When Starlight Fades

It was a Sunday night in November of 2011 and I was keeping a close watch on eBay auctions. Several photos of film stars from my collection were being sold. I had gotten into a routine of putting fifty items up for sale every week, and the auctions always ended on Sunday evenings.

One of the items was a portrait of Tab Hunter and Geraldine Page which had been used to promote their starring roles in a 1958 episode of the television series “Playhouse 90.” Imagine my surprise when the photo was purchased by Tab Hunter himself!

When I shipped the photo to his address in Santa Barbara, I enclosed a fan letter which included my e-mail information. A week or so later, he sent me a message, thanking me for the letter and expressing an interest in other photos I might be willing to sell. That started a brief back-and-forth with the former actor, which was very exciting. He even sent me an autographed portrait.

When I e-mailed a few scans of other photos from my files, the reply came not from Mr. Hunter but from his partner, Allan, who said they were looking for photos to use in a documentary about Tab’s life and career which was nearing completion. “These are great photos,” he wrote, “and I think we can use a few of them.”

I ended up selling several photos to him, and we became chummy internet pen-pals, sometimes sending e-mails to each other every day. I loved hearing about his long-term relationship with Tab Hunter, how they first met and fell in love, and how they had kept their relationship fresh and exciting for almost three decades.  “I am 30 years younger than Tab,” Allan explained, “but we are an example of how two men can make it work if there is love and respect. And if you have fun together. If you have those things, it will last a lifetime.”

When he learned that I had also been involved with a much older film star, he was very curious. “It wasn’t a romance,” I told him. “And it wasn’t a man. It was a business relationship, and we were working on a book. She was almost 60 years older, and I think her interest in me started to go beyond friendship just a little. I didn’t feel the same way because I’m gay. It bears a passing resemblance to “Sunset Boulevard.” She was a silent movie star named Patsy Ruth Miller.”

Dear Jeffrey. That is fascinating! Tab and I have gotten to know a lot of the old movie stars, but we never met her. We do have a couple of friends who did know her pretty well and from all that we heard about her, she must have been a wonderful person. Please tell me more. Allan.

His e-mail amused me and I wrote back right away, asking him if the friends who had known Miss Miller were men. She always treated men, especially young handsome men, with exaggerated friendliness. She fawned over them. I also suspected that his friends had not known her very well “because the better you got to know her, the less wonderful she seemed. I lived with her off and on for more than a year, and I saw a side of her that was not particularly pleasant.”

Allan confirmed that the friends he mentioned were indeed young men, two brothers from England who had gotten to know many of the older generation of film stars. He ended the e-mail by asking, again, to tell him more. “I’m dying to know how you met her.”

Dear Allan –

Well, to explain about how I managed to make the acquaintance of Patsy Ruth Miller, I have to set the stage a bit. I don’t know how much of a film buff you are, but I suspect you appreciate the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood just as much as I do. My interest in old movies was sparked by an elderly woman named Lois Goodman who lived a few houses down from me when I was a boy. I’ve always liked older people, and so I used to hang around her house, where I’d spend hours listening to her talk about the past. She was movie-mad as a young woman and thought Pearl White was the greatest star of them all!  I loved hearing about the old movies and the old stars, like Valentino and Gloria Swanson and Mae Murray.

One day she showed me some old movie magazines which she had held onto for fifty years. I was intrigued by a 1922 edition of “Picture-Play.” The cover featured a chestnut-haired young woman with large, expressive eyes. She was identified as Patsy Ruth Miller and something about the photo captured my imagination. Mrs. Goodman gave me that magazine, and I still have it!

When I got a little older and was in high school, I started buying books about old movies. In one of them, devoted to silent film, I saw several photos of Patsy Ruth Miller and I became even more intrigued. I looked her up in every book I could find and learned that she had made 70 movies during a ten-year-career that ended in 1931. I also discovered that she had been married to a director and then a screenwriter and had retired to Stamford, Connecticut with husband number three. His name was Effingham Deans.

I started working as a newspaper reporter after my freshman year in college, and although I enjoyed it, I did get a little bored interviewing the president of the beautification committee, the woman who won a blue ribbon for patchwork quilts and a man who weaved baskets out of willow bark. I wanted something more challenging. And I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be neat to interview an almost-forgotten silent movie star. Patsy Ruth Miller was the obvious choice.

I managed to track down the phone number for Effingham Deans and when Mrs. Deans answered, I explained as articulately as I could (which was not very articulate, I can assure you), that I was hoping I could interview her for a newspaper article. She acquiesced, but did ask how old I was. When I said I was 19, she said she was flattered and amused that someone so young was interested in her career, and she became very friendly.

I wrote the article, and when I sent her a copy, she sent me a very nice note in return. That began a casual phone friendship and two years later, in the fall of 1984, when I was a senior in college, we were chatting on the phone one evening and she shocked me by inviting me to visit her in Connecticut. How could I say no? And I think that must rank as one of the most exciting trips of my life!  Before I flew back to Michigan where I was attending Northern Michigan University, she asked me to assist in the writing of her memoirs and, four years later, the book was published! But it was not an easy experience and there were times when I was tempted to walk away.

I returned to Connecticut for a week in May of 1985 after graduating, went back in August and was there again for the month of June the following year, in 1986. In September of that year, she invited me to spend a few days with her while her husband was away. Mr. Deans, a handsome Scot with white hair and a jolly laugh, was supportive of his wife’s new hobby and was very nice to me.

Every time I visited, I stayed in a small room on the top floor. I loved being in that wonderful old house, situated in a grove of ancient hickory trees right on the beach of Stamford Harbor. It was a grand house, with three floors and lots of rooms. It was comfortably furnished in pastels, with lots of pale blues and pinks and subtle greens, and there were soft carpets of sun-faded beige. Positioned by a window in the large living room was a lovely baby grand piano, on which were displayed several family pictures, with a signed portrait of Ronald Reagan in the center. A autographed photo of Nancy Reagan sat proudly on a shelf in the kitchen.

Her room was at one end of the second floor and her husband’s was at the other end. Every time I entered her bedroom, I had the sensation of stepping into another time and place. It was pink — pink walls, pink carpets, pink bedding, all in slightly different shades. It sounds garish, but it was actually very attractive. There was a large oil painting of Miss Miller opposite the bed, hanging above the fireplace. And that bed! It was big and beautiful and must have been custom-made for her. There was a white bookcase on one side of the room, with first editions sitting snugly on the shelves, books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner. I also remember seeing a signed edition of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Every morning, she’d stay in bed until 9 or so. The maid would take coffee and the “New York Daily News” to her around 8, but not before Miss Miller would ring a little bell that sat on her bedside table. I can still hear that sound. Nothing in the house dared move until that bell rang, and then the day could begin. At 8:30 or so she’d ring the bell again, signaling that she was through with the paper and was ready for breakfast, which the maid would bring to her on a big bed tray. It was all done with great precision.

In the meantime, Mr. Deans had come downstairs and would be having his coffee and breakfast in the cozy den while he watched a morning news program. I’d have juice and an English muffin in the kitchen and chat with the cook, a very pleasant middle-aged woman named Marie. 

I flew back to Tennessee before September ended, but near the middle of October, she asked me to come back again. “Eff is in the hospital and I think it’s a good time for us to get more work done,” she said. So, I dutifully flew up, moved into the little room on third floor, and started working. On October 27, at about 6 pm in the evening, the phone rang. It was the hospital. Her husband had died of a heart attack.

Best to you and Mr. Hunter. –Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey — You certainly know how to maintain interest in your story. You left me hanging. It’s just like one of those old movie serials. When something very exciting is about to happen, the film ends and you have to wait for the next chapter the following week. Please don’t make me wait a week! So many of the old silent stars spent their final years in poverty, but I get the feeling that she was well off. Do write again soon. Allan.

I wrote to Allan the next morning as I sipped a cup of black coffee and watched the snow piling up in my back yard.

Dear Allan –

You asked if she was well off. Yes, she was. As you said, so many of the old-time stars fell on hard times, but not her. I don’t think it was her money, however, but her husband’s that was affording her such a grand lifestyle. Effingham Deans came to this country in 1923 from Scotland with ten dollars in his pocket, and he became a millionaire! He started a very successful clothing company that was still going strong when I first met him in 1985. He had retired, but he still went to his office every day — driven by a chauffeur — and was acting as a sort of company figurehead. 

Miss Miller did tell me once that she had put all of her own money into her husband’s business, so maybe it was her investment that was responsible for its financial success. They married in 1951. He had been married once before (and had two children) and she had been married twice — first to director Tay Garnett and then to screenwriter John Lee Mahin. The marriage to Mahin produced a child, a son named Timothy who lived close by. I saw him several times and he was obviously a very accomplished person. He was a writer, I think, but he didn’t seem to have a will of his own and deferred to his mother in all matters. She controlled him. I got the impression that it was his duty to act as a sort of court jester, to entertain his mother with jokes and humorous stories. It seemed very strange to me.

She kept him in line by often mentioning money and hinting that he could be cut off at any time. I feared that he would think that I was a gold-digger or something but, to my relief, he seemed delighted that I was around. Maybe he thought that if I was there, his mother wouldn’t demand appearances from him as often. He and I became very friendly, and I was very fond of his wife who made up for his weakness with great strength. She was his second wife and was not intimidated by her mother-in-law and could stand her ground with confidence. I suspect that Timothy’s first marriage broke up because of his mother’s meddling.

On the night that Mr. Deans died, it was Timothy who rushed over. Mrs. Deans’ step-daughter was already there and the three of them went to the hospital, leaving me all alone in that big house. It suddenly seemed spooky and I thought I heard footsteps on the back stairs, but I didn’t investigate. I went into the den, closed the louvered doors and tried to remain calm. I wondered what I was supposed to do. Should I make plans to go home or should I stay?

They returned about two hours later and every plan had been made regarding cremation, whom to call and how things were to be handled. It was all done with impressive efficiency. As a member of the Stamford Yacht Club, a very nice memorial service was held in one of their banquet rooms a few days later. It wasn’t a mournful service, but a celebration of his life and accomplishments. I did miss him, as he always had a kind word for me. He was a gentleman of the old school.

Miss Miller asked me to stay, and then she surprised me by saying, “I want you to go to California with me for the winter.”  I told her I didn’t have any suitable clothes for the desert and she said, “I’ll pay for whatever you need. How much do you want? Don’t be shy. I’m loaded!”

I told her that two hundred dollars would be about right, so with my new hot-weather wardrobe packed in my one and only suitcase, off we flew to California just as October gave way to November.  It was the first (and only) time I flew first class and I must say it was a great experience. The luxury overwhelmed and mesmerized me.

Allan, I must deviate here for a few sentences and tell you that I bought Tab Hunter’s autobiography last week. I know this is a cliché, but when I started reading it, I could not put it down! I remember the publicity when it was published a few years ago, but I somehow never bought a copy. But now I have it, and I must say that it’s fantastic. There are no axes to grind, no big chips on his shoulder, just a setting- the-record-straight type of book that is enormously entertaining and very enlightening. And it’s so well written.

I did not know that he and Teresa Wright appeared in a film together. That’s interesting because she is a supporting character in the next chapter of my Patsy Ruth Miller saga.

Mrs. Deans and her husband had been spending winters in the California desert for several years but they never left the east until after Thanksgiving. Because she was arriving earlier than usual that year, the condo in Palm Desert had to be prepared quickly. Furniture had to be dusted, the carpets vacuumed, the refrigerator stocked with food and the bed linens washed. And that would require an extra day, so we flew into Los Angeles and were met at the airport by a chauffeur who drove us to 727 North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It was the home of her brother, a retired screenwriter named Winston Miller.

Two portraits of brother and sister, Patsy Ruth Miller and Winston Miller, sixty years apart.

He was a tall, lanky man in his late 70s who was pleasant and convivial. His wife, on the other hand, was stern and rather haughty. Her name was Beatrix and her brother was novelist Niven Busch, who wrote “Duel in the Sun” and had been Teresa Wright’s first husband. Miss Wright was still very friendly with Winston and Bea and was actually their house-guest.

So, here I was in this lovely house with a silent film star who had just been widowed, her screenwriter brother, his shrewish wife and one of my favorite actresses. 

As I look back on that day, I can’t help but wonder what those people thought of me. I was young (a few months shy of 24), naive and rather innocent. I didn’t have a worldly bone in my body. It must have surprised them to see Miss Miller, in her 80s, show up with a young man in his 20s. They probably thought I was being kept by her, or was a gigolo or something even more untoward. When she introduced me, explaining that we were working on her memoir, I could see an expression of relief on their faces.

You must realize, Allan, that I was young not only in years, but in life experiences. My father was a country preacher and I had led a pretty sheltered life. Being suddenly thrust into the milieu of movie stars was like going on stage opening night without knowing any of the lines. I tried to be polite and respectful, and I guess that worked because I was treated very kindly by everyone. I was in awe of Teresa Wright, however, and when I was introduced to her, all I could do was utter inane platitudes. She had won an Oscar, had been in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films and co-starred with Marlon Brando in his very first movie. But I did know how lucky I was.

727 North Rodeo Drive as it looked in 1986.

At dinner, I was seated between Miss Wright and Mrs. Miller, and the experience would have been delightful except that Bea and Patsy seemed to be competing for the spotlight, with the rest of us feeling more awkward by the second. It was obvious that those two women had never gotten along. 

Miss Miller had a vocabulary that would put an English scholar to shame. I’ve never known anyone who could use words so skillfully… to cajole, to challenge, to flirt and to wound. That night, her words were sharp and she hurled them like daggers. She and her sister-in-law got into an argument about the homeless, with Miss Miller saying those people should be herded into a warehouse and gassed. I had never heard anything so mean and unfeeling and her comment stopped the conversation cold. None of us knew what to say and silence hung over the table like a miasma.

Miss Wright excused herself and left the dining room. I don’t remember any further conversation that night, as people retreated to different parts of the house.

A little later I did encounter Teresa Wright in the den and we had a brief but very pleasant conversation. I was more relaxed around her by then and she was very interested in the book that Miss Miller and I were writing, even offering to write a foreword for us. “I’ve known her for more than forty years,” she smiled. “I came out to Hollywood in 1941 and I met her soon after that. I’m sure I could think of something interesting to say.”

By the time I said goodnight to her, I felt that we had become friends and a few years later when she was starring on Broadway opposite George C. Scott in a revival of “On Borrowed Time,” I went to see the play and even wandered backstage after the performance and looked for her. She graciously invited me into her dressing room and signed the playbill for me. She was a great actress and a lovely person.

And she did write a charming foreword for the book, in which she reminisced about stopping by Patsy Ruth Miller’s ocean-side home in Connecticut for a visit one afternoon and finding two other silent film stars already there. “The four of us went for a stroll on the beach,” she wrote, “and it was thrilling to listen to Patsy Ruth Miller, Lila Lee and Leatrice Joy giggling and comparing stories about Valentino, John Gilbert and Ramon Novarro. I was walking along with history, film history. I feel privileged to have had that afternoon.”

Her lovely words were vetoed however, in favor of a foreword written by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Teresa Wright co-starred with Robert Mitchum in a 1947 film called “Pursued”

On that night in Beverly Hills back in 1986, everyone finally calmed down and we went to our assigned rooms. Miss Miller did not climb stairs, so she was put in the one-and-only bedroom on the first floor, a small room behind the kitchen where a maid would have slept. I had a comfortable room on the second floor with a window that overlooked the backyard and a large pool. I slept fitfully, not knowing what sort of adventures were ahead.

It’s amazing to me, Allan, that as I sit here at my desk writing to you about those long-ago experiences, how clearly it all comes back! It’s as though it happened yesterday. As I was describing Patsy Ruth Miller’s bedroom to you in yesterday’s e-mail, I could actually smell that strange scent that permeated the room — a mixture of old and stale perfume. It was the smell of age. And you know what’s weird? Several years later, in the mid 1990s when my boyfriend and I were driving around looking at the colorful autumn foliage, we ended up in Stamford and I suggested that we drive along Ocean Drive West. As we approached the address, I could see an “Open House” sign next to the driveway. The house was for sale.

I had to stop. I just had to. The house was empty, and it was so eerie to walk though those rooms and remember so many things that had happened there. I could still hear the echo of voices. Miss Miller had died a few months earlier, and when I got to the second floor and walked into her bedroom, I was immediately aware of that odor. It was still hovering in the air, as though she was still there. I had to get out of that room, out of that house and into the bright warm October sunlight.

That’s it for now. Say hello to Mr. Hunter.  –Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey – I am loving your e-mails and I enjoy learning about your relationship with Patsy Ruth Miller. I’m getting a good idea of what she was like and you are right; it is a different impression than the one I got from my friends who knew her. I’m sharing your stories with Tab and he is enjoying them as well. I’m glad you liked his autobio. It really does reflect him as a person. There is not one false note in the whole piece. We’re in the process of also turning it into a movie with Michael Sucsy directing. But first we have the documentary to finish. I have all the recent photos you sent and they are wonderful. Some of them will be in the documentary. By the way, you said that Patsy avoided stairs. Was she in poor health?  All my best, Allan

Dear Allan –

Miss Miller seemed to be in pretty good health for her age, but she wasn’t very active. She had suffered a mild heart attack in the late 1970s and always had Nitroglycerin tablets with her in case of angina pain. I think that’s why she didn’t climb stairs. There was a small elevator in her house in Connecticut that connected the first and second floors. I never saw her go up the stairs, but I did see her come down. When she wanted to make an entrance, she would slowly and dramatically descend that lovely curved staircase near the foyer, looking every inch the movie star.

She did take occasional walks, but only if she had a strong arm to hold onto, and she enjoyed swimming. She had an oval pool in Connecticut, filled with salt water, and there was a large pool just a short walk from her condo in Palm Desert.

The last time I saw her was in December of 1992 and her health had started to fail by that time. She didn’t have much energy of body, but she certainly had clarity of mind. She was as sharp as ever and was still trying to control everyone around her.

It pleases me that you’re enjoying these old memories, Allan.  They’ve been collecting dust in my head for a long time, so it’s nice to give them a good airing!

To pick up where I left off, Teresa Wright was already up and gone when I came downstairs about 9 the next morning. She was in L.A. to do a guest shot on a television program and had an early call. It might have been “Murder, She Wrote,” but I’m not sure. Patsy was still in her room having coffee and reading the paper and Bea was on the phone making arrangements for a limo to drive Patsy and me to Palm Desert.  It wouldn’t be there until after lunch, so after a quick breakfast of eggs and bacon, I went out for a walk. It was a beautiful morning, and I loved strolling along that fabled street, admiring those big houses with their manicured lawns and meticulous landscaping. I didn’t walk toward the business area of Rodeo, but walked along the other end, where the street intersected with Sunset Blvd. The Beverly Hills Hotel was only a couple blocks away and I stood for a long time staring at it. It was so pink!

I got back to the house about 10:30 and since there was still plenty of time before lunch, Winston offered to give me a tour of Beverly Hills. He started by gesturing to the house next door, where Gene Kelly lived. He then drove slowly along street after street, identifying the homes of movie stars, including Lucille Ball and James Stewart. He also showed me where Charlotte Greenwood had lived, pointed out a large mansion owned by a rock star with lovely marble statues of nudes in the front yard (that had been defaced by someone who had drawn pubic hair on them) and the modest house where Charles Ray and his wife, Clara, had lived 60 years earlier. Charles Ray was a very popular actor at the beginning of the 1920s and had asked Patsy Ruth Miller to be his leading lady in a 1922 film called “The Girl I Loved.” It had made her a star.

And then he turned onto Crescent Drive and stopped in front of number 808.

“And this was where we lived,” he said with a hint of longing in his voice. “It’s not the same house, though. The original house was torn down a few years ago and this new one put up in its place. But this is the address, and the old tennis court is still there. It was a happy house. Pat was a movie star and so many of her movie star friends would come over on Sundays. I can still remember seeing Richard Barthelmess playing doubles with Townsend Netcher, who was married to Constance Talmadge. And there were occasional dances in the big living room, with couples swaying to the music from a Victrola in the corner.  Our mother and father loved all the young movie people. Those were wonderful years. Ah well, nothing lasts forever.”

808 Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills, as it looked in 1925.

As we looked at the big, modern house that filled most of the lot, he seemed overcome with a feeling of nostalgia, as though he was longing for a time in his life that had long since passed.  I sensed that I shouldn’t say anything, but I did reach over to give his shoulder a little squeeze.

He asked me if I was enjoying the experience of working with his sister and I said I was, although I felt intimidated.

“Pat has a very strong personality,” he said, “and I can understand why you’d feel intimidated. She can be difficult and overbearing, but I think you are good for her. She’s just lost her husband and needs something to occupy her time. And it could be a very good experience for you.”

“I do wish you had known her when she was young, when she was in the movies,” he continued as he drove us back to his home on Rodeo. “She loved being a movie star. She loved the life and loved the people. And she was very popular. I don’t mean just as a movie star. She certainly was loved by her public — the fan mail piled up every day — but she was liked by friends and family, too. But all of that is in the distant past. She is different now. She has changed. The women stars of that era were not thought of as ordinary people. They were adored, even worshiped. When you have that kind of fame at the beginning of your life, you miss it when your life is near its end. I hope you’ll try and understand her. She’s an old and tired star still trying to shine, but the light is fading.”

The limousine pulled into the driveway at 1 pm and our luggage was stowed in the trunk. I slid into the seat next to Miss Miller and we were soon on the highway heading away from the city.

Palm Desert is only two hours from L.A., but the time passed slowly, and I felt oddly uncomfortable in the backseat with her. I had grown to like her brother very much and wished we could have stayed there another day. She didn’t talk much at first, as we headed further into the desert, past acres of wind turbines with their enormous white blades slowly turning in the wind, standing out like giant beacons against the stark landscape, but she became more talkative as we got closer to Palm Springs. She told me about Winston becoming a screen writer when he was very young, after a few years as a child movie actor.

Her first husband, the director Tay Garnett, had pulled a few strings to get her brother a job at RKO around 1931 or 1932, doing some script revisions. But before that, he had applied for a job at the Hal Roach Studio writing gags for their comedy shorts. He came up with what he thought were some very funny ideas and walked into a room to meet with the head writers. He expected these men to be relaxed and funny, “but they were serious and stone-faced and seemed like very dull people,” she chuckled. “It was hard for him to believe that these men would recognize a joke if it bit ’em on the ass, much less be capable of writing anything remotely funny.”

 But he presented his ideas with as much enthusiasm as he could, as the men listened without smiling. Lo and behold, he was later congratulated by Hal Roach himself who said that everyone thought his ideas were hilarious! He was offered the job but didn’t take it because he could not imagine working with such dull, humorless people.

After driving through Palm Springs, we went through a wide open space of sand and mesquite before we entered the town of Palm Desert, which has more palms than desert. The limo was permitted to pass through the big iron gate of the Monterey Country Club and we pulled up in front of a tan-colored condo with a red-tiled roof. The address was 425 Sierra Madre North.

The only thing visible from the street was a big garage door. It was an end unit, attached to a row of similar-looking condos on one side, but open to an attractive side yard on the other, through which a narrow sidewalk meandered next to palm trees. We passed a grapefruit tree on the way to the big front door, the fruit weighing down the branches. There was such a wonderful smell in the air, a mixture of freshly mowed grass and something citrusy, like oranges or lemons.

Once inside, I was immediately drawn to the wall of windows in the living room that looked out onto the golf course. I had never seen anything like it… tall palm trees, large ponds, silvery eucalyptus trees, grass so green it looked artificial, flowers of every hue and tangled, blossom-laden vines that grew up and around the roof line. The sky was powdery blue, saved from monotony by a few white puffy clouds, and in the distance were tall red-rugged mountains with a hint of snow on their tallest peaks. It was as though I had left earth and landed on a distant planet, a paradise. The spell was broken when Mrs. Deans barked an order for me to make her a drink “and don’t be stingy with the whiskey.”

I lived there for the next four months, months fraught with frustration, tension and disillusionment… but there were also moments of fun, excitement and great happiness.

Must end for now as I have work to do.

As always, my best to you and Mr. Hunter.  –Jeffrey

Dear Jeffrey – Wow! This story gets more interesting with every e-mail, but please don’t stop. I want to know what happened next. Tab and I eagerly await your next installment.  Allan

They didn’t have to wait very long.