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.
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.
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.