“Ronald Colman Can’t Dance The Charleston”: Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary

[pullquote cite=”Valeria Belleti” type=”center”]Dear Irma: …Ronald Colman was trying to do the Charleston and couldn’t—he looked awfully funny…”[/pullquote]

So reads an excerpt from one of the more permanent fixtures on my bookshelf: a sweet little treasure entitled Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary: Private Letters from Inside the Studios of the 1920s. Published in 2006 and edited and annotated most attentively by film historian Cari Beauchamp, it is a collection of letters penned by a young woman named Valeria Belleti who moved to Los Angeles from her New Jersey home in 1924. Valeria, a tenacious little Italian, was 25 years old and had landed smack in the midst of a modern boomtown—the burgeoning movie biz making was turning a sleepy little farmtown called Hollywood into the unsanctioned core of the City of Angels.

Valeria Beletti landed a job as Samuel Goldwyn’s personal assistant which means that her letters are the sort of primary source material that Hollywood history lovers salivate over. By Valeria’s own admonition she was a bit “prim” and, although this collection of letters span the very apex of the jazz age, the pages are not inked with the sort of hot-jazz prohibition party-hardy hedonism we tend to associate with the period. Cari Beauchamp, the womens interests champion and versed Hollywood historian, writes that Valeria “was always on the lookout for a good time—within the bounds of propriety of course—and for a man to enjoy it with. She was very much a young woman of her times: proper but curious, taking her work seriously and ambitious to a point, but always wondering if the next man she met was husband material.”  So, instead of a steamy Fitzgerald-esque diary, we have instead the gift of a revealing, detailed journaling of the daily cogwheel workings of a Hollywood studio in the 1920s.

This is not a volume full of steamy backstage rendezvous or clandestine spekeasy romances; Valeria was a very good girl. (In fact, we get the impression that “wild” parties thrown by the likes of Marion Davies worried her considerably.) And yet, there is plenty of romance for this young woman because she is head over heels in love with Hollywood itself. Her hopeless romanticism of  Hollywood mirrors the romance that countless millions of people in the early ’20s shared. It was an impossible dreamland, and Valeria is acutely aware of exactly how lucky she is to be working right in the heart of it. She may not be the sensationalized flapper that we might envision emancipated women of the 1920s to have all been, but she is a real, honest-to-goodness working girl. The fact that women had only been granted the right to vote four years earlier only makes Valeria’s accounts all the more insightful: she is nothing if not an independent woman and she never once takes her opportunities for granted.

Valeria was rightly proud of her work. Not only was she a damn fine secretary–she had something of an eye for talent. In her letters, she speaks with unabashed exuberance about an impossibly good looking man she’d seen on the lot … by the name of Gary Cooper. Swept up by his remarkable good looks (and to call a 1926 Gary Cooper remarkably good looking is something of an understatement), she lobbied for him. Hard. And Cooper was lucky that Valeria had such a major crush on him: not taking ‘no’ from an answer from Sam Goldwyn himself (I told you this girl was tenacious) she bugged everyone from Frances Marion to the head of casting about him, before finally going directly to director Henry King who–albeit reluctantly– eventually cast Cooper in a supporting role in a Western.

(Valeria dear, wherever you are, on behalf of womankind everywhere: we salute you.

Gary Cooper
Gary Cooper, circa 1926. No wonder Valeria Belleti went gaga over him.

On a more personal note, Valeria’s letters also painful proof of just how much our society has lost in our collective neglect of the hand-written letter. There is a candor and intelligence in Valeria’s heartfelt pages that our emails and tweets and texts can never hope to convey. Towards the end, Valeriea’s letters do become bogged down with accounts of her personal love interests– the stories of which are largely underwhelming—but how could one possibly find fault with this? These were, after all, private letters and had she known they would have been published for posterity’s sake 80 years after their composition I’m sure they would read decidedly different. I know mine sure would.

With a roster of supporting players to put MGM to shame, including Frances Marion, Rudolph Valentino, and Ronald Colman, Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary is essential reading for any Hollywood history enthusiast and its slight nature would make it a perfect stocking stuffer for the hopeless Hollywood romantic in your life.

The following entry is Valeria’s account of the studio Christmas party and is precisely the sort of account that turns me pea-green with envy.

Why oh why couldn’t I have been Valeria Belleti?

“Dear Irma …

All your good wishes have come true—I have had the most happy Christmas I’ve ever had, that is, so far as material things are concerned. Naturally at heart, I still my miss my mother and all my friends and I can never be really happy until there is someone who can in a measure fill this gap.

Everybody at the studio was wonderful to me—Ronald Colman gave me a lovely underarm bag, Frances Marion gave me a gorgeous French beaded pocketbook, Mrs. Goldwyn gave me a gorgeous satin mules trimmed in green ostrich feathers, Mr Fitzmaurice gave me a huge box of candy, Mr. Lehr gave me a gold cigarette holder (I smoke occasionally now–but it’s not a habit as yet) and I got things from about 5 or 6 other men at the studio. The office gave me a week’s salary.

The day before Christmas we had a little party at the studio in the afternoon—of course everybody had been drinking but me—I had to remain sober because I had to send about 75 telegrams out for Mr. Goldwyn and flowers to wives of his business friends. Mr. Goldwyn left about 3 in the afternoon and then the fun began. I had about 5 assistant directors in my office, our production manager, Jack Pickford, a few minor actors and then Ronald dropped in. As I said before, I was the only sober one in the lot, however they were not disgustingly drunk—just funny. Ronald is making a picture with Norma Talmage—“Kiki.” … Ronald came off the Kiki set and he was still in his make up and feeling pretty good. It was the first time I have ever seen him like that—he’s so quiet and reserved and almost unapproachable. He put a cap on me and wound a muffler around my neck and then I put on my black satin mules with the ostrich feathers and Ronald and I were playing “Kiki”. … Then Ronald was trying to do the Charleston and couldn’t—he looked awfully funny….”

Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary is edited by Cari Beauchamp and is published by the University of California Press. It is available on Goodreads as well as Amazon.com.

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