What is Stephen Maude Reading?
My short story “Happy Enough”, which appeared in TNQ150, draws on biographical information about 1930s film star Jean Harlow that I gleaned from Bombshell, the definitive Harlow biography written by David Stenn. It’s relatively easy to get information like this about Hollywood’s big names. There are biographies or memoirs or at least Wikipedia entries devoted to them.
But the book I’m reading now, Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary – Her Private Letters from Inside the Studios of the 1920s (Edited and annotated by Cari Beauchamp), offers a different perspective altogether. Featuring the private letters of a twenty-something secretary, it’s a fly-on-the-wall glimpse inside the Hollywood studios during the sunset years of the silent-film era and the early days of the “talkies”.
In the summer of 1924, Valeria Belletti visited California with her friend Irma, but instead of returning home to New York City with her friend, Valeria stayed on in Los Angeles, landed a job as personal secretary to movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and, as the blurb on the back cover of the book puts it, proceeded to trip over history in the making.
…so even little things, like Valeria telling Irma that outside the window of her office three perfectly gorgeous calla lilies are in bloom, seem poignant to someone…
This is the second time I’ve read this book, and I’m still pondering why it is I find Valeria’s letters so captivating. Perhaps it’s Valeria’s enthusiasm as she relates her adventures, pouring out her thoughts, feelings, dreams, and disappointments in chatty letters to Dear Irma. Or perhaps it’s the letters’ unfiltered immediacy, written not for posterity but as a conversation between friends. Of course, the two friends are both dead now, so even little things, like Valeria telling Irma that outside the window of her office three perfectly gorgeous calla lilies are in bloom, seem poignant to someone listening in on their conversation almost a hundred years later. And then there’s the writing – vivid, witty, touching –
Tonight is so beautiful. The moon is so big and yellow and looks like a picture through the trees in front of my window.
[Referring to film star Ronald Colman] He is ideal – but I could never get excited over him – he is just a trifle too ideal to make me realize he is human. I like our fat little publicity man much more.
Flo is out with her Harry and Connie is out with her Dick and I’m here alone writing to you in my pajamas.
Stephen Maude’s writing has appeared in The Antigonish Review, FreeFall, The New Quarterly, and The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2016.