Last summer I was fortunate enough to be able to contribute a profile of Army Archerd to American Express's exquisite 50th Anniversary book Extraordinary Lives: Members Since 1958, which AmEx created and sent, during the 2008-9 holiday season, to its 50-year-long members. The coffee-table sized volume, with a foreword by Susan Orlean, and 22 extraordinary illustrations, each by a different artist, contained profiles of diverse American achievers (all of whom had been AmEx members from the very beginning), written by such writers as Veronica Chambers, Jesse Kornbluth, and Jeremy Gerard. For the project, I was lucky to spend two days with Army, who had been a decades-long friend of my mother's within the very specific subculture of glamorous-but-workaday, pen-pushing Old (and Middle Distance) Hollywood, which I grew up in. Army's death leaves Hollywood reduced in integrity, decency, professionalism, sheer love of hometown -- and, dare I say, sweetness -- by a quotient much greater than either his 87 years or his unequaled output. Here, with thanks to the gracious American Express, is, with small changes, my profile of Army, in loving memoriam:
And, one might add: for his heart. Army Archerd loves Hollywood, and he has championed its glamour, generosity, and industriousness for five and a half decades. Since 1953, his column "Just for Variety" has been what members of the L.A. entertainment community first turn to as their coffee brews and the bougainvillea splashes dew on their kitchen windowpanes. There, on the green-logo'd shiny sheet, in the spiffy patois he helped to coin (a.m. is "ayem"; sensational is "sensaysh"; scheduled is "skedded") are items, separated by three dots, that range from production deals to juicy couplings. Whether business or romantic, it's news that's always true (in 55 years, he's not had to issue a single retraction) and never cruel. Viewed in retrospect, the columns report history. They began in the Korean War era, when stars actually served in the military: "April 28, 1953. Good morning. Vic Damone...heads for Texas this weekend to get his Army discharge." They've witnessed changes in sensitive parts of the globe: "January 29, 1959. Good morning. It may grieve Desi Arnaz to hear it, but his I Love Lucy isn't very popular in Cuba, neither with the Batista nor Castro regimes." They've mourned senseless catastrophes: "June 6, 1968: It's not a good morning in Hollywood ....The shock and sorrow of Hollywood" over Bobby Kennedy's assassination at the Ambassador Hotel "tops" that of "any community in the nation." All classic Archerd: a lover's brisk anthropology of the town he moved to from the Bronx as a teenager in 1939.
But Army's only half of why people in Hollywood love Army. The other half is Selma Fenning Archerd: acerbic, witty, fun-loving former actress (she was Nurse Betty on Melrose Place and was in Die Hard and Lethal Weapon's I and III) and Barbara Walters look-alike, who is his confidante, best friend, and fellow advocate. "Together, Army and Selma are the best cheerleaders anyone could possibly hope for, and Army's support, through his column, has been invaluable to all of us who work in the movie industry," say married couple Sherry Lansing and Billy Friedkin, powerhouses in the '70s through '90s. (Lansing was the first female studio head; Friedkin directed The Exorcist and The French Connection.) The Archerds are also, Lansing and Friedkin hasten to add, "good friends and great company." And not just to others, but to themselves. "We've had a fabulous marriage for 38 years! We've had the most magnificent ride!" Selma enthuses. "The places we've gone! The parties we've given! The people we know!" She pauses. "Army and I really care about each other -- we are soulmates." "Yes, we are," Army agrees, in soft, serious counterpoint to her vivid exclamations. A lifelong questioner of others, he chooses his own words warily when a reporter questions him. But Selma limns their bond: "When I call him at the office, he always says, 'Oh, I'm so glad it's you.'"
"We met at a UCLA fraternity party when we were very young," Army says. Selma: "I was a teenager! In bobbysox!" He was an amused, nonchalant Erroll Flynn look-alike; she, the pretty blond daughter of a furrier: both recent transplants from New York. After a brief romance, they were separated by parents (hers thought he wouldn't amount to much) and World War II (he served as a midshipman). Each married someone else, each had two children, each divorced. When they met again in their early prime, they were like a wine that was finally correctly aged. The day after our Polo Lounge dinner, Selma, at home, points to their 1969 wedding picture. She has the chic, teased hair, the Ethel Kennedy dress; he is dapper, slyly adoring. "People called us a golden couple," she says.
Sadly, I am meeting with Army and Selma just days after a member of their circle, Cyd Charisse, has died (upon the heels of the death of his very cherished friend, legendary publicist Warren Cowan); Army was of course the first columnist to learn, and write, of her death. Like Army and Selma -- and like their friends Kirk and Anne Douglas, and the late Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique -- Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin embodied a marital longevity virtually unknown in today's Hollywood -- the Archerds recall the Martins' 50th anniversary party, and they muse that every single night for years "Cyd and Tony took a walk -- their constitutional -- to Hamlet Gardens for dinner," Selma says. I grew up in this intimate, small-town, workaday old Hollywood, peopled with snappy journalists, publicists, ascendant stars, fallen stars, would-be stars, and nicely gimlet-eyed film professionals and craftspeople: they were who my family knew -- their peers, our family friends. People took their meals at the various Hamburger Hamlet restaurants (a kind of L.A. version of Manhattan's Schraffts), so that reference is a pebble that goes down a long, sentimental chute. My uncle owned the luminous nightclub Ciro's -- Army sat at a ringside table every Tuesday and Saturday night, scouting celebrity romances. My mother was a newspaper and movie magazine columnist and then editor; Army moonlighted, writing columns for her. And as I sit in the breakfast nook of the Archerds' Wilshire Corridor high-rise apartment -- all shiny mid-'60s L.A.-luxe: Louis Quatorze chairs, marble floors, crystal chandelier; Army's office lined with leather-bound Variety's, plaques and awards, and a huge collage of matchbooks from legendary watering holes (the Stork Club, Mocambo, the Copa, Sardi's, Ciro's, the Luau, the Sands...) -- eating cottage cheese and cantaloupe with the authoritatively dictioned (a la Bea Arthur) Selma-- it all feels so familiar, a time and place half-gone and, sadly, losing members, losing living history, every hour. Today, as we know, Hollywood is full of hip deal-makers speaking Entourage-ese; of egalitarian stars in sweat pants, juggling lattes, cell phones and babies. "Movie stars aren't special any more," Army complains. "They don't look like you want to spend money to see them." "In the old days, fans didn't even know stars had children," Selma says. But this vanished Hollywood -- this elegant, shrewd, gutsy place, peopled by those who'd grown up in the Depression and hewed outwardly to convention (for the sake of a moribund public morality) while personally, instinctively defying it: that was my childhood home, and that is what Army has documented in his column. It is also what his and Selma's marriage celebrates.
Army's proudest scoop, and most important story, came in 1985: the revelation that Rock Hudson had AIDS. Nobody famous and beloved had ever been linked to the stigmatized, whispered-about disease. But Army had, months earlier, been shown Hudson's medical records by a source he will not name. "Still," Selma says, "Army sat on the story, even while Rock, with his germy mouth, was kissing Doris Day on TV tribute shows." ("It's not worth ruining a life for a column," says Army, who has also seen famously "happily-married" male movie VIPs in restaurants with women not their wives and, out of kindness, kept tomb-silent.) Only when Army knew Hudson was dying did he print the item. It garnered worldwide headlines and put a human face on the disease, greatly helping to de-stigmatize it. Army is also proud of exposing the anti-Semitic lyrics in a Michael Jackson song. "Michael called me back, crying, 'But I'd never do that!' and I said, 'But you did do that!'" Army says. "I embarrassed him into re-recording the song."
But despite such high-minded coups, Army started out, in the '40s, gathering gamier dish, as a twenty-something who'd had a year on the L.A. AP desk and was hired as the "leg man" for the L.A. Herald Express's Harrison Carroll. The maitre'd a my uncle's Ciro's would call Army whenever a fight had broken out -- and he'd dash down. Army was at Ciro's on the infamous night when Paulette Goddard slipped under the table and -- it was clear to all in the room -- performed, um, oral stimulation on her date. ("Everyone claimed to have been at Ciro's that night," Selma recalls, of the incident's unbeatable buzz.) He was there the night an entirely unknown Sammy Davis, Jr. became a star in front of everyone's stunned eyes -- "and I became was friends with Sammy for many, many years." Harrison Carroll was underdog to gossip divas Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, so Army had to work: He drove to Susan Hayward's house to see if she had really been beaten up by her husband Jess Barker (yep, she had been); he drove to MGM and asked to inspect Judy Garland's wrists ("I was a kid, so nothing fazed me") to see if she'd tried to slit them. (Actually, she hadn't. But let us pause for a moment and imagine a kid-journalist today gaining the right to inspect a superstar's allegedly slit wrists.)
Moving to Variety in '53 (the paper fired Sheilah Graham because they were tired of printing retractions), Army built a source-library, which he uses to this day. Studio executives', movie stars', publicists' -- even ex-presidents' -- private phone numbers and address are neatly recorded on yellowing, 4 x 6 cards tucked in fifteen cardboard trays. Thumbing through the trays, I am awed: There's barely an unfamous name! This treasure trove is the most unpretentious, low-tech, ultra-A list database you will ever see. It is a precious archive, holding a whole, glorious, generous world -- a community -- in the sensible pre-Adobe Acrobat (even pre-microfiche) mode of small, lined, light cardboard. (Universities: Don't make the stupid mistake you made by turning away Walter Winchell's papers. Start your bidding!)
For the column he writes every Friday, "I called Kim Novak the other day," he says. "How many people can say they called Kim Novak? Oh, and that voice..." His wistful tone makes one recall the sexy, sandpaper alto in Vertigo -- and imagine how the decades of her silence have only heightened its mystique. Army's gone out on a limb: When, in 1968, he announced that minor actor Bob Evans was going to be made head of production at Paramount, "everyone said I was out of my mind," he recalls. But Army's information was right and Evans became a glamorous powerhouse in '70s-'80s Hollywood.
Has he had close calls? Yes! Selma: "You're all ready to report a divorce and the couple are dining together the next night." Times when he couldn't fill his column? Again: Yes! Army: "I've sweated it. I just keep scurrying, making calls" until he gets those 30 items. (Army averages 40 calls a day. And though he successfully transitioned to computer when Variety changed over, he, a master of the intimate phone call, still won't use e-mail for his delicate questioning.)
While Army's making his phone calls at the Variety office (he still keeps newsman's hours), Selma waxes on about their magical life: George Clooney (the only male star with matinee idol power, she opines) always corners Army at parties. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones (both "madly in love with each other") are their friends. They visited Katherine Hepburn in her surprisingly small townhouse just before her death; the former beauty looked "quite terrible" and her living room was crammed, floor to ceiling, with framed images of her, lovingly sent by world-famous painters and photographers. Visiting Roman Polanski in France, his girlfriend -- yes, he does like young ones -- had to stop at her school and give a teacher a note to get out of gym. (Still, Selma regrets that the one time she met Bill Clinton while he was president, "I didn't plead with him to pardon Roman [who was charged with statutory rape and is in exile in France]. Roman's had a life of tragedy, but and he made a mistake, but how long do you have to pay for it?") She tells a harrowing/funny story of how Army rushed to George Burns's house upon hearing the iconic comic had died, was ushered up to the bedroom...and left alone with Burns's corpse. And a hilarious one of Warren Beatty finally making good on years of "Let's-have-dinner!" promises by taking Selma and Army to "the most depressing, dark, empty Moroccan restaurant -- I wanted to go to Spago, where everyone could see me! -- and then talking, and talking, and talking, stentorianly, about politics all night." Only to the seen-everything Archerds could an evening with Warren Beatty be, as she puts it, "painful."
Selma remembers the shock of Natalie Wood's death by drowning and the utter sadness of her funeral, with Robert Wagner palpably grieving but acting, as always, "gallant." She remembers the anger Merle Oberon leveled on her and Amry when they appeared at her Mexico house for dinner not only fashionably late (the other guests had implored them thusly) but without the young man that the ageless temptress had requested they find and bring along. Then Selma puts on a DVD of Julie Andrews singing to Army, at the televised year-2000 tribute to him (there was also one in 2004). Andrews calculates that Army has written "9,360,000" words about the industry, all of them "beyond compare, above reproach, and unerringly heartfelt and decent." She then launches into a version of "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face," singing -- in her pert, Mary Poppins voice -- the words as: "We've grown accustomed to his space...each time we open up the trades...we just can't wait to hear him say, 'Good morning every day. His who's, his whats, his dot dot dots..." The camera pans to Army, tearing up in gratitude; then segues to a collage, to the tune of Garland's "Over the Rainbow," of Army with just about every major star in the last fifty years: Marilyn, Cary, Audrey, Dean, Lucille, Muhammed Ali, Doris Day, Barbra, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Paul Newman...
"Isn't that touching? Isn't that beautiful?" Selma says, dabbing her eyes. It is touching, immensely so. And so is Selma's love for her husband. And then of course she calls him at the office. He's in the middle of his hours of calls to foment column items. Yet he says, in his soft, careworn voice, "I'm so glad that it's you."
Army Archerd was a gentleman, a loyalist, a lover, a den father, and a master professional in a homey-as-well-as-mythic Hollywood whose graceful, gutsy history grows dimmer with each inevitable death, each day, of an original worker-witness. That history is especially dim, and hearts are heavy, on this day.