Ernestine Hill, who under the name Jean Howard became an actress and a celebrated photographic chronicler of Hollywood glamour, was born, possibly in Trinity County near the town of Groveton, in 1910. (Her social security records list her birth as October 13, 1910.) Her parents divorced when she was still an infant, and Ernestine lived with her mother. During her childhood, they moved often and lived in Longview for a time and later in Post, Texas, in Garza County. After her mother's death in 1925, Ernestine went to live with her father, R. B. Hill, and stepmother in Dallas. Her father arranged for a local photographer named Paul Mahoney, who had discovered several child stars, including Ginger Rogers, to photograph the teenaged Ernestine and her young nephew. Mahoney soon became her mentor in establishing a modeling career, and she assumed his last name. She visited Hollywood for the first time in the late 1920s, accompanying her father and, as she claimed in her memoirs, her father's mistress.
With Mahoney's assistance, she returned to Hollywood and joined the Studio Club, an organization founded by the silent movie star Mary Pickford to help aspiring young movie actresses. In 1930 she signed a contract with the Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio and appeared first as a chorus girl in the film version of Eddie Cantor's Broadway hit Whoopee.
Florenz Ziegfeld, who had produced the stage show, asked her and three other showgirls to appear in his next New York production, titled Smiles, but she had to return to Dallas because her father had been killed in an automobile accident. Several months later, however, Ziegfeld cast her in the last Ziegfeld Follies and also changed her name to Jean Howard.
Through her friend Bertrand Taylor, Howard filmed a screen test with Gary Cooper in 1933, and her film career began in earnest. During the 1930s and 1940s Howard had minor roles in a number of MGM movies, including Broadway to Hollywood (1933) with Mickey Rooney and Jackie Cooper, The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) with Myrna Loy, Dancing Lady (1933) with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, Break of Hearts (1935) with Katharine Hepburn and Charles Boyer, and Claudia (1943) with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young. She never became a big star, but her looks and personality allowed her to move in Hollywood's most exclusive circles. She counted Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Noel Coward, and Tyrone Power among her friends, and studio chief Louis B. Mayer once offered to divorce his wife and marry her. When she turned him down, she recalled, he got drunk and attempted to hurl himself out a window.
In 1934 she married Charles K. Feldman, a lawyer and Hollywood agent. Feldman had begun sending her flowers after seeing her at a dance at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Initially she ignored him, but when she finally met him at a party she was attracted to him immediately. The two decided to marry despite the jealous Mayer's threat to ruin Feldman's career. Feldman went on to become "the first super-agent," according to the New York Times, and produced the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, among other films.
Howard and Feldman divorced in 1948, but continued to live in the same house in what they called their "can't live with you, can't live without you postmarital relationship" until his death in 1968. They were enthusiastic participants in Hollywood's glamorous party scene, and Howard had long taken snapshots at these gatherings as a hobby. She began seriously exploring her passion for photography in 1944, taking classes at the Art Center in Los Angeles upon the recommendation of a friend. In the early 1950s, her work began to be published in Life and Vogue magazines, among others, and she also photographed such notables as William Saroyan, Irving Berlin, William Faulkner, Man Ray, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Jean Cocteau, and Joseph Alsop. Her book Jean Howard's Hollywood: A Photo Memoir, with text by James Watters, was published in 1989. The book evoked a lost era of glamour and celebrity: "In the pictures," wrote Douglas Martin in the New York Times, "everyone, it seems, is smoking. Everyone is holding a drink, everyone is dressed in black tie or cocktail dress." A second book, Travels with Cole Porter (1991), chronicles two journeys to Europe and the Middle East she took with the composer, an old friend, in an effort to cheer him up after the 1953 death of his wife.
In 1964, while on a Mediterranean cruise, Howard went to a nightclub on Capri where a band called the Shakers was playing. She asked Tony Santoro, a member of the band, to play a song of her own composition. He agreed, and the two eventually lived together for nine years, mostly in Capri and Rome, before marrying in 1973.
In 1993 Howard told Town and Country magazine about a party she gave for Sen. John F. Kennedy during the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, at which he was nominated for president. After the guests had left, Howard recalled, she found Kennedy scratching at her window. She let him in and scrambled him some eggs, whereupon, she said, Kennedy kissed her. She left the story unfinished, telling the magazine that people would have to read her autobiography to find out what happened, but the book remained unpublished. Howard died at her home in Beverly Hills, California, on March 20, 2000.
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