By Stargayzing guest blogger Corinna Tomrley*
Shirley Eder may be known to those who are serious about their classic Hollywood trivia, but to many her name will not ring a bell. Although not as renowned or as mythical as gossip godmothers Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, in her time Eder was known as a “friend of the stars.” Officially presenting her gushing interviews with them “on the record” for mid-century radio and newspaper audiences, she would also draw them into her confidence and get them to dish with her over the phone, all the while secretly recording some of these “private” conversations. Her Hollywood chums included Celeste Holm (whom she met whilst appearing on stage with her in The Women, aged just 16), Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Bob Hope, Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Jacqueline Susann, Peggy Lee, Joan Rivers, Neil Diamond, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. It is a couple of interviews with the last two stars, along with a few secretly taped phone calls,that should be putting Shirley into her own orbit as legendary gossip hack: the conversations I regard collectively as “The Shirley Eder Tapes.”
“The Shirley Eder Tapes” (TSET) begin with an interview with Crawford and Stanwyck together and are followed by a phone call with Joan, then a call with Stanwyck bitching about Joan, an interview for radio with a very drunk Joan in a limousine and lastly, another secretly taped phone call to Stanwyck, after Joan’s death. Together, these recordings paint the picture of a complex, perhaps volatile, friendship between Crawford and Stanwyck, demonstrate how Eder would use her relationships to pit one star against another and be frankly two-faced about it in order to get what she wanted and, at last, an exposé of the stars caught unguarded under the veil of presumed privacy.
The first tape, a 10-minute interview with both Crawford and Stanwyck, presents the two legends at dinner with Eder at the 21 Club in New York, just before New Years Eve, circa 1966. Eder plays around with the billing of these women, speaking of them as “Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck.” But it is very clear from the conversation that “Missy” Stanwyck very much knows how to play her status with Joan Crawford, Movie Star, revealing that they mainly catch up with each other in New York because “Joan is a career woman and her home is in New York.” Her reverence for Joan is that of one who knows how to deal with a massive ego for a friend. It is said that at this meal, Joan–as was traditional for her–ordered for all calves liver, vegetables and salad, generously allowing the other women to choose their own dessert. Now, I’d have been fine with that cuz I love me some liver, but “Missy” privately confessed to Eder later that she hated liver. She knew better, however, than to offend her famous friend in refusing the menu choice.
This factoid, along with the ensuing discussion, placed Crawford as the true Queen Bee in the relationship. However, Barbara Stanwyck held a special place for JoanCrawford: as a miniature in her home. It is said that at her death, Crawford had only two portraits in her apartment: one of Jack Kennedy (rumoured to have been a Crawford conquest) and the portrait of Stanwyck that Eder mentions. (Was Missy also a past shag? Let’s say “yes,” because it’s fun). In the tape Stanwyck says her friend has had the miniature portrait “easily 20 somewhat years.” Joan corrects her, noting that it is 22 years. Questioning why the women don’t socialise when in Hollywood at the same time, Eder asks if that means that work comes first. Joan, the dedicated Tinseltown workhorse shouts, “well you have to. This is a business. We’re trained and raised in a business.” Missy, of course, agrees.
The rest of the interview is a somewhat dull discussion about the women’s dislike for celebrating New Year’s. In fact, what happens is Joan declares her opinion and Missy just states exactly the same thing for her answer. Eder predicts that they have ruined the party hat business of America. The interview establishes that these tough Hollywood film noir broads are BFFs because Stanwyck admires Joan and Joan likes that Stanwyck admires Joan. Eder said of the relationship, “It was a strange friendship. Nevertheless, it was real.” And yet she would do her utmost to pit Stanwyck against Joan and dig out Missy’s true feelings about her volatile friend, perhaps demonstrating one aspect of the “strange friendship,” or attempting to prove that Joan was a deluded sociopath. I can’t quite decide which.
The first secretly taped conversation in TSET needs a little backstory. On the 17th of January 1967, Joan Crawford attended a White House dinner honouring Lyndon Johnson’s VP Hubert Humphrey. Present were Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and—seated one place away from Crawford—his new, young wife Cathleen. What followed was reported by Judith Axlar in her New York Daily News column “DC Wash’”and a piece in The Washington Post. Joan denied all in a telephone interview (not with Eder) and The New York Daily News printed a follow-up article detailing what had gone down according to reports from journalists who were witness to the events. The New York Daily News reporter at the dinner declared that Joanie “wasn’t acting queenly that night.” The Washington Post’s reporter observed Joan letting rip a “belittling barrage” about upbringing, manners, and very specific personal insults about Cathleen Douglas, including (bizarrely) references to her love for the outdoors. The whole table tried to save the young woman from Joan’s terrifying tirade, answering back on Cathy’s behalf. So Joan apparently felt compelled to demonstrate her victim’s lack of etiquette and educated the poor woman in Emily Post-dictated place setting protocol.
Joan’s tutorial seems to have involved a finger bowl, a doily, and a chocolate cake. Or chocolate mousse. Hell, it’s hard to know what the truth is anymore. Joan denied that she knew who the girl was and that anything untoward had occurred apart from Queen Joan being helpful and attempting to heroically save a beautiful doily. “I didn’t know who she was. She looked like Mia Farrow, she looked darling,” says Joan to Eder when she’s being secretly taped. For this call, Shirley doesn’t seem to have sorted out the technology: she’s really loud and Joan’s really quiet, but if you’re determined and don’t mind Shirl’s guffaws at high volume giving you tinnitus, then it’s well worth straining to work out what Joan is lying—I mean saying. Crawford insists that no one introduced her to Cathy and she didn’t talk to her. Regarding Doilygate, Joan explains, “when the finger bowls came she took it off and left a beautiful doily there. And just as she begins to put this chocolate mousse on top of this doily.”
Eder: Joan you didn’t!
Joan: I moved the doily, I said to the man next to me, ‘excuse me,’ I just pulled the doily off quick before she dropped the chocolate mousse on the doily.
Eder: Did you get up, did you lean across, how did you do it?
Joan: I DIDN’T GET UP FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!
Crawford moans that, “I would be grateful and not critical if someone helped me in that way.” So here we have the whole, true story of one woman gallantly saving a beautiful doily from an errant dollop of chocolate mousse. Not cake as had been— falsely, obviously—reported in the Daily News. It’s this kind of oversight that makes it hard for one to trust the integrity of the fourth estate. Cathy had been a cocktail waitress prior to meeting Justice Douglas and The News insinuate that this aspect of her origin was one of the topics of Joan’s attack. Joan (presumably in the radio interview mentioned in the article) defended herself by saying “I was a waitress, too, from the age of nine.” To Eder she says, “I didn’t know she was a cocktail hostess…I didn’t know about her humble beginnings.” If there’s one thing that Joan knew about, it was humble beginnings. But also if there’s one thing that Joan, reportedly, liked to do it was to teach ingénue’s lessons in manners, etiquette, and being grateful and appreciating her lessons on manners, etiquette and being grateful. So, you know… who to believe? Well, Shirley Eder would provide us with more first-person insight into the character of Joan Crawford at parties from the mouth of none other than Barbara Stanwyck. This brings us to our next tape, this one much easier to hear. Sister Shirl had obviously by now gotten her act together on how to work her tape recorder.
Missy, referring to her dear friend as “Crawford,” relays her own first-hand accounts of Joan being “so mean, so nasty, so bitter” at parties. At a soiree held by Louis B Meyer’s daughter Edith, Joan was mortally offended when she wasn’t seated at the main table. That Crawford didn’t even care about causing a scene at the home of her tyrannical boss’s daughter says a lot about her temper, lack of control, and crazed sense of entitlement. Stanwyck exclaims “she was a nasty sonofabitch… I was shocked!” So: great story. And the gems keep coming with Missy stating that Joan can “look you right in the eye and lie.” The conversation moves from first hand experience of Joan’s behaviour to outright gossip and conjecture about what ‘really’ goes on in Joan’s private life. The women speculate whether Joan’s been selling her jewellery to get by and Eder states that Joan’s bitching drove husband Franchot Tone to the drinking and philandering she accused him of.
What does this phone call tell us about Eder’s ethics and Missy’s friendship with “Crawford?” Eder declares that when she spoke to Joan about the White House party, she hadn’t said ‘“Please don’t use it” She knew I called her for a story. She gave it to me’. So, by not stating a phone call is off the record, it instantly becomes on the record. Of course! How silly of Joan! Amazingly, this doesn’t prompt Stanwyck to declare her conversation off the record, which perhaps shows her own misguided trust. I can’t find any evidence that Eder did leek this one —after all, if Joan got wind of it we’d surely have heard about that fallout; a Hollywood bust up to rival the infamous Davis and Crawford feud! Eder’s tapes must have been a record of sorts, for evidence, as something to possibly use for her own gain in the future. Was she intending to publish the remarks? This tape shows the type of manipulative scum that Shirley Eder was and demonstrates that as a Hollywood star, you couldn’t trust anyone, particularly a gossip columnist. On Missy’s part, well it was a case of one person being frank about a friend whose behaviour was often unbalanced and grossly unfair to those around her. There are similar stories of Stanwyck having an irrational temper, but Eder – ever the devoted friend—declares to Missy that Joan “is not a Barbara Stanwyck to me,” insinuating that Barbara has tact and class where Joan has none. The next tape is a little different. Another on-the-record interview, it captures Joan speaking with Eder whilst “in an enormous limousine.” And Joan is completely pissed [editor’s note: “drunk”]. Slurring her way through the whole thing, Crawford talks about—amongst other things—being Joan Crawford.
Eder: Do you ever get tired of being JC—“Joan Crawford?”
Crawford: Never. I love every minute of it.
Hardly able to speak, Joan is slow and deliberate. Eder asks if her movie star life means she has had to sacrifice “a great deal of personal happiness.” Joan slurs, “Yes, Ma’am’.” “And you wouldn’t change a thing?” asks Eder. ‘No Ma’am,” slurs Joan. Crawford offers, “you know what Billy Haines says? ‘Leave it the way Jesus flung it.'” Bizarre, nonsensical words to live by. The end of the conversation is a prime example of gushing sycophancy and schmoozing to get the goods as Eder says, “I do love you very much.” Joan, in a prime example of being lured into the Eder web of I’m-your-pal lies, replies: “thank-you very much my darling friend, lovely kiss.” Eder signs off: “this is Shirley Eder kissing Joan Crawford saying thank you and that’s show business.” Show business is also—apparently—still doing an interview with your dear friend when they are totally and blatantly trashed. Of course, for the listener, catching a movie star in this unguarded, real, outrageous moment is a little delicious. It’s gossip and as stinking and underhanded as Eder has been, for those of us who delight in that campy, Babylonian side of Hollyweird, a pissed Crawford is a bit of a guilty treat.
The final tape—a secretly captured call between Eder and Stanwyck after Crawford’s death—is a little sobering. Though, perhaps, not so much for Missy, who sounds quite tipsy herself, during this call. The women again discuss whether Joan needed to sell her jewellery in her final years, if she had cancer, and what happened to her dog. It is a sad chat with Eder still pushing Missy to gossip and speculate about her dead friend. When she reveals what she has found out about the dog, Eder says, “Now— am I good reporter, or what?” It was not a friend caring about the fate of a beloved pet that led to her gaining this information, but a means to get more dish on the last days of a dead woman. But these are the same details that allow us to piece together our own ‘knowledge’ about the stars we love, to feed our own fascination. Because—hands up!—I admit that I love to know this stuff too. Do I think Eder was underhand and vile? Yes. Am I glad I can hear these tapes? Yes. The Internet is a wealth of information and for the movie fiend, a goldmine. YouTube is filled with rare footage and recordings that split the film fan community. There’s a recording of Judy Garland in collaboration with a would-be ghost-writer where she discusses a suicide attempt. Is hearing this exploitative or a rare opportunity to get to the first hand experience of a legend? Should these archives be shared so publicly? In days gone by, we’d only have come by this information as the result of an intrepid biographer having the pleasure and the privilege of gaining access to letters, recordings, reminiscences and translating them for us—the reader —to enjoy second hand. Here, we can hear it all from the Hollywood horse’s mouth. When a recording has been made without the knowledge of the star (and there are others you can hear on YouTube; someone else secretly taped phone calls to Judy Garland), we may ask, should we have access to these conversations? And should they have been made at all? Despite the debates, their existence and the access afforded by YouTube brings to life what might otherwise have only been heard by a few. And—for lowlifes like me—the filthy thrill of hearing such a thing remains. Perhaps I should be ashamed of such pleasure, but for lovers of the Golden Age of Hollywood, any morsel is a treat. Hollywood gossip is usually told second, third, fourth hand and who knows what to believe? To hear gossip and bitching and the un-guarded moments of the stars themselves brings the fan experience to another level, albeit a level where you have to wade through slime. The Shirley Eder Tapes may reveal what a scummy hack she was, but—for shame—it kind of leaves me wanting more. Here in their entirety are all three Shirley Eder Tapes edited together.
About the author: Corinna Tomrley is an aging glamazon who has been obsessed with old Hollywood since she was a wee girl. One third of London queer arts troupe The Ethel Mermaids, she is a bad artist, working on a major project to be seen by public eyes some time next year. A doctor of pop culture, she specialised in celebrity, fat bodies and gossip until she gave it up for paint, glitter and camp-induced showing off.
You may also enjoy:
“A House of Gingerbread and Bells!” Or, the Night Joan Crawford Hypnotized America with a Fully-Orchestrated, Utterly Unintelligible, Six-Minute Dramatic Reading About “Little Children.” Or—Really, About Being Joan Crawford!