In 1993, while I was still living in Chicago and about to move to New York to begin my career as a whatever it is I am, I picked up a foreign women's magazine, undoubtedly because it had a Madonna article in it. I wound up being much more fascinated by a piece on Howard and Austin Mutti-Mewse, 20-year-old twins who had been writing to the last of the '10s, '20s and '30s movie stars (their first big score was Lillian Gish) and receiving back autographs, personal notes and occasionally even one-of-a-kind mementos. I loved the idea of youngsters appreciating the past and documenting it better than even those who'd been around to experience it.
Twenty years later, I found the boys—now men—on Facebook and corresponded with them. I figured they wouldn't mind hearing from a stranger, since that kind of goodwill is what they'd relied on all those years whenever writing to a "new" old star. They were lovely in their replies.
Now, the brothers are publishing their first book, the aptly titled I Used to Be in Pictures: An Untold Story of Hollywood (Antique Collectors Club Dist., Feb. 17, 2014), which generously offers to other fans a healthy sampling of the correspondence they've meticulously cultivated over the past nearly 30 years, all the while watching their elderly pen pals—quite a few became bona fide chums—disappear one by one.
Check out my extensive interview with the boys below, complete with some of their juiciest memories of the silver screen's most remembered—and most forgotten—names...
Boy Culture: As twins, do you feel your appreciation of movies and movie stars developed in an exactly parallel way?
Howard Mutti-Mewse: We both loved history and are two very artistic and creative people. It was never a conscious thing. We didn’t really sit down and say to one another, "This is what we are going to do. We are going to start to write to film actors." It just happened…
BC: Had you seen many, or any, Lillian Gish (1893—1993) films when you decided to write her, and how did you find her? Were you very shocked to receive a reply?
HM-M: We had seen a good many. The BBC and Channel 4 in England were pretty good during the 1980s at showing black-and-white movies. Of course, this came on the back of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's epic series Hollywood, filmed in 1980. Austin and I were transfixed. There was something about watching a film at such a young age with no dialogue. The Wind (1928) may not have been the first of the films we saw, but it was one of the earliest ones which remained with us.
We found Lillian Gish in the Who’s Who of America 1983 and wrote her a letter. We had been set a project by our history master at school to write a piece about an iconic figure of the 20th Century, so together chose Lillian, never believing we’d get a response. We were only aged 12 at the time.
Austin Mutti-Mewse: Not really. Many of those we wrote to were recommended by others. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909—2000), for example, put us in touch with Aileen Pringle (1895—1989). Lillian Gish suggested we write to her friend Colleen Moore (1899—1988). There were others we wanted to "find" and write to, so we contacted the Margaret Herrick Library—part of The Academy [of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences]. They were extremely helpful in forwarding mail of those whom wanted to be contacted.
"[Francis Lee gave] us a stack of vintage photographs...'You might as well have them,' she said. 'No one else is interested.'"
BC: Were you typically sending one-page letters? Did you enclose items to sign, or did you ask them to sign things and they supplied them?
AM-M: Letters and cards. A good majority didn’t have any photographs left from their days in Hollywood, so would send a small index card with their letters. We began to buy photographs from the British Institute Stills library to send them to autograph; we also helped a few—like Rose Hobart (1906—2000) build up their lost collection. I can remember Frances Lee (pictured, 1906—2000) who starred in comedies during the 1920s give us a stack of vintage photographs when we visited her in 1998. “You might as well have them," she said. “No one else is interested.”
- BC: What do you think about the trend now for non-current stars to charge money ($20 or so) for their signatures by mail?
AM-M: I know there are some who charge, though I know for a few of those we knew who had fallen on rather hard times, the business of fan mail could be expensive, especially when mailing abroad. When we were staying in California and would spend the day or stay with various actors, there was always a grateful smile to those fans who had enclosed a SASE or a few dollars to cover the postage. Della Lind (aka Grete Natzler, 1906—1999) always returned any money sent to her as did Joan Gardner-Korda (1914—1999).
HM-M: Austin and I are fortunate that many of the old stars have become friends, so obviously there is no exchange of money. We’d rather send them biscuits from the Queen’s grocer Fortnum & Mason or chocolates from Prestat. Joan Fontaine (1917—2013) was funny. She adored the champagne truffles we bought her many years ago, so we would regularly send her a box which. "I am too selfish to share with my friends since they are too gorgeous!” She was a fantastic character and so generous to her friends.
BC: Which stars do you think had the most beautiful signatures?
HM-M: Ruth Hall (1910—2003) had the most amazing and extraordinary handwriting. Ginger Rogers’s (1911—1995) signature was also rather special. Marion Shilling (1910—2004) had beautiful handwriting. Though remember, they were all born in an era when penmanship mattered!
BC: What was the first truly amazing item (signed or otherwise) you ever received back from a celebrity in the mail?
HM-M: We have been fortunate to receive some rather splendid birthday and Christmas gifts; when Austin and his wife Joanna married they received some fantastic telegrams, including Tab Hunter (b. 7/11/31), Luise Rainer (b. 1/12/1910), Joan Fontaine, Noreen Nash (b. 4/4/24), Beverly Roberts (pictured, 1914—2009), Lizabeth Scott (b. 9/29/22), Dorothy Janis (1912—2010), Doris Eaton (1904—2010), Dame Elizabeth Taylor (1932—2011), Peggy Cummins (b. 12/18/25), Kirk (b. 12/19/16) and Anne Douglas, etc…) and gifts, also on the birth of their son—my nephew, Nathan—five years ago. Dorothy Layton (1912—2009) sent Nathan a green "ugly-doll" toy. He still loves to cuddle it now. Nathan is fascinated in people's ages and tells his school chums that he has "aunts" and one "uncle" [Arthur Gardner (b. 6/7/1910)] over the age of 100.
BC: Who was the first star to invite you to meet them as a result of your letters? What was that like?
HM-M: Living in England it would have to be the Brits first; Sir John Mills (1908—2005), Ann Todd (1909—1993), Joan Marion (pictured, 1908—2001), Chili Bouchier (1909—1999) and Joan Morgan (1905—2004), one of Britain’s most important silent screen child stars. I think we probably treasure the memory of these occasions more now than we did then—even though it was an experience.
It wasn’t always the supernovas that excited us. There were two sisters during the 1930s who made headlines, The Russell Sisters; Hilda (1904—2002), the eldest, and Patricia (1909—2004). Hilda was the more famous of the two for her stage work and a string of film appearances. Patricia retired in 1939 when she married a Harley Street surgeon. They were the first women to form a polo team in 1931. The Daily Telegraph at the time ran the headline, “Women conquer yet another field." Patricia had a wooden chalet built in the grounds of her former house when her old home became too much to manage. She called the house her "cricket pavilion." She still maintained a cook called Florence who prepared the most amazing luncheons. Her specialty dessert was an apricot mousse favored by past houseguest HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (1900—2002).
Later, Austin and I would walk the dogs with the sisters through the fields around Patricia’s home in Stockbridge, Hampshire. On one occasion, we stopped at St. Peter's and Holy Cross Church in the tiny village of Wherwell, where the sisters wrote their names in the book and promised us, after their death, we would go back and remember. It was a very moving moment...one of countless.
AM-M: I remember going to visit Joan Morgan and being saddened that she lived in a house that resembled Miss Havisham's mansion in the Dickens novel Great Expectations. Cobwebs hung like ropes across the ceiling. She was so frail, so bird-like, that I wondered how she'd survived!
In L.A., visiting Beverly Roberts in Laguna Niguel was always a treat. We'd sit in her den whilst she made tea and sang. Patsy Ruth Miller (1904—1995) was incredible, the house all but empty of furniture except for her bedroom. She and I would smoke whilst we watched TV. More often than not, it was one of her movies. She'd pass Howard her large black address book and suggest he call her friends: the Reagans (Ronald Reagan, 1911—2004; Nancy Reagan, b. 7/6/21), Billie Dove (1903—1997), George H.W. Bush (b. 6/12/24), Laura La Plante (1904—1996).
BC: The "supernovas" were not your main attraction, but what were your experiences like with stars of the stature of Marlene Dietrich (1901—1992), for example?
Howard: We never met Marlene Dietrich, but spoke on the telephone and corresponded. Again, it was our youth which fascinated her. We met Dame Elizabeth Taylor on a few occasions; once at a dinner at her home in Bel-Air in 2002. We had a friend with us, the 1930s film ingénue Mildred Shay (1911—2005). Mildred and Elizabeth sold war bonds together at the Gilmore Stadium in 1944. Mildred knew her mother very well. Of course decades had passed, but when Mildred approached her and asked, “I suppose you wouldn’t remember Mildred Shay?” Elizabeth, who was already frail and on the arm of her granddaughter Naomi and a male escort, stroked Mildred’s face and said, “Why of course I remember you.” Elizabeth Taylor was an absolute star through and through.
BC: Did any stars ever write you terribly personal things that surprised you?
HM-M: There were a few who, after five or six letters, began to offload about their families—daughters who didn't visit and sons who seldom came to call or telephoned. One British actress, Joan Marion, who Warner Bros. earmarked to replace Bette Davis (1908—1989) when Bette caused a stir over better roles, became quite distraught at her family having moved her to Norfolk from her home on Ebury Street in Belgravia, London. She felt a somebody in London and a nobody in Norfolk. Her friends, like Constance Cummings (1910—2005), Jane Welsh (1905—2001) and Nora Swinburne (1902—2000), were in London. In Norfolk she'd look from the bedroom window of her tiny flat at people in the supermarket car-park below. “At least if I'm lonely I look down and see life, but it's not the life I knew.”
AM-M: We drove to Norfolk and brought Joan back to London a couple of times. Once, she took a hotel close to her old studios at Shepperton. Then, on another occasion to Sussex, she stayed close to her former home on the magnificent Kingston Gorse Estate. This visit happened to coincide with her 91st birthday; Howard and I had been invited to the first night of Raindance Film Festival (independent film festival in London; UK’s answer to Sundance), so we took her as our guest. She was the toast of the evening and cried when there was an impromptu chorus of "Happy Birthday" after the speeches.
Others seemed to know their time on earth was limited. “Come and see me, but don’t wait too long or I'll be gone,” said Lita Grey Chaplin (pictured, 1908—1995) in September 1995. This was a sentiment echoed by many. Lita was surprising since she was so open. “Chaplin liked young women; he liked to take their virginity,” she told us over dinner in 1993. “He was a genius, but too often geniuses do very odd things.”
BC: Did any stars deny who they really were or refuse to reply? Any that felt like "the one who got away?"
HM-M: There was Garbo of course. She refused to answer any of our letters. There were others who we wished had lived longer so we could have formed a longer friendship. Loretta Sayers (1911—1999): our letter arrived at her home the day she died. "And how she would have loved your letter," wrote her daughter afterwards.
"Our letter arrived at her home the day she died. 'And how she would have loved your letter,' wrote her daughter afterwards."
AM-M: It amazes us that we still find new old stars, most recently the black silent child actress Dorothy Morrison Green (b. 1/3/19), who appeared in Our Gang shorts and Hearts in Dixie (1929) with Stepin Fetchit (1902—1985). There have been others in the past like Gertrude Messinger (pictured, 1911—1995), who didn't want to be found. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for remembering me, but now you've found me don't pass on my address to anyone else, please!” She was still disillusioned at being forgotten.
BC: Why is Dorothy Revier (1904—1993) special to you? I believe she's on your cover, and you're working to get her a Hollywood Walk of Fame star.
HM-M: It is the personalities of the people which we were drawn to. There were occasions where we got the opportunity to meet an actor and were dashed when it appeared they were not as gracious or kind as one imagined. Dorothy Revier was different; she’d had a tough career in Hollywood. Some of the problems were created by making the wrong choice – one is referring to her liaison with Harry Cohn who refused to allow her to freelance at any other studios, including an opportunity to test opposite Fred Astaire. Dorothy personified hundreds who tried to become supernovas, but missed the beat each time. She wanted to be remembered for her career and was extremely grateful for those who took the time to write and remember her. She wanted a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, but never got it. Austin and I hope our campaign might change the opinion of those who award stars and finally give her the acknowledgment she deserves.
BC: What was it like putting original interviews with silent stars on film, as you did?
HM-M: It was a fascinating experience. Miriam Seegar (1907—2011) joked that it was better than a visit to the shrink! We were very fortunate for the opportunity Barbara Broccoli gave us to record their stories before it was too late.
BC: The footage has not been released. What's happening with it?
HM-M: With the release of our book and interest in a sequel—I Used to Be in Pictures, TOO—we hope we can revisit the idea to release the documentary. It is too important not to see the light of day!
BC: Richard Lamparski, radio host and author of the What Ever Became Of...? book series, told me of some stars who made passes at him. Did you ever find yourselves on the receiving end of amorous attentions from the golden oldies you tracked down?
HM-M: There has been one or two…not always by the star, but sometimes one of their friends. There was an occasion at a memorial service! Imagine that! But I won’t go into details!
BC: Once you became friendly or even once you had any kind of response from a star, did it feel like losing an actual friend or family member when you would read of or hear of their passing?
HM-M: It is the way of all things, especially since they were so old and we were so young when our correspondence began. That was 30 years ago! We have known some amazing people, from James Stewart (1908—1997) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Marion Shilling, William Bakewell (1908—1993), Rose Hobart, Eleanor Boardman (1898—1991), Addie McPhail (1905—2003), Margie Stewart (1919—2012), Lucille Lund (1913—2002), Patsy Ruth Miller, Joy Hodges (1914—2003), Shirley Chambers (1913—2011), Jane Kean (1923—2013), etc…it hits hard every time.
BC: Who would you say is the most scandalously forgotten silent star?
AM-M: It was terribly sad and so unjust that Anita Page (1910—2008) the star of Broadway Melody of 1929, the first sound film to win an Academy Award, was missed off the "In Memoriam" segment when she died in 2008. Mae Murray (1889—1965) was pretty tragic too, ending up at the Motion Picture Home with nothing but a few memories, and of course way back Olive Borden (1906—1947)...she died penniless!
Vilma Banky (1898—1991) was so upset that nobody came to call during her twilight years in a nursing home in L.A. that she asked for her death to go unreported in the press when she finally died in 1991. Patsy Ruth Miller suggested we call Vilma Banky once. Howard did, but she was too frail to really talk...we'd left it too late.
BC: Are you at all interested in stars from later eras? Does it impress you to see a contemporary star? Do you ever get "pic-withs"—photo ops with famous people—now?
AM-M: I've met modern celebrity and I am friends with a few, like Dan Stevens, Stephen Fry, etc., but there isn't that indescribable something that mesmerized Howard and I when visiting someone like Billie Dove, James Stewart or Gene Kelly (1912—1996).
HM-M: I watched The Shawshank Redemption (1994) again over the weekend. What a fantastic film. I remember Beverly Roberts loved to go to the cinema, and when asked about her era would joke, “Golden Age! Some of the films we made back then we're pure dross!”
"Golden Age! Some of the films we made back then were pure dross!"—Beverly Roberts
AM-M: I would say I'm interested in good films. I watched director Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) the other evening and loved it. Argo (2012) is one of my all-time favorite thrillers—edge-of-one’s-seat stuff! My wife Joanna and I are still hooked on Mad Men and Breaking Bad. There was something impossibly glamorous about the Golden Age, but some if those films—like films today—didn't exactly shine.
BC: I recently attempted to make a list of all the actors 80 and over, including a Top 10 "greatest living stars 80 and older" list. Who would you guys reckon are the biggest Golden Age stars still living?
AM-M: Kirk Douglas, Shirley Temple [Temple died the day after I received these answers], Mickey Rooney (b. 9/23/20), Olivia de Havilland (b. 7/1/16), Luise Rainer, Lizabeth Scott...
HM-M: Luise Rainer, Kirk Douglas, Olivia de Havilland, Eli Wallach (b. 12/7/15), Lauren Bacall (b. 9/16/24), Eva Marie Saint (pictured, b. 7/4/24), Doris Day (b. 4/3/24), Maureen O’Hara (b. 8/17/20), Joanne Woodward (b. 2/27/30). However, because of my very nature, I would have to add Mary Carlisle (b. 2/3/12), Lupita Tovar (b. 7/27/10), Lassie Lou Ahern (b. 6/25/20), Carla Laemmle (b. 10/20/09) and Arthur Gardner, as one of the outcomes of this entire journey was to try and remember those almost everyone else had forgotten.
BC: There was a fascinating story of a silent actress thought dead for 70 years who turned out to have died around 2010 past the age of 100. Do you think there are any actors of note who might be out there, hidden from view?
HM-M: I think there are mostly lost players who played minor roles still living out in obscurity now. One name is Lois Ranson (b. 1921). Whatever became of her? Another is Vivian Pearson? Vivian won a trip to Hollywood and a screen test in Screenplay's "Perfect Face Competition" in November 1930 and vanished six years later…she’s be in her late nineties now, though.
BC: If you could go back in time and appear in any classic Hollywood movie…which would it be?
HM-M: An extra in The Philadelphia Story (1940) or a guest spot in a film noir classic such as Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Though with our interest, I guess one would say a reporter in Sunset Boulevard (1950)!
AM-M: I'd play one of the waxworks in Sunset Boulevard, or a neighbor in Rear Window (1954) or The Apartment (1960,) or a passenger on board in Between Two Worlds (1944). I couldn't say one would be the lead, as William Holden (1918—1981), James Stewart, Jack Lemmon (1925—2001) and John Garfield (1913—1952) did it so well!