"To the Manners Born:
an Interview with David Manners"

By Rick McKay - as published in Scarlet Street #26, 1997

Many thanks for the use of all photos,
which are from the collection of J. Michael Click

When Richard Valley asked me to find and interview David Manners while I was in California I didn't know where to begin. My first thought, not unlike most movie fan's, was "He's still alive?" Luckily for us, author David Skal (HOLLYWOOD GOTHIC (1990) and THE MONSTER SHOW (1993) ) had interviewed him some years before and sent me in the right direction. I made some calls and sure enough, I found him ensconced in a private facility, 97 years old, two hours out of Los Angeles.

I did my homework but kept running into a wall. Why in the world did David Manners, groomed to be the biggest of leading men leave Hollywood after five short years? He starred in "Dracula," "The Mummy" and "The Black Cat." He starred opposite Karloff, Lugosi, Cagney, Stanwyck, Hepburn, Loretta Young and Claude Rains. He is still pursued by the most esteemed horror film historians who realize he is the last person alive with such first hand knowledge.

As I drove past Malibu that first morning, anxious to meet Mr. Manners, I was not sure what to expect. Would he be tall and elegant, dressed in a cardigan and ascot with a cane for effect? I half expected him to be wearing a pith helmet and his "Mummy" desert khakis, or the tuxedo that seemed to follow him from film to film. What I did not expect was the reality.

Mr. Manners is very much 97 years old. As I entered his room that morning on a hot August day, Mr. Manners was in bed. He spends a lot of time there. He can no longer walk and is confined to a wheel chair. His voice was almost inaudible and he seemed incredibly weary. I offered to go, but he said to stay - but warned me he had nothing to say and was going back to sleep. I decided to stay. I am very glad I did.

David Manners: I hope you find something interesting on me. It's not very interesting these days.

Rick McKay: You have an amazing history.

DM: It's quite a history. Ninety-seven years!

RM: You look great. Still a very handsome man. Can you tell us what started you in the business?

DM: Theater. A play that George Cukor directed. I forget the play, but he is the one responsible for calling me to Hollywood.

RM: Did you enjoy working in Hollywood?

DM: Not very much. No, my family and all my connections were back east. I loved New York. Theater, theater is the word . . . .

RM: You were the toast of Broadway in LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN. They still have a poster up in the library!

DM: No! In LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN? The things you don't know!

RM: So you really loved the theater?

DM: Yes, much more so than that old movie town. I didn't like movies. You see, in a play you become the play, because you start in the beginning and end up at the end of the script. Movies, you do little bits and you don't know where it fits in. You just do a little bit here and a little bit there and you never see the whole thing, you can never act out the whole thing. It has no unity. I would advise anybody-a kid-instead of doing pictures, get experience! Do theater! Get theater in his blood!

RM: And then go to Hollywood?

DM: Yes, but I did a lot of theater before that. Hollywood wasn't until the late '20s.

RM: In Hollywood, you made A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT for George Cukor. Your costar was Katharine Hepburn.

DM: Yes. I was in her first movie. Yes, that's right. I remember her first appearance in the movie, where a door was opened and she came down some steps right into my arms. That was her entrance into movies.

RM: Who could ask for a better entrance than to come downstairs and into your arms?

DM: (Laughs) Well, she got it!

RM: It must have been good luck for her.

DM: I hope!

RM: Did you enjoy working with her?

DM: Why not? She's a lovely lady. Very direct. Very positive.

RM: You're a very positive person, too. It shows in your writing.

DM: Which one?

RM: The title that comes to mind is The Dreamer Awakes from the Dream.

DM: Well, they renamed a lot of those books and that makes it difficult. I loved writing. I still do. But . . . can't write now . . . . (Sighs)

RM: What did you think when you first came to Hollywood?

DM: It was a change. I liked California. Not Hollywood, but California was something different.

RM: What was Hollywood like back then?

DM: A little village.

RM: Was it difficult to leave Broadway, though?

DM: No, never. It was never difficult to leave anything.

RM: That's a good philosophy. You must be a philosopher, Mr. Manners.

DM: (Laughs) I think you're right. Because I don't think I would have gotten through without it.

RM: How did you find your philosophy in life?

DM: Living.

RM: But you found it young. Most people can't do what you did. You left Hollywood very young. That was brave.

DM: You have to want it very badly. You ask for it and you work for it. I tried to get into a monastery once, and they told me that I was not cut out for it. That I should go elsewhere and look for my life.

RM: How old were you, then?

DM: Oh, in my 30s.

RM: So you tried to enter a monastery after Hollywood?

DM: It was during. It's all mixed up. I have always been interested in that angle. I suppose you could say I was-oh, I don't know-a searching man. I was a seeker. Seeking for the meaning of everything.

RM: Are you still seeking?

DM: Who isn't? Who can say, "I've found it?"

RM: Nobody.

DM: Right!

RM: But, you helped people with your books . . . helped them to keep looking.

DM: I hope so. I hope your thinking is right.

RM: They inspired people. And people still watch your movies every day. You worked with so many interesting people . . . Loretta Young, for instance.

DM: That's amazing. She never really liked me, I don't think.

RM: Did you like her?

DM: I wish you wouldn't ask me that. Don't ask me those difficult questions that involve "like or dislike." It's no good liking or disliking anything.

RM: But didn't you like Helen Chandler, your costar in DRACULA?

DM: Helen Chandler? Good heavens, yes! She died young. Did I like her? Yes, I did. Yes, she was a beautiful person. But she was sad. I had a feeling she would never grow old, never even grow up . . . .

RM: Who did you learn the most from in Hollywood?

DM: Oh, what a silly question!

RM: Or did you learn more in New York?

DM: I-don't-know!

RM: Well, you know an awful lot.

DM: Enough to know to keep my mouth shut! (Laughs)

RM: Good answer! So, are you happy these days? Are they taking good care of you?

DM: Oh, it's all right. I am not this way always. Usually I'm . . . well, at 97 it's very difficult to answer questions like these. I'm afraid I am not a question-answering machine.

RM: You're a question-asker.

DM: I am not an asker. I'm a seeker, searching. I have always just let it be and I've been drawn or dragged to the right place without any doing on my part. I have always been taken care of.

RM: Would your experience with George Cukor be an example of that? He helped your career immensely.

DM: Oh, George-yes! I knew George when he was just an assistant director in the theater. Somehow, believe it or not, he was just an assistant. He said, "David, you will go far." And I said "Yes, that's true!" (Laughs) I said, "I hope you have something to do with it." And he said, "Are you busy on Saturday?" "Well," I said, "yes, I am," and George said, "That's too bad, because I could put you in a play." So I said, "Oh! Well, then I'm not busy." (Laughs)

RM: And he put you in a play.

DM: And he was my introduction to pictures.

RM: You still have a lot of fans, you know. They're very interested in learning about your life.

DM: Well, you got here just in time for mine. I'm just about finished with it.

RM: Finished with life?

DM: Yes. I wish to sleep.

RM: A lot of people love you.

DM: Oh? How do you know that?

RM: A lot of people want your opinions. Do you have any advice for anyone starting out?

DM: No! Heavens, no! I think, to be what you are, don't take advice from other people. Find your advice in your heart. Yes, find your advice in your heart. It's yours and you keep it. And if you think it's helpful to other people . . . then share it. I think the things we share are very important.

RM: Like your writing.

DM: How kind of you.

RM: Although people know your film work better.

DM: I am past the "like and dislike" stage. It's no use, all that emotional stuff . . . .

RM: Were you an emotional person when you were younger?

DM: I would say yes. Always. Yes.

RM: Passionate?

DM: I don't know . . . .

RM: You're tired. Would you like me to come back another day?

DM: What day? I can't make any plans-I may be dead. Let's not make plans.

RM: Do you have many visitors?

DM: No, I don't. I don't like having visitors.

RM: But you don't mind if I . . . ?

DM: Oh, sure! Come on! But, I have nothing to tell you that you don't already know.

RM: Well, even so . . . .

DM: I am sorry to be so stupid today.

RM: You're not stupid at all.

DM: Well, I feel stupid.

RM: No, that's silly. You sound very intelligent to me.

DM: (Laughs) I wonder who you're living with!

RM: I live by myself.

DM: I think that's a good idea. I think you find more out that way. I lived by myself a lot of the time. I learned more that way, because when you're trying to please someone else all the time you are always looking in the wrong direction.

RM: That's a good point.

DM: Not very sharp, though.

RM: Not very sharp?

DM: No, not very sharp.

RM: Shall I let you get back to your nap?

DM: Thank you awfully.

RM: I'll come back this weekend.

DM: And if you have anything for me to say to the people who read you, just say that I give my love to everybody. That is the most important thing, for us to love each other and be kind to each other. Amen.

RM: How long did it take to learn that?

DM: Oh, about 90 years. (Laughs)

RM: Is there anything I can bring you?

DM: No. I am tired out. I have no words. I am out of talk.

RM: You're out of talk?

DM: I'm not very interesting. I am just an old wreck.

RM: You're not an old wreck. I'll see you again this weekend, if you don't mind the company.

DM: Oh, I don't mind the company at all-if you can stand it.

RM: It's been a pleasure to meet you.

DM: Then come back . . . and we will fly . . . .

I stopped at the nursing home director's office on my way out to say hello, and when I left 20 minutes later I got another shock. There was the fast-fading Mr. Manners whizzing down the hall, fully dressed and self-propelled, in his wheel chair. He looked embarrassed when I caught his eye and said "Well, someone is feeling better!" He gave me half of a guilty smile and disappeared. I was at first hurt, feeling I had been duped, then fascinated, and finally delighted as I realized he was still acting - and possibly better than ever.

As I headed down the Atlantic coastal highway in my rental car I could not stop thinking of David Manners. I tried to reconcile the ancient gentleman in the room - alone in bed - with the tall, blonde, young star of all of those Hollywood films. I saw him opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra's "Miracle Woman" and holding Katherine Hepburn in his arms in "Bill of Divorcement." I wondered how he could have spent five years in Hollywood and turned his back on $150,000 a year - tax free in the height of the depression - never to return. His last film had been with Katherine Hepburn, too; and it was rumored that an especially acrimonious spat with Joan Crawford was the straw that broke the handsome young actor's Hollywood spirit. I had heard that he went to the Mojave Desert for thirty years. It was almost folk lore. He had opened a ranch where the glitterati and intelligentsia alike could escape - in total privacy - from the town that he so much hated himself. Garbo, Einstein, Gable - all were guests there over the years.

I could not get Mr. Manners out of mind the next few days in Los Angeles. As I would drive down Sunset, seeing all of the young, beautiful wannabees in their convertibles, I would find myself thinking of the 97 year-old man asleep in a hospital bed - still with a life-time of memories. I had heard he was at his best early in the morning, so a few days later I dragged myself out of my hotel at six a.m. and headed up Route 1 to see him again. I would find the early start was well worth it.

When I arrived Mr. Manners was still asleep, but he soon woke, looked at me and said "Well, good morning! If you will please give me some peace I can have someone dress me and we can go to breakfast. Now out!" I could see I was getting a much livelier version of David Manners already. I went out in the hall and turned on my laptop and booted up Microsoft's "Cinemania" CD-Rom film reference program and did some last minute research on David's films. I had a feeling he might be a little more up to talking today.

I was right. He picked a fight with the woman next to him at breakfast and seemed to delight in it. He complained of the food and flirted with the staff. He basically held court through his institutional pancakes, prune juice and protein drink. He was in rare form.

RM: It's a beautiful day today, isn't it?

DM: Yes. I take it you have been out in it?

RM: I came from Los Angeles.

DM: Good God, really? How do you manage it?

RM: I just jump in the car.

DM: And the car runs by itself, I suppose?

RM: Well, no, it doesn't. Do you want me to cut that pancake for you?

DM: No, I just want to turn it over and get it juiced on both sides. What do you mean? Cut it for me? I will cut your hand off!

RM: You're in a feisty mood today.

DM: Feisty? (Picks up grapefruit wedge from plate) Just the right shape for your mouth!

RM: Did you get a good night's sleep?

DM: As far as I know. I don't know whether it was bad or good. If I could tell you, it would have been bad.

RM: Well, you're having a good breakfast. Do you know who I'm having breakfast with tomorrow? Fay Wray.

DM: No! Give her a little piece of my heart, would you? Fay Wray! I'll be damned! I don't remember many, but I remember Fay.

RM: Fay wrote a play and it opened this week.

DM: No kidding? Oh, that's wonderful! My God, that's wonderful! I wrote one in my 40s, but it never saw the light of day. I don't even have a copy of it.

RM: Someone must have it, somewhere.

DM: "Somewhere, over the rainbow . . . ."

RM: Nice singing. Do you like music?

DM: Oh, I was born into music. My mother was a fabulous piano player. All the classics.

RM: You even made a movie musical. ROMAN SCANDALS, with Eddie Cantor and Gloria Stuart . . . .

DM: That was the picture that I climbed a wall and looked over into a garden? I remember that. Yeah, was she in the garden? I remember now. It was wonderful. (Gesturing to pancake) Whoa, this is tough! Bring me a hammer and chisel!

RM: Let's talk about your dude ranch in the Mojave desert. What was it called?

DM: Yucca Loma.

RM: Beautiful name. You were there a long time.

DM: About 30 years. I built a little house there, out of adobe. I had three boys from New Mexico who were good workers. They said, "We will build you a house. We made bricks right there from the dirt and put them on racks to dry, and it was months before they were dry enough to be used. They sat there in rain and storms until they were proofed. Waterproofed. Finally, all the houses there were made of adobe. Adobe was the best. Especially for the chimneys."

RM: Is your house still there?

DM: The woman who bought the property had them all pulled down. It was a beautiful place. The private houses were far, far apart and nobody interfered with anybody else. We served meals three times a day in the main house. We had a beautiful tennis court and a swimming pool. Changed the water once a week and watered the trees around the tennis court with the water.

RM: Everybody said that it was the place to go when you wanted peace.

DM: It's gone. All gone. It's ticky-tack houses there, now, for all I know, but it was a remarkable place. The only approach-the only road was over a hill and down a little path and up again, and suddenly you'd see that there was nothing for 80 miles in any direction but Joshua trees and cactus, lots of cactus.

RM: Did you have yucca plants?

DM: Oh, big Yucca trees. You had to be careful with them. They had a habit of dropping these seedlings and there was an irritation in them. If you walked too closely, they would throw the seedlings at you and you couldn't get them out. They were like an arrowhead. You had to go to the doctor to get them out.

RM: Why did you leave?

DM: Why? Because my dear friend Katherine and her daughter, Gwen, the ones who joined in making Yucca Loma, were ready to leave. They owned it with me. So, I left and I have never seen it since. Never looked back.

RM: Do you still have photos of Yucca Loma?

DM: No, I am doing the opposite. I'm getting rid of things. I'm not a collector anymore. I am out of gas.

RM: How do you feel?

DM: Out of gas!

RM: Do you want something to drink?

DM: No, I can't bear that stuff. (Sips drink) It's awful! So sweet!

RM: Didn't you promise to drink it?

DM: Promise nothing-and then you'll never lie. (Laughs)

RM: Is that your motto?

DM: I don't know. I just made it up!

RM: Did you write all the time at Yucca Loma?

DM: No, only when I wanted to. I wrote three novels when I was there. The novels were something I always wanted to do instead of movies. So, I just did it. When I left pictures, I didn't want to have to do anything I didn't want to.

RM: How did you find Yucca Loma?

DM: A very kind friend drove me up there one evening. They had arrangements for people, like a hotel or motel. The next morning I was introduced to Katherine Boynton. I asked her, "Could I build a little house here on your desert?" She said, "I'm in the habit of saying no. Come back next Sunday and I'll tell you." I had to wait a whole week. I didn't have a car in those days, so I got someone with a car and we drove up-and Katherine was in Los Angeles. So I came all the way back, and she said, "Have it drawn up exactly as it's going to look and I'll tell you if you can built or not." And that's the way it was.

RM: You fell in love with it right away?

DM: Absolutely.

RM: Did you think you'd spend 30 years there?

DM: No, but it was back and forth. Some of it was back in New York City, some of it in Hollywood . . . that sort of thing. Sorry, I am all pancake. I was told by a doctor never to eat and talk at the same time. So much for doctors. I'm tired, though. I'll have to go back to bed.

RM: I'm going home to New York tomorrow. This is my last chance to visit with you.

DM: Well, you may take a tiny little piece of my heart back.

RM: Now that's something I'll treasure.

DM: That's kind, very kind. Did you manufacture it in your little book of kind things to say to old withering stars?

DM: No, I meant it. I want to show you this computer before I leave. It brings up pictures of movie stars on the screen. Here's a photo of you.

DM: Well, I never saw such a thing! It's a computer? How marvelous! I must say, though, that I think I'm glad we didn't have such things!

RM: Here's someone you knew . . . .

DM: Oh, my God-it's Beulah Bondi! She came to Yucca Loma all the time. God, I loved her. She would tell the most wicked stories about everyone-and at dinner, no less! She was subtle, but wicked.

RM: Here's Clark Gable.

DM: Oh, yes, of course. He came to Yucca Loma, too. No, I didn't like him. Who else is in there?

RM: Claude Rains.

DM: Claude Rains? Oh, nice man. Very honest. We did that MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD movie together.

RM: Based on Charles Dickens' unfinished novel. Would Dickens have written the ending that way?

DM: Dickens would never have published it at all! It was not good enough. It was not a finished novel, and it was not a good movie at all.

RM: Here's someone you've been asked about more than once.

DM: Who is that? Oh, God-it's what's-his-name! Yes, Karloff. Very grand, but so withdrawn. But he was always polite. A gentleman.

RM: And after Boris Karloff comes Bela Lugosi, of course.

DM: Oh, I never did get to know him-not really. He was not someone I cared to know. Not really.

RM: And yet you made a number of horror movies with him, including DRACULA, directed by Tod Browning. Did you like working with Browning?

DM: Tod Browning? Not much. I never knew him. No, I don't know anything about him.

RM: But he directed DRACULA, right?

DM: Well, if you say so. He was never on the set. It was the cameraman who was there.

RM: Karl Freund? Didn't you have a good relationship with Tod Browning?

DM: I had no relationship! He was never there. Okay, let's get out of here. I don't want to hold them up any longer.

RM: Do you want to go back to your room?

DM: I will go to anybody's room! Let's visit the gray hairs.

As I wheeled Mr. Manners back to his room he began to play the grand boulevadier. He waved to the old ladies and called some by name. They looked at him in shock. Some as if they had never seen him before. It was clear this was not his usual behavior. It was also clear that he was enjoying himself immensely. We stopped at a hallway performance by a volunteer guitar player and David shouted out a few bravos and listened as if he were at Her Majesty's Theatre. As I stood behind him I looked down at the wizened little gentleman in the chair and pictured the debonair, tuxedoed playboy who protected Zita Johan from Karloff's "Mummy." He was very much still there.

I wondered how many people realized who he was? Very few of the staff knew, or cared that he had once been the next big leading man in Hollywood. And virtually no one realize that he had become a respected spiritual teacher, writer and philosopher after all of those years in the Mojave. He was just another old timer to most of the staff. I found it unsettling to hear a nurses' aide yell "Hey Amigo" as they came in to change him in the morning. But, he didn't mind. It had, after all, been nothing more than "that old movie town" to him. He evidently had bigger fish to fry. And he seems to have found his peace. Not unlike his memories of Hollywood, he seems now to be waiting for the final fade-out; almost bemused at how little control he seems to have in this last scene, too. The director will have the last word and final edit - while the leading man of films made over 60 years ago waits for his exit cue.

As I wheeled him back into his room he spied a black cat-shaped vase that held some fast fading flowers:

DM: That cat! What is he smelling that thing for?

RM: He's smelling the flowers.

DM: Looks like it. Looks like he's eating them! (Laughs) Oh, well, somebody brought it and left it.

RM: Is the star of THE BLACK CAT a cat person?

DM: I love cats. I always had a cat, when I had a house to keep them in . . . .

RM: There are no pictures of you here in your room.

DM: Thank Heavens!

RM: That's the way you like it?

DM: I'm getting rid of things. I have been getting rid of everything and now I'm happy.

RM: How did you learn that lesson?

DM: By having too much, of course! Well, it's time to say goodbye. The interview is over.

RM: Can I send you anything from New York?

DM: How about a skyscraper? You can stand it in the corner there!

RM: You really are feisty today. I want to thank you for giving me the chance to talk with you.

DM: Before I die, you mean?

RM: Are you planning on dying?

DM: I was yesterday. But I don't know . . . I feel a little differently today.

Interview ©Rick McKay 1998