Note: This is an encore post from 2012. The book is being republished Nov. 5, 2019, by Vintage.
Stories about Hollywood have always been popular among American readers. Early fan magazines included fictional stories about the crazy and glamorous life in Tinsel Town, on into novels. Most of these were written for women, but many also appealed to men. One with appeal to young girls was titled “Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario: or Striving for the Motion Picture Prize,” written by Alice B. Emerson in 1927. An early forerunner to Nancy Drew or Cherry Ames, Ruth was an orphan living with her miserly uncle and getting into all types of travels and adventures.
Magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post also focused on Hollywood fiction, most of which were critical of the town and industry, and the negative values it imparted. “Glory Road,” serially published in Photoplay magazine in 1916, is one of the earliest examples, called by the magazine, “the first great novel written around the motion picture capital of the World – Los Angeles. Its chapters exude the living atmosphere of the studios, reflect their romantic glamour–and reveal at times the brassiness of the glitter.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs even wrote a novel examining the dark underside of Hollywood in 1922. Serialized in Munsey’s Magazine in 1922, “The Girl From Hollywood” finds that the glamorous settings and backdrops of the industry provide an attractive and dangerous backdrop to the evildoings below.
F. Scott Fitzgerald got into the act in the late 1930s with “The Pat Hobby Stories,” 17 short stories about a has-been screenwriter trying to break back into show business, which first appeared in Esquire magazine. Fitzgerald’s mixed feelings about the entertainment industry float through much of the stories, most of which were written to help pay the bills for his wife Zelda’s medical care and his daughter Scottie’s schooling. As Scottie would say later, “He (Pat) put me through Vassar.”
In the late 1930s, a young woman put forward her own version of life in Hollywood. “I Lost My Girlish Laughter,” written under the pseudonym of Jane Allen, revealed the life of Madge, a young woman newly arrived in Hollywood and landing a job as secretary to a major film producer. In a series of letters, newspaper clippings, and inter-office memos, she tells of the back stories of film production, revealing the foibles, double dealings and kindnesses behind the scenes. The major producer she works for toils producing quality literary productions, known for his voluminous correspondence.
The New York Times praised the book in May 1938. “Jane Allen’s movie story, ‘I Lost My Girlish Laughter,’ is in the usual outrageous and rip-snorting vein. But it has one novelty–its viewpoint is from a new angle, as Hollywood would say. It is written by the secretary of a topnotch and toplofty film executive. Jane Allen, the blurb says, is the pen name of a real secretary, so fervent movie fans may amuse themselves by trying to figure out real names of stars and magnates, though no prize is offered for the correct answers…The girl is a level-headed miss, fresh to Hollywood when she takes on her job. Her reactions to the maelstrom of the movie city are refreshing and humorous, and her inside view of the temperament of its stars and the finagling of its executives is extravagantly comic.”
Serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1938, Random House quickly published it as it reverberated around Hollywood. As Bennett Cerf, president of Random House wrote on the back cover, “It happened that I was in Hollywood when “I Lost My Girlish Laughter” appeared in the pages of the Cosmopolitan magazine and caused almost as much excitement as the floods that followed a few days later. With that singular omniscience that is acquired by everyone directly he is tapped for motion picture work, everybody there swore he recognized the original of every character in the story, although you may have my word for it that when we accepted it, we did not have the faintest idea on whose career the story was based. We decided to publish it because we thought it was hilariously funny, and because we thought it might prove extraordinarily popular. We stand on that belief. If the principal character really is the man that the California savants have picked, we can only say that we regard him as one of the greatest picture producers in the business today….The events described in this book not only could happen; they did happen. Hollywood is like this, and we daresay will continue to be. But don’t get us wrong; we love it!”
Daily Variety reported May 11, 1938, that the book had caused quite a stir in Hollywood, and that the author was “generally assumed to be Mrs. Ring Lardner Jr. She was secretary to David O. Selznick.” In the May 18 edition, they noted that Jane Shaw ghostwrote the novel for Sylvia Schulman, Mrs. Lardner, who had been personal secretary to Selznick. “It’s not truly biographical, being a composite of the Hollywood scene as Miss Shulman (sic) noticed it during her film career.”
Selznick was incensed, believing that Lardner himself actually ghostwrote the book. Though Lardner had worked uncredited for him on “A Star Is Born” and “Nothing Sacred” a few years before, the book destroyed their friendship. Selznick considered suing, but dropped the idea.
Orson Welles adapted the book for a Campbell’s Playhouse broadcast on January 27, 1939, infuriating Selznick. Welles, Ilka Chase, and Tamara Geva played the parts adapted from the book, gently poking Hollywood. Ironically the broadcast aired just as production on “Gone With the Wind” started. While Selznick was unable to prevent the radio broadcast, he did prevent MGM from buying screen rights.
Though almost forgotten today, “I Lost My Girlish Laughter” provides an entertaining window into 1930s Hollywood.
Review of “I Lost My Girlish Laughter” from Reading (Pa.) Eagle, May 22, 1938.