75th Anniversary of Waugh’s Trip to Hollywood

On 31 January 1947, Evelyn Waugh and his wife Laura arrived in New York on board the SS America. They were enroute to Los Angeles in a trip arranged by Waugh’s agent A D Peters. This was planned to facilitate Waugh’s meeting with MGM studios about the filming of Brideshead Revisited. It is apparent from the book about that trip by Robert Murray Davis (Mischief in the Sun, Troy, NY: 1999) that Waugh was more interested in finding relief from the restraints of austerity in Britain than in securing a contract for the filming of his novel. He had been urging Peters to organize the American expedition for the past year. Most of what follows is based on Davis’s book.

This was not the Waughs’ first visit to New York. They had stopped there in 1938 on the way to and from Mexico. However, Waugh made little effort to describe the portions of that trip that took place in the United States except to mention how hot New York was in July. There are brief references to a side trip to Washington but little else. Since Laura was with him, there were no letters home. The outbound trip continued by ship to Veracruz. They returned by train via Texas and New York, but Waugh had even less to say about that journey.

On the 1947 trip Waugh was keeping a diary, probably with the thought of using the experience for future writings. While Waugh never wrote a travel book describing the trip, he did use his experiences to write The Loved One, several articles on the film industry and its practitioners, as well as an article about American burial customs. Bob Davis uses those sources as well as Waugh’s correspondence about the trip to his friends and professional contacts such as Peters. In addition, memoirs of others who met with Waugh  in America are cited.

On the outbound journey, Waugh allowed 3 days in New York before proceeding by train to California. From Davis’s description, this stop was more to facilitate Laura’s shopping than to enable Waugh to improve his publishing contacts. He did visit with some representatives of various Hearst magazines that had previously published his work. These produced nothing concrete but a $3500 payment from Hearst, partly for previous publications but mostly as an advance on unspecified future works. An additional $2000 was set aside to finance a station wagon to be delivered in Ireland. The cash was mostly used to fund Laura’s shopping. Accommodations and travel were covered by MGM. There were future repercussions with Hearst about this substantial advance but, without knowing it, Waugh was about to find another even more lucrative outlet for his American journalism: Life Magazine.

The Waughs were put up at the Waldorf Astoria, at that time the most “luxe” of New York’s hostelries. Waugh was not altogether satisfied with that establishment and on future trips stayed at The Plaza. An MGM representative Carol Brandt was assigned to facilitate the Waughs’ entertainment, shopping and meals. Brandt arranged for dinner parties in her own home as well at those of two of her friends. She also got them theatre tickets to a Broadway show that Waugh described as a “comedy shot through and through with socialist propaganda.” Bob Davis thinks this was probably Gordon Kanin’s Born Yesterday. According to Davis, Waugh seemed generally pleased with Brandt’s efforts.

After their three days in New York, the Waughs were put aboard the New York Central’s first class Twentieth Century Limited for the overnight trip to Chicago where they were scheduled to connect to the Santa Fe Chief for the onward trip to California. The railroads in America never managed to arrange for thru single train service between the East and West Coast, but the Waughs’ connection was relatively seamless. As Bob Davis describes it, their New York- Chicago NY Central coach was shunted from one Chicago station to another where it was attached to the Santa Fe train. This process took about 4 hours but the passengers could remain aboard the coach. Waugh knew from his Mexico trip that long-distance American trains  “are the most comfortable means of getting across country yet devised by man” (Robbery Under Law, Penguin, 2011, p. 7). Little could he know that over the next decade this form of transport ceased to exist.

The Waughs were befriended by an American couple on the train to California. This was Howard and Marguerite Cullman. Mr Cullman was involved in show business, and they were both fans of Waugh’s writings.  They were also well informed about the Hollywood film business and briefed Waugh on the MGM executives he was about to meet. Mrs Cullman, who later published a memoir in which she recounted, inter alia, her encounter with Waugh, also provided advice on what to see. Among her suggestions was the pet cemetery.

Waugh made three more trips to New York: 1948, 1949 and 1950. Most of this trip was spent in California where he arrived on 6 February 1947. The furthest west he got on those later occasions was Minneapolis-St Paul.

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