Paulette Goddard had this whole dame thing down pat. Wrapping a genius around her little finger, becoming a major movie star, marrying a millionaire — it all came as easily to her as breathing.
When I was a girl I was very interested in any blueprints I could find on how to be a woman. Fairly certain the years ahead would shuttle me into womanhood, ready or not, I wanted a map, a model. I was very taken with Billie Holiday, Betty Boop, Jean Harlow, Harriet Tubman, Sacajawea, Sojourner Truth, Nora Charles and Rhoda Morgenstern. While you may not see a common thread among this bouquet of heroines, I do. These dames knew how to take care of themselves. And if some were slinky or sassy, so much the better.
One month a local theater was playing a retrospective of 30s and 40s M-G-M films. I swooned when my girl Jean came on, rooted for Myrna Loy, and loved Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. I was especially excited to see 1939’s The Women; the entire cast was comprised of a whole palette of potential. To this day I watch the movie every time it comes on – I never get sick of seeing it. Norma Shearer, Jean Crawford and Rosalind Russell are the big stars with the big parts. But then and now, it’s Paulette Goddard as Marian who grabs my attention.
“Here was a woman who could charm a rock.” -Robert Benchley
Who can say why some things or particular people speak to us? Through the fog of decades I can still remember the exact moment I first heard Aretha Franklin sing, saw Betty Boop dance to Cab Calloway’s “St. James Infirmary” on TV. And I remember watching Paulette Goddard in The Women and thinking, “THAT, that’s for me.”
Miriam Aarons, a friendly tough-cookie the protagonist meets on the train to Reno, was everything I thought a woman should be. Kind, empathetic, practical, street smart and smart-smart, fun and funny. When a divorcee at the ranch goes after her, she gives as good as she gets when they start to rumble. Later when she offers to stick up for a friend, she lets her know, “Where I spit no grass grows ever.” The fact that Miriam is Jewish and looks good in gowns and cowboy boots was just icing on the cake. As a teen I fell in love with that character, and I’ve since learned the woman playing her was in many ways a real-life embodiment of all I held dear in Miriam.
I didn’t fangirl over Paulette Goddard like I had other golden age stars, mostly because I didn’t see many of her movies. When I did see them, to be honest I was kinda underwhelmed by her histrionic prowess. But now I know that Paulette’s prowess at life make her an icon worthy of joining Myrna, Jean, Ann and Ida.
“There is so much more to Paulette than a camera can capture. The reverse is true of most other so-called glamour girls.” — Anita Loos
On June 3, 1910, Paulette was born Marion Pauline Levy. A New York cutie pie like Miriam, as a teenager Paulette modeled hats and was a showgirl for Ziegfeld by the time she was 16. It wasn’t long before she met and married her first millionaire, Edgar James, president of the Southern States Lumber Company of Asheville, NC. Life in North Carolina was sonot Paulette’s jam, so she packed up her jewels and a generous alimony settlement and headed for Hollywood.
In his book, Paulette: The Adventurous Life of Paulette Goddard, Edward Epstein explains that to get Hollywood’s attention, our heroine used her timber baron’s $100,000 payout to ride around town in an $18,000 Duesenberg. (At the time a Model T Ford cost $260.) Like fellow teens Betty Grable and Lucille Ball, Paulette found work as a Goldwyn Girl in the early 30s. (Goldwyn hired and fired her many times; he was not used to a girl who didn’t needthe job.)
This “natural-born honey pot” did not make a big impact in movies, but her arrival did not go unnoticed by the men in town. Her good looks and sharp mind caught the attention of none other than Charlie Chaplin, and they were soon everywhere together. Living together. Allegedly they eventually got married, but the jury is still out on that. (Marriage or no marriage, Paulette made out like a bandit, as usual, in their Mexican divorce.) Chaplin spent years taking up Paulette’s time on and off the screen. He made her the gamine in his last silent film, Modern Times, and Paulette’s in his first talkie, The Great Dictator.
Off-screen, she was also Charlie’s tennis partner, stepmother to his sons*, and his partner and ambassador to the litany of celebrities who came through Chaplin’s life. For example, Paulette Goddard was his representative when H.G. Wells came to visit, meeting the famous writer and womanizer at the airport. Turns out the author of War of the Worlds was quite the pincher, but one of Paulette’s superpowers was fending off men’s advances without alienating them. As Anita Loos said, “Many ladies know how to say no, but to do so without offending or making an enemy was a definite talent.”
Though she was living with Chaplin, he wasn’t exactly the only man in her life. One night at a dinner party for Stravinsky at Edward G Robinson’s home, the intellectual set attended, this included Charlie, Paulette, and George Gershwin. (Gershwin wasn’t just a pop tunesmith; in 1935 Porgy and Besswas considered highbrow. Of Thee I Sing won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.) At 38, George was quite the eligible bachelor…and he fell for Paulette. Hard. In a letter to a friend on March 19, 1937 he wrote, “Dined at E. Robinson’s the other night at a party mainly for Stravinsky. Many celebs were there. Sat next to Paulette Goddard. Mmmm. She’s nice. Me Likee.” (Doesn’t that expression give you the creeps, or it is just me?)
“Adulation to her is as normal as breathing.” -– Constance Collier
By all accounts, Gershwin was hopelessly in likee. George would bring Lillian Hellman and his mother to the Trocadero and leave the table to join Paulette at hers. (Ms. Hellman did NOT like being a beard.) Chaplin came in and out of his moods, and so Paulette came in and out of any one of abundant suitors, like George. Though Gershwin wanted to marry Paulette, she never really considered leaving Chaplin. Chaplin was less a social butterfly than George, a more stable choice. Paulette broke it off with George, and he ended up dying of a brain tumor fairly soon after. He was only 39. (Do broken hearts ever masquerade as brain tumors? Hmmm.)
“At social gatherings Paulette was like a bee, flitting from person to person, pollinating everyone with her charm.” – Oscar Levant
Aside from the men in her life, Paulette Goddard is probably best known as the woman who was almost Scarlett O’Hara. Her agent, Myron Selznick, happened to be the brother of Gone With the Wind’s producer, David O. Selznick. The hunt for the actress to play Scarlett was a HUGE deal, and generated lots of publicity and conjecture. Reportedly David O. Selznick thought Paulette was perfect for the role, but he withdrew his offer when she could not produce a marriage license validating her relationship to Chaplin. Others say it was Charlie’s leftist politics that lost her the role. (I doubt it.) Some say she lost the role because Charlie was not for it. (After all, she was HIS find, not Selznick’s.) While I can see that Paulette Goddard in RL was absolutely as Scarlett-y as they come, I wonder if her acting chops were up to the challenge. She could play herself for four hours, but somewhere between antebellum and afterbellum she’d have to act a little. I think once Selznick met Vivien Leigh, poor Paulette was out.
Still, that same year (1939), Paulette played the role that entranced me all those years ago. As ex-showgirl Miriam Aarons in The Women, she personifies the vivacious dame, equally good at throwing shade, jovial bot mots, and punches.** The movie starts by making a parallel between each role and an animal; there are does, leopards, owls, cats, cows, lambs and monkeys. Miriam is the foxin this line-up. Now, I love all animals, but in this menagerie I believe being foxy wins out. A female fox is called a vixen, and vixen’s connation for women has usually meant bitchy or slutty. But that’s just because women who stand up for themselves and others, or who don’t hide their sexiness under a bushel, are traditionally vilified. Being foxy means being smart, clever, aware, hard to fool. And that’s Miriam all over. She refers to her new pal Mary as “sister” and she makes a point to comfort and defend her. She’s also ready to rumble, gather incriminating evidence, and give Countess DeLave advice about Buck Winston – making note of his voice and knees. (Look, all this makes a lot more sense if you’ve seen The Women. If you haven’t, get thee to a DVD.)
After losing Scarlett and nailing Miriam, Paulette Goddard hardly ever got a role as foxy as she was. There were a few exceptions, like her Oscar-nominated (!) part in So Proudly We Hail, but Goddard’s off-screen life showcased her vixen-y ways much better than the silver screen. For instance, there was the famous scandal at Ciro’s…
In 1940, famous film director Anatole Litvak was amongst Paulette’s suitors. Like her other beaus, he ponied up jewels and paintings.) One night at the nightclub Ciro’s, he and Paulette were under their table an awfully long time. Some say he was helping Paulette find a lost earring. Some say they heard some pretty convincing groans. Whatever happened or didn’t happen, the tabloid press made it a really big deal. They say soldiers’ families sent complaints to the State Department, who took all this seriously enough to investigate and call in witnesses like director Jean Negulesco! (Did they get the waiters in too?) Poor Anatole had a nervous breakdown, but Paulette charmed a man, naturally — Ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Harriman – to hush-up the whole affair. #WTF
Well, as one movie magazine put it, “Understand her or not, you just can’t ignore her. She’s the most daring, most exciting women in Hollywood.” While on-screen she damed it up with the likes of Sonny Tufts and Bob Hope, off-screen her wit, charm and intelligence attracted intellectuals and straight-up geniuses.You know about Chaplin and Gershwin, but Paulette Goddard also had Diego Rivera, John Steinbeck, H.G. Wells, Mervyn LeRoy, Artie Shaw, James Hilton, Jean Cocteau, Jean Renoir, William Saroyan, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Andy Warhol, Aldous Huxley and Erich Maria Remarque totally crushing on her. (More about Erich later.) Saroyan explained it this way:
“What she has is an inner twinkle, and it goes around in a strictly non-sorrowing frame. All of it is attractively tough, challenging, mischievous, coquettish, wicked, and absolutely innocent. It’s probably less sex appeal than fun appeal, which in some cases is the same thing, and in all cases should be.”
Jean Renoir, who directed her in his film, Diary if a Chambermaid, called Paulette, “A beautiful woman with a lively mind. One can never be bored in her company.”
Not that she didn’t ever date actors. She almost got a Rolls Royce out of Clark Gable, who found Goddard’s joie de vivre a lot like his dearly beloved, and departed, Carole Lombard’s. And she married Burgess Meredith, a liberal intellectual from Broadway. They were married for 5 years. (During that time Paulette had a miscarriage, the only time she was ever seen to be despondent.)
And men weren’t her only fans. Goddard was very close friends with writer Anita Loos (0ne of my biggie biggest dame crushes), Jinx Falkenburg and actress Evelyn Keyes (who played Scarlett O’Hara’s youngest sister in GWTW). When she made the programmer Babes in Baghdad, she made friends with her co-star, another savvy brunette, Gypsy Rose Lee.“I adored her sparkle, her infectious laughter, her joie de vivre, her ability to gather men like Charlie Chaplin, Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck in her web and make them happy while they were there,” said Evelyn Keyes. Just as teen me looked to Miriam Aarons in The Women for answers, Evelyn tried emulating Paulette. But her husband, famed director John Huston, told her to knock it off. Apparently, he felt “one Paulette Goddard in the world was enough.”
“Perhaps what I should have copied was her acquisitive talent,” said Evelyn. Paulette Goddard was well-known for collecting beaux — and collecting diamonds, emeralds, paintings from them. Her preference for non-perishable tokens of affection was legendary. “I never give anything back,” she explained. In The Women, Miriam Aarons says, “Any ladle’s sweet that dishes out some gravy!” and it seems in RL little Marion Levy from Long Island felt the same way: “The ideal man is one who has eight million dollars and no complexes. To such a man could I give security.”
At one point Paulette’s gold-digging persona partnered with BFF Anita Loos, creator of iconic fictional gold-digger Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The two traveled to Europe together with Anita doing features for LOOK magazine, “Goddard’s Guide to Paris”, “Goddard’s Guide to London,” etc.Some tidbits from the series included:
- “Goddard feels that what you take with you is not as important as what you come back with.”
- “She said take a few flashy dresses and bring your jewelry case along – empty.”
- “Find yourself a guide who will look things over from a fresher perspective. The ideal type would be some American in the oil business, preferably from Texas.”
Paulette was 40 at the time, but her natural-born honeypottery wasn’t slowing down a bit. The “curious globe-trotting adventurer with joie de vivre to spare” was still collecting men and gifts. (Just don’t send her roses: “I don’t accept flowers. I take nothing perishable.”) Though off-screen she had zero problem getting guys, back in Hollywood women over 40 might as well start playing grannies with knitting in their laps, not men. Goddard went from A pictures to B pictures, to programmers for independent distribution, then to summer stock — the lowest rung on the movie star ladder. She could sit still and attract the opposite sex, but she had to hustle for roles. “I used to say I’d rather have a short part with long eyelashes than a long part with short eyelashes, but I’m not that outspoken anymore.”
Paulette Goddard also found herself being stalked by the US government again. An outspoken liberal in her own right, and the ex-wife of several well-known “lefties”, the FBI and the HUAC came after her for her political views, along with Chaplin and Meredith.
As an ultimate dame prototype –- a scintillating, sassy conversationalist who knows how to roll with the punches – Paulette Goddard eventually weathered the storm. She did radio, a few TV roles, and the occasional film. But she really didn’t haveto work; she’d likely gotten a million dollar settlement from Chaplin and had scored God knows how many other assets over the years.
Described by columnist Sheilah Graham as “The girl who is never at a loss for words,” Paulette was sought-after at parties and anywhere smart people were having fun. (And if they weren’t having fun, likely she could fix that.) Her genius-getting worked yet again when Erich Maria Remarque fell under our girl’s spell. The liberal intellectual author of All Quiet On the Western Front, Remarque fell in love with her mind and her talent for making life a pleasure. (He’d previously dated Garbo and Dietrich; the boy was no slouch himself.) Like she had with Charlie, Paulette lifted this whiz kid’s dour spirits. (His latest book, Spark of Life, dealt with concentration camps. He was oodles of fun.)
As had happened with Chaplin, Paulette’s and Erich’s looooong relationship had people constantly guessing when will they get married? ARE they married? Years later, when they finally married, a newspaper’s headline punned: “PAULETTE, ERICH WED – IT’S NEARLY ALL QUITE”. The husband and wife lived in separate apartments in their 57th Street Manhattan apartment building, though Goddard and Erich Maria Remarque, dined together every night. The marriage was a success, lasting for 12 years until Erich’s death in 1970. “We get along very well, I must say. I’m gregarious, and he’s sedentary; it works out fine,” said Paulette.
Our girl’s final famous male companion was none other than Andy Warhol. The unlikely pair were seen everywhere together. “I like to talk and he likes to listen,” Paulette explained. Warhol was contracted to write her memoir (“HER: Paulette Goddard talks to Andy Warhol”) but the two had a falling out and it never materialized. (According to her biographer, she was likely not interested in writing the kind of book Andy and the publishers expected.)
Later in life Goddard donated money to New York University. Her estimated $20 million donation got New York University to name a residence hall after her! Fans here in NYC can find Paulette Goddard Hall at 79 Washington Square East. NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts also named its main staircase after her and awards several scholarships to students in her honor. She also sold off jewelry and many pieces from her hella impressive art collection. (We’re talking Cezannes, Monets, Degas’, oh my!) It’s said that one day she waltzed into Van Cleef and Arpels with a diamond bracelet and walked out with $45,000. (Erich had bought it for her for $10K. See, as her pal Anita Loos wrote, they really ARE a girls’ best friend!)
Her last appearance on the screen (the small screen) was in 1972, for the TV movie The Snoop Sisters: The Female Instinct . I actually vaguely remember watching this (!) but sadly I didn’t know from Paulette Giddard when I was 10 so the awesome-ness was sadly lost on me.
But what hasn’t been lost on me is Paulette Goddard’s example as a smart, sassy, foxy dame who knew how to get what she wanted, even when she didn’t know what it was.*** She died on April 23, 1990 of heart failure in Switzerland, where she’s buried next to Erich Maria Remarque. This dame may be dead, but long live the dame!
* Paulette Goddard never had any children, but she became a stepmother to Charles Chaplin‘s two sons, Charles Chaplin Jr. and Sydney Chaplin, while she and Charlie were married. In his 1960 memoir, My Father, Charlie Chaplin,” Charles Jr. described Goddard as a lovely, caring and intelligent woman.
** Paulette Goddard later played Sylvia Fowler, Rosalind Russell’s part, in a 50s TV version of The Women, …not as successfully.
***Paulette Goddard always gave good quote. She said, “I never know what I want, but I always get it.” (And when asked what she looked best in, she replied: “A bathtub, bath towel and tights, in that order.”)