Jean Howard, who rose from humble Texas obscurity to become a Ziegfeld girl, a starlet and the wife of powerful Hollywood agent Charles K. Feldman, and who established herself as a legendary hostess and photographer of the film colony, has died. She was 89.
Howard died Tuesday in the home on Beverly Hills' Coldwater Canyon Drive that she and Feldman bought in 1942 for $18,000.
Decorated by William Haines, a silent film star turned interior decorator, the Spanish-style house with deep green walls, tortoise-shell pedestals and Chinese porcelain lamps has changed little since it welcomed such luminaries as Greta Garbo, Tyrone Power, Laurence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart, Merle Oberon, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Bugsy Siegel and John F. Kennedy.
Howard, a striking beauty, showed little interest in becoming a film star, although her longtime friend, director Curtis Harrington, said Wednesday that she easily could have done so. But Howard came to wield power over Hollywood as a favorite hostess and photographer. She turned her intimate portraits into two well-received books, "Jean Howard's Hollywood" in 1989 and "Travels With Cole Porter" in 1991.
"I think of Hollywood as a person," Howard told The Times shortly before the first book was published, showcasing her photos from the 1930s to the 1960s. "In the '30s, Hollywood was still sort of a teenager and was still growing up in the '40s. Hollywood came into its own in the '50s--really achieved its maturity. I call them the Nifty '50s."
Howard saw it all.
The pretty girl named Ernestine Mahoney (some sources list her real name as Ernestine Hill) arrived from Longview, Texas, in 1930, and quickly won a role in Ziegfeld's "Follies." She became one of the first of the chorines called the Goldwyn Girls, and soon was an MGM contract player with small roles in several films in the 1930s and 1940s--"Broadway to Hollywood," "The Prizefighter and the Lady," "Dancing Lady," "Break of Hearts," "We're on the Jury," "Claudia" and "The Bermuda Mystery."
Louis B. Mayer's passionate attraction to Howard (she changed her name quickly) became Hollywood legend. She enjoyed telling the story of how he proposed marriage, promising to divorce his wife, and, when she rejected him, got drunk and tried to throw himself out of a window. After she married Feldman in 1934, the jealous Mayer banned the agent from his studio and threatened to ruin him in Hollywood.
With decorator Haines' help, Howard threw a truly lavish party in 1938 to prove that the Feldmans were far from down and out.
Years later, Howard's connection to the Kennedy family was cemented when the future president's sister, Pat Lawford, called her saying that John F. Kennedy was in town for the 1960 Democratic National Convention and wanted to see some Hollywood people, and the Lawford home was far too small. Howard hastily assembled 60 members of the movie industry elite and threw a party for Kennedy that lasted until 4 a.m. After it ended, she was straightening up when she heard a scratch at the screen. It was Kennedy, saying he was starving and every place in Los Angeles was closed. Howard took him into her kitchen and scrambled some eggs, and they talked till dawn.
Howard last saw Kennedy when she was invited to a White House dinner in 1962. He asked her to photograph him, but he was killed before she got the chance.
"When people ask me if I have any regrets," she told Town and Country magazine in 1993, "that's one."
From her early days in Hollywood, Howard benefited from her close friendship with Linda Porter, the wife of composer Cole Porter. It was from Linda Porter that she learned how to dress, how to serve simple food for small lunches, how to manage giant parties, how to be a friend to the famous. After Linda's death in the mid-1950s, Howard talked Cole Porter into traveling. She accompanied him, and the photographs she took in 1955 and 1956 ultimately resulted in her second book.
"The book doubles as a travelogue and a memoir of a 33-year friendship," a Times review noted after it was published in 1991. "It also reads as an essay on privilege. The high style that Porter traveled in was astounding. . . .
"[But] only half the book is about him," the reviewer continued. "Roughly 50% of it is given over to pictures and explanations of European landmarks and the contents of European museums."
Howard, who studied photography at the Art Center in Los Angeles in the 1940s, became competent at her craft. But reviews of her books and her work on Hollywood sets for Life and Vogue magazines in the 1950s lavish the greatest praise on Howard's ability to get intimately close to her subjects when they were relaxed and doing anything but posing formally. Her insider status far outweighed her portraiture.
"Howard's great skill," a Times reviewer wrote of the Cole Porter book, "was clearly her talent for friendship with highly accomplished and rather difficult people."
Howard sued Feldman for divorce in 1946 with Hollywood's, celebrated attorney Jerry Geisler representing her, and formally won the divorce in 1948. But both Howard and Feldman continued to live in their fabled house and attend and give parties together, maintaining what one observer called their "can't live with you, can't live without you postmarital relationship" until his death in 1968.
Howard, who inherited a fortune in jewels from both Linda and Cole Porter, lived for a decade on the Italian island of Capri, where she married her second husband, Italian musician Tony Santoro, who survives.
Ensconced in her Beverly Hills home again for the past couple of decades, Howard and Santoro continued entertaining until near the end of her life.