Jean Howard parlayed her extraordinary beauty, ethereal glamour and light-hearted intelligence to become a Ziegfeld girl, a Hollywood starlet, a legendary hostess and the “house photographer” of the film colony.
Her circle included Tyrone Power, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Cole Porter and Marilyn Monroe. They mingled at Howard’s Spanish-style home on Coldwater Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills; she and her first husband, Charles K. Feldman, who used his success as the first super-agent to become a producer, bought it for $18,000 in 1942.
Everywhere, Howard snapped pictures. One shows Marlene Dietrich almost touching heads with Ann Warner, wife of Jack Warner, as they intensely discussed never-to-be known secrets over a smoky table at the Trocadero nightclub in Los Angeles.
Another is a scene from a 1950s garden party at the home of Clifton Webb. Humphrey Bogart is sitting in Webb’s lap chatting with an inscrutable Laurence Olivier.
Still another shows James Dean as he was about to begin filming for East of Eden. It was Dean’s first major screen role and the actor is seen here on the verge of stardom. This photo and others of Dean were shot in Howard’s backyard.
Jean Howard was born Ernestine Hill in Longview, Texas, and grew up in Dallas. Her father took her to Hollywood one summer in the late 1920s, as a coverup while he was on a two-week spree with a girlfriend behind her stepmother’s back. She later returned to Hollywood and, in 1930, landed a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer as a chorus girl in Eddie Cantor’s Broadway hit, Whoopee. She also caught the eye of Louis B. Mayer who proposed marriage, promising to divorce his wife. In 1934, when she instead became engaged to Charles Feldman, Mayer threatened to torpedo Feldman’s career, although the threat never materialized. While Feldman and Howard later divorced in 1948, the two remained close friends and even continued to share a home.
Howard got serious about photography in the 1940s by studying the art and then began to receive assignments from magazines like Life and Vogue. Her photographic work coalesced into a picture book published in 1989 titled Jean Howard’s Hollywood: A Photo Memoir.
Many of her original photographs were stored in shoe boxes until being willed to the American Heritage Center upon Howard’s death in 2000. It is almost accidental that her photographs and other papers were received by the AHC. Originally AHC Director Gene Gressley wrote to Howard in 1980 asking for Charles Feldman’s papers. After finding that Feldman’s papers had already been donated to the American Film Institute, Gressley casually mentioned an interest in her materials, not realizing the treasure trove that would come to the AHC twenty years later.
Jean Howard’s collection consists of biographical materials regarding Howard and Feldman, correspondence, and subject files about her books, but mostly her celebrated photographs and their negatives. Howard’s personal photographs and negatives are also included.