Marsha Hunt Visits The New York Times

by

10/09/2022

Neighborhood: Times Square

The black and white world has enchanted me since I was little. Those films are like fever dreams, so divorced from reality. And film noir is the most fevered dream of all – doomed men and women, gangsters, con-men and dupes, all trapped, all lost, all hopeless.

It is hard to imagine these desperate characters and the actors and actresses who played them in color – not film color, but real, day-to-day, unsaturated color. Walking-the-dog color. Getting-dressed-in-the-morning color.

But real they were, and I know this because one stepped off the screen and out of the past and became, briefly, my friend. Man, she was real. And she had some colorful thoughts about my love of those old movies.


Marsha Hunt was an actress who appeared in dozens of films in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, including one particularly bizarre, dark and dream-like noir, “Raw Deal.” She died last month at the age of 104.

She lived in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, where she had been honorary mayor. I hadn’t spoken to her in years, and as is so often the case when someone of whom we are genuinely fond dies, I regret that.

But she had many friends, including film scholars devoted to her, who looked after her and kept her name alive for the public. My interactions were briefer, but since her death, I’ve been thinking back on them quite a bit.

In 2007 I was City Editor of The New York Times and I somehow convinced the culture department to send me to San Francisco to cover the Film Noir Film Festival, which was run by Eddie Muller, who has since gone on to fame as a host for Turner Classic Movies.

The show, in the 1,400-seat Castro Theater, was sold out. Many Fedoras and women in 1940s outfits were in the house. “Raw Deal” (1948) was the main show that night, and afterward Marsha Hunt joined Muller on stage to discuss her career and her experience. I met her at the pre-show cocktail party.

“Raw Deal” is quite a film. Shot almost entirely in inky day-for-night photography, it features several over-the-top noir set pieces, including a wild brawl in an all-night taxidermy shop.

I wrote my story the next day and sent it in. I described Marsha as “lithe and glowing.” On Sunday I flew back to New York.

A few weeks later I checked my mailbox at work. Among the various press releases and junk mail was a handwritten note with a Sherman Oaks return address. I opened it up. Marsha.

She thanked me for my story, complimented my lede and added: “I would rather be found ‘lithe and glowing’ than any number of predictable adjectives.” She then went on to describe the new interest in noir as an “inexplicable cultish trend.”

I laughed out loud as I stood by the Times mailboxes. I’d never been called a member of a cult before.

Letters went back and forth. Later that year I published a book about fatherhood and sent Marsha a copy. Soon enough a heavy – very heavy — package arrived at my desk with that same graceful handwriting. Inside was “The Way We Wore,” a spectacular picture book Marsha had published in the 1990s featuring hundreds of photos of her in the styles of the 1940s and ‘50s.

Any female star of that era had to be photographed ad nauseam in hundreds of outfits and hairdos. So here she was in a gown, standing regally; in an army uniform looking determined; and, of course, in a bathing suit. (Did I blush a little?) There were photos of her with Gene Kelly and any number of stars at the Hollywood Canteen, and another of her signing a soldier’s injured leg (yes, the leg, not the cast). In each one, she is more beautiful than the last.

She wrote: “Author to author: yours is newer and funnier; mine is heavier and prettier.” Then, in an accompanying note, she added, “I expect to be in New York City November 12-15. Does a City Editor get to stray for a coffee-break, say, to nearby Sardi’s? I would truly enjoy that.”

Alas, the City Editor did not. But I had an idea. It was a tradition at The Times to bring notable guests to the “Page One” meeting, where the editors pitch their best offerings. So I invited her. And soon enough she was emerging from the elevator, lithe and glowing, in a smashing pink skirt-suit with gold buttons. She was tiny, but there really is something about a movie star – she dominated every room she entered, every hallway she traversed.

I introduced her to the Page One crowd, and she got a round of applause. “I am in awe of all of you!” she replied in an impossibly rich voice. I felt my stock rising with my bosses, even as I felt a little nervous as I made my pitch for the day – after all, now a noir actress was watching me perform. Afterwards, the top editors gathered around her. Then I took her on a tour.

At each desk, editors and reporters jumped up to chat with her. I went to the bathroom and when I came back she was mobbed. Finally I took her to get a cab, a highly stressful endeavor on a wintry, wind-blown Manhattan evening; I didn’t want to be the one who got this little star from the 1940s crushed beneath the wheels of a crosstown bus. So I held her arm nervously. But she never flinched. Finally, an empty taxi emerged from the gloom and she was on her way.

The next day the obituary editor, who’d seen Marsha at the meeting, asked if I wanted to write an advance obituary for Marsha, something done for many notable personalities. I took the assignment happily – not just for the $400 – and spent several hours with Marsha on the phone in the coming weeks. The macabre aspect of this assignment did not phase her. And this is when Marsha Hunt truly came into focus for me.

Her career was going gangbusters until the Red Scare, when she spoke out against the House Un-American Committee and found herself more-or-less blacklisted. But she never flinched. She spoke out against bullies. Humphry Bogart backed down, but she didn’t. With her career involuntarily paused, she travelled the world. She spoke out on the topics she was passionate about – she was an early voice about protecting the environment. She toured and lectured on behalf of the United Nations. In the end, the Red Scare passed and she found work on television and movies. She was one tough lady.

It took 15 years for my obituary to run.

I wish I’d kept those letters going. But most of all, I wish I’d taken her up on that invitation. Lesson learned. The next time a black-and-white star steps off the screen dressed in pink and invites me to Sardis, I won’t say no. I don’t remember the story I pitched that day. I don’t remember if it made A1. But I would have remembered that drink forever.

***

Wendell Jamieson was born in New York Hospital and moved in 1970 to Brooklyn, where he has lived ever since. He worked for four major New York City newspapers, including, for 18 years, The New York Times. He is currently writing a book for Hachette with Joshua Miele, PhD., a scientist and accessibility advocate.

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§ 4 Responses to “Marsha Hunt Visits The New York Times”

  • TSB says:

    What an extremely enjoyable, well written piece.

    I want to call at one thing: the word “stray” in the Sardi’s invite has so many possible dimensions. That and the gold buttons really jump out.

    Thank you for this.

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    what a wonderful glimpse into several fascinating realms. of course, for those of us who grew up watching old movies on Saturday afternoons on a B&W tv, the glamour of that era far surpasses what is considered glamorous today. however, until i started reading movie magazines, i didnt realize these actors were “real” people. i love this depiction of a genuine movie star. encounters such as this are always visited later, i think, by an assault of “i should have done this, should have said that.” but it seems to me you managed to snag memories for years.

    i also have long been fascinated wiht the NYT obits and the stories that accompany them, and was intrigued to find out some years ago that these were researched long before the well-known person’s death. how utterly cool that you are one of those people privileged to immortalize a person’s life. thank you for writing this.

  • Jennifer Weber says:

    Wonderful story. And you’re so lucky you had the privilege of meeting her. I love film-noir. Now I must see Raw Deal. I’ve had the poster for years just assuming it was some little known noir. Now I will watch it with different eyes. Thank you!

  • Eli Rosenberg says:

    Enjoyed these moments 😉

§ Leave a Reply

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