October 9th, 2008

carole lombard 04
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An urban legend? 'Mae'-be yes, 'Mae'-be no

I finally saw Turner Classic Movies' promo for Carole Lombard as its Star of the Month for October. It's a brief interview with Garson Kanin, who directed Carole in "They Knew What They Wanted" -- ironically, a film TCM is not showing this month. (That's him above, welcoming Lombard to the Napa Valley set where they were doing location shooting.) Kanin talks about how valuable Lombard was on the set, that she didn't use a dressing room, and things like that.

Fascinating stuff, to be sure, but most of us have already seen this clip -- especially since Kanin died in 1999. (Then again, how many folks are still with us who knew or worked with Lombard? There's Karl Malden, who made his film debut with a small part in that film, and perhaps a handful of juvenile actresses or ingenues. Sadly, that's really about it.)

But seeing Kanin brought back some memories for me. About 1990 or so, I saw "Adam's Rib" at the old Biograph Theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan, and Kanin -- who wrote the script for this Tracy & Hepburn classic -- was on hand and spoke briefly. As he went up the aisle, I stopped him and handed him a paperback copy of his wonderful memoir, "Hollywood," which he courteously signed. I shook his hand and told him, "I'm jealous of any man who knew Carole Lombard." That brought a smile to his face as he went on his way.

Kanin's description of Lombard is among the most vivid word portraits of the lady. You get a feel for her wondrous vivacity and energy, how she could get any man under her power. And the book is chock full of recollections -- some happy, some sad -- of what life was like in the movie capital during that special era.

But one segment of the book is either the flip side of the Hollywood dream factory or one of the tallest tales from Tinseltown. It's about a place in the Hollywood Hills called "Mae's," an exclusive house of ill repute run by a madam who resembled Mae West, and whose roster included duplicates of movie icons whose verisimilitude to the stars was downright uncanny (especially if you had downed a drink or two beforehand).

On his first visit to Hollywood in 1937, Kanin was taken there and became involved with a "Barbara Stanwyck." And while he wrote he never became a regular there because the fees were too expensive, he occasionally accompanied men who did participate.

According to Kanin, while working on "They Knew What They Wanted," he decided to have a tryst with the ersatz Lombard who was working there -- and later told Carole what he'd done. He says she laughed about it and thought about telling her husband, but decided not to because Gable would want to see whether this Carole was as good as the real thing.

The idea of a bordello in Hollywood where the personnel are lookalikes to cinema goddesses was used in the film "L.A. Confidential," with David Strathairn playing the whorehouse's owner. But did such a place exist, or was this an urban legend?

One author says such a place indeed did exist, and was run by two well-known industry "fixers." E.J. Fleming says "(Eddie) Mannix and (Howard) Strickling decided that they should have a little more control so they opened a private location (brothel)...They put a woman in charge named Billie Bennett who looked and spoke like Mae West. 'Bennett's' was a special and unique brothel because all of the women were lookalikes of actresses from MGM and other studios."

If a movie star lookalike brothel existed into the 1950s, one would think that a few of the participants are still around today, telling their stories. However, I've never read any. And what about police records from that era (okay, we knew that certain elements of law enforcement were on the take)? Could they corroborate the existence of an exclusive whorehouse?

It would be interesting to find out...and imagine if there was indeed a Lombard lookalike on the roster. After Jan. 16, 1942, what did she do? Her "career" would have sank just as sharply as John F. Kennedy impressionist Vaughn Meader's would after JFK's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.
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