Slim Keith arrived at a Death Valley inn in the middle of the piping hot desert as if out of nowhere. The 16-year-old was alone and driving a huge yellow Packard Roadster convertible. Her extravagant and glamorous life seemed to start in that desert. So who was Slim Keith? Let's dig deep into these hidden facts and get the skinny on Slim Keith.
If there was anyone who ever needed a stage name, it was Slim Keith. She was born on July 15, 1917, and her name was Mary Raye Gross. While Mary Raye has a nice ring to it, it was the family name that needed changing. Keith’s mother, however, didn’t see it that way. She actually changed her first name from Mary Raye to plain old Nancy. How was little Nancy Gross going to grow up and become a leading socialite in the Hollywood scene? Just wait and see.
Keith was the middle child—which came with a devastating side effect. As it sadly turned out, she was the one who got the least love from the parents. Her older sister was blonde, beautiful and “as mean as a snake”. Her younger brother, being the only boy, got all the attention from dad and thought of as the family’s only hope. Keith felt less than loved.
She may have been lucky in the end though: once you got to know her father, you may not want his love anyway.
Keith’s dad had three enemies: Catholics, Jews, and Christmas. He blamed the Catholics for inventing Christmas, which cost him money and gave him heartburn. According to him, the Jews were also after his money, but it was because they conspired to make him buy things he didn’t need. Needless to say, growing up the least liked child—and with a father full of hatred—was not a charming childhood.
It was, however, about to get even less charming.
One evening, when the children and mom were relaxing and enjoying dad’s absence, tragedy struck. When Keith’s younger brother got too near the fireplace, a spark ignited his pajamas. The screaming eight-year-old ran around the house in agony while Keith, her sister and mother tried to stop him in order to extinguish the fire.
Mom finally got a hold of him and rolled him up in a carpet. Sadly it was too late. Little Buddy had passed. It was a terrible tragedy, but how Keith’s father dealt with it was almost worse.
After the incident with Buddy, Keith's family fell apart. Dad had a brutal plan to deal with the family grief: he sent his two daughters to a convent school called Sisters of Notre Dame. The only good news was that Keith would have her sister to mourn the loss of Buddy with—but it didn’t exactly work out that way. While at the school, big sister Teedie completely ignored her younger sister.
Apparently, Keith was an ugly embarrassment to her. Keith was left to mourn her little brother all by herself. Her family had lost a valuable member—and there were still more to go.
After Keith and her sister returned to the family home, they made a disturbing discovery. Their dad was gone. Keith’s father couldn’t bear to be around his family without Buddy there—so he’d left them. Then one day, Keith’s sister, Teedie arrived at the house with a moving truck. She loaded up her things, and that was it: she was gone from their lives forever.
Teedie vowed never to return to the family home. Unfortunately, Dad made no such promise.
Even though the family now consisted only of Keith and her mother, it was a relatively happy time. The pair got along famously. One day, Keith’s father made an out of the blue visit to her school. He offered her gifts that any 13-year-old child would say an unqualified yes to: a horse, a boat and even a car.
Keith thought she’d hit the jackpot, until she learned there was a cruel catch. She’d have to say her mother was the cause of Buddy’s untimely passing. Keith's father had a plan, and it was an evil one.
Keith's father was trying to lure her into coming to live with him, but it wasn't because he felt any love got her at all. Her father’s plan went like this: If Keith chose her dad over her mom, it would seem like mom was an unfit mother. And why did father want this? There would be a financial benefit for him: no child support payments. Keith, even at the age of 13, was a shrewd negotiator and sent her father packing.
Keith’s mother ended up getting a healthy divorce settlement—healthy enough that they could live a life that many dreamed of: in a luxury hotel.
The duo were living at the Del Monte Hotel, but Keith had another idea. She was just 16 years old when she decided she wanted to live for a short time in the desert. She left school and moved to the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley, California. The area had once recorded the highest temperature ever on earth: 56.7 degrees Celsius (134.1 F). Keith bravely entered the furnace, but instead of being consumed by the heat, she stumbled onto something much more dangerous: movie stars.
Keith, 16 years old and driving a yellow convertible Packard Roadster, definitely stood out at the resort in the desert. Everyone seemed to want to know who this young woman was. The hotel was close enough to Hollywood that it attracted some stars looking for an anonymous place to relax.
When The Thin Man actor William Powell saw Keith, he asked her why she wasn’t in school. Keith’s reply was unforgettable. She wanted to know why he wasn’t at work.
With all the stories about predatory Hollywood men, this situation of a 16-year-old living unchaperoned in a hotel seems like a disaster in the making. Instead of taking advantage of Keith, Powell became her protector and eventually her friend. Keith lasted two months at the inn, but meeting Powell there changed her life forever. For one thing, he started calling her “Slim Princess”—which Keith shortened to just Slim.
It’s not every girl who gets her nickname from a Hollywood icon, but Keith was just getting started.
Even though Keith went back to living in Carmel, California, Powell remained her friend. Keith didn’t mind spending the time on the road to continue her new LA lifestyle. Through her constant socializing, she eventually came to meet one of the richest men in America: media giant William Randolph Hearst. Receiving an invite to one of Hearst’s parties was like the holy grail for a young up-and-coming socialite.
She arrived at the party to see acres of canvas—the theme of the party was the Circus. While Powell had opened Keith’s eyes to Hollywood, Hearst was opening them to over the top extravagance.
After the fabulous circus party, there were more and even more fabulous parties. Hearst eventually invited Keith to his castle near San Simeon. While the castle certainly did impress, the other party-goers impressed even more. Keith was soon hobnobbing with the likes of Cary Grant and David Niven. One night at Clover Club, Keith had hit the dance floor with a friend. Before she knew what was happening, she was standing face to face with “it” director of the moment, Howard Hawks.
Hawks couldn’t take his eyes off Keith, but his conversation with her didn’t go quite as planned.
Hawks, who’d directed the hit film Scarface in 1932, was used to meeting pretty girls in Hollywood nightclubs. He had a standard line that always seemed to work: “Do you want to be in movies?” Keith, however, had a reply that was anything but standard: she simply told him “No, thank you”. Keith’s reply shocked Hawks, who was desperately trying to hit on a good comeback. He took a moment, and then invited her to his pool for a swim.
Keith may have surprised Hawks with her reply, but it was her who was next to get a shock.
While flirting poolside with Hawks, Keith was in for a rude awakening. First she got an unwelcome revelation when she met Hawk’s three children—she’d had no idea about that side of Hawk’s life. When Keith asked about the mother of the three children, she got her second whammy of the day: Hawks was still married.
The only thing more astonishing about this news was Hawks’ explanation—and it was a doozy.
Hawks had to carefully and slowly explain to Keith that yes, he was still married, but that his wife was mentally unstable. Her name was Athole Shearer, and her sister was the celebrated movie star Norma Shearer. This should have been the moment when Keith kissed Hawks on the cheek and said thanks for the swim, but I’m out.
But something had happened on that innocent date by the pool: Keith had fallen in love. How did this happen? How had the fabulous Keith fallen for the most unavailable man in Hollywood?
It wasn’t looking good for Slim Keith. The man she’d fallen for was not only already married, he was old enough to be her father. To make matters worse—or in Keith’s perspective, better—Hawks was also in love with her. All he had to do was get a divorce, and they could live happily ever after. There was, however, something standing in the way of that—and it was something major.
Hollywood divorces happened all the time, so there should have been nothing stopping Keith from marrying her true love. At this time, however, there was a law forbidding anyone from obtaining a divorce from someone who was “mentally deranged”. Hawks’ wife certainly fell into this category—she’d been in and out of psych wards for years.
Keith was in a predicament: she was in love with a man she could not marry. What’s a girl to do?
Keith decided to throw caution to the wind and just be with the man she loved. Of course she kept it from her mother, but everyone else knew that Keith and Hawks were a pair. Through her travels with Hawks, Keith came to meet author Ernest Hemingway. Keith was now used to hanging around Hollywood actors, but Hemingway was a whole other thing. He literally bowled her over with his intelligence.
Keith, in turn, bowled Hemingway over with something else: her charm and style.
Keith was definitely still with Hawks, but it didn’t stop her from having a fantasy about the famous author. Hemingway was apparently into her as well—but there was another surprising factor in the way. She said she found Hemingway in need of some personal grooming. His beard was not neat, and he seldom bathed.
To make matters worse, the celebrated author wore the same clothes day after day. Keith saw Hemingway as just a harmless flirtation, until Hemingway made his needs glaringly obvious.
Slim Keith got herself in a delicate position while on a hunting trip with Hawks and Hemingway. She was drying her hair in front of a fire after a shower and Hemingway and photographer Robert Capa came into the room. Hemingway offered to brush her hair and Keith, who was always up for a bit of mischief, complied. After the hair brushing, Hemingway told her that it was difficult for both he and Capa to be in the same room with her.
Keith read the room, and realized that the burning fire was not the hottest thing there.
It was clear that both Hemingway and Capa were burning in their desire for Keith. Hemingway then made a scandalous offer. He put it out there that there was fun to be had with her and Capa—all behind Hawks’ back. The room was charged with electricity, and Keith knew she had to do something. Any more flirting and she would have to go through with it.
Luckily, Keith never seemed to be in short supply of things to say. She made a little joke and got herself out of the situation. This little close call with Hemingway made Keith see the light. She was through playing the field and was now ready to commit to Hawks.
Hawks was finally able to get a divorce, and Keith immediately started planning the elaborate wedding. Their wedding day was to be on December 11, 1941—an ominous day if you’re a historian. You see, four days before Keith’s dream wedding, a nightmare happened: Japanese forces invaded Pearl Harbor. This was something that would definitely put a damper on a wedding.
Despite the catastrophe of Pearl Harbor, Keith and Hawks continued on with their plans—but something else was in the way. While Keith was coming down the stairs to her ceremony, she suddenly stopped stone cold. She turned to Gary Cooper, who was gallantly standing in for her absent father, and said that she couldn't go through with the marriage. Cooper had a reputation for playing characters who stayed cool under pressure, but this was real life and not a movie.
Cooper immediately got into character and convinced Keith to continue down the stairs and to her wedding. But was it the right thing to do? Only time would tell.
Keith and Hawks were finally a legitimate couple and got down to living together. Keith became his chief reader and gave her advice on scripts that Hawks received as potential projects. When Keith read a script called Everybody Goes To Rick’s, Keith advised Hawks that the film would be, in her words anyway, a “pig”. Hawks passed on the project, and another director picked it up.
There was a title change and the rest is history. Hawks had said no to one of the most famous movies of all time: Casablanca. Oops!
Once Keith got into the rhythm of married life, she began to notice a few strange things about her husband. One of the worst was his over the top storytelling. Hawks loved to engage friends with a variety of stories that had one thing in common: they all made him look good. Because Keith was his wife, she got to hear the stories over and over again and she noticed that Hawks was changing the stories around to suit the myth about himself. And what was the myth? That he was a macho man who could do anything.
Keith knew this wasn’t the truth, and his constant lying was grating.
As a director, Hawks seemed to have a type for his female characters. They were strong-willed and more equal to men than most female characters during this time. They were also very slim and wore more severe, almost masculine clothes than other glamorous Hollywood types. When Hawks first met Keith, it was like he was looking at one of his characters—only it was real life. Keith still wasn’t interested in acting, so they needed to find a Keith look-a-like.
When Hawks was casting for the film version of Hemingway’s To Have or Have Not what he wanted was someone just like his wife. Keith wasn’t an actor, but she managed to find someone that reminded her of herself. She was paging through a magazine and she came across a model that had a similar look to her own. The model was Lauren Bacall, and Keith knew she would be right for the role.
But wasn’t it dangerous to introduce your husband to a woman that was just his type?
Hawks wanted Bacall to act just like his wife, and he even wanted her to sound like her—but then he took it to disturbing new lengths. Suddenly Hawks was listening to everything that Keith said and using it in the movie. One of the writers even suggested that Keith get a script writing credit. Keith and Hawks were playing with fire: they were recreating a woman that was perfect for Hawk.
Finding a Keith look-a-like delighted Hawks: It was like having a second version of his wife. It seems, however, to have delighted him too much. Once they got working on To Have or Have Not, Hawks became infatuated with Bacall—he even let her use Keith’s nickname: Slim. Hawks quickly made a very ungentlemanly decision. He wanted to have an affair with Bacall.
The only problem for Hawks was that he had competition: Humphrey Bogart.
While Bacall and Bogart were exchanging all those romantic lines in To Have or Have Not, they were actually falling for each other. Even though Hawks had Keith at home—who was actually the real thing—he was still obsessed with his wife’s lookalike, Bacall. Hawks was angry at Bacall for hitting it off with Bogart and began to make chilling threats. He told her he’d torpedo her career.
Hawks went on to predict that Bogart would dump Bacall after finishing the film. He got that so wrong: the two were together until the end of Bogart’s life. But just because Hawks couldn’t have Bacall didn’t mean that he gave his wandering eye a rest.
Because Hawks couldn’t get Bacall, he had to settle for her co-star Dolores Moran. Keith became aware of this indiscretion and gave Moran a special nickname: “Dollarass Moron”. It turned out, however, that Keith had more to worry about than just Moran. The list of Hawks’ infidelities was rather long and even included an extra on To Have or Have Not. Keith was angry and in desperate need of some sweet revenge.
As WWII came to an end, servicemen began returning from Europe and elsewhere. This was what brought an old friend to Keith’s doorstep: Gone With the Wind’s Clark Gable. Gable was basically the King of Hollywood at that time and Keith almost lost her cookies when she saw him in his uniform. She also had a mischievous idea. Wouldn’t he be the most perfect man to wreak revenge on her cheating husband?
While Keith was certainly smitten with Gable, she didn’t really want to cheat. Besides, Gable was still mourning the loss of his wife, Carole Lombard, who’d perished in a plane crash. Keith and Gable shared a love of horses and outdoors, so a friendship began. Of course, there was no reason why Hawks couldn’t believe that his wife was having an affair with the most sought-after bachelor in Hollywood.
According to Keith, however, this was a friendship without benefits.
Like any good socialite, Keith needed something to do with her time. Some idle rich folks begin working for a charity, but Keith’s hobby didn’t really match with a charity: it was fashion. In 1945, Keith did end up doing some modeling, but she never accepted any money for it. She got four covers for Harper’s Bazaar and then received an offer that could change her life from rich, aimless wife to working woman.
Harper’s Bazaar wanted her to be their West Coast correspondent. Keith had a huge decision to make: go to work, or keep her freedom.
In the end, Keith didn’t have to make a choice. She found out she was pregnant. At least now Keith was sure that her flailing marriage would get a jump start. Sadly, it made it even worse. Hawks seemed not at all interested in their baby, who they named Kitty. When Keith woke up after delivery, she expected to see her loving husband. Who she actually saw was the doctor.
Keith would have to get used to not seeing Hawks, the baby made him retreat even further into his own life—away from her.
Most young mothers with unsupportive husbands would be in for a world of loneliness on returning home from the hospital with a newborn—but not Keith. As soon as she got the doctor’s go-ahead, she left Kitty with the nanny and was off for some post-delivery R&R. Instead of a spa in the countryside, she headed to New York City to let off some steam. There she danced it up at the El Morocco and attended cocktail parties.
When the Big Apple seemed about to go rotten, Keith turned around and called her old friend Hemingway and begged for some diversion. Hemingway told her to get on a plane and join him in Cuba, which she did.
Keith was out hunting pheasant one day with Hemingway and a few others when something terrible happened. Keith thought the piece she was carrying had no ammo. She absentmindedly pulled the trigger and blam! She almost hit Hemingway in the head—in fact she singed the hair on his neck. Hemingway, one of America’s great authors, was almost lost.
It seemed like a good time to head back home.
Keith eventually remembered that she had a newborn baby back at home that she barely knew. She got on a plane and set a course for motherhood. When she arrived, Hawks immediately wanted her to go away for the weekend, so she gave Kitty a kiss and was off again. Motherhood, or so it would seem, was not a huge priority for Keith. Every time Keith wanted to focus on being a mom, another offer would appear.
The next diversion that would take Keith away from motherhood was another job offer. The successful theater producer Leland Hayward, who Keith had met in Cuba, wanted her fashion advice with the costumes of a show called State of the Union. The offer surprised Keith, and she had to admit something to Hayward that she was a little embarrassed about: She was 30 years old and had never worked a day in her life.
Keith’s first and only job didn't work out that well—she stormed out because the director didn’t like one of the handbags she’d chosen—but something else did come of it. Keith and Hayward fell in love. The fact that they each had partners didn’t do much to stop these two. They carried on a clandestine relationship that included Hayward doing something very sneaky: he’d call her at the house using a foreign accent so Hawks wouldn’t know who it was.
It would, however, take a tragedy to move this secret affair into public knowledge.
Keith was still carrying on her affair with Hayward, when something tragic happened: he got seriously ill. From this illness, Keith learned two things: that she cared deeply for Hayward, and that someone else cared–and this was the real shocker. It turned out her husband also cared. When Hawks saw Keith crying about her boyfriend’s health troubles, he truly wished her and him well. When Hayward recovered in 1950, the two left their spouses and began a proper romance.
Keith, always the wanderer, didn’t waste any time screwing up this romance as well.
Once she was with Hayward properly, she reignited her friendship with Hollywood heartthrob Clark Gable. Gable was now crazy about Keith and wanted her to himself. Keith, on the other hand, just liked the idea of being around Gable. The media went gaga over the idea of Keith and Gable and it infuriated Hayward. What was Keith doing? She finally had the love of her life and she was throwing it into jeopardy.
Hayward would have to get used to Keith’s flirtations with Hollywood icons—and with ones more literary as well.
In addition to her friendship with Hemingway, Keith also saw another famous author socially: Truman Capote. Capote called her “big mama” but it wasn’t exactly clear why—maybe a play on her name “Slim”? Once she traveled with him and Cary Grant to Russia. During the trip, Capote broke down and told Keith that no one truly loved him. That his looks and his high voice made him into some kind of joke.
Capote’s confession moved Keith, and brought the two friends closer together. As it turned out though, Keith shouldn’t have trusted Capote–not at all.
Capote often wondered why Keith was his friend. She was glamorous in every way, and he, as he would say about himself, was clearly not. Later in their friendship, it became clear that Capote had an ulterior motive for being Keith’s friend. Capote was working on a book called Answered Prayers. That's when something vicious came out: he’d based a character on Keith. Not so bad…except that the character was not at all flattering.
Keith saw red and vowed never to talk to Capote again—and she didn’t.
With all her dalliances, it seemed that Keith was the one who was always looking for something else. Yet it was Hayward who actually found it. Keith’s second husband met socialite and activist Pamela Harriman in 1959 and things progressed very quickly. While still married to Keith, Hayward did something appalling. He proposed to Harriman. Hayward then sat around waiting to divorce Keith as soon as he could.
The day the divorce went through was Hayward’s wedding day: May 4, 1960. He didn’t wait a minute. The divorce hit Keith hard: suddenly she was all alone.
Keith was distraught without Hayward and went on an emotional bender, but—Keith being Keith—she did it while vacationing in Europe. While she was running around Europe dealing with her divorce, she received a devastating phone call. Her dear friend Hemingway had taken his own life. Two of the most important men in her life were now gone.
Keith had no idea how to function on her own, she had no idea how much money she had, or even how much money she needed for her and her daughter. She was truly alone and needed rescuing.
By the 1960s, Keith was over her grief and was looking for a man–this time someone not in show biz. A friend had arranged a blind date for her with a British banker and, as he walked up the stairs of her apartment, Keith imagined her future arriving. The only problem with her date was his accent: Keith couldn't understand a word he said.
Given the awkwardness of blind dates, this could be the reason the date went so well.
Keith’s blind date was Kenneth Keith—where she got her final surname. The two married in 1962 and in 1969 Mr. Keith became Baron Keith of Castleacre, a thrilling title change. There was, however, a startling reality. The marriage was not one of passion but more of mutual benefit. Keith had felt lost without a man and wanted stability.
Her new husband wanted a beautiful companion who knew the right people. Voila: it was a match made by Ikea–practical, but a little boring.
It took Keith a decade of a dreary marriage for her to realize it wasn’t working for her. She was able to meet the Queen for her husband’s knighthood in 1969, but she left him just as Rolls Royce offered to make him their chairman. In 1972, she walked out of Keith’s life…but seemed more emotional about saying good-bye to the servants who had shown her more warmth than the stuffy Baron.
While Keith kept her name as “Slim” all her life, she didn’t keep the image. Keith loved food and refused to diet just to stay true to her name. Unlike other socialites, she also refused to get plastic surgery or even dye her hair. She was true to herself and bravely let everyone see what a lady of over 70 years really looked like.
She lived her final days in New York still traveling and being social. It was lung cancer that eventually took her life at the age of 72.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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