Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse: the twins who wrote to and befriended Hollywood legends

Once upon a time, two suburban boys started writing to Hollywood legends… and, incredibly, they all wrote back to twins Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse, sparking lifelong friendships and unforgettable trips to Tinseltown. From a ‘lettuce-leaf’ lunch with Ginger Rogers to a barbie at Frank Sinatra’s, they tell Kate Thompson how it changed the course of their lives.

It’s 3am. The telephone rings, shattering the calm of a detached house in New Malden. The deep, breathy voice is unmistakable and sounds incongruous in the silence of suburbia. ‘Austin, it’s Marlene Dietrich on the phone,’ Pamela Mutti-Mewse whispered to her son Austin as she tapped on his bedroom door.

Marlene Dietrich
A signed Marlene Dietrich publicity photograph

Marlene is calling from her home in Paris. Time is meaningless to the reclusive actress, but 15-year-old Austin’s formidable penpal isn’t used to being kept waiting. He tumbles out of bed in his pyjamas and races to the phone.

In the 1980s, suburbia was a place of pebbledash and privet, shoulder pads and spandex, but in one corner of Southwest London, it was forever Hollywood. While other boys their age were collecting football cards, twin brothers Austin and Howard were captivated by a more refined elegance. The magic of bygone Hollywood was weaving a peculiar spell that was to alter irrevocably the course of their young lives.

Hollywood letters

Saturday afternoons were spent with their grandmother Violet at her home in nearby Motspur Park, where lunch was served on laps in front of the BBC Two movie matinée. There, the twins were transported from the suburbs to the golden era of Hollywood, where ravishing screen sirens smouldered and the handsome leading men always swept them into a clinch. This glimpse into a long-vanished celluloid world paved the way for a 30-year journey more fantastical than perhaps that of the Hollywood melodramas they watched. It began in 1984, when the boys were 12, with a fan letter to the actress Lillian Gish after seeing her in The Wind (1928).

‘We were both utterly transfixed by the film – it was like nothing we’d seen before,’ Austin recalls. ‘We found her address in the Who’s Who of 1984.’ Lillian Gish wrote back, sending the boys a signed photograph. The trickle of letters, which began as a hobby, soon turned into an obsession as countless stars replied with letters and signed photographs. ‘One memorable day in 1986, first post brought a photo, inscribed in gold pen, from Bette Davis. Second post, a letter from Katharine Hepburn,’ Austin remembers.

Bette Davis
A message from Bette Davis

A year later, they wrote to Marlene Dietrich and were surprised to receive a glossy photo back in an envelope packed out with old Christian Dior stocking-wrappers. The brothers’ impeccable manners and ‘Englishness’ had a snowball effect as one star recommended they contact another. Letters gave way to phone calls, like the 3am call from Marlene that so irritated their father as he had to be up early for work.

‘Marlene had rung to say hello, but also to scold us both,’ Austin says of the memorable phone call. ‘We’d “lumped” her name in with “a load of nobodies” as she put it. When we first wrote to her we explained we’d also written to lots of other actors and actresses. Douglas Fairbanks Jr said it was both brave and wonderfully innocent to have listed two Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz in with her!’

Austin and Howard
Austin (left) and Howard at their book launch

Midnight phone calls aside, Austin’s mother Pamela, a housewife, and father John, an insurance broker, were unfazed by the famous American voices that called the house. ‘It all became bizarrely ordinary. I remember once Mum was in the kitchen when the phone rang. She said, “Oh Austin, if that’s Hedy Lamarr on the phone then hurry up. I’m getting toad-in-the-hole out of the oven for dinner.”’

There is something gloriously anachronistic about the twins’ parents and their elder sister Rowena watching Blind Date in the lounge while Austin and Howard chatted with Lana Turner on the phone about their school trip to Wales. Their need to engage with often forgotten actors was equalled by the attention the stars received; it was like oxygen for all.

Mae Clarke and James Cagney
Mae Clarke with James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931) signed to Austin and Howard

As the pair plunged into adolescence, old movie stars once again proved their enduring appeal. ‘As I began to get interested in girls, I made mental notes watching the old movies,’ Austin says. ‘How to seduce a woman the way Clark Gable did; how to dress to impress like David Niven.’

Life was not so straightforward for Howard. Growing up gay in 1980s and 1990s suburbia was a secluded experience. The sense of ‘being different’ explains why he gravitated like a moth towards the flame of Hollywood’s glamorous past.

Bob Hope
A message from Bob Hope

‘Hollywood is a town built on make-believe, but in my case, it was where I could be myself,’ says Howard. ‘Not that the movie stars I knew ever questioned my sexuality – in some cases it was all about them!’

Some of their famous friends began asking when they were going to meet them in person – no doubt eager to recount more Tinseltown tales. A trip was planned and in 1992, aged 19, Austin and Howard travelled to America. ‘We stayed in Palm Springs at a house belonging to 1930s actress Joy Hodges,’ recalls Austin. Joy was 78 by then but her stamina admirable as she took the boys on a whistlestop tour of Los Angeles and Palm Springs, introducing them to a coterie of stars during their eight-week stay.

Ginger Rogers
A message from Ginger Rogers

Austin recounts one hilarious, bitchy lunch date with Joy and her friend Ginger Rogers. Joy starred with Ginger in the musical Follow the Fleet (1936), and six decades on they were clearly still vying for the female lead.

‘We met Ginger at the Thunderbird Country Club in Palm Springs. She was holding court in her wheelchair, resplendent in white flares, gold sandals and lashings of candy-pink lipstick, waving regally to Jack Lemmon who was sitting close by.’

sketch of Bette Davis
Austin’s sketch of Bette Davis

‘I had to change table,’ Ginger scolded Joy as they arrived. ‘Really, darling, I don’t sit in Siberia.’ Over a ‘lettuce-leaf lunch’, Joy and Ginger attempted to outshine each other, with Joy taking credit for Ronald Reagan’s acting career and telling them about the time she found herself seated next to President Gorbachev at the White House when she instructed him, ‘Gorby, take down that wall.’

‘Sure, darling,’ Ginger interrupted, stifling a yawn. ‘You’ve told me that before,’ then going on to tell the twins how she once worked so hard perfecting dance moves with Fred Astaire her feet bled, staining her white shoes pink. In the end, it was Ginger Rogers who shone brightest with the magnitude of her star status, but Austin recounts how Joy Hodges turned to him on the way out and muttered, ‘She eats too much Häagen-Dazs and is spilling out of that darn wheelchair.’

Howard, Austin and Anita Page
Howard (left) and Austin with Anita Page in 1992

The rest of their sojourn was no less eventful. Lunch with James Stewart, then Bob Hope’s for a pool party where the host lectured them on the importance of midday naps. When Zsa Zsa Gabor arrived, Bob quipped, ‘She got married as a one-off and was so successful at it, turned it into a miniseries,’ proving that though the hairline had receded, his rapier-sharp wit had not. At a party in Bel-Air, an ageing Elizabeth Taylor told the twins with a twinkle, ‘With you both, one gets two for the price of one’.

Another week, another party, this time in Palm Springs, where Frank Sinatra manned a barbecue and asked who they’d seen while in town. ‘He came alive with mention of silent star Billie Dove, who we had recently visited,’ says Austin. ‘“Oh wow, you kids know Billie Dove?” Frank exclaimed, before asking one of his security men to find me his car keys and bring Billie to the party.’

Billie Dove
A message from Billie Dove

Two hours later Austin returned behind the wheel of Frank’s Mercedes convertible with Billie on his arm, and she was warmly embraced by Frank. The actress once dubbed ‘the most beautiful woman in Hollywood’ was by then 93. With a shaky hand, Billie pulled from her handbag a letter from the LA Post Office, dated 1926, demanding that she pay for more mail workers to handle her enormous influx of letters. ‘It validates who I am,’ she told the twins of the decades-old letter she carried everywhere.

She wasn’t the only actress clasping on to the last vestige of the silver screen. Anita Page was a former ingénue of the silent screen, who took Hollywood into the sound era with The Broadway Melody (1929), the first ‘talkie’ to win an Oscar. She starred opposite Buster Keaton and received several marriage proposals, including one from Benito Mussolini. Such was her popularity that Joan Crawford bribed MGM’s postmen and arranged to have Anita’s fanmail burnt. By the time Howard and Austin met her, she was a shell of her former self, sitting next to an empty swimming pool, with her wig in a Walmart carrier bag.

Anita Page
An Anita Page publicity shot from the 1930s

‘Talking to her was like listening to a radio slipping between frequencies,’ Austin says. Yet despite this there were tantalising moments of lucidity that reveal the powerhouse she must have once been. ‘I asked her if she was a victim of the casting couch and she replied, “They wouldn’t dare, honey doll. I picked the men I wanted to sleep with. They didn’t pick me.”’

Everywhere Austin and Howard looked on that trip, from Palm Springs to Santa Barbara, were recognisable faces, lifted and filled, but ultimately faded: all clinging by their still manicured fingers to a memory of fame.

Muriel Evans
With 1930s actress Muriel Evans

‘These were the people who were in the golden age of Hollywood,’ says Austin. ‘They were worshipped as gods. And, of course, when you’re receiving thousands of fan letters a week, and all of a sudden it dwindles and disappears, the ego gets a little fragile.’

The experience of meeting such a rich roster of old Hollywood had a profound effect on the twins. ‘As much as Hollywood defined the lives of the stars, so they defined our lives,’ Austin explains. For ten summers the pair returned to meet with their ageing movie pals until, sadly, the inevitable began to happen. ‘Often a letter would come back with “deceased” stamped on it,’ Austin says. Bette Davis died in 1989, Marlene Dietrich in 1992. Ginger Rogers died in 1995, her sparring partner Joy Hodges perhaps having the last laugh by dying eight years later in 2003. And of even greater magnitude to the twins, their inspirational grandmother Violet died on New Year’s Eve 1996 aged 83, breaking both their hearts.

Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland signed as Melanie in Gone With The Wind

In 2014, they published a book I Used to Be in Pictures, about their unlikely friendships, partly to reminisce, but also to make good on a promise to keep their names alive. In 2018, British production company Mad As Birds optioned the book and the screenplay is in development. Now it’s a case of life imitating art, with the 48-year-old brothers about to get their turn in the spotlight. But more importantly, their Hollywood encounters were a good lesson in humanity, and the need to listen to the stories of the older generation.

Today, Howard lives with his partner Ferhat in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he works in corporate communications. Austin has returned to his suburban roots and lives in Weybridge, Surrey with wife Joanna and their 12-year-old son Nathan. An artist and author, he works part-time as a receptionist at a GP surgery, where his listening skills are once more employed to good effect.

Bob Hope
A message from Bob Hope

‘People just want to feel heard,’ he explains. ‘Whether you’re a pensioner from Surrey or a fading Hollywood star in LA, the older generation don’t want to be forgotten.’

You can be sure that with Austin, there’s little chance of the curtain coming down on such rich past lives.

I Used to Be in Pictures: An Untold Story of Hollywood by Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse is published by ACC Art Books, £35. To order a copy for £29.75 until 22 August, go to or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.