Mildred Shay: My Personal Movie Star

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I “met” Miss Shay when I was working on my first book, Jungle Red: The Story of The Women. From my initial viewing of this 1939 film, I fell under the spell of the razor sharp wit dished out by the all-female cast, each actress Adrianed and Guillaroffed within an inch of her privileged life while cavorting on those beautiful Gibbons sets.

Casting for the George Cukor directed vehicle caused a minor feeding frenzy among the leading ladies of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  In the end, Norma Shearer, the undisputed Queen of the MGM Lot, nabbed the leading role of Mary Haines with the three co-starring roles going to Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Fontaine.

Inspired by the detailed and gossip-packed writing of Sam Staggs, I decided to use my own meager writing talents and obsession with classic film to write a book about this unique film and the lives of its stars and supporting players, both pre and post production.

In order to drum up interviews with any of the over one-hundred actresses in the all-star film who were still with us, I put out a general S.O.S. to all the leading ladies I had the good fortune of locating.

Mildred Shay’s letter was the second I received.  (Yes, it was a letter).  The first response came from Joan Fontaine.  Miss Fontaine sent a sweet note in her own hand, refusing to be interviewed but suggesting that I peruse her autobiography for her memories of that film.  I already had, but I framed her note anyway.  It still holds a place of honor on my bathroom wall–right next to an autographed black-and-white glossy of the rather arch, yet beautiful actress.

Mildred’s missive came all the way from her home in London.  In it, she assured me that she would love to talk to me about her experiences on the set of The Women and about her life as an actress during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Needless to say, I was over the moon.  Mildred Shay had snagged the tiny role of Helene, personal maid to Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).  It was not a big part, but the fact that I was actually going to speak to a woman who had stepped onto the set of this classic film had me so excited I couldn’t sleep.

During the next several days, between working full-time and other necessary evils, I read everything I could about the ninety-four year old actress.  I quickly learned that Mildred was born into money, as in “society.”  Her father was an attorney for MGM, and when his pretty blonde daughter told him that she wanted to become an actress, she was under contract to the mammoth studio just three days later.

The reedy voice on the other end of the phone line was enthusiastic and friendly.   After identifying herself, the actress asked me how old I was, her manner unmistakably laced with flirtation.  When I admitted to being over half a century younger than she, the actress informed me that she thought I would be “perfect” for her.

Before I could ask my first question, Mildred chirped, “Have you seen Balalaika?  That was my best picture.”  (I was later to learn that this Nelson Eddy/Illona Massey vehicle was Miss Shay’s favorite because she had more screen time in it [approximately two minutes] than in any other in which she appeared).

Because of Miss Shay’s almost profound deafness, our interview was full of fits and starts.  Without my being able to get a word in edge-wise, Mildred gave me a run down of what I assumed were the “greatest hits” of her career.   She told me about her early days at MGM, and described in great detail the “wall of falsies” apparently designed for and used by, every actress on the lot.  She coyly hinted at an affair with that Tasmanian Devil Errol Flynn.   “I don’t think we slept together,” she declared.  “He never took his boots off!”

In order to get answers to the specific questions I had about life on the set, I worked with Miss Shay’s kind assistant, Howard Mutte-Muse.  I sent my questions to him, in turn, he asked Mildred, then he transcribed the answers and sent them back to me via email.   Mr. Mutte-Muse and I became “war buddies” along in there.  I will always be grateful for his gracious assistance to an inexperienced writer.

During the ensuing weeks, I continued to write in the evenings and on weekends while keeping in touch with “My Personal Movie Star” as I began thinking of Mildred.  It wasn’t long before I heard that Miss Shay was in the hospital with pneumonia.  I was worried, but not surprised.

Throughout her six-week stay, the actress kept her starlet flag flying by regaling the staff with tales of her cinematic adventures.  I’m sure they learned what I already knew–that Miss Shay was an unsinkable force of nature.

I received the email I dreaded so much about a week later.  Miss Shay had passed away on October 15, 2005.  Howard told me that it happened just after lunch.  As her tray was being taken away, Miss Shay sat up in her bed, examined her pretty face in a hand mirror and reapplied her lipstick.  A second later, the actress collapsed against her pillow and died–proving that Mildred Shay was a star to the very end–My Personal Movie Star.  Thanks, Miss Shay.

–Max McManus

 

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