Clues: Aristocracy, King Kong, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the friendly sister of a silent movie star…
Last week I posted the photo below of four men on an unknown MGM film set: director and choreographer, Stanley Donen, my grandfather, producer, Sol Baer Fielding, a very tall, older mystery man, and famous actor and dancer, Gene Kelly. I asked if anyone could help me identify the tall hatted man but despite my social network including dozens of serious film buffs and historians, there was a lot of head scratching across Twitter and Facebook but no answers.
All I could discern from the photo was that the man was exceptionally tall because even standing next to my own grandfather, who I knew to be around 6′ 1″/6′ 2″, he was clearly much taller than him, and he absolutely towers over Gene Kelly, who was 5′ 7″. If you look closely, you’ll also see the man has a cane somewhat tucked behind him, probably for the sake of the photo. He also seems very reserved, and in his bearing is a clue…
A few days ago I received a private message from Randall Dorman, a follower of my official Facebook page. You never know what’s going to come through that channel, so as I was scanning the message to say my jaw dropped is an understatement.
Here’s some of Randall’s message:
“The tall man looks a lot like Lord Dunsany. My grandmother introduced Sol to Dunsany in the 50’s. He was a famous writer.”
Randall’s brief comment inspired quite a few questions: Who was his grandmother? How did she know my grandfather, Sol? But my first destination was to Google to check if the tall man was indeed Lord Dunsany. And, sure enough, there was no doubt.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany, was born and raised in London to the second-oldest title (created in 1439) in the Irish peerage. He lived much of his life in what may be Ireland’s longest-inhabited house, Dunsany Castle, near Tara. He was indeed exceptionally tall at 6′ 4″ and was a chess and shooting champion. Certainly, with his family, his life could have taken any direction.
However, fantasy writing was his calling and during the 1910s and 20s Lord Dunsany was considered one of the greatest living authors of the English-speaking world. His novels, short stories, and plays brought him great fame. In turn, he influenced generations of writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro, Jorge Luis Borges, Margaret St. Clair, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others.
What I gathered from Randall’s brief message was that my grandfather took Lord Dunsany on a tour of MGM, which was not uncommon for dignitaries visiting Hollywood, especially prolific writers, and one of their stops on that day was to whatever sound stage Donen and Kelly were filming in. I don’t know what year this was but my guess is around 1953 or 1954 when my grandfather was producing several motion pictures: Bright Road (1953), Jeopardy (1953), and Trooper Hook (1954).
But within the mystery of the tall hatted man a couple of mysteries still remained: who was Randall’s grandmother and how did she know both Lord Dunsany and my grandfather? I was to discover there was yet another mystery…
So I asked Randall how his grandmother and my grandfather’s paths might have crossed and here was his incredible reply:
“She was an extra in some films but I’m not sure about MGM. She was Fay Wray’s sister and was introduced to many people in the business. My grandmother, Willow Wray, sponsored Lord Dunsany when he was in the US in the 50’s. I remember meeting your grandfather Sol when I was about 7 years old.”
I think, dear Reader, you can now understand why my jaw dropped to my lap while reading Randall’s low key, brief messages!
I did some more research on Willow Wray and found she had amassed a huge collection of Lord Dunsany’s works and correspondence, as well as many photos, including the one (perhaps the original) that started this whole amazing journey.
Then, a moment of sheer serendipity: I was looking for the photo of Dunsany in my computer and my search results included not only the recently (triumphantly) relabeled from ‘unknown’ to ‘Lord Dunsany’ but also a clipping from the Los Angeles Times from February 14, 1955, that I didn’t know I had:
“Sol Fielding, formerly at MGM, where he produced the sensational “Jeopardy,” with Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan and Ralph Meeker, and where his last feature was “Tennessee Champ” … has obtained an option on more than 100 works of the great British literary light, Lord Dunsany, with a view to offering these both as features for theaters and also as TV series.”
What a shock! So it appears that after his visit to MGM my grandfather pursued a business arrangement. I don’t know what happened with the option or when it expired but none of these productions were made, as far as I know. There is something nagging at me about the collection and the option – I just can’t put a finger on it. I wonder if some of the correspondence in the Willow Wray Collection would help explain it.
There are also other photos of Dunsany with my grandfather and with other family members, including my great uncle Jack Cummings, a prolific MGM producer, and his sister, my grandmother Mitzi, who was a writer and had wonderful column for Photoplay magazine before she married Sol.
Here are just a handful of related items from the ‘Willow Wray Collection of the Writings of Lord Dunsany’ held at the William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University:
- Box 6, Folder 133 – “Lord Dunsany, Stewart Granger taken at lunch in the MGM commissary…”
- Box 6, Folder 134 – “Stanly (?), Sol Baer Fielding, Dunsany, and Gene Kelly [this is the same as our photo but their notation is ironically missing Stanley Donen’s full name]
- Box 6, Folder 135 – “Johnny Greer (?), Sonya Levier (?), Chas. Fitzsimmons, Mitzi Fielding [my grandmother], Lord Dunsany, Jack Cummings [my uncle], Sol Baer Fielding, Dorothy Kingsley, Wm. Ludwig, Saul Kaplan (?)
- Box 6, Folder 136 – “Sol Baer Fielding, Dunsany, Edmund(?) Given, Charles Fitzsimmons
If you click on the link above you’ll see it is truly a massive collection, so I asked Randall if his grandmother had been a wealthy woman. Again, his answer is short but sweet:
“Not wealthy. Well connected and intelligent. Very metaphysical. She sponsored many intellectuals, as well as crackpots to the USA.”
I wish I had met Willow, she sounds utterly amazing and the story Randall tells of his grandmother being at the center of quite a number of connections is really the story of Hollywood. There were never six degrees of separation – it was always one degree, two at the most. (Evidenced by this signed publicity photo from Fay Wray to Mitzi, who was a niece of Louis B. Mayer.)
So it makes complete sense that through her famous sister, Willow hobnobbed with the best of them and forged a special relationship with one of the world’s greatest fantasy writers in the last years of his life. Lord Dunsany died just a few years after this trip to Hollywood, at age 79 in 1957.
I will hopefully visit this archive when I visit Los Angeles in August. Cross fingers for me that I can also leave with copies of the several photos that feature Lord Dunsany with my family members, particularly Mitzi who was only 5′ tall. With any luck she will be standing right next to the man.
As for Randall, he was just amazed that he remembered Lord Dunsany after all these years, particularly since he was just a child when he met him. I have this visual of a skinny 7-year-old looking way, way up to see a very tall, smiling man gripping a cane looking down at him. I can almost see Gandalf reaching down… Randall remembered Dunsany with a goatee but for whatever reason he is more cleanly shaved in this photo but you do see it in other photos and portraits.
The moral of the story, or so I have found with so many of the amazing photographs in our family’s collection, is ‘Ask and you shall receive!’ It might take a few days, or a few months, or maybe a few years… but the answer will come.
And on that topic, anyone know who the mystery mustachioed man is sitting at what looks like a boardroom table with my great uncle Louis B. Mayer? I’ve been asking about this man for a few years now but I’m sure someone has the answer…
Copyright 2017 Alicia Mayer. All rights reserved.