Phyllis Brooks and Cary Grant, 1938 (photo from the personal collection of Phyllis Brooks)
Katharine Hepburn recalled:
Cary was linked with many women in those days. He knew all the girls and introduced many of them to Howard Hughes, whom I met through Cary. But during the making of Bringing Up Baby, Phyllis Brooks was the woman in Cary’s life. She was quite fascinating.
My piece on Josef von Sternberg’s 1941 psychedelic noir-trip The Shanghai Gesture (I wrote a little bit about it once before here), and I want to write a bit more about Phyllis Brooks, who plays the wisecracking showgirl Dixie in the film. (Speaking of “wisecracking showgirls”, you really must go read The Siren’s latest post about watching Egyptian movies with her Lebanese mother-in-law. Siren writes: In addition to the hero and heroine there was a sidekick in a porkpie hat and there were also plenty of showgirls in mufti, wisecracking away, which did the Siren’s heart enormous good. Even Egypt has wisecracking showgirls. They unite the world.. They do, indeed!)
In Shanghai Gesture Phyllis Brooks gives a delightfully comic little performance. She looks around her wondering what the hell is going on, but unlike Gene Tierney’s character, you get the sense that Dixie will always be safe from ruination. She sees every moment as an opportunity to crack a joke and lighten the mood. This is one weird-ass movie, make no mistake, and Dixie is peripheral to the main action, but I found myself looking forward to her appearances. She is funny, adorable, and barks snide comments out of the side of her mouth in a way that makes you want to kiss her. The behavior comes completely natural to her.
There is something endearing about Phyllis Brooks; she dated some pretty substantial men (men who liked substantial women, you can tell that by who they dated), so I can guess that she was pretty fun to have around. She went around with Howard Hughes for a bit. She got engaged to Cary Grant in the late 1930s, but it didn’t work out. She did not have a long career as an actress, she retired early when she married a future U.S. Congressman (John F. Kennedy was the godfather of one of her children), and settled down to raise a family. She lived a long life (born in 1915 and died in 1995).
Cary Grant and Phyllis Brooks, 1937
She comes up in any Cary Grant biography you read, so when I first saw The Shanghai Gesture, I was mainly excited to see her in the flesh after hearing so much about her. Grant called her “Brooksie”, and proposed to her, it was all quite serious, and she spoke highly of him, and with some sadness many years later (her mother had interfered in the relationship). Brooks was dating him while he was living with Randolph Scott, so there are all kinds of interesting things to contemplate, but whatever was really going on, it sounds like everyone was having a fantastic time. There is something about the interviews she’s given about Grant that touched me: The woman looking back on her youth and contemplating “What if …” It’s not that she carried a torch, or maybe she did, she moved on, but she never forgot. That is clear. (To those who blithely say, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, I echo Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black: “Try it.”) That’s what I think of when I hear Brooks’s story, and how she tells it.
Cary Grant and Phyllis Brooks, 1939
Brooks also gives some wonderful insights into Grant’s character, and who he was at that time in his life: she was dating him at the moment he became a giant star. The book Evenings with Cary Grant, an almost entirely oral history of Grant’s career and life (totally biased in his favor, so just know that going in), compiled by Nancy Nelson and Grant’s last wife Barbara, has so many great stories. (Excerpt here).
Grant and Brooks at the 1939 New York World’s Fair
Below, interspersed with screengrabs from The Shanghai Gesture, are excerpts from the interviews Phyllis Brooks gave about Grant over the years.
The first time I saw Cary Grant was at Marion Davie’s beach house. He was there with Ginger Rogers. He was so tanned he was almost black. Ginger was lobster red. It was funny.
My best friend was the debutante singer Eleanor French. One night we went to a nightclub called Mocambo. Cary was there, and Eleanor was quite taken with him. So I arranged for a good friend to take us to one of Cary and Randy’s Sunday brunch-buffets at the beach. After a few Sundays Cary asked me out instead of Eleanor.
When Cary came into my life, I changed my mind about Tyrone Power. Ty was going with Sonja Henie. We wanted to be together, but he was afraid of her. She was older and very sophisticated, and he didn’t want to confront her. She was going to Europe, and we were biding our time.
So it was Cary who became the love of my life.
David Niven and Errol Flynn shared a house called Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea. The houses were very close together. Cary’s was not huge, but it had two bedrooms, a large living room with a wonderful sea view, a small dining room, and a kitchen. In the back, facing the roadway, there was a room with a grand piano and a built-in bar and tables for backgammon. Cary and I played all the time. There was a Ping-Pong table next to a large pool in front of the house. And Cary’s darling little Sealyham terrier, Archie Leach, was always around.
Cary loved to bang away at the piano. He was invariably trying to get through Rhapsody in Blue. As far as I know, he never made it.
At the house you’d find Cesar Romero, Reggie Gardiner, and Gloria Vanderbilt’s first husband, an agent named Pat De Cicco – a very amusing fellow. And Cubby [Albert R.] Broccoli, De Cicco’s little cousin. Cubby, of course, went on to make all those Bond films. Cary, David Niven, and Bob Coote were marvelous storytellers. And Bobbie Mullineaux, a darling girl, would often be there… God, we had fun.
Other girls would come and go. Randy was seeing Dorothy Lamour. Then he met Pat, who became his second wife. This pretty much made up the nucleus.
Randy was very smart with money. He said, “You know, Cary, you and Brooksie should invest in uranium. It’s going to be the thing.” I didn’t. But Randy had a lot of uranium stock early on… We went [to Sam Simenon] many, many times. We had so much fun. Mr. Hearst felt paternal toward me because my cousin Charles Carstairs collected art for him…Mr. Hearst was a teetotaler. When he’d come down to join his guests, Marion Davies would quickly put her drink in my hand, and I’d look for the nearest potted palm.
The Awful Truth came out, and Cary suddenly became very important. He was so happy. Everybody who knew him was thrilled.
I thought Kate and Howard Hughes were a wonderful couple and would end up together. They were very much in love. Howard was very serious about Kate, and she returned that affection. The four of us, Cary and I, and Howard and Kate, would go out together. It was always a triumph to get Kate to go someplace like the Cock and Bull. She was a highly intelligent woman. She enjoyed small gatherings with good conversation and didn’t care to be looked at.
[I was] in New York in late 1938. I had gone there to meet Cary, who was coming from Europe after seeing his mother. We were staying with Olive and Bert Taylor, Dorothy di Frasso’s brother. Bert was treasurer of the New York Stock Exchange. Dorothy had married Count Carlo di Frasso, a Roman nobleman, in the 1920s.
Olive had arranged for a furrier to come to the apartment, and Cary chose a mink coat for me.
We came home from Hellzapoppin’, and I had a temperature of a hundred and five. I was in bed with my hair in twenty-five pigtails. Cary said, “Brooksie, I have the treat of the world for you,” when Noel Coward walked in. Noel was darling. He did cheer me up.
Cary had to go back to the Coast to start Only Angels Have Wings, and I insisted on returning home. I went on a stretcher by ambulance to the train. The nurse accompanied me to Pennsylvania Station, and we couldn’t find the train. Cary was at Grand Central, ready to board the Twentieth Century. Cary got them to hold the train. Oh, was he wild. You can imagine the embarrassment. The train was being held for half an hour, and he’s standing there waiting for the stretcher to arrive. I had double lobar pneumonia, which was something in those days. They didn’t have penicillin. I was the second person ever to get sulfa. That’s how new that was. It’s a strange illness. You don’t know you’re sick. I was in bed at home with a nurse for a long time. It was a close one. Cary thought I was dying. He was cheerful in my presence, but I knew he was desperately worried because our friend Bob Coote said he cried like a baby.
In June, 1939, Phyllis Brooks went to England to make two pictures (quite a tense and frightening time to be traveling to England). She didn’t want to go, but her agent (Freddie Brisson, future husband of Rosalind Russell) had set it all up, and she couldn’t back out. War was coming. Noel Coward entertained Phyllis Brooks while she was in England.
Cary set it up. He and Gertie Lawrence gave a performance of Tonight at 8:30, his series of one-act plays, on a Sunday night just for actors. It was the most exciting evening I will ever remember in the theater. The electricity was enormous.
When Cary arrived [in England], we went to Paris, where we visited my cousin Betty Carstairs, who had a beautiful home on the Left Bank. We motored down to the south of France and into Italy, where we went to Venice and ended up with Dorothy di Frasso at her villa in Rome. She was a fascinating woman. There was nobody she hadn’t met. An amazing raconteur, she talked all evening. Cary and I listened and laughed.
Brooks and Grant sailed back to America on the Ile de France, which was the second to last passenger ship to depart from Europe before the war started. Grant was about to start filming His Girl Friday. Phyllis Brooks’s family condemned the relationship. It was scandalous to them that their daughter was “running around Europe” with a man not her husband.
My mother was a tight-thinking person, a strict Victorian. She felt she had to be with me, even when I was over twenty-one. Things were a lot different in those days. There were moral clauses in your contract. Nobody dared live together. Good Lord, no. It would have been utterly scandalous. I lived with my mother and my brother…
[Cary] and I loved to dance. Always to a live band. And always black tie. It was a much more formal society than we know today. Boxing matches were on Friday nights. Cary enjoyed them a lot. I didn’t. But I’d go anyplace he wanted to go. I just wanted to be with him. Once we had a misunderstanding about meeting each other for a date. I thought Cary stood me up. The following day I was playing and listening to music in a record store in Westwood, and Cary found me. He was wearing a porkpie hat. He gave me a ruby and diamond cigarette case and asked my forgiveness…
[In our prenuptial agreement] Cary made sure my mother could never come to our house. I didn’t blame him. She was so hostile to Cary that he didn’t come into the house. When I saw his car pull up, I’d go out. I was twenty-four, and my mother was in my house dictating to me. Cary wanted to get married and have a family. We both wanted children. He wanted me to give up my career. I really didn’t care if I worked or not. I was very much in love with Cary. However, my income was important because my father, who was an industrial engineer, was just beginning to reestablish himself in his profession after the Depression. And my mother’s inheritance had been lost in the crash. The thought that I would quit work and marry Cary made my mother blow her stack. It became an impossible situation for me. We were enormously happy together. It was a joyous time … and it disintegrated into something awful…
It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other. It was just the ghastly situation. Then Cary was to make The Howards of Virginia, and he decided to take a tramp steamer through the Panama Canal and up the East Coast. A few good friends came to his house the night before he left – Bob Coote, Reggie Gardiner, a few others, and me. Cary said, “Oh, I’m going to bring Brooksie back topazes from Mexico and things from all the ports I visit.”
Cary set sail in 1940, with Brooks seeing him off.
Here, near the end of her life, Phyllis Brooks looks back on that time.
I went home, looked at my mother, and saw the whole situation was still there. It disturbed me so much. I didn’t go with him. It was too painful to stay in California. So I went to New York for a year, where I did Panama Hattie. I saw Cary shortly after I got back at a benefit at the Hollywood Bowl. Cary was on the program. I was so nervous just breathing the same air. Louis Schurr, my agent, and I were sitting down front. Cary was just across the aisle. When he made his way from the stage, he saw me. And Louis, who surmised how we must be feeling, said, “Why don’t you meet us at Mike Romanoff’s after the show?” Cary said, “Why, I’d love to.” Louis and I were sitting at the back of Romanoff’s. Cary drove me home, and we talked. It was very sad. It’s painful even today. But I could not live and be hostile to my mother. She thought she was doing the right thing.
In the early years of my [subsequent] marriage to Torbert McDonald, I kept all the letters and my photos from Cary at my parents’ house in Syracuse. I didn’t want Cary’s letters in the house with my husband. I was afraid he might run into them. But I certainly didn’t want to lose them. Some years later I went up to the attic and opened the trunk, and they were gone. I came downstairs, and I said, “Mother!” She told me she had burned them.
My mother never liked anybody I went out with, but Cary presented the biggest threat. In her mind she had saved my life. She died believing that.
/ And Cary’s darling little Sealyham terrier, Archie Leach, was always around.
Cary loved to bang away at the piano. He was invariably trying to get through Rhapsody in Blue. As far as I know, he never made it. /
I LOVE both of these things. I’d never heard either about him before, but they’ve already made my day!
I used to try to get through Rhapsody in Blue, too, when I was a teenager. I never made it either. Love that song, though.
sheila you play the piano? who knew?
Love these post. But boy. Bittersweet. And how bout that Tommy Lee Jones quote?
How did I get this far in life without knowing Grant named his pup Archie Leach? It’s those shadows, the constant reserve, the private jokes that twist like knifes (you know, like the kind Leach used to cut his throat) that make the most emphatic onscreen presence in movie history also the most fascinating and resonant.
It’s also likely a hint as to why he went through five wives. Maybe Brooks’s mother deserves some credit for sniffing out the haunted Bristol roustabout behind the blinding idealized construct of “Cary Grant.” Scant consolation to her daughter, though, I’m sure.
Such an interesting account of thus part of Grant’s life. I wish they had married and had kids. Seeing his love for Jennifer I think he would have neen happy with Brooks and having kids. Her mother was a mess.
Bill – I know. So bittersweet – Phyllis Brooks was an old woman when she was interviewed for that Grant book, and had a successful marriage, 4 kids, she had a good life – but you can feel the pain that is still there. That Tommy Lee Jones quote pretty much nails my own feelings about people who dare (and they don’t dare anymore – hahaha) to say such blither to me. TRY IT, JUST TRY IT.
And yes, I took piano lessons for many years. Sadly, the only thing I can still play now by heart is The Entertainer by Scott Joplin, although I can still sight-read.
Bruce – // jokes that twist like knives //
Oh, how I love that. It’s one of the most mysterious things about him, and the most transparent – how did he walk that line so well?? I love that yes, he changed his name, but unlike other movie stars he didn’t want to shed his entire former identity – and would ad-lib his own name into scripts whenever he got the opportunity. He incorporated who he was into who he became – but who knows the mechanisms of that process.
He’s my all-time favorite.
It’s an interesting observation – how Phyllis Brooks very well may have dodged a bullet there. Perhaps. I have no idea why I am so invested in this young woman’s happiness – a woman now dead – but it seems like she had a happy marriage, and I am strangely glad about that, even though it has nothing to do with me.
She’s such a cutie in Shanghai Gesture – I should check out some of her other pictures.
I love the way she’s just chatting along, dropping names casually here and there.
/Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea/ — Hahahahahaha!
/I was in bed with my hair in twenty-five pigtails./ Just picturing that is hilarious. Oh, and Noel Coward comes by.
At the end, though, I was tearing up. So desperately sad. The one that got away. The one she always thought about. Unbearable. She may have dodged a bullet but it doesn’t sound like that ever crossed her own mind, you know? She gave up the love of her life for her mother. Ugh. And the despicable woman BURNS Grant’s letters. UGH.
Yes, she definitely speaks of him as the one that got away, and that’s what really touches me about her. I know that pain.
I love how she blithely refers to “Cirrhosis-by-the-sea” as though that is the official name, like “Stonybrook” or something. I love the anecdote about the two of them being at train stations across town from one another, and Grant going out of his mind, holding the train – that’s a finale scene from a screwball comedy if I ever heard one!
And yes: burning someone else’s letters is a wretched wretched thing to do. Unforgivable. So you had your reasons, bitch – fine, you WON – but do not burn my letters.
Also, LOOK at how people used to dress up to go out on dates! That second one where they’re eating – LOOK at her hat and her whole ensemble. Amazing. Of course the top photo (which I scanned from the Evenings with Cary Grant book) shows them more casual and at-home – but still: her HATS just amaze me.
You could eat chips and guacamole off that second hat.
And I love how she’s wearing it like, “Oh whatevs, it’s no big deal, just threw this on”, when you know she was getting ready for hours putting that whole ensemble together.
How is it I always forget how handsome Grant was until I see a picture again? Holy wow.
/nervous just to breathe the same air/
What a line. So true. The first time I met up with my ex-fiancee (by accident, same narrow hallway 6 weeks after I ended it) was exactly like that. The air felt weird. And even though I know it was the right decision… it still stings.
This was a fantastic piece, and the story was completely new to me. I am delighted to be linked within it; thanks so much. And those screen caps! The Shanghai Gesture is a movie I simply adore; no amount of harping on its alleged flaws will ever cut any ice with me. It’s a pip.
Siren – thank you! Isn’t it a bittersweet touching story? I need to see more of Phyllis Brooks’ work (speaking of Shirley Temple – I just looked up the rest of her work and saw she was in Little Miss Broadway) – and a couple Charlie Chan movies. She’s a perfect DAME, isn’t she – that quintessential blend of wisecracking humor and soft femininity that I love so much.
And yes, Shanghai Gesture is truly one of a kind. I love it too.
Thanks for posting this piece and also for the conversation.
Irrespective of what may, or may not, also have been going on with Randolph Scott around this time, I think it’s fascinating that the period of Grant and Brooks’ relationship dates from The Awful Truth in ’37 to Howards of Virginia in ’40. A period which (Howards aside) coincides with the making of so many of his greatest films.
It seems to me there must have been magic in Grant’s life at this time, and if Brooks’ account of the relationship is to be believed, and I have no reason to doubt it (even if there may have been another dimension she was unaware of), I wonder if – as a fun and as you say substantial women – she didn’t contribute an important ingredient to that magic. Anyway, I think it would be nice to think so given her obvious deep affection for him so many years on.
Lucy – what a lovely thought. I’m inclined to agree with you!
Thanks for reading – and obviously thinking deeply about it. It’s such a touching story to me.