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Gregg County Beauty kept Hollywood in Focus (August 2012)

Gregg County Beauty kept Hollywood in Focus
By Van Craddock

Like many young East Texas girls, Ernestine Hill dreamed of becoming a Hollywood actress some day. So in the late 1920s the Longview native moved to California, changed her name and danced her way into the movie industry.

Before long, Ernestine - who took the name Jean Howard - was hobnobbing with the likes of Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo. They were all good friends … and the Gregg County dreamer had the photographs to prove it.

Born Oct. 13, 1910, in Longview, Jean Howard was for decades one of Hollywood's most popular hostesses and photographers. Her Beverly Hills home hosted A-list parties that included the aforementioned celebrities and many others - from Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich to Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy (more on JFK in a minute).

Growing up in Longview, young Ernestine Hill was considered the prettiest girl in town. She entered and won local beauty contests and did some modeling. Friends kept telling her she ought to be in the movies.

So in 1929, while still a teen, she moved from Longview (population 5,000) to Los Angeles. It wasn't long until she had been signed as a dancer by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Then she was discovered by legendary Broadway showman Florenz Ziegfeld, who changed her name to Jean Howard.

As a chorus girl, she soon was dancing in Broadway musicals. (Other Ziegfeld Girls included Barbara Stanwyck, Cyd Charisse, Lana Turner and Gypsy Rose Lee.)

Jean appeared in several movies, among them "Dancing Lady" (starring Clark Gable) and "Broadway to Hollywood" (Mickey Rooney). Lady Fortune continued to smile on her when, in 1934, she married Charles Feldman.

Feldman, one of Hollywood's first "super" agents, had formed an independent film company with famous director Howard Hawks ("Red River," "Sergeant York"). Since Feldman was the ultimate Hollywood insider - he knew virtually everybody in the movie business - Jean found herself hosting many of the most famous people on earth.

The East Texan loved having them in her home, and early on began taking candid photos of her guests. Jean loved her cameras, carrying one wherever she went. For the next four decades, movies took a backseat to her parties and photos.

Hollywood stars, directors and producers who avoided (and distrusted) the aggressive "paparazzi" press were at ease in front of Jean's camera: Lauren Bacall, Richard Burton, Grace Kelly, Howard Hughes, Gary Cooper, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda, James Dean, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando.

From time to time, Jean's photos wound up in publications such as Vogue and Life Magazine.
All her life, powerful men were attracted to Jean (who divorced Feldman in the late 1940s). The story goes that Louis B. Mayer, the MGM mogul, was so smitten that he threatened to jump out a window if Jean refused to marry him. She said no, perhaps because Mayer was married at the time.

When John Kennedy was nominated for president in the 1960 Democratic National Convention at Los Angeles, Jean hosted a party for him. Hours after the party had ended, Kennedy knocked on her door in the wee hours of the morning. Complaining that he was starving and couldn't find an open restaurant, Jean served up scramble eggs for the future president.

In 1989, she published "Jean Howard's Hollywood: A Photo Memoir," a coffee table book featuring several hundred black-and-white images of celebrities. She followed that up two years later with "Travels with Cole Porter," another longtime friend.

She intended to write her autobiography but never got around to it. The Longview lass-turned-Tinseltown socialite died in March 2000 at the age of 89.

Thankfully, the East Texan's intimate portraits have left us an invaluable record of Hollywood's golden age.