A fixture on my bookshelf is a sweet little curiosity entitled Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary: private letters from inside the studios of the 1920s. Edited and annotated most attentively by film historian Cari Beauchamp, it is a collection of letters penned by a young woman named Valeria Belleti who moved to Los Angeles from her New Jersey home in 1924. Valeria was 25 years old and had landed smack in the midst of a modern boomtown—the burgeoning movie biz making Hollywood its unsanctioned core.
She landed a job as Samuel Goldwyn’s personal assistant which means that her letters are the sort of primary source material that Hollywood history lovers (like yours truly) absolutely salivate over. By Valeria’s own admonition she was a bit “prim” and, although this collection of letters span the very apex of the jazz age, the pages are not inked with the sort of hot-jazz prohibition party-hardy hedonism we tend to associate with the period. Cari Beauchamp, the womens interests champion and versed Hollywood historian, writes that Valeria “was always on the lookout for a good time—within the bounds of propriety of course—and for a man to enjoy it with. She was very much a young woman of her times, proper but curious, taking her work seriously and ambitious to a point, but always wondering if the next man she met was husband material.” So, instead of a steamy Fitzgerald-esque diary, we have instead the gift of a revealing, detailed journaling of the daily cogwheel workings of a Hollywood studio in the 1920s.
They are also painful proof of just how much our society has lost in our collective neglect of the hand-written letter. There is a candor and intelligence in Valeria’s heartfelt pages that our emails and tweets and texts can never hope to convey.
Towards the end, Valeriea’s letters do become bogged down with accounts of her personal love interests– the stories of which are largely under whelming—but how could one possibly find fault with this? These were, after all, Valeria’s private letters and had she known they would have been published for posterity’s sake eighty years after their composition I’m sure they would read dramatically differently.
With a roster of supporting players to put MGM to shame, including Frances Marion, Rudolph Valentino, Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper, Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary is essential reading for any Hollywood history enthusiast.
The following entry is precisely the sort of account that turns me pea-green with envy. Why oh why couldn’t I have been Valeria Belleti?
“Dear Irma …
All your good wishes have come true—I have had the most happy Christmas I’ve ever had, that is, so far as material things are concerned. Naturally at heart, I still my miss my mother and all my friends and I can never be really happy until there is someone who can in a measure fill this gap.
Everybody at the studio was wonderful to me—Ronald Colman gave me a lovely underarm bag, Frances Marion gave me a gorgeous French beaded pocketbook, Mrs. Goldwyn gave me a orgeous satin mules trimmed in green ostrich feathers, Mr Fitzmaurice gave me a huge box of candy, Mr. Lehr gave me a gold cigarette holder (I smoke occasionally now-but it’s not a habit as yet) and I got things from about 5 or 6 other men at the studio. The office gave me a week’s salary.
The day before Christmas we had a little party at the studio in the afternoon—of course everybody had been drinking but me—I had to remain sober because I had to send about 75 telegrams out for Mr. Goldwyn and flowers to wives of his business friends. Mr. Goldwyn left about 3 in the afternoon and then the fun began. I had about 5 assistant directors in my office, our production manager, Jack Pickford, a few minor actors and then Ronald dropped in. As I said before, I was the only sober one in the lot, however they were not disgustingly drunk—just funny. Ronald is making a picture with Norma Talmage—“Kiki.” … Ronald came off the Kiki set and he was still in his make up and feeling pretty good. It was the first time I have ever seen him like that—he’s so quiet and reserved and almost unapproachable. He put a cap on me and wound a muffler around my neck and then I put on my black satin mules with the ostrich feathers and Ronald and I were playing “Kiki”. … Then Ronald was trying to do the Charleston and couldn’t—he looked awfully funny….”
4 thoughts on “Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary”
This book sounds like a fascinating read! I love this stuff. Reading these kind of old journal entries, letters, and correspondence really makes one feel like they are stepping into someone else’s life – a past life. I can only imagine what kinds of exciting encounters this secretary must have had.
It is a shame that people rarely write letters anymore. Now everything is lost in less poetic electronic tweets.
Oh my goodness Robby, I truly could not agree more. One of the main reasons I became such a ravenous history nerd is because of one fortuitous day, when I was 12 years old, my grandma and I were at an Antiques gallery. I randomly picked up an old book which turned out to be the high school Annual of a girl from 1931. The signatures of her schoolmates all told stories, there were bits of folded yellow paper inside with poems and “in-jokes” and I read nothing else the entire summer. Enticed and entranced and entirely intoxicated by this world I had no real business prying into. It created a monster. And so I’m right there with ya, buddy, when you speak about stepping into the past through someone else’s past correspondence– it is vicarious living in its most organic form.
Haha. I couldn’t have said it better.
Thank you for bringing this book to our attention. Adding this one to my list! I’ve heard another good one is, “Yes, Mr. Selznick.” It’s by Marcella Rabwin who was an executive assistant to David Selznick. I’ve seen her featured in many documentaries. Anyone read it?