Remembering Publicist Esme Chandlee
The Archive is sad to report the death of publicist Esme Chandlee, who passed away on November 24, 2012 at the age of 94. Chandlee started her career at MGM in 1942, where she represented, among others, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Grace Kelly. She also served as associate producer of the celebrity-interview show Here’s Hollywood, joined PR firm Cleary, Strauss & Irvin in 1958, and started her own PR firm in 1961. She's credited with discovering Tom Selleck, whom she also represented.
Below are some selections from her 2001 Archive interview:
On how she got hired at MGM:
When the war was coming to a close and we could see the writing on the wall, my mother said to me, "you better start thinking about what you’re going to do next." So she said, "I’ll call the studios and see what they have open." She called, among others, Edith Farrell at MGM who was head of the script department. And Miss Farrell said, “Send her over.” So I went over on an interview and she said to me, “I need somebody to take over the fan mail department.” She said, “Now Esme, if you take the fan mail department for me for six or nine months, I will see that you get a good job on the lot.”
On getting transferred to MGM's publicity department:
WhenMiss Farrell, she had promised, and I had stayed longer than I said I would, so she said to me, "now if you want to be a producer’s secretary, I’ll be sure you can be. And I can call O' Selznick right now," who was not, of course, at MGM, but had his own studio. But she had known him when he was at MGM and she said he’s looking for a secretary. She said, I’ll tell you something; he’ll call you up at two o’clock in the morning and go into a long thing and then he’ll expect you to be on the job at nine o’clock in the morning." So I wasn’t particularly thrilled with that. She said, "anyway, you belong in publicity." She called Howard Strickland and I went over and Mr. Strickland said to me, "well at the moment I don’t need a publicist but I need someone who will do uh the billings." I looked at him and I said, "what’s a billing?" He said, "The billings are the credits that you see on a film before you see the film and on all of the advertising.” And he said, “You will work closely with the producers and with the legal department.” So, what could I do? I wanted to get into publicity eventually so I said, “Fine, Mr. Strickland, I’ll be glad to do it.” Actually it was fascinating. It turns out that my knowledge of billings and advertising to this day holds for my clients because I learned an immense amount.
On the studio's influence over stars:
Well we didn’t tell them who to date, but if they came and said, “Gee I’m dying to go to that premiere, isn’t there somebody you could fix me up with?” We would always fix ‘em up. We never said, "now Janet" (to Janet Leigh) “Now Janet, you’re going with so and so.” That wasn’t the way it went. But if it was her picture and, for instance, if Janet wasn’t married at the time, if she didn’t know anyone, she would come to publicity and say, “Who can I go with?” And we would always suggest. Aometimes it wasn’t our star. Sometimes we’d suggest somebody from another studio.
On Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons:
I was very fond of Hedda. She was very fond of me. The point was with both those ladies, if you knew your job, that’s all they asked. They were both very fair that way. Of course as far as Hedda and Louella were concerned, we had the problem that all the big stories went to Hearst. I used to have to go seeking around on the lot to get news of something that I could, without doing any harm to any picture, that I could give to Hedda without it first being given to Louella. Of course, Hedda used to write in her column, “You haven’t heard it, unless you read it in my column.” There was a big rivalry there and there is no doubt of the fact that the feelings were deep. But Hedda always said to me a number of times she said, “You know Louella is a writer. She’s a reporter and I’m not.” Hedda was basically in the beginning an actress and she was always an actress. So she wrote her column but she never thought of herself as being a writer per se.
On what makes a great publicity still:
The star has to, as they say, relate to the camera. In the beginning when you would get a young player in, they would be so stiff. They would know how to do it and you’d say smile and they’d "ha-ha" like that and finally the photographers would say, "okay, don’t smile, just do it." Then they would try to make them laugh or to make something like that go and then after a while when they’d done it a few times, they got at ease. That camera wasn’t like the camera on the set and so they weren't moving, they weren’t doing lines. It was very difficult. It still is for an awful lot of the stars today. They hate it. But when you learn how to do it, it makes an immense amount of difference.
On working for PR firm Cleary, Strauss & Irvin:
It was a shock in the beginning and they were a very nice group of men. I was an associate of the firm. I had my own clients and it was of course very different because at MGM everything was at hand. Uou could find out anything and so on and when you were by yourself, you had to do all the work and it was a whole different picture. I must say, they were very nice and very understanding while I learned my way around.
On being a publicist:
On the projects of which she's proudest:
I’ve had a number, all connected with different people, because I’ve handled a lot of people in my career. I handled a lot of people after I opened my own office. At the time when you’re successful in doing something, it seems like a lot. But as my husband used to say to me every once in a while when I’d get carried away, he worked at Douglas, and a number of times, he was out to look at airplane accidents with people’s flesh all over everything. And at one time he’d wanted to be a writer and he used to say to me, “You know, Esme, the one thing you have to remember is you are in the entertainment business. Period.” And I always remembered it.