A GIFT FROM NORMA SHEARER
In late 1958, a Stanford University student named Fred Watkins wrote a letter to Norma Shearer. The celebrated movie star had not made a film since 1941. Her son, Irving Thalberg Jr., was working on his doctorate at Stanford and may have given her address to Watkins. At nineteen, Watkins was an accomplished autograph collector, eager to conduct an interview with Shearer, and confident that Films in Review would publish it.
Shearer had no reason to grant an interview. She was living in seclusion at 1207 Sierra Alta Way in West Hollywood with her husband, the retired ski instructor and resort developer Martin Arrouge. She had not been quoted for publication since her retirement. Perhaps she wanted Watkins to keep an eye on her son at Stanford, so she agreed to a visit from Watkins.
The interview that Norma Shearer granted to Fred Watkins has never been published; indeed, it does not exist in transcribed form. The documents occasioned by it, though, provide a unique insight into the private world of a former M-G-M star. I acquired them through a curious and fortunate sequence of events, which I have reconstructed with the help of Rob McKay and Reverend John McDaniels, PE.
Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer in 1928, when he was the head of production at M-G-M and she was one of the studio's top-earning stars.
In late 1958, Fred Watkins interviewed Norma Shearer, returned to Atherton, and typed the First Draft.
One of Watkins’s professors reviewed the first draft. Watkins incorporated a few suggestions, had it typed on legal-size paper, and mailed it to Shearer.
Shearer reviewed the first draft and then completely rewrote it. Her secretary typed both a cover letter and the new version of the essay.
After Watkins received Shearer's rewrite, he showed it to the professor, who attacked Shearer’s document with a pencil, showing no respect for the voice or the subject matter.
Watkins did not send the edited essay to Shearer. Instead, he wrote to her, saying that he wanted to submit his first draft to Films in Review.
Shearer responded with a vaguely threatening letter in which she warned Watkins not to publish the interview; she felt that she had done it against her better judgment.
Watkins did not answer Shearer’s letter, but neither did he submit the interview to Films in Review or any other magazine.
I called John McDaniels in April 1995 to tell him that I had just done a portrait of Norma Shearer’s granddaughter, Deborah Thalberg. John told me of the Fred Watkins 1958 interview. He had been friends with Watkins since they were fellow students at Stanford. Knowing that
I was writing a proposal for a book about the photographer George Hurrell, John suggested that I contact Watkins to find out if the Shearer interview existed. Watkins was fifty-five and living in Sonoma, California.
I first finished the book proposal, and on July 18 I made a call to Fred Watkins. A man answered, and said, “Fred Watkins has died.” There was little I could say to that.
My friends speculated that the man who spoke to me might be Watkins himself. I wrote a letter to him, explaining my scholarly interest in the interview material. I soon received a call from John McDaniels. Fred Watkins had died on July 17, the night before I had called.
My letter was read by Watkins’s sister, who turned it over to Bobby Litts, the executor of Watkins’s estate. They decided to send me the interview materials, as well as publishing rights.
I eventually learned that I had made that telephone call at exactly the right time. If I had called even a week earlier, Watkins might have withheld (or destroyed) the material. If I had called later, the material might already have been consigned to an auction, along with Watkins’s autograph collection. My timing was inadvertently auspicious, and for more than one reason.
In November 1995, after eight rejections, my book proposal was accepted. I signed a contract with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., to write Hurrell’s Hollywood Portraits. As I continued to research it, I saw that Norma Shearer had been more than a decisive influence on Hurrell’s career. She had been his mentor, in 1929 securing him the prestigious position of Head Portrait Photographer at M-G-M, and in 1932 saving him from an industry-wide blackball. Both Shearer’s interview with Watkins and her notes to him contained insights that had appeared nowhere in print. These helped me write my critical biography.
There was one last coincidence. The interview papers were delivered to me by mail on August 10, 1995—Norma Shearer’s ninety-third birthday.
Mark A. Vieira
December 31, 1996.
Copyright ©1996 Mark Alan Vieira. Renewed ©2024
THE FIRST DRAFT BY FRED WATKINS
THE DRAFT SENT TO NORMA SHEARER
A PACKAGE FROM NORMA SHEARER
THE PACKAGE NORMA SHEARER SENT
NORMA SHEARER'S ESSAY
A portrait of Norma Shearer made by Laszlo Willinger to publicize W.S. Van Dyke's Marie Antoinette (1938 M-G-M). This was Shearer's favorite portrait of herself in her favorite screen role.
Image used through the courtesy of Tom Maroudas, www.hollywoodpinups.com
Web Page Copyright Mark A. Vieira ©2024.