Margaret Herrick, Film History Trailblazer

Academy library founder
Tuesday, September 22, 2015 - 12:30

We heard a rumor the other day that made us laugh. Someone said that Margaret Herrick was just a secretary who happened to stumble into a cushy job at the Academy in 1943. Nothing could be further from the truth. As so often happens with women who have established successful careers, Mrs. Herrick is rarely given full credit for how she built her career or for her many accomplishments.

Margaret Herrick remains among the lesser-known of cinema’s earliest champions, despite her recognizing the need for a film study collection in Los Angeles and single-handedly laying the foundation for the Academy’s research library, one of the world’s most important collections documenting the history, art, sciences and industry of motion pictures. Although thousands of scholars, writers, students and film buffs have conducted research at the library named in her honor, Mrs. Herrick’s name is virtually unknown outside of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Contemporaries such as Iris Barry of the Museum of Modern Art and Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française have deservedly earned recognition for their contributions to the study and preservation of film. Mrs. Herrick belongs in their company.

The Academy was founded in 1927 and almost from its inception it included some form of a library.

Roosevelt Hotel

During those early years when the Academy occupied offices in the Roosevelt Hotel, seen above, the library functioned more as a reception area where members could read periodicals and other publications. One of the earliest known photographs shows a beautifully appointed room, without a book in sight.

The earliest known photograph

That all changed in the early 1930s when Academy employee Donald Gledhill brought his wife Margaret, the head librarian of the Yakima Public Library, to Los Angeles, where she began to work at the Academy in an unofficial capacity. Gledhill became the Academy’s executive secretary in 1934, and his wife’s status there was formalized in 1936, when she became its librarian on a “dollar-a-year basis.” She set to work establishing a more formal library, seeking out and buying books and creating the library’s clipping files, which are still maintained today.

By 1943, Margaret had earned the trust and confidence of the Academy’s Board of Governors, who promoted her to replace her husband, who was leaving to join the army as a captain in the Signal Corps. Daily Variety’s headline on January 20, 1943 read: “Academy Gets Femme Boss as Gledhill Joins Army.”

Margaret Herrick Headline

The couple divorced in 1944 and Margaret was retained by the board in place of Donald even after he returned to Los Angeles ready to resume his career. A brief marriage to Philip Herrick in the late 1940s changed Margaret’s surname from Gledhill to Herrick, and she was known as “Mrs. Herrick” for the majority of her long career with the Academy.

As executive director of the Academy, Mrs. Herrick facilitated the 1947 donation of the William Selig papers, the library’s first major archival acquisition.

with William Selig

That gift, along with the others that followed, established the library as a primary research center for the study of motion pictures. In addition, Mrs. Herrick negotiated the Academy’s first television contract in 1953, which gave the organization its first taste of financial independence. No longer reliant upon the studios to cover the expense of the Awards, the Academy could instead focus on education, programming and related activities. Even today, the good works that the Academy performs are funded with revenue generated from the telecast, an annual extravaganza that is viewed each year by several hundred million people worldwide.

Margaret Herrick’s legacy within the Academy looms large, but it is equally impressive within the context of Hollywood history that she held the highest office of a major film industry organization for almost three decades. In photographs, she’s usually the only woman in the room, dressed elegantly and smiling broadly as she is flanked by two or more men. 

Academy library founder

September 27 marks the 113th anniversary of Margaret Herrick’s birth. To celebrate, we share newsreel footage of her that was recently unearthed by archivists at the Academy Film Archive. 

Mrs. Herrick embarked on several extensive international trips between 1963 and 1968, visiting national film academies, festivals, studios, universities and film schools. This newsreel footage was shot in the Philippines during a global outreach tour she took on behalf of the Academy in 1966 that spanned 11 countries. Her travels abroad were in part a response to international interest in the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award, which had been a competitive category for 10 years at the time of her visit.

In the newsreel, Herrick arrives at a cocktail party held in her honor by Filipino filmmaker Luis Nepomuceno and his wife in late August 1966. During the evening, she meets Filipino film industry professionals, reporters and advertising executives, has dinner and watches a performance of traditional Filipino dancing. Nepomuceno, who produced the newsreel for his production company FAME, Inc., would later direct Because of a Flower (Dahil Sa Isang Bulaklak), the Philippines’ official entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the 40th Oscars in 1967.

The faded 35mm color composite print, which was rediscovered late last year, was digitally scanned and color corrected by the Archive earlier this year.

Academy library founder

More than 70 years after Mrs. Herrick’s tenure as the Academy’s executive director began, her influence is particularly evident in the areas of education, preservation and international outreach. She was also involved in our earliest museum plans. The idea of a museum was casually introduced as early as 1929, with more serious proposals being entertained as late as 1956, at which point the discussion ended until more recently. Having served the Academy in various capacities for nearly 40 years, and with direct knowledge of the many iterations that were explored over the years, Mrs. Herrick would most likely view our current plans for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures as being long overdue and a satisfying turn of events.

She led an interesting life, and if you love film and film history and believe in their preservation, you should know the legacy of Margaret Herrick.