Drawing from Grace Kingsley’s articles, this blog will present forgotten bits of everyday life in Hollywood from 100 years ago. Every week I will present the highlights from her daily news columns, reviews and features.
About Grace Kingsley
As the first film editor at the Los Angeles Times, Grace Kingsley was a pioneer in arts journalism. She was born on August 8, 1873 in Lansing, Michigan, but when she was six her family moved to Los Angeles (population only 11,000) and her father went to work as a printer for her future employer. After one year of high school, she became a stenographer in a law office and she did some part-time typewriting for the Board of Education. She went to work full-time as the School Superintendent’s secretary in 1896.
But what she really wanted to do was to write. She started by contributing theater reviews and feature articles to a Los Angeles-based weekly magazine, The Capital, and later to a daily newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald. Harry Andrews, an editor at the Los Angeles Times, noticed her work and in 1900 he hired her to write “special articles.” Her first, “A Butterfly’s Serious Side,” appeared on Sunday, October 21 1900. It described several Los Angeles society girls who pursued playwriting, music, acting or painting as more than a hobby. She also wrote short fiction that appeared in Red Book, Short Stories, and the Times Illustrated Magazine.
In 1910 Julian Johnson, the Times drama editor, hired her as a full-time writer. Times theatrical reviews at that time were unsigned, so it’s impossible to know which were hers. However, her byline did appear on a wide variety of longer articles, from profiles of Johnny Kilbane, a featherweight boxer, and Elsie Finney, who did a vaudeville act in a water tank, to a description of an orphans’ outing to the beach. Many of her articles were funny; one about the ramifications of a new law at Venice Beach that forced people to cover up their bathing costumes when they were farther that 25 feet from the water described the parade of bathers clad in “bathrobes, sweaters, table-cloths, dominoes; they looked like bunch of masqueraders that had been left out all night.” (July 5, 1911) She did report that enforcement was nonexistent, which was exactly what she expected in Venice. In 1912 she recounted her adventures in trying to sell a play to theatrical producers; each made bizarre requests for changes yet still wouldn’t buy it. (August 15, 1912)
She occasionally covered the movies; her first film article was a profile of a child actor, Allie Johnson, in 1911. (Feb. 14, 1911) But the industry was growing in Los Angeles and in August 1914 she became the Times’ first motion pictures editor. In addition to her longer articles, she started writing a daily column of short newsy items about people in the theater and film business. Her first on August 20th mentioned that Trixie Friganza would be adding her films to her vaudeville act and Davie Silverman was the new manager at the Republic Theater. Her news round-up was to appear under many different names including “Film Flams,” “At the Stage Door,” “From Stage to Studio” and finally “Flashes.” In the twenties her stage news coverage dwindled, but her collection of film news continued for nearly twenty years.
Her working methods were later described by Karl Brown, cinematographer and director, who wrote in his autobiography:
Grace – everybody called her Grace—was a maiden lady of uncertain years much given to flowered prints and the latest gossip. She went everywhere in town, saw and knew what everybody was doing, and she reported it faithfully in the Los Angeles Times. Grace was welcome everywhere because she not only collected news but she also spread it. She never had to pump news out of people. She exchanged confidences with them on a friend-to-friend basis. Nobody held back anything, because Grace was not only virginal in her personal life but even more so in her reporting. She would not touch scandal in any way, no matter how juicy it might be. She reported picture doings only, not bedroom escapades, brawls, separations, or desertions. Her idea of picture news was to tell who was doing what, where, when, and for how long. This sort of information was vital to free-lance actors, cameramen, and technicians. It gave them a daily guide to where jobs were open or were about to open. Her section of the Times was a sort of trade paper, read by everyone in the business as the first thing to do every morning.
Her work is equally vital for silent film historians now.
Kingsley didn’t just write for the LA Times, she also moonlighted at film magazines. Julian Johnson had become the editor of Photoplay in December 1915, and he asked her to contribute. Her first article appeared in the January 1917 issue; “Christmas in the Western Studios” listed how Hollywood stars like Mabel Normand and Louise Fazenda planned to celebrate the holiday. She mostly wrote star profiles for them, like Mary MacLaren (“Sweet Sobber of the Celluloid”) and Constance Talmadge (“Wild Woman of Babylon.”) She also wrote for Picture-Play, Screenland, Silver Screen, and New Movie Magazine.
The Times added staff and started a new weekly Wednesday film magazine, The Pre-view, in July 1924. Edited by Edwin Schallert, it included lots of photos, announcements of forthcoming films, reviews, and Kingsly’s new conversational gossip column, “Strutting Oolong Lane with Lizzie.” Lizzie reported gossip to the writer while they drank tea; the first one began “Oh, I just heard the funniest thing about Nita Naldi!’ exclaimed little Lounge Lizzie, as we sat down beneath the patent cherry tree in Oolong Lane to absorb tea.” While shooting on location, the notorious vamp Naldi had charmed some bankers but not their wives. Lizzie went on to comment on the actors in the fictional tea shop with them along the lines of “Oh look! There’s Pauline Frederick! Yes, that’s Lou Tellegen with her! They are going around all the time together, though I do hear that Lou is devoted to a little girl in his company. But you know how it is with these actors – they have a yearning to be seen with the famous ones.” (July 30, 1924). Lizzie became Stella, the Star Gazer in October, and in mid-1925 they left the tearoom for parties around Hollywood. Readers got the “see” the inside of stars’ houses and the night clubs they went to, and were treated to descriptions of what they wore and with whom they danced, but the most important thing Kingsley detailed was what they talked about.
Both Stella and Pre-View ended their runs on Sunday, November 22 1931. Kingsley’s new column started the next Sunday. Called “Hobnobbing with Hollywood,” it was an assortment of cheerful social news. In addition, she still wrote her weekday news round-up, film reviews, occasional interviews and fluffy trend pieces like “Screen’s Comedians Make the Best Fathers” (May 27, 1934).
She retired from full-time work at the Times in July 1934. Her final column appeared on July 16, but she didn’t mention that she was it was her last. Instead she told about how Moe and Jerry (Curley’s original name) Howard rescued Larry Fine from drowning on the set of The Captain Hates the Sea and Joan Crawford’s denial that she and Francois Tone were not still the best of friends.
She was soon back at work. Her first post-retirement article, a profile of stage actor Frank Lawton, ran on August 5th. Over the next 22 years she contributed many more interviews and pieces about trends in film as well as reviews of legitimate theater, vaudeville shows and films. Because she covered films that her colleagues didn’t want, she got to write about now-recognized classics like Passport to Pimlico (which she enjoyed very much) (November 5, 1949). However, mostly she wrote about less highly-regarded movies like Ma and Pa Kettle in Wakiki (which was “just a little funnier than usual” April 14, 1955).
Gossip columnist Aline Mosby described running into Kingsley in 1953 when she was leaving a press screening at Monogram studio. “White-haired Grace Kingsley looks like somebody’s grandmother who ought to be home knitting by the fireside.” Kingsley had no interest in that, saying: “Retire? Oh, I’d be lost without my work. I’d just die if I didn’t do this.” Nevertheless, she wasn’t enthusiastic about what she was seeing, saying “most movies these days are punk. It’s a pattern. You can tell what’s going to happen. And those darn 3-D glasses – I can’t get them over my own spectacles.” Mosby mentioned that Kingsley was still living in her house near the Times with her two cats, and that she’d stopped covering burlesque because “the theater people always thought I was either a reformer come to see if the show was immoral, or a retired madam.”
Grace Kingsley’s final Los Angeles Times article was published on April 6, 1956 when she was 83 years old. It was a review of Cosas de Mujer, an Argentinian comedy about a woman who decides between being a lawyer or a housewife. Kingsley was diagnosed with arteriosclerotic heart disease and died six years later after a heart attack on October 8, 1962. She is buried at Rosedale Cemetery not far from downtown Los Angeles.
My name is Lisle Foote and I’m a librarian in Los Angeles. I wrote the book Buster Keaton’s Crew, which is about the people who worked with Keaton on his silent films. Grace Kingsley’s name came up a lot while researching my book.
This blog’s name owes everything to Robert Birchard’s book title, Cecil B.DeMille’s Hollywood.