We don’t know how we let it sneak by us, but Monday, July 5, was the 100th birthday of the wonderful Gloria Stuart, best known now for her work in James Cameron‘s Titanic, but a woman who’s led a remarkable life and was a pretty big movie star in the 1930s, to boot.
In 1999, when she was just a kid of 89, we got to interview Gloria on the occasion of the publication of her memoir, I Just Kept Hoping. The interview was conducted over the telephone, though we did get the chance to meet Ms. Stuart when she came to NYC for her book party.
We considered it quite a thrill, we don’t mind telling you, to get to interact with Ms. Stuart. After all, this is the women who starred opposite Claude Rains in James Whale‘s The Invisible Man, who appeared with Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton in The Old Dark House, who worked with greats such as Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, Pat O’Brien, Lionel Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Nancy Carroll, Frank Morgan, Paul Lukas, Edward Arnold, Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting, and dozens more.
So, to mark her centennial (a few days late, alas), we thought we’d share with the Cladrite Radio Clan the interview we did with her in 1999. Enjoy!
It’s been a long, eventful life for former and current movie star Gloria Stuart. She had her first go-around at stardom in the Hollywood heyday of the 1930s and ’40s; then, after taking off 30 years or so to pursue painting, travel, and political activism, she again began to act in the 1970s, eventually garnering a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in Titanic. Still going strong today at the age of 89, Stuart has now added authorship to her list of achievements. Her candid memoir, I Just Kept Hoping, is peppered with anecdotes about such memorable figures as Shirley Temple, Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. We spoke to Gloria about her life, her two careers in the movies, and her secrets for living so long and so well.
An Interview with Gloria Stuart
I’m very happy I was in those films. You know, James is a cult figure in England. There are a lot of James Whale fan clubs. Actually, right after I had read for Jim Cameron for Titanic, I had booked a month in London. I went right away, and there were two wonderful James Whale organizations that I met with. He’s getting his due now, thanks to Gods and Monsters.
What did you think of Gods and Monsters? Was it, in your view, an accurate portrayal of Whale?
Oh, yes, it was. Ian McKellan captured James’s elegance, the beautiful manners, the beautiful tailoring, the precision, the whole thing. Of course, no one could be James, but he came awfully close.
The special effects in The Invisible Man hold up remarkably well today for a film that was made in 1933.
Yes, people who see it today—it runs every so often—they say, gee, it’s not an old hat movie at all.
I’m wondering—did the processes that went into creating those special effects slow down the pace of moviemaking at all?
It was never evident. Only James and the cameraman and I guess all the process people at Universal—the rest of us never had any inkling of what was going on. We did do a lot of shooting in front of black curtains. Now, I wasn’t on the set when the bandages came off or anything like that, so I have no idea about that. But it was very, very secret. I wasn’t on the set when they were finagling the bandages off, and so forth.
That would’ve been fun to see.
You and your second husband, Arthur Sheekman, were good friends with Humphrey Bogart and Mayo Methot, his wife at the time. What can you tell us about Bogie that we might not know?
That you might not know? He’s been covered so thoroughly! [laughs] I don’t think that the period in his life when he was married to Mayo has been covered, generally, as much as his time with Lauren [Bacall]. What I can say about Bogie is that he and my husband and I were good friends, affectionate friends. We admired him very much, and he admired my husband very much. He liked my cooking. He was, I would say, an intellectual. He read in great depth, was a brilliant chess player. He was a gentleman, you know—beautifully raised, beautiful manners. I think the problems he had with Mayo Methot were very unfortunate. But you know, she was a sweet, dear person, too—except when she was drinking. It changes people. My friends tell me that, if I’ve had a couple of glasses, I’m not Miss Goody Two-shoes, either. [laughs]
Did you ever have the sense, in those days, that Bogart had what it took to become the sort of icon that he is today?
No, but you know the same thing is true of Julie Epstein. Julie is probably one of the two best-known screenwriters in the world for having cowritten Casablanca. It was always fun and games and jokes, and even Julie had no idea that they had written the classic film.
It’s still my favorite film of all time, I have to admit.
It’s mine, too! Very few films have that kind of impact worldwide. I remember a few years ago, on one of the film’s anniversaries, Julie went all over Europe and parts of the Orient as the guest of movie people, making appearances for having cowritten Casablanca. You know, an English film critic said something that was so funny. I published a little miniature book with my private press where Julie wrote about the last ten days of filming Casablanca, when they didn’t have a finish. And it opens with a quote from a British film critic: “This is the worst best movie that was ever made.” [laughs]
Well, I’ll go along with the “best” part of that statement. I suppose the film could be said to be perhaps overly sentimental, but sentiment, when it’s done well, can be awfully effective.
It’s very touching. And of course it was during a very crucial time in our history.
He was wonderful to my husband. They were really devoted to each other.
Many stories have been told about Groucho, but not so many about Harpo.
That’s because he and Susan got married and adopted four children and he was a papa and she was a mama. We used to spend weekends—and sometimes two weeks at a time—with them down in Palm Springs. He’d get up in the morning and have breakfast and then he’d practice the harp for an hour or two and then he and Arthur would go out on the golf course. Of course, playing a round of golf with Groucho and Harpo was falling-down time. They were so funny. And they didn’t take it seriously—the balls went every direction. And my husband couldn’t play, either. It was such a treat to spend a couple of hours with these clowns. Then we’d have lunch, and Harpo would take a nap. And Harpo painted, you know—very seriously. And we’d paint—I was painting at the time. And Susan was making frames like mad. Arthur would work in the study on whatever he was writing. And then we’d have dinner—barbecue, or whatever—and then we’d go to bed. And that was Harpo’s life. Once in a while, he would go to Vegas. But he was really retired. He was so adorable. One of my favorite things he said was, “I can’t add C-A-T and I can’t spell ‘2 and 2 are 4.’ ” [laughs]
Are you still in contact with his wife?
Oh, yes. I spoke to her about ten days ago. She’s fine—she’s 90! She’s about a year older than I am. She’s coming to my book party at Rancho Mirage. The public library there is giving me a big book party in October. She’s wonderful. She was head of the library; she was head of the art association; she was head of the hospital. She was intent that all the children in Palm Springs—and it’s a very mixed pot down there—that they all got a good education. She’s been honored by the Palm Springs Rotary and all those organizations for her contributions. She was a Follies girl, you know.
You describe at some length in the book a trip around the world you took in the early 1940s. How did your experiences on that journey impact the rest of your life?
I’ll tell you how it impacted my life: I never want to go back to some of those places as they are now. I did go back to some of the places, like Hong Kong and Shanghai, but I don’t want to go back to Bali or India—I did go back to India, but it was an entirely different kind of trip. Bali was so pure and life was so pure and simple in the parts of Italy that we were in, and France, and it isn’t like that anymore. I feel sorry for people—they never will know what Bali was like. They never will know what Hong Kong was like—with one hotel, the Peninsula. They will never know what Singapore was like with one hotel, the Raffles. And there were no high-rise buildings, there were no traffic jams; there was nothing. They were colonial outposts—very gracious. Saigon was adorable—very French, very sophisticated, but small. And Angkor, of course, had no tourists at all.
I guess no place stays the same, though.
No. I mean, Los Angeles is ugly. Santa Monica is ugly. It wasn’t back then. It was green fields. We had deer in the backyard in Santa Monica. [laughs]
You’ve been involved in many arenas of creative endeavor: You’ve acted on stage and screen, you’ve written, you’ve done a bit of song and dance for the troops during the war, you’ve painted and worked with découpage. Which of these disciplines brought you the most satisfaction and fulfillment?
My printing. I’m now printing James Cameron‘s Academy Award acceptance speech. Do you know about miniature books? There’s a very large group of collectors all around the world. They have an international prize they give every year; I won it one year for design. These books are very expensive; they start around $200 and go up as high as $3,000 for a book two-and-a-half inches by one-and-three-quarters. And the paper is handmade, with leather bindings and handset type and handmade illustrations and so on. And I’ve done three. I wrote one called Boating With Bogart, and then Julie wrote the one I mentioned about the last ten days of Casablanca. And then James Cameron gave me his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards for Titanic, and I’m doing that. To me, printing the book and designing the book is just—I can’t wait to get up in the morning, and I hate to go to bed at night when I’m printing. I’m very grateful to Ward Ritchie [the man who introduced her to printing] for that.
In her recent memoir, Esther Williams revealed that Jeff Chandler, with whom she was romantically involved for a time, was a cross-dresser. You are similarly forthcoming in your book. Were there stories that you kept to yourself?
There’s so much that I didn’t tell and wouldn’t tell. I don’t see what is gained by disclosing such things. I know that there were several actors who were cross-dressers, but it didn’t seem to me to be contributing to name names. It didn’t shock me at all. Heavens, women go around in men’s clothes, and nobody falls down in a dead faint.
I suppose there was a time when they did.
Well, when [Marlene] Dietrich first wore a pantsuit to an opening—a tuxedo—it was headline news all over the world. But I don’t think anybody worried about that. We all knew about her sex life. We all knew about Garbo. You know, we all knew it, but it was no big deal.
Movie stars and celebrities were allowed more secrets back then, weren’t they?
Well, Jimmy Starr, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper—they kept their mouths shut! And there weren’t radio—well, there was Jimmy Starr and Walter Winchell but if you’ve ever heard any of those tapes, it was a Sunday afternoon picnic. We knew who was living with whom, we knew who had had an abortion, we knew who had an illegitimate child. But nobody ever said anything! It was none of our business.
Is it at all bittersweet to see your younger self in your early films?
Oh, no. I’m so amazed that I’m as old as I am. And fortunately, I’m a little nearsighted so when I look in the mirror in the morning, I don’t really see the wrinkles and the bumps and limps. No, it doesn’t bother me at all. My husband always said to me, “You’re either the vainest woman in the world or the least conceited because you never look in the mirror!” It’s never concerned me; I just accepted it. I’m lucky, I guess, but it’s just never concerned me. I think it’s nice that I was very beautiful. I mean, it was very satisfactory; I didn’t have to worry.
Well, you still look great. In fact, they had to age you for Titanic!
That’s true; James wasn’t sure I could look 101. I said, “You haven’t see me before breakfast, James.”
So how was it to see yourself looking much older onscreen?
Oh, I thought it was wonderful. Greg Cannom [the old-age makeup specialist on Titanic] is amazing. He’s fantastic! He’s won two Academy Awards.
You remain, at the age of 89, very vibrant and active. Have you secrets to share for contented aging?
Well, I think the gift my mother gave me—Mama was very gung ho all of her life. I don’t know about my father; he died so young. I don’t know, I just can’t stop. So that has to be a gift. I mean, I don’t take lessons in how to succeed. I never have. I’ve never had to go to a psychoanalyst. Thank God for them, because they are wonderful and helpful, but I’ve never felt the need for one. I’d love somebody to solve my arthritis, though. I’m on a new pill, and it’s wonderful; maybe it will work. [laughs]
The book makes it clear that you have a real fondness for gardening.
Oh yes. My gardeners were here this morning; I got up at 5:30, and we worked until about 10. I’m growing vegetables for the first time. I have so many tomatoes that they took some home. And chili peppers. And kale and cucumbers. And, oh, wonderful zucchini.
Are you still working with bonsai?
Yes, my bonsai master and his wife were here two weeks ago, because it was time to prune the spring and summer growths. One of my trees is in the international collection at the Huntington Library. It’s imported, a Japanese cork-barked elm. It was given to me by my first bonsai master in 1944 or ’45. So it’s about 50 years old. And it was quite old then. It’s one of a kind; it’s really quite extraordinary.
Did you ever imagine, during your first go-round in Hollywood, that you might be involved in a hit of the magnitude of Titanic?
No. No, that’s why I quit. I couldn’t stand what I was doing. I knew that I could do it, if I were ever given the opportunity, but no, of course not. I went without an agent for six years before giving it up completely. And I didn’t miss it. What do you do? You wipe the slate clean and start over again. I brooded enough about it. Besides, the printing is so wonderful, and I’ve had such great success with it—I mean, instant kudos, instant acceptance. The Getty and Victoria and Albert and the New York Public Library Special Collections and Princeton Special Collections and the Clark Library here and the Huntington Library—in just a few years. So there’s no way I would sit around and mourn the fact that I didn’t have a good part.
And the better parts continue to come your way.
Well, they’re charming. I’m leaving for Vancouver Monday; I’m going up to do a funny old lady in a film with Dyan Cannon, an FBI-CIA mystery. So that’ll be fun. And then I start on the book tour.
Is there a particular role that you didn’t get in the course of your career that you wish you’d gotten to play?
In which of your films did you do your best work?
Which of the actors or actresses you’ve known or worked with over the years is least like the image we have of them today?
Oh, I don’t know! Maybe [James] Cagney. He was very quiet. You know, they called it the Irish Mafia at Warner Brothers—Pat O’Brien, Frank McHugh, and Cagney, and a couple of other Irishmen. And on the set, there was a lot of fun and laughter. But Jimmy was one of the men that introduced me to the idea of a union. He was a big liberal, and an intellectual, really, I think. Very reserved, was married to the same dear wife. He wasn’t the gangster type or anything like that.
And which actor or actress would you say mostly closely resembled their public image?
Probably Dietrich. I would think so. I didn’t know her. But I’ll tell you something about Dietrich that always impressed me. I was at an opening down at the Biltmore—that was our only legitimate theater in those days—and everyone was there: [Norma] Shearer, [Joan] Crawford, Ann Harding, Claudette Colbert, all the great leading men. Because it was Katharine Cornell opening. Everyone smoked in those days, and we were all out in the foyer and in front of the theater. And Dietrich pulled up and got out of a limo, and it was like the waters parted. She walked in, you know, and everybody stood back! Crawford, who was always “on,” Shearer, who was beautiful and important—all the greats were there, and they all moved back as Dietrich made her way into the theater. It was fantastic! I’ve never forgotten that. And you know, smiling, simple, no prima donna act or anything—just there.
How do you feel about the increased freedom that exists in film-making now, compared to the old days, in depicting sexual matters and violent scenes?
It’s fine with me, but I think that access for kids to some of that material is just horrifying. They can film anything they want to, but that children have access to it… I was in Japan—I was flying kites at an international kite event with my grandson—and he told me that there were all kinds of things on Japanese television, and that was a long time ago. I guess it’s all over the world.
But when a film is meant for an adult audience, you don’t have a problem with it?
No. As long as the story is interesting, that’s all. For example, the new Kubrick picture [Eyes Wide Shut] I found very interesting. A lot of my friends weren’t crazy about it, but I found it very interesting. It dealt with aspects of life that I was not aware of.