In her recently released book, “Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends,” Mary Claire Kendall delves deep into the lives of 12 Hollywood stars from Tinseltown’s golden age to reveal a side of them most are unfamiliar with: their faith journeys. Whether they came from broken homes, struggled with addictions, or were rampant adulterers, each of the stars featured in “Oasis” rose from their own personal battle to find comfort and healing in faith.
Townhall had a chance to catch up with Kendall about her book and in the interview below you’ll find out what her inspiration for writing “Oasis” was, which stories are her favorite, and what she hopes readers will take away from it.
Townhall: Your first chapter was pretty shocking, I had no idea that that early on abortions, the affairs, and everything that was going on in Hollywood, it’s very similar to things we hear today. I was wondering what, if anything, you thought has changed about it today.
Kendall: Right, I know. The Gloria Swanson story was amazing. Food poisoning? But she was royalty.
I think what’s changed today is the culture is not as conservative. The culture was more conservative back in the 20s and early 30s and Hollywood needed to clean up its act. Initially, in the teens and 20s, there were no rules governing what they put on the screen. Adolph Zukor complained ‘you’re picking my pocket’ because there was that element he was appealing to—Hollywood being both art and commerce. (It’s just the human condition. Let’s be honest. People can be bottom-feeders.) But, the society at large was more conservative so, as a consequence, they had to clean up their act. That’s when the production code was instituted and Hollywood began making films more in tune with the culture.
Now, fast forward to the 60s, when there was the new French wave and the culture was changing with the sexual revolution. (And, film, art, does reflect life.) And, there were no guideposts to kind of rein things in. Whereas in the 20s, when it was wild, with prohibition opening the floodgates as stars tested the limits, society collectively put its foot down.
Townhall: When I got to the part about the morals clause I think my jaw dropped, just imagining something like that happening there today is crazy.
Kendall: I know, I know, and they did it because Gloria Swanson, known as the “Queen of Hollywood,” lived very large.
Townhall: How did you find all the stories, or how did you narrow down which to include?
Kendall: There were so many stars I could write about and obviously I’m very focused on Hollywood from its origins and I was focused on faith journeys. I was starting with Betty Hutton, and her faith journey, her life, just kind of galvanized my interest in stars and faith journeys. So then from there, it just kind of built. I have a good friend, Fr. C. John McCloskey, who when Jane Wyman died said ‘another conversion story for you.’ So I wrote about her. Then I was introduced to my friend A.C. Lyles, who was Ronald Reagan’s best friend. I called him up because I was doing an article about Betty Hutton for Newport Life Magazine and got to know him just because he had given her eulogy. (Well he gave all the stars’ eulogies, he was just charming.) So from there he introduced me to Gary Cooper’s daughter because I knew Gary Cooper had had a really interesting faith journey. (Actually, Gary Cooper had a role in getting A.C. out to Hollywood.) And so I had this base of stories –Gary Cooper, Betty Hutton, Jane Wyman. Then I wrote about Patricia Neal because Maria Cooper Janice had introduced me to Mother Dolores Hart, who wrote the Foreword to “Oasis.” So you can see it’s all interconnected, and it just wove together beautifully, and I was actually writing a book about Hemingway and one of the publishers said ‘You know this might be a good book to start with—your book of profiles,’ which I also mentioned to him. So, I really focused and then landed the publisher, Franciscan Media.
Townhall: Do you see a part two in the future?
Kendall: Yes, I do see a sequel. Actually I’m working on Sir Alec Guinness’ story now, as part of that, or possibly as a stand-alone.
Townhall: I was familiar with all the names in "Oasis," but I really had no idea about the details of their lives. Like you mentioned, Betty Hutton’s story stood out to me as one of the more powerful conversion stories just because it’s so hard to imagine a modern day celebrity finding herself homeless. Do you have any favorite stories within the book?
Well Betty Hutton really is one of my favorite stories. Though, sometimes I get a double-take so to speak in interviews. But, the fact is, she is a template for this book. Because, as A.C. Lyles described very vividly, she was huge, just was one of the biggest, most important stars, they ever had at Paramount, rising to the top overnight. But, because of her addiction to prescription pills, she torpedoed. So, her story is very current. She can speak to the stars today. Some of them are losing their battle. It was just a miracle how, over 20 years, she fell so low, becoming homeless, and gradually came out of that pit. So, yes, she is one of my favorites.
I’m glad you resonate with Betty. Had you heard of her?
Townhall: Oh yeah.
Kendall: You had? OK. Well, let’s see.
Gary Cooper is a favorite because his is such a beautiful story, you know, he was just Mr. Hollywood, Mr. Debonair, Mr. All American. Words defy describing Gary Cooper because he just … had that style, and he had that weakness – he was a female magnet. And, along with that went the fame, the celebrity. And, in his own words he finally realized he didn’t want to be such a “bum.” And then after he turned his life around, he got sick and then saw his last days was God’s will when most people would be bitter.
Townhall: Was anything surprising to you in your research since you’d been doing all these profiles for awhile?
Kendall: Lana Turner. I didn’t know the details of her life. And, I did a big event up in New York, Park Avenue, organized by Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of Gary Cooper. And, Time Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger, who’s an author, was there and he asked me ‘Is there anyone besides Gary Cooper that you’d like to have known?’ I said Lana Turner because I would’ve loved to have told her ‘Don’t do it, Lana! He’s not going to make you happy, don’t marry him.’ Yes, Lana Turner was a surprise. But they were all surprising because what’s really surprising is how, actors are very vulnerable. My mother always used to say, ‘your weakness is your strength, your strength is your weakness.’ And, they were really weak, but strong in the weak places. But, some of the decisions they made, you think, really? Mary Astor was beautiful…really? She’s the same. Really? She was so beautiful but her choice in men! But, she had had that abusive childhood and was looking for strength, support, emotional stability.
Townhall: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Kendall: Well this gets to what’s new about my book, it really does show “the soul behind the billboard,” as my friend Harry Flynn, publicist to Bob Hope, summed it up. Ron Masak said what I wrote were stories he never knew, he never heard them. They really show their human side. We owe these stars a lot of gratitude because they really bring a lot of joy into our lives, still to this day. Like when you watch “Meet Me in St. Louis," “The Three Godfathers,” “Meet John Doe,” and other Christmas films these stars were in, and to understand all that went into it and what they struggled with, I think that’s really important. And, it tells us a lot about ourselves as well, I think, and also gives us insight into the spiritual journey. I love the Lana Turner quote when she was having a turnaround in the 80s and she was so happy and she said she knew that God was in her soul because all the happiness had to come from somewhere. That’s brilliant, really.
Townhall: Is there anything else about the book you’d like our readers to know that I haven’t asked you about?
Kendall: Most, not all, of the celebrities had a religious and faith foundation. Then, they had some kind of life crisis, and someone, usually a priest or spouse or other friend, intervened in their lives. To some, their work was their salvation, initially. I can relate. My mother was the one who suggested the idea for this book. And, in the midst of writing it, as the deadline was looming, she became sick and suddenly died within the month. And, I was so blessed to have this book because she was my best friend and her death was an enormous loss. Besides that parallel, the faith of these stars, these legends, was their ultimate salvation and source of healing. I can relate to that too!