When author, producer, director Rocky Lang emailed me out of the blue asking for permission to publish one of my great-grandfather Sol M. Wurtzel’s letters in a book, I cringed. My Papa Sol, pioneer Jewish film producer and Fox Studio boss, was notorious for being tough and direct. I sensed his letter must be a whopper if Lang and his co-author, film historian and archivist Barbara Hall, wanted to publish it.
I tensed up as I scrolled down and read the curt 1928 letter Papa Sol wrote to Madge Bellamy, a top silent-era Fox star who fans revered as one of the five most beautiful women in Hollywood. True to form, Sol skipped pleasantries and got to the point, “I noticed in the last few days’ work that either something is wrong with the photography or you have been adding a little weight . . . I would suggest you give this matter your thought and if I am correct and you have taken on some weight, that you start on a diet.”
Ouch! Why allow this harsh, politically-incorrect missive to be published? It certainly did nothing to burnish the Wurtzel name. Then I remembered an article I’d read years back referencing how “Titanic” director James Cameron called the film’s Academy Award-winning star Kate Winslet “Kate Weighs-a-Lot” after she gained a few pounds. My great-grandfather’s letter demonstrated nothing new existed under the California sun – fat shaming dated back to Hollywood’s earliest days. Certainly not a family legacy to be proud of, but an important truth. I opted for transparency and gave Lang and Hall permission to publish Papa Sol’s letter.
I knew I’d made the right decision when I attended the launch party for the finished product – “Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking” (Abrams Books, 2019). Both Lang and Hall projected intelligence, warmth and a passion for Hollywood history. Their elegant, coffee-table book is a triumph. The 137 beautifully reproduced letters written by Hollywood denizens ranging from Harry Houdini (in 1921) to Jane Fonda (in 1976) provide a window into what gave the Golden Age its luster – thoughtful, creative, funny, hardworking, flawed, gifted people collaborating to create a dream factory that produced America’s greatest cultural export.
Lang, the son of high-powered Jewish talent agent and MCA/Universal executive producer Jennings Lang, was moved to assemble a book of intimate Hollywood letters after an archivist found a 1939 letter his father wrote seeking a meeting with Hollywood’s top literary agent. At the time, Jennings Lang was a 24-year-old New York law school graduate who had just arrived in Hollywood with the goal of becoming a power player. Lang included his father’s letter in the book. It exudes confidence, chutzpah, and the drive that enabled him to achieve his dreams.
Universal Pictures founder and Jewish German native Carl Laemmle’s 1938 letter to famed director William Wyler qualifies as the book’s most humane and tragic missive. Penned as Nazi persecution of European Jews became ever-more menacing, Laemmle begs Wyler to do him a “very big favor.” Laemmle explains that on a recent visit to Germany he promised 150 Jews he would find sponsors for them so they could emigrate to the United States. He implores Wyler to sponsor as many Jews as possible. “I predict right now that thousands of German and Austrian Jews will be forced to commit suicide if they cannot get affidavits to come to America or some other foreign country. My heart goes out to them,” Laemmle wrote.
The letter’s annotation explains that Wyler, like Laemmle, had already reached the maximum number of sponsorships he could offer, and was unable to accommodate Laemmle’s request. Laemmle died in September 1939, before the Nazi’s mass execution of European Jewry. A humanitarian to the end, his efforts saved hundreds of Jewish lives.
The collected letters, several penned by Hollywood’s early Jewish moguls – including MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg, producer David O. Selznick and studio head Jack Warner – demonstrate a passion for and dedication to the craft of filmmaking. “Letters from Hollywood” is a history lover’s dream – primary source documents accompanied by vintage photos and well-researched contextual information. A great holiday gift for film lovers, history buffs and those who wax nostalgic about the lost art of letter writing.