In 1993, Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse, twin brothers from New Malden in Surrey, travelled to California to visit old friends. They had lunch with Ginger Rogers, eating mostly lettuce leaves, and took advice from Bob Hope on the importance of midday naps. Sinatra cancelled on them – twice – but they ran into him at a pool party, manning a barbecue without his toupée on.
Fayard Nicholas, formerly of the nimble, tap-dancing duo The Nicholas Brothers, told them: “I can’t dance like I used to. It hurts!” But he danced for them anyway. Billie Dove, in the Twenties “the most beautiful woman in pictures”, had one good ear left by the early Nineties and Austin and Howard shouted into it. They were 21, the youngest among this company by at least half a century.
The twins are 41 now. They work in fashion, neatly bearded Austin for Hardy Amies on Savile Row and Howard, tall and slender like his brother, but clean shaven, for Levi’s. They are about to publish a book, I Used to be in Pictures, about their unlikely, years-long friendships with the stars of old Hollywood.
They got to know actors everyone’s heard of, like Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and those pretty much forgotten, like Joy Hodges, Rogers’ co-star in the 1936 musical Follow the Fleet, and Beverly Roberts, a leading lady to Al Jolson and Bogart in her day.
Elderly actors have been a part of the twins’ lives ever since they were 11-year-old schoolboys, oddly in thrall to black-and-white movies, senders of hundreds of fan letters to the West Coast. They would tell Lana Turner or James Stewart, “We enjoyed you in that movie”. And Turner and Stewart wrote back. Bette Davis sent a picture, so did Fred Astaire. Hitchcock lead Ann Todd rang up for chats.
“What started with fan letters catapulted us into friendships,” says Austin. “It just so happens the friends were ancient and used to be in movies.” Howard: “There could be egos there, but we stepped over them if we could.”
And from a young age, the twins were intrigued as much by the bit players of old Hollywood as the headline names; those actors perpetually cast as maids or molls, cabbies or crooks. “The ones who wouldn’t even get named in the credits,” Austin says. “We wondered: what happened to those people?” The story was generally the same – for star or supporting player, it didn’t matter. The work dried up. Sometimes the money, too.
The actors’ worlds condensed and by the time Austin and Howard found them, many of these Hollywood veterans were dwindling in an industry-funded retirement home called the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Los Angeles.
Or they were living at the Thunderbird, a white-bricked retirement complex in Palm Springs, populated by ageing stars – “a Slim Aarons photo come to life,” as Howard describes it, “bright and brash and the air full of Chanel No 5”. On a visit there they saw Jack Lemmon and the guy who voiced Baloo in Disney’s The Jungle Book. They never managed to befriend Greta Garbo but look there, someone told them, that mute in the corner used to be her stand-in.
Ginger Rogers signed this 1933 photograph for the twins
When the twins first met Anita Page, the glamorous lead in The Broadway Melody (1929), she was sitting beside a swimming pool. And sitting beside her, in a plastic bag, was her wig. Another time, they visited the home of Patsy Ruth Miller, heroine of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), once said to be Hollywood’s “most engaged girl”.
Miller was confined to one room, smoking Winstons in bed, medicines and a thumbed autobiography to hand. The mirrors had been taken down. “Don’t look too closely,” the then-89-year-old told the twins, “I’m a wreck.”
“These were the people who were in the golden age of Hollywood,” says Howard. “Especially in the silent-film era, they were absolutely worshipped as gods. And, of course, when you’re receiving thousands of fan letters a week, and all of a sudden it dwindles and disappears, the ego gets a little… fragile.” Attention from a pair of curious, courtly British twins was welcomed. Austin and Howard were well turned out, pleasantly accented and, most importantly, willing to stay contentedly silent as browning anecdotes were retold.
Over lunch with Ginger Rogers and Joy Hodges, the two actresses fought fiercely for Austin and Howard’s attention, Ginger reminiscing about dancing with Fred Astaire, and the time she’d bled into her ballet shoes. Joy claimed to have been instrumental in getting Ronald Reagan into Hollywood and thus – by her reasoning – the US presidency. And hadn’t she told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that awful Berlin Wall? “Sure, darling,” Rogers drawled, “you’ve told me that before.”
Anita Page in an early Thirties studio publicity shot
Austin and Howard were, they write in I Used to be in Pictures, “a sponge for escaping memories”. For escaping memories – and gossip. The gossip!
Jean Acker was “a lesbian and not a nice one”. Rudolph Valentino a prude. Maila Nurmi, once famous as the Fifties TV star Vampira, had turned down Elvis. Anita Page had turned down Joan Crawford. Mildred Shay, Hollywood’s “Pocket Venus”, recalled as a young actress being promised a glass of milk at Errol Flynn’s home. Inside, she was confronted by the sight of “his giant Johnny Dingle Dangle hanging below his shirt tails”.
Flynn chased her to the bathroom and finally “came over my pretty green satin dress”. (Shay later had a not dissimilar encounter with Johnny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan.) Clark Gable was “a Hollywood big-man but scared stiff of the dentist”. James Dean “slept with men if he thought it would get him ahead”. During the era of communist black-listing, nobody pointed the finger more eagerly than Ginger Rogers’ mother, Lela.
Austin and Howard heard it all. “That Ginger Rogers,” Joy Hodges told them, after her Berlin Wall story had been disparaged, “she eats too much Häagen-Dazs and is spilling out of that darn wheelchair.”
“They opened up to us,” says Howard. “They’d say, ‘We’ll tell you our stories so that when we’re gone you can tell them to others.’” Austin: “I guess they found us a breath of fresh air. They were fascinated by youth being there. Youth caring.”
Why did they care? Austin and Howard trace it back to their grandmother, an elegant but lonely lady who was widowed when they were five. The twins’ parents, an insurance broker and a housewife, “dispatched us to keep her company at weekends” and at their grandma’s house they watched old movies. Anything black-and-white, ideally silent – San Francisco or The Women, Gun Crazy or The Crowd. “I was completely transfixed,” says Austin. “The way these people looked! Impossibly glamorous.”
At a time when most movie-watching 11-year-olds were obsessing over Christopher Reeve, brightly uniformed as Superman, or imitating the humming, flashing lightsabers of Star Wars, Howard and Austin obsessed over monochrome productions from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. “I remember going to the video shop and asking, ‘Have you got Between Two Worlds with John Garfield and Eleanor Parker?’ They thought we were crazy. They had The Terminator.”
The twins found some addresses in a copy of Who’s Who and started writing letters, “20, 30 a week”. Rapports developed. When Bette Davis visited England, they waited in line at her book signing and she recognised them. “You write me, don’t you?” They quickly got to know which of the aging stars took the time to compose letters, and which sent photographs. Marlene Dietrich once stuffed an envelope with stocking wrappers, to keep the autographed 10 x 8in of her from getting crumpled over the Atlantic.
When they were teenagers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr got in touch to say he’d be in Kingston upon Thames, close to New Malden, and did they want to have tea? Austin and Howard went to meet the septuagenarian in their school uniforms. Fairbanks had suggested the twins write to Aileen Pringle, and maybe the Novak sisters, Joy and Eva? This was how their network expanded. The one-time Mrs Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, put them in touch with Joy Hodges; Hodges, in turn, with an actress who married a Marx Brother.
As the twins got older, communication got more intimate. They spoke to Lana Turner about a school field trip (“I love that little Wales!” she told them) and William Bakewell, who starred in Gone with the Wind, helped out on an art project. James Stewart advised them to keep practising their tennis. Austin: “One would say to the other, ‘Have you heard of Austin and Howard?’ And we remained in their minds, being twins, being British.”
It felt, remembers Austin, “like writing to your granny. And in the end, the fact that they were movie stars became secondary. I really liked them as people. I remember saying to Beverly Roberts, ‘I’ve met this girl…’” Austin was seeking advice from the 75-year-old before his first date. The plan was to go for dinner at New Malden’s Harvester, and the movie star counselled: pay for everything.
By now, most were in touch on the telephone. The twins remember sitting on their parents’ bed, after school, working their way through a growing address book. Robert Mitchum rang, once, to say happy birthday. So did Kiss Me Kate’s Ann Miller. There was one New Year’s Eve when their father handed them the phone. It was Marlene Dietrich, offering them her best. After moving out of home to go to art college, the twins’ flatmates got used to scribbling down messages from Tony Curtis.
By the early Nineties, they had accumulated a vast amount of letters and photographs, and they staged an exhibition at the (now defunct) Museum of the Moving Image in London. Joy Hodges flew over for it and the twins showed her around the capital.
A year later, when they visited California, Hodges put them up in her condo in Palm Springs. She advised they try swimming nude in her pool. “Do it, nobody will see you.” On that trip they met Maila Nurmi for the first time. She told them: “Everyone I know is dead, but that’s OK.” Rose Hobart, star of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), looked about at ageing contemporaries in the Motion Picture Home, at all the wheelchairs and wigs, and said: “Once great beauties, now faded and falling apart... It’s the way of all things.” At the Motion Picture Home, they chatted to Anita Garvin Stanley, who’d been in films with Laurel and Hardy. Austin asked the old comedienne if she was expecting any other visitors. “Yeah, baby. The Grim Reaper.”
“That’s when I realised,” Austin says, “they were all sitting there waiting.” The twins were a happy distraction. Patsy Ruth Miller told them: you brought youth back into my life. Austin brightened Anita Page’s afternoon by pretending to be the original Ben Hur, who she said he resembled. “However grand they seemed,” says Austin, “however demanding, when it came to parting and the goodbye there was a genuine thanks. Thanks for remembering.”
Mildred Shay with the twins
For a time they even lived with one of these old stars. Mildred Shay was 90 when they met her, in 2002. She was the actress who’d been invited in for a glass of milk with Errol Flynn and taken away a little more. Long Island-born, Shay had managed to confound a middling Hollywood career to become friends with just about everyone of consequence – leading men, moguls, directors, dictators, the main Kennedys. “I was with Bobby Kennedy the night he was shot. Or was I with Hitchcock that night, and with Bobby the night before? No matter….”
Shay had married Geoffrey Steele, a British officer turned actor, and by the time the twins met her she was a widow, living in a flat in Belgravia. They bonded over martinis (“Hell, tea is nice for old ladies, and I ain’t no nice lady”) and Shay impressed them with her frankness. She could still list the actresses whose tits were never as good as her’s – Hedy Lamarr, Ann Sheridan – and kept a vast store of salacious notes on famous men. Howard Hughes was “a cheap date” and John Garfield “died whilst screwing some actress”. Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller “tried to grope me in the back of a car and then masturbated over the bonnet”.
Later, when Austin was between homes, he moved in to Shay’s spare room. It was a time of whistling hearing aids, Benylin bottles, and dodged passes. Shay had propositioned Austin the very first time they met: “So you don’t want to screw me, then?” And she told him, “Honey, I haven’t seen a penis in 17 years.” After living together for a year, she was comfortable strolling around the flat without clothes on. “Look,” Shay promised, “this isn’t bad for 90.”
The deaths began to come early in the twins’ correspondence career. Fred Astaire in 1987, when they were 15, Bette Davis in 1989, Marlene Dietrich in 1992. Bad news never really stopped coming.
“Often a letter would come back with ‘deceased’ stamped on it,” Austin says. “We sent Virginia Vale a Christmas gift for years. Nobody told us.” While this article was being written, the twins lost two more friends, the 95-year-old Audrey Totter, once a great femme-fatale, and Joan Fontaine, 96, an Oscar winner in 1941 who’d sent the twins 40th birthday gifts in 2012. Howard: “It’s been hard. Like losing a grandparent over and over and over again.”
Ginger Rogers died in 1995, her sparring partner Joy Hodges in 2003. A relative telephoned Austin and Howard to say of Joy: she’s gone, thank you, goodbye. That was it, the end of a long friendship, but at least they’d been informed.
They had to find out about Anita Page from the obituary desk of The Daily Telegraph. Sometimes the twins had drawn suspicion from the stars’ families – “a lot of them wondered, ‘what do these guys want? Are they after money?’” – and Austin was once told, by the daughter of a famous correspondent: “All mum spoke about was you. Like you were grandchildren. And you’re not.”
Anyway, they were never left anything, even though Joy Hodges had long promised them her Mercedes. The twins weren’t after money, or mentions in wills, only stories, and these the stars were eager to impart.
Universal Studios star Joy Hodges with Charles Ruggles and Mischa Auer in a scene from Service de Luxe (1939)
Their legacies weighed on them. Thelma White, at 83, couldn’t believe she was best known for an anti-drugs movie she’d made as a 26-year-old: “Please don’t mention Reefer Madness. Just don’t remind me of it, for heaven’s sake. I didn’t want to make the darned film anyway.”
Dorothy Revier “was absolutely desperate to have her star on Hollywood Boulevard. She asked us: ‘What can I do to be remembered?’” The twins did what they could, and have put Revier on the cover of their book. Very few kept the work going to the end.
Barbara Stanwyck managed it, and Gloria Stuart caused tremendous jealousy around the Thunderbird when she won the part of an old Kate Winslet in Titanic. Austin: “All of them wanted comebacks. That one more film. They still felt they had a lot to give, but they didn’t know where to give it. They were in an industry where youth is everything.”
Billie Dove carried a photograph of herself in her handbag, back from when she was the most beautiful woman in pictures. “I suppose it validates who I am,” she told the twins.
Joy Hodges clung to the idea she’d helped bring down the Berlin Wall and Anita Page caressed the memory of Mussolini begging her to send a lock of hair by return post. Ginger Rogers simply went on behaving like a star. Stroke-struck, in a wheelchair, she ordered on behalf of the whole table when she lunched with the twins. “Yep, that’s me,” said Patsy Ruth Miller, talking to the TV when her Hunchback of Notre Dame played on an oldies channel, “I’m still here.”
When Beverly Roberts died, in 2009, her gravestone said, “Still shining.” She’d made her last film in the Forties.
Austin: “Tragic? No. Tragic is my Auntie Doris in a nursing home, not knowing what day of the week it is… I know people who are 30 and could be 90. I know lots of people for whom the glass is half empty, and they’re in their Twenties. Someone like Mildred Shay, her glass was overflowing.”
By the time of Austin’s wedding, in 2005, Shay was very ill, dying from a brain tumour. Even so, at the ceremony, she still managed to make a pass at one of Austin’s friends. “However inappropriate the setting,” he says, “she would tell a story about going down on Walter Pidgeon [How Green Was My Valley], or Cecil B DeMille putting a gun to her head.”
Howard gave up work for a while to care for Shay, and when it became clear she wasn’t going to get another opportunity, he flew with her to California to see her family.
There, they spent some time together at her home in Glendale and when it was time for his taxi to take him back to the airport, Shay was exhibiting some of her old flair. “She had on her bathing costume from the Fifties, a sun hat, high-heeled shoes. She virtually crawled to the front door to say goodbye to me.” Ten days later she was dead.
Shay’s last words to Howard seemed to encapsulate the old Hollywood. They were quotable, touched, just, by professional coldness, and immortally cool.
“I’ll see you around, kid,”she said.
I Used to be in Pictures (ACC Editions) is out 26 February. Taken from Esquire's March issue, on newsstands now.