Q&A with Jeffrey L. Carrier on the Patsy Ruth Miller letters

carrier letters patsy ruth miller q&a

(Q) These letters are more than thirty years old. Why are you sharing them now?


(A) Patsy Ruth Miller made a lot of films in her career as a silent movie star but the only one that is still well-known today is THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. It is regarded as one of the hallmarks of silent cinema and it was released in October of 1923, one hundred years ago. That sort of an anniversary seems an appropriate time to publish letters from one of its stars. She was Esmeralda, and Lon Chaney was Quasimodo. It’s too bad I don’t have letters from Chaney!


(Q) How did you become interested in Patsy Ruth Miller?


(A) I became a fan of silent movies when I was a teenager and saw a Mary Pickford film from 1926 on television. Not long after that, I found a wonderful book called A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen and I spent hours turning the pages and looking at the photos. I kept seeing pictures of Patsy Ruth Miller and there was something about her face that intrigued me. When I was in college and working for a newspaper as a reporter, I found her name in an edition of Who’s Who and learned that she was living in Stamford, Connecticut with her third husband, a businessman named Effingham Deans. I had the crazy idea of interviewing her for the paper, and so I found a listing in the Stamford telephone directory and called her. Pretty nervy for a 19-year-old! That was the beginning of our friendship, which lasted until she died thirteen years later. And we even worked on a book together.


(Q) What was her background?


(A) She came from an upper middle-class background. She was born in 1904 and spent her childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, and I think she had a happy life there. Her father was a sports writer for the city newspaper and counted baseball legend Ty Cobb among his friends. She attended Catholic school until 1920, when she was sixteen. That was the year she went to Los Angeles for a summer vacation.  She was invited to a party one evening and was introduced to Alla Nazimova, one of the biggest movie stars of the day, who immediately cast the teenaged girl in CAMILLE, which was just about to go into production. That chance encounter with Nazimova completely changed her life. She never went back to school and never returned to St. Louis.


(Q) How was her career important?


(A) I don’t think film historians consider her career one of the more important ones of the silent period. There were certainly much bigger women stars… Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, Esther Ralston, Gloria Swanson and so on… but she was very busy, making more than seventy films in ten years, from 1921 to 1931. And she was popular, her films reliable money-makers for the studios. But, as with so many of the popular stars of the silent period, her fame did not survive the years and she is barely known today, perhaps because so few of her films survive. Most of them are lost.


(Q) What did she do after her film career ended?


(A) She transitioned from acting to writing. In the 1930s she wrote several short stories that were published in Vanity Fair, a couple of them winning O. Henry awards. One of her stories that was never published appears in this collection of letters. She also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called That Flannigan Girl, which was published by Morrow in 1939. In the 1940s she turned to play writing and had some success with one called Windy Hill that spent two years on the summer stock theatre circuit with Ruth Chatterton as director and Kay Francis as the star. When she married Mr. Deans in the early 1950s, she gave up her creative life and devoted herself to being a supportive wife. That decision would not be popular today, but I don’t think she had any regrets.


(Q) Did you correspond with other silent film stars?


(A) Unfortunately, no. I had phone conversations with Colleen Moore, Blanche Sweet, Billie Dove, Leatrice Joy and Laura La Plante, but there was no follow-up correspondence.


(Q) How did you get interested in old movies — especially movies made so many years before you were born?


(A) My father often talked about the movies and the movie stars that he liked as a boy. He was especially fond of westerns and had been a member of the Roy Rogers fan club. I heard a lot about old movies as I was growing up, so I guess it was natural for me to develop an interest in them, but I wasn’t crazy about westerns, which disappointed my dad. I preferred the melodramas and the musicals and stars like Katharine Hepburn and Jeanette MacDonald and Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable.


(Q) How did you feel when the first response from Patsy Ruth Miller arrived in your mail?


(A) My first contact with her was by telephone, but as our friendship grew, our preferred way to keep in touch was by letter. Early in our friendship, I was always overjoyed to find a letter from her in the mailbox, but later on, after we started working together on her memoir, I opened her letters with trepidation, as she was usually scolding me or criticizing me or complaining about something I had written. They often put me in a state of depression that lasted for days.


(Q) This book features not only letters Patsy Ruth Miller wrote to you, but also letters you wrote to her. How did you acquire them?


(A) I didn’t keep copies of the letters I sent to her, so they could easily have been lost forever. However, after she died, her son, Timothy, let me go through her papers, thinking there might be something I’d like to keep as a remembrance. It was very kind of him. As I was going through her files, I found a folder with my name on it, and inside were all of my letters! She had kept every one of them.


(Q) What do hope people will learn from this book of correspondence?


(A) Well, for one thing, it would be nice if it could keep the name of Patsy Ruth Miller from being completely forgotten. And any fan of silent films will enjoy reading her recollections about that period and about such people as Mae Murray and Joan Crawford and Wallace Reid. So many of the anecdotes she shared with me in the letters were not included in her memoir, so this is a nice companion to her book. I think the letters are also interesting as they offer a glimpse into a friendship between a woman in her 80s and a young man in his 20s, a friendship that was often strained but ultimately rewarding.  And the fact that she is a silent movie star and he is a reporter adds another layer. It would be great if there is something to learn from the letters, but it would be just as great to know that people enjoy them. 

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment