MAE CHAFFIN'S MEMORIES
OF EARLY HOLLYWOOD
When May B. Chaffin went to work for film producer,
Lewis B. Mayer in 1921, Mayer was renting studio and office space in a zoo
near Los Angeles. An orangutan called Mary adopted the celebrated film mogul
and his staff. "We all loved Mary. She even had her own dresses and wore white
shoes," Mae said.
Mae will be 81 next month, but her memories of
film land's early days are as unfaded as her collection of glossy black and
white photographs from them.
Working in close quarters with an orangutan was
only one of the adventures in store for young Mae Muller when she sold her
liberty bonds and left her native Brooklyn in 1920 to go west to California.
Mae, a trained bookkeeper, easily found work in her new community, which she
considered a small town. "I didn't see how I could survive in such a small
town as L.A.." Teaching herself to drive in Brooklyn had almost ended in
disaster when Mae just missed hitting a billboard, but she decided to try
again in Los Angeles. A friend advised her to go to Hollywood Boulevard and
follow a streetcar to get practice stopping and starting. "And that's how
I learned," Mae said. Mae's mother, father, and sister, Beatrice, followed
he to California in 1921, camping all the way and roughing it through eight
flat tires. Her other sister, Elizabeth, eventually joined the Muller family
In 1925, Metro-Goldwin and Mayer formed MGM and
the new business used enough machines to put bookkeeper Mae out of a job.
But she was far from deserted. She said that underneath Mayer's rough, gruff
reputation was a heart of gold. "He got me a job with Producer B.P. Schulberg
whose author son wrote "What Makes Sammy Run," and said "Stay here until I
call you." Seven or eight months after Mae started her new job, Schulberg
hired an outgoing Montana newspaper man as publicity director.
When the new employee requested that his office
be papered and painted, Schulberg told him to as Muller about it, and that's
how Mae met her future husband, Glenn Chaffin. Mae said Schulberg was going
broke and knew it, but he was to kind-hearted he offered to buy Mae's puddlejumper
Chevy so she could buy a new car. When Schulbert's problems finally meant
the end of Mae's job, Mae was hired as Mayer's private financial secretary.
Mayer owned a large amount of property along Santa
Monica beach, land that Mae said was already selling for $2,500 a foot. Mae
said she managed all of her famous boss's finances. One day, he called her
in and told her to add more rooms onto an already spacious house. She told
him, "Mr. Mayer, the lot's not big enough." "Move it," was Mayer's reply.
When asked about Mayer's personality, Mae answered,
"I loved Mr. Mayer, just loved him, although he was a very egotistical man.
He had a fire siren on his car and drove like hell." She said that when she
told her boss what she thought about his driving one day, "he stopped at every
block during the 13-mile drive from Culver City to Los Angeles."
Glen and Mae were married in 1927. Sundays, the
couple viewed new movies in Mayer's home studio. Mayer even provided a beach
house for Glenn and Mae, and Mae said, he "threw in everything but ice and
Early Hollywood stars were familiar to Mae. She
remembers Clark Gable when he was a $7.50-a-day extra. "He got $10 if he said
anything." Mae said "Clark Gable thought a lot of Clark Gable."
Mae has autographed photos from many early stars,
including Clara Bow, the "It Girl." She and Glenn knew Jun Tully, the poor
Irish kid who became a famous author of "Beggars of Late: and "Shanty Irish,"
and was one of Hollywood's toughest critics. "His interviews frightened the
stars. I remember he had curly red hair and a habit of picking on one person
at a party." Mae said Huntley Gordon, a leading man in Mayer's first studio,
gave up pictures and went into manufacturing silk stockings.
Mae recalls helping Gilbert Roland pick out his
screen name. "He was born Luis Alonzo," and said he was rediscovered by the
American public later in life and recently was stabbed to death.
When asked if Barbara LaMarr was the siren she
appeared to be, Mae said, "Very much so." Another screen siren she remembers
was generally scantily-dressed French actress, Renee Andoree, who called
everyone, "Luff." Well-known actress, Janet Gaynor and Glenn were good friends,
according to Mae. Mae said he called Gaynor "Lolie" and she called him "Cubby."
Mae also recalled seeing, in her later years in Hollywood, child stars Mickey
Rooney and Liz Taylor.
Each Christmas, Mayer, who was Jewish, would give
gold pieces to everybody. One year, he called Mae in and said "This year I'm
not gonna do it." Mae had the gold ready just the same, and on the day before
Christmas, Mayer called her in and asked, "Do you suppose you could round
up some gold pieces?"
Mae worked until January 1928, a month before her
daughter, Mary, was born. Then she stayed home. Too many Hollywood people
told me their kids didn't even know them. In 1940, the Chaffins returned to
Glenn's native Montana and built a large log house east of Corvallis. In
1969, they moved to a mobile home on the Eastside Highway near Corvallis,
where Mae still lives. Glenn died several months ago.
Mae said they collaborated on a book about her
early Hollywood days called, "My Hollywood Angels," but so far she has not
been able to publish it.
The Chaffin's daughter died in 1970, and their
son, Glenn Jr, lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Mae has nine grandchildren and
five great grandchildren. Glen, Jr, attended the University of Montana School
of Journalism, and Mae is setting up a scholarship for a Bitterroot Valley
student. Donations can be sent to the Citizen's State Bank in Hamilton.
The Missoulian, September 25, 1978