The boys who be­friended Hol­ly­wood’s stars Char­lotte Met­calf

In the 1980s, some young Sur­rey twins wrote fan let­ters to Hol­ly­wood greats – and ended up car­ing for a fad­ing star­let. By Char­lotte Met­calf

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

The twins Austin and Howard Mutti-mewse, now 45, led a per­fectly un­event­ful child­hood in Sur­rey. On Satur­day after­noons in the 1980s, their fa­ther dropped them at their grand­mother Vi­o­let’s house, where they watched black-and-white Hol­ly­wood movies on tele­vi­sion. The chil­dren started writ­ing fan let­ters to their idols, be­gin­ning with Lil­lian Gish (1893-1993), whom they saw in the silent film The Wind (1928), and whose ad­dress they found in Who’s Who.

So be­gan the un­likely tale of two English boys be­friend­ing a gen­er­a­tion of Hol­ly­wood oldies.

Gish put the twins in touch with her friends, such as the come­di­enne Colleen Moore, who in­tro­duced the boys to Dou­glas Fair­banks Jr. He put them on to Mar­lene Di­et­rich, who re­cy­cled their en­ve­lope, pad­ding it with an old Chris­tian Dior stock­ing packet to pro­tect the glossy pho­to­graph of her­self she sent them. Soon more pho­tographs, let­ters and au­to­graphs be­gan ar­riv­ing – from Bette Davis, James Ste­wart, Myrna Loy, Lana Turner and Hedy La­marr.

‘We wrote to the stars about our lives, pets, school projects and our an­noy­ing older sis­ter,’ Austin says.

It was the ‘nearly-not-quites’ and the al­most fa­mous who were among the most grate­ful to hear from them. Let­ters soon gave way to phone calls.

‘They al­ways seemed to call when Mum was serv­ing din­ner,’ Austin re­marks, ‘and I re­mem­ber her be­ing cross about toad-in-the-hole go­ing cold be­cause I was chat­ting to Hedy La­marr.’

She was even crosser when the boys bunked off school to meet Bette Davis at her Lon­don ho­tel. ‘I’m in­trigued to meet the young men who have “turned on” Hol­ly­wood,’ she said.

When James Cameron asked Glo­ria Stu­art (1910-2010) to play Old Rose in Ti­tanic af­ter decades away from the big screen, she fre­quently tele­phoned.

‘I want this,’ she cried. ‘Say Ti­tanic when you wake, Ti­tanic at lunch and then Ti­tanic when you go to sleep’.

(The twins sent her Fort­num & Ma­son choco­lates when she was nom­i­nated in 1998 for an Os­car as best sup­port­ing ac­tress, at the age of 87 the oldest nom­i­nee in the Acad­emy’s his­tory.)

A trip to Cal­i­for­nia fol­lowed, where the twins’ youth, English­ness and abil­ity to lis­ten to story af­ter story with at­ten­tive rap­ture en­deared them to all their pen pals, from Gin­ger Rogers to Bob Hope. Their new Hol­ly­wood friends in­cluded Anita Page (1910-2008, pic­tured), one of the last silent film stars.

In 2014, these friend­ships be­came the ba­sis of their book I Used to be in Pic­tures: An Un­told Story of Hol­ly­wood, a com­pi­la­tion of the pho­tographs they re­ceived as teenagers and the more re­cent pho­tographs that lend the book its poignant un­der­tone. ‘We were used to be­ing with our grand­mother – she was par­tially sighted and lonely – so we con­nected with them,’ Austin says. ‘While we were in awe of them, we were also very sorry for them and they had great sto­ries to tell. Af­ter Metoo, the next “ism” Hol­ly­wood must deal with is ageism. Age made so many stars ob­so­lete in a town ob­sessed with youth. Be­ing for­got­ten was an in­cred­i­bly hard pill for many of the stars – who, let’s face it, had swal­lowed lots of pills – to swal­low.’

The book caught the eye of Tom Per­rin, a pub­lisher who com­mis­sioned Austin to write a mem­oir based on the book’s chap­ter about Mil­dred Shay, the 5ft-tall ac­tress dubbed ‘the Pocket Venus’ by Wal­ter Winchell, the Hol­ly­wood gos­sip colum­nist. She was more fa­mous for her so­cial life and af­fairs than for her roles, though she nearly stole the show play­ing Joan Craw­ford’s maid in The Women (1939). Ce­cil B Demille was said to have made a pass at her and one of Mil­dred’s more tragic claims to fame was that Er­rol Flynn had tried to rape her.

Austin and his girl­friend Joanna, later his wife, spent a pe­riod liv­ing with Mil­dred in her de­cay­ing, moth-rid­dled Pim­lico flat that, ac­cord­ing to Austin, ‘stank of cloy­ing per­fume by Gior­gio Bev­erly Hills, cat pee and hair lac­quer’.

Austin was work­ing as a Daily Tele­graph obit­u­ary writer, spe­cial­is­ing in – of course – Hol­ly­wood movie stars.

‘Don’t tell me about the day job – it’s de­press­ing,’ Mil­dred used to say to Austin, ‘and I ain’t go­ing no place.’

Stars were not dy­ing fast enough for Austin to make a vi­able liv­ing and Joanna was train­ing to be a teacher; so they were nearly broke and be­tween flats. Mil­dred was de­lighted to en­snare her beloved

‘Mum was cross about sup­per go­ing cold – I was chat­ting to Hedy La­marr’

Austin Austin, and the deal was that Austin en­ter­tained her while ‘the fe­male’, as Mil­dred de­scribed Joanna, shopped, cooked and cleaned.

Austin’s mem­oir is an ac­count of that time and leads up to Mil­dred’s death, aged 94, in 2005. Howard, who lives in Switzer­land and works for a trust, cor­po­rate and funds busi­ness, edited the book on his train com­mute to Geneva.

‘I don’t like women; they’re jeal­ous of my beauty,’ is how Mil­dred ex­cused her rude­ness to Joanna, though Joanna was big-hearted enough to over­look Mil­dred flirt­ing with her hus­band.

‘Honey, you’ve got thin lips,’ she once told Joanna. ‘Max Fac­tor would be able to build them up for you.’

At Austin and Joanna’s wed­ding in a ho­tel in the For­est of Dean, Mil­dred was 94 and dy­ing from a brain tu­mour but in­sisted on danc­ing with Joanna’s brother, to whom she’d taken a shine, even be­fore the bridal cou­ple’s first dance. ‘At one point I went up to Mil­dred’s room,’ Austin re­calls, ‘and I will never for­get see­ing Joanna in her wed­ding dress kneel­ing at Mil­dred’s feet, help­ing her into her nightie so she could rest. In those fad­ing mo­ments Mil­dred told Joanna she was the only girl­friend she’d ever had.’

Austin stayed with Mil­dred for two years. To­wards the end, Mil­dred was call­ing 999 ten times a month.

‘Chelsea and West­min­ster A&E be­came her new stage,’ Austin says. ‘She used to dress for the am­bu­lance men and they nick­named her “The Film Star”.’

Through Howard, who worked in fash­ion PR then, Austin re­calls tak­ing Pen pals: Bette Davis, James Ste­wart and Bob Hope; silent film star Anita Page with Austin (in blue) and Howard Mutti-mewse in 1999; a note from Katharine Hep­burn

Mil­dred to the launch of Rankin’s book of pho­tographs on fe­male gen­i­talia. Af­ter she’d drunk a lot of wine and chat­ted to Jodie Kidd, Nicky Haslam and Rankin, Mil­dred turned to the crowd and said: ‘I’ve worked with some of the big­gest dicks in the busi­ness but never been in a room full of c***s.’

‘She was like Mae West as she got older,’ Austin says, ‘raunchy, witty and full of one-lin­ers and life.’

Mil­dred had a daugh­ter, Baby, by her last hus­band, a Bri­tish of­fi­cer she’d mar­ried in the war. (He died in 1987.) Baby was born in 1949 and lives in Cal­i­for­nia. She said it was too dif­fi­cult to come to Lon­don to see her dy­ing mother, so Austin took Mil­dred to Cal­i­for­nia.

‘Mil­dred knew it was the last time she’d ever see me,’ Austin says, ‘but, when I left, she was at the front door, fully made up in a swim­suit, huge sun­glasses and a sun­hat. “See you around kid,” she said. She died a few days later.’

Austin’s book Pocket Venus is a tragi­comic por­trayal of delu­sion, lone­li­ness and the stub­born, spir­ited at­tempt to defy the rav­ages of age. Although it is chill­ing in its de­pic­tion of Mil­dred’s weak­ness and van­ity, it is ul­ti­mately a heart­warm­ing story about a cross-gen­er­a­tional friend­ship and a young cou­ple over­com­ing their re­pul­sion and de­ri­sion to care for and even­tu­ally love a frail, lonely oldie.

‘Pocket Venus: The Rise, Fall & Rise of a Hol­ly­wood Star­let’ (Zuleika Books) by Austin Mutti-mewse is pub­lished on 12th Oc­to­ber

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