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MGM Vet Lucille Ryman Carroll Recalls the Reel Adventures of Liz, Rock, Marilyn and Nancy

updated 11/02/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1987 01:00AM

More stars than there are in the heavens: That was the boastful slogan of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios during the glory days of the '40s and '50s, when Judy Garland, Grace Kelly and Clark Gable drew MGM paychecks. For 13 of those years, from 1941 until 1954, Lucille Ryman Carroll, now 81, was head of MGM's talent department, in charge of bringing new stars to the studio.

A former actress and manager, Carroll has at least one other claim to fame: In 1949, she and her late husband, John Carroll, befriended a confused Hollywood newcomer named Marilyn Monroe and signed her to a personal management contract. "We didn't think of her as a star for MGM," says Lucille, "not when the studio had great beauties like Greer Garson, Katharine Hepburn and Lana Turner. We signed Marilyn to keep her off the streets because she was hungry, like a little kitten looking for food."

Carroll now lives in retirement in Van Nuys, where biographers frequently track her down in search of celebrity anecdotes. Often, she finds, her memories of events—for example, how Monroe won her first film role—don't jibe with accepted Hollywood lore. She talked to correspondent Richard Natale about some of her memories of MGM's golden age.

The discovery of Marilyn Monroe

In a Marilyn Monroe biography, John Huston talks about knowing that Marilyn was the girl to be in Asphalt Jungle the first time he saw her. Well, that isn't exactly how it happened. John and I had read the script, and we knew Marilyn was perfect for the part of Angela. She could just be herself; she didn't need any acting experience for the role. But her agent was getting nowhere trying to convince Huston to test her. My husband and I went to see him. John asked Huston to take a little walk, and when they returned Huston called the studio and asked them to send a test scene to Marilyn.

On the way home, John told me what happened. John had told Huston that he owed us money for training and keeping his racehorses, so John said, "If you'll do me a favor, I'll forget about the debt for now. I want you to make a test for Marilyn, for the part of Angela in Asphalt Jungle. Otherwise, I'll have to sell your horses." Well, Huston blew up. He said, "She gets to everybody, doesn't she?" But he agreed to do it. Blackmail, plain and simple.

The next day Marilyn tested along with seven others. About one o'clock, she came into my office, and I asked her how it went. She said, "It was wonderful. I was good. I was awfully good."

I asked her if Huston had said so, and she said, "No, but he rehearsed the scene repeatedly with all the girls. When I read he just said, 'Fine.' When the scene was shot the other girls did as many 12 or 15 takes, but with me he did only one take and said, 'Thank you.' " Marilyn was so naive; she didn't realize that was the brush-off.

I called Cotton Wharburton, an editor at MGM, and I asked him if I could see the tests the next day before Huston saw them, even though the director is supposed to see the tests before anyone else. I called Mr. Mayer and got him out of a meeting. I told him it was urgent. I said, "I want you to look at this film that just came up, the tests for the part of Angela we've had so much trouble casting." As he watched all the girls, he pointed to the screen and said, "There's the girl." It was Marilyn.

Liz Taylor and puberty

If Elizabeth Taylor wanted something, she would get it, there was no question about it. Elizabeth had read the book National Velvet, and she was very anxious to play the lead although she was only 11 at the time. I was getting ready to go out on a trip across the U.S., but one day Elizabeth burst into my office and said, "I hear you're going across the country looking for someone to play Velvet. Well, I don't know why you're wasting your time. I'm going to play Velvet!"

I told her that I just thought she was not quite ready, and she said, "What do you mean, I'm not quite ready?" I said, "Well, Liz, the part calls for a girl who is just beginning to blossom and she needs little bosoms, and you are like a little boy."

She said, "You're just wasting the studio's money because I'm going to play that part and I will have bosoms for you, Miss Ryman."

I took off across the country to find someone to play Velvet. I found no one. When I came back about three months later, one of the first people to walk in was Elizabeth. She said, "Look, Miss Ryman! I have boobs!"

We were all amazed that she had grown from a little 11-year-old boy to a blooming adolescent. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

The real Rock Hudson

I don't see how Rock Hudson's ex-wife, Phyllis Gates, can say she didn't know Rock was gay. Rock's agent, Henry Wilson, was a top Hollywood agent and had a quality talent roster. But I know of no one in town who wasn't aware that Henry was gay. During the season, he stalked the beaches, especially Muscle Beach. The first thing Monday morning Henry would call with a list of men for me to see.

One day he called and told me that he had someone he was sure I would like. I assumed he was one of the beach boys, but I can't swear that he was. Anyway, Henry brought Roy Fitzgerald to my office. Then, after his name was changed to Rock Hudson, he brought him back again. Rock stumbled and giggled, and I can't tell you what made me know that he was gay, but it was there.

I suspected that Henry and Rock were lovers, from the way he held Rock's hand when he stumbled. I just felt it. Henry couldn't believe I wouldn't put Rock under contract. You see, the studio was very anti-gay when it came to hiring stars. We could use them in smaller parts, as writers and in the art department, but not in major roles. So there was no way I could have taken on someone like Rock with even the possibility of his being gay. But I wouldn't have signed him anyway. He didn't have anything at that time, although he developed into a good actor.

Now Phyllis was Henry's secretary, and she knew about Henry. According to her book, she didn't know about Rock until she went to get her divorce, but I don't see how that's possible. I knew people who knew Rock very well during the time he was married to Phyllis, and he was in and out of every gay singles' bar in town. He was notorious. I think it would have been a better story and more believable if Phyllis had said she knew Rock was gay and was trying to change him, which was quite common in those days.

Nancy Reagan comes to Hollywood

Nancy Reagan in her book is a little vague about how she got her MGM contract. I think it's possible that she doesn't really know. She said a scout saw her in a play in New York and said he wanted her to go to the coast for a test. In reality, Nancy came to Metro because of Bennie Thau, the vice-president of talent at MGM.

Bennie called me one day and said, "Miss Ryman, I have just come back from vacation in Scottsdale, Ariz. I have a friend there, a socialite from Chicago whom I play gin with, Dr. Loyal Davis, the prominent neurosurgeon. Dr. Davis says he has a stepdaughter with the acting bug." Bennie wanted to help his socialite friend Dr. Davis so he promised to arrange a test for Nancy.

Our normal procedure was that if someone in the New York office saw someone that they liked, they immediately signed them for a test with an option for a contract. That didn't happen with Nancy. Our New York talent head, Marvin Schenck, saw her, and we told him to send her out to the Coast so she could be tested.

When I met Nancy, I knew that she wasn't star material. But she was more than adequate. She would be right for the secondary, girl-next-door roles. I knew we could find ways to use her.

There also seems to be a question about Nancy's age, whether she was born in 1921 or 1923. I can give you a pretty good idea. Nancy told Bennie how old she was, which I think was 28. This was in 1949. But we didn't want women past 25 unless they were already stars. He couldn't make her any younger than that, so he made her 25 in her publicity material.

For a time Bennie dated Nancy. I'm sure this was to help his friendship with Dr. Davis. But when Nancy met Ronnie Reagan, she never dated Bennie again. I don't think Nancy ever knew that she came to MGM because of Bennie.

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