Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In Remembrance: Leatrice Joy Gilbert Fountain, 1924 - 2015

Leatrice as a baby, left, and in her later years

One night in January 2010 Turner Classic Movies aired Rediscovering John Gilbert, a 45-minute documentary about the great star of the late silent era. I was aware of Gilbert and recalled that he had failed the transition to talkies because, it was said, his voice was too high and too thin. In the course of watching the documentary, which prominently featured the actor's daughter and biographer, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, I learned that the causes of Gilbert's demise and early death were more complex than that. By the time the short film ended my curiosity was aroused and I decided to get my hands on a copy of Fountain's biography of her father, Dark Star, so jumped online and searched. I soon found and ordered one from Amazon, but I'd also noticed that the search had turned up information on the author; she was on Facebook. So I sent her a message...and she replied.

She told me that Dark Star had been nearly twelve years in the making and had involved "tracking people down, in some cases, just in time. These were very old Hollywoodites," she wrote, "but their memories were powerful."

Maria Riva (left) with her mother Marlene Dietrich and Leatrice
At the end of January I wrote, "I'm in the midst of Dark Star, which is fascinating, and was interested to read that your father went to Hitchcock Military Academy in San Rafael, which is where I live. I copied a historical map I found online and believe I know where it was..." Very near present-day San Rafael High School, I found out. Our Facebook correspondence continued and a friendly dialogue developed between us.

When I first knew Leatrice this blog didn't yet exist. I was a contributor to The Classic Film & TV Cafe then and also occasionally posted on the blog pages at TCM's Classic Film Union. In July 2010 I learned through the TCM guide "Now Playing" that John Gilbert would, for the first time, be honored with a day of his own - August 24, 2010 - as part of the network's annual "Summer Under the Stars" showcase. An idea occurred to me and I asked Leatrice if she'd like to do a Q&A with me about her father for a blog post at the Cafe that would publish in advance of his day on TCM. She agreed. My original plan was to conduct an interview in writing but what I didn't know then was that Leatrice had osteoarthritis and that lengthy written answers would be too much for her. Thankfully, she suggested a phone conversation and I would finally "meet her" - over the phone - on August 5th. We must've spoken for nearly an hour and a half.

The next day she messaged me: "I can't say when I enjoyed an interview more. It was just an easy conversation with a friend..." I felt the same way. She was so comfortable to talk with, so sharp and articulate - and what memories she had!

About John Gilbert...an Interview with Leatrice Gilbert Fountain posted at The Classic Film & TV Cafe on August 23. The piece brought many comments, including this one from Leatrice:

Leatrice in Of Human Hearts (1938)
"Lady Eve, I read your beautifully written blog about my father and when I reached the end, and read all the warm comments from your viewers, I was in tears. I am not unduly sentimental, but the response of people to my father's career is deeply moving. He was a brave, vulnerable, talented man who lived for his career. I only knew him during his last days when it all seemed to fall apart for him. Many of those he had known and worked with for years abandoned him. A few noble, loyal friends, Cedric Gibbons, Lewis Milestone, Lee Garmes, Carey Wilson, all veterans of the industry who knew bad things could happen to any of them, continued to see him and offer what help they could. Yesterday's event on TCM was an unexpected coda to his gallant struggle. Thank you all for your thoughts and goodwill."

Leatrice onstage at a screening
Leatrice celebrated her 86th birthday on September 6, and shortly afterward I was very happy to give her the news that our post about her father had been honored with the 2010 CiMBA Award from the Classic Movie Blog Association for "Best Profile of a Performer." 

Lady Eve's Reel Life launched on September 10, 2010, and one of my earliest posts drew on an aspect of our conversation that wasn't featured in the Cafe piece: her father's home on Tower Grove Road in Beverly Hills. Titled The House That Jack Built, it told the story of that fabled estate, home to several of Hollywood's glitterati over its five-plus decade lifetime.

Leatrice and I stayed in touch through Facebook and every so often the subject of another interview came up. It finally happened in July 2011. This time we talked more about both of her parents - her mother was silent star Leatrice Joy - and we talked about Leatrice's life in more depth. Father and Mother Were Movie Stars: Leatrice Gilbert Fountain Remembers posted in August 2011. The piece closed with these lines, "I could've asked Leatrice to reminisce for days, but her two visiting sons returned from a fishing expedition and it was time for both of us to return to the 4th of July weekend and our daily lives. We agreed to talk again soon..."

Leatrice on Facebook

But this was not to be, our last contact was that summer day in 2011. Leatrice suffered a stroke a few months later and would go through a slow recovery process. She passed away peacefully in her sleep on January 20, 2015, at age 90.

I got to know Leatrice well enough during the year-and-a-half we were in touch to appreciate how fulfilling her long life had been. She spoke warmly of her beloved five children and many grandchildren; she had traveled the world and become a respected figure in the world of classic film; and she had rescued her father's tarnished reputation with her biography of him. The woman who so generously shared her amazing memories with me was extremely bright, gracious and witty. But what I seem to recall most and can still hear, is her lovely voice. Rich and melodious, like the chime of fine aged crystal, it's beauty seemed to personify her.

6 comments:

  1. Your interview with Leatrice Gilbert Fountain was fabulous--it's still one of my all-time favorite posts on any movie blog. As you said, she was insightful and witty and shared her memories of her father and a movie era that will never be replicated. She will be missed.

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    1. Thank you, Rick, for your kind words and for much more. You've been encouraging and supportive of me as a writer/blogger since we first met nearly seven years ago at TCM's CFU. I was and still am honored to have been one of the Cafe's original contributors.

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  2. What a dignified looking woman - to have aged with such grace often indicates strength of character. I very much appreciated your piece on Leatrice; it's memorable for being both touching and enlightening, a personal portrait of a Hollywood legend, seen through the loving eyes of his daughter.

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    1. Thanks, MCB. Leatrice certainly did have strength of character and dignity. I am extremely fortunate to have known her. And honored.

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  3. This is a wonderful tribute to Leatrice Joy Gilbert Fountain. I read your original thorough and outstanding piece in 2011. I had been an MGM early film fan and had admired John Gilbert's films (especially with Garbo) but also The Big Parade. I had read enough to know he was ill-treated at the studio. How great it was that his daughter could help revive his image and you could be part of that.

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    1. Thank you, Christian. It was a pleasure to know Leatrice, a woman I admired very much for several reasons, particularly for rescuing her father's legacy

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