Somewhere along the line the six of us dubbed ourselves “Les Girls.” Two in our group have been friends since they were glamorous ingenues; others met as wives of Hollywood stars or when they appeared on the same television show. Progressives all, we became truly codependent while watching the debates together during the 2008 elections. But our monthly dinners predate that. For five years we’ve been gathering over wine and chicken salad or poached salmon to let our guards down, commiserate, console, solve the world’s and one another’s problems, and most of all, laugh a lot.
Les Girls ground me and provide a base of unconditional support. For all they’ve taught me, though, I know I’ve learned the most about friendship from an L.A. woman I never met: the prolific screenwriter Frances Marion, who died in 1973 at 82.
From 1915 through 1935, Marion was the world’s highest-paid screenwriter, male or female. She remains the only female writer to win two Oscars—for the groundbreaking prison film The Big House and for the boxing movie The Champ. But what I discovered while researching a history of women in Hollywood was that for all her accolades, Marion’s most marked characteristic was this: She was a terrific friend.
When Marion started out, few took filmmaking seriously as a business and the doors were wide open to those unwelcome in “legitimate” professions: women and Jewish immigrants. By the time women won the right to vote in 1920, they had already been thriving at every level of moviemaking—as directors, producers, editors, and writers. Half of all films written before 1925 were written by women, including Angelenos Anita Loos, June Mathis, Bess Meredyth, Jeanie Macpherson, Adela Rodgers St. Johns, and Lois Weber. Each and every one was in Frances Marion’s circle.
Marion’s first friend in Los Angeles was the actress Mary Pickford. Beginning in 1917 with The Poor Little Rich Girl, Pickford and Marion collaborated on more than a dozen films that would become classics, such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Pollyanna, and The Little Princess. Their bond went deeper than work. They lived on Western Avenue a short stretch from each other and were together the first time Pickford met the love of her life, Douglas Fairbanks. It was Pickford, meanwhile, who introduced Marion to the army chaplain and champion athlete she married and turned into an actor, Fred Thomson. The two couples even honeymooned together. When Thomson died of tetanus at the age of 38, Marion raised their two sons on her own. “The boys come first,” she said once, “and then it’s a photo finish between work and friends.”
Before it was an industry, Hollywood was a community, and the women looked out for one another. Ida Koverman, President Hoover’s former assistant, was Louis B. Mayer’s gatekeeper and stood at the ready to brief Marion on the boss’s moods and needs. Kate Corbaley, the head of the MGM story department, conspired with Marion to get other female friends’ scripts sold to the studio.
Marion was always writing parts in her movies for friends who were down on their luck. When Marie Dressler’s broad style of comedy—once very popular—fell so far out of fashion that she couldn’t pay her bills, Marion persuaded Irving Thalberg to cast her in a supporting role in Anna Christie, which Marion was adapting for Greta Garbo. (Later Marion would write Min and Bill for Dressler; the role won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.)
In the early ’20s, Marion started throwing what she called “hen parties” at her home on Angelo Drive. Wearing casual clothes and little makeup, a dozen or more women would gather for dinner and often retreat to the basement theater to watch movies they had made years before and “laugh until our sides hurt,” Marion liked to say.
When I think about those parties, I flash on Les Girls. Nearly a century may have passed, but what women need from one another hasn’t changed a bit. Near the end of her life, Marion said, “I hope my story shows one thing—how many women gave me real aid when I stood at the crossroads.” I am so grateful I share that story.
Photograph courtesy MOMA