Few in filmdom better cultivated the press than Carole Lombard; she knew how to publicize her exploits in such a way that it was simultaneously significant and entertaining. That helped Carole immensely in her dealings with Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Jimmie Fidler and others in the Hollywood press corps -- but she also had plenty of success with writers who weren't based in the movie capital.
One of them was no stranger to Hollywood, but was predominantly identified with New York; in fact, his column usually featured "On Broadway" in its title. Moreover, his influence extended far beyond the entertainment world, frequently venturing into politics, and he became one of the first multimedia stars, gaining high ratings on radio. It's difficult to overstate just how big a force he was in the 1930s and '40s.
We are referring to Walter Winchell.
Winchell had been a vaudeville performer in the 1910s, moving into journalism in the early 1920s -- first with a trade paper, the Vaudeville News, then with eccentric publisher Bernarr MacFadden's foray into tabloid journalism, the New York Graphic. In June 1929, he left the struggling Graphic for Hearst's tabloid New York Daily Mirror, adding a radio show the following year. At his peak, his column was carried in more than 2,000 newspapers. Here's a sample of Winchell's breezy journalism, circa 1940 (double-click to see it at full size):
And here's his radio broadcast from May 18, 1941, short on entertainment, long on war news:
How often did Winchell write about Lombard? It's difficult to gauge from a 2011 perspective. Most of the larger papers that carried his column were in the Hearst chain, are now defunct and are difficult to track down on microfilm. But I have found a few samples, two of them coming in one column -- from the Hearst-owned Rochester (N.Y.) Evening Journal of June 29, 1936, while Winchell was out on the Coast:
First, Winchell discusses feminine film beauty, listing his tops in 10 different categories (oh, and apologies for typos that probably prompted a few snickers around Rochester that day -- he's referring to Gail Patrick and Kay Francis):
(A loud cheer for the Lombard legs!)
Next, an anecdote about being out with Lombard and Clark Gable -- and a reminder that even 75 years ago, people often acted boorishly around celebrities:
Incidentally, Hearst would close the Journal in 1937 when he began having financial difficulties.
Flash forward to August 1938, not long after Carole had spent a week handling publicity for Selznick International Pictures. Just as Johnny Carson used to do on the Tonight show, Winchell would employ other celebrities as guest columnists while he was vacationing. Lombard got the honors on Aug. 2 (probably through Selznick International publicist Russell Birdwell), and wrote her column in the form of a "letter" to Walter. I couldn't track down an original copy of it, but thankfully Carla Valderrama's site, carolelombard.org, ran it a few years back -- so here it is:
I tried to get you on the telephone the other day, but they told me you were on a 30-day vacation. Pretty soft! You see, I went into the press agenting business for a week, and I had a lot to tell you.
Before you make any cracks -– it wasn’t a gag. I took a desk, four telephones and two secretaries in Selznick International’s news bureau. The doors were open wide for six days. Any and all movie writers, radio gossipers, reporters and columnists -– you too –- were welcome to enter and hear the news.
You would have loved to have been here, Walter, when I called in Gene Fowler to be my rewrite man, and he interviewed John Hay (Jock) Whitney and David O. Selznick. Here’s how it went, according to Gene’s report:
Gene: Mr. Whitney, meet Mr. Selznick. He is president in charge of production.
Whitney: This is news to me. I thought he was part of the Roosevelt spending program.
Gene: How long will the partnership last?
Whitney: Forever. You see we are producing “Gone With The Wind.”
Gene: I hear that you have changed your racing colors since entering the movie business.
Whitney: Yes? To what?
Gene: Black and blue!
When I called you, Walter, I wanted to toss a couple of stories in your direction.
One was about plans to have the first transatlantic air clipper drop a wreath over the spot where the S.S. Titanic sank in 1912. The flowers would bear the legend, “To Those Who Showed The Way To Safety On The High Seas.” It is a dignified and newsworthy idea. Furthermore, Selznick is going to make a picture called “Titanic.”
Called the Duke of Windsor, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, H.G. Wells, Maude Adams, George Bernard Shaw and a few others on another idea -- a round-the-world telephone poll on what noted people think on the casting of Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in “Gone With The Wind.” I couldn’t get a single answer. I defy even you to get past the Duke’s third secretary. As for the others, they weren’t in.
Governor Frank M. Merriam of California, I found out, is giving earnest consideration to “career insurance” for Hollywood stars. Nine extras, former stars themselves, who recently worked together on “The Young At Heart,” petitioned the governor for a law forcing present stars to save 10 per cent of their salaries for the future. The idea aroused widespread favorable comment.
By the time my week was over, Walter, I had handled 70 news stories, including one or two, I must admit, on my next picture, “Made For Each Other.” On the final day, they threw a party for me, and sent me out of the office with a three-foot gold loving cup, inscribed, “To Carole Lombard, who gave publicity legs upon which to stand -– Russell Birdwell.” The man Birdwell is Selznick’s nominal publicity and advertising head.
For stars who feel ego creeping up on them, I recommend a week’s trick in a studio news bureau. They’ll find that city editors don’t swoon at the sight or sound of so-called Hollywood names.
Time to sign off now. Here’s one you can have with no credits attached:
Did you hear about the producer who ordered a certain makeup man fired? The man, he said, made a star’s wig look too phony.
Well, the fellow told to execute the order slipped the bad news to the makeup man.
“But why?” said the man. “That was no wig. It was the star’s natural hair.”
“In that case,” said the lieutenant bouncer, “you’re canned anyway. Do you think I can tell the chief he was mistaken?”
Oh, that wacky, wonderful Lombard.
However, that wasn't the only time Carole pinch-hit for Winchell. See another example in tomorrow's entry -- along with a famed photo of them together.