Esme Chandlee, a pioneering female publicist who began her career opening fan mail at MGM in 1942 and went on to represent Judy Garland and Clark Gable, has died. She was 94.
She died in her sleep on Nov. 24 at her Hollywood Hills home, her friend Tony Rizzo told TheWrap on Tuesday.
At MGM, Chandlee was one of a handful of publicists who worked with Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Grace Kelly, Lesley Caron, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart and other contract players at the studio.
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"A lot of women in publicity owe their success to Esme and women like her," publicist Henri Bollinger told TheWrap Tuesday.
Bollinger worked with Chandlee starting in 1958, when she left MGM and joined the PR firm Cleary, Strauss & Irvin as an associate. She brought her client Gable, among others, with her.
"She was a ground breaker, one of the first women to represent the biggest stars," Bollinger recalled. "She was the ultimate lady, always dressed to the nines and well-coifed. She was a lovely individual, down to earth and at the same time, very, very protective of clients — exactly what those stars wanted in their representatives."
In 1961, she opened Esme Chandlee Public Relations, where her first clients were John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands.
“She was absolutely the queen of them all,” Rowlands said years later. “I was with Esme since she left MGM. She was the ultimate in class."
In 1968, Chandlee began representing Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott, and she stayed on the job until she retired at the age of 89.
Chandlee served as president of the Hollywood Women’s Press Club and the Publicists Guild. She received the guild’s highest honor, the Les Mason Award, in 1984.
“She came to me and said she’d like to help me,” Selleck recalled when she won the award. “I told her I had no money, and she said that wasn’t an issue right then. To learn what a publicist was from someone with Esme’s integrity and professionalism was a blessing."
She also worked as an associate producer on one of the first celebrity interview TV shows, "Here's Hollywood," from 1960-62.
Chandlee had a wealth of stories to tell and one of her favorites, according to Rizzo, came from the day Gable was leaving MGM at the end of his contract. Chandlee asked the star if there was anything he wanted, and Gable replied: "I want to ride off the lot quietly, with you in the car."
Chandlee is survived by her great-nephew Matt Nix, creator of USA Network’s "Burn Notice"; his sister Esme; his mother and father Susan and Philip; Nix’s wife Melinda and their children Charlie, Esme and Mateo; and Chandlee’s niece Lee Turner.
Plans for a service are pending, Rizzo said.