By Richard W. Bann

Sign posted outside an auction house in the 1935 Laurel & Hardy short entitled THICKER THAN WATER: "Step inside! We are actually giving things away today!"

Observing this, and never one to miss an opportunity for himself and his partner, Oliver Hardy remarks in a tone of vindication to Stan Laurel, "At last we get something for nothing."

Or, then again, maybe not.

Despite making the mistake of his life and losing his wife Lois in the first of several costly divorces, despite the disheartening death of his only son in infancy, despite alienating arguably the best boss anyone ever had in the history of Hollywood and leaving Hal Roach Studios, despite contracting diabetes, despite sustaining a stroke, despite never receiving television residual payments, and despite surviving his younger partner's death in 1957, Stan Laurel lived his later years happily, in peace and contentment. He certainly deserved to; we have ample evidence he did.

Regardless of false reports to the contrary, Stan Laurel was financially secure. Every day he relished his view overlooking the blue-gray Pacific Ocean that meant so much to him. A ship's bell clock rescued from one of his beautiful fishing boats sat on his desk and would chime every quarter hour. He preferred to live in a small but very nice and new apartment hotel, so that his wife, Ida, would not have a lot of work to do. He had savings, investments, rental income, an annuity, a pension. He was comfortable. He enjoyed television, his hobbies, his fans, and of course his family. They loved him. Everyone loved him. He was also revered, and constantly, as a unique genius of comedy creation and performance by all the greats and near-greats of his chosen field.

In 1961 Doubleday & Company, Inc. published a tome entitled simply MR. LAUREL & MR. HARDY. As nearly every film comedy fan knows, or should know, or will be happy to learn, this is a wonderful book, to say the very least. I, for one, still have vivid, fond memories of the time and place I first read this authorized biography of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- screen comedy team supreme.

The text was written with erudite style and grace by a scholarly Detroit native named John C. McCabe, then also on the verge of establishing what is now the international Sons of the Desert organization, devoted of course to propagating the spirit and genius of filmdom's finest fun match ever.

On November 1, 2000, a quite typical letter written by Stan Laurel to a young fan, and dated November 30, 1960, was put up for auction over the internet. The opening bid was $479. In closing, the letter read:

Did I tell you, that a book by John McCabe will be published by Doubleday & Co. next April? It will be titled MR. LAUREL & MR. HARDY. This will contain the story of our career & will give you the information you mentioned.

Bye Gary, take good care of yourself.

Good luck & God bless you.

Sincerely always:

Stan (signed)


Similar paragraphs informing fans and friends about this book could be found in the thousands of letters Stan Laurel wrote thereafter and until he died in 1965. Incidentally, shown on the internet, but not offered for sale with the letter, was a photo taken on the occasion of the young man's 1958 visit, together with his parents and sister, to the retired star's apartment at 849 Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. Mr. Laurel is pictured on his second floor balcony, dressed in a crisp white dress shirt and tie, waving at his new friends on the street below as they were leaving the building.

Shortly thereafter, in the early 1960s, Dr. McCabe became Chairman of the Department of Educational Theater at New York University. Luckily for all concerned -- meaning the rest of us -- New York was also then the home of so many charter and fellow founding Sons members Chuck McCann, Al Kilgore and Alan Barbour, among others.

When he first introduced himself to Stan Laurel, backstage after a British music hall appearance in 1953, John McCabe was a graduate student in the process of completing his doctorate at the University of Birmingham in England. Over the course of the next dozen years, until Laurel passed away far too soon, McCabe accumulated a wealth of correspondence with the much beloved comedy writer, director and performer.

At the outset of their association, on November 21, 1953, Laurel wrote while on tour in Hull, England:

Dear Jack,

I think the idea of a book is a very good one, and I shall do everything in my power to help you, of course. I especially like the idea that it will be about our way of making the pictures, rather than about our lives. When we return to Birmingham, you can spend all the time you like interviewing us together or separately, as you like. Probably I can be of more help to you in that department than Babe. He usually doesn't care to talk too much about the making of the pictures....

Stan (signed)

In all, Jack McCabe saved 123 such signed letters, plus related memorabilia, scripts, and other documents provided by Stan Laurel. Ida Laurel, his widow, also gifted Professor McCabe with the star's gag file, containing scores of scribbled jokes and comedy notes written on varying sizes of paper and maintained over the years.

Even after Babe Hardy's death in 1957, Laurel's ever active comedy mind compelled him to imagine, create, craft, record, and continue to maintain a file of Laurel & Hardy comic situations, dialogue jokes, and visual gags, all as they might occur to him. And it seemed they did occur to him, constantly. Old habits were hard to break.

Quite naturally the acutely perceptive Stan Laurel was inspired to fashion Laurel & Hardy material just by observing people engaged in everyday activities all around him. Even though there could be no more Laurel & Hardy films (Larry Harmon's astonishing, if not misguided efforts notwithstanding), it didn't stop Stan from amusing himself, and his intimates, with the mental exercise of composing gags for the team. In this way he sustained the spirit of Laurel & Hardy throughout his retirement. Their remarkable partnership was too deeply ingrained for the comedian to relinquish, and for which we can be grateful. Mr. Laurel gave samples of these scribbled comic efforts to nearly everyone he liked, although enough survived to constitute this gag file as bequeathed to John McCabe, a worthy devisee.

Herewith an example of one of Stan Laurel's hastily handwritten scratch paper gags, of which I am the grateful recipient:

To pickpocket --

What are you doing with
your hand in my pocket?

Looking for a watch!

Couldn't you simply ask
for the time?

I never talk to strangers!

Earlier this year, Professor McCabe, himself now retired too, used the Sons of the Desert newsletter, known far and wide among L&H fans as THE INTRA-TENT JOURNAL (not available at better newsstands anywhere) to communicate with members throughout the world: "Because of a grandchild's ill-health and consequent financial needs, I am obliged to sell my Stan Laurel holdings through auction. This material consists mainly of his letters to me as well as numerous gags of his in holograph -- crafted through the years. It is my fervent hope that what I am offering for public sale will be bought by an educational institution with library access for scholars rather than by an individual."

To help achieve this end, I arranged for Dr. McCabe to meet with representatives of a venerable old auction house named Butterfield & Butterfield, Auctioneers Corp., which was recently acquired by the powerhouse internet company popularly known as "eBay." A reserve amount of $25,000 was established for the entire lot, as a single unit, and then McCabe's precious property was consigned for sale at public auction.

To break down and liquidate this archive of material piecemeal almost certainly would have generated a greater total sum of money, but it would have taken much more time. In this instance time was a luxury McCabe could not afford. And also it would have defeated Professor McCabe's wish -- as a scholar and educator -- of keeping the collection together as a single unit. So instead, everything would be offered together, as one lot, in a traditional live auction, although combined with simultaneous internet bidding against the auction floor. The public sale was scheduled for May 10, 2001.

In its FINE BOOKS & MANUSCRIPTS catalog, Butterfields described the collection as an "extensive archive of Stan Laurel material, including correspondence and comedy manuscripts:

"1. 123 Letters Signed and five Autographed Letters Signed ('Stan Laurel' and 'Stan'), approximately 150 pages, quarto and octavo, Leeds, England and Santa Monica, California, May 4, 1954 to February, 1965, to Jack McCabe, many on personal letterhead, lightly thumbed and creased, otherwise fine....These letters are especially rich because Laurel is usually responding to a question posed by McCabe for the biography. From August 3, 1955: {'Re: the 'Fig Bar,' we used that expression in writing a scene in a script, for instance, Babe is caught doing something he shouldn't do, & becomes embarrassed, then trying to cover up he gives a sweet coy angelic look, waves his tie, twiddles his fingers & exits. So, we saved time in writing description of the scene by just saying Babe does a fig bar & exits.'}

"2. Signed and Inscribed Postcard ('Stan Jefferson'), two pages recto and verso, three and one-half by six inches, n.p., [circa 1916], inscribed to Alice and Baldwin Cooke, light creasing and staining, overall fine. Stan signs this postcard of himself in Chaplinesque garb with his given name, not long before he exchanged it for 'Laurel': In part: {'Mirthfully yours/Stan Jefferson/The Keystone Trio ... The Hokum Fiend.'}On the verso is an expression to his close, personal friends, the Cookes.

"3. Approximately 170 pages of comic gags, most holograph, various sizes (one-half by one and one-half inches to five by eight inches), n.p., n.d., being an archive of Stan Laurel's gags, pages lightly thumbed, otherwise fine....This collection contains classic Laurel & Hardy exchanges such as the following: {'There are hundreds of ways of making money -- but only one that is honest. B: What's that? S: I just knew you wouldn't know.'} There are also plenty of sight gags -- {'S. saws one end of board -- opposite end falls off'} -- as well as some racier humor: {'Girl trying on shoes to salesman: Did you notice the pictures of Dr. Kildare & Ben Casey tattooed on my legs? He: I was too busy looking at Mitch Miller.'}

"This lot also includes other holograph material of Stan Laurel, including skits for a 1954 Laurel & Hardy television special; a transcription of Stanley Holloway's recording of 'Albert and the Lion;' dialogue for the short subjects THICKER THAN WATER and LAUGHING GRAVY; and a list of people he had worked with or met. Present also are typed manuscripts of dialogue written for an appearance before the British social group, the Water Rats; two lengthy essays providing information for the biography; and a list (partially holograph) of Laurel's films. In all, this is a tremendously significant collection which must be viewed to be appreciated."

Those who did, who attended the pre-auction viewing offered in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, and who read the letters written by Stan Laurel, were struck by his refreshing and unfailing courtesy and generosity. Each and every one was a model of gracious, considerate, polite letter-writing.

Jimmy Wiley, and his wife Kris, of the Way Out West chapter in the Sons of the Desert organization, spent two hours at the Hollywood office of Butterfields pouring over all this material. Jimmy said, "It was fascinating to see how (the information for the book) was told directly to Mr. McCabe. The letters covered Stan's early career (before Babe) and his Laurel & Hardy days, interlaced with things that were currently happening to him. Reading the letters was like eavesdropping on a conversation between Stan and Mr. McCabe. As I expected, the letters showed that Stan was a kind and true gentleman."

For the record, band leader Mitch Miller -- need it be said? -- was famous for his beard.

In its detailed description of the collection as offered for sale, Butterfields failed to note the irony of including a dialogue cutting continuity for the Laurel & Hardy two-reeler THICKER THAN WATER (1935). This film featured an auction as part of the plot! As the story unfolds, the boys pass by the sale in progress; they are enticed inside by a sign reading, "Step inside. We are actually giving things away today."

Now, who, could resist such a munificent proposition? Who could? Not Oliver Hardy.

Once inside, Ollie generously agrees to help a lady bidding on a grandfather's clock. In the midst of the auction, the dear lady realizes she possesses insufficient funds, and will Ollie please keep the bidding open until she returns? He will! Of course she never returns, and for his chivalry Ollie winds up blowing all but ten dollars of his family's entire life savings on an expensive antique clock.

As the unwilling owners, Stan and Ollie lug their heavy prize out of the auction house and into the street. At that moment Stan is nearly overcome by the effort and needs to rest for a moment. They pause and ease their purchase down onto the ground, whereupon a passing truck arrives out of nowhere to pummel the clock flat -- into little more than worthless fire wood, as Stan and Ollie scatter out of the way.

So much for the wisdom of entering auction houses.

All throughout his life Stan Laurel was an absolutely prolific, warm-hearted, exemplary correspondent. Some letters were typewritten, others were handwritten. Clearly he had mastered the art of writing by hand; his penmanship was neat and beautiful. In addition to his plentiful correspondence with Jack McCabe, scores more handwritten and typed letters to fans and friends alike have been consigned for public auction sale in recent years, fetching handsome prices as a function of addressee, content, length, signature, stationary, and condition.

Mr. Laurel's family and closest friends throughout his retirement years are certain he never could have imagined -- much less intended! -- that his casual correspondence would later become the object of so much serious interest by stately, stodgy, stuffy auction houses! Or that the United States Postal System would honor him by picturing the comedy team of Laurel & Hardy on a series of commemorative first class postage stamps!

From the outset of their professional and personal association, Hal Roach observed how well Stan Laurel related to people -- all people. No matter who, no matter where, no matter when.

"If we went to a preview, it was business," Roach explained in 1983. "We were anxious about the reaction to the picture -- how many laughs were there? Would the thing go over? If not, how were we going to fix it, you know what I mean? Stan would always be recognized, even though off-screen he looked and acted nothing like his character. People wanted to meet him. It would be ten o'clock at night but he was the soul of accommodation for whomever wanted to talk with him. I saw him sign popcorn boxes for fans. We had work to do, assessing the preview, but he would never let anyone down.

"The same thing at the studio. We always had people in the Our Gang Cafe coming over to him, or waiting for him outside the gate in the afternoon. Babe (Hardy) couldn't be bothered with this, he left all that sort of thing with fans to Stan, who didn't mind it. In fact he went out of his way to be sociable with people."

Hal Roach and Stan Laurel were cordial but pretty much estranged after they parted company professionally in 1940. When I mentioned to Roach, late in his long life, how much time Laurel had devoted to answering fan mail during retirement, the "boss" was not surprised. He would only say, with a smile, "That's the kind of a guy Stan Laurel was."

Neither Hal Roach nor Babe Hardy was much of a correspondent, even with friends and family. At Roach's home any point after the studio bankruptcy, one always saw chairs piled high with unopened fan mail. Without the persistent assistance of his three second-family daughters, none of it would have ever even been opened.

As close as Stan Laurel's daughter was to her "Uncle Babe," the only written communication Lois Laurel ever received from him was upon the occasion of her high school graduation. Hardy sent her a telegram! So, by contrast, how to explain the inordinate amount of time Stan Laurel devoted to answering mail, tons of mail, all his life, from complete strangers he would never meet?

As an early example of his productive letter-writing, even at the height of his film career, on April 24, 1928, from Hal Roach Studios, on even then old "Stan Laurel Comedies" stationary, he sent the following to a Mr. Duncan Boss of Paterson, New Jersey:

Dear Friend Duncan,

Just received yours of the 11th. inst. I also got the one dated in January, for which you really must excuse me for not answering, but to tell you the truth, I haven't had much time for correspondence this last few months. Firstly, my Wife presented me with a Baby Girl last December & two or three months later had to go back to the hospital again for a major operation & have just got her home again, so what with trying to make pictures & taking care of the family you can fully understand how busy I have been & I trust you will pardon me this time.

I note in your letters that you have been keeping in close touch with our comedies & am delighted to know that you like them so well. It certainly is encouraging & your criticism is greatly appreciated -- Very Many Thanks. Glad you liked THE FINISHING TOUCH, we were kind of disappointed with it here, felt that it wasn't up to our standard -- maybe it's good that we feel that way sometimes -- makes us try to do better. Of course we can't expect to do knockouts every time especially as we make a picture in eight to ten days & ideas for material don't come easy, so we must consider ourselves pretty lucky up to now....

Well Duncan, I will close for now, again thanking you for your delightful letters & kind wishes etc. Trust all's well with you,

I remain,

Very sincerely yours; --

Stan Laurel (signed)

More than three decades later, in response to a fan who (understandably) wishes to remain anonymous, Stan Laurel wrote, "You mention you want to write to the late Ben Turpin, am afraid this would be rather difficult, don't you? Bela Lugosi has also passed away. You evidently haven't received the 50 L&H pictures I sent you recently....Hope by now they have arrived safely. Sorry I have no more lists of the films we made."

Humble, self-deprecating, genial and generous, this remarkable artist and amazing human being somehow cherished every correspondent as a dear friend. Eleanor Keaton, wife of Buster, remembered seeing Stan Laurel at his desk, late in life, "poking at that old typewriter in hunt-and-peck fashion," she said. "What a dear man he was, so loyal to all those fans."

In the 1960s comedy performers such as Jerry Lewis were tempting Laurel with six-figure sums to merely "consult" with him on projects. So many comedians ardently hoped for a professional association with Stan Laurel. He was offered a part -- which according to Lois Laurel he actually did consider -- in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), among countless other films and television shows. He turned them all down, every one.

Why would Mr. Laurel prefer to spend his valuable time answering mail from fans, and children, writing from places like Manchester, Barcelona, and Cedar Rapids, who were asking for the hundredth time, questions such as, "What was the name of the silent film where you sold the Christmas trees, why is it silent, and why don't you make it again? In sound. With color this time. My friends want to know, too. Enclosed are pictures of them. I'm the one with the torn sweater. Please tell me the name and life story of the bald, squinty-eyed guy with the mustache in your movies. And will you please sign and send me every photograph you have? Thank you so much."

Why would he submit to that, over and over and over again? For years. For nothing. Why?

Stan Laurel's daughter, Lois, explains, "My father felt he owed it to his fans to answer their questions. Often it was the same questions, over and over again. You'd think such a repetitious exercise would bore him, or try his patience, but really, it didn't. He did seem to enjoy responding to everyone, including the few 'nuts' who wrote him with foolish questions. He found amusement in those letters, too, but always answered politely. I never heard him complain; he was so nice to everyone.

"Most of the letters he was very interested in. He enjoyed seeing what fans, celebrities and his friends thought about his films being on television, and why. Or he liked that these letters offered news about people and things he was interested in. He enjoyed news of anything happening back home in England. And he could see how much it meant to so many people to get a response, even if it was just a postcard. He just couldn't let anyone down.

"By the way I don't know what he spent on postage every day, but the mail often came to him in sacks! You couldn't believe it until you saw the volume of letters that piled in each day, and especially for his birthday. Or when some newspaper would report anything about his health. I know at the studio Mr. Roach had secretaries to deal with this, or at least help my father. In his later years there was no one to help him, and he had sustained a stroke besides. Yet he was determined to answer everyone."

Writer and actor Tony Thomas recorded an interview with Stan Laurel, and asked about his activities during retirement. "Well, I just correspond," Laurel said. "Correspondence is about all I can do. The telephone, correspondence, friends dropping in, a little card game."

Late in life he constantly fought off untrue allegations of unhappiness or poverty. The source of such claims was invariably publications seeking to draw attention to themselves by means of sensationalized stories. A fan named Phil Heistad wrote to Stan Laurel on December 7, 1961 concerning a story slanted in this direction. "Note you read some article in TV GUIDE about me being unhappy, etc.," Stan responded. "Don't pay attention to those magazine stories. I assure you I am not in the least unhappy, in fact I am very happy and content in my retirement. I don't know why these reporters make such false statements. Anyway, I couldn't care less what they say."

During retirement, while living by the ocean first in Malibu, and then a bit south of there in Santa Monica, Stan Laurel practiced a certain daily routine. He liked routine. Friends who knew him then said it wasn't exactly the Hallmark Cards version of one's Golden Years, but it was close enough. By all accounts Mr. Laurel was a man who sought order in his life, and order in the things arranged so neatly around him. Never one to participate in the Hollywood social scene, after his slight stroke Stan Laurel preferred more than ever staying close to home. The sea was truly a life-long passion, so he enjoyed his ocean view. Looking out to sea afforded him relaxation in depth, although he almost never ventured down to the beach.

"He was so afraid of being seen," daughter Lois recalls. "He had a very, very slight limp. You could hardly notice it, but he was embarrassed by it. Rather than be recognized with this condition, he preferred that people should remember him the way he appeared in his films. Maybe it was a little silly, but he didn't want to introduce any kind of new perception of himself that might tamper with people's memories of the character he played. So he didn't go out much, he didn't have to, which was fine with him.

"When Babe had his massive stroke, my father gradually resigned himself to retirement. He was happily married to Ida, and he fell into a certain routine about his activities.

"He lived for television, and he enjoyed evaluating new talent and assessing performances. So any given day, if there was a particular show on late, he'd stay up to watch, and then he wouldn't go to bed until ten or eleven. But generally he did like to retire early. Ida was the night owl, often staying up until one or two in the morning. She liked to catch up with so many of the old movies she'd never seen, but that he knew well.

"My father, with his diabetes, was on a schedule for the testing. So at seven or eight in the morning, poor Ida would be up doing the testing to see if he needed the insulin, or the injection.

"Dad wasn't a big breakfast eater. In the morning he might have toast and tea, or maybe coffee, in the kitchen. And then he'd go out into the living room where he had his desk, and could look out to sea which was a great source of pleasure for him. He had everything you could possibly want around a desk, all in order, neatly arranged, every little thing in its place.

"Then he'd go down to the lobby -- the Oceana Hotel lobby -- taking the elevator from the second floor. He would greet his neighbors by the pool, and the doorman, and the desk clerk. It got to be a ritual you can imagine, getting the mail. Some days he could carry all this stuff -- the cards, letters, and presents -- back easily. Other days it might be a heavy sack full of letters and big gifts and photos to sign and return. Often times he was surprised to see mail sent to him from overseas that was simply addressed to 'Stan Laurel, Hollywood, U.S.A.' There was no street address, and he didn't even live in Hollywood! It made him laugh.

"So he would dive into reading all this mail, which included the Hollywood trade papers. A blood vessel had burst in his left eye, so that gave him some trouble. He couldn't sustain the time necessary to read books anymore without eye strain, but he could handle the letters, and the trades, and he could look things up in the course of answering people's questions.

"Nearly every morning there would be something in the mail from his attorney (and former Hal Roach Studios business manager), Ben Shipman, related to business. They were on the phone constantly, too. By the late morning he'd be making his phone calls.

"Booth Colman was really his closest friend, and when Booth wasn't touring with a play someplace they'd see each other regularly and speak on the phone. I was in the (San Fernando) Valley, so we'd talk on the phone about all kinds of things. I'd usually bring him certain jams and jellies from the Farmers Market. Then he might call in the afternoon and say, 'Well, I fixed my toast with some of your orange marmalade this morning.' I don't know how often he would have pancakes for breakfast, but because of that scene in A CHUMP AT OXFORD everybody thinks he did!

"By one o'clock he might go out to lunch with Ida, who was not much of a cook! For lunch and sometimes early dinner he went to the Fox & Hounds; it was very much like the kind of upscale restaurant he remembered in London. Madame Wu's -- I think that was the name -- was another restaurant he'd go to, or they would deliver Chinese food. There was a deli I remember we frequented when I came by -- it's run down now. I was there again only weeks ago. But the Miramar Hotel is still beautiful and my dad liked going there and especially with friends who came to see him.

"Another favorite spot was a barbershop in Santa Monica, which features some kind of a 'shrine' to him there now! Or he and Ida might go out to the market. And he was especially fond of visiting the stationary store. He'd go there on any excuse! He'd find some little thing to buy for his desk and it pleased him very much. I am certain he could have been happy in his later years managing a nice, quiet little stationary store!

"Another dinner place was down on the Santa Monica Pier, which my Dad could see from his balcony, but they'd drive to it because he couldn't walk that far. Actually Ida would drive because Dad gave up driving after the stroke.

"At night when they weren't watching television they played cards with some of his old friends and some of Ida's Russian friends. Mostly they played canasta. Sometimes the men played poker. The next day he would tell me who came by to play cards, and it might be Buster and Eleanor Keaton, who became my very close friend until we lost her recently.

"On TV Dad liked Art Carney and Jackie Gleason on THE HONEYMOONERS. They really made him laugh!

"He loved western shows and western movies, always did. That's why he made those feature films with Fred Scott, 'The Silvery-Voiced Buckaroo,' or whatever it was.

"He never missed the variety shows like THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW on Sunday nights, where he could see new talent trying to break in the way he once did.

"Most people are surprised to hear this, but one of his favorite programs was THIS IS YOUR LIFE. He disliked -- he was stunned! -- being on the show, because he wasn't prepared, and he wasn't in character, but he never missed watching it. Later on he calmed down about being ambushed himself the way they were. But it was because he was always so professional, and here he wasn't prepared, he wasn't in control. That's what he disliked. Besides he said later there were two lives to cover, and no time to do things properly. I mean he was shocked!

"As everyone knows, what he did not enjoy watching was any cut versions of the Laurel & Hardy films. Any tampering with his hard work displeased him. He worked so hard on the writing, the acting, the cutting to get the films just so....Then people without any understanding of the reasoning and expertise behind everything you see on the screen, well they came along and carved it all up, so naturally it bothered him.

"What was particularly discouraging for him was the fact that these people in television didn't even realize how their tampering was ruining the films! He couldn't look at his own work on television most of the time. If the films were shown on TV uncut, then he could sit back and roar with laughter, always at Babe, who delighted him, never at himself."

So next to television, the daily highlight of Stan Laurel's later years was the fan mail, which came from all over the world and every strata of life. Jack McCabe published a letter sent June 3, 1961, sent by one of three legendary stars (the other two being Fred Astaire and Clint Eastwood) who seem to bear somewhat of a resemblance to Stan Laurel:

Dear Mr. Laurel:

I meant to write you immediately after you received your so richly deserved recognition from the Academy, but was unable to trace your address immediately and then got caught up in my work and forgot. But now someone has got it for me.

Unfortunately I leave in about four days time, returning to England, and I have looping, etc., to do at the studio, otherwise I would have loved to have called on you. But I will try to reach you on the telephone before I go.

Your Academy Award gave such tremendous pleasure to everyone -- but it was a particular joy to me. For me you have always been and will always be one of the truly greats. I think one of my earliest ambitions was to emulate you in some way, and certainly one of my first successes (although a modest one) in the theatre was playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT rather on the lines you might have played it. I was only twenty-three at the time and I think the copying of you was unconscious -- but it was certainly noticed by the critics, and that goes to show how much I had absorbed and loved your work.

Anyway, this brief letter is just to pay homage to a great comedian and to wish you all happiness and the hope that I may meet you someday.

Yours sincerely,

Alec Guinness

Possibly Guinness was then at work on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The disposition of that letter is unknown; it was not part of the Butterfields auction.

I sat in the "audience" on the morning of May 10 when Butterfields conducted its public sale. Strangely enough, the audience consisted of only four other persons. There were more people manning the telephone bank, to accommodate out of town bidders, than live buyers holding paddles. I looked around to make sure one of them wasn't actress Gladys Gale about to lean over and say, "Please sir, will you do me a favor? My heart is set on having that clock and I find I've left my money at home. Will you keep the bidding open until I go home and get it? Don't let anyone have it under any consideration and I'll pay you well for your trouble."

No, Gladys Gale wasn't there. Still there was plenty of action as another gallery of bidders was seated before a corresponding auctioneer patched in with a live feed from the San Francisco office. Plus bids were coming in simultaneously from heavy hitters on the internet.

Bidding opened at $12,000. For a moment I thought of Ollie's line in THICKER THAN WATER outside the auction door, "At last we get something for nothing." Or maybe next to nothing. But maybe not. Because in what seemed like only two seconds ticking off on a grandfather's clock, the amount that was being bid escalated, and the auction was almost immediately over.

"All done? All through? Third and last call...?" Down cracked the gavel with a bang and the presiding auctioneer shouted, "Sold! Sold to the purchaser on the internet for a final bid of $25,000."

That's $25,000.00 in addition to a buyer's premium of 15%, meaning another $3,750.00. Not forgetting shipping charges (invariably another profit center for auction houses) and, plus, the sales tax, and other applicable taxes. Then bus fare to the poor house.

Was the successful bidder an institution, a university, a film production company? A celebrity, an investor, a rich fan? Maybe a crazy fan?

Several names come immediately and painfully to mind.

Was he or she told by someone resembling the Jimmie Finlayson of THICKER THAN WATER, "You did the bidding and you'll do the paying!" No one knew. The purchaser hid safely behind the anonymity of the internet. He, she or it remains there, with privacy guaranteed. The auction house is under no obligation to reveal anyone's identity. No one has come forward to announce the acquisition, nor has Butterfields indicated it will disclose the purchaser's name, not even to Jack McCabe. He hasn't a clue who bought his letters. Time will tell if anyone ever learns of their disposition.

We are happy to report one thing, however, which is that the operation for Jack McCabe's young grandson was an unqualified success. Further, if the letters are gone -- and they are -- the biography is still in print, now with a London publisher which can be reached through any bookstore, or directly at:

Robson Books
Attention: Jeremy Robson
Bolsover House
Five Clipstone Street
London, W1P 7EB

Buy extra copies, read the book again, get more out of life.

Finally, This-Just-In Department: Apropos of correspondence, Stan Laurel, and auctions, an extremely rare, handwritten letter, from Oliver Hardy, to his estranged wife Myrtle, has recently come onto the market through an autograph catalog published by a company called Profiles In History.

On the occasion of their fourteenth wedding anniversary, in a Hal Roach Studios envelope postmarked on that date of November 25, 1935, Hardy wrote to his wife, then staying at a Topanga Canyon sanitarium, struggling to beat alcoholism:


Dear Little Girl,

I was so pleased to get your sweet letter and invitation today at 4:30. I don't think it advisable to see you as it would make matters worse for that day I am going to the desert hunting, but have gotten you a little something which I hope you will like and particularly the inscription on the inside. I will be with you as always in mind and heart as you are never out of my mind. I would have written you before, but your letter is the first I knew you could receive mail there. Regardless of the future dear do try and be the strong sweet little baby that you will always be in your daddy's heart. Have been working awfully hard there has been so much illness on this picture. Stan was laid up for 2 1/2 weeks Mae Busch for 4 weeks it seems we have been on it for a year -- Happy anniversary dear and I hope you like what I have gotten for you. I will send something to the house on Wed morning. Be sweet, think sweet and know that my devotion has never changed and never will. But we must go up hill and not back so consequently why that next time must be the time. I love you darling everlastingly.


They went up hill all right, struggling mightily with every step. The picture in production was THE BOHEMIAN GIRL. Within three weeks, Thelma Todd, the film's leading lady, was dead, the true circumstances of which remain a mystery film detectives debate to this day. In May of 1937 Oliver and Myrtle Hardy were divorced after more than 16 often anguish-filled years of marriage. Even the judge recognized Mr. Hardy's praiseworthy endeavor "trying to keep his marital difficulties to himself."

So, a poignant, personal, caring letter, reflecting the character of its author. A private letter, now public, between two pained souls. And priceless? Priceless. Really? No, not really. Sadly, there is a price. Sooner or later we learn, usually the hard way, everything has a price, indeed. For meriting such a letter, for buying such a letter, for selling such a letter, for missing such a letter, for reading such a letter, even for writing such a letter. There is a price to pay. These days it seems anything and everything is for sale. Collectors may covet such celebrity and movie mementos, and claim they will faithfully treasure forever these tangible connections to icons and dreams; in fact we are merely, and only, custodians of such memorabilia.

The price? Well, at least the price in dollars....This heart-wrenching intimate letter, never meant to be seen by anyone else in the world except Oliver Hardy's ailing wife, can now be yours -- and a solid investment, too -- for the low, low price of just $3,950.00! A savings of up to 60%! This week only! Act fast! Order today! Financing available. Authenticity guaranteed. Tax not included. Shipping extra. Insurance optional. Void where prohibited. Other restrictions apply. Consult your attorney.

At last we get something for nothing. At last....Don't we?

-- by Richard W. Bann --

LAUREL LETTERS SOLD AT AUCTION copyright by Richard W. Bann 2001