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Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

The Resurrection of a Hollywood Life

February 22, 1998|ROBERT A. JONES

Gloria Stuart's eyes dart around the room. She is sitting in her study, her back to the wall, and for a moment she looks like a trapped ferret.

"Why," she asks, "are all these people in my house?"

That's easy, I tell her. You are suddenly famous, and the houses of the suddenly famous always fill up with mysterious people.

That explains why a lady from the eyeglass store hovers over her shoulder, trying to fit new spectacles. Why the phone rings constantly. Why deliverymen keep showing up with telegrams. And why I am sitting across the table.

You probably know that Stuart, 87 years old, plays the lively centenarian Rose Calvert in the movie "Titanic" and has been nominated for an Academy Award. Should she win, Stuart would be the oldest winner in the history of the Oscars.

And right now the world can't seem to get enough of her. This week she flies to New York for the Charlie Rose show and assorted other appearances. Then it's on to Moscow for the Russian opening of the movie.

"Oh, I shouldn't complain," she says. "Mostly it's fun. And it won't last."

No, it won't. But I hope that the real story of Gloria Stuart's life, the 86 1/2 years of pre-fame, does last. This story, in bits and pieces, has emerged during the weeks of the "Titanic" blitz. Stuart turns out to be one of those rare people in Los Angeles whose life has touched the most interesting parts of our history. You could almost think of her as the Forrest Gump of our corner of the world.

For example: When Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley formed the most famous coterie in Hollywood history at the Garden of Allah hotel, Stuart served as their figurative den mother, often cooking Sunday dinners to chase away the hangovers.

When the likes of Jake Zeitlin, Carey McWilliams and Ward Ritchie created what is known as the "small renaissance" of Los Angeles culture in the 1930s, Stuart was one of the few women to join them.

When the Screen Actors Guild was formed, Stuart was passing out leaflets. When Carl Sandburg came to Los Angeles for a poetry reading, he ate dinner at Stuart's house. When M.F.K. Fisher wanted to try out a new recipe, she would often ask Stuart to serve as the critic.

And so on. Forget about the Titanic. The more you hear about the rest of Gloria Stuart's life, the more jealous you feel.

"You can't say that I grew up rich or anything like that," she laughs. "In fact, we had very little."

What Stuart did have was the sense of adventure that came from growing up in early Santa Monica. Very early, just after the turn of the century. It was a town by the beach and nothing more. Stuart and her brother pretty much ran wild in the fields and along the shore.

"From 7th Street to the ocean, there was nothing but open fields," she remembers. "There was no Westwood, no Brentwood, no Venice. We had farms all around us. One of them grew watermelons, and my brother and I would sneak onto the farm and steal watermelons until the farmer came out one day and pointed a shotgun at us."

As a city, Los Angeles was embryonic, what social critic Louis Adamic described as "the enormous village." A village that was populated, he once wrote, by "retired grocers, hardware merchants and shoe salesmen from the Middle West, tens of thousands of them come here to rest, look at pretty scenery, live in little bungalows and eat in cafeterias."

But soon the city would change, and Stuart somehow stumbled across those who would bring about the change. She was beautiful, bright and slightly bohemian. Perhaps that's all it took.

"There was this group at Occidental College that sort of constituted the free thinkers," she says. "It included Ward Ritchie, Lawrence Clark Powell and Gordon Newell. You just knew that they were going to do something important."

What they did is now largely forgotten. And that's too bad, because the current, modern view of Los Angeles--as a unique city where the rest of America ends up, piling upon itself in a volcanic mix--grew largely from this group and cohorts such as historian Carey McWilliams and rare book dealer Jake Zeitlin.

Stuart ran with them and eventually married Newell, who would become a sculptor. In those times most wives settled into home keeping and babies, but not Stuart.

"I was just determined to be an actress," she says. Though ebullient herself, she was chosen to play the part of the depressed Masha in Chekhov's "The Seagull" at the Pasadena Playhouse. Within a few days of the opening, both Paramount and Universal had offered her screen tests.

"The amazing thing about Hollywood in those days was the lack of competition," Stuart says. "It took me about a week to break into Hollywood. The studios had this system that actively sought out young women for the industry. If you were pretty and had a little talent, you could get your chance to appear in a movie."

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