Monday, May 29, 2006

MEMOIR: What was I doing in Lucille Ball's hotel room?

Maybe I'm just an old grouch, but I think that one of the most distressing characteristics of contemporary American life is the public's obsessive interest in the personal lives of show-business personalities. This infatuation with celebrities has radiated out from the tabloids and the low-brow magazines displayed at supermarket checkout counters and has penetrated the mainstream media. As I see it, the celebrity obsession and the adoration of show-business stars is another demonstration of the dumbing-down of American culture.

Having gotten this off my chest, I can now confess how excited I was, as a 17-year old just out of high school, to be in the presence of movie star Lucille Ball during the spring of 1942. To be more precise, I was in her Manhattan hotel room, amiably chatting with her about her latest movie, "Seven Days Leave," which also starred Victor Mature.

I must stress, however, that I was not there as an adoring fan. I was just doing my job as an office boy in the publicity department of RKO-Radio Pictures, which had just released the film. I was in her hotel room to deliver a bottle of whisky. She was in New York to publicize the new movie.

Lucille Ball was then 31 and a glamorous red-headed beauty. She had been in the movies for nearly a decade, featured essentially as a conventional Hollywood sexpot. She did not gain fame as a comedienne until much later after the introduction of television.

I had been employed by RKO only a couple of months earlier. Before that job, I had worked since my high school graduation in January as a salesman for Goldsmith Brothers, then the nation's largest office supplies business. I had started with that company during the previous summer as a delivery boy.

When the summer ended, I returned to high school. My school was so big that two separate sessions were required to accommodate the 12,000-boy student body. As a senior, I was placed in the morning session. This enabled me to continue working for Goldsmith's as a shipping clerk. My work schedule was from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily and all day Saturday. When I graduated from high school I was promoted to a job as salesman. My speciality was loose-leaf binders.

Meantime, I had enrolled as a night-school student at New York University, majoring in journalism. It soon became apparent that peddling loose-leaf binders and other office supplies was doing nothing to advance my goal to become a journalist. I wanted to work in an environment in which there were professional writers around.

So I abandoned the commercial stationery business and got the job as office boy in RKO's publicity department. The encounter with Lucille Ball in her hotel room was the highlight of my very brief career with the movie company. But I eventually decided that my personal exposure to writers who were merely press agents did not contribute to the creation of journalistic credentials any more than peddling office supplies.

I figured that I needed to associate with more serious writers than mere flacks. I learned that there were jobs available in the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information which had recently been established in Manhattan. With my most recent work experience as an office boy, I was well qualified for the more impressive title of "under-clerk," which turned out to be civil service jargon for office boy. The annual salary was $1,260, the lowest Federal Government pay scale.

That was considerably more than I had ever earned before. But the big attraction was that, even as a lowly office boy, I was now working in the intimate company of genuine professional writers, many of them very prestigious people. The most famous was Robert Sherwood, the eminent Broadway playwright and former speech-writer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sherwood was chief of the OWI's Overseas Branch, and I became his personal office boy. I sharpened his pencils, pulled the news dispatches off the Associated Press ticker for him, got his morning coffee, and performed assorted office chores.

The office operated the U.S. wartime propaganda program, beaming radio broadcasts to German and Japanese occupied territories abroad. It was an exciting place to work. I never met any glamorous movie stars like Lucille Ball there, but I was satisfied that the atmosphere was contributing to my future career as a journalist.

I had to resign in March 1943 to prepare for my induction into the Army the next month. Sherwood, who was rarely seen without a pipe in his mouth, gave me a pipe as a going-away gift. This was not exactly essential equipment for a new Army recruit, and I had never smoked before. Nevertheless, I figured that a pipe would enhance my professional image when and if I ever became a full-fledged journalist.


Blogger OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Welcome back to the Blogesphere! I can only assume that you are all set up once again and settled in back in New Jersey...(right?)

A very interesting post. I love that you were Robert Sherwood's office boy...He certainly was a wonderful playwright....and I can only assume from that, that he was a very interesting man.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006 2:53:00 AM  
Blogger Chancy said...

You must be all settled now that you are back and posting more of your interesting life stories.

FDR was my childhood and teen age idol. I loved his fireside chats and speeches. Roosevelt's voice was a source of strength for many of us who had loved ones serving overseas.

When Jimmy Carter was President my husband and I were fortunate enough to be invited several times to the White House. Standing in the "Map Room" where FDR made some of his Fireside Chats was awe inspiring.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006 1:43:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Welcome back! Excellent story.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006 1:57:00 AM  
Blogger Observer said...

Hello Morton:

Great to have you back. After you have really settled down post or e-mail something about your new computer adventure (make, model,features,which Windows operating sytem; the real geeky tech info).

Best Regards

Thursday, June 01, 2006 9:38:00 AM  
Anonymous naomi dagen bloom said...

each time i read one of your posts, i want more. what a gift! in this one the particular resonance for me the mid-20th century aura of career possibility for bright young men contrasted with the call to war. thank you for ideas to ponder. -naomi

Saturday, June 03, 2006 8:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. If you are an old grouch for your distaste for celebrity culture, I must be a younger grouch. Or a cronemudgeon.

Great story, though.

Saturday, June 03, 2006 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger goldenlucyd said...

As per our NY Naomi: I want more too. So glad you're back!

Sunday, June 04, 2006 10:00:00 PM  
Anonymous joared said...

What a fascinating read to learn about the twists and turns that brought you to your journalism goal. That was very astute of you at such a young age to realize how important image is in preparing one to become a war correspondent. For all we know, you might not have had a journalism career if Sherwood hadn't given you that pipe. ;-) I won't ask if you felt obliged to use it.

What a delight to read this personal story for my stop over here as I catch up on one of my favorite blogs after life happened.

Sunday, June 11, 2006 11:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Joared said...

I forgot all about Lucille Ball when I wrote my previous comment. I, too, would have been delighted to meet her, but I agree, it seems to me that celebrity adoration today far exceeds sane limits. I share your view that the effects of this extreme worship-like attitude toward celebrities has contributed to the dumbing down of our society. I wonder what must occur before the virtually obsessed refocus their attention in other directions?

Monday, June 12, 2006 12:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Claude said...

Another great story, Mort! Am catching up with my favourite blogs.
Did you ever smoke that pipe, or did you just use it to give you a "professional" look?
I remember watching I Love Lucy when I went to the US for the first time in the early sixties. I wonder if she was ever really well-known in this country.

Saturday, June 17, 2006 3:05:00 AM  
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Saturday, July 15, 2006 2:47:00 AM  

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