(How I discovered a career)
I did not settle in Hollywood with acting ambitions. I was a male secretary with the Southern Pacific Railroad in Houston, Texas when I was asked to come with the guys to see one of our fellow employee’s estranged wife starring in a big rock and roll movie.
Paul Mansfield worked in our publicity department and the gang wanted to be supportive of his wife although they were near divorce. Although not particularly interested, I went along to be supportive, although I didn’t know Paul personally.
When Jayne Mansfield came on the screen, I was mesmerized. My first thought was that she needed a friend. How a kid from the hollows of West Virginia could aspire to befriend a beautiful blonde movie star was beyond comprehension but my imagination belied my common sense.
However, the very next day, I put in for a transfer to Los Angeles, one of the largest terminals of Southern Pacific. My request was granted and within three weeks I stepped off the train and into the magic land of California.
I secured a one-bedroom apartment in the famous Hollywood Argyle, although I had no idea of its history as a starting location for dozens of young actors seeking stardom. My new job took me on a long round trip to the Taylor Yards in Eagle Rock changing busses twice in each direction since any vehicle was out of range on my salary and recent residency. After a couple of weeks of long hours commuting back and forth to work, I gave the railroad a two-week notice and left railroading behind me forever.
With no promise of new employment, I did what most of my contemporaries were doing.
I hounded the want ads for a job. Meanwhile, I made friends with a young man who worked at M.G.M. studios.
“Would you be interested in working in the film business?” You bet I would. Tom continued. “There’s a woman at Life Employment named Billie Cooper. She finds work for young guys in the industry. You should go see her.”
It turned out to be the best career advice anyone ever gave me, although I didn’t know that at the time. I never came to Hollywood to work in the movies. I only wanted to be a friend to Jayne Mansfield, but what better way to meet her than working at a movie studio – or so I thought.
My first visit to Miss Cooper netted me nothing more than to come back the following Friday. I did that. She asked me, “What do you know about business management?”
“A lot,” I said although I didn’t have the faintest idea what she was talking about. I always felt if I got my foot into the door, my charm would keep me there.
“Ray, I have a request for a male secretary with a business management firm at 8810 Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.”
I quickly said yes, without knowing that it was part of the famous Sunset Strip.
“Charles Goldring represents a number of screen and television writers and he pays well.”
My appointment was for a Friday afternoon. After Mr. Goldring and his executive secretary interviewed me, I was feeling maybe I didn’t measure up when Mr. Goldring added, “Ray, I yell a lot.”
Without any hesitation, I knew what to say. “Mr. Goldring, I spent six years in the military. I’ve been yelled at by experts.” I got the job and started work the following Monday.
My office was a small cubicle at the foot of the stairs that led up to Mr. Goldring’s office, also referred to by the staff as “The lion’s den,” which is self-explanatory.
The following day a bundle of pink and fluff and a 41-inch bust floated past me and up the stairs to Charlie’s office. When she came down again, she stopped and said, “You must be Charlie’s new secretary.”
Almost spellbound, I said, “Yes ma’am.”
“What’s your name?”
I barely muttered, “Ray Strait.”
‘Well, I’m Jayne Mansfield and I’m a movie star. How would you like to help me with my fan mail on weekends?”
I did fan mail one weekend. After that, I became her constant companion for ten years, sharing all of her problems and successes. I became the go-to guy in her life and traveled the world with her. We were inseparable.
When she suddenly lost her life in an automobile accident in the wee hours of the morning on a lonely road between Biloxi, Mississippi and New Orleans, I was thrown into the job of doing an inventory of all her possession. In shock and a feeling of being left alone in the world without a rudder, I sought solace with my good friend, actor Jim Backus who was opening in Las Vegas the following weekend – July 4th – at the Fremont Hotel in Las Vegas where I had been at Jayne’s side when she brought her night club act there a year earlier. It was a painful visit.
Jim asked me, “How long were you with Jayne?”
“You must have a terrific book in you.’
I spent the next 90 days in my garage with a typewriter, which drove my wife to despair, I am sure. After three months and 800 pages, I submitted my manuscript to publishers. Turned down by 26 major publishers, I continued to submit and one day, an editor from Regnery Books in Chicago called me and spoke the magic words. “We’d like to publish your Mansfield book.”
More than 30 books later, mostly celebrity biographies, I’ve built a career as an author/biographer. The moral of my story that even a hillbilly kid from West Virginia can find success in Hollywood even if it is by accident.
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