India Early Minshall (1885-1965) was a noted collector of Fabergé and other Imperial Russian art objects, many of which went to the Cleveland Museum of Art after her death. This rarefied pursuit put her in the company of other wealthy collectors and even some minor Russian royalty, but it also created a bond with a less conventional enthusiast. Howard Greer (1896-1974) was a well-known fashion and costume designer who created wardrobes for celebrities, socialites and actresses during Hollywood’s “golden age.” He designed wedding gowns for Shirley Temple and Gloria Vanderbilt, and dressed the stars in movies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), My Favorite Wife (1940) and Lady on a Train (1945).
When he became friends with India, Greer was nearing retirement from the “rag racket,” a calling that had given him a close-up look at the good, the bad and the ugly of celebrity culture and wealth. It may have been their shared love of Russian literature, art and history that first brought them together, but in some 350 letters to India, Greer shared details of his home life, travel, reading, literary endeavors, social engagements, fashion showings, and experiences with the glitterati, both past and present. In expertly typed text over an outsized signature, Greer unleashed his keen memory and acid wit on the high, the mighty and the fallen of his personal and professional acquaintance. Honey, to say he dished is an understatement.
Here are a few morsels:
On seeing actress and longtime William Randolph Hearst companion Marion Davies at a party:
I thought I was seeing a spook. The spook turned out to be Marion Davies, falling-down drunk! If you want to know what her face looked like, just break an egg on a plate!
On seeing socialite and Washington political hostess Perle Mesta at another party:
Perle Mesta looked like a sausage wrapped in rhinestones, but of course Perle doesn’t drink so she still looked the same at the end of the evening.
On the décor at yet another party:
The party was given in what’s called “the penthouse” atop Mr. Romanoff’s restaurant and I walked up the stairs and came into a room so full of flowers I thought I was attending a gangster’s funeral. [Celebrity gossip columnist Hedda Hopper evidently agreed:] “Good God, where’s the body?” she yelled.
On attending a dinner at which film icon Bette Davis was also a guest:
Miss D’s arrival was a little like the sudden appearance of a hurricane. She whizzed in with enough voltage to set fire to an electric chair. . . . The face is still Bette Davis (if you forget a few pouches) but from her shoulders to her navel she’s ALL GUT! . . . . She fell in a heap upon a sofa, asked for Scotch on the rocks, lighted a cigarette and so help me, for a minute she was all the impersonators of Bette Davis rolled into one!
On seeing interior designer James Pendleton’s wife Mary Frances (“Dodo”) at a luncheon:
Dodo is very VERY rich; her money comes out of wood-pulp, and every time you go to the bathroom and use Kleenex or toilet paper, she grows a penny richer! She is so ugly I always expect her to whinny.
On Jacqueline Ford, the wife of avant-garde artist Gordon Onslow Ford:
. . . a frighteningly intellectual gal out of a Charles Addams drawing . . . and who also positively creaks with inherited money. . . . Mrs. Ford is a weirdie, but attractive in an old-fashioned Theda Bara way, and she never says anything except and until her husband has spouted something, when she rolls her eyes and moans “How teddibly true!”
On the funeral of Irene Lentz, a costume designer who committed suicide:
. . . some minister gave a completely impersonal and uninspired service and he mentioned the name of Jesus Christ so many times that I kept wondering when all the Jews would get up and walk out!
And on Marilyn Monroe, who only weeks after this letter would be found dead in her Los Angeles home:
. . . a sick girl. . . whose meteor shot up too fast and now she’s frightened to death of the world. . . She was so terrified the first time she took a screen-test at Fox that she had to be HYPNOTIZED. [Screenwriter] Charlie Brackett says that now, to get what they want out of her emotionally, they have to keep a hypnotist on the set. . . . am I full of dirt today?
Howard Greer’s letters to India Minshall are part of the Harry Jackson Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library. (Jackson, a Warren County, Kentucky native, was married to India’s niece Evelyn). Click here for a finding aid. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.