By Kelley Smoot Garrett, Austin, TX
This week we’re going to let Letitia’s lovely artwork speak for itself, while we delve into a bit of the back-story of Princess April Morning-Glory, exploring the behind-the-scenes correspondence between Letitia and others from the year of its initial copyright, 1941.
There was a manila folder with a post-binder full of correspondence, discovered upon Letitia’s death in 1992, marked in Letitia’s handwriting, “Princess April M-G 1941.” I didn’t take the time to read it then, but stashed away for safe-keeping as it was in a box marked, “Letitia F. Smoot – Important Papers” in Letitia’s handwriting, written in indelible pen; it seemed important enough to keep. The box had been packed since 1971, when it would have first moved from North Hollywood where Letitia had lived since 1945, to North Dallas for a 10 year residency, then shipped onto Salt Lake City when my Dad retired from the oil business and they returned to Utah where each had been born. In the attic sat this folder of 1941 Princess April Morning-Glory correspondence until I went up in late 1992, cleaning out the house to ready for the new occupants.
Fast forward to today – Imagine my surprise when in January 2013, having already booked the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel for the launch party for Princess April Morning-Glory – and having already chosen February 16th as our party date – I found the folder of correspondence began with a letter from Letitia’s father Robert Fairbanks, to a Pascal Covici of Viking Press,
as well as a companion letter from Robert Fairbanks to noted screenwriter of the day, Gene Fowler, who served as the introduction to Covici. Not only does the correspondence show that the meeting took place at the very same Roosevelt Hotel1 but it shows that it took place 72 years earlier to the day as the launch party for the First Edition Princess April Morning-Glory was held! How’s about that for coincidence?
On February 16, 2013 at our launch party, the air was palpable with the spirit of not just Letitia Fairbanks, the author & illustrator of Princess April Morning-Glory but with those of her father Robert Fairbanks, who further correspondence will show plays a crucial role in the efforts to see his daughter’s fairy tale be published, and her uncle Douglas Fairbanks, her aunt Mary Pickford, and her cousin Douglas Fairbanks Jr, each of whom also played critical roles in inspiring Letitia onward (and later, me) in pursuing publication of Princess April Morning-Glory. Several bloggers present this year for the launch party have mentioned this extraordinary coincidence, adding special emphasis to this first edition publication, including Caryn Payzant, The Mid-Life Guru, and The LA Explorer.
But as this correspondence unfolds through the months of 1941, several things become obvious. At least through this collection of letters written and copies of sent letters, Robert Fairbanks led the charge in seeing his daughter’s manuscript be brought to the public’s attention through a traditional book publishing contract. Why Letitia is largely absent from this discussion is due to the male-dominated business world that had always existed, shutting women out from discussions about their own financial futures, and from making their own financial decisions.2 Plus, Letitia was a classic ‘creative’ type which others seized upon with the effect that she was often not kept as apprised of the events surrounding her creative endeavors, as she would have vastly preferred, the excuse being, “But Tish, darling, don’t bother your pretty head with that. We’ll take care of it for you.”
In reviewing the correspondence, the most critical letter is dated May 9, 1941 from Dennis O’Brien of O’Brien, Driscoll & Raftery, New York City. (Those of you not familiar with the important role of Dennis O’Brien in early film, the formation and continuance of United Artists for years, as well as his representation of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on many personal matters, are directed here, here, and here for background.)
The 2nd paragraph starts off with an ominous, “There seems to be a very definite apprehension to the financial success of publishing Letitia’s book because of the tremendous cost of plates and other expenditures that do not attach to the publication of the normal type of book.” That this serious a critique – that the very formation of the book as it existed meant that it could not be reproduced – was introduced by as powerful a figure as Dennis O’Brien, probably dealt Letitia the first negative critique that could not be ignored.
There’s also the warning at the end that, “There is great apprehension also relative to embarking in a business that doesn’t deal with normal commodities because of upset conditions.” One assumes that ‘upset conditions’ surely references the approaching guns of WWII, threatening to drag America into a conflict some still thought might be avoidable. The reference to the wars raging around the globe by May 1941 are echoed in other letters in the folder, reflecting a background awareness of the war-to-come.
Next week, we’ll see how Letitia and her father re-double their efforts, much like our heroine Princess April re-doubles hers, once rested and refreshed from a nap in a pussy cat’s ear.
Till next week dear readers….
1 The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel was co-founded by Robert’s brother, Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, Mary Pickford, along with Sid Grauman and Louis B. Mayer in 1927, so that East Coast visitors to the movie industry would have a convenient hotel of suitable quality to rest at during their sojourns.
2 Letitia’s aunt, Mary Pickford, was a notable exception to this rule. Pickford was famous for her financial acumen and a repeated ability to get the best deal for her creative efforts, outwitting such film giants as D.W. Griffith, famed Broadway impresario Belasco, and early film pioneer Adolf Zukor.