Editor’s Note: Among the many discoveries I made while researching and editing a collection of my late Atlanta Journal-Constitution colleague’s 60-year reporting career were her dispatches from Hollywood. By the 1990s when I worked with her in the newspaper’s Features Department, Celestine was best known for writing a column that ran multiple times each week in the Living section. But she had also served as the paper’s first female assistant city editor during World War II and covered murder trials, the Georgia legislature (the state capitol’s press gallery is now named for her) and lots of breaking news.
After stumbling upon a photo of her on set with Clark Gable from the 1950s and inquiring about it in her office one morning, Celestine matter-of-factly described her four-year stint flying to Hollywood in the early 1950s to interview the stars of the day and visit them on-set. At the time, Hollywood executives were terrified of the increasingly popular glowing entertainment boxes people were placing in their living rooms and were spending lots of money to lure movie-goers back into theaters. In addition to bumping up newspaper advertising, select newspaper folk were also being invited to Hollywood on publicist-assisted studio tours and interviews.
From 1951 to 1955, in addition to interviewing Gable, Celestine’s other Hollywood reporting assignments included talking to Judy Garland (who was readying her comeback vehicle, “A Star is Born”), swimming in Esther Williams’ Los Angeles pool (wearing the star’s maternity bathing suit), getting scoop from director Cecil B DeMille on the set of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” watching Groucho Marx shoot “A Girl in Every Port,” scoring beauty secrets from Gloria Swanson as she basked in the success of “Sunset Boulevard” and playing matchmaker for “Ten Commandments” actress Yvonne DeCarlo, who was intent on snagging a Southern gentleman.
On numerous afternoons, fresh from the newspaper basement morgue with a stack of still-warm copies of her Sunday magazine celebrity profiles, I would rush into her eighth -floor office to ask for details about her celebrity encounters. Inevitably, after flicking through a few pages, Celestine would scrunch up her nose and dismiss her Tinseltown writings as “puff” pieces. The truth was, as a single mother of three at the time, Celestine took the Hollywood assignments because George Biggers, the then-publisher of the freshly merged Sunday Atlanta Constitution-Journal Sunday magazine promised to pay her an additional $100 per piece.
In contrast, Celestine could talk a blue streak about the notorious Anjette Lyles quadruple murder case, the trial she covered in the fall of 1958. Lyles was the Macon restaurant operator who eliminated the nuisances in life with a spoonful or two of strategically placed arsenic. These nuisances included two husbands, a mother-in-law and a nine-year-old daughter.
I’m pleased to report I recently discovered three unopened boxes of “Celestine Sibley, Reporter,” my 2001 collection of Celestine’s reporting from my personal stash and I’m now offering them on the Eldredge ATL shopping page. All proceeds will help to continue to fund our in-depth arts coverage.
Here’s an excerpt (and one of my favorites) from “The Hollywood Years” section of “Celestine Sibley, Reporter.”
The setting: Early evening in Joan Crawford’s bungalow dressing room on the Warner Brothers lot where she’s shooting the film noir This Woman is Dangerous,” playing a gangster who’s slowly going blind. Celestine later reflected that she hadn’t planned on interviewing Crawford about parenting. However, the studio publicity people and Crawford had other ideas.
If you’ve ever read or watched “Mommie Dearest” or found yourself sucked into FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan” you will no doubt relish this irony-steeped and deliciously detailed interview.
Originally published in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal Sunday Magazine, May 18, 1952
By Celestine Sibley
From the moment she swept into her dressing room, trailed by her diction coach and a cunning little dog that looked as though he had been bought in a toy shop, Joan Crawford had charge of the interview. The young publicity man with me, a devoted Crawford admirer, too, had warned me. “Watch her make an entrance,” he said. “The woman acts like a Star.”
She did, too. She was weighted down with a knitting basket, an armload of books, slim satin evening shoes and a great rustly cocktail dress which she planned to wear to a party. She had on a green slack suit and green suede play shoes and there was a shine about her face and her hair.
“I’m SO sorry to be late!” she said breathlessly, dropping her things and holding out a slim, hard little hand. “Here, let me have your coat! What would you like to drink?”
The small living room-dressing room, green-walled with floral print draperies at the window and on the dressing table skirt, came to life. The hostess straightened out as she moved about and with practically no pause in conversation at all, had disappeared into her little kitchenette and returned with drinks and a plate of foie gras and crackers. All around the room were pictures of her children —blond Christina, 12, Christopher, 10, and the little twins, Cathy and Cynthia, almost six.
I made a valiant effort at steering the interview by mentioning her work.
“Work is one of the best things in the world, she said positively. “Inactivity is one of the most unhealthy, degrading things that can happen to a human being! I have my hands full and I’m glad!”
She grinned ruefully. “I just finished firing one cook and now have to hire another. I had to call home just before I left the set and check to be sure one nurse is not left alone on duty. I’m going to a party and I won’t be home until 10 o’clock and I have a rule that one nurse is not enough with four children. One person can sit with them and read to them or watch television, but she can’t do all that and hear doorbells and telephones, too.”
She sighed and straightened the group picture before her. “They take such care, such love, such firmness. And time, too!”
Joan Crawford still has homework problems and although her publicity mentions that she attended Stephens College, she has a lusty way of telling the truth.
“Christina said, ‘Mother, do you know about math?’ and I said, ‘I told you I couldn’t help you a lick after you got beyond the sixth grade — that’s as far as I went in school!”
She laughed and stubbed out a cigarette in the tray.
“Christina said, ‘Don’t you know about a triangle, Mother?’ and I said, ‘Yes, in movies or in life. But NOT in Algebra.”
You can help fund Eldredge ATL’s arts coverage by purchasing a hardcover copy of “Celestine Sibley, Reporter” on our new shopping page. It’s $20 and we’ll take care of the shipping!
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.