I spent one unforgettable afternoon in the home of Gene Kelly when I was thirteen. Ever since, I've loved Old Hollywood ferociously -- the glamour, the scandals, the movie stars, the movies themselves, the beauty and even the brutality of a city built too fast, too big, too grand for its own good. I long for a time machine to take me back to the Hollywood of the 1920s, 30s, or 40s. I want to meet those stars, watch those movies being filmed, press my own hands and feet into wet concrete outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, feel the burn of the klieg lights on my skin, dance all night at Café Trocadero with Errol Flynn or Cary Grant.
In lieu of building an actual time machine (I was always terrible at science), I've collected some 200 titles on the golden days of this movie mecca, from coffee table books to anthologies of costume design to memoirs of directors/producers/writers, to biographies and autobiographies of stars and also the places they inhabited -- Ciro's, the Cocoanut Grove, Bullocks Wilshire Department Store, Hollywood itself. While I'd love to share all 200, here are eight of the best.
Harlow in Hollywood by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira
Jean Harlow was the first big-screen sex symbol, the Platinum Blonde, adored by everyone she worked with--from Clark Gable to Louis B. Mayer. Her mother babied her, many say controlled her. Her second husband, director Paul Bern, died mysteriously, and there were rumors that she killed him. Harlow herself died tragically and too soon, but this pictorial biography brings her to life again in gorgeous black and white. Featuring hundreds of rare photographs, including studio portraits and never-before-seen candids, Harlow has never been more platinum or more lovely. The photos themselves would be enough, but as a nice bonus the book also features a compelling biography of the star's charmed yet turbulent life, making it that rare coffee table book you want to look at and read from cover to cover.
My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn
Sexy. Wild. Epic. Tragic. Exciting. This is one of my desert island books because it's such terrific company. The swashbuckler Flynn played onscreen was nothing compared to the swashbuckler he was in real life. With humor and humility, swagger and sensitivity, he recounts his childhood in Tasmania, his soldier-of-fortune years in the South Seas, his stint as a Cuban newspaper correspondent alongside Fidel Castro's rebels, and the days he spent in glimmering, immoral Hollywood -- not to mention the ex-wives, love affairs, and that infamous rape trial of 1943. Flynn spills it all, and spins a few tales in the process, so that you never know whether what he's telling you is true or not. Either way, it's the best autobiography I've ever read, every bit as colorful and charismatic as Flynn himself.
Tinseltown by William J. Mann
Silent film director William Desmond Taylor was murdered in 1922. Powder burns indicated he was shot at close range, but the circumstances surrounding his death -- including who might have pulled the trigger--remain fuzzy. Anyone might have done it: the three young actresses who both used him and loved him, his devoted valet, an overprotective stage mother, a gang of criminals... The crime shook Hollywood, even as Adolph Zukor, Taylor's boss at Paramount Pictures, scrambled to cover it up. The author claims to have solved the crime here, but I, for one, am reading for the Roaring Twenties, and the scandal, ambition, and intrigue of a dangerous and glamorous young city.
MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, once the largest and most glamorous movie studio in the world, is now owned by Sony. The acres of famed backlots, left to decay and ruin in the 1970s, are gone. Spencer Tracy, who read the eulogy at studio chief Louis B. Mayer's funeral in 1957, said, "All the rest is history. The shining epoch of the industry passes with him." The only place now to see the glorious Metro of then is inside the pages of this book. MGM lives on in extraordinary photo after photo of the studio and its stars, as well as in the maps, engaging text -- including a forward by Debbie Reynolds -- and behind-the-scenes stories of some of your favorite motion pictures.
Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing by Lee Server
Ava Gardner was a North Carolina farm girl who was discovered by the movies when her brother-in-law displayed her photo in the window of his photography studio. Outspoken, temperamental, and uninhibited, Ava was never the best actress, but she was definitely one of the most dazzling. It wasn't just her beauty, it was the charismatic personality, the fact that she almost always stayed true to that farm girl self, whether it meant refusing to let MGM hide the cleft in her chin, or answering Howard Hughes' marriage proposal with a sock to the jaw. She was tumultuously married to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and -- by all accounts the love of her life -- Frank Sinatra. Author Lee Server, who also penned the wonderful Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care
, both informs and entertains as he recounts an epically exciting life.
The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History by Gregory Paul Williams
Featuring over 800 images from the author's own collection, this beautiful and comprehensive (to put it mildly) coffee table book traces the history of Hollywood from 1850 to the present. It's both a handy, quick reference and a fascinating in-depth record, depending on how much time you have to spend with it, and unlike most sweeping histories, there's plenty of detail to sink your teeth into. As Leonard Maltin says, "Other books have traced the history of moviemaking in Los Angeles and the cultural history of Hollywood, but this ambitious and handsome new volume is the most thorough examination of the town itself I've ever seen."
I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl
For those who don't know, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the biggest (no pun intended) stars of the 1920s. As Booklist observes, his was a "rags-to-riches-to-rags story." That story gets a fictional retelling here, with Fatty as narrator, although the author sticks to the facts of the comedian's life -- the heroin addiction, the wild parties, and, most famously, the party that led to accusations of rape and murder, which resulted in the most sensational trial of the decade. Arbuckle was most likely innocent, but it ruined him and his career. I, Fatty
takes us through the highs and lows of Hollywood and one man's journey there, and is at once poignant and bawdy, harrowing and heartbreaking.
My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin
There's a reason Chaplin has endured -- his genius is as recognized and appreciated now as it was when he was first making films in 1914. The Little Tramp came from hardscrabble roots to become the biggest star in the world. His autobiography was first published in 1964, and it's all in there: his impoverished childhood in Victorian England, his first appearance on a stage (at the age of five), the death of his alcoholic father, the struggles with his mentally ill mother, his early career in music halls, his many loves -- some more controversial than others -- and, of course, his work. Written with the same tough and lovely beauty that haunts his films, My Autobiography is much more than the title promises -- the honest, unapologetic, revealing story of one of the most gifted artists in cinema history.
Jennifer Niven is the author of American Blonde [Plume, $16.00].