Note: This is an encore post from 2012.
Patience Abbe and her brothers John and Richard parlayed their adventures globetrotting with their famous photographer father James Abbe and mother Polly, a former Ziegfeld dancer, into three books in the 1930s. Patience, the oldest, “did most of the actual writing” her mother stated, with her brothers throwing in lines here and there. Their entertaining books tickled Americans with a refreshing naturalness and humor, showing down to earth kids who knew how to have fun. As an August 16, 1936 Oakland Tribune article stated, “They are not quiet, they are not sweet, they are not coached to put on a good show for the public, which makes them refreshing to meet.”
Patience was born in Paris in 1924, followed in the next three years by her brothers, a second family to their more mature father. Abbe, a renowned portrait photographer, traveled the world looking for subjects and cheaper places to live. Their first book, “Around the World in Eleven Years,” chronicled their adventures living in France, Germany, England, Russia, and the United States. The book did amazingly well, selling 20,000 copies in advance of publication.
Mary Mallory is giving a virtual presentation on “Your Girl and Mine” on women’s suffrage on Aug. 19 at 7:30 p.m. PDT. Tickets are $7.50 for Hollywood Heritage members and $15 for nonmembers.
The book contained humorous anecdotes in the kids’ actual words, such as “We went to see Lenin. He was dead for six years, but he didn’t smell. He was the one who started the Revolution and ever since Russia has been poor.” Russia played an important part of their lives in 1937. James Abbe had troubles taking photographs there and the family quickly left the country. Patience helped them cross the border by telling the security guards in Russian that Stalin and her father “were like crossed fingers,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Abbe family landed in Hollywood, where their father had first ventured in 1920 to work for silent film producer Mack Sennett as portrait photographer. While in the city, the family visited film sets, attended children’s parties, and met celebrities, all thanks to their father’s connections. Abbe often snapped photos of his children with these people, with many featured in their second book, “Of All Places!” Other photos were taken by studio still photographers, such as Stax Graves, the Hal Roach stillman, when the Abbe children visited the Our Gang kids.
As the opening flypaper of their second book states, “This book is dedicated to the children and the people of America who have written letters to Patience, Richard and Johnny Abbe.” Photos included in the book showed the children sitting in the grand dining room of San Simeon, broadcasting with Admiral Byrd, sitting on Robert Taylor and Cary Grant’s laps, attending Shirley Temple’s birthday party, playing with the Chaplin boys and the Harold Lloyd children, posing with Walt Disney and his famous creations, and posing with Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon.
As the opening chapter of the book states, “Hollywood is sort of a rich place when you look down on it from the hills. It is also a spoiled place because people complain when the weather doesn’t suit them. And Hollywood is also a place where you can be forgotten in five minutes.” Later on they write, “Everyone here talks about movies and wants to work in them, except insurance people and people who sell land and houses, and even they think their best customers are movies.”
After traveling around the country in the beginning of the book, the kids end up in Hollywood. The Abbe children peg people focusing on their appearance even then. “Hollywood is a funny place. All the people look as though they are on a vacation, and although there is not a beach right in Hollywood people go around in slacks with long overcoats and wear colored handkerchiefs on their hair. But this does not hide the fact that most of the hair is bleached blond or red…But we have looked and we have come to the conclusion that no woman is beautiful with bleached hair. Besides, some of these women wear too much paint on their faces and when they don’t wear paint they have very white faces with mouths that look as though they are bleeding.”
Even then, Hollywood focused on tearing down and rebuilding. “Hollywood has, as they say, sprung up like a mushroom. And they are always building something or pulling it down and building again, or building all over again. Buildings come and go like magic over night.”
Hollywood also seemed superficial. “What you are supposed to have when you come out here is a car, plenty of money, so no one will look down on you, and rent a very stylish house or live very stylish. Otherwise you’re just plain nobody. And when you are nobody in Hollywood you might just as well be dead.”
Driving also seemed to match our experiences today. “And a lot of drivers get out and fight and curse and swear because they don’t like the way you drive your car.”
The second book made national bestseller lists as well, leading their publishers to ask them to write a third book on their travels in the United States. While touring to promote the second book, the children began roughhousing each other in a Boston bookstore. They also seemed to argue amongst themselves during newspaper interviews.
The great newspaperman Ernie Pyle visited them in Colorado in 1938 and wrote a story detailing his stay. He commented, “Patience is one of the girls I like best in the whole country–in fact we are sweethearts.” He notes that she wrote on the flypaper of his book, “To Ernie, whom I love most of all the newspapermen, Patience Abbe.”
By the 1940s, Patience acted as her father’s secretary when he became a radio commentator in the Oakland, California area. She continued speaking to clubs about the books and other topics on youth during this period as well.
Patience would go on to work for a motion picture company in San Francisco, as a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper, as a conservationist, church secretary, and assistant to authors. Abbe was writing her memoirs when she died at the age of 87 on March 16 of this year.