This old black and white still from Betty Lasky’s family album was taken by her mother Bessie, ca. 1930, Santa Monica beach, near their beach home. Jesse L. Lasky and his three children, Jesse Jr., Betty, and William, are enjoying the warm, bright and carefree Southern California sunshine. Lasky was one of Hollywood’s earliest visionary film pioneers who also shot the first feature film in Hollywood, “The Squaw Man” (1914), which you can watch entirely here.
Formerly a cornet player (late 1890s) who joined his sister Blanche in a vaudeville act in 1903 when both toured on the East Coast and throughout Europe, he founded the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913 with his brother-in-law Samuel Goldwyn (married to Blanche from 1910 to 1915). “The Squaw Man,” shot in a barn—later a.k.a. the Lasky-DeMille barn, back then located in Hollywood at the corner of Selma Avenue and Vine Street—was also the first film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, a stage director Lasky had befriended earlier.
In 1916, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation was founded after a three-way merger of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company, and Paramount Distribution Company. After they purchased the Robert Brunton Studios, a 26-acre facility at 5451 Marathon Street in Hollywood for $1 million, Famous Players-Lasky became Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation in 1927 and then Paramount Pictures, one of the first and most successful Hollywood motion picture studios.
But let’s get back to the Lasky family now, which was headed by Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958, autobiography ‘I Blow My Own Horn,’ 1957) and his wife Bessie Ida Ginsberg (married from 1910 until he died in 1958). Their three children are screenwriter Jesse Jr. (1910-1988, autobiography ‘Whatever Happened to Hollywood?’ published in 1973), William R. (1921-1985, autobiography ‘Tell It On the Mountain,’ 1976), and Betty (1922-2017). Her death last January in Los Angeles at age 94 was hardly noticed and reported.
I first met Betty Lasky at her Bellagio Road apartment in LA in April 1999, after being introduced to her by Jerry Anker, a dear and mutual friend of ours.
Miss Lasky, do you still have a lot of your father’s memos, notes, scripts, etc.?
No, the entire Lasky collection is pretty much in the Academy library. It’s still all a little mixed up, I need to go over there and organize it, but I haven’t had the time to do it yet. We also have a huge collection of correspondence between my brother Jesse and my father, which is fascinating. I learned a great deal of that because there is a big age difference with my brother [12 years]. He really saw the early period. Through their correspondence, I’ve been able to learn about my father’s best friend, Douglas Fairbanks. They were constantly playing golf together; they traveled together with George Putnam of the Putnam publishing family [G.P. Putnam’s Sons]. At night, they were always going out, dancing late at night. The telegrams which were sent between my father and Cecil B. DeMille—some of them are on a day-to-day basis—are also very interesting. They showed me my father’s involvement on a daily basis with DeMille on the West Coast while my father was in New York. They were always discussing the film of the moment, the director, who they should cast, what the public wanted to see, every detail. The De Mille collection is very interesting too. He was like David O. Selznick; he saved every memo.
The Lasky-DeMille barn, the site of “The Squaw Man,” has been totally restored and relocated. As the home now of the Hollywood Heritage Museum on North Highland Avenue, across the street from the Hollywood Bowl. I’m sure it’s a great way to pay tribute to your father?
Yes, and the Hollywood Heritage Museum will mean a lot to the film community, to tourists and film scholars from all over the world, as will the model of the original Lasky-DeMille barn; what is actually left of the original barn, especially after the fire a few years ago, is very little. A professional model maker who built all kinds of models in the Golden Age, also built the construction. He had the original blueprints from Paramount, so this is the only accurate rendition you’ll ever have, with an exact duplicate of the outdoor stage, the trees, the telephone poles, and Harry Revier’s original office, which was rented by my father as DeMille came out to Hollywood in December 1913 to shoot “The Squaw Man.” He had the lab, and a portion of the servants’ quarters of the Jacob Stern family that bought the property and the stable [in 1904], so this is a very valuable model. The museum will be very precious for the entire film community once they learn about it. It’s the first traditional film museum in Hollywood—when you think that you got the Museum of the Moving Image in London and Astoria in New York, this will equal that in Hollywood.
How do you remember your childhood in the 1920s and 1930s?
I lived a very sheltered childhood. I didn’t get out very much. My brother Jesse saw it all. My other brother, Billy [William], was closer to me in age. We had a French governess, and I saw little of my parents. My mother was a professional artist—I have some of her paintings—she had a big career, she often was painting in her studio. My father usually came home late from the studio, so I saw little of them. We weren’t permitted to see films other than children’s films or about animals, nothing of an adult nature. So it was an entirely different world than it is now. We went to children’s concerts at Carnegie Hall, so it was a very protected childhood. Because of my father’s position and his wealth at that time, there was great fear of kidnapping, and I have this fear still in me. I would not turn the light off at night; I was terrified. I imagined a man on a ladder coming up the stairs when we lived at the Santa Monica beach house.
You also worked in the film industry, didn’t you?
I worked as a screen story analyst, looking for film projects, for instance, for Jennifer Jones when she worked for her husband David O. Selznick. In fact, I searched properties for various people in the industry, like Louella Parsons’ daughter Harriet Parsons. Her agency hired me to find properties for her. I also worked for the Players Showcase Magazine as a reporter. There’s a new book out on Ramon Novarro now—I think I was one of the last people to interview him when I was working for the Players Showcase Magazine. He was murdered a few weeks later .
How important was film director Cecil B. DeMille for your father?
They’re making Mr. DeMille more important now than he actually was because he was my father’s best friend and he was to be the director of the company. They built him up for the trades, for the publicity, and he became an overnight success in Hollywood. Before that, he was working with my father in vaudeville, writing their high-classed vaudeville acts. But he too was greatly responsible for the success of the company—all of them were: Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldfish [later Goldwyn], Adolph Zuckor, and my father; they all did their part. But they would send an experienced filmmaker like Oscar Apfel with DeMille, and they would share the directing, so DeMille could learn a great deal from him. But my father and DeMille were best friends from the moment they met until the end of their lives. They were born a year apart, and they died a year apart. They always stayed in touch, so it was a wonderful and lifelong friendship, also when DeMille could no longer save my father from Zuckor’s ax because of the expense of his films. When DeMille left the studio and was not too successful on his own, my father helped him to get back to Paramount, and he saved the studio with his big epics.
You wrote a fascinating study about RKO, titled, ‘RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All’ . Now you are you working on a biography about you father. What convinced you to write a revision of his memoirs?
I think it is important because my father is left out of a great deal of history. When they talk about the moguls, it’s always Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, or Jack L. Warner. You don’t hear Jesse L. Lasky. Why? Because they died as rich men, and they left foundations, buildings, or companies named after them. That didn’t happen with my father. Even though he was co-founder of Paramount, yet now he’s a forgotten film mogul. So this is the most important work I can accomplish in my lifetime, and I hope that I will have the time to finish it. With the RKO book, I was able to establish a lot of my father and his activities; there is constantly the background of Hollywood and the other studios, how they related to RKO, what my father had to say about the coming of radio and various other things. So I started to try and bring him back in that book, and I have found an article in American Cinematographer that was published about 5 or 6 years ago on his career as an independent producer at 20th Century Fox, and how he later came back as an independent producer after he was voted out of Paramount in what I call Paramount’s wars in 1932. It was a corporate battle, my father spoke about it a little bit in his book, but I will go into it in more detail in mine. Budd Schulberg did a very good job in his book, talking about the villains and what happened to his father [B.P. Schulberg]. His father was voted out after my father was. So when I wrote the RKO book, I was more interested in corporate corruption and what happened in corporate offices. That’s more important to me than what was going on on the set; they wrote about that so frequently. I also felt it was important to write about what Joseph P. Kennedy did to RKO, for example, he destroyed that studio, and he destroyed Pathé. Later on, he made a fortune and went on to other things in Washington. Because my father didn’t leave a fortune and died heavily in debt, he has the dilemma of how you get him remembered. I finished the first section of the book, and I hope I will be able to finish it. I also give a lot of interviews, talking about my father. As a result of some of those interviews that have been published, I learned that an interviewer has to send me a copy of the interview before it is published. I was told by an entertainment attorney to do that, that is the only way I can protect the errors that are printed about my father. One reporter once sat here with his cassette recorder, but using a recording device means nothing: everything he wrote was out of context; he juiced it up to make my father look like a tragic figure. He even had him dying in the wrong location. All the clippings about his death, the funeral, etc., are in the Academy library. So why do you have him dying at the wrong location? That’s why I’m working now on a revision of his memoirs because his autobiography was originally written in 1957. At that time, you didn’t have film encyclopedias, there was a very small Academy library with very little in it. Although all the principals were still alive and you could talk to them, they all told their own stories, and you really didn’t get the facts. So it has taken years to really find out what happened during the production of “The Squaw Man.” This week, I found out something told to me by a professor at the University of Honolulu who researched a little period in 1900 when my father went to Hawaii to open a music academy where he would become professor Lasky. That didn’t work out, and he joined the Royal Hawaiian Band, earning enough money to get back home. In his memoirs, he wrote he was the only white man in the Band; I wanted to verify this and was unable to find anything. Last week I received copies from a text on the history of Hawaiian music, which included biographical material on the director of the band. We learned enough to be sure he actually did play in the band but that he was not the only white man. In other words, I’m still correcting and learning what is real and what is fiction. You never stop correcting errors. I do this all on my own, not in collaboration with anybody else. They wouldn’t have all the answers anyway.
How do you remember your father?
He was a true spokesman for the industry. He was a master diplomat; he truly loved people and really cared about them. He had the enthusiasm and made many creative decisions while mentoring his best friend Cecil B. DeMille. Adolph Zukor and my father were a great combination, and you would not have had the Golden Age without them. My father also had an entirely different background: he was born in San Francisco, and his father was born in Sacramento, so that made him a second-generation Californian. Most of the other moguls came from the ghettos of Eastern Europe and found their way to New York and eventually to Hollywood. My father always had an open door in his office, and he didn’t shut himself in. He would even take visitors and the press around the vast studio in Hollywood. If you lived in Hollywood in the 1910s and the 1920s, ‘you worked at Lasky’s,’ that what it was called. And even when he lost his fortune toward the end of his life because of an attorney who made a terrible decision, he did not lose his smile or his belief that things would work out for him.
Do you know if he had a favorite film?
“The Covered Wagon”  was always one of his favorite films from the early period, and it was a film that was closely supervised by him. Originally, it was planned as a small feature, but he was able to build it into a tremendous period film of the covered wagons coming West, because that’s what his grandfather had done. He had come West on a covered wagon, and that really inspired him.
Did he have a different approach compared to the other early studio moguls?
He dared to make decisions that the others—wisely or unwisely—neglected. For example, he signed Maurice Chevalier when all the other studios had turned him down because of his accent. That says something about my father, don’t you think? Chevalier had told my father, ‘I will come to Hollywood if I can meet with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.’ So a banquet was arranged, and he could meet with them. My father was quite different from all the other moguls, but he got along with all of them. He only wanted to be remembered, that’s all. He was called ‘The first gentleman of Hollywood.’ He was given that name by Charles Schoenbaum, who was an early cameraman for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation—although I don’t think he started with the Lasky Company. Then he went on to MGM. He gave my father that title, and I never knew that; my father had even forgotten all about it. I learned that from his daughter who lives in Washington.
Los Angeles, California,
April 14, 1999
When I met Betty Lasky for the last time, about five years ago when she was almost 90, the revision of her father’s memoirs was still a work in progress. By that time, she had given up the idea of finishing it enterily on her own.
Books which were written over the years by the Lasky family include:
RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All (Betty Lasky)
The story of RKO – the small studio that produced such film giants as King Kong, Citizen Kane, and the Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers musicals – is now revealed by a woman who grew up among the great stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Years”: Betty Lasky.
Here you’ll find an intriguing tale of executive greed and politics through changing hands, the stock market crash, and the demands of the superstars. This wheeling and dealing produced big money for its financiers, yet, ironically, it seldom tainted the high artistic quality of RKO’s films.
Immerse yourself in the highly controversial saga of the founders, financial manipulators, creative geniuses, and Hollywood users: Joseph P. Kennedy, Howard Hughes, Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, Cecil B. DeMille, Pandro S. Berman, Floyd B. Odlum, David Sarnoff, Gloria Swanson, Orson Welles, Edward F. Albee, Merian C. Cooper, Dore Schary, and, of course, film pioneer Jesse L. Lasky.
Illustrated with nearly 100 behind-the-scenes photos, including some depicting the making of such films as Cimarron, Top Hat, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All is sure to engross film buffs, film historians, and business experts alike.
BETTY LASKY is the daughter of Jesse L. Lasky, one of the founders of the movie industry. She grew up in Hollywood and has been closely associated with many of the major people in the industry. She has worked for The Players Showcase magazine as movie editor and writer. The historical accuracy of this book speaks of the three years of painstaking research that went into its writing.
Hardcover, dust jacket – 242 pp., index – Dimensions 23,5 x 16 cm (9,3 x 6,3 inch) – Weight 557 g (19,6 oz) – PUBLISHER Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1984 – ISBN 0-13-781451-8
I Blow My Own Horn (Jesse L. Lasky)
Jesse L. Lasky was not only a pioneer of the motion-picture industry: he was one of those people whose life would have been full of color and entertainment in whatever field he might have ended up. By way of preliminaries we find him playing the cornet at Dr. Crabtree’s medicine show – off to Alaska with a gold-sifting machine – touring with Hermann the Great (Conjuror) – launching the Folies Bergère – facing enormous losses from crash of same.
But the failure of the Folies did not depress Lasky for long – a coffee-poster gave him the idea for the operetta “California”; and when William DeMille refused to write the libretto, he settled with young Cecil. Lasky’s sister, Blanche, meanwhile, was marrying a family friend of his wife Bessie’s, a glove-maker called Sam Goldfish (later Goldwyn), who had become interested in the possibilities of films. Joining the family circle, he tried to enlist Lasky’s interest, too; but Lasky was scornful – films were not for a real showman, he told Goldfish. Lasky came round in the end only to keep his restless friend Cecil from going off to the Mexican revolution… Presently Cecil, sent over to Flagstaff, Arizona, to make a picture for the newly-formed Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., was cabling back, after some weeks’ silence: ‘Flagstaff no good for our purpose. Have proceeded to California. Want authority to rent barn in place called Hollywood for seventy-five dollars a month. Regards to Sam. Cecil.’
He chose Hollywood because of the more reliable climate – being dependent on sunlight for the filming! And so to their first film, directed from a desk in one of the stalls still dividing the barn. Imagine actors on a cold day having to mouth their dialogue while holding their breath, so as to avoid the said breath (congealed) from ruining a shot of a London drawing-room – on an outside stage because of the lighting: and imagine goose-pimples creating a problem in evening dress! Lasky tells us how, earlier, D.W. Griffith, who introduced close-ups in films, had been accused of extravagance in “paying the going rate for a complete actor and then photographing only part of him.”
And so the story goes on – from silent films, through “talkies,” to the present decade: and everywhere it is a mine of fascinating and often ludicrous anecdotes about practically all the great names of the cinema. There is Rudolph Valentino, for instance, won and lost; there is the making of Lasky’s first “epic” Covered Wagon; there are his trials with Gloria Swanson; and a typical story is that of the cast being sent on location to film a snow-scene, and of the snow maddeningly refusing to fall. The authorities began to rant at the extended skiing holiday their highly paid employees were enjoying, and sent cartloads of salt to pour on the artificial village so that shooting could begin. That night it snowed – everywhere except on the sodden village, where the salt had melted the snow…
The Lasky films include the 1926 Old Ironsides, with its wide screen and a “magnascope” that made the ship look as though it was coming towards you. Del Rizzio, in charge of Lasky’s technical research, achieved this effect twenty years ahead of cinemascope and 3-D. He also introduced the anomorphic lens, rejected at the time and bought years later by Fox; and Michael Todd took Del Rizzio’s 65mm lenses and used them for Oklahoma.
Then there was Wings, in which a promising young extra was noticed, called Gary Cooper; Beau Geste, nearly rejected on the grounds that it had “a French title no one could pronounce”; Gay Desperado; Sergeant York; Mark Twain; Rhapsody in Blue; The Great Caruso.
As for Lasky’s domestic life, you get an idea from it from George Putnam’s remark at the time of the 1932 crash, “I hear the Lasky’s are cutting down. They only have two butlers now.” But the book leaves him as alert as ever – canvassing his idea for a film to be called The Big Brass Band, and touring up and down the States, listening to bands, in the interest of it…
Hardcover, dust jacket – 283 pp., index – Dimensions 22 x 14,5 cm (8,7 x 5,7 inch) – Weight 496 g (17,5 oz) – PUBLISHER Victor Gollancz, Ltd., London, 1957
Whatever Happened to Hollywood? (Jesse L. Lasky, Jr.)
The young boy grew up in a dream world, Hollywood rajahs brooded in their Spanish-style palaces while millions eagerly awaited their next celluloid pronouncement. Stutz Bearcats and Rolls-Royces sailed down Hollywood Boulevard, their riders clad in silks and satins, trailing clouds of mink in the faces of their police escorts. Mock gun battles and lunatic Keystone Cops chases took place in the streets, and over it all hung the dust of unpaved roads and the sweet, pervasive aroma of orange blossoms.
Jesse Lasky, Jr., is the son of one of Hollywood’s greatest pioneers, and his childhood and adolescence were spent in an era that was as fabulous (and is now as extinct) as the Roman Empire under Nero. With honesty and gusto and in a wealth of anecdotes, Lasky tells of these halcyon days and the Empire’s decline and fall, when the stock market crashed, ushering in the hungry thirties, and his father was wiped out overnight.
From being the pampered son of one of Hollywood’s most powerful men, Lasky was forced to take a job in a hack studio churning out “B” movies. There he enjoyed a brief moment of glory when Jean Harlow, then at the height of her fabulous career, “adopted” him on the rebound of her broken romance with screen smoothie William Powell. Lasky records his years of struggle to achieve success as a screenwriter. His boyhood friendships with the greats and near-greats were of no use to him at all, proving the old axiom that you can be forgotten in Hollywood if you take time out to cross the street. Some of his most turbulent experiences came at the hands of the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, his father’s old business partner. DeMille was a benevolent tyrant, a monster of egocentricity. Lasky became one of DeMille’s top scriptwriters, and his stories of working on such DeMille epics as Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments could only be Hollywood stories.
Whatever Happened to Hollywood? is much more than the history of an era. It is the rich, zestful, fast and funny personal chronicle of one man’s journey through an amazing never-never land of make-believe, peopled by con-men, suckers, larger-than-life characters, has-beens and never-has-beens. It’s a Hollywood script with a cast of thousands – and it’s all true!
JESSE L. LASKY, JR. lives in London with his writer wife, Pat Silver. In addition to film and TV scripts, he has written several novels.
Hardcover, dust jacket – 349 pp., index – Dimensions 23 x 15,5 cm (9,1 x 6,1 inch) – Weight 615 g (21,7 oz) – PUBLISHER Funk & Wagnalls, 1975 – ISBN 0-308-10172-3
Love Scene: The Story of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh (Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., with Pat Silver)
When Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh went to Elsinore, Denmark, in the Summer of 1937 to play in Hamlet, he was thirty, she was twenty-three and they were madly in love. They were also married – but not to each other. For the next thirty years, together or apart, married to each other or to other people, they would be bound by this love.
In their years together these two supremely gifted and glamorous stars were the reigning couple of the theater and film worlds – from London to Broadway to Hollywood. They played Hamlet and Ophelia, Romeo and Juliet, Nelson and Lady Hamilton, Caesar and Cleopatra. As Henry V he charged the spears at Agincourt; and as Blanche du Bois she rode a streetcar named Desire. Their parties were command performances, their friends the world’s Who’s Who. And their audiences adored them – him for the greatest acting talent of the century, her for her haunting beauty and the passion of her performances. They were inseparable, the perfect pair, idolized by millions for their idyllic relationship. But their love scene was doomed, and inevitably the glorious partnership broke up and the players moved their separate ways.
Jesse L. Lasky, Jr. – son of the pioneer HolIywood producer, and screenwriter himself of more than sixty films and television plays – has now written an intimate dual portrait of these two fabulous stars, of Vivien, the exquisite English actress who won screen fame as the unforgettable Scarlett O’Hara, and of Larry, the great Shakespearian actor whose brooding and magnetic performances in Wuthering Heights and Rebecca made him an international matinee idol. Enhanced by nearly one hundred photographs (many published here for the first time), Love Scene is a full, rich evocation of Olivier and Leigh’s successes (and occasional failures) on stage and screen, of their extravagant world, and of their relationship, which began as a casual attachment and grew to become a dramatic and ultimately tragic love story. It re-creates the magic of a unique era – a time of exultant first nights, stirring performances, film empires now dismantled, legendary personalities, exotic places.
Based on Lasky’s own acquaintance with many of the actors involved and extensive interviews, the book is filled with anecdotes about the Oliviers that have never been told before. More than a biography, it is a celebration of the love of two magnificent people in a world of not so long ago that is forever gone.
JESSE L. LASKY, Jr., the son of the famous film producer, grew up in Hollywood and was educated at Princeton and in Dijon, France. At seventeen he achieved success as a poet, then went on to write four novels and more than fifty film scripts, including eight for such Cecil B. DeMille epics as The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah. His last book was a memoir, Whatever Happened to Hollywood? PAT SILVER has had a career as an actress and as a writer-producer-director for television. She has co-authored seven films and more than one hundred TV scripts. As a team, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Pat Silver, his wife, have written for films, television, and the stage.
Hardcover, dust jacket – 256 pp., index – Dimensions 24 x 16 cm (9,5 x 6,3 inch) – Weight 609 g (21,5 oz) – PUBLISHER Thomas Y. Crowell, Publishers, New York, New York, 1978 – ISBN 0-690-01412-9
Tell It to the Mountain: From the Glitter of Hollywood, Through Siucidal Despair, to the Light of Salvation (William R. Lasky, with James F. Scheer)
His father was the co-founder of Paramount Pictures with a fortune at one time amounting to multimillions of dollars. His family owned a twenty-room New York City apartment on Fifth Avenue and a California mansion with twenty-seven servants’ rooms and five Rolls-Royces in the garages. There was a lavishly equipped private railroad car to carry them from one coast to the other. Their friends and neighbors as he grew up included Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Gary Cooper, Marion Davies, and Uncle Samuel Goldwyn.
Yet, years later, the day came when William Lasky, in blackest despair, wanted only death. If he could find a means that would not harm others, he would end the life that had become such a burden to him. Then he remembered his childhood governess and her stories of Jesus. He dropped to his knees at his bedside and prayed the only prayer he knew: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” Then, looking up, he heard himself saying: “Jesus, help me!” This is the story of how Jesus did.
WILLIAM R. LASKY, the son of Hollywood magnate Jesse L. Lasky and the nephew of Samuel Goldwyn, worked on many famous Hollywood films in capacities ranging from animal trainer to assistant director. Still active in the film industry, Mr. Lasky is now president of the Beverly Hills Chapter of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship and much in demand as a speaker. JAMES F. SCHEER is a friend of William Lasky’s and a professional writer whose work has appeared in many periodicals, including Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, The American Bible Society Record, and Modern Screen.
Hardcover, dust jacket – 270 pp. – Dimensions 21,5 x 14,5 cm (8,5 x 5,7 inch) – Weight 421 g (14,9 oz) – PUBLISHER Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1976 – ISBN 0-385-11366-8