The Mistress of Poplar Springs, Part 2

In 1954, Bradshaw Crandell painted this portrait of Jane Hall Cutler. Crandell did exquisite portraits of many prominent men and women.

Jane Hall Cutler of Casanova

All photos courtesy of the Gallery at robinrcutler.com

Part 1, published in August, dealt with Jane Hall’s early life in Arizona and California. Orphaned at age 15, she and her brother Dickie came to live with Randolph and Rose Hicks, who had an apartment in New York City as well as his ancestral farm, Poplar Springs in Casanova.

As the Great Depression worsened, Randolph and Rose Hicks were feeling financial pressures, and Jane realized that she should start looking for a job in New York. “Advertising seemed an ideal field for someone with writing and artistic talent, and Jane interviewed at numerous companies, such as Liggett and Myers, J. Walter Thompson, and the fragrance and cosmetics company, Coty Inc.,” wrote her daughter and biographer, Robin R. Cutler, in Such Mad Fun (2016).

But Rose insisted that Jane spend her summers at Poplar Springs, and she found ample material for her stories in Fauquier County. One summer, she took her first flight in a small airplane with Randy Carter. It was an experience she would long to repeat in the years to come.

As she worked to finish her last year at Cooper Union, Jane sent out more job applications; in December, she was offered a job at the Carlyle Hotel promoting society events, and later took a job in retail at Lord & Taylor.
“Something had to give,” wrote Robin. “Two days later, Jane dropped out of art school one semester short of graduation.”

Was that a good decision? According to Jane’s diary, her art teacher (Austin Purves) told her, “Success depends on one’s attitude toward the future – whether one welcomes it or fears it.”

Jane’s writing career takes off

Just after New Year’s Day 1935, Jane’s literary agent, Elsie McKeogh, informed her that Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan might be interested in “Out a Year,” the story she had written at Poplar Springs. She met with a Hearst editor who offered both criticism and encouragement.

While the story ultimately did not work for Cosmopolitan, another magazine, Delineator, offered to pay her $350 if she made some minor changes. Over the next few months she worked with Delineator editors, and in August 1935, the story was published under the title, “Tell Her ‘Hey.”

In October 1939, Jane and her dog Kate appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. The glamorous artwork was done by Bradshaw Crandell.

Other magazines wishing to attract a younger, well-educated audience for their advertisers took notice of Jane’s debut story in Delineator, and within the next 12 months, she had other articles published in the Women’s Home Companion, the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping – and Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan.

Jane was helped immensely by her agent Elsie. If a story was rejected by one magazine, she would send it right off to another. The Hearst publications soon competed for her work, and her payments for each story reached $800 – big money during the Depression. She also found herself in good literary company, published in magazines along with Pearl Buck, W. Somerset Maugham, Ogden Nash, and Erle Stanley Gardner.

Her life in Fauquier County also provided inspiration for several romances, including part of a trilogy entitled “Moonlight on His Wings,” published in Good Housekeeping in August 1937. Warrenton became “Ridgeville,” with “Liz McKelvy” as the main character. Her love interest was “Pell Loomis,” based on Fauquier pilot Cliff Zieger.

Jane’s writing and reputation as a “debutante with a brain” caught the notice of Hollywood agent H. N. Swanson, who knew Elsie. Swanson read several of Jane’s stories, which he sent to Manny Wolf, story editor and head of Paramount’s writer’s department. He also sent samples of her work to the story departments at MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO, with his endorsement.

While Swanson lobbied for Jane in Hollywood, in June 1937, Cosmopolitan became the exclusive publisher for her fiction. She wrote a series of five stories that reflected the problems young women like herself faced when having to decide whether to marry for love, social standing, or money.

Swanson’s efforts soon paid off, as Edwin Knopf of MGM offered Jane $350 to come on board as a scenario writer. She signed with MGM, and it was off to Hollywood.

Jane made the trip west by steamer, arriving at Los Angeles on December 19, 1937, and rented a room at the Garden of Allah complex on Sunset Boulevard. At first uncomfortable in her new surroundings, she quickly adapted, impressed by the facilities at MGM in Culver City and the people she worked with there.

One of the first parties she attended was at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gary Cooper, and she was surprised to learn that F. Scott Fitzgerald – who she would be working with at MGM – also lived at the Garden.

Among the stars Jane met were Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Graucho Marx, Loretta Young, Cesar Romero, and Carol Lombard; Rosalind Russell went out of her way to befriend Jane. She was also introduced to gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Jane found a best friend in a stray, wire-haired fox terrier puppy that she adopted and named Catherine Scarlett O’Hara, or “Kate.” The dog would be her companion for many years.

Jane maintained a long-distance relationship with Cosmopolitan, taking on special writing projects related to the movies. She appeared on the cover of the magazine with Kate in October 1939 in a portrait created by Bradshaw Crandell (1896-1966).

Back at MGM, Jane took on more challenging work, including the story and screenplay for “Such Mad Fun” which would become the movie, “These Glamour Girls,” dipping into her experiences as a debutante and characters she had known.

Making the story into a film proved tense and difficult – working with a team of male producers meant lots of rewrites. How the film ended was “guided” by Sam Zimbalist and other studio executives. It was also at this time that Jane encountered the frustration brought by the Production Code motion picture censors.

The Wizard of Oz

In February 1938, Jane was selected to write an article for Good Housekeeping magazine about MGM’s upcoming blockbuster film, The Wizard of Oz, still regarded as a masterpiece of film making. Production started on the $3 million dollar movie on Oct. 13, 1938, with a production deadline of March 16, 1939.

Dinner at New York’s Stork Club in 1942. From left, Miki Crandell, Randolph Hicks, Jane Hall Cutler, Bradshaw Crandell, and Bob Cutler.

To get to know the story, Jane re-read L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book, which she enjoyed more than the first time. She interviewed the producer, the legendary Mervyn LeRoy, and met with staff to collect background information on what would go into the film.

As production rolled along, she became aware of details few movie goers would ever realize. The 124 Munchkins that appeared were actually “the largest collection of midgets in the world,” not dressed-up children, as many people thought; and that Toto was a five-year-old Cairn Terrier named “Terry” owned by Carl Spitz.

Judy Garland, who played Dorothy, was 17 and was required by California law to attend school at least three hours a day, and could work only four hours a day. Jane revealed that Garland loved the role, but was not happy playing a “much younger, simpler girl” than she really was.

Jane got to meet the other main characters as well: Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr, Tin Man Jack Haley, Scarecrow Ray Bolger, Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton, and Good Witch Glenda, Billie Burke.

Much anticipated, The Wizard of Oz opened to enthusiastic crowds in March 1939, and at the end of April, Jane returned to Virginia – tired and broke. Her agent Swanson secured a contract for her with Universal Pictures which led to a series of screenwriting assignments and other projects with the big California movie producers.

“Working on the assembly line of the dream factory,” while exciting, took its toll, and by mid-June, Hall was seeking more out of life than creating dramatic scenarios and clever dialogue for movies.

She had several suitors over the years, and in August 1939 met Robert Frye Cutler (1902-1976), scion of a wealthy New York family. Bob was a businessman and the founder of a leading summer stock theater in New York, and like Jane, an animal lover. He was also recently divorced, and a recovering alcoholic.

Jane, who had written about the bad effects of alcohol as a young teen, wanted to help him, and assumed that marrying Bob “…would give her more freedom to write what she wanted to write, the resources to remain a glamour girl, and take some pressure off her guardians,” wrote Robin.

Bob Cutler quickly won the approval of Rose and Randolph Hicks. Jane spent the first eight months of 1940 in the east, “immersed in her new beau’s life.” Their engagement was made official at a party at Poplar Springs on September 1, 1940, and soon afterward the couple left for California where Jane had a job at RKO. They were married quietly in Pasadena in November 1940.
Their first year of marriage was magical, but by late 1941, things had changed. With America’s entry into World War II, Hollywood felt the full impact, with skilled employees and technical crews – as well as some actors – going to war.

The ambition and ability to concentrate that made Jane’s writing easy and rewarding had faded, and Bob’s summer stock theater, operated badly by a different producer, was failing.

Jane wrote a witty story for RKO called, “How to Meet a Man,” but after months of trying, the producers never made the movie. “By then Jane was too caught up in the new responsibilities of her marriage to focus on writing,” wrote Robin.

Struggling to go on

Back in New York, Jane found trying to write excruciating. Although Bob never drank during their marriage, his personality changed after the war. He unexpectedly “…slipped back into his silent, inscrutable self,” and began to resent Jane’s artistic friends and career aspirations, hoping she would handle his business interests instead.

In February 1944, their daughter Robin was born, and about a year later, Jane gave up on any thoughts of returning to screenwriting. Her last serious writing effort was a story entitled “Acapulco Fizz,” which was published in Cosmopolitan in January 1946.

But by 1949, she stopped writing. An entry in her diary read, “It isn’t because I stopped working. I have worked very hard. But nothing finished. It is as if I lost heart completely. No self confidence left.”

The family moved to an apartment on Park Avenue in New York, and Jane launched a new career in real estate and investments in order to maintain their lifestyle. But more changes were coming.

Randolph Hicks died on July 1, 1951 and was buried in the family cemetery at Poplar Springs. Jane had to return to Virginia frequently to help Rose manage the farm. She also lost her beloved dog Kate that year. “By the time she turned 40 in 1955, Jane’s cheerful, glamorous front masked a flagging psyche,” wrote Robin.

Jane’s spirit was greatly helped by a special friend, Count Carl Johan Arthur “Johnnie” Bernadotte, a Swedish businessman whom she had met in 1955. Both were married to someone else during the years of their friendship, which was clearly sparked by romance, but always respectful and restrained, as evident in his many surviving letters to her. Over the decade of their friendship, Johnnie continually encouraged Jane to use her talents and potential.

On to Poplar Springs

In April 1957, Rockrest, the Cutler family home in New York, burned, and on Feb. 19, 1958, Rose Hicks died and was buried on the farm next to Randolph. Rose left Poplar Springs to Jane, who with Bob and Robin spent much of the 1960s living there when not in New York.
Randy Carter’s daughter, Lindsay Carter Gibson, was Jane’s goddaughter. She spent a lot of time at Poplar Springs when the Cutlers were there, and remembers Jane as very creative, not only as a writer but as an artist.

Spending summers at Poplar Springs while in art school, Jane Hall painted this mural of the Casanova Hunt that hung over the fireplace for many years.

“Jane was never superficial,” said Lindsay. “Her mind kept on the prowl for interesting discussions and other people’s points of view. She also treated young people respectfully, recognizing they had minds of their own.”
Jane introduced Lindsay to astronomy and to different personality types, “…which later transformed into my career as a clinical psychologist,” she explained.

“I adored her and felt I could tell her all kinds of things,” said Lindsay, adding, “Jane had a wicked, dark sense of humor that was so funny to me, as I knew no other adults who would say such outlandish things.”

Lindsay noted that Jane was “…incredibly loyal to her disabled husband Bob, bringing him to all social events as long as she could.”

Bob Cutler died in 1976, and in 1978, Jane sold their apartment in New York to live full-time at Poplar Springs. “Throughout the 1970s, much of her time was spent caring for aging horses, burros, numerous dogs, a handful of farm cats, and various birds whose lives she had saved,” recalled Robin. There was also an ocelot named “Skulnik,” who had bonded with Jane in 1953 and lived with her until 1972. “Those devoted creatures were my mother’s closest companions,” wrote Robin.

In her later years, Jane led a somewhat solitary life, rarely leaving Poplar Springs. In addition, she suffered a serious back injury.

According to retired pharmacist Jerry Wood of Warrenton, Frank Frazier – who had retired from Safeway – would take Jane’s orders for groceries and medicine purchased at his store, and deliver them to Jane at Poplar Springs.
Wood enjoyed talking with Jane, sometimes at length, on the telephone. In addition to hearing about life in Hollywood, she often described her current state of affairs. “She once told me that it was so hot in her house that she saw her cat chasing a mouse – and they were both walking!” recalled Wood. Another time, she asked him for birth control pills – not for herself, but to cut up and give to the mice. She didn’t want to kill them, but didn’t want any more of them, either.

Jane Hall Cutler died on April 18, 1987 without a will, and Poplar Springs passed to her daughter Robin. “It took me several years to turn the property into an event site while I was working at another full-time job in Washington,” said Robin. The restoration work was done by local contractor James D. Eicher.

“I finally had to sell the property in 1995 to pay the mounting debt on Jane’s estate taxes, but I found a buyer who shared my dream of making it a public space.”

During her ownership of Poplar Springs, Robin donated 6.1 acres of the property to the Fauquier SPCA in Jane’s memory. In addition to knowing her mother’s love of animals, Robin recalled that the SPCA was enormously helpful when her mother died, “…leaving 11 German shepherds in various states of health.”

The current owner of Poplar Springs is Poplar Springs LLC, which operates the Poplar Springs Manor Inn and Spa.

For more information about Jane Hall Cutler’s life and career, visit the Such Mad Fun Web site at www.robinrcutler.com


“The Warrenton Oyster Fry”

Painted while she was a student in the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union in New York from 1932-35, Jane Hall Cutler painted “The Warrenton Oyster Fry.” It earned an honorable mention in a school competition, as well as a listing in The New York Times.

The painting remained in the family for years until recently donated to Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. 

Curator Sheldon Cheek at the Hutchins Center found “The Warrenton Oyster Fry” to be a “…sympathetic treatment of a theme rarely experienced by most white people. The exaggerated figural style reflects the liveliness of an event where African Americans could truly be themselves,” and that Jane’s style “…is best described as an east coast representation of American Realism, as developed by John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, etc.” John Steuart Curry was Jane’s favorite teacher at Cooper Union. 

“It is wonderful to know that “The Warrenton Oyster Fry” has such a distinguished home,” said Robin Cutler.

John Toler
About John Toler 11 Articles
Broad Run resident John Toler is the co-author of the recent Fauquier County and Town of Warrenton history books, and has contributed numerous newspaper and magazine articles focused on the history of Fauquier, Prince William and Loudoun counties.

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