WHEN Austin and Howard Mewse, 20-year-old twins from Epsom, write to Hollywood, Hollywood jumps. It all began in 1986 when the brothers dropped a line to Lillian Gish asking for her autograph. Gish's reply, which arrived in a tea-stained envelope, was unexpectedly lengthy and triggered a correspondence that was to continue until her death. 'Her last letter came four days before she died,' says Austin. 'It was short, which was very unusual for her'.
The twins were so chuffed by their postal friendship with 'the first lady of cinema' that they decided to write to the second, and the third, and the fourth . . . Seven years later, Austin and Howard Mewse, who have just approached their 350th lady of cinema, have in their possession the biggest collection of letters and autographs by faded Hollywood stars ever to be owned by 20- year-old twins from Epsom.
Their archives include signed photographs from Elizabeth Taylor and Deanna Durbin, polite jottings from Frank Sinatra and Robert Mitchum (their brief soon stretched to include men), and scrawled notes from Katharine Hepburn ('Thank you very much - I'm fine. All Exaggerations'). The bulk of their postbag, though, is from the forgotten co-stars and silent goddesses from the Twenties and Thirties, the Laurel and Hardy leading ladies, the early child stars, whose names they've come across in film books and whose faces they've glimpsed in black and white Sunday afternoon movies. Their homes they tracked down through a combination of blood, sweat (Who's Whos, the Academy, phone directories) and Earl Grey tea - this last a vital tool in bribing the American author Richard Lamparski (he of the Whatever Became of . . ? series) for his connections. Sometimes they'd find an address that was 30 or 40 years old; more often than not, it still worked.
Nowadays, their contacts come through word of mouth. Howard and Austin's polite missives and detailed questionaires ('What happened to your career when talkies came in?'; 'How did you get on with Louis B Mayer?') has made them friends. 'Often they're delighted to find a link with their past,' says Howard, 'Many haven't received fan mail for years.' Lillian Gish answered their questions about Rudolf Valentino ('oh yes, he used to come to our house and eat spaghetti'), but was just as happy chatting on about the weather in New York or recent films ('she was just like our grandmother really,' says Howard). The twins sent a photograph of themselves, on request, to Anna Lee, and birthday presents to Ethlyne Clair and Eleanor Boardman. In return, Boardman (who remembers teaching Greta Garbo 'to talk like an American') passed them on to her neighbours, who just happened to be Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell.
Over the seven years, some of the Hollywood pen-pals have died. The Mewse brothers, who want to write a book on the subject, have an increasing sense of urgency. They're still searching for Audrey Ferris, Rin Tin Tin's leading lady, for Eve Gray, Errol Flynn's co-star, for Molly Lamont . . . 'But time's running out,' says Austin, 'pretty soon there'll be no one left.'
As far as the book's concerned, the Mewse brothers are still looking for a publisher. They went to see someone in Covent Garden who listened to what they had to say and then asked, 'So where does Marilyn Monroe fit in?' They weren't impressed.
'I Used to be in Pictures', an exhibition of Austin and Howard's autographs and correspondence is at the Museum of the Moving Image, South Bank, London SE1 from 30 June.
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