News for Oct. 21, 2005

Mildred Shay 1911 - 2005

10/21/05, 2:10 pm EST - Xoanon

Howard writes: I thought you might be interested to know that my late friend Mildred Shay was one of the many starlets who tested for the role of Ann Darrow back in 1932/33. She and Frances Lee both had screen tests for the part opposite an actor called David Rollins.

Mildred always joked that Fay (who was also a good and lifelong friend of mildred's) had better lungs!

Anyway I thought you'd be interested - btw a fantastic website!

Mildred Shay
1911 - 2005

Mildred Shay was a diminutive star –struck little rich girl who became Hollywood’s brightest ingénue. Dubbed ‘Hollywood’s Pocket Venus’ by columnist Walter Winchell, and ‘The Socialite Actress’ by Hedda Hopper she entered pictures not because she wanted to earn a living from her craft, instead she thought being an actress would be fun and glamourous.

Mildred who died on October 15, aged 94 remained the epitome of glamour for over nine decades, whether dining out with Greta Garbo or more recently with Stephen Fry, Elizabeth Taylor and her favourite ‘newcomer’ Sharon Stone.

Mildred shay’s star sparkled for what seemed like a split second, and yet she knew everybody in tinsel town and the whole of Hollywood knew Mildred Shay.

Adrian, Hollywood's premiere costumier, made all her gowns and a pair of false breasts. She worked with - and unlike the rest of Hollywood got on with - Joan Crawford despite the fact that as Helene, the French maid to Crystal Allen (Crawford) in The Women (1939), Mildred Shay stole every scene. “We knitted between scenes in her Winnebago and chatted about handsome men.”

Mildred Shay dated many an eligible bachelor in Hollywood and married three of them. Errol Flynn invited her out to dinner, only to trick her into visiting his apartment where he tried to rape her. He’d lied about having to stop by his apartment to make a call before taking Mildred out to dinner but once held captive her removed his clothes but for his shirt-cuffs and sock garters and launched himself on the 5ft blonde Shay.

Mildred shay escaped Flynn. (“He was ‘in like Flynn’,” she said. “Well, sort off ‘in’ I never gave him the chance.”) Only to be chased around town by Howard Hughes, Pat De Cico, Cubby Broccoli, Johnny Weissmuller, Cecil B. DeMille, Walter Pidgeon, Lyle Talbot and while at the famed ‘Garden of Allah’ in 1932, the Sugar King of Turkey and David O’Selznick. The latter tested her for the role of Scarlet O’Hara.

Born Mildred Helen Shay into old New York money in Cedarhurst on September 26, 1911, Mildred was the second child (her brother was killed by a drunken chauffeur in Palm Beach in 1912) born to premier New York lawyer Joseph A. Shay and society hostess wife Lillian. Mildred was educated firstly in New York before being sent to a Swiss school for genteel ladies in France. At fourteen her wealthy father brought Mildred and her younger sister Adeline to London.

From London the family returned to their chateau in Nice, and then moved to Florence briefly, where the house was staffed by exiled Russian Aristocrats including a countess who became the Shay’s cook. The family finally settled in California. Mildred's father had taken up work acting on behalf of the Hollywood power brokers at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United Artists, Paramount Pictures and Fox.

Mildred, Adeline and their mother rented a two-story apartment at Alla Nazimova's former Hollywood residence "The Garden of Allah". It was there that the nineteen-year-old first sampled the pursuits of pleasure.

"Laurence Olivier lived there. Ginger Rogers and I became such good friends, sharing a spa together from which we'd run naked to the pool. Ginger had a figure to die for. Honey, Hollywood didn't like fat".

Mildred continued “Harpo Marx kept mother and I awake until the early hours playing his single string violin. On the other side of us was Rachmaninoff – darling, we were in a musical sandwich! Gary Cooper chased anything that moved including a lovely boy called David Rollins and Joel McCrea.”

So it was, living in the heart of Hollywood that young Mildred rang her father and said, "Daddy I want to be in pictures". Daddy called B.P. Schulberg at Paramount and Sheen, the head of Fox. Within weeks Mildred was making her first screen test opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jr. "Norma Shearer and her fabulously famous producer husband Irving Thalberg became my dear friends". Mildred also knew Greta Garbo, William Powell, Clark Gable and Rosalind Russell.

"Clark's then wife (Josephine Dillion) was my acting coach. She spent the majority of the lesson filling me in on all the gossip. She had Clark's ears pinned back and suits made long enough at the rear to cover what she described as 'his big behind'".

Mildred made her screen debut ‘The Age of Consent’ (1932), followed by ‘Bill of Divorcement’ (1932) with Katharine Hepburn and as a slave girl tied to a chariot with newcomer Betty Grable in the Eddie Cantor comedy ‘Roman Scandal’s’ (1932). The same year Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg required Mildred Shay to dub for Greta Garbo on ‘Grand Hotel’ (1932).

Mildred Shay arrived at the studio each day in a stretch Benz, often accompanied by a maid. George Raft was one who quizzed Mildred Shay on why she bothered “You don’t need to do this,” he’d say. “You really don’t need to do these horrendous hours the sex why?”

Despite my enjoying men friends I was the last virgin in captivity,” she joked.

Her first marriage was to a handsome Irishman Thomas Francis Murphy. He was considered a better looking Gene Kelly but a hopeless drunk. Their marriages ended when after a three day binge with starlet Toni Lanier Manix he stubbed out a cigarette out on her leg on a return home.

The second was to Winthrop Gardiner Junior, a descendant of Lord Lion Gardiner, who received a King’s grant of Gardiner’s Island in 1639. Although very handsome he lacked many of the qualities that Mildred liked about her Hollywood lovers. Gardiner suffocated her with diamonds and furs. Walter Winchell jested on being shown an enormous engagement ring, "Mildred you could house Manhattan on that rock!"

The marriage was not a success. "He liked the color of diamonds a little too much," she said. "With ice in mind he began sleeping with Champion skater Sonja Henie". After six months Mildred, joined by sister Adeline was in Reno happily waiting for a divorce.

The divorce made headlines, "I can remember complaining to Winchell about the constant publicity that surrounded us, and he told me 'Mildred, when you cross the street it's news.' 'Then make me un-news,' I told him, 'just make me un-news'".

After a stint on Broadway in ‘The Sap Runs High’, Mildred went to Hollywood to play Helene in The Women (1939). Director George Cukor guided the newcomer: "Mildred you read the words beautifully, but I didn't see anything in your eyes". That's when Mildred realized what screen acting was about and got better.

She played opposite Nelson Eddy in Balalaika (1939) and with James Stewart's in Made For Each Other (1939); she and a very young Veronica Lake added support to All Women Have Secrets (1939); she rode the range with Gene Autry in the western Ride Tenderfoot Ride (1940); and played Alan Ladd's love interest 'In Old Missouri (1940)

As long as Mildred stayed in Hollywood she was always going to make headlines. She had a torrid affair with Victor Mature and made headlines. She attended society dinners with friend Barbara Hutton and the Duchess of Windsor's "boyfriend" Jimmy Donahue and made headlines.

In 1940 at a party given by Hal Roach's daughter Margaret, she met Geoffrey Steele, an army Captain. He was over six-foot tall, dark with a pencil thin moustache. It was love at first sight. He proposed to her at the Ambassador Hotel whilst on leave from service. They married in 1941. While they honeymooned the gossip columns congratulated the couple by asking readers to place bets on how long it would last.

"Everyone was talking about it," she said. "Most gave it 3 to 6 months. Nobody gave us forty years". Geoffrey enjoyed his wife's lifestyle of parties, cocktails and weekends in Palm Springs. He acted a little himself, notably as an officer in Casablanca (1942), and formed the Hollywood cricket club; members included some old Eton boys as well as David Niven and to Mildred's horror Errol Flynn.

It was about this time that Mildred made one of her greatest mistakes of her career. "Groucho Marx and I were really good friends he could see the potential for comedy. He wanted to write material for me, and have me appear in comedy monologues at Ciro's. I was so insulted when he told me that he thought I was one of the funniest people he'd ever met, as I desperately wanted to be a serious actress. I must have been mad, because now I could be really famous. Oh, I'd like to see him again".

Geoffrey brought Mildred to London during W.W.II. the only woman aboard three-hundred men on a 700 ton Norwegian freighter "I did have my own cabin boy who wrapped my furs in waterproofs incase we were torpedoed.”

During WWII, Mildred installed herself at the Savoy. “The way the British kept steadfast in the face of death moved me beyond words,” she said. “I do however remember when at breakfast one day I found glass for the bombed in window in the sugar and two genteel women saying “Now isn’t this a lovely cup of tea.”

Upon the birth of her daughter Georgiana she curtailed her work schedule. "I did nothing at all for years," she said. "That's a tricky decision to make as an actress, as one has to be sure that one hasn't been forgotten by Hollywood by the time the little one's born".

She and Geoffrey were well-known in London society and were frequent guests at Buckingham Palace. “I remember when during the 1950s we took General Peck and his wife Kathleen to a garden party at the palace, well, Kathleen was a bit queer and when introduced to Queen Elizabeth said “Have you met the Shay’s from Hollywood’? The Queen smiled and then cried ‘George, oh George come meet the Shay’s from Hollywood – well I nearly died of embarrassment.”

The way Mildred Shay always enthused about her career; it seems hard to imagine she could have ever walked away completely. She didn't. In 1974 she played a bit part in ‘The Great Gatsby’, two years later and she was asked by Ken Russell to appear in his new film ‘Valentino’ as an aged American desperate for attention’. "I was nervous and excited all at the same time," she said. “I told Geoffrey, gay or not I'm madly in love with my co-star Rudolph Nureyev".

She continued onscreen mostly working for Michael Winner and on television in ‘The Other ‘Arf’, ‘Perfect Scoundrels’ and ‘Inspector Morse.’ The Daily Telegraph described her role as American tourist Janet Roscoe as “more boorish than John Thaw.”

In her 95th year played Princess Dragomiroff and joined Ron Moody, Rachael Stirling and Amanda Donohue for a ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ photo spread to mark the Orient Express Magazine’s 21st Anniversary.

She traveled frequently and made her last public appearance in Hollywood at the 75th Academy Awards. She suffered a debilitating stroke in recent days but still managed to apply her lipstick, looking at her own reflection she joked “Vanity got me in the end.”

In 2004, when the National Film Theatre paid tribute to George Cukor Mildred Shay was on hand signing autographs and enthusing about her favorite director.

Mildred Shay, who died in Glendale on October 15, was widowed in 1987 and is survived by her daughter the wife of ‘Peter and Gordon’ singer Gordon Waller.