Sometimes books sneak up to find me; I handle them carelessly, tossing them into a bag, not realizing how profoundly they will speak to me later on. That was the case with The Honeycomb, Adela Rogers St. John’s memoir. I found it among the rows and rows of United States-American literature books that were being remaindered at our campus library. (“Come and take all that you can,” read the email, and, panicked at the thought of all those abandoned books, I ran to do my part.) It was a fat, barely used hardcover book, copyright 1969; I flipped through it, and I thought it sounded interesting.
I brought it home, and after reading the most pressing books in my to-read stack, I opened up The Honeycomb. I was fascinated, and hooked, from the first. The writing is funny and wry and biting at times–think Dorothy Parker. It is also touching and honest and self-deprecating, too: think Anne Lamott. But St. John’s voice is uniquely hers, and she details a life uniquely lived.
I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this woman, I thought; I went to the Internet to see what I could find out about her.
She was born Nora Adela Rogers in 1894, Wikipedia tells me; she became famous as Adela Rogers St. John. She was a writer: her interviews with celebrities in Photoplay made her famous. Her short stories about Hollywood revealed its gritty underside–the drinking, drugs, and scandalous sex–that journalism of the day did not describe. She covered the biggest news stories of her time. She wrote screenplays–dozens of them, including the uncredited 1937 version of A Star is Born. She wrote books of fiction and books of memoir. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was married three times, and divorced three times. She had four children.
She led a fascinating, unconventional life. When talk show host Jack Paar commented on that, St. John replied, “I just want to live long enough to see how it all turns out.” She did, dying on August 10, 1988, at the age of 94.
Her father, criminal defense attorney Earl Rogers, always called her Nora; her mother, Harriet Belle Greene, left the home early on and didn’t call her at all. (“My own mother,” St. John writes in The Honeycomb, “had been a disaster to herself and me from first to last, poor soul.”) Adela had an unconventional childhood, raised by her hard-drinking, brilliant father, and deeply influenced by a devoted, upright friend of the family, whom she called Mother Meyer. Those were good, strong influences–in most ways. Her father did introduce her to an interesting cast of characters, people he met through his high-profile legal career.
Those characters included, the Women’s Film Project tells us, “bootleggers, gamblers, and the prizefighter she said she received her last spanking for kissing.” A close friend and strong female influence was a high society madam.
St. John graduated from Hollywood High School in 1910 (in those days, she wrote, Hollywood was an innocent small town where everyone knew each other, and the film industry had yet to explode.) And she took advantage of her father’s friendship with William Randolph Hearst to launch her journalistic writing career.
She wrote for two Hearst papers, the San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Herald, and then she married a colleague, William Ivans St. John. She and William had two children, and St. John, a lifelong feminist, began to struggle with career demands (her work was supporting the family) versus time with husband and children. A solution came along when Photoplay editor James Quirk offered her a job doing interviews with celebrities. She could do that from her home; she would alternate between writing for Photoplay, writing for Hearst, and writing articles, screenplays, and books, throughout her life. She would marry and divorce twice more; she would bear another child, and, after her last marriage, she would adopt a son as a single mother.
St. John was a journalist when women just didn’t do that sort of thing. Through her warm relationship with Hearst, whose mistress, Marion Davies, was her close friend, she had access to huge stories. She wrote about the Dempsey-Tunney fight; she covered the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, accused and convicted of kidnapping and murdering the Lindbergh baby. She covered the assassination of Huey Long, and she covered the abdication of Edward VII.
St. John moved to Washington and worked for Cissy Patterson, one of a group of strong, influential female journalists. Then, in 1948, she left the newspaper world altogether and devoted herself to writing books.
She published a biography of her father, Final Verdict, in 1962.
Her memoir, The Honeycomb, was published in 1969.
Adela Rogers St. John is remembered for her fine journalism; she is especially remembered as a Hollywood chronicler. Like Barbara Walters, St. John could get her famous subjects to reveal themselves to her. Quirk once said that she should be known as Hollywood’s “Mother Confessor.” The authors of her profile on the Women’s Film Project suggest that she might better be known as Hollywood’s “Recording Angel.”
Her memoir is amazing, in its matter-of-fact detailing of a brave and unusual life–a life that opened doors and shaped culture in profound ways. It’s a window into a different time, when celebrity secrets were held close to the chest, and when technology did not allow a moment-by-moment play by play of intimate lives. Journalists could, and did, make or break careers.
Why am I just learning about this famous and influential woman? How did I miss reading about her in cultural history classes? Whatever the reason for the gap, I look forward now to learning more about her, and to reading more of her books.