There’s nothing I like better than a good, juicy scoop about those denizens of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s even better when the dirt is regurgitated from the mouth of the idols (and idol-makers) themselves!
I’ve read more showbusiness biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and fluff books (think Nicole Richie and Snooki “writing” novels) than I care to admit, so I consider myself a small expert in this saucy little volumes. I’ve read some good, some bad, and some just plain ugly, but I am (almost always) entertained, even by the most abysmal efforts.
Over the coming months, I’ll be showcasing the best and worst I know, with relish and abandon, so that you all may stew yourselves in the warm comforting bath of “show-biziana.”
In today’s edition, I’ll be presenting my Top 5 Classic Showbiz Memoirs. These are autobiographies/memoirs from classic stars, directors, or anyone connected with the birth and golden age of Hollywoodland. There are so many of them, and I will share more as time goes on, but I do believe this will be a good introduction to the library in my mind. (These aren’t in any particular order, so you can assume that they are all worthy of reading, not just the titular “number one”!)
1. Tallulah: An Autobiography by Tallulah Bankhead
“I’m as pure as the driven slush.”
Tallulah Bankhead was one of the most acidic and outspoken women at a time where most women were expected to keep their aprons creased and their legs open. The southern daughter of a Speaker of the house, only the most refined upbringing was expected of this little belle. Sadly, for her family, she eschewed motherhood and stability to become an actress. Though her career in Hollywood was rocky, her successes on the stage in New York and London made her the stuff of legends.
Whether it was hamming it up with Lucille Ball on a TV special or acting in a serious role in Alfred Hitchcock’s critically-acclaimed Lifeboat, Tallulah Bankhead lived the characters she portrayed and carried with her a storied zest for life and wisdom that comes from years of sweat, booze, and assorted whoopee. She was also highly promiscuous, bi-sexual, and a raging alcoholic, but always put her work above all else. She died in 1968 at the age of 66, as a result of emphysema, a child of her chain-smoking habit.
Her book is pithy, doesn’t dwell too long on those meddlesome stoppers known as “facts”, and her voice translates well to the written medium. The stories in the book showcase her tenacity, drive, and an acid sense of humor that will endear her to the crustiest curmudgeon.
2. Swanson by Swanson by Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson, Norma Desmond herself, while being interviewed on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, remarked on the changing of the guard in Hollywood and the death of the studio system she knew. If her comments were seen as maudlin and sentimental, her book is anything but.
Starting in silent pictures, Swanson’s career elicited the kind of adoration usually reserved for heads of state and princesses. As Max the Butler says in Sunset Boulevard, people would fight over a lock of Desmond’s hair, leading a Sultan to strangle himself with it. As it turns out, a similar incident happened to Swanson herself.
This is a thick book for someone who lived a thick life. She’s not afraid to poke fun at herself, but she takes her work seriously and revels in the Hollywood friendships and working relationships she was able to nurture through her many years. Featuring characters as seedy as Joe Kennedy (father of JFK and RFK) and as saintly as Margaret Dumont, Swanson’s bio doesn’t pull any punches – in fact, it’s a knockout!
3. This n’ That by Bette Davis
Authoring three books in her lifetime, this Davis’ final effort is simultaneously a glorious poison letter to her disgusting pig of a daughter B.D. Hyman and a philosophical treatise on being an octogenarian actress who has survived multiple strokes and other physical ailments.
You may think my words about her daughter are particularly harsh, but this book was released shortly after B.D.’s Mommie Dearest-like memoir, My Mother’s Keeper, where she accused her mother of being an abusive drunk who made her life a living hell. The book has been proved to be almost 100% false and B.D. has since turned to the lord and is now selling her “born again Christian” videotapes and audio-books. It seems the only true God she worships is the Almighty Dollar.
Davis’ book proves that the best revenge is good living and she makes sure to recline and become positive about her life, yet detonates the dynamite when she needs to. It’s a quick, yet well-written, peek into the fascinating eve of a life well-lived.
4. Learning to Live Out Loud by Piper Laurie
During the course of this memoir, Laurie admits that she lost her virginity to Ronald Reagan, that she thought Carrie was a comedy, and that she became so disillusioned with her career that she threw her contract into the fire after being offered another faceless “woman” role.
Laurie’s prose is down-to-earth, often self-effacing, yet filled with her warm voice. You’ll find yourself laughing, crying, and sighing in frustration, as the actresses today face the same cataloged by Laurie. For those who simply know her for Carrie, this book will be an earnest surprise to those who only see her as Carrie’s gorgon-like mother with crazed eyes and a mop of Jesus-fueled curly hair.
For once, reading about an actor’s childhood isn’t a chore before getting to the real dirt, as Laurie’s early life was hampered by her inability to speak, making her an almost-mute. Becoming an actress was her way of Learning to Live Out Loud.
5. From Under My Hat by Hedda Hopper
Those who know Hedda Hopper as the Commie-naming journalist who nearly invented the Hollywood Gossip racket will be surprised to know that she started as an actress who became disillusioned by the lack of strong roles for women. She decided to put down the grease-paint and pick up the poisoned pen.
This book charts that journey and it reeks of Hopper’s perfect penchant for purple prose, while still remaining imminently readable. She slings her arrows with relish and isn’t afraid to make herself the mule, but her success nearly speaks for itself. Her follow-up to this memoir, The Whole Truth and Nothing But, is more of a typical Hollywood expose, while the present volume is truly a life’s story.
This woman, who was once kicked in the ass by Joseph Cotton and sued by Tracey and Hepburn, is truly a monster in her private life, but her work in Hollywood is the stuff of legends and this book, strangely enough, is completely and utterly charming!
Hats off to Hedda!
Steven Krage is an award-winning writer, author, blogger, film historian, playwright, podcaster, classical musician (opera singer and pianist), actor, librarian, rare book collector, and professional eccentric who lives and breathes pop culture of the past, present, and future. His recent acting roles include Mr. McQueen (Urinetown), Carmen Ghia (The Producers) and a monologist in the final Chicago cast of the Listen to Your Mother Festival. He is currently writing a book-length biography of infamous Marx Brothers foil, Margaret Dumont: The Marx Sister. “I’m not a stooge, I’m the best straight woman in Hollywood. There’s an art to playing it straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.” – Margaret Dumont. (For more information, please visit StevenKrage.com!)