Remembering Mary Carlisle, 1914-2018

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This morning while checking in with mutual friends, I was sad to hear that Mary Carlisle, one of the last remaining stars of the 1930s, died today at the age of 104. She lived at the Motion Picture & Television Fund home in Woodland Hills, and to her very last days loved receiving guests of every stripe in her modest living room, decorated wall-to-wall with posters of her movies. I was lucky to be one of those guests 4 years ago, as I was just beginning work on my Marion Davies book. I met her for lunch at her home to interview her.

Mary was in a unique position to tell me about Marion Davies. Having begun her career in 1930 at MGM, Mary was frequently on the lot with Marion and Hearst, befriending both immediately. Soon, she was an inextricable part of the Hearst-Davies circle. Mary attended parties at Marion’s Beach House, struck up a quasi-romance with Hearst’s son David (at Hearst’s encouragement), and, most notably, ventured across Europe with the Hearst-Davies party in 1936. By the time I met her, Mary was the sole remaining person who knew Marion Davies while she was still working.

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Mary Carlisle (right) and Marion Davies sing together on the trip to Europe, 1936.

As I walked into her home and was introduced to Mary, I was struck by a presence that dominated the room. She was a small woman, but had a countenance about her that was larger than life. She warmed to me quickly, taking my arm in hers and sitting me down on the couch. She still walked very well, and spoke with the articulated, elegant diction of classic Hollywood. “Now, I’m 100 years old,” she told me in an authoritative voice, “but I’m not sick. I can shimmy…” (here she demonstrates a shimmy) “…and I can kick!” (she kicks her leg up in the air) She told me that she liked the sound of my voice, and her charm was palpable.

We sat down for lunch and continued talking about life. Mary asked me about my family and expressed sadness that I didn’t live with my parents. She was worried that I didn’t have a boyfriend and lived by myself, thinking that I must have been lonely. Quite the opposite, I assured her, I like living this way. She recounted that she always lived with her mother and encouraged me to spend more time with my family. It was a lovely conversation and it was a good hour before we got onto the subject of Marion Davies. When we did, she told me some wonderful stories.

Mary knew the truth about classic Hollywood and stood up for it. At one point, I said something that made her think my opinion was that Hearst didn’t love Marion. “Oh, that is asinine,” she exclaimed. “Saying that Mr. Hearst didn’t love Marion?” I quickly clarified my position and was back in her good graces, but I learned in that moment that one does not cross Mary Carlisle. She knew what she knew, and erroneous statements about her era were to be brutally obliterated. This firmness, I believe, is part of what it took to survive as a woman in classic Hollywood. Other long-lived women from the Golden Age of Hollywood–Olivia de Havilland and Maureen O’Hara, to name two–have demonstrated the same strength of character and what de Havilland calls “passion for accuracy.” It’s difficult to say whether their experiences in Hollywood fostered this quality or whether they were wired that way to begin with (probably a combination of the two), but it’s a trait that seems to be shared among female stars who live into their 90’s and 100’s.

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After lunch, Mary showed me her scrapbooks. She had been in Grand Hotel in 1932, the same year she was selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star, and eventually starred in three movies with Bing Crosby–College Humor (1933), Double or Nothing (1937), and Doctor Rhythm (1938). She retired in 1943, having appeared in over 60 movies. In the 1950s and for many decades thereafter, Mary ran the Elizabeth Arden Salon in Beverly Hills. Talking about her time at the salon, her eyes brightened and she talked proudly about what she was able to do there. It was clear to me that she considered this one of her crowning achievements.

My time with Mary lasted about 3 hours, and before I left, Mary gave me this picture. I keep it among my treasured photos. In 104 long years, Mary lived several lives in one and impacted many people. I think of her often, and the fact that she’s no longer with us will take some getting used to. She will be dearly missed.

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Olivia de Havilland Court Update: CA Supreme Court Denies Review

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Dear readers, I’ve been waiting to post about this until I got details from Olivia de Havilland’s lawyer regarding next steps, but a few days ago we got word that the California Supreme Court has declined to review de Havilland’s case against FX.

For those of us who have been advocating for her side, this comes as a blow. We don’t know how close the decision was–there was at least one justice, Justice Mariano Florentino Cuéllar, who voted to allow de Havilland to have her day in court. As judges are not required to publish their votes,  Justice Cuéllar’s is the only vote on record for either side.

We don’t know what, if anything, will happen next. The next step up in the legal system would be the Supreme Court of the United States. De Havilland’s team is weighing its options, but given the enormous pressure of being involved in a US Supreme Court case at the age of 102, this is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Regardless of what happens next, what has transpired in this case has been truly remarkable. When the case first went to the California Supreme Court, I posted an article outlining how to write an amicus curiae letter to the court in favor of de Havilland’s side. Thanks to all of you who sent your letters, 90 amicus curiae briefs were received by the court, a record-breaking number. In her email today addressing the outpouring of support, de Havilland’s lawyer wrote: “The fact that you collectively supported us and advocated for truth and fairness in the law was very important to our side.”

I have said and written from the beginning that no matter the outcome of the case, de Havilland wins. By simply putting pressure on corporate interests, showing them that civilians have the power to take them to task, she speaks truth to power and holds it accountable to the people. Since de Havilland filed her case, Ryan Murphy has shelved a season of American Crime Story about Monica Lewinsky, and the DVD release of Feud has been suspended. By daring to stand up, de Havilland has forced FX to back down and operate with more respect for facts and living people.

I will keep you posted about next steps, but in the meantime, may we all take a lesson from Olivia de Havilland–no matter how great our adversary, we cannot be intimidated by size or power. When we speak up and stand up, look the threat in the eye and assert our own presence, we see that maybe our biggest fears aren’t so big after all.

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Scarlett Johansson and Minority Representation on Film

A few days ago, Scarlett Johansson was announced as the lead in a new movie called Rub & Tug about Dante “Tex” Gill, a transgender man who owned a massage parlor and became involved in mob crime. The casting of a cisgender actress to play a transgender man has generated an angry buzz, only heightened by a Johansson rep’s reply to it: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment” (cisgender actors who have played transgender characters onscreen). In the wake of this conversation about what it means to have a minority character represented by someone outside the group, I thought this would be a good time to talk about this subject in film history.

When the Hays Code first came into being in 1930, the code explicitly forbade miscegenation onscreen, which was defined as “sex relationships between the white and black races.” This applied not only to what was depicted on film, but also in who was allowed to play which parts, opposite whom. If a leading man was black, for example, the leading lady also had to be black. If he was Asian, the leading lady had to be Asian, if he was white, the leading lady must be white. In order to tell the stories that they wanted to tell, starring the celebrities that would make them the most money, the studios were frequently pushed to put actors in blackface or yellowface, thereby creating films that was marketable–but outrageously offensive. Films such as these were frequently picketed by the NAACP, but for many years the studios found the picketing a small cost compared to the box office revenue from the films, and they had little motivation to do anything about the racially charged nature of the films coming out of Hollywood.

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[IMAGE: Anna May Wong in a jeweled headdress, looking off camera.]

Meanwhile, careers were suffering. Anna May Wong, one of the few leading ladies of Asian descent in Hollywood in the 1930s, left for Europe out of frustration with the anti-miscegenation laws that governed how she could work onscreen. In Europe, she made a huge splash with such films as Piccadilly and Pavement Butterfly, but after her return to the United States when she signed a contract with Paramount, she could only be paired as a leading lady alongside Sessue Hayakawa–while Asian and Asian-American roles opposite white actors had to go to other white actors. Instead of procuring her onscreen roles, Paramount gave her a job as a tutor to teach white actors how to “act Asian” for their parts. The final straw came when the role of Chinese farmer O-Lan in The Good Earth went to Luise Rainer opposite Paul Muni. Wong had had it with Hollywood, and from then on only acted in low-budget films to finish her contract with Paramount, in later years donating her profits to United China Relief.

In 1942, the NAACP succeeded in its efforts to convince Hollywood to stop creating stereotypical characterizations of minorities, and to hire more African-American talent, but the anti-miscegenation laws continued. The role of Julie LaVerne in the 1951 version of Show Boat, a story that deals with the interracial relationship of a white man and a singer with African-American ancestry, was given to Ava Gardner instead of Lena Horne. In 1951, you could depict an interracial relationship–but not with an actual interracial couple.

Lena Horne sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat, in the movie Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)

Fortunately, these rules are now long gone in the movies. But their influence still echoes, in the desire to stick with already-established personalities who will bring profit to the movies, rather than prioritize authentic casting. While it is now widely recognized that white actors cannot play characters of color, the same understanding does not yet exist for transgender characters or disabled characters. When the movie Wonder came out last year, starring Jacob Tremblay as a young boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome, I couldn’t help but think how many kids with Treacher Collins would have loved to star in a movie about a child with their disability. Or how many aspiring young actors with the syndrome could have played that role to perfection, and were denied a chance at employment. Like the limited opportunities afforded minority stars in the days of the Hays Code, this tendency to procure big names over authentic casting is costing many actors their livelihoods, and the right to tell their own stories.

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Marlee Matlin made her screen debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986), and won the Best Actress Oscar as a deaf actress playing a deaf role. She remains the only deaf performer to have won the award.    [IMAGE: Marlee Matlin signs in the dinner scene from Children of a Lesser God]

There is no dearth of transgender actors in Hollywood. The cast of Transparent, using authentic transgender casting, has earned numerous accolades and awards. Its stars, most previously unknown, have become veritable names in the industry. Had the producers of Rub & Tug managed to look beyond the reflex appeal of Scarlett Johansson and take a risk on an unknown transgender actor, they almost certainly would have found one, able to tell his own story truthfully and honestly. But as long as Hollywood plays it safe, continuing to recycle its moneymaking stars with no attention to authenticity, we will continue to see mere imitations and stereotyped portrayals on the screen, and miss out on witnessing potentially spectacular untapped talent.

There is an oft-repeated phrase in the disability rights community that has made its way into the LGBT rights movement–“Nothing about us, without us.” The producers of Rub & Tug would be wise to take that into consideration.

Standing Up for What’s Right: The Friendship of Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker

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In response to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ ousting from the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, VA on Friday, I wrote a tweet detailing one of my favorite Hollywood stories about standing up for core principles and values. To my great pleasure and surprise, the tweet has gone legitimately viral. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, and I wanted to tell the whole story here where I have more space.

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In 1951, Grace Kelly was an up-and-coming star in Hollywood. She had grown up in Philadelphia, a member of an aristocratic Irish Catholic family, and fell in love with acting and theatre under the wing of her uncle, George Kelly, a renowned playwright and director. 1951 saw her first major role in a motion picture, High Noon, which had given her almost overnight stardom.

At home in Philadelphia, in the words of her biographer Donald Spoto, Grace “never understood prejudice.” She was partly raised by her family valet, an African-American man whom she called “Fordie,” and whom she always credited as one of the major foundations of her early life. She asked his advice and followed it, regarding him as a third parent. In addition, her uncle George was gay. It was not a secret within the family, but she witnessed her uncle’s ostracism from society and that influenced her profound sense of awareness of the LGBT community. Later in life, she was known for immediately coming to the defense of gays and lesbians, whenever something derogatory was said about their sexuality.

Josephine Baker was born in Missouri in 1906. She suffered a harrowing childhood, from which she escaped into the world of vaudeville. Because of segregation and other limitations on people of color, she decided that her best chance at success was to go to New York, where she danced at the Plantation Club and Adelaide Hall. She found financial success as a chorus girl in Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, becoming known as “the highest paid chorus girl on Broadway,” but was never a featured performer.

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At age 19, she signed with a French/American business team aiming to bring an all-black revue to Paris, and she opened in La Revue Nègre at Le Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. In France, Baker found performing and living to be wildly different than in the United States. She was an instant hit with the Parisian public, and decided that this is where she could have the most impact. After the European tour, she broke her contract with La Revue Nègre and returned to Paris to appear in the Folies Bergères. Baker starred in three films and thrilled audiences with her performances, including La Danse sauvage (which she performed with minimal clothing). Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw,” and she rose up as a phenomenal entertainer, the toast of Paris, called by the French “la grande diva magnifique.” Baker enjoyed immense privilege and wealth in Paris, but she never attained the same respect in the United States. American audiences were put off by Baker’s sensual performances and small voice, and after one failing tour back to the United States, she married a French industrialist, moved to France permanently, and gave up her American citizenship. During World War II, she served as an active member of the French Resistance, carrying messages written in invisible ink in her sheet music. She housed volunteers and helped them with visas, and after the war was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de Résistance, and the Chevalier d’Honneur by Charles de Gaulle.

A superstar in 1951, Baker returned to the United States to sing in Miami and then went to New York to celebrate being named NAACP’s “Woman of the Year.” On October 16, she entered the famous and exclusive Stork Club restaurant for dinner, but the staff refused her service. Several different anecdotes exist about what exactly happened–some say Baker was seated and then the staff refused to serve her, others say she was refused a table altogether–but Baker was not served.

Grace Kelly, sitting nearby, was witness to the whole affair. Josephine Baker was world famous, and she knew exactly to whom the Stork Club was refusing service. At the point when it was clear that Baker was not going to be served, Kelly stood up, took Baker by the arm, and walked out with her entire party in tow. She vowed never to eat there again.

After this incident, Kelly and Baker became close friends. Kelly accompanied her back to Europe that summer, and the two spent quality time together in Paris and London. In 1956, Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, and even as a princess, Baker was always close to her heart. By 1974, Baker was having severe financial issues and was struggling to support her many beloved adopted children. Her old friend, now Princess Grace, gave her a royal villa to live in with the children, and together with Jacqueline Onassis, she financed Baker’s triumphant comeback in Paris the following year.

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Just a few days after her return to the stage, Josephine Baker was found dead of a stroke in her apartment, surrounded by her rave reviews. She is buried at the Cimitière de Monaco, and remains the only American-born woman to receive a funeral with full French military honors.

The nature of the friendship of Princess Grace and Josephine Baker is one that we would do well to remember in this day and age–their friendship, and indeed both of their personalities independent of their friendship, was based on standing up for principle, helping those in need, and eschewing prejudice in all its forms. May we continue to hold them as examples.

Movies and an Unmanageable World

Dear readers, if you’re at all like me, you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. Unimaginable things are happening in this country and the world, and in our current digital landscape, there seems to be no escape. Each day we’re bombarded with images, sounds, and feelings of helplessness, as we come to terms with a world over which we have little control.

In previous posts, I have discussed the power of movies to heal and to transport. Many of us have been feeling the past few weeks very strongly, and protests, marches, and demonstrations are frequently followed by desolation and depression when nothing happens. In view of this, I polled “classic film Twitter” to learn people’s comfort movies, to help with feelings brought on by the powerlessness we have in our world today. Here are some suggestions from the classic film Twittersphere.

My question: “Classic film fans–what are the movies that you watch to cheer up, and why? Mine is THE THIN MAN. No matter what’s going on, it always makes me happy.”

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@Shannon_Of_Oz says:

The Wizard of Oz. Always. It meant so much to me growing up. And at 32 it still does. Heroes can wear ruby red slippers and you can always go home again. Everything about it is absolutely superb, even the mistakes. I could go on and on about Judy Garland too.

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@celluloidsoul says:

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) Anxiety, stress, pain, (multiple viewings while recovering from surgery)… there’s no balm more calming than ’s voice in this performance. The entire cast is perfect. It just takes me somewhere else whenever I feel lost or distressed.

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@Scifilia says:

Thin Man as well. It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Philadelphia Story, My Man Godfrey, Arsenic and Old Lace. So I guess movies where clever people say clever things, wear fabulous clothes, perform some physical comedy, and live happily ever after. It’s like comfort food.

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@earnehaffey says:

The Gay Divorcee leaves me with that wonderful carefree feeling of being on vacation. And just once I want to go to a gala night on the esplanade 😁

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@NancyEB says:

I go for the comedies: the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, the Road pictures with Hope and Crosby. My dad, who has since passed, introduced me to the classic comedians and I feel like he is still with me when I watch these movies.

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@scarlettboulev2 says:

Bringing Up Baby. Can’t watch that without laughing!

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@awellreadsnark says:

Princess Bride because it’s hilariously funny, sweet, has amazing sword fights, and in the end good triumphs over evil and true love wins. What could be more delightful?

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@claresmith1888 says:

His Girl Friday. Funny, smart, poignant and the gorgeous Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Makes everything better.

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@EmilyJS7 says:

When Christmas stress is getting to me, I watch The Bishop’s Wife with David Niven, Loretta Young, and Cary Grant. The overall message is so important but there are so many little things to make you smile like the refilling bottle, decorating the tree, and skating in the park.

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@Decervelage says:

I grew up in an era where WPIX in NYC’s Sunday line-up was Sherlock Holmes, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chan, Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Universal or Hammer horror films, and then Kung Fu Theater at noon. Glorious times for a young film nerd.

 

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In polling Twitter, I was fascinated by the repeat film suggestions. The two most suggested movies for when you need a boost of spirit, given no parameters by decade or genre, were The Thin Man and Bringing Up Baby, two screwball comedies from the 1930s. This is, perhaps, not surprising. In the midst of the Depression, movies aimed to do exactly that–provide a means of escape from a reality that was grim, and a future that was uncertain.

I don’t know how to fix what’s happening, but let’s start by caring for ourselves and each other, with the help of the movies. I hope that your favorite movie will inspire you to take action against what is going on–you can start here.

Now I open it up to you, readers–what are your favorite movies to watch when you need to remove yourself from the chaos of the world? I look forward to hearing from you!

For the Love of Old Films: Bill and Home Sweet Country Home

This Memorial Day afternoon, I took a walk in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland and on my way back along Piedmont Ave, I noticed to my dismay that the shop of my favorite antique dealer had closed. This was a shop that I used to frequent in the days before I worked 9-5, and I had developed a close rapport with the owner, a man named Bill. I wanted to tell his story here.

Bill (I never knew his last name) had owned Home Sweet Country Home for at least 2 decades. He was a 90+-year-old eccentric who smoked like a chimney, had about 5 teeth, and though I used to come in almost every day, he never remembered me from one day to the next.  He originally hailed from Texas, and was proud of it. In the 1940s, he had owned stock in Warner Bros, so he knew all the movie stars and had stories about everyone. Not all his stories were entirely reliable, but I loved listening to him and always came away with brilliant quotes. One of his stories had to do with Leo the Lion escaping MGM wearing dentures, and sitting at the front door of Sears to roar at customers. Another was about how he saw Charles Laughton mowing the lawn with an old lawnmower, and how he ran into Bette Davis on the street smoking a cigarette. When I mentioned Jennifer Jones and what a hard life she had, he memorably answered “Well, she was from Tulsa…”

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The shop itself reflected Bill’s eccentricity. It always smelled like cigarette smoke. Books about Carole Lombard and Jane Fonda were interspersed with southern cooking manuals, presidential biographies, and board games from the 1950s. It was only open from 11 AM to 3 PM. Since he never remembered me, every day I would patiently introduce myself, who I was, what my favorite movies were, and relate some stories so that he would know that I was here to talk about the movies with him. We would frequently spend 3 or more hours chatting about movie trivia, movie songs, and exchanging tidbits about our favorite actors.

Bill didn’t know how to use the internet, so although I told him about Backlots, I’m sure he never visited. Home Sweet Country Home is nowhere to be found on Yelp or any major website, and I was usually his only customer for the day. Sometimes someone would wander in, look around, and then wander out. I never saw anyone else buy anything. I really went in just to talk to him, but I was always sure to buy something when I was in there. He usually had a few magazines, and that’s usually what I got. It makes me sad, but I doubt that many people notice that the store is now gone.

One of my favorite magazines, a 1941 Life Magazine with Gene Tierney on the cover, is from Home Sweet Country Home.

Though I don’t know for sure, my guess is that Bill is now gone, too. He was never in good health, but he kept his shop open anyway–in spite of his ill health, in spite of his lack of customers. He must have bought the building outright ages ago, as he was able to keep Home Sweet Country Home open through the meteoric rise of the Bay Area rental market. It was for the love of movies and antiques that he ran his shop, and I wanted to write this piece to toast to him and to everyone who dedicates themselves to the love of movies–when there are no customers, when there is nothing to gain–the “Bills” of the world persist out of sheer enthusiasm.

After every story, Bill used to brighten and tell me “I just love all those old films!” I was glad to be witness to it, and I will keep the memory of Bill and his shop in my mind always, as evidence of one person’s devotion to what he loves.

Olivia de Havilland Update, Part II–How to Get Involved

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Dear readers, over the past months, I have gotten several comments and emails from people asking what they can do to help the Olivia de Havilland case. I just received some correspondence from de Havilland’s legal counsel, outlining exactly how to get involved in the petition to review the appellate court’s decision. I had known this was coming for some time, but wanted to wait to update you until I had all the information. Now I can tell you all the details of exactly what we can do.

We are to write amici curiae letters to the California Supreme Court in support of the petition to review. For those up to the task–doing this correctly requires careful following of several steps, so I’m going to streamline it as much as possible based on what I’ve done, so that this process can take as little of your time as possible.

Here is what your letterhead should look like, and how you should address and start the letter:

Your name

Your address

Your phone number

 

 

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

and the Associate Justices

Supreme Court of California

350 McAllister st.

San Francisco, CA 94102
Re: de Havilland v. FX Networks, LLC, et al., Court of Appeal Case No. B285629 and California Supreme Court Case No. S248614

Dear Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the Associate Justices of the California Supreme Court,

Pursuant to California Rule of Court 8.500(g), I am writing in support of the Petition for Review of Olivia de Havilland, de Havilland v. FX Networks, LLC, et al., Court of Appeal Case Number B285629 and California Supreme Court Case Number S248614.

Here is what you should put in the letter:

  • Who you are, your profession, your interest in the issues of the case (right to protect name and identity from knowingly false statements, right to a trial by jury, etc)
  • Why these issues are important to be considered by the California Supreme Court
  • Why trial by jury is important for everyone, not just Dame Olivia
  • State that you have no personal financial interest in the case

Speak in your own voice, and explain (for example) why truth in media is important, and that falsehoods have no value. Most of all, make it your own and explain why this is important to you.

THEN:

Fill out the Proof of Service document. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Feel free to just download the photo, print it, and fill it out.

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Now comes the rather daunting part (in case you forgot that this is a legal case).

  • Make TWO copies of the letter and send them to the attorneys on both sides of the case. Their names and addresses are in the Proof of Service document, but to make everything totally accessible, here they are again:

Suzelle M. Smith, Esq.                                             Kelly M. Klaus, Esq.

Howarth & Smith                                                     Munger Tolles & Olson LLP

523 W. 6th Street                                                      350 South Grand Avenue

Suite 728                                                                   50th Floor

Los Angeles, CA 90014                                            Los Angeles, CA 90071

  • Then you must make EIGHT copies of the letter you wrote, and mail the copies, along with the original letter you wrote and the Proof of Service to the Clerk of the Court:

Mr. Jorge E. Navarrete

Clerk of the Court

Supreme Court of California

350 McAllister Street

San Francisco, CA 94102-4797

  • And that’s it!

We are to get our letters mailed by June 1, 2018. Suzelle Smith’s office wants us to know that she’s aware of how much effort this is, but she assures us that it will be well worth it. These letters might make the difference.

Any questions? Comments? Feel free to leave anything in the comments section or email me. Thank you so much for supporting this important cause. Suzelle Smith closed her correspondence with:

“Thank you very much for your interest in Miss de Havilland’s case and your willingness to be a part of the process for justice.  If the California Supreme Court does take the case, we hope you will be at the oral argument.”

Happy letter writing!

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