In 1924 a young New Jersey woman named Valeria Belletti took a summer trip to California with her close friend Irma Prima. At the end of their holiday, Irma went back east. But Valeria, entranced by the climate and palm trees of Los Angeles, decided to stay. With $100 and a letter of recommendation from her old boss (at twenty-six, she was already an experienced secretary), she checked into a YWCA and, just as young people still do, embarked on the adventure of forging a career.

Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary is a collection of letters that Valeria wrote to Irma over the next five years, a period during which, as the personal and social secretary to the notoriously cantankerous studio chief Samuel Goldwyn, she hobnobbed with stars such as Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky, rebuffed the advances of various Hollywood wolves, and, perhaps most astonishingly, not only dated the young Gary Cooper but also helped launch his career.

Valeria's letters are candid, lively, and inescapably charming; they evince a touching naïveté one minute and a surprising sophistication the next. Her youthful openness to the world is exhilarating, even as her letters make it obvious how careful she had to be while navigating this foreign territory, in which it was all too likely for a young woman to be viewed as "fast" or "easy." Valeria writes of sharing a nicely furnished bungalow with two of her Hollywood girlfriends (they split the $65 monthly rent among them) and of having cocktails and going out for drives with the fellows who came to call (even as she hastens to assure Irma that she has not "left the straight and narrow"); and she laments that her dizzying, if exciting, job presents some unusual challenges: "What I'd like to know is how I'm expected to be able to work and drink at the same time. The men seem to be able to do it, and even the girls, but I can't."

Hollywood historian Cari Beauchamp, who collected and annotated the correspondence, puts Valeria's letters in a smart and illuminating context: Women flourished in Hollywood in the '20s not just as actresses but also as writers and directors. Yet as the movie industry developed into a stronger economic force, men wanted—and got—these nonacting jobs, edging women out. Valeria had hoped to become a writer but seems never to have applied herself, and her life eventually took a different path. The book's energy flags a bit in the last third, as Valeria focuses less on, say, learning new dances like the Charleston and more on finding a husband, which many women of her generation saw as an economic necessity. Even so, her letters remain a vibrant and intelligent record of a dazzling era. Though she laments to Irma that "everybody but my boss is so nice and friendly," even the crotchety Mr. Goldwyn knew a good thing when he saw it: In the letter of recommendation he wrote for Valeria in 1926, when she left his employ, he described her as "honest, industrious and very capable." And then the man whom nobody in Hollywood ever seemed able to please called Valeria "the best secretary I have had in 15 years."

 
     
     
 
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ADVENTURES OF A HOLLYWOOD SECRETARY: HER PRIVATE LETTERS FROM INSIDE THE STUDIOS OF THE 1920S BY VALERIA BELLETTI, EDITED BY CARI BEAUCHAMP, FOREWORD BY SAMUEL GOLDWYN JR. BERKELEY: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. 236 PAGES. $20. BUY NOW