LIKE MOST LITTLE GIRLS, I WAS ENTRANCED EARLY ON by the feminine arts. I loved watching my mother get ready for an evening out, the sound of her high heels clicking on polished wood. But it is my father Samuel Goldwyn Jr. who taught me about style.
He was born in 1926 in Los Angeles and lived in a white house in Beverly Hills, built during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was designed by master architect Douglas Honnold, though supposedly construction was finished by the set designers at my grandfather’s movie studio. My father is the only son of the Oscar-winning producer Samuel Goldwyn, a pioneer of the film business, and Frances Howard, a silent screen actress. I pined for secret mementos of his past and connections to my grandparents, whom I never knew. I grew up in my father’s childhood bedroom in a house filled with photographs of him, but his early life still seemed to me like a silent movie or a dream. He had lived a life in many ways very public but also irredeemably private.
My grandmother exists for me in a glamorous but distant afterglow. Old friends would say they could still smell her distinctive perfume—Piguet’s Fracas—wafting through the halls. Most of the significant historical details I’ve discovered about her are from offhand remarks, as when my father told me that she had modeled for Vogue in the 1920s; he thought his mother a very stylish figure and spoke of her with awe. Dinners were still made from menus Frances had created in her heyday. My father casually tosses off memories of the guests: “Hedy Lamarr was incredible-looking. If you were in a room with her you didn’t look anywhere else, you know what I mean? She’d come over all the time, and I couldn’t stop staring. I’d seen two pictures of hers before we met, and one was of her swimming nude. You could never take your eyes off her eyes or her breasts.” My mother told me that the first time she went to dinner at my grandparents’ house she was seated next to Fred Astaire. To my father this was just another Thursday evening at home.
My grandfather died before I was born. When my grandmother passed away, in 1976, the year I was born, we moved into her Beverly Hills home. The rooms are still lined with photographs from my father’s early years, with seemingly every moment documented in silver gelatin. (“Property of Samuel Goldwyn Studios” was often stamped on the back.) There he is at nine, standing stiffly in his Black-Foxe Military Academy cadet uniform, or wearing a cowboy outfit with pony-skin chaps, posed by a studio photographer on my grandfather’s knee. A little later my preteen dad—his swimsuit looking more like a wrestler’s costume—stands next to his father and Charlie Chaplin. There were also official publicity shots released by my grandfather’s studio: Dad in his late teens in boxing shorts and gloves, with klieg lights in the background, and later, in his twenties, sitting for an official portrait when he joined the family business. I often wondered how willingly he had entered into that role. This was not something he discussed.
Samuel Goldwyn with his son Samuel Goldwyn Jr., on set in 1958. (Everett Collection)
In his study my father kept an album of personal photographs he’d taken as a child. These were all shot from very low angles, making the adults look like giants. I remember one of Howard Hughes and a girlfriend in front of an enormous airplane. In the photos of himself he looked happiest on family vacations with the Irving Berlins and their oldest daughter, Mary Ellin, his best friend to this day. When I was a child I would sit on the floor, paging through the fading prints, rare candid images of his youth that seemed to offer clues as to what made him tick. “It was all so long ago, Lizzie, I can’t remember anymore,” he would say when I’d ask for details.
For my freshman year of high school I went to a boarding school on the East Coast, where, thanks to several influential teachers, I became serious about photography. On vacations, digging through our basement, I discovered boxes containing my father’s old cameras; he had been an aspiring photographer too. I sorted through and cleaned crumpled negatives and fixative-stained prints. A trove of images from World War II took months to archive; all I had previously known about his time in the military was that he had become deaf in one ear because of the gunshot blasts. In some pictures, handsome in his uniform, he’s on leave in French or German cafés, goofing off with his army buddies and attractive women.
It was these photographs that finally opened the floodgates of reminiscence in my reticent father. He told me that after the war, while in the reserves, he had gotten a post working on a documentary about General Eisenhower; the director Frank Capra had gotten him the job, probably as a favor to my grandparents, who had wanted to keep their son far from the front line. When the rushes came back from his first day of interviewing Eisenhower, my father wasn’t happy with the way the general looked. He asked the officer in command for a reshoot and was told that this wasn’t Hollywood; the general was very busy. My father persisted, asking if Eisenhower had slept on his face. “It’s puffy, and I have a feeling this footage will be used to advance his political career,” he told the officer. “I’d like to present the best front.” He got the reshoot.
From an early age my father stressed the power of the image, and he encouraged me to carefully control my own. He advised me, for example, never to be photographed from below, an often unflattering angle for women. In the late ’90s, at a shoot for the French fashion magazine Purple, I expressed that to an art photographer shooting my portrait. He was not happy, but I won out and made him shoot me from a ladder.
Alongside the war photos were stacks of my father’s sketchbooks and some loose pages of writing. His sketches so resembled my own pseudo-Cubist high school efforts they might have been drawn by me. In pages of his nearly illegible scrawl he described the courses he was taking, his ideas about Abstract Expressionism, and the long arguments he was having with his father over his career. I discovered that he had wanted to be an artist. My grandfather, a Polish immigrant who had realized his American dream by becoming one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, wanted his son to give up his aspirations and join the family business. Eventually Dad put his treasured sketchbooks away and made a career in the movie industry, ultimately founding Samuel Goldwyn Films, which produces movies to this day.
Discovering that my father had abandoned his dreams encouraged me to pursue my own. My two older half-brothers, John and Tony, had already joined the business (as a producer and actor-director-producer, respectively); my younger brother Peter would go on to work for our father. I was determined to have the artistic career my dad was denied, to be the rebel of my generation.
At 17, I moved to New York to attend the School of Visual Arts. I majored in photography and spent my freshman year making work out of appropriated archival images and negatives. I got a part-time job at Sotheby’s auction house, where it was my responsibility to collect and curate photographs, sketches, and artworks relating to fashion, eventually to be sold in the newly formed fashion department. One day a dealer came in with a stack of Edward Steichen photographs. Most had been taken for Vogue in the 1920s, and one of the models had a familiar face. I searched in the Vogue archives and found the exact image in the February 1, 1924, issue; the caption read, “Modeled by Frances Howard.” My grandmother had worked with one of my idols, Edward Steichen! I persuaded the dealer to sell it to me, and I presented it to my father on his 72nd birthday. With tears in his eyes he told me that his parents had been introduced at a party at the New York penthouse of Condé Montrose Nast. Frances was a ravishing redhead, and it was rumored that Nast was interested in her, but my grandfather succeeded in winning her hand.
People who knew Frances often remarked on the resemblance between us, and particularly our profiles. During my time at Sotheby’s I was asked to go to the home of the actress Loretta Young to assess her wardrobe of gowns designed by Jean Louis. Young had been a good friend of my grandparents’ and had starred in my grandfather’s film The Bishop’s Wife. I hadn’t told her my last name, but the second I walked in the door she said, “My god! You look like Frances Goldwyn!” She was floored to find out I was her granddaughter.
Frances Howard Goldwyn, the author’s grandmother, in 1952, at her Beverly Hills home. (Gjon Mili/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
It was not only vintage photographs but fashion that brought me closer to my father. I have been collecting vintage clothing since I was 13, but his walk-in closet—an entire room, really—is bigger than any closet I’ve ever had. He once bought me a giant white Yves Saint Laurent hat from the designer’s last ready-to-wear collection; it completely covered me to my midriff. He said it reminded him of a Fellini film, and he liked the idea of happening upon me on a beach, engrossed in a book, in this elegant, oddly ecclesiastical accessory.
It was the Russian couturier Valentina who first took my father to see the Paris ateliers. He was in his twenties at the time, on leave from the army, but long before that, as a child, he’d known Coco Chanel; she was briefly under contract to my grandfather, who had built a replica of her Paris atelier at his studio. Much of the wardrobe she made for his stars was never used. Hollywood actresses such as Gloria Swanson were horrified by Chanel’s androgynous “chic”; they wanted gowns that would emphasize their curves. I naturally wanted to see Chanel’s creations and asked my father where they were stored. He told me they were long gone; the last he’d seen of them was “in a garbage bag on a loading dock at the studio.”
The diversity of my father’s acquaintances seemed endless, no matter what topic I was obsessed with at the moment. While working on my book on burlesque, Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens, I developed friendships with several ex-showgirls, including the former Ziegfeld star Jean Howard, who lived down the street from us. She was famous for her fabulous Hollywood parties, which my father had attended. He remembered one in particular. “I was sitting in my black tie with John F. Kennedy on the diving board of her swimming pool,” he said. “Everywhere there were beautiful women: in evening gowns around the grounds, in the pool. We sat there and watched. After a while I turned to Jack and said, ‘So, they say you’re going to run for president. Is it true?’ He replied, ‘What, and give up all this?’ ”
I moved back to Los Angeles in my early twenties. I visited my father every week—I still do—always thirsty for more of his stories. There was barely a figure from the last century he hadn’t encountered, from Jean Cocteau, whom he’d met in the Paris salon of Madame Bousquet, to Winston Churchill; photos of the prime minister fill his study. “I met him in London once, I think through Edward R. Murrow,” he told me. “I was lucky—I was on top of history in those days.”
My father turns 88 this month. I treasure his guiding advice, his affectionate way of teasing me, his comforting, elegant smell. I like to wander through his closet, fingering the silk Charvet ties, polished John Lobb shoes, and candy-colored cashmere socks from N. Peal. I think about the life he led in these clothes and the stories they still hold. I long to know them all and to live a life as vivid as his.
On Tony, Bottega Veneta jacket ($2,300) and pants ($920);Prada shirt ($860) and tie ($375); John Lobb shoes ($1,295). On Liz, Carolina Herrera gown ($5,990); Tony Duquetteearrings and rings (prices on request); Van Cleef & Arpelsbracelets (prices on request).
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