Saturday, August 3, 2013

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Beverly Hills, 

Sitting Pretty (1948)
With his attitude of thinly-veiled disdain, actor Clifton Webb was “a blast of asexual sophistication during Hollywood’s testosterone-fueled postwar epoch,” according to Turner Classics. It could also be said that he was an integral part of the social scene. Although Webb was often cast as a family man, he lived in Beverley Hills with his mother Maybelle, an uninhibited Auntie-Mame type. Together, they threw some of Tinseltowns most memorable parties. One such affair was held on July 1, 1948, a few months after the release of the film Sitting Pretty, a comedy for which Webb would receive his second Oscar nomination.  Although the guest list is a “Who’s Who” of the movie industry at the apex of its golden age, there is one important name that is missing.

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Becall and Clifton Webb
The menu below shows that the food at this party was rather ordinary by todays standards. Typed on 8½- x 10-inch paper with the Webb’s name and address at the top, it was possibly composed by his home cook, or the caterer. In keeping with the customs of the era, the hors d’oeuvres include chopped chicken livers and fish balls, and the buffet supper features dishes like baked ham, lamb curry, and a crown of cold chicken.

The handwritten list confirms that Webb knew everybody. Filling nine full pages, these  may have been worksheets used by Webb's secretary who also lived in his 11-room adobe house on Rexford Drive. In fact, there are two lists. The first is a preliminary list filled with notations, indicating the whereabouts and availability of the invitees. The second is the final tally, showing who would be stopping by for cocktails, as well as those who would be staying for dinner. Organized in alphabetical order, the first page begins with A-B-C celebrities like Fred Astaire (his movie Easter Parade was released the day before this party), Humphrey Bogart, and Gary Cooper. (Click to enlarge the image.)

The second page includes famous actors, such as Bette Davis (a strongly scrawled “no” by her name), Betty Grable, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant. Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn can also be found among the G’s. 

The luminaries on the third page include gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Harold Lloyd, the silent film actor known for daredevil comedy stunts. London-born actress Ida Lupino married producer Collier Young (page five) in 1948, the same year she became an American citizen. 

The fourth page reflects a wide range of talents, such as actor Gregory Peck, dancer Ginger Rogers, composer Cole Porter, producer David O. Selznick, and Otto Preminger who directed the 1944 film noir classic Laura for which both he and Webb received Oscar nominations. 

The page above includes Mike Romanoff, a genial conman who claimed to be “Prince Michael Dimitri Alexandrovich Obolensky-Romanoff,” the younger brother of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. In about 1940, he opened a restaurant named Romanoff’s on North Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, less than two miles from Webb’s home. In addition, Romanoff wrote a celebrity gossip column for the Bell Newspaper Syndicate that was reprinted inside his daily menus. The cover below from 1949 shows him standing in front of his restaurant. 

The survey of potential guests ends on the fifth page with studio executive Darryl Zanuck, the hundred and eleventh entry followed by a few last-minute additions. On the sixth page, the guest list is recast with the final count of those who accepted the invitation. 

Although “Bogey” was sailing and could not attend, his wife of three years, actress Lauren Bacall, was able to join the party. Curiously, she is referred to as “Mrs. Humphrey Bogart” on this informal list, while actress Greta Garbo is simply called “Garbo.” Not surprisingly, Garbo came alone. 

Although these sheets seem to include every prominent person in Hollywood, there are a few names missing. One such person is Fred MacMurray who became famous for his role in the 1944 film Double Indemnity. (When I asked Kate MacMurray why her father was not invited to this party, she told me that he spent all of his free time working at his vineyard in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.) However, from a historical perspective, the most important person not on the list is Ronald Reagan. In several ways, 1948 was a pivotal year for Reagan whose movie career was in decline. After being divorced by actress Jane Wyman in June, Reagan (then a liberal Democrat) spent the remainder of the year campaigning for President Harry Truman and senatorial candidate Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.


Deana Sidney said...

I can never think of Webb and guest lists without thinking of that scene in Razor's Edge where someone has slighted him... it's terribly sad and touching and he does a brilliant job of it.

Looks like Webb had no such problems in real life... what an amazing guest list!!!

Now I want to learn more about his mum!

I guess you've seen Vincent Price's book and menus, he was more of what would call a gourmet today and his menus are pretty sophisticated (although he seemed to love cookouts in a camper too). The unlikeliest actors make the best hosts.

Thanks for the great post.

Jan Whitaker said...

Fascinating! Quite a party. I think the menu is strangely assorted, but that is probably true of the guests too. I guess a single man in Hollywood would acquire quite a long social payback list over a year's time and settle it with one big do.

Luanne said...

This is fabulous! And I love Webb. "Sitting Pretty" is one of my top five films, and I love his version of Titanic.