A well-written biography is the intersection between life, story and truth – my three absolute favorite things. To follow someone’s journey through their whole life, their highs and lows, regrets and lessons learned, is a very intimate thing. And unlike fictional stories, it feels more intimate because it is all true. Sure, they can’t all be gems, and it’s up for debate whether the fault lies with writer or subject, but the really good ones – oh gosh. It really is like gaining a friend. You come to know this person. You laugh with them at their silly stories, you read the poignant moments over and over, marvel at their perfection, and ultimately, you cry when they die, no matter how rich and wonderful a life. Mainly, because it was so rich and wonderful.
In October I went to Hollywood for a few days to hang out with my favorite girls – Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney – and I took a tour of the Warner Bros lot to get the feel of a historic film studio. The tour was fun but it focused mainly on current sitcoms, which I don’t really watch. I’m in full-on research mode for my next project and I’m devouring old Hollywood biographies like they were oxygen. The amount of love found in the writing of these books is astonishing. It’s radiating off the page. I’ve never come across more richly crafted characters. I find myself not wanting to finish the books because I don’t want to say goodbye. I dread it because I know I won’t find another book with these characters – because they’re not characters at all, just a bunch of artists who lived in a crazy place called Hollywood 60-to-90 years ago.
Celebrity biographies are especially intriguing because the subjects lived such amplified lives. There’s no way around that. Non-famous people have interesting lives, too, which would make good books. A lot of them do. But the really famous seem to live their life at warp speed, which means they get to cram several lives into one life time. Open access to money, publicity, travel, other famous people, immortal works of art. Their love life is admired and envied; their heartaches and broken hearts felt around the world. Their presence linger, long after they have moved onto other projects. When all these things happen to decent people, they are bound to find some insight and life lessons learned in the midst of the whirlwind. When it happens to empty people, there are just more scandals and desperation, but that sells, too.
Here is a list of the books I’ve been reading and a short review of each. I wholeheartedly recommend them all.
Tinseltown: Murder Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
Just a great book. Reads like a thriller but every event is meticulously researched and every word uttered is from historical documents by or about the actual person. This is the story of three actresses in the silent film era, the murder of a director full of secrets and the movie moguls who managed the earliest scandals of what would become Hollywood. It’s also a great mini-biography on Adolph Zukor, the Hungarian immigrant whose ambitions in the beginning of the 20th century almost single-handedly created the studio system in which films are produced and distributed. As with many film biographies it also gives some insight into the social climate of America in those years. Puritans and religious groups blamed movies for the ills of society, and the burgeoning film industry fought a hard battle to be allowed artistic freedom, but eventually lost, leading to the near castration of American films that lasted over 30 years, well into the 1960s.
Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn
Clara Bow is remembered as the ‘It’ girl – the one who stood out from a crowd. After a childhood in absolute poverty in Brooklyn, NY, she won a photo contest and a one way ticket to Hollywood in the early 1920’s. Her ability to be natural and relaxed in front of a camera revolutionized motion picture acting and Clara became America’s favorite wild child, on and off-screen. But her story is actually pretty sad. Pressured by her studio to work nearly around the clock, she was left exhausted and unable to make the transition from silent film to the ‘talkies’ in 1929. She was constantly taken advantage of, by her father, the moguls and the industry, and by men. Clara just lived in an age where there was no manual for how to be a successful working woman, let alone a superstar. All Clara Bow ever wanted was to be loved, and even when she was loved by millions, she could never quite find it. At the end, all she could settle for was peace. This is a great book, written with a lot of love.
Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen
I knew nothing about Carole Lombard before reading this book and now I love her madly. I don’t know how to limit this review to one paragraph. Jane Alice Peters was a force of nature. She wanted to be a movie star from an early age and nothing could stop her. Not Hollywood execs changing her name, nor an automobile accident that left her face scarred at the age of 16. And when she became a star, her generosity knew no bounds and she took numerous people who were down on their luck under her wing and made them fly higher than ever. It seems like that was her true gift. Then there is her epic love story with Clark Gable, and you learn a lot about him in this book, too, none of it too flattering but it seems compared with Carole Lombard, most of us would fall short. The book is focused around the plane crash that tragically took hers and 21 other lives on a dark night in January 1942. She became Hollywood’s first war time casualty. It’s a huge accomplishment of a book, so well researched and rich on details.
Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer
Often referred to as “the most beautiful woman in world”, Hedy Lamarr also must have had one of the most interesting lives. Born to a wealthy family in Austria she came of age in the post-war 1920’s and witness the rise of Nazi-Germany as she started out as an actress and darling of the Vienna social scene. She married a wealthy man who would become Hitler’s main arms supplier, and as a bored housewife endured countless dinners with people who would play a part in the upcoming war. But Hedy hated her life and wanted more for herself, and attempted for years to escape her controlling husband and run away to America to become a famous actress. One night she succeeded, and just in time, as Europe was becoming a dangerous place for Jews. Hollywood embraced Hedy and her sensational face. But as the war broke out in Europe, Hedy was not content with being just an actress, and with her musician friend George Antheil she spent her evenings inventing an early method of frequency-hopping used for communicating with torpedoes by using a piano roll to unpredictably change the signal sent between a control center and the torpedo at short bursts within a range of 88 frequencies in the radio-frequency spectrum, leaving the weapons impossible for the enemy to interfere with or ‘hack’. While this technology was not used during the war, it later became the basis for wireless communication. The way we use cell phones, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth today is shaped by Hedy Lamarr’s invention. What an absolutely incredible woman. She may have been the least likable of the Hollywood personalities I’ve read about, but her life story beats any movie.
By Myself and Then Some by Lauren Bacall
Lauren Bacall. What an absolute class act. It is impossible not to love love love Betty Bacall (her real name). She writes so vividly about her childhood in New York, about pounding the pavement at 17 looking for a job as an actress, taking any that would come her way. About her “big break” getting discovered and shipped off to Hollywood. About meeting Bogie, the big star, on her first film and their great, great love story. She was only 19 and a romantic; he was 44 and had given up on love. I think only Bacall can put into words the life and closeness they shared. But it’s hard reading about their bliss, knowing they only got 12 years together. I think she writes more honestly about the shock and denial of losing the love of her life at 31 than anyone could expect of her. She threw herself at the first available man, who happened to be Frank Sinatra, and made a fool of herself but somehow, remains human, remains a lady. The rest of the book is a moving portrait of a woman making a life for herself and her children without a storybook companion. She defies loneliness, she defies pity and she finds happiness and proves that happiness can means different things to different people. There is no manual. This book is about Betty, through and through. She is not perfect, you won’t always agree with her, but damn, what a class act till the very end.
Ava Gardner: “Love Is Nothing” by Lee Server
“I either write the book or sell the jewels, and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.” Towards the end of her life she considered having a proper biography written about her but after months of interviews with Peter Evans she pulled the plug because she didn’t like how often she cursed. Actually, her great love, Frank Sinatra, was worried about what she might say, so he paid her off in exchange for her silence. After both Gardner and Sinatra had passed away, the aborted biography was released in 2013 under the title Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations and while that book gives great insight into Ava’s personality, it doesn’t tell her whole life story. She released a very censured autobiography in 1990, but it is this book ‘Love is Nothing’ that is the closet thing to a complete Ava Gardner biography. The absolutely stunning young woman from North Carolina who didn’t have to dream of Hollywood because she was destined for it, whether she liked it or not. Ava Gardner loved men and men loved her, so she is most famous for her numerous high profile love affairs but along the way she made some decent movies. Her life was her greatest work of art, followed closely by her face and body – the best Hollywood has ever seen.
Yes, I mostly read old Hollywood biographies about women. In a time and industry so absolutely controlled by men, I find the women’s perspective so much more interesting. I am currently reading Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer to get the perspective of the ultimate creator of the ‘dream factory’.