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A Great Press Rep Remembers Glorious Stars and Grander Times -- Dick Guttman's 'Starflacker'

05/07/2015 05:37 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

"The whole challenging and privileged adventure of being a press agent seemed to be the point for me to write of my life, precisely because it's been told up to now primarily by writers who found flacks an easy target for satire and disdain," writes veteran Dick Guttman in the preface to his new memoir, titled Starflacker: Inside the Golden Age of Hollywood.

     This has another lesser title, which goes A Bedside Reader for People Who Love Movies.  (If you can lift it!)   And inside is the publishing warning that no part of the book can be reprinted without permission.   But my friend and aide Denis and I are paying no mind to that because this book, which broke the back of the delivery guy, is 652 pages long and try as I may -- I only got to page 240 so far. And I am already awash in true stories about "when the stars were so much brighter." 

     So I am going to trust the nice email I received from Mr. Guttman after we merely mentioned that his history, his wife's, his famous clients, his cohorts -- dedicated as it is to Turner Classic Movies and to their great host Robert Osborne -- was coming our way.  There are so many great anecdotes about when stars were really stars in this book, that there is simply no way I can trust myself not to steal some of these tales.  

      Meanwhile, here is a love note from the great Guttman who can count stars like Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor as his. "Wow! If you guys, Liz and Denis, could
bottle your pure and loving brand of friendship, you would sell a billion cases and we would have world peace. I'm so pleased to be counted in the fellowship of your affections and belief. Gratefully Dick."  (And this from a guy who says Cary Grant, for instance, was the only person who could coax two syllables out of his first name --"'Di-ck, this is Cary.' Never any danger of mistaking the voice we all knew better than our own.")

       And we're off, with Guttman remarking that "in the 1970's when we were all too young to think of death..." he was waked one early a.m. to be confronted by someone who told him Michael Caine had been killed in a car accident, while driving alone.  Guttman yawned and turned over and went back to sleep because he knew perfectly well that the British legend and star did not know how to drive and so never did. (Actor Caine is still with us!)

•Guttman writes this:

An important connective tissue of shared society, stardom is compounded of A. Stars. B. Media reportage of those stars. and C. the public's image of the stars.

That long period's intense esteem and affection for movie stars, which helped power our optimism through wars and economic woes, was influenced to some degree by PR and by a media focused on building stars rather than exploiting them. To a greater degree of course, those stardoms were constructed of the qualities and traits the public recognized in each of those stars, and of the dreams they invested in them...with their wit and scalawag ways, those Golden Age legends illustrate the inner workings and delights of a Hollywood which exists no more...what made that time so different? What made its stars so bright and eternal?  Those stars and their celebrity were, above all, the hallowed dreams of their audience. Today the public doesn't dream because it doesn't have to. It has the instant gratifications of digital babble and at-your- fingertips porn and worst-case scenarios. Every scabrous thing you want to know about anyone...true and probably and expectedly not...is yours for the on-line asking. Today's public feeds on the miseries and foibles of its celebrities. Back in the Golden Day nobody chortled over Judy Garlands struggles. They loved her."

(Actually, Judy's troubles were much-publicized and she eventually wore out her welcome as a movie star. But the public always forgave her.)

•Guttman claims that every anecdote in this book happened, "However Kafkaesque some may seem." He says, offering his own past six decades of the biggest names and comments, saying that, "long before tabloids and twitter, stars had mystery, stature and staying power. But Hollywood doesn't care about that anymore. They are happy with whoever is trending."

•IF I think about it, Dick doing press for Elizabeth Taylor in her last years caused my one real argument with him. I questioned his reference to her, even in phone conversations as "Dame Elizabeth." I thought that was absurd.

But I think I understood her insistence on it by that point. She had lost so much in terms of health and mobility. Thus, "Dame," was something to hang on to. But it was sort of pretentious clinging to titles that she would have laughed at a few years earlier. I would say, "Dick, please don't refer to her as Dame Elizabeth. We're on the phone! Do you think after all these years I'd ever approach her like that? She would laugh in my face I would hope. Just call her Elizabeth. Believe me, I know who you're talking about."

•Mr. Guttman was truly schooled in a certain kind of attitude toward his clients. By then, Taylor's staff called her "Dame Elizabeth." It was on press releases and tweets. She apparently asked to be introduced as a "Dame" at the few events she attended- almost all AIDS fundraising events. (To the end, AIDS was her main focus.)

So even though Elizabeth and entourage were not going to jump out from behind the couch to reproach him for referring to her simply by name, privately, Dick remained true to her Dame-dom. (And indeed, in Starflacker she is Dame Elizabeth!)

Now that I think on it, he and I probably had a few pointed disagreements regarding Barbra Streisand. But that was par for the course in Streisand-land. She is far more mellow now, if not exactly a pushover.

•You can order this vastly entertaining and informative book on Amazon.