Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Marcella Rabwin. In 1987, due to Dr. Rabwin’s failing health, they sold the house and bought the Balboa Park condominium to be close to UCSD Medical Center.
“Have you ever seen Gone with the Wind?' asks 90-year-old Marcella Rabwin. “That was my big picture. David Selznick was the producer and I was his executive assistant. There are a few members of the cast left — Ann Rutherford, Evelyn Keyes, and Olivia de Havilland are still alive — but I’m the only executive left. So if they want to know anything about Gone with the Wind, they come to me.”
Desi Arnaz and Marcella Rabwin. "Desi Arnaz was always chasing women. He liked chorus girls and prostitutes."
A few minutes with Marcella Rabwin is enough to discover that she is not the kind of elderly woman who resents or tries to hide her age, but rather doesn’t think about it at all. Consequently, she looks and speaks as if she were much younger. A small, trim lady dressed in brown pleated slacks and cream-colored silk blouse, she laughs, smiles, offers cookies, and tells stories with congeniality. Seated in the living room of her elegant west Balboa Park apartment, she starts her Hollywood epic at the beginning. “I was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1908. That’s a hell of a long time ago, isn’t it?” She gives a robust laugh. “I went to school there until I was 16. My mother and father divorced, so I came out here to go to UCLA at my father’s command.”
Clark Gable, David O. Selznick, and Louis B. Mayer signing the Gone with the Wind contract
Coming to California to attend college and live with her father, Rabwin says, “was a very tremulous experience for me. I didn’t even know this man. I hadn’t seen my father since I was 3 years old, and I was 16 when I moved. He had just recently remarried to the most wonderful woman. She was the greatest stepmother in the world. Still, I lived with them for about three months and I couldn’t stand it any longer, so my mother came out and lived with me. Los Angeles was little, by comparison with today, but I can remember to me it was big. They had the big red streetcars and people on the streets. Gee, it was a big city to me! Very different from Richmond. I was very impressed with it. I remember I took my mother to see my campus. While we were there, a young man came walking up the walk and I said hello and he said hello to me and we kept walking. My mother waited until he was out of earshot and she said” — she affects a high-toned Southern accent — “ ‘What do you mean talking to that nigger!’ I said, ‘Mother, we don’t use those words. You’re in California now and we don’t have those attitudes. You’ve got to adjust to these surroundings.’ Now, dissolve to about 20 years later. I called my mother up one day and said, ‘Mom, do you remember that colored boy that I talked to on campus and you bawled me out for talking to him?’ She said, ‘Yes, I do, but I’m embarrassed every time I think of it.’ I said, ‘Well, I just want to let you know that he came for dinner last night. His name is Ralph Bunche.’ Ralph Bunche was our representative to the United Nations. He had a brilliant, fabulous career. So I kind of rubbed that in on her.”
"I said to her, ‘Miss Garbo, I didn’t hear you. What did you say?’ She put her arm around my shoulders and leaned her face over so her cheek touched mine."
After graduation from UCLA, Rabwin went to work at Bullock’s department store in downtown Los Angeles. “I was in the custom-dressmaking department,” she recalls, staring out the window over the verdure of Balboa Park, “working for a very nice woman, Mrs. Duncan, who, while I am in her office, gets an offer from Warner Brothers to come and head their costume department. So she said yes and asked me, ‘Would you like to come with me?’ I said, ‘You bet I would.’ So I worked in the costume department, which is way buried in the bowels of the studio. One day, I happened to be on the loose in the halls and one of the men, Robert Lord, saw me and said, ‘What in the world are you doing back here? You belong up front.’ He asked, ‘Are you a secretary?’ I answered, ‘Sure,’ but I didn’t know the first thing about how to use a typewriter or take dictation or anything.”
So at the age of 20 Rabwin moved out of the bowels of Warner Brothers and into its front office. She became the secretary for a studio executive named Arthur Caesar. “He was the kindest human being I have ever known in my life,” she remembers. “He was so good to me. He could see I was in terrible difficulties and I confessed to him, ‘I’ve really never had this kind of job before. I don’t know typing and I don’t know shorthand but I will learn.’ He gave me the opportunity. He wrote everything out in longhand and let me sit at the typewriter as long as I wanted. Eventually, one day I was in the hallway and I bumped into Darryl Zanuck.”
Darryl F. Zanuck was a Hollywood movie mogul who started as a writer for Warner Brothers in 1924, moved up to become their chief producer, and left in 1933 to found Twentieth Century Studios, which merged with Fox two years later to become Twentieth Century-Fox. But while still at Warner Brothers he asked Marcella Rabwin to be his secretary. “He told me, ‘Come work for me, I need a secretary.’ So I did and I stayed there until it became untenable. He was a bit oversexed for me and I had to get out of there. I ran out one night screaming,” she shudders with revulsion at the memory. “I was all right, but I didn’t go back. I had to decide what to do.”
What Rabwin did was sign on with the first actors’ agent in Hollywood, Myron Selznick. “He had a fantastic list of clients, the biggest stars, writers, and directors. So I went to see him and I said, ‘Mr. Selznick, I’d like to join your corps of young workers. I have a proposition for you: If you let me be part of your company, I’ll go back to Warner Brothers and sign up all of the writers and directors, because not one of them has been allowed to have a contract,’ which I thought was so cruel. Myron said okay. So I went back to Warner Brothers and I signed up every last one of them. They all liked me and they were all willing. I said, ‘You’ll be giving up 10 percent of your salary, but you’ll get more salary with an agent.’ I was with Myron until one day in 1930 he called me in and said, ‘Marcella, I’ve got bad news for you. My guys are all very envious of you because you’re making more than they are and they’ve been here for years.’ I said, ‘That’s very sad, Mr. Selznick, what do you want me to do about it?’ He says, ‘I want you to reduce your salary to less than theirs.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that.’
“I had heard of a job at RKO with a man named Gerald...something, I can’t remember his last name at the moment, but I will. He needed a secretary so I went right over there and presented myself. He said to me, ‘Look, I would like to have you because you’re experienced, but I can’t afford the salary you’re making.’ I said, ‘I don’t expect you to.’ So I cut my salary down to about $35 a week. That was a pretty good salary in those days. I started out at $14 a week at Bullock’s. He said, ‘If you’ll agree to the salary, I’ll put you on the payroll.’ I was there three months when the studio was sold. Some bankers in New York bought it and I lost my job. The whole executive department was kicked out and some guy named David Selznick was coming over from Paramount to take over. I didn’t know David, though I knew his brother Myron because I had worked for him. Anyway, David Selznick comes in and I’m hiding. I refused to leave the studio and I was hiding in the teletype room. When I got the teletype messages I would tear them off and deliver them to different people. So I was in the hall and I ran into this great big ogre of a man — big head, curly hair, eyeglasses. He stopped me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m in charge of the teletype room, Mr. Selznick.’ He said, ‘Come to my office, I need another girl in there.’ I was tickled to death because now I would be back on payroll and I could support my mother once more. I went in there and I found that there were two secretaries already, I was the third one. I thought, ‘This isn’t going to lead to very much, but at least I’m on salary and I can look around and see what goes on in the industry.’ Sure enough, the main secretary left and he appointed me and I became his right hand.”
At RKO, Rabwin assisted Selznick in producing such movies as Bird of Paradise, Little Women, and King Kong. But in 1933, Selznick took a job working for his father-in-law, the famous head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Louis B. Mayer. Rabwin remembers, “He offered to David a chance that rarely comes to anyone in the film industry, to come into MGM and take any stars, writers—‘Anything you want, David, you can have the whole studio.’ So David accepted the offer and it was $4000 a week, which was an enormous salary in those days. My son Paul, who is a producer of The X-Files, makes about $5000, which is not a great deal more than David made, and he’s the producer of the most popular show on television.”
“At MGM,” she continues, “David was the top producer in Hollywood and I was his assistant. We each had a secretary there. We made such films as Dinner at Eight and David Copperfield. We made a lot of wonderful films and I made a wonderful friend, Jean Harlow. She was a big shot. We had the tragedy of losing her in 1937. She died of a kidney disease, nephritis. She was just 26 years old. So whenever there is a book written or a film made about Jean Harlow, they always come to me. Anyway, we were at MGM for three years.”
In 1934, Marcella Bannett married prominent Los Angeles surgeon Marcus Rabwin after a six-week courtship. Selznick had recommended him to her, but at first she was reluctant. “David had told me the year before, ‘I’ve got the most wonderful guy for you, Marcella! He is so sensational!’ I said, ‘Look, just give me some time. I’ll find my own husband.’ About a year went by and one Saturday I was invited to a dinner party. As I walked into the room there was one guy standing by himself. David had described him so I knew it was Dr. Rabwin. I walked up to him and said, ‘You’re Marc Rabwin, aren’t you?’ We went and sat down at dinner and every time I looked up he’s looking at me. I thought, ‘I think I’ve got this guy kind of hooked.’ He asked me for a date the next night and we drove out to Malibu and told each other our life stories on the way to Hillcrest Country Club, of which he was a member. We had a beautiful dinner and we sat with our coffee and cigarettes afterwards, and all of a sudden I looked up and he’s looking right at me and he says to me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I think we should get married.’ This was our first date.”
In Dr. Rabwin, she got a husband who was familiar with the film business, many of his clientele being movie people, but who also met her criterion of not being part of it. “I had dated Jimmy Cagney when I was with Warner Brothers,” she recalls. “I went out with him, but there was something different about him because he was from New York. I didn’t particularly care for him. I really did not want to marry in the picture industry anyway. The divorce was just too prevalent and the temptations were too high. When a man is surrounded by all of these beautiful women, how can he say no? So I just figured I didn’t want anybody in the picture business, and here was a man who was part of it in his practice but not really in it.”
The next year, 1935, Selznick, despite his prestigious job at MGM, got itchy feet again. “He had always told me,” Rabwin says, “that the one ambition he had in life was to start his own film company. He was the son of one of the very, very earliest producers, Lewis J. Selznick, who had done something illegal somewhere, which I never learned about. He went bankrupt in 1923. But David blamed the whole motion picture business for his father’s failure. He wanted to put that name back on films again. While he was at MGM he really was the outstanding producer. His films were so widely acclaimed and they made so much money that MGM just hated to lose him, but they did. He left. We went down the street about three or four blocks and rented the old Pathé studio, the back lot, and there we started our own business and I became his executive assistant.”
Assisted by Rabwin at his new company, Selznick International Pictures, David O. Selznick produced eight films, including Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Star Is Born, and Made for Each Other, before making Gone with the Wind in 1939. “That was an exciting experience,” she says of Gone with the Wind. “We bought it in 1936 when Margaret Mitchell wrote it. We paid $50,000, which was an outrageous price in those days. Then David started putting writers to work on it. First, it was Sidney Howard, who was a great playwright in those days. He wrote the script, but it didn’t please Mr. Selznick completely. So he had Ben Hecht, who was a great writer, and Scott Fitzgerald, and none of them pleased him. Finally, the thing has to go into production and the reason it has to go into production is because Clark Gable has to go back to MGM. We borrowed him. In order to get Gable, do you know that we gave up half of the film to MGM? Can you imagine what that meant in MGM history? Half of the film!”
Of Gable, Rabwin says, “He was the biggest star in the world, but he didn’t want to do the film. He was very reluctant because he had made a film called Parnell, which was a big flop. In that film he had to wear costumes. He called them ‘short-pants pictures.’ He didn’t like wearing knickers.”
How did they get him to do it?
Rabwin smiles. “Well, he had been married before, but he was in love with Carole Lombard. Boy, he was really in love. He was hooked on her. She tried to persuade him [to make Gone with the Wind] but couldn’t. He was really adamant about this film. He just didn’t want any part of it. In those days you did what you were told by the studio if you were an actor, but he didn’t. He owned the studio as far as he was concerned. So he turned Mr. Mayer down three or four times. Finally, Mayer and Selznick decided that the one thing Gable wanted most in the world was to marry Carole Lombard and if they could arrange for her to get a divorce, provided he would play the part, they could then make a deal.
"So they did just exactly that and, my God, they offered her so much money that she finally said okay. She made the deal with her husband, from whom she’d been separated for years, and she told Gable, ‘I’ll give you the divorce if you play the part in Gone with the Wind. ’ He protested for a while, but all he really wanted was to marry her so he gave in. She got the divorce, he married Carole. A couple of years later she was killed in an airplane crash. But while she was still alive, they had a farm in Encino. She hated it. He used to love to take the tractor and do the seeding and the plowing and whatever it is you do around a farm, and he assigned to her the care of the animals. They had a cow and a horse and a sheep, that kind of thing. This is a gorgeous Park Avenue model, what did she know about farming? But she loved him enough that she did it. He’d say to her, ‘Let’s go to Mexico, honey.’ So she’d put her hair in braids, put on some blue jeans, and off they’d go. He was called ‘the King’ in those days and she liked being ‘Mrs. King.’ She was crazy about him. However, she told me many times, ‘He’s not a good lay.’ ”
Was anybody else ever considered for Gable’s part?
“No. There was no one else capable of it. We received thousands of letters on that subject. I bet we received half a million letters. It was for three years the main topic of conversation in America: who’s going to be Rhett, who’s going to be Scarlett? The South wanted Tallulah Bankhead, who was a vulgar, dreadful woman, not bad in her film test, but still she wasn’t right. We thought about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, only we didn’t really consider Bette Davis because Jack Warner said if we had her we’d have to take Errol Flynn too and we wanted only Davis. Well, one day we’re on the back lot shooting what was supposed to be the arsenal in Atlanta burning. We were on the second shot, and David is so engrossed in it, and as we are standing there, in the gates come two men and a lady. I realized that it was Myron, and he came up on the platform where David and I were standing. He tapped David on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, David, I want you to meet your Scarlett O’Hara.’ David turned around and his jaw dropped. She was so perfect. I knew the minute I looked at her.”
It was Vivien Leigh?
“Yes, and the little man with her was Larry Olivier, who was her lover at the time. The next day she made a test. She was English and I think she came over here wanting to get the part. She says she came because Larry was over here and she loved him so badly.
“Ashley Wilkes was played by Leslie Howard, also an Englishman, who also didn’t want to make the picture. Do you know that Leslie Howard never read the script? He read only the script scenes in which he was to appear. He didn’t want to do any more than that. He had his sweetheart here and his wife would call me once every other month or so and say, ‘What is Leslie doing? I don’t hear from him and my checks don’t seem to arrive on time.’ Poor Louise Howard, she knew something was going on.”
That seething chemistry you see on-screen between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara is not an accident, Rabwin says, but an extension of the actors’ feelings. “They didn’t like each other,” she explains. “I’ll tell you the truth about Gable, he didn’t like anybody. He and Victor Fleming, who wound up being the director—David had to fire his best friend, George Cukor, from the director’s chair—were two bigots. That’s all I can describe them as. They both didn’t like Jews, they didn’t like blacks, they didn’t like Armenians. They were the kind of people that thought you had to be an American.”
The fact that a movie of Gone with the Wind’s caliber was produced with a group of reluctant, inimical, and, in some cases, inexperienced actors, under three different directors, performing a script written and rewritten more than three times by more than three different writers, Rabwin attributes to Selznick’s genius. “He was the producer of all time,” she says. “He even wrote the script. He was a wonderful writer. People would be on the set waiting for him to finish the script. He’d be up all night. He was the best at everything a film requires. He would take over for directors — he didn’t mean to but he did — and he was the best cutter. Gone with the Wind was five and a half hours long when I ran it for Mr. Mayer. I didn’t see how you could cut a minute. It was so exciting, so enthralling, so beautiful. David Selznick cut it down to three hours and forty minutes. I don’t know how he did it but he did.”
How long did it take to make Gone with the Wind?
“I think we shot it in three months. That seems short by today’s standards, but the average picture would take three weeks, four weeks back then. Oh, honey, the whole industry is different! There isn’t any similarity to my day in film. In those days, we had a father figure who was the head of the studio. He took care of everything. Even the least little person, if they got into trouble, Mr. Mayer would fix it. There is no equivalent to them any longer. Now, it’s all independent films. Take Fox studio. They make films, but they don’t make them. They turn it over to a producer. He’s got his own little company and he makes the film. It is a very, very, very strange industry today and very hazardous. These little independents sometimes don’t have good judgment. They’ll make one picture that’s a big success and then they’ll make three that are nothing, don’t even bring back the $20 million cost of filming them. It’s a very strange but very exciting industry. You’re never sure of your job.”
Another difference between now and then is the way actors are paid. Today, Tom Cruise chooses a script he likes and signs a $20 million contract, engineered by an agent, to do it. But up until the late ’50s, actors were salaried employees of studios. It was a job like any other. Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford went to work and made the movies their studios told them to make. If their studio had nothing for them to do, they were lent out to other studios. “David Selznick, for instance,” Rabwin says, “had a number of actors and a couple of directors under contract. He had Hitchcock, he had Joan Fontaine, he had Olivia de Havilland, he had a lot of people under contract. He made a living, during three years when he didn’t make a picture, lending these people out to other studios.”
Rabwin met and knew many famous names during her Hollywood tenure and has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anecdotes about them. She remembers Greta Garbo, who “knocked on the door of my office one day —we had a little building of our own, the Selznick Building—and she said, ‘Is Mr. Selznick in?’ I was kind of dumbstruck because this was Greta Garbo talking to me. ‘I wanted to ask Mr. Selznick if he’d mind my using his projection room to see my dailies. There are too many people in the other one.’ The dailies are the film that was shot yesterday and processed for her to see today. He didn’t mind and she started coming every afternoon at two o’clock. She would go to her dressing room, take her makeup off, put on her pants and her shirt, and she’d come down to my office and she wouldn’t even talk. I’d see her and I’d get up with my pad and pencil and follow her into the projection room. Nobody else was around, and I mean nobody, not Selznick or anybody. As a matter of fact, she even rejected the projectionist. Anyway, I’d sit there with her and when she’d see something she didn’t like—she always referred to herself as ‘him,’ as a man. Very strange. She’d say, ‘I don’t like his haircut. Do you think his hair looks good?’ I think it was because of her sexual peculiarity. She was bisexual. Men predominated but she had some female lovers. Anyway, I dismissed it. She’d say, ‘Tell Mr. Selznick this or tell Mr. Brown [Clarence Brown, the director] that,’ and I’d make a little note and then I’d notify them. One day, we’re in the projection room just like usual except it’s kind of noisy on the screen and I didn’t hear her comment. So I said to her, ‘Miss Garbo, I didn’t hear you. What did you say?’ She put her arm around my shoulders and leaned her face over so her cheek touched mine, and talking in my ear she repeated what she had said. I nearly fainted. She smelled so good and her voice was so beautiful, I just succumbed to the moment. I said, ‘If I’m ever going to become a lesbian, this is my moment, believe me.’ Anyway, that was my main dealing with Garbo, when she was making Anna Karenina.”
On Elizabeth Taylor: “Oh, God, Elizabeth Taylor. I happen to be crazy about her. I think most of the women who knew her were crazy about her. She was, in those days, absolutely, incredibly beautiful and I knew her when she was 15 years old and I was at MGM. She had made National Velvet. I knew her mother and father very well. I bought a painting,” she points to a still life on the wall, “that one with the lemons up there, from her father, Francis Taylor. He had an art gallery in the Beverly Hills Hotel. Her mother was a patient of my husband’s for many, many years. I knew her, and I loved her, and I visited her. When she lived at the Beverly Hills Hotel while she was married to Richard Burton, I was over there three or four times. I took them a book and gave it to her. They had just bought a van Gogh and had paid millions for it, and I found a van Gogh book at the bookstore and bought it for them. So yes, I knew her, but I didn’t know her character. But I think every mistake she made she made with good intentions.”
Remembering Judy Garland, Rabwin heaves a sigh and says, “Oh, she was a nut. She was some entertainer, I’ll tell you, absolutely marvelous. But she destroyed her life. She married all the wrong people.”
About Lucille Ball, she says, “Lucille was my best friend for 50 years. You probably remember her as Lucy from I Love Lucy, in which she seemed happy. But she was not happy all the time at all. I heard confessions from her that were very sad. She had a very difficult life with her husband. Desi Arnaz was always chasing women. He liked chorus girls and prostitutes. He just was incorrigible. But still he loved Lucille, they were in love until the day they both died. That was a real love affair. But he just was oversexed and he couldn’t control himself because he didn’t want to control himself. She stayed with him 20 years until she came home one day and found him in bed with two whores. That was the end for her.
“Jimmy Stewart and his wife were my very, very, very dear friends. They lived across the street from my beloved Lucille. For a long time, Jimmy was the bachelor of all time in Hollywood. Everybody was after him. He married the perfect girl for him. She had been married before and had two sons. They finally had twin daughters together. They were, I thought, interesting people. They were gentle, there was nothing wild or outrageous about them. She had a cute sense of humor and he loved it. The house next door to Jimmy’s was very unattractive and it was put on the market for sale. He decided to buy it and he did and tore it down. He put up a wall around it and planted a vegetable garden. That whole big Beverly Hills lot, which is worth millions today, was his vegetable garden. I’d say half of it was corn, because Jimmy was a corn fancier. He just loved it. There was always corn. They had a tradition at the time: the butler would go out and pick enough ears for them and for all the people they had for dinner. He had to run with it into the kitchen where the water had been boiling for a couple of minutes, quickly strip it and drop it into the pot and let it cook for exactly two minutes. Then he’d take it out and serve it, and Jimmy absolutely loved it. He’d eat two or three ears of corn every meal.”
After Gone with the Wind, Rabwin assisted Selznick in the production of the Hitchcock masterpiece Rebecca. But in 1941, Rabwin and Selznick’s professional relationship ended after ten years. “Marc and I had a date one night with some doctors from Minnesota,” Rabwin remembers. “We were taking them to Chasen’s, the most famous restaurant in Beverly Hills. Jimmy Stewart had a table there, Hitchcock had a table, they all had tables there. We were going to meet these doctors there. Anyway, I said to David, ‘Look, I’ve got to get out of here tonight because I’ve got a very important date. Marc is coming for me at seven o’clock and I have to leave.’ I used to work until twelve, one, two o’clock in the morning sometimes. He said, Don’t worry about that. I’m going to New York tomorrow so you’ve got to be in charge. I’ll see you before I leave to tell you some of the things I want done when I’m gone.’ About four o’clock I called him again and said, ‘Mr. Selznick, I’m leaving in a couple of hours.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll see you before I leave.’ Nine o’clock I called him again. We had called Chasen’s and told them to feed these people and put it on our bill. Eleven o’clock, I was really getting desperate. My husband was sitting there quietly in the corner, not saying a word. Finally, at two o’clock in the morning, he says to me, ‘Make your choice.’ I knew he was furious and I knew I had to make a choice and this was the moment to make it. I called Mr. Selznick and I said, ‘I’m leaving now, Mr. Selznick, and I’m leaving for good.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, you’re leaving? Are you serious?’ I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Selznick,’ and I left.”
Rabwin continued to live in Beverly Hills until 1942, when she and her husband, who both were interested in horse racing, built an ocean-view house in Del Mar. In 1987, due to Dr. Rabwin’s failing health, they sold the house and bought the Balboa Park condominium to be close to UCSD Medical Center. The next year, Dr. Rabwin passed away, but Marcella Rabwin stayed in their new condo. She says she never considered going back to Los Angeles. “To leave Beverly Hills wasn’t easy,” she says, “but I have been so happy here. The weather stays so beautiful, and I like the fact that this is a city like our country is, a city full of people from everywhere. I like the tone of the city. I like what they’ve done with Gaslamp. I like the convention center. I love La Jolla, I love the beaches, and I love Balboa Park. I love San Diego. I’ve had opportunities to go back to Beverly Hills; I have enough money, I’ve had all my old friends begging me, but I wouldn’t for a moment consider living in L.A. again. This is my town.”