Steffi Sidney-Splaver, daughter of famed Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky, has died in Seattle aged 74. As a teenager Steffi acted in a handful of films, including the classic Rebel Without A Cause (1955.)
She gave up acting to write for teen magazines, and became a television producer. In 1985 she formed a public relations company with her husband, Rick Splaver, representing clients such as Pixar, and also volunteered to aid senior citizens with the Motion Picture and Television Fund.
At the time of her death, Steffi was reportedly working on a memoir, wittily titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by the Daughter of the Man Who Gave Oscar its Name.
In 2000, Steffi told the Los Angeles Times that when teenagers learned of her role in Rebel Without A Cause, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring the legendary James Dean, ‘they just flip. I just find that amazing. They still identify with that movie.’
Rick Splaver referred to his wife as ‘rebel without a pause’, much to her delight. Steffi had appeared as one of the girls in a high school gang tormenting Jim Stark, the character played by Dean. (Steffi wore a red sweater and yellow scarf in this key scene.)
Writing for Seattlepi.com, Sue Frause described her friendship with Steffi Sidney in recent years:
“I met Steffi and Rick shortly after they moved to Langley in 1998, and always enjoyed my time with the two of them. The stories of Steffi’s childhood and life in Hollywood were always welcome, and I loved looking at her large collection of black & white photos, especially those of her attending such events as child star Shirley Temple’s birthday parties at the Fox Commissary.
Steffi was a dark haired dynamo, always perfectly coiffed and looking chic in her zippy red lipstick, and she enjoyed sharing her stories: Jimmy Cagney pacing the floor with her father when she was born; Gary Cooper giving Steffi her first dog; and Leonard Bernstein playing the piano in her family home.”
Steffi and Marilyn
Sidney Skolsky, Steffi’s father, worked from an office at Schwab’s Pharmacy and Diner, a hangout for young actors. One of the most glamorous stars of Hollywood’s golden era, Lana Turner, was reportedly ‘discovered’ just outside the drugstore in 1937, drinking by the soda fountain. A decade later, Skolsky was one of the first Hollywood players to champion another blonde starlet, Marilyn Monroe.
Over the course of her career, Marilyn counted Skolsky as a confidante. Quoted in actress Susan Strasberg’s 1992 memoir, Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends, Steffi recalled observing her father’s unusual friendship as she grew up in Los Angeles.
‘My father had a good eye,’ Steffi commented. ‘He’d picked out the unknown Betty Grable and Carole Lombard. ..Marilyn was special. People suspected hanky-panky between them, but he always looked on her as a daughter.’ Skolsky, a nervous man, refused to learn to drive, and so Marilyn would often chauffeur him across town.
However, there was a darker side to their relationship. ‘My father knew every doctor in town,’ Steffi recalled. ‘He was a hypochondriac who knew every pill manufactured. Marilyn would call him up for recommendations of doctors.’ In the final years of her life, Marilyn fought and was ultimately destroyed by drug addiction.
The gorgeous blonde and the short, Jewish writer made an odd couple, but Steffi felt that Marilyn was more similar to Skolsky than appearances might suggest. ‘I loved my father,’ she wrote. ‘He was a genius and funny, but he was also paranoid and neurotic, like Marilyn. That was part of the attraction.’
‘(Monroe) was always seeking advice,’ Skolsky remarked in his 1975 autobiography, Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood. ‘Marilyn was wiser than she pretended to be…She appeared kind and soft and helpless. Almost everybody wanted to help her. Marilyn’s supposed helplessness was her greatest strength.’
It was Steffi who first introduced Marilyn to the young Susan Strasberg in 1954, on the set of There’s No Business Like Show Business. In a revealing, Carmen Miranda-style costume, Marilyn was filming an Irving Berlin number, ‘Heat Wave.’ Her then-husband, sportsman Joe DiMaggio, was also present and clearly uncomfortable at seeing his wife performing a risqué dance routine.
After Marilyn accidentally fell, work was adjourned and she retreated, feeling humiliated, to her dressing room. Skolsky comforted her there, joined by Steffi and Susan Strasberg, who later wrote: ‘Steffi, like a party hostess, turned to (Marilyn) and asked, “What kind of character were you doing in that song? You were marvellous.” Marilyn looked surprised and started to stutter and stammer some reply,”Sh-she’s a…”’
‘As soon as the three of us were alone,’ Susan continued, ‘Sidney turned to Steffi furiously. “What’s the matter with you?” he seethed. “You know better than that!”’ This may seem like an over-reaction, but was nonetheless typical of Skolsky’s protective attitude towards Marilyn. ‘The drama, my father loved the drama,’ Steffi explained. ‘Just like Marilyn.’
Of course, this flair for hyperbole made Skolsky a highly successful journalist, and many of the earlier, more Dickensian accounts of Marilyn’s life were dreamed up by her and Skolsky – he wrote her first published biography in 1954, and hoped that she would star in a film project of his own about the life of her childhood idol, Jean Harlow. Unfortunately, this latter collaboration never materialised.
Steffi later told Monroe’s biographer, Anthony Summers (in his 1986 bestseller, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe), that Skolsky had insisted that she listen in to all his telephone conversations with Marilyn. Skolsky would call Monroe regularly as he did with other stars, but he never asked Steffi to listen in on anyone else. Perhaps Skolsky worried about Marilyn, who like him suffered from depression.
Monroe’s last conversation with Skolsky, overheard by Steffi, occurred only hours before her death in August 1962. ‘She was lost,’ Skolsky reflected, ‘a climber. A child of nature. The higher she climbed the more lost she became. Like Hemingway’s leopard on Mount Kilimanjaro.’