The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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John Hughes' secret pen pal reveals why he left Hollywood behind

August 7, 2009 |  5:05 pm

Life may be unfair, in the sense that we lost John Hughes this week at the ridiculously tender age of 59. In a sense, we lost him even earlier, since he fled Hollywood in the early 1990s, silencing one of the most original voices of his generation.

But life is fair in the sense that Hughes had an opportunity to touch so many lives, as is evident from this blog post from Alison Byrne Fields, a Washington-based social media strategy director who revealed Thursday that she was Hughes' teen pen pal for two years in the mid-1980s. She admits to being a typical teenager -- a pesky handful. In her post, she says that when she first wrote a passionate letter to the filmmaker, she received a form letter in response welcoming her as an "official" member of "The Breakfast Club" fan club. She was so peeved that she fired off a snippy reply: "I just poured out my [expletive] heart to you and YOU SENT ME A FORM  LETTER."

Hughes wrote back to apologize. But in 1987, when she didn't hear from Hughes for a few months, Fields tracked down producer Ned Tanen, telling him she hoped he could give the filmmaker a "poke" and figure out why he wasn't responding. Instead of dismissing her as a pushy teenager, Hughes sent her a giant gift package of T-shirts, tapes and her own special "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" watch, with a note saying: "I missed you too. Don't get me in trouble with my boss. John Hughes." 

The most revealing part of the post involves a phone call Fields had with Hughes in 1997, when she was working on a diversity education project and reconnected with him. They ended up talking for an hour. Her account of their conversation provides the first real concrete explanation for why Hughes left the movie business at the top of his game. It serves as an affecting reminder to artists of the importance of keeping their priorities straight. As Fields writes:

John told me about why he left Hollywood just a few years earlier. He was terrified of the impact it was having on his sons; he was scared it was going to cause them to lose perspective on what was important and what happiness meant. And he told me a sad story about how, a big reason behind his decision to give it all up was that "they" (Hollywood) had "killed" his friend, John Candy, by greedily working him too hard.

Fields ends by saying that she owes a great debt to Hughes, not the least of which being her gratitude toward a man who "took the time to make a little girl believe that, if she had something to say, someone would listen." It's hard to ask for a better tribute to a man who didn't just make wonderful movies, but lived a wonderful life too.