20 Aug 2014
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Patch Instagram photo by southbaysurfsessions
Patch Instagram photo by southbaysurfsessions

A Different Kind of Hollywood Life

Ralph Jester's movie career included an event that shocked the film world when a famous star died near conclusion of filming.

Editor's note: This is the final part in a series on former Palos Verdes resident Ralph Jester. Read the first .

Ralph Jester sensed his destiny after graduating from Yale, class of 1924. The Texas born graduate student, who would go on to design costumes for such blockbusters as The Ten Commandments and The Buccaneer, had entered a fifth year at Yale to study architecture.

“About half way through that year,” Lois Jester said, “he told his professor that he was going to resign. He wanted to go to Europe and find out what all this modern architecture was about.”

The professor encouraged Jester to return to Yale.

“But he never did,” Lois said of her late husband, who passed away 20 years ago. “He went to Paris instead.”

Lois, who hardly looks or acts 90, lives very much in the present in the Portuguese Bend home she once shared with her husband and now shares with her youngest son, Lee, and, every other week, his two daughters.

After leaving school, Lois said, her husband joined a Yale classmate in the study of sculpture at the American Academy at Fontainebleau and ended up living in Paris for five years.

“There weren’t thousands of Americans living in Paris [in the mid-1920s],” she said. “So the American ambassador invited all the Americans living there to a 4th of July reception at the Embassy garden.”

It was at that party that Jester met Maginel Wright (Enright) Barney, a children’s book illustrator and graphic artist, and her daughter, Elizabeth Enright, who had just graduated from finishing school.

“Maginel was Frank Lloyd Wright’s sister,” Lois said.

Jester returned to New York to continue as a sculptor (one of his pieces is among the collection in Brookgreen Garden, SC), and met Frank Lloyd Wright, who was visiting his sister, Maginel. 

Impressed with Jester’s knowledge of architecture, Wright invited him to join his fellowship at Taliesin, his studio near Spring Green, Wisconsin. But Jester, who was studying at Columbia by then, elected to accept a job teaching art at Bennington College, a woman’s college in Vermont.

Jester’s introduction to Hollywood and the movies came through Elizabeth Enright, Maginel’s writer daughter, who married Robert Gillham, an advertising executive with J. Walter Thompson. When Gillham, who represented Paramount Pictures, heard that Cecil B. DeMille was looking for creative people to work on the movie Cleopatra (1934), he recommended Ralph Jester.

As it turned out, one of Jester’s jobs on the film was to sculpt a bust of actress Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra for publicity purposes, a gold-and-white piece that now resides in Lois Jester’s master bath.

“Ralph and Claudette became good friends,” Lois recalled. “One of the reasons was that her mother came out to live with her and didn’t speak English. So she and Ralph conversed in French. He spoke fluent French.”

Jester’s bust of actor Warren William as Julius Caesar, which now reigns at the end of a long hallway in the Jester home, was ultimately painted gold.

“Ralph later regretted that,” Lois said.

Stills from Cleopatra show the bust was originally white.

The Caesar piece wasn’t carved, however, but done from a mold, Lee Jester explained. Planning on giving a talk about his father’s work at the Palos Verdes Library in October, Lee, a lean and attractive 61, dug into a carton of old glossies and showed numerous photos of Jester fashioning the plaster-of-Paris mold over William’s head.

“He made the mold, and then poured the plaster in,” Lee said.

Costume sketches, beautifully rendered by Jester in pencil and watercolor, included fabric swatches, he said, DeMille wanting to know in meticulous detail how costumes would look.

Lee, who went from the landscape business into residential housing development, selected one pencil drawing of a pirate, one of his favorites, and talked about how his father began by drawing cartoons in high school. Later, Jester’s penchant for accurately portraying period dress led him to do extensive research, which he relished, he said.

After Jester married Lois, originally from Birmingham, Alabama, in 1945, he preferred to keep his professional life separate from his family life. He never even considered living in Hollywood, Lois said, laughing. “No way.”

The Jesters preferred spending time with their sons and close friends including , Lloyd Wright and his wife and others who were not connected with films.

Cavorting with movie stars was not his idea of a way to live, Lois said.

“Oh, I’m sure he dated a lot as a bachelor,” she said, looking through old black and white glossies of Jester on the set in his single days.

“Virginia Bruce was one actress Ralph did date and liked,” his wife said. “They played tennis together.”

There were weekends on Cecil B. DeMille’s yacht.

But it wasn’t until Jester was on location in Spain for Solomon and Sheba (1959) that Lois encountered a dramatic event that shocked the movie world.

“The movie [starring Tyrone Power] was almost finished,” Lois said, recalling how her husband had asked her to accompany him to the set for an errand.

“Tyrone Power was rehearsing a sword fight, and Ralph invited him to come by the house and have a martini.”

The actor agreed and the Jesters drove home.

“By the time we got there the cook came to the door and said, ‘Tyrone Power has just died. It was just on the radio.’ He had had a heart attack,” Lois said.

Like everyone in the movie industry, the Jesters were stunned.

Two months later, Yul Brenner was hired to replace Power.

“They couldn’t use any of Power’s scenes,” Lois said. “Even at a distance, he was tall and slender, and Yul Brenner was shorter and stocky.”

Power’s scenes had to be entirely reshot.

Jester already knew Yul Brenner because they had made The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Buccaneer (1958) together, Lois said.  Both films earned the designer nominations for Best Costume design.

The Jesters attended the Academy Awards in 1956 with fellow designer Edith Head. But the winning film for costume was Walter Lang’s The King and I. And in 1958, the award went to Vincent Minnelli’s Gigi.

Jester’s other films include The Hollywood You Never See (a documentary short, 1934); Samson and Delilah (1949), and Omar Khayyam (1957).

Jester’s art, which included sculpture, set and costume design, his wife said, was as far-reaching as his intellect, and at one point he worked as a unit director on Samson and Delilah.

During all of the films, Jester’s relationship with DeMille was good, Lois said.

“They really respected each other,” she said.

She remembered one early telegram from DeMille, saying, “Nothing will go on this set without the OK of Ralph Jester.”

Yet, occasional tensions did exist. DeMille fired Ralph off the set of Samson and Delilah after overhearing him remark, “He never pays any attention to what I say.”

“It wasn’t true,” Lois said, but the volatile director ordered Jester off the lot.

Following Solomon and Sheba, Jester had had enough of movies and decided to remain in Europe for a while. Their two young sons were with them, and Jester told his wife, “I’ve done nothing but work. I haven’t been able to travel around at all. So let’s just stay another year.”

All told, they were away from their newly built Portuguese Bend home for 10 years, six of them in Europe.

“Every time I’d say, ‘Well, are we going home?’” Lois said, “Ralph would say, ‘We haven’t done this yet; we haven’t done that.’”

During their time in Madrid, they visited Elin Vanderlip, living with her children abroad so as to recover from the death of her husband, Kelvin. Remembering those heady days skiing and traveling the world, Lee Jester said the family remains in contact with the Vanderlip children, “especially Kelvin Jr., and Narcissa.”

When the Jesters finally did decide to return to the states, Ralph said to Lois, “We have to get back before the boys begin to wonder which side of the Mississippi River California is on.”

But instead of coming home to Portuguese Bend, Jester accepted a job as director of public relations at Rockford College in Illinois. While he searched for a house for them, Lois stayed in Europe with their sons.

“I got a two-month Eurail Pass for the two boys and myself, and we traveled all over Europe, from the toe of Italy to the Arctic Circle in Norway,” she said. “We went everywhere.”

Following the Illinois years, they finally made it back to Portuguese Bend. The house had been rented, plus the landslide that began in 1956 had begun to seriously affect the Jester home by 1979.

“1980 was really a bad year,” Lois said, the foundation of the garage and living room above jolted by the shifting earth beneath.

Lee indicated a place in the parquet floor where cracks linger in the living room, and the beautiful stone porch that looks out over Abalone Cove had to be redone. “Some things are still crooked,” he said.

In her master bath, Lois pointed to the wall of windows.

“This was all mitered glass, but all of this was broken in the slide,” she said.

The situation caused her husband to comment that the house was “dying by inches.”

But the foundations are secure again, most everything repaired.

Walking back through the master bedroom, with its stunning religious relics acquired from their travels, Lois gazed out the bay window that overlooks the sea. It’s the first things she sees upon awakening each morning.

“It’s a view I never take for granted,” she said.

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