LOVE, LAUGHTER AND TEARS
THE HOLLYWOOD STORY
By Adela Rogers St. John
The Countess Dorothy di Frasso, as a “non-professional” resident of Hollywood, handed that town more dramatic shocks than any of its stars, among them the unexpected ending of her romantic friendship with Gary Cooper, her cruise in the so called “hell ship” Metha Nelson, on which Hoodlum Ben (Bugsy) Siegel was a member of the crew.
In spite of her unconventional tastes and overgrown sense of humor, I would say that Dorothy di Frasso was and is – the most popular of all Hollywood favorites who don’t actually belong in The Movies.
The Countess arrived in the cinema capital as a result of her lifesaving activities on behalf of Gary Cooper in Rome. It’s difficult for any woman not to feel a continued responsibility for and interest in a life she has saved.
She was the first outsider to become a social leader and to give parties that surpassed anything Hollywood had known before.
Along this time, 1932, David Selznick took over the RKO Studios where he first introduced Katharine Hepburn to movie audiences, and I went along. We were short of offices, so mine was on the back lot over the extra men’s dressing rooms. There I first saw the Countess di Frasso. Behind her loomed six-foot-three of Gary Cooper.
On one side, I remember, Bobby Clark, all time great comic, who was rehearsing a gag with a tuba, on the other Gene Fowler and Jack Barrymore were developing a scene in which Barrymore, slightly inebriated, was to drive a cab.
The occasion for the Countess’ visit was that I had to write a piece about her entry into Hollywood and Pickfair, and since I had to finish a movie story in the daytime (David arrived at the studio at 5 p.m. and expected everybody to work with him until dawn) and I was trying to cover the Olympic Games in my spare time, I had been desperate as to how I was to meet our distinguished visitor. She graciously agreed to drop in on me.
She had a thoroughly American face, magnificent eyes with a twinkle, a wide humorous mouth and an adventurous nose. The face was American, but the attire was Parisian. Probably this combination entranced Italian, French, and British nobility, which prefers its Americans American. So that from the day of her international marriage with an old Roman title, Dorothy Taylor di Frasso had been really “in” the most exclusive circles of Paris, London and Rome, not merely on that fringe known as the Riviera’s international set.
As Gary perched on my desk, I thought his eyes lacked their twinkle. Oh well, I thought, she has twinkle enough for two, if she’s really going to divorce the Count and marry Coop. Between them there seemed to be a great camaraderie. I wondered if the bachelor days of Hollywood’s most sought after and eligible bachelor were numbered. Hollywood had decided they were. Here, said Hollywood, is Romance worthy to be in motion pictures. The Countess who had saved our Gary’s life by taking him into her own home when he was critically ill, the safari into Africa, the colorful and exciting episodes of Gary’s rides with the famous Italian cavalry, the trip the Countess and The Movie Star made to Aintree to see the Grand National. The Cowboy and The Lady. Hollywood loved it. Everybody, I figured, except maybe Copper.
That very day a girl walked under my windows on her way to the RKO commissary to lunch with George Cukor. A young beauty, her real name was Veronica Balfe, Rocky for short, though as a movie actress, escaped from her boredom with New York society, she had taken the name, Sandra Shaw. Though he hadn’t seen her up to that moment, she was soon to be the determining factor in the life of Gary Cooper.
When some months later I went out to his big, comfortable ranch style bachelor house to have dinner, he had seen Rocky. This was his girl and he knew it. But if a lady saved a man’s life, if she wanted the rest of it, didn’t a man of honor owe it to her, if she wanted it? To Hollywood it looked as though the Countess did.
Whether or not she’d have been willing to give up her distinguished title and position in Europe to become plain Mrs. Cooper, I don’t know.
At any rate, one day the Countess packed her million dollar Paris wardrobe and with Mary Pickford took off for Italy. As far as the Countess was concerned it had been charming; she adored Hollywood, Coop was her favorite friend.
The next thing Hollywood heard of Gary Cooper, he and Veronica Balfe were married on Park Avenue.
Hollywood wasn’t to lose the Countess, with whom it was never to have a dull moment; she had up her sleeve still more interesting adventures, particularly the now famous cruise of the so called “hell ship” Metha Nelson.
Hollywood first heard of Bugsy Siegel during the cruise of the “hell ship,” a cruise involving pirate gold, bloodied heads, marriage and charges of mutiny on the high seas, rum, romance, rescue and rebellion such as no producer has ever dared to put on the screen.
Its star was the Countess di Frasso.
The old three masted schooner, Metha Nelson, chartered by Marino Bello, who had once been Jean Harlow’s stepfather, was in search of buried treasure on Cocos Island, off the Costa Rican coast.
According the Richard Gully, a young cousin of Anthony Eden, who was along, the treasure was $300,000,000 in diamonds, rubies and gold doubloons. They had a map.
Afterwards at a Grand Jury investigation of mutiny charges, Capt. Robert B. Hoffman, the schooner’s master, said that before they sailed, the FBI had shown him a picture of Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, notorious head of Murder Incorporated, who then was a fugitive from justice supposed to be hiding on a tropical island and who was later executed at Sing Sing! “They said this might be an attempt to pick him up,” the Captain said, “and I was to notify them if he showed up.”
The rest of the cast of characters was picturesque in the extreme.
There was Champ Segal, described as a prizefight promoter, and Abe Kapellner.
The Countess acted as maid-of-honor when the Captain married Bello to Evelyn Husby, a nurse. Later, the jealous bridegroom almost fought a duel with a Costa Rican Colonel who made eyes at the bride.
The Metha Nelson didn’t pick up Lepke, though there is a strong suspicion that this may have been Bugsy’s original plot. I’ve also heard a rumor that Dorothy, informed by the Captain, foiled the plot.
The merry voyagers never found any buried treasure and a storm came up on the voyage back. The ship floated helpless for three days in the Gulf of Tehuantepee, in hourly danger of breaking up, but was rescued in the nick of time and towed to Acapulco where the Countess went ashore and flew off to Palm Springs. It was not long after this that Bugsy found his way into Hollywood’s most exclusive society circles.
The handsome hoodlum never got over the way he was received by Movie People. He was true to Beverly Hills until machinegun bullets mowed him down in that star studded annex of Hollywood.
Gary Cooper’s career, about which he’d worried so much in Rome, picked up new highs. Before his marriage he had made Farewell to Arms with Helen Hayes. Returning from his honeymoon with Rocky, he played the lead with Marion Davies in Operator 13.
I suppose no one makes those wonderful comedy drama costume romances today because Hollywood history shows only one Marion Davies.
All critics know that the rarest jewel in the theatrical world is a beautiful comedienne. A talent for high comedy and beauty somehow don’t seem to go together. They did in Marion Davies, who also wore costumes better than any star I can remember.
The Talkies it was taken for granted, would end Marion’s bright young career. Because Marion stuttered! In person, it was enchanting. On the sound track, it wouldn’t be so good maybe.
Marion went to work with fine dramatic coaches. I can remember when she’d disappear for hours and come back spouting Shakespeare until the stutter was sufficiently under control so that when it did show up it was merely an additional charm, and Operator 13, as one of her first big Talkies was as great a success as her silent Little Old New York. She even sang a song in it, Once in a Lifetime, Love Comes Your Way and nobody who saw it will ever forget the sequence she did, as the Federal spy, disguised in blackface.
No picture could have been more perfect for Gary Cooper, bridegroom.
Sever years later, he was the highest paid man – not actor, but man in the United States. His $482,821 topped the salaries of the country’s best paid business executives. The cowboy, as happens in America, had made good. So, it, seems, had The Movies!
There was a stead fastness about Gary Cooper. The graph of his career and his work goes steadily upward. Principle, hard work, self control, and great good humor, have gone into it. He has become, by his own efforts and study, a fine actor.
The women a man has loved and who have loved him must contribute to his acting. Certainly his travels with the Countess showed results in Beau Geste and Lives of the Bengal Lancers. I don’ think he could have played Fireball and Mr. Deeds so well if he’d never known Clara Bow. And I am sure the love scenes in Farewell to Arms, among the most moving ever seen, and for Whom the Bell Tolls, had a fire, a warmth, he’d never have had but for little Lupe. Sergeant York and The Pride of the Yankees and Meet John Doe owe more to his wife Rocky than the wonderful home and happy married life with which she’s back grounded his career.
Jan. 25, 1954
‘In the New York Journal-American, name-dropping Elsa Maxwell threw together a last-minute obituary of that "fabulous countess," the late, madcap Countess Dorothy (Taylor) di Frasso, just to "keep her alive in a funny little way." Although Elsa claims that the countess "never confided in her women friends." friend Maxwell recalled a heap of confidential items on Dorothy's "life and loves." Wrote Elsa: "The two great loves of her life were Gary Cooper and . . . Benjamin ("Bugsy") Siegel of Murder, Inc. . . . who was liquidated in 1947 by ... his organization." When Gary first drawled howdy over a phone to the countess in Rome, he sounded "awfully nice." and she told him: "Go straight to the Villa Madama, my house [where Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford later broke up]. You will be more comfortable there." Gary never had it so good: the countess "ordered him dozens of suits." Once, relates Elsa, the countess went to Mexico, "not to meet King Carol, whom she knew well, or Madame Lupescu, who were living there, but in search of a gold mine." Dorothy never found it. but she was always hankering to parlay her $12 million inheritance into a greater fortune. She and Bugsy once tried to peddle an explosive, which "had almost the same power that the atom bomb had," to tHe Italian government. Like most of the countess' get-richer-quick schemes, Bugsy's bomb, "when the test came . . . merely went off 'pouf.' " At one of Dorothy's Hollywood parties, Elsa and Dorothy hung a Dictaphone near Actor John Barrymore when he was upbraiding his protégée, Elaine Barrie. The playback proved "more censorable than any sequence from a Jane Russell or Anna Magnani movie." The only time Elsa and the countess ever fought came when Elsa invited Noel Coward, whom Dorothy disliked, to a party and later "we both flew at each other like wildcats." But the countess will always be remembered by Elsa as the "great broncobuster of the banal, bathos, pathos and hypocrisy—that makes up what we call modern society.’
The second woman prominent in Villa Madama’s history is the American socialite and heiress Dorothy Caldwell-Taylor (1888-1954). Impossibly rich, stylish and flamboyant (and by some accounts a spy), her many lovers included Hollywood film star Gary Cooper and gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel. Her first, brief marriage was to British aviator Claude Graham-White. Subsequently she wed the Italian Count Carlo Dentice di Frasso, very much her senior, and in the 1920s used some of her inheritance to purchase and restore Villa Madama, using plans by Marcello Piacentini. In 1929, socialite and garden designer Norah Lindsay (best known perhaps for her work with Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote Manor) was commissioned by the Di Frassos to add herbaceous garden plantings to the garden. For many years Countess Dorothy threw lavish parties at the restored Villa for her friends from Hollywood and the Italian royalty, before it was appropriated by Mussolini in the early stages of World War II. Today it is used by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive foreign dignitaries, and is not usually open to the public.