By Margaret Porter
On October 4, 1937, twenty-three-year old Hedy Lamarr arrived in Tinseltown, having crossed the Atlantic on the luxury liner Normandie and the whole of the United States by train. She spoke hardly any English, her widowed mother was in Austria, and she had no American friends. On her first Christmas in California, she must have greatly missed her national customs. Sunshine and milder December temperatures were a contrast to her homeland’s frigid winter air and the snowy Alps where Hedy loved to ski.
With Nazi Germany posing a threat to Jewish and other European actors, directors, cinematographers, and other, many sought refuge and career opportunities in Hollywood, just as Hedy had done. They brought with them their own December traditions and rituals, Christian or Jewish, so in many households the holidays had an international flavour.
With the approach of the festive season, Christmas productions and plays for children—like Babes in Toyland—were prevalent. Charitable organisations took in collections and arranged for the preparation and distributions of Christmas baskets. On Christmas Eve, musical societies and choral guilds in Los Angeles went out into the streets and the city parks, and to hospitals, singing carols. Los Angeles was a city of restaurants and nightclubs, and throughout December these were venues for private parties where the gifted and the glamourous gathered to celebrate.
Suggested recipes for holiday goodies were printed in newspapers and fan magazines. In December 1938, a cookery expert gave a ‘Yuletide Yummies’ workshop to demonstrate how to make English-style Christmas cake (fruit cake), and Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. Movie star Greer Garson needed no such lessons. She and her mother Nina brought their own recipe from England, and she distributed proper English plum puddings amongst her closes friends. They arrived with instructions about exactly how much brandy to pour in order to produce a flame!
Along Hollywood Boulevard, seasonally re-christened Santa Claus Boulevard, streetlight poles sported Christmas trees or medallions with the stars’ faces. The Business Association sponsored a Christmas parade, but it paled in comparison to the New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses Parade in nearby Pasadena.
|Santa Claus Lane.|
Racial segregation characterized the era. African American residents of Los Angeles had a parade of their own on Central Avenue, with a black Santa Claus, and its radio broadcast included a roster of musicians that any organiser would envy, headlined by Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.
Before Christmas, on film sets and in studio dressing rooms, actresses stepped up their knitting, making sweaters and hats for friends and family, while waiting to be called before the cameras. Hedy was a great one for making presents. She modeled miniature animals from clay for her castmates in Come Live with Me. After forming her miniature sculptures, she sent them to a pottery for firing and glazing. Her co-star Jimmy Stewart asked for and received a pig. She also carved doorstops out of wood, and covered them with pieces of her needlepoint that she worked. A metal bootjack in my collection might well have been a Christmas gift from her boyfriend, the similarly artistic Englishman, Reginald Gardiner.
A box of 21 Christmas cards could be purchased for nineteen cents. A luxurious wool flannel dressing gown, recommended as a present, was priced at $12.95. Newspapers printed many a jewellery shop ad featuring diamond rings, in case a gentleman felt inclined to propose to his sweetheart at Christmas or New Year’s.
After the holidays, movie studio publicists worked overtime, reporting on the lavish gifts their stars received. In 1937, Hedy received a ruby bracelet from her Reggie. Another year, Ginger Roger gave her mother a car, and Marlene Dietrich presented her daughter Maria with a convertible. A grateful Sonja Henie gave away her own $25,000 diamond bracelet to her hairdresser. Rita Hayworth presented her friends with perfume. The supposedly stingy Jack Benny sent out cheques to people he worked with. In 1940, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard sent notes to their friends, saying they wanted no gifts, requesting that presents be provided instead to the local children’s hospital.
|Beverly Hills Christmas Trees.|
Candles glowed from the windows of Beverly Hills houses, blinking blue lights were twined through the shrubbery, and brightly lit trees decorated lawns. A favourite accessory was a large and shining blue star over the front door. In 1940, Judy Garland set out lengths of frosted cotton on her window ledges, to resemble real snow. Hedy hung long glass icicles from the gables of her residence. Jeannette Macdonald had “glass ice” strewn upon her lawn to give a wintry impression that the California sun wouldn’t melt. A house in Bel Air sported a “twice life-sized” Santa Claus on the roof, in a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer cutouts.
Half of Hollywood, it was reported, stayed at home to entertain visiting relatives from near or far. The other half left town. If seeking snow, they converged upon the mountains in Big Bear Lake or Sun Valley. Those preferring desert warmth ventured to Palm Springs.
At the studios, worked stopped promptly at 1 o’clock on Christmas Eve. By lunchtime, the soundstages were turned into party space. Individual departments—scene shop, wardrobe, sound, etc.—held their own separate entertainments, serving eggnog, punch, and home-baked cakes and sweets. The “suits” would drop by to greet their employees. Who usually resumed their labours the day after Christmas.
Like Hedy, who routinely sent best wishes to her fans, this author wishes all readers a very happy and festive holiday season!
(Photo Credits: Hedy Glamour Shot via Wikimedia; Vintage Hollywood Christmas photos courtesy of University of Southern California. Libraries and the California Historical Society; Bootjack, author’s collection.)
By Margaret Porter
Hollywood Beauty. Brilliant inventor. Hedy Kiesler, Austrian actress of Jewish heritage, scandalizes Europe with her nudity in the art film Ecstasy. Her hasty marriage to a wealthy munitions merchant disintegrates as he grows increasingly controlling and possessive. Even worse—he supplies deadly weapons to Hitler’s regime. She flees husband and homeland for Hollywood, where Louis B. Mayer transforms her into Hedy Lamarr, an icon of exotic glamour. Professional success clashes with her personal life as marriage and motherhood compete with the demands of studio and stardom. Roused to action by the atrocities of World War II, Hedy secretly invents a new technology intended for her adopted country’s defense—and unexpectedly changes the world.
One of the Top 12 Hollywood Historical Novels recommended by Bustle.com
“Captivating . . . Porter’s insightful account of a gifted yet often misunderstood inventor and movie star makes for a winning novel.” ~ Publishers Weekly
“Fast, fun, fascinating, enjoyable, intriguing, and recommended.” ~ Historical Novels Review
Pick up your copy of
MARGARET PORTER is the award-winning and bestselling author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr and twelve other historical novels. A former stage actress, she also worked professionally in radio, television, and film.