I can rest easy, I did my job as a parent. This morning, without having said a word to her about the date, my 11-year-old daughter asked me, “Dad, are you going to write about Anne Frank on your blog today?” I immediately understood the question. Today would have been Anne Frank’s 77th birthday. As Leah approaches the age that Anne Frank was when she began her famous diary, I can see more and more similarities between the two of them. Both are wildly creative, empathic, headstrong girls with vivid imaginations that allow them to get lost in their fantasies. If Leah and Anne Frank had been alive in the same time period and location, I am convinced that they would have been the best of friends. It would have been the kind of friendship that would have had its share of challenges, with two such strong personalities, but I imagine it would have lasted a lifetime and only deepened with age.
A year ago, on Holocaust Remembrance day, I wrote about my childhood obsession with Anne Frank. At that point, at the age of 10, my daughter had already turned in an incredibly moving performance as Otto Frank in her theatre group’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Anne received her first diary as a birthday present 64 years ago today. On June 14, 1942, she wrote:
“I haven't written for a few days, because I wanted first of all to think about my diary. It's an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.”
Whenever I read that excerpt, I first think of our group of seventh grade boys giggling at the word “unbosomings.” Couldn’t the original translator have found a better word for that? But “unbosomings” or no, Anne’s early thoughts about her diary mirror what every writer goes through as they dare to write down their thoughts and feelings. What an exquisite blogger Anne Frank would have been. Don’t we all want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in our hearts?
I’ve been doing a lot of research in the Los Angeles Times archives lately for some projects I’m working on. It’s amazing how the reporting of certain events as they are happening can be so completely different from how we look back at such stories today. We may assume that our current perspectives were always present but these often took years to develop. History, though we sometimes see it as unchanging and absolute, is rewritten every day.
I took a moment this afternoon to look up the earliest references to Anne Frank in the L.A. Times. Though Anne’s diary was first published in Europe in 1947, there is not a single mention of the young girl’s story in the 1940s. It took five years, and much work on Otto Frank’s part, to interest English-language publishers in the story, but when the English version of the book was published on April 30, 1952 it was an immediate sensation. The first mention of Anne Frank in a Los Angeles newspaper occurred on July 30, 1952, in a listing of the city’s top nonfiction bestsellers. According to the sales records of Broadway, Bullock’s, Campbell’s, May Co., Pickwick, and Robinson’s, “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” was the fourth bestselling book. It followed Whittaker Chambers’ controversial “Witness,” Rachel Carson’s landmark “The Sea Around Us,” and “A Man Called Peter,” a faith-based story about the late Peter Marshall, the U.S. Chaplain to the Senate and once one of the most revered men in America.
By September, Anne had moved up to the number two spot, just behind Whittaker Chambers. Her name still appeared every Sunday in the list of bestsellers but there were no articles, reviews, or other mentions of the Jewish girl. Why? Despite the public’s fascination with the book, did journalists feel that the “unbosomings” of a young girl was not a serious enough subject for discussion, even in the context such an important period in our recent history?
The first real mention of Anne Frank in the newspaper occurred on January 16, 1953, in, of all places, Hedda Hopper’s column: "Nick Ray is negotiating for the stage rights on 'Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.' He thinks the book can be turned into a wonderful play, and I agree. For those who have not read it, the story is about a young Jewish girl who was forced with her family into hiding when the Nazis conquered Holland. But even more than that, it’s also the poignant tale of a young girl growing into womanhood."
In fact, throughout 1953, the only references to Anne Frank were made by Hedda Hopper. In a strange way, this is somehow fitting. Anne Frank’s bedroom wall in the secret annex was covered with photos of Hollywood stars, some perhaps taken from Hedda’s very column. She wrote short stories fantasizing that she was an actress in this town and even chose a photograph to use as a head shot. The caption of this photo that she pasted into her diary translates to: “This is a photo as I would wish myself to look all the time. Then I would maybe have a chance to come to Hollywood.”
Oh, if only she’d had the chance. And yet I cringe at the thought of young Anne Frank in Hollywood casting sessions. “Sorry, Mrs. Frank, the kid is just too ethnic. Have her nose fixed, straighten those teeth, dye her hair blond, and give her some ringlets—then we’ll talk.”
I think Anne Frank would have been thrilled to have appeared so often in Hedda Hopper’s column, just under photos of Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor. Directly above a 1955 discussion of Anne in Hopper’s column was a denial by Grace Kelly that she had secretly married actor Jean-Pierre Aumont. Directly below was a blurb about Joseph Cotton joining Rita Hayworth and her daughters for a fun-filled day at the newly opened Disneyland. Anne would have eaten this stuff up!
Throughout the 1950s, there was not a single article about Anne Frank and her family’s plight, except in relation to the “box office” of the theatre and movie versions of the story. A particularly insensitive take on the subject was published in the Times on September 19, 1955 just a few weeks before the play based on Anne’s life opened on Broadway. The headline says it all: “Foreign Plays, Actors Will Invade Broadway.” Nice. Let’s evoke images of Hitler’s advancing armies as we discuss plays with “foreign” settings “taking over” the American theatre.
Once the play opened, it was barely mentioned in the paper, except to say which Hollywood stars stopped by to see it. “Dolores Del Rio was present at ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ having just arrived from Mexico, while Ann Miller appeared at ‘No Time for Sergeants,’ having just returned from the Caribbean, and still battling a bad cold.” The only other articles about the play were puff pieces about Susan Strasberg, who was playing the part of Anne, with such titles as ‘Not-So-Lazy Susan” and continually calling the 17-year-old “another Audrey Hepburn.”
Early articles about the film version of the play assumed that Strasberg would be chosen for the lead but on January 29, 1958 it was announced that 18-year-old Millie Perkins, a model from New Jersey, beat out 10,225 other girls for the role. Again, there were constant comparisons to Audrey Hepburn and the adjective most often used to describe Perkins was “elfin.” As I wrote last year, I have only recently re-evaluated my impression of Millie Perkins in this role. Having heard about Susan Strasberg’s electrifying performance and the fact that Audrey Hepburn herself had been considered for the role (okay, although Audrey Hepburn and the real Anne Frank were born within a month of each other, it would have been pushing it for 29-year-old Hepburn to play a 14-year-old!), I was disdainful of Perkins’ part in the film until I saw a restored print a few years ago. There was a depth and an urgency to the character that I hadn’t seen before when I was distracted by Perkins’ “elfin” features.
To her credit, Millie Perkins was well aware of her own limitations. “I’m frightened,” she admitted to a reporter in an April 1958 profile. “I still don’t know what Mr. Stevens saw in me. People tell me not to worry, that he wouldn’t gamble on me if he didn’t think I could do it. But I’m not an actress.” A few months later, she was still nervous about her contributions to the picture. “I don’t know why they chose me for Anne Frank,” Perkins said. “But then I never know why things happen to me. They always come as a surprise, I never try to make them happen. But I know one thing. If I’m successful in ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ I’m going to do a lot of studying.”
The star-studded premiere of the film on March 26, 1959, at the Egyptian Theatre was as Hollywood as it gets. “Hollywood came into its own again last night,” wrote the reporter in the Times, “a night to match any in the 30-odd years of premieres since showman Sid Grauman built the Egyptian Theatre…but what mattered most was that for once, in an era in which the phony is so often paraded as the real, the glorifying that went on outside the theater was surpassed by the grandeur of the story being unfolded, being unfurled like a testament to the dignity of man, on the screen inside. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ is a great, great motion picture.”
Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, the film did not achieve the box office numbers the movie honchos had hoped for and within a month there was another spate of insensitive headlines: “Anne Frank Fate Big Question Mark!” blared one, as the subtitle read, “Lethargy Blamed on Theme, Ads, Prices, Star, Length.” Well, that about covers it. I can see every studio executive in Hollywood reading that article that morning and making a mental note: “No More Jewish-Themed Pics: Holocaust a Downer!” This turn of events led to an ill-fated advertising campaign that tried to present the film as a raucous comedy involving two spunky kids, Anne Frank and Peter Van Daan. Thankfully, the studio could not get away with that for long. “There is nothing inherently funny about the theme,” the L.A. Times reported in response to the ads, “and while there is some incidental humor, it is the kind born of desperation. You can’t fool people about these things.”
And so, Anne Frank, you who had such a strong desire to come to Los Angeles and be part of the Hollywood scene, rest assured that you made it. Even when the people stopped coming to see your film because “they didn't think they could take it,” in the end it wasn’t only about profits. “’Anne Frank’ is a motion picture that proves once again to all the world that our industry can also be an art,” declared the Times. “It is a work of which Hollywood, at a time when it is getting the finger from all sides, can be justly proud.”