20th Century Fox, Alfred Hitchcock, Casablanca, Chasen's Restaurant, Golden Era Hollywood, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, To Have & Have Not
I purposefully launched my blog four years ago on September 17th. Choosing my mom’s birthday seemed the best way to bring my writing long term good luck. Month in and month out my global readership continues to increase, so I know she’s helping from heaven. To celebrate the anniversary of these posts, I’d like to remember her 99th birthday today. Her first name was Louise, and I want to share her best stories from working as a waitress in Golden Era Hollywood. I hope you enjoy the first story involving her two favorites, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Because my mom was present the day fashioned changed. Forever.
My mom’s family represented the Americans in frozen and hopeless Minnesota during the Great Depression. They lost everything, farm repossessed, hunger often at the door, backs financially broken and no place to go but down. She and her sisters picked themselves off their feet, left Minnesota on a -40 degree day and never looked back. After very short stops as a waitress in Dallas at the Adolphus Hotel and San Francisco at the St. Francis, my mom eventually joined her sisters in Los Angeles. The streets weren’t paved in gold, but they were paved in jobs. You could get one because of the explosion of the film industry. Finding a good job was pretty much out of the question in Minnesota.
One thing led to another and all three sisters wound up at the 20th Century Fox studio commissary. My Aunt Lorraine served in the section reserved primarily for actors and actresses. She was a favorite of Marylyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Natalie Wood. My Aunt Phyllis’ section was composers and production people, and my mom waited on screenwriters and directors, though there was constant overlap between the three groups. Yes, she once had to fight off harrassment from mogul Daryl Zanuck, something for which there was no vocabulary in her generation.
And hopefully this reflective tale looks into the mirror of what women faced in the 20th century. Many of the stories I know need to be retold, reflecting the reality that there has been change, but not enough. I know with certainty that my mom could have won a few cases if Gloria Allred had existed. It was the era of Mad Men.
This is how my mom got to work in the most important restaurant in Hollywood.
Let’s be clear. Only men were allowed to work at Chasen’s as waiters and bartenders, dish washers and cooks. No woman need apply. But then came World War II and the draft. Exit all the boys. Maude Chasen, the Hostess of Hollywood, was in a big pickle.
So she headed over to 20th Century Fox to interview the staff there, and sure enough, my mom got a plum job and was hired to work at Chasen’s in the evening (Fox was only a lunch job anyway). My mom had the skills, of knowing culinary French so she could discuss the menu, how to perfectly set every place setting, she could bone the trouts and flame the desserts table side, and all in all impressed Mrs. Chasen with her calmness under pressure. My mom always did her homework, even though she never went beyond the 6th grade.
I’ve been asked, rather often by a few very close friends, to write down the memories of this era from my mom and her sisters. Her 99th birthday seems as good a time as any to finally do just that, so from time to time I’ll post a story from their behind the scenes vantage point of people who are legends of Hollywood movies.
Here’s a preview of coming attractions!
Jack Benny was a bad tipper. John Wayne was a genuinely nice person. Gregory Peck was the classiest man on earth and would give my mom an autographed photo that we treasure now in our Pasadena home (autographs were strictly verboten in that era). Orson Welles was impossible and Otto Preminger often difficult. Robert Mitchum a true gem, Alfred Hitchcock a combination of graciousness and mystery, always in character as he would hold forth all evening (which meant only one tip). Betty Davis was tough and a no nonsense woman. Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were classy discreet lovebirds, and mom told me their love affair was verbally apparent, never physically demonstrative. Akim Tamaroff and Sidney Greenstreet were charmers and James Stewart was always kind, every time. Mom had a soft spot for that out of place Nebraskan Marlon Brando. She would see all his films out of loyalty, even taking me with her as a kid to One Eyed Jacks to watch the only film he directed. Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now completely terrified her, a startling performance she knew was coming from Brando if he was in a film about the Vietnam War. She nonetheless went to its initial run at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard with her best friend Betty Pettinger, who was a waitress at MGM. Marilyn Monroe always asked after my Aunt Lorraine. Marilyn would often go into the kitchen to talk to everyone who was real, the cooks and dishwashers included, which I find very poignant.
Mom had two absolute favorites from her long career and the feeling was mutual. Her favorites?
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
If my mom had to boil her experiences into a perfect one sauce reduction for maximum flavor there was never a doubt about it. Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart had the biggest hearts in Hollywood (and I’ll get to HUAC in future posts). They requested she be the only server at their small private wedding reception held at Chasen’s for their friends who could not attend the formal wedding back East, Lauren Bacall of course being from New York City. That reception was the highlight of my mother’s career as a waitress in Hollywood. I cry my eyes out every time I see a film now with Bogart and Bacall, simultaneously hearing my mom’s memories as I see them in the movie. Good tears, but they always drench my crying towel.
No two actors were bigger than these two. Casablanca was immediately iconic and together they had lit up the screen with To Have and Have Not, Bacall’s saucy interplay with Bogart electrifying the whole world. “It’s even better when you help.” “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?…….” and you can probably finish the career making line. And if you don’t know the film, you’ve got a great first experience waiting for you!
My mom helped set the room, organize the pass trays of hors d’oeuvres with the kitchen, and served the meal while always pouring the champagne. After their first ceremonial slice of wedding cake, it was my mom who took over to cut the cake for their friends at Chasen’s. She never forgot that day. What she remembered most was their very private happiness, the happiest day she ever saw in Hollywood. And mom was right to tell me that small parties are the best parties, which she learned at Bogart and Bacall’s wedding reception.
But how this came about is probably the better story. As I look back, I can easily understand why Bogart liked my mom, and I’m happy to have had a nice correspondence with their son, Stephen, sharing with him the day I’m about to share with you.
It was a well known Hollywood fact that Bogart loved going sailing on the weekends out of Marina Del Rey, or perhaps out to Catalina or up to Santa Barbara. Being on the water was his far from the madding crowd time with Bacall. My mom gave me a secret about being around anyone with fame attached to their personality.
“I never took an order from Rick in Casablanca. I just asked Mr. Bogart what he’d like for dinner. You aren’t around a character, you’re around a person who wants a sandwich so they can get back to work, or a dinner so they can relax with friends. And you learn a lot more from being in their presence seeing them as people and not stars.”
Which takes me to one Sunday afternoon, probably in 1945. We don’t know about dress codes any more, they’ve become, for good reason, basically archaic (though my wife would find a hat for a major social event in Great Britain). So perhaps on first read in 2017 this might not seem a big deal. But in 1945 dress codes were the law of the land.
On Sunday my mom would begin as the hostess seating the few early arrivals before the A list customers were all in place. Mrs. Chasen trusted her to get it right before she herself would take over. With my mom in her usual before the dinner rush role on Sunday, the door opens from Beverly Boulevard. A beautiful Southern California twilight streams into Chasen’s and in walk Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They certainly didn’t need a reservation. She’s in a dress. That’s fine. He’s not in a suit and tie. Uh oh……..
What’s he wearing? A turtleneck sweater and double breasted boat jacket straight from sailing in the Marina. Uh oh…….
My mom had great instincts and they kicked into high gear. If Hedda Hopper were to see Humphrey Bogart in Chasen’s without a suit and tie she’d potentially pontificate that all of Western civilization’s demise could be put onto this little pipsqueak waitress from Minnesota who betrayed Hollywood’s finest restaurant. My mom! And after that media storm she’d probably get fired. Mom said her heart was in her throat and her mind was going 150 miles per hour. This was big.
“Good afternoon, Louise.” Then Bogart asked for his usual table. Uh oh………
“Hello Mr. Bogart,” said mom. An awkward pause was needed. Everybody knew the place was empty. They were the first customers to open the door. Mom needed to kill for time but lying to Humphrey Bogart took risky gumption. Lauren Bacall put her head down. “Give me a few moments to see if it’s ready for you.”
Time to think fast. Rather than pace the floor of her mind, mom walked quickly to the back to find Mrs. Chasen, who was in her office. This had never, ever, happened before. It was not done. Unthinkable. Mind blowing. And it was being done by Humphrey Bogart. Impossible to ignore. Big enough for her to lie to Rick from Casablanca. After all, if he could shoot Major Strasser he could easily shoot my mom.
She was in luck, found Mrs. Chasen in her office and knocked on the door.
“Come in Louise. What is it now?”
“Mrs. Chasen, I don’t know how to handle this. Mr. Bogart is here and wants his usual table. But he doesn’t have a suit and tie on, he’s wearing a turtleneck sweater after going sailing. Do I dare ask him to please change into a coat and tie, and should I get him one like we usually do for other customers? But what about his turtleneck sweater? I know we have jackets and ties, but do we even have dress white shirts?”
Mrs. Chasen looked up from the pile of invoices on her desk and quietly answered my mom. This was going to big. She’d be changing fashion. Guaranteed to be all over Hollywood in two hours. On Broadway in New York City the next day. Bogart knew it. My mom knew it. Mrs. Chasen knew it.
“Louise,” came the assured answer from Mrs. Chasen, “you seat Mr. Bogart.”
Their mutual hunch was right. Mom said it was all indeed over town the next day that Humphrey Bogart was seen at Chasen’s in a turtleneck sweater, breaking the dress code. It remained big gossip news for quite a while (but gossip was a lot more private in 1945 than today, I might add).
I can’t help but think that it was this experience that made Bogart and Bacall like my mom and why they would ask for her to be the only server at Chasen’s for their private wedding reception. Their son loved hearing this story about his dad and agreed it might well have been why my mom was requested. Had mom been inflexible with the most famous couple on earth they might have had a very akward exchange. Mom could have been eventually fired for bad judgment enforcing a silly rule. Or maybe just shot like Major Strasser.
We live in a completely different world of fashion in the 21st century. You could be reading this in a fancy place wearing jeans and a T-shirt, scratching your head that this story was ever an issue. But it was. And what you could wear and where you could wear it all began to change that Sunday afternoon in 1945 at Beverly and Doheny in West Hollywood, as my mom brought a thinking on her feet question to Maude Chasen.
“Louis(e), I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Thanks, Mom and Happy 99th Birthday!
Best, best, best,