Czenzi (pronounced Chen-zee, with the accent on Chen) Ormonde was born in Tacoma in 1906 and moved to Los Angeles as a teenager. But she spent her last 57 years living in Hayden Lake. She wrote there when she wasn’t writing in Hollywood.
Much of her Hollywood career was anything but glamorous. She worked as a pool secretary for several studios. In the early 1930s she began having some success with writing, selling short stories to magazines. She wrote a couple of novels, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba,* and Laughter from Downstairs*, both of which have long been out of print.
But it was her screenplay for Strangers on a Train,* directed by Alfred Hitchcock, that is most remembered. She wasn’t Hitchcock’s first choice. Nor was she his second. She wasn’t even his eighth choice. She was number 9.
Hitchcock shopped a story treatment of the Patricia Highsmith novel around to name writers, among them John Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder. Everyone turned him down until he finally interested Raymond Chandler. Chandler wrote a couple of drafts before walking away from the project, tired of Hitchcock’s penchant for long, rambling meetings the subject of which rarely had anything to do with the movie. Next, Hitchcock tried Ben Hecht, who had written The Front Page, among other screenplays. Hecht passed, but suggested that his assistant, Czenzi Ormonde would be a good choice.
According to Patrick McGilligan’s book, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light,* at the first meeting with Ormonde, the director pinched his nose while holding up Chandler's screenplay, then dropped into the trash. He said he wouldn’t use a single line from it. He also told her not to bother reading the book. He gave her the early treatment of the movie and told her to start with a blank page.
Ormonde did as instructed and produced the screenplay for a movie that even today rates 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.
So, of course she was vaulted from obscurity and into the limelight where she would find her fame and fortune. Just kidding. She did well with her writing, but initially received little notoriety for Strangers on a Train. In spite of Hitchcock’s avowed distaste for Raymond Chandler’s screenplay, Warner Brothers slapped Chandler’s name on the film as the screenwriter. Such is Hollywood.
Ormonde was eventually recognized for her good work but didn’t get a lot of publicity for it. That was probably okay with her. Czenzi Ormonde was shy about publicity.
Which brings us back around to that letter to my great aunt I mentioned in the beginning of this piece. Agnes Just Reid had queried her on behalf of the Idaho Writers League in 1958, wondering if she would be interested in speaking to the group. Ormonde’s humble response, in part, was:
“I would be pleased but surprised if I could say anything to the members of the Writers League, as you suggested, which could be helpful. For being a professional writer does not automatically make me an authority. I fear it would be presumptuous to give advice. I’m sure the writers of Idaho do not need it, not if their work reflects the vigor and variety of this state’s geography! More power to them!”
Czenzi Ormonde died in 2004 at her home in Hayden Lake. She was 94.