24 February 2023

How dear of you to write with such warmth and affection

Audrey Hepburn and Merle Oberon were friends and, at different points in time, both romantically linked to the same man, Dutch actor Robert Wolders. In 1973, Merle met Wolders during production of the film Interval and they fell in love (Wolders being 25 years younger than Merle). At the time Merle was still married to Italian industrialist Bruno Pagliai, whom she divorced that same year. Merle and Wolders tied the knot in 1975, their marriage lasting until Merle's death from a stroke in 1979, at age 68. 

Audrey was still officially married to Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti when she and Wolders entered into a relationship in 1980. The two had met the year before at a dinner party while Wolders was still grieving over Merle's death. Audrey and Wolders were together for 13 years when Audrey died from cancer in 1993 (aged 63). In 1989, she described her years with Wolders as the happiest of her life. Following Audrey's death, Wolders briefly dated Leslie Caron before starting a long-term relationship with Henry Fonda's widow Shirlee (from 1995 until Wolder's own death in 2018). About the women in his life Wolders said in a 2012 interview: "The odd thing is that Shirlee was a great friend of Audrey, and a great friend of Merle. In the same circle. Maybe it sounds odd. They were friends, each one, and I knew that Merle would have approved of me being with Audrey certainly ... And Audrey would have approved of Shirlee."

Robert Wolders with Merle Oberon (above) and Audrey Hepburn (below)

Rewind to the spring of 1969, long before Robert Wolders would enter the picture. Merle was married to Bruno Pagliai (and living with him in Mexico) and Audrey had just married Andrea Dotti a few months earlier. In the letter below from Audrey to Merle, Audrey talks about her new-found happiness with Dotti. Sean, whom Audrey mentioned, was her son by first husband Mel Ferrer.

Audrey Hepburn and Andrea Dotti, who were married from 1969 until 1982. They had one son, Luca (born 1970).


11 April 69

tel. 655.370

Dearest Merle,

Returned last night from a snowy lovely holiday with Doris [Brynner] in St. Moritz to find your adorable letter here.

How dear of you to write with such warmth and affection.

Yes I am so happy and relaxed and every moment of the day has become so marvellous. 

I have the dearest most wonderful most loving husband and he's bright and funny, and dear with Sean and ... and... and I am so blessed and know it every second which is so good. 

Would love to come and see you one day ... it sounds so romantic.

Thank you, thank you and a huge HUG.

Till soon -

17 February 2023

I have no flexibility below the ass at all

Married to the daughter of comedienne/singer/actress Fanny Brice, producer Ray Stark wanted to make a musical about his mother-in-law. The musical he eventually made was Funny Girl, written by Isobel Lennart, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill. Cast as Fanny Brice was 22-year-old Barbra Streisand (whose Broadway debut in I Can Get It for You Wholesale had been a big success), while Sydney Chaplin was cast in the role of Brice's husband Nick Arnstein. Funny Girl first opened on Broadway in March 1964 and became a critical and commercial hit, prompting producer Stark a year later to start preparations for the film version.  

Sharif and Streisand in Funny Girl
Despite being a sensation on Broadway, Barbra Streisand had yet to make her screen debut. For the film, Columbia Pictures wanted a more established star and instead of Streisand chose Shirley MacLaine to play the lead. Ray Stark, however, wanted nobody but Barbra, even refusing to make the film if she was not cast. The studio eventually gave in to Stark's demand and Barbra got the part, giving a marvellous performance and earning the Oscar for Best Actress (in a tie with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter). 

For the role of gambler Nick Arnstein, several actors were considered, including Sean Connery, James Garner, David Janssen, Gregory Peck and Paul Newman. Composer Jule Styne wanted Frank Sinatra but Stark found him too old for the part. Also, Sinatra demanded too high a salary $750,000 against Barbra's $200,000— ánd top billing (being the star of the film, Barbra refused to take second billing). In the end, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, who had recently starred in the successful Doctor Zhivago (1965), was cast opposite Streisand at a salary of $50,000.

Like the original Broadway production, the film Funny Girl (1968), directed by veteran William Wyler, was a major success, both critically and commercially. It became the highest-grossing film of 1968 in the USA and received eight Academy Award nominations with, as said, Streisand winning the Oscar for Best Actress.

Barbra Streisand on the set of Funny Girl with (above) producer Ray Stark and (below) director William Wyler.

As mentioned above, Paul Newman was one of the actors approached to play Nick Arnstein. Newman, however, felt he was not right for the part and declined via this funny letter, written to Ray Stark and William Wyler in May 1967.

Although Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand never played in a film together, they were professionally linked in a different way. In June 1969, Newman and Streisand along with Sidney Poitier (all three pictured above) founded the production company First Artists in order to have more creative control over their own projects (one of the films the company produced was A Star Is Born (1976)). First Artists eventually ceased to operate in 1980 and was sold to Warner Brothers. 

8 February 2023

What is this unholy terror you have for the written word?

Despite being a prolific letter writer, Groucho Marx didn't write to his brothers often. There was little need to write letters as the brothers spoke to each other regularly, either in person or on the phone. It was a treat then to come across this post's letter, written by Groucho to his brother Chico, originally published in 1942 in a column for The Hollywood Reporter. (The column —Tales of Hoffman— was run by Groucho's friend Irving Hoffman, with Groucho being a regular contributor to Hoffman's column.) Written in Groucho's usual funny way, the letter was a reaction to Chico's failure to answer the letters Groucho had sent him. Considering the fact that Chico was no letter writer at all, it's quite possible that Groucho never received an answer to this letter either.

Incidentally, Groucho and Chico —the eldest of the Marx Brothers and Groucho's senior by three years— had a strained relationship, one that was "marked by jealousy and resentment" (according to Groucho biographer Hector Arce). Chico had been their mother's favourite, and while he had become a compulsive gambler by the age of nine and was always running into trouble, he usually got away with it. "[Groucho] was always trying to be the good son, while I was busy being the bad one", Chico once said, "yet Minnie always forgave me and loved me and was never that way with Grouch." Groucho was a natural-born worrier while Chico was the eternal optimist. In the end, it was Chico's optimism and his bold approach to life that had made the Marx Brothers move from the vaudeville circuit to Broadway and ultimately to Hollywood. (Groucho later recalled: "Harpo [the brother Groucho felt closest to] and I were always very timid. We didn't think we would ever be successful. But Chico was a gambler and he felt differently ... He gave us courage and confidence.")

Groucho (l) and his brother Chico on the set of  A Day at the Races (1937)


Dear Chico:

Our correspondence is becoming increasingly strained and I can only attribute it to the curious and mystifying ways you have of answering your mail. In the past three weeks I have written you three times. In return you have sent me a package of cheese, a small barrel of herring and a smoked tongue. These are eloquent answers—much stronger than words—but you must admit they are difficult to decode unless one has spent his early years as a delicatessen apprentice. What is this unholy terror you have for the written word? Were you once scared by a vowel or a consonant?

Words, in case you don’t know, are beautiful. Keats, Shelley and Conrad enriched and gladdened the whole world with words. Is it possible that your odd method of correspondence is more effective? Have you stumbled on something that will replace all the beautiful poems and love sonnets of the centuries? I only ask you this because I’ve heard it told that you conduct your romances in the same manner. It is well known that for years you left a trail of broken hearts and sawn-off shotguns from the Orpheum Theatre in Bangor to the Pantages Theatre in San Diego. Is delicatessen your secret weapon? Do you send soft cheese where others send orchids? When a love-sick girl sends you a perfume-scented note pleading for your kisses, I understand your answer is three slices of pumpernickel. I don’t say that this last present may not be just what she needs, but you must concede it’s a novel slant on a subject that has bewildered experts since Adam and Eve. Romeo was considered quite a lover in his day but I’m sure Juliet’s love for him would have wavered had it reeked so strongly of the pickle barrel. But then your views on love and life have always been unique and bizarre and I guess on you, it looks good.

Unless you answer this letter and I don’t mean with delicatessen, groceries or alphabet soup, but with plain words (the dictionary, by the way, is full of them) it will be necessary for me to reduce my correspondence to the same level and my answers in the future will consist of shoe-string potatoes, salamis and apple strudel.

Love and garlic from the Hebrew National, Woloshin’s, Levitoff’s, Isaac Gellis’s, Greenblatt’s and Rubin’s.



Source: Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales: Selected Writings of Groucho Marx (1993), by Groucho Marx, edited by Robert S. Bader. Letter originally published in the column Tales of Hoffman, Hollywood Reporter, 29 August 1942.

1937, Los Angeles - Chico and Groucho Marx in court for copyright infringement of a radio script, a case they eventually lost.