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The chilling novel that inspired the iconic film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
As seen on the FX series Feud: Bette and Joan, which chronicles the rivalry between the Hollywood stars during their filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
The neighbors all whisper about the two sisters who live on the hill: It’s Blanche Hudson who lives in that house, you know. The Blanche Hudson, who starred in big Hollywood films all those years ago. Such a shame her career ended so early, all because of that accident. They say it was her sister, Jane, who did it–that she crashed the car because she was drunk. They say that’s why she looks after Blanche now, because of the guilt. That’s what they say, at least.
Nobody remembers that Jane was once a star herself. A fixture of early vaudeville, Baby Jane Hudson performed her song and dance routines for adoring crowds until a move to Hollywood thrust her sister into the spotlight. Even now, years later, Jane dreams of reviving her act. But as the lines begin to blur between fantasy and reality, past resentments become dangerous–and the sisters’ long-kept secrets threaten to destroy them.
Now with three short stories available for the first time in print, including What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte, the basis for the film Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Table of Contents
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INTRODUCTION: HENRY FARRELL AND THE STORY OF BABY JANE
I first met Henry Farrell in 1981 when he contacted me about representing stage rights for his novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
He had previously been in touch with my associate, the legendary agent Monica McCall, for book representation. The relationship did not work out, but Henry remembered me as I had told him about how, when growing up in a coal-mining family in the mountains of Kentucky, my sister, who worked for a local 5- and 10-cent store, had brought home a discarded copy of the novel as my high-school graduation gift. I told him what a fan I had become and how his depiction of the glamour of early show business and the rewards and consequences of fame had encouraged me to leave the mountains to seek wider horizons.
Thus began a relationship that continued until Henry's death twenty-five years later.
It was then I learned that Henry had left me and his longtime lawyer, Norma Fink, equal shares of all his literary rights, including Baby Jane.
When I embarked on the writing of the foreword to this new edition of the book, I was surprised to learn that for all his prominence in the film and literary communities, Henry had remained a very private person. He shunned photographs of himself, and he lived a quiet but interesting and fulfilling personal life.
He was born in 1920 as Charles Farrell Myers and would later write under the names "Charles Myers" and "Bud Myers" before adopting the name "Henry Farrell"—"Farrell" from his middle name; he and his wife, Molly, came up with the name "Henry." Later he would change his name legally "at the insistence of my accountant to avoid continued confusion at the IRS."
He grew up in Chowchilla, California, where his father owned a filling station. But the place was too small for Henry and his sister, Wanda, who ended up moving to a town near Seattle. Henry's way out was the U.S. Army during World War II. It was there that, in order to compensate for his lack of a college education, he became involved in theatre and took a creative writing class, where his instructor told him to "stick with it." This resulted in his first published work.
His friend Jane Winslow remembers that he first wrote for the "penny dreadful"—a type of pulp magazine that became popular starting in the midnineteenth century. From that came a character called "Toffee," a graphic, almost comic-book female detective that produced a series of stories later collected in book form. Henry would write over one hundred short stories over the course of his life.
Another defining moment was his meeting with the actress Molly Dodd, who had toured USO camps and whom he met when he struck out to Los Angeles after his army discharge to try his hand at acting. Finding no success as a thespian, Henry returned to Chowchilla. But Molly tracked him down and brought him back to Los Angeles where they were married, a union that lasted until Molly's death at the age of fifty-nine in 1981.
Molly was Henry's passport to the world of show business. She had made her stage debut in 1939 and was well known in the business. What's more, her father, Neal, was a Hollywood fixture, a charismatic Anglican minister who was known as "the Padre of Hollywood." In a film career that started in the 1920s, he would consult or appear as a minister, usually uncredited, in over 300 films. On-screen, he married Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. Off-screen, he officiated at the weddings of the stars themselves. Molly and Henry became a respected Hollywood couple, living first in an apartment in Beverly Hills and later in their first and only home, a grand residence in Pacific Palisades on Chautauqua Boulevard overlooking Rivas Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains. They would live there all their lives.
Henry continued his writing, and Molly was the force of nature who looked after his every need. She maintained their beautiful home life, oversaw their social activities, and organized wonderful soirées for their friends—a set that included Peggy Chantler Dick, writer of the Dennis the Menace and Hazel television series, and her psychologist husband, Douglas Dick (a former actor and writer with over seventy-one film credits); Ava Astaire (Fred's daughter) and her husband, Richard MacKenzie; Dick Sargent, a star of Bewitched; and Broadway and film star Nancy Walker and her husband, David Craig, who taught musical theatre.
In 1959 Henry's first novel, The Hostage, was published. It tells the story of a six-year-old boy trapped in a moving van with two killers after witnessing a murder. It would later be filmed by Crown International. A second novel, Death on the Sixth Day, would follow in 1961. He began writing for television, penning episodes for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the Bus Stop series, and, later, Perry Mason.
Molly's acting career thrived with appearances on television, which, over time, would include The Andy Griffith Show, The Twilight Zone, Gomer Pyle, Hazel, Petticoat Junction, The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, and The Rockford Files.
Then Molly was diagnosed with cancer. The couple became strapped for money, and Henry, who had always been plagued by writer's block, decided he had to come up with a really commercial idea. Inspiration came in the form of Jane Winslow, the very young daughter of his and Molly's friend Yvonne. "I was told by my mother and others that every time Henry came visiting, I would run screaming from the room," remembers Jane, today an award-winning digital filmmaker, media producer and director, and a professor at SUNY Oswego.
Jane's display of histrionics would remind Henry of other Baby Jane types—Baby Peggy of silent films and vaudeville's Baby Rose Marie, the singing child wonder who was now grown up and a regular on The Dick Van Dyke Show. It set an idea in motion.
"I decided on a story so outrageous that it couldn't help but be commercial," he recalled. The story involved a former child star known in vaudeville as Baby Jane and her sister, Blanche, who had become a glamorous movie star in golden age Hollywood. He decided that "Blanche must be beautiful beyond description, a photographer's dream who, without trying, could project glamour such that few other stars ever could. Still, she didn't have any large performing talent, which was all right for the time and place… but a matter of acute pain and jealousy to Jane, who had talent to burn. Indeed, Blanche did have a career and future worth killing over. And I had to make the audience feel that in the past and present, Blanche had something to lose—and, through Jane, was about to lose it."
He was also aware of the tightrope he was walking between suspense/drama and high camp. "The subject of early movies, kiddy stars, and movie queens already embodied the camp element just by nature. It had been exploited over and over for years." But Henry concluded, "I felt I should just let it exist to the degree that it was already inherent in the story and characters, and let it go at that."
He had no idea that he was introducing a whole new subgenre of gothic horror to the world. Immediately following the book's publication, an option to produce the story on the Broadway stage was taken by Gabriel Katzka. However, a film producer, Robert Aldrich, saw the screen potential in the material and optioned the film rights, acquiring Katzka's stage rights as well. Aldrich opted to go the film route, and he didn't have to look far for the ideal cast. Joan Crawford, a superstar from the 1930s through the 1950s but who found her recent career in decline, called Henry Farrell and Robert Aldrich to personally make a case for playing the role of Blanche Hudson. Surprisingly, she also had a suggestion for the role of Jane: "Why not Bette Davis?" she asked.
Davis and Crawford had been bitter rivals in the past, vying for several of the same roles and fighting each other for box office position. When Crawford had asked for the title role in Mildred Pierce, she learned that Bette Davis was first choice. When Davis turned down the part, Crawford was cast, but only after doing a screen test for director Michael Curtiz. Her performance won Crawford an Academy Award, a fact Davis never forgot and bitterly resented. In an article published in London's Daily Mail, critic Michael Thornton claims the feud had sexual overtones as well: Crawford, who, according to Thornton, was bisexual, made a pass at Davis, which Davis resisted.
Furthermore, Davis had fallen madly in love with Franchot Tone, but Tone had married Joan Crawford. Crawford's quote, according to Thornton, was "Franchot isn't interested in Bette, but I wouldn't mind giving her a poke if I was in the right mood. Wouldn't that be funny?"
But Crawford realized that a pairing with Davis could spell box office magic for both of them, and she had been secretly looking for a project that would pair them and hopefully revive their faltering careers.
Along with her recommendation of Davis to Farrell, Crawford added, "I'll wipe up the screen with her!" Davis jumped at the chance to play Jane, ironically echoing to Farrell Crawford's sentiments to the word: "I'll wipe up the screen with her."
While maintaining pleasantries in public, the two stars engaged in a series of epic battles during filming that included a reported "accidental" kick to Miss Crawford's head by Miss Davis. This incident was countered by Crawford's adding weights to her body during a scene in which Davis had to carry her from a bed, causing Davis to throw out her back. In the end, the film was a triumph for them both. Not only was it a huge comeback for the pair, but Davis and Crawford had taken a percentage of the profits in exchange for accepting low salaries. They made a fortune.
The film was a worldwide hit, grossing over $9 million dollars. TV Guide called it "Star wars, trenchantly served," and added, "If it sometimes looks like a poisonous senior citizen show with over-the-top spoiled ham, just try to look away.… As in the best Hitchcock movies, suspense, rather than actual mayhem, drives the film."
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards including one for Bette Davis, as leading actress. Bette Davis lost to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker, but Joan Crawford, who did not receive a nomination, managed to accept the award on Bancroft's behalf, reportedly saying to Davis on the way, "Excuse me, I have an Oscar to accept."
The Crawford-Davis feud and Henry Farrell's involvement with the pair would not end there.
The success of the novel and the film would launch Farrell's next film project, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, based on his unpublished story "What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?" Farrell himself would write the original story and then the screenplay with Lukas Heller, who wrote the screenplay for Baby Jane. Crawford and Davis were once again set to star. Filming began at the Houmas House, forty-five minutes outside of New Orleans. The battle started even before Crawford's arrival, when Davis had the Pepsi-Cola machines on the lot (Crawford had been married to the president of Pepsi-Cola) replaced by Coca-Cola machines. She and the crew even posed for photographs of them drinking Coke.
Crawford was furious and ordered the Coke machines removed and the Pepsi machines brought back. According to published reports, Crawford left the picture in short order due to illness. Davis accused her of feigning pneumonia, but Henry Farrell remembered the events differently in a conversation I had with him in London in 2001. "When Crawford brought back the Pepsi machines," he recalled, "Bette had the crew gather all the Coke bottles on the lot and line them up in the path outside of Crawford's door." The next morning, Crawford stepped out on them, taking a nasty fall and subsequently taking a powder from the entire production. Crawford was quickly replaced by Davis's friend Olivia de Havilland.
The film would be another hit, receiving seven Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead), Best Art Direction, Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Black-and-White Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song, and Best Original Score. Henry Farrell and his co-screenwriter, Lukas Heller, won a 1965 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture. Patti Page had a Billboard hit with her recording of the title song. Judith Crist said of the film, "The guignol is about as grand as it gets."
When Joan Crawford died in 1977, Davis did not attend the memorial, nor did she issue a public statement. However, at a lunch in 2001Burt Reynolds recounted to me Bette Davis's initial reaction to Joan Crawford's death. "We were having lunch with a reporter, and just as I was about to introduce them, we were interrupted by a fan," Burt told me.
"Oh, Miss Davis," said the woman, "I am so sorry to tell you this, but Joan Crawford just died."
"She was a cunt!" replied Bette.
Burt interrupted: "Bette, this gentleman we are about to have lunch with is from The National Enquirer."
"But," replied Bette, "she was always on time."
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would become a part of American culture. Bette Davis had a hit recording of the title song, which she would perform throughout her career, including on an appearance on the Dick Cavett show with her young accompanist, Barry Manilow. Blanche and Jane would be spoofed and referenced in episodes of The Steve Allen Show, Batman, Seinfeld, French and Saunders, The Simpsons, Designing Women, Jeopardy!, Doctor Who, and in the music videos for Shakespears Sister's "Goodbye Cruel World" and Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man."
The film was remade for television in 1991 starring Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. A major motion picture remake by Walter Hill was announced in 2012.
Henry Farrell had given birth to what has been called the psycho-biddy movie, a brand of horror film dealing with psychotic older women, providing vehicles for dozens of aging stars: Tallulah Bankhead in Die, Die My Darling; Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?; and Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage, among others. It also carved out a lasting career for its author.
He would write the screenplay for a television film based on his novel How Awful About Allan, starring Anthony Perkins and Julie Harris in 1970; and a theatrical film, What's the Matter with Helen? starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters, in 1971. Molly played small roles in both, as well as the television film The Eye of Charles Sand. Henry's novel Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me would be adopted as a 1972 French film directed by Francois Truffaut under the title Une Belle Fille Comme Moi.
Henry Farrell wrote a musical stage version of Baby Jane with lyrics by Hal Hackady and music by Lee Pockriss, which was produced in 2002 in Houston, Texas, but it played to mixed reviews. Henry, devastated by the death of Molly, was hospitalized with a bout of cancer during rehearsals in Texas and his health started to fail. The composer, Lee Pockriss, suffered a stroke, and lyricist Hackady, in his late eighties, retired to an assisted-living facility outside of Manhattan.
The revisions needed for the musical were never completed, and the project was abandoned.
Without Molly by his side, Henry became more and more reclusive, although he did finish a nonmusical stage version of Baby Jane shortly before his death at the age of eighty-five in 2006.
A new novel, completed by Henry some years earlier, titled A Piece of Clarisse, has recently been discovered.
I would like to thank Mary Wickliffe Bishop, the executrix of the Henry Farrell estate and close friend and caregiver to both Henry Farrell and Molly Dodd, and Jane Winslow for their memories of Henry. Thanks to Alex Rankin of the Howard Gottlieb Research Center at Boston University for his continuous and generous help in locating materials for this publication; and film historian John DiLeo for his notes on the material. I would also like to thank Tom Kennedy of 20th Century-Fox for his cooperation in releasing Henry Farrell's original story, "What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?", for its first publication.
Thanks also to Jamie Raab and Scott Rosenfeld of Grand Central Publishing for their support of this project.
Mitch Douglas is a veteran literary agent who has represented Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Graham Greene, Kander and Ebb, as well as biographers Anne Edwards and J. Randy Taraborrelli, and a host of other literary and theatrical luminaries over a long career at ICM and now with his own literary agency, Mitch Douglas Literary and Theatrical, in New York City.
I don't give a hang what Father says. I'm in love with you, Meg. What are all the Standish millions next to an angel like you?"
He was a clean-cut young man with dark lustrous hair combed down close to his head. As he spoke, his companion, the blonde girl with the lovely sooty eyes looked up at him. Her brows, which were no more than thinly penciled crescents, lifted slightly at the inner corners, giving her a look of pained enquiry. An intense moonlight beamed down from somewhere behind, nesting in her platinum hair in a perfect halo. She wore a frock with enormous puffed sleeves of gossamer organdy and a skirt that flared widely from the knees. Music frothed up out of the magic night, as from the very air around them. The tune—their theme—was called "Moonlight on Fifth Avenue."
"But he'll cut you off without a penny. Oh, Jeff, you've never had to work for a living."
The young man, though, now had the strength of his love, and he smiled to show it. "I'll learn to work for you, Meg. I want to. You'll see—you'll be proud of me."
The girl lifted her eyes to his and though they were moist, her face was placid. "But it isn't that simple. You were born to"—her gesture included the alabaster terrace upon which they stood, the mansion in the background, the acres of clipped lawn, the fountains, the two glasses of half-tasted champagne on the balustrade—"to all this. Can you even guess what it's like, living in a cold-water flat?"
"It would be heaven—with you."
"Oh, Jeff, you poor—romantic—fool!"
As "Moonlight on Fifth Avenue" murmured yeastily on, they embraced. The sooty eyes opened wide and then closed, presumably with ecstasy. A saxophone moaned. Violins, a hundred of them, swelled the night with heady vibration. And then, as if banished by the sheer din, the terrace, the mansion and, finally, the lovers themselves faded from view. In their place there appeared a man with a strained smile and circles under his eyes.…
"Sorry to break in on this fine feature film, folks, but you'll be glad I did when you see what I have here for that favorite pooch of yours!"
Moving her comfortably expanded bulk forward in her easy chair, Mrs. Bates reached out and turned down the volume. Smiling softly with gentle reminiscence, she looked around at Harriett Palmer seated at the other side of the coffee table on the divan.
"Oh, I remember, when I first saw that picture I thought it was just grand. Claude took me—on a Sunday afternoon." Seeing that Harriett's coffee cup was empty, she rose and picked it up. "It was showing at the old Majestic."
Harriett Palmer smiled pleasantly and nodded. "I think I saw it; I'm not sure. Do you remember when it was made?"
Mrs. Bates paused at the entrance to the hallway. " 'Thirty-four. That's what it said in the program in the paper."
When she returned with the replenished cup, she crossed to Harriett and put it down on the table before her.
"You know, I don't believe I ever missed a Blanche Hudson picture." She glanced back at the set to make sure the commercial was still on. "I was such a fan of hers—right up until the time she had her accident. Oh, do you remember when that happened? I felt so awful it might just as well have been someone in my own family."
Harriett, taking a sip of the coffee, looked up, nodded. "Oh, I know. She was beautiful. I still think so."
Even there in the muted lamplight, the difference between the two women, though they were both in their early fifties, was striking. Mrs. Bates, being undeniably plump both in face and figure seemed somewhat older than Harriett Palmer, who had kept herself stylishly slim. Where Mrs. Bates had let her hair turn a natural steel gray, Harriett had rendered her own a sleek silver blonde. Mrs. Bates wore a loose-fitting house dress with a pattern of pale flowers; Harriett had on a pair of fitted black slacks and a white silk blouse. Mrs. Bates had just moved out west from Fort Madison, Iowa. Harriett Palmer had always been a native of Hollywood, California.
For all of their differences, though, the two women had gotten along famously from the very first day of Mrs. Bates's arrival there on Hillside Terrace. Mrs. Bates, a widow of less than a year, had come to California to be away from all the familiar sights of home which had become only sad reminders of happier days before her husband's death. Harriett Palmer was married to a corporation lawyer who spent a great deal of time out of town. Both of them being somewhat at loose ends, they were grateful for each other's company. As they were doing tonight, they spent a great many of their evenings in Mrs. Bates's comfortable, homey living room watching television.
"Have you ever seen her?" Mrs. Bates asked. "I mean, does she ever show herself outside the house?"
Harriett promptly shook her head. "Not that I know of. Oh, I've seen her from a distance—sure—in the car, when they have to drive somewhere—but not so you could tell what she really looks like. I figure she must be at least fifty by now."
Mrs. Bates smiled with a faint show of hesitation. "You know—I shouldn't tell this on myself—but when I bought this house, the thing that really decided me was when they told me Blanche Hudson lived next door. Isn't that silly—a woman my age? And I haven't had even a glimpse of her."
"Well," Harriett grinned, "it does give the old hill a touch of glamour. There was quite a colony of movie people up here in the old days, but she's the only one left."
Mrs. Bates nodded. "Back in Fort Madison—well, you just didn't ever see any movie stars—not in the flesh." Her gaze went to the row of French doors that comprised, almost totally, the east wall of the room, and to the darkness beyond. The Hudson house, a white, two-story Mediterranean absurdity, loomed in ghostly dimness at the end of the garden. "Can she walk at all?"
"I don't know. I think I heard once that she had partially recovered the use of one leg. But apparently she still has to be in a wheel chair all the time."
Mrs. Bates made a soft clucking sound of sympathy. "I'd love to meet her," she said wistfully. "A real movie star. Sometimes I wonder…" Her voice trailed off thinly.
"Oh, it's just some more of my silliness." Mrs. Bates turned back to her guest. "I spend so much time out in the garden. Sometimes, I'll be out there and—well, I just wonder if she's watching me——" She broke off, darting her gaze quickly to the television set. "Oh, the picture's on!" Hurrying forward, she turned up the volume again.
The blonde girl and a female companion stood on a busy street corner in front of a cafeteria. As the camera moved in for a medium shot, she consulted her wrist watch, then glanced off anxiously down the street. Her dress was simple but attractive and her hair caught the sunlight, as it had previously caught the light of the moon, in a perfect halo.
The other girl was smaller and stouter. Her face was that of a pouting and somewhat fatigued cherub, making her appearance, at once, comic and sad. Her dark hair was arranged in a profusion of absurd ringlets. Her dress was fussy and tasteless, and she had lavished upon her eyes and mouth far too much make-up. As the blonde girl turned to her, she made her eyes wide and foolish in an obvious striving for humorous effect.
"If they don't show up soon," the blonde girl said, "I guess we just aren't going to get fed."
The brunette nodded vigorously. "You said a mouthful. We've got to be back at the office in twenty minutes."
"Well—let's give them five more minutes—and then we'll just go ahead."
"Sure. Besides—when it's Dutch treat who needs a man anyway?"
Harriett sat sharply forward, pointing at the screen. "That's her!" she said. "The other one, I mean—there!—the sister."
Mrs. Bates stared in blank confusion. "That dark girl?" she asked.
"Yes. Don't you remember? It was in Blanche's contract that they had to use her sister in all of her pictures. I forgot until just now. They used it in all of her publicity."
"Oh, yes! Yes, I do remember now. But I never knew which one was her. For heaven's sake! Have you met her?"
"Her?" Harriett looked around with loftily raised brows. "You just don't meet her. She's very funny—strange—everyone says so." She sighed. "Sometimes I wonder about the two of them over there in that big old house all alone. They don't ever seem to do anything—or have anyone in for company. It must be awful.…"
Mrs. Bates looked again toward the French doors and the night beyond. "It's nice, though, that she's stayed and taken care of Blanche all these years. She must be a nice person to do a thing like that."
"Well, maybe," Harriett said darkly, "and maybe not. They say she had something to do with that accident, you know."
Mrs. Bates looked around sharply. "She did? The accident where Blanche got hurt?"
Harriett nodded. "There was some story around at the time about how it happened. I forget now exactly what it was, but she was supposed to be responsible."
"Oh—how could she have been? It was just a plain automobile accident, wasn't it?"
Harriett waved a hand in light dismissal. "Oh, there's always talk. Around this town, there is. You can't really tell what to believe."
Mrs. Bates nodded thoughtfully. "I've forgotten," she said; "what's her name? You told me once, didn't you?"
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2013
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Hachette Book Group