugene Schiess, who had died in 1990. All I had to do was call information, ask for a listing of that name in Katonah and, et voila, within a few minutes I was dialing the number.
When I explained why I was calling, she surprised me by immediately agreeing to be interviewed. “Vincent made quite an impression on me,” she said. “But let’s not talk on the phone. Come up and see me. There are a few trains every day from the city to Katonah.”
As the train rumbled along the tracks, I reviewed a list of questions and was looking forward to the interview. It was a Saturday in May, and the day was sunny and warm. The train pulled into the station just before noon, and even before it came to a stop, I spotted her on the platform. She was dressed in blue, which contrasted beautifully with her white hair. I had not described myself to her, but when she noticed that I was approaching her with an out-stretched hand, she smiled and called out my name.
Being from the south, I was able to use my most gentlemanly manner as I complimented her appearance and opened the car door for her. She had a delightful personality and chatted away in a well-modulated voice that belied her age. I had read that she was from Iowa, where she was born in 1915. As she drove along a winding road, talking in that lovely voice and occasionally turning to look at me with her big blue eyes, I had a hard time believing she was 77 years old.
She took me to her house, a large, sprawling ranch situated above the road and surrounded by a grove of tall trees. I could see an oval-shaped pool on one side as we approached the front door. She led me to a charming room adjacent to the kitchen where several tall windows afforded a great view of a back garden just coming alive with bright red tulips and golden daffodils.
“I thought we’d have sandwiches for lunch,” she said. “I hope you like chicken salad.” I nodded and offered to help. “No, no. Just stay there and I’ll bring the sandwiches over. We can eat at that table by the windows. I hope you don’t mind multi-grain bread, and I have a bottle of that delicious Snapple tea.”
Before I could start talking to her about SERVICE DE LUXE, she began asking me questions. Where did you grow up? What sort of work do you do? Do you believe in God?
I was a bit surprised by the last question, but I assured her that indeed I did, having been brought up in a Christian home. She then talked at great length about her membership in the Church of Christian Science and told me the fascinating story of being converted to that church by Leatrice Joy, the silent film star. “When I got into show business, I chose the name Joy because she had been my favorite movie star when I was a girl. My real name is Eloise,” she explained. “I was thrilled when I got to meet her and we became very good friends. She was a Christian Scientist and the more she told me about it, the more I wanted to be part of that church. I’ve been a member for more than 40 years.”
I had been taught in Sunday School that we are born sinners and have to ask God for forgiveness, but she had a very different viewpoint. “Oh no, dear,” she said. “We are born perfect and it is sin that corrupts us and sickens our bodies.”
The time passed very quickly and suddenly it was late in the afternoon and I had to catch the 4:24 train back to New York. We hadn’t even talked about SERVICE DE LUXE or Vincent Price! I felt disappointed as she drove me back to the station, but she invited me to come back the following Saturday. “I promise we can talk about Vincent then,” she assured me.
And she kept her promise. We spent several hours the next weekend sitting in her living room and talking about the movie they had made together. She had a great deal to say about Vincent Price and sharing a kissing scene with him.
“He was already a star in the theater and I was excited to be making a movie with him,” she said. “I had been in a few films before that but they had all been low-budget productions. SERVICE DE LUXE was an “A” picture. We had a really big star in Constance Bennett, and the supporting cast was top-drawer, including Mischa Auer, Charlie Ruggles and that wonderful Helen Broderick.”
She said it had been a happy set with no problems, and that Vincent Price was a total pro and took to movie-making very easily. “You never would have guessed that it was his first movie,” she said. “He knew his lines and it was a pleasure to work with him. Of course, he wanted to be a success and was trying to please.”
She did chuckle though, when remembering the kissing scene. “Our director made us do it over a few times because Vincent could not keep his mouth shut! I remember the director – I think his name was Rowland Lee – saying ‘OK, Mr. Price, Let’s do it again, and for God’s sake keep your lips together!’ I didn’t mind, really. Vincent was handsome and I probably had a little crush on him.”
I asked if she had kept in touch with him after the film was finished and she said no, regretfully. “But I did see him, once, shortly afterward,” she added “I was having dinner with Janet Gaynor and Adrian at the Brown Derby and Vincent Price came in and joined some people at a nearby table. As he walked by, he noticed me and said hello. As soon as he had passed by, Adrian turned to me said, Joy, you’ve been holding out on us. Who is that gorgeous man?”
The book on Vincent Price was never completed and I ended up canceling the contract, but it was the beginning of a close friendship with Joy Hodges that lasted until she died in 2003. When I learned that she had a winter home in California, near Palm Springs, I arranged to see her when I was out there the following December to visit Patsy Ruth Miller, the silent film actress. Miss Miller and I had worked together on her autobiography and I thought it would be fun to introduce the two former actresses.
Joy joined us for lunch at the Monterey Country Club, in Palm Desert, and as soon as they were introduced, they began chattering like best friends. “I sent you a fan letter in 1929,” Joy said to Patsy. “How sweet,” Patsy responded. “I hope I sent you an autographed picture.”
They had both known Mischa Auer quite well and exchanged humorous anecdotes, laughing merrily. They also talked about Constance Bennett and Cary Grant and George M. Cohan. Joy Hodges had been personally selected by Cohan to appear in his 1937 Broadway musical, I’D RATHER BE RIGHT, in which she introduced the song “Have You Met Miss Jones.” Patsy sat up in her chair. “I saw that show,” she said. “And I remember the girl who sang that song. So that was you, huh?” And they laughed again.
I sat between them at the table, delighted that I had put those two ladies together. It was such fun to watch a friendship taking root.
Joy sold her house in New York in 1993 and settled permanently in the southern California desert. I didn’t see her again for several years, although we exchanged cards every Christmas and occasionally talked on the phone. She invited me to attend the ceremony to unveil her star on the Walk of Fame, but I wasn’t able to be there. And later in the 1990s, after the internet was introduced and eBay was launched, I bought a 1935 78-record of “Old-Fashioned Love” with 20-year-old Joy Hodges providing the vocals. I sent it to her and she called me as soon as she opened the package.
“How did you ever find that recording?” she wanted to know. “I haven’t seen it in years! That is the record that put me on the map and got me a contract at RKO. If only I knew where to find a machine that can play a 78!”
She and Patsy remained good friends and saw each other often. Patsy had a cook and housekeeper named Gloria, a feisty but delightful woman who took very good care of the former silent movie star. And when Patsy died in 1995, Joy asked Gloria to work for her. It was Gloria who called me in the summer of 2000. “Joy is not in good health and is bedridden,” she told me. “I thought you might want to see her.”
I was living in Portland, Oregon by that time and booking a flight to Palm Springs was an easy task. A week later I was knocking on Joy’s front door, which was opened by a smiling Gloria.
“She’s been waiting for you,” she said. “Her room is at the end of the hall. Go on in.”
I got to the bedroom door and looked in. Joy was propped up in bed, and she was digging through a bejeweled purse. She pulled out a sparkling lipstick tube and touched up her lips, then looked over and saw me. “Oh Jeffrey, you’re here!” she said with a wide smile. “Come closer so I can get a good look at you.”
I sat on the edge of her bed and we began chatting. She was just as charming as I remembered, although her declining health depressed her. “I can’t do much of anything now,” she lamented. “And when I look in the mirror, I don’t even recognize myself.”
I leaned a bit closer to her and said gently. “You are just as beautiful as ever. Your eyes never change. They are as bright and blue as they were when you were a girl called Eloise.”
She grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze.
“I hope you haven’t called a hotel because I want you to stay here,” she finally said. “Gloria can put fresh linens on the bed in the guest room.”
I stayed there for the weekend and spent as much time with her as possible. We watched television, looked through an old photo album (which included snapshots of her old pals Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable and Buddy Rogers and Lucille Ball) and she tried hard to convert me to Christian Science. She even gave me a copy of Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” and wrote on the flyleaf: “For dear Jeffrey. A gift of Love.”
Joy did not discuss the reason she had been confined to her bed, but I learned from Gloria that her knees had become so painful that she could no longer walk. “It’s that damn religion of hers,” Gloria said. “She refuses to see a doctor. She could have knee replacement surgery and she’d be fine but no, she thinks that she has committed some terrible sin and that God is punishing her. She is just gonna stay in bed, praying for a miracle that’s never gonna happen.”
The plane to Portland left on Monday morning, and when I went to Joy’s room to say goodbye, she motioned for me to come near to her, then she pulled my face close and gave me a sweet kiss on the cheek. “I am so glad you came to see me,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “Don’t forget me.” And then from a nearby table, she grabbed an old photo and handed it to me. It was a glamour portrait of Joy in her prime, and on it she had written “to dear Jeff, a good friend and special pal.”
I was not able to see her again before she died, but I promised that I would never forget her… and I never have.