TCR Talks: Pam Munter & The Ghosts of Hollywood Past
By Rachel Spalding
Writer and 2017 UCR Palm Desert MFA alum Pam Munter has, not completely joking, one subject that interests her—and she comes by it honestly. Born in Los Angeles and raised in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood, Munter grew up in a palm-treed paradise that included both the craftspeople who toiled behind the scenes of the moviemaking capital and the screen stars themselves. Even at school, the students in her classes included the children of celebrities.
Munter ingested the lore and legends associated with the studios that ran the town, and all things Hollywood became her primary, and lasting, obsession; she went on to write books about the film industry, including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and the Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Books, 2005).
Munter, a retired clinical psychologist, was a semifinalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwright Prize contest for her original work Life Without. She published a memoir, As Alone as I Want to Be (Adelaide Books), in 2018.
Her newest title, a collection of short stories and plays, is Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood (Adelaide, 2021). It depicts well-known women whose stars are quickly dimming in a town without pity (or, apparently, any feminists).
I spoke by phone with the author, pleading an extreme case of Zoom fatigue. Maybe it was the therapist in her, but Munter seemed to understand the need to talk about the silver screen without being on a computer screen for the day.
TCR: Some people say show business is in their blood, but for you, it seems more like it was in the air you breathed.
PM: Growing up in the Pacific Palisades, Dad worked at Douglas Aircraft and Mom was a housewife at a time when Los Angeles still had a middle class. My parents were hard-working, but I must have known at five that I didn’t want that life.
I used to go to the movies and say to myself, “I can do that.” And when I went to school, children of celebrities and future celebrities were in class with me, like Tina Sinatra and Ryan O’Neal. The culture [of the entertainment industry] was all around me.
I was always living in my head and at the movies. I later taught political science at Cal State Northridge, and psychology at schools in Oregon and Nebraska, but even then, I was always interested in the [storytelling] aspect.
For example, I ended up as a semi-regular on a local morning talk show in Portland to give the psychological roots to things going on in the news. And when I was working as a full-time clinical psychologist, I was still singing in a nightclub at night.
TCR: You always had a flair for drama, I guess?
PM: Well, the difference between me and my characters is that they were [trapped] in Hollywood and I’ve always had a life outside of that, but I dip my toe back in. I’ve been an avid showbiz fan since age eight, when I started reading celebrity biographies. At any given time, I’ve had thousands stacked up; I don’t know how many different titles on the subject [of stars and filmmakers] I have in my house right now. So I just always have this crap in my head!
TCR: You have this amazing range of characters in Fading Fame, from real historical figures in show business, such as Mary Pickford, Doris Day, and 50s TV star Joan Davis, to made-up protagonists, like Maggie Bose, an aging actress who finds life in retirement unmanageable until a disaster gives her a shot at renewed fame—even if it’s only on the evening news.
PM: Maggie is the main character in my short story entitled “The Curtain Never Falls,” and I got the idea to write her based on a documentary about Rose Marie, an actress and singer who was big in Vaudeville and managed to transition to television.
TCR: I mean, it’s priceless that here we are in the old-folks home and the character of Maggie is still sharp as a tack mentally and talking crap about her actress rival—who she’s always hated—just as the other star is now being checked in! Maggie might not physically be the same pretty young thing who used to steal the spotlight, but in her head, she’s still a “big” performer.
PM: Yes, the character has a surprise ending. She doesn’t mind that her place is actually burning down around her—as long as she’s back in the spotlight because of the news. If people are noticing her, she’s happy!
TCR: There is so much humor in these tales—but there’s also a lot of pathos.
PM: The theme of Fading Fame is that women always had a harder time in this business. The sexual stereotypes went deep, both in the film business and in the country in general.
There were only “Founding Fathers” in the US, after all. [And the movie industry was also] made up of men. Mary Pickford was a founder of United Artists, but somehow, she was the last of the female movie moguls for decades to come! In the massive consolidation of the companies, it was only the most predatory males who rose to the top. And by the time of the [modern] studio system, the town was run by five white males.
TCR: It’s so tragic that Pickford was such an innovator, but you have her on the downhill side of her life, in a terrible marriage with Douglas Fairbanks, and struggling with alcoholism. You have a theme running through the book that reminds me of many of the memoirs I’ve been reading as a student—the theme of a dashed dream, of decline.
PM: Yes, a lot of these women were of a certain age, but when they were younger, they never planned ahead [for a time when they wouldn’t be young, talented, and beautiful]. You have to wonder about Ethel Barrymore. She had this illustrious career growing up in a show business family, and she was a star by fifteen. But how did she feel about playing a minor part in some musical starring Frank Sinatra by the time she was age seventy-five?
TCR: Ethel Barrymore was a real person, meaning you had to do a lot of research and know enough about her to make it vivid. But then you got to use your imagination to extrapolate parts of these characters’ lives that might not be common knowledge. That must have been challenging and fun at the same time!
PM: Every story has elements of reality, but in the end, this is a work of fiction. I figured: the libel laws allow you to write about public figures, and I let myself [write about them]. I decided that if some descendant of any of these people ever read this and was going to be mad . . . they would just have to be mad!
My story about Joan Davis, for example, who found herself living in Palm Springs and had a longstanding affair with performer Eddie Cantor, is based on what we already know about her, but [my process] started with the [factoid] that she used to be listed in the phone book. See, she liked to get calls from fans! But I did things like make up how long her affair with Cantor, who was a married man, had been going on. In real life, it didn’t last that long. The [main] facts I do present in these fictional stories are real. For example, in my short story on Doris Day, she had a lot of problems behind the scenes.
TCR: Right; in “Deconstructing Doris,” we see that Day had a terrible husband who left her in financial ruin. Was it really that bad? She was once “America’s Sweetheart,” after all, kind of like a Julia Roberts, so that part shocked me.
PM: Doris Day was a big part of my childhood, and I absolutely loved her. But sadly, she wasn’t that bright when it came to men. She had issues. You know, my background as a shrink is such that I understand these women’s inner lives. And I learned in the Palm Desert MFA program to be more economical with my words so I could [get all of it down without too much backstory getting in the way]. I’m not a flowery writer; I’m the meat-and-potatoes kind. So I just try to get it all down and then ask myself, “What’s missing?”
At UCR, I had great teachers, from Emily Rapp Black to David Ulin and Mickey Birnbaum. I actually came up with this idea at one of the residencies. But it’s true that I had to weigh which biographical details would get in the way of the fiction.
TCR: I probably shouldn’t have raised an eyebrow at the sexism you depict in the entertainment industry, but you had me shocked as far as the pervasiveness of it all. Going back as far as the 1920s, you paint a picture of women dealing with the casting couch, gender preferences that had to be hidden, and here we are, almost a century later, still talking about Hollywood’s culture of harassment, sexism, and racism.
PM: The point is #MeToo is, unfortunately, not new. It’s been going on from Day One. That was literally just how it was—you started at the bottom, literally. Even poor Doris Day, who was known as the most wholesome star, was expected to sleep her way to the top!
TCR: So I take it the rise and fall of Harvey Weinstein didn’t exactly catch you by surprise?
PM: No, I wasn’t at all surprised by the Weinstein news. The only thing that did shock me? That this time, women weren’t afraid to come forward. It shows me the standards are actually changing. Men are now aware there will be consequences to their actions.
TCR: Well, let’s hope so.
PM: For so many generations, women were seen as less than men, and the law [reflected that]. As I say in the introduction, it wasn’t that long ago that women couldn’t own property in their name, adopt a child without a man, or be party to a contract without a man’s signature. Women were seen as less than human; they couldn’t even vote [until] a century ago. They were mainly supposed to serve men. So personally, I was not surprised that the predation of young women in the entertainment industry has continued to be so widespread.
TCR: In the story “Dinner with Daddy,” you write about Irene Mayer Selznick, the daughter of Louis B. Mayer, who ran MGM. I had no idea how accomplished she eventually became as the producer of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway. But to get away from her dad in the first place, it seems she had to marry someone as powerful as he was—his rival, David O. Selznick.
PM: Women in those days did what they had to do, even those who didn’t have to deal with the casting couch.
TCR: Louis B. Mayer was terrifying in that story!
PM: And Irene had it easier [because she was born into the system].
TCR: It’s hard to believe that the women basically all faced issues of consent and experienced assault, yet there was such a collective silence. So hard to digest from a modern perspective!
PM: The starlets were bounced around from studio to studio, casting couch to casting couch. So by the time they had risen to a certain position, they had all survived this. No woman worked with Jack Warner at Warner Bros. without being subject to his sexual appetite, for example. That’s just the way it was. It was considered “paying your dues.” It was tragic.
TCR: Speaking of tragic, you have a real-life performer in the book, New York jazz singer Susannah McCorkle. You depict her last moments before a well-documented suicide. How did you approach that scene and getting to the core of her interior life?
PM: Condensing all the knowledge I had of someone’s real life into a short story was a challenge. All of it had to be plausible, even when I was stretching the truth. But I went where the characters were going to go, and I had actually met McCorkle once, briefly.
TCR: There’s a weird duality in the fact that the female stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age appeared to have a rare amount of independence for the time, but they were also victims of a repressive system.
PM: In Fading Fame, the women are successful, but they’re underdeveloped as people. Many of these stars were famous or already working in Hollywood when they were very young, so you were who [the studio] said you were.
TCR: Of course, we know there are still power imbalances, but at least, by image and press interviews, many of today’s female stars—take Nicole Kidman—appear to have the tools to navigate a successful personal life as well as a career. Your characters seem to have a chip missing as far as their self-esteem. They’re all damaged by their gilded lives, and don’t seem to love themselves, or other people, either.
PM: Well, we don’t actually know the truth about the movie stars that we look up to now, just like fans in the old days didn’t know anything behind-the-scenes. But famous women back then were really undervalued. And now, we know the value of things like women having the support of female friends, not just having other women be competitors. Sexism was historically all-pervasive.
TCR: You have such a passion for research and getting under a character’s skin I’m imagining you have this elaborate, fancy creative system you can share with me, a whole process you have wired, writer-to-writer . . .
PM: No, I’ve never had any overarching secret! But I just knew that if I did something incrementally, I would get somewhere. It was all just one foot in front of the other. I always say, “Bite it off in small chunks and it’ll be manageable.”
TCR: Speaking of your productivity, now that this book is out, what’s next for you?
PM: I have a new project, which is a series of nonfiction essays called Fascinating Me: Essays from an Unconventional Life. I came back to fiction later in life after trying it out in college, so after Fading Fame [I wanted to return to nonfiction].
TCR: It’s inspiring to see someone unafraid to push themselves, jumping from genre to genre.
PM: You know, you don’t want a master plan, anyway. You want your creativity to take you where it’s going to take you. I look at it as you never stop learning. [The MFA] was my sixth college degree.
Rachel Spalding is an MFA candidate in UC Riverside’s low-residency creative writing program. She is working on a memoir about life in Los Angeles.