Oct 29, 2019

Book Review: David O. Selznick's Secretary Dishes the Dirt Under a Veil of Fiction in I Lost My Girlish Laughter

I Lost My Girlish Laughter
Jane Allen with Jane Shore
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Vintage, 2018 (Random House, 1938)

With a foreboding title like I Lost My Girlish Laughter, I was sure this rediscovered roman à clef written by David O. Selznick’s former secretary would be a harrowing read. I was almost relieved to find it a light-hearted satire, though it takes several healthy jabs at the absurdity of Hollywood. 

Jane Allen is the pen name of Silvia Schulman Lardner, a diligent woman who toiled in the administrative departments of RKO and MGM, but clearly got the most inspiration from working as the top man’s personal secretary at Selznick International. It was a lot of fun to read this long forgotten book which captures the spirit of a unique time and an unpredictable business with a screwball sense of comedy.

Though Schulman never got credit for her influence on Selznick’s greatest productions, she had a hand in the development of films like A Star is Born (1937) and perhaps most notably convinced her boss to purchase the rights to Gone with the Wind (1939) after reading the book’s galleys. She also tried to make her own mark as a writer, co-writing the play Adam Had Three Eves with Barbara Keon in 1935. Selznick bought the rights, but never produced it.

Eventually, Schulman married writer Ring Lardner Jr. and left Hollywood in 1937. A year later she collaborated on I Lost My Girlish Laughter with screenwriter Jane Shore, wondering all the while if she was revealing too much. 

It is the story of a well-educated single woman who comes to Hollywood looking for work. She gets more than she bargained for when she takes on the job of secretary for super producer Sidney Brand. Told in letters, telegrams, and of course, given the inspiration, memos, this is a light, if not thoroughly loving take on the movie industry.

More amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, it is nevertheless an entertaining book. Schulman creates a lively gallery of buffoons and kooks, with obvious takes on the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Paulette Goddard, super-agent Leland Hayward, Louella Parsons, and her own husband Lardner. 

While Schulman is freely ruthless with her subjects, there’s an exasperated affection woven through it all. Maybe she was driven nearly to madness by an over-demanding boss and a brutal industry, but there were plenty of perks and a great deal of adventure. Clearly she recognized that the only healthy response to it all was satire.

While there were rumblings that I Lost My Girlish Laughter would be adapted for the screen, that project never materialized. To the loss of us all, Schulman retired from writing. She became the mother of two, and worked as an interior designer and building contractor. That said, the one book she had in her was as good as a lifetime of writing.

Many thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book for review.

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