SOME BEHIND THE TINSEL PORTRAITS
The norm in show-biz biography is an enthusiastic stitching together of the morgue files, tattered clippings given a new brief lease on life, with no evidence of any personal debriefing of subject by author.
But in among these essentially bloodless tomes I’ve recently found a clutch of what can be called revisionist biographies that take a harder, more dimensional look at their subjects and, metaphorically, remove the rose gel from the spotlight.
The conventional history says that the high-flying silent star John Gilbert--Garbo’s co-star and lover, superb in King Vidor’s “The Big Parade"--was ruined by the coming of sound because his voice turned out to be reedy and effeminate. He died, his career undeniably on the wane, at only 36.
But the matter of the voice, Gilbert’s daughter argues in a new biography called “Dark Star” (with co-author John R. Maxim; St. Martin’s Press: $14.95), was largely the bunk. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain insists, with a persuasive piling-up of detail, that Gilbert was destroyed by the personal animosity of Louis B. Mayer.
The ill-feeling between the men had a long history, involving personality differences (Gilbert was not inclined to be deferential) and MGM corporate politics. Gilbert was a Nicholas Schenck favorite, and Mayer and Schenck were battling.
The animosity peaked on Sept. 8, 1926, when Gilbert attacked Mayer, knocked off his glasses, choked him and whanged his head against the tile wall of a guest bathroom in Marion Davies’ Beverly Hills hacienda.
Gilbert was understandably in a bad mood. He and Garbo were going to be married that afternoon in a double ceremony with Vidor and Eleanor Boardman, but Garbo had stood him up and Mayer had made a sneering remark.
After the brawl, the author says, Mayer snarled, “I’ll destroy you if it costs me a million dollars.”
It took a few years, because Gilbert was an irreplaceable MGM star in silent days, a vivid and ticket-selling personality. Gilbert’s first talking appearance was a cameo with Norma Shearer in “The Hollywood Revue of 1929.” They did the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” straight and then in flapper talk. His first feature, “One Glorious Night,” was savaged by the critics for its foolish script and poor direction (by an ailing Lionel Barrymore). No one called his high baritone a great voice, but it was not found to be a disaster, either.
Indeed, Gilbert made several more talkies before his death, most, it would seem, almost malevolently inept, with Gilbert miscast and provided lines that would have sounded awful in any voice. Some of the press stories were vicious (and were leaked, the author is sure, by the studio).
Gilbert and actress Leatrice Joy, the author’s mother, were separated even before their daughter was born and she saw relatively little of him before he died, although the meetings were loving.
If Mrs. Fountain destroys the myth of the bad voice, she is candid enough about Gilbert’s tangled life: the many conspicuous affairs, the multiple marriages, the increasingly heavy boozing, the fights and the black moods. At 36, he was exhausted in body and spirit and, in his own view, unemployable. Mayer had won, if not without help.
“Dark Star,” admirable in its balance, affectionate but unsentimental, is obviously well researched (there being at least a few key survivors of those distant times), and it is above all a revealing look at some of the ugly realities behind the gleaming stucco facades of early Hollywood.
In another work of family revelation, Leif Henie, with writer Raymond Strait, reports the very dark side of his ice-skating sister, Sonja Henie, in “Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows” (Stein and Day: $19.95). Someone once called Henie an elf with a keen sense of double-entry bookkeeping, and that sounds hardly the half of it. On her brother’s evidence (he died just as the book was being finished), she was hard as a skate blade, with a stevedore’s vocabulary, a miser’s instincts and a large capacity for men and, later, alcohol. The love of her life was Tyrone Power, who got away.
She disinherited her relatives, bequeathed nothing to her secretary for a quarter-century, and left an estate estimated at between $25 million and $50 million. With it all, she drove herself as hard as she drove everyone else, and her fierce battles with Darryl Zanuck make the kind of reading you expect in trashy novels.
At that the life that really does read like a novel was Libby Holman’s, told by journalist Jon Bradshaw in “Dreams That Money Can Buy: The Tragic Life of Libby Holman” (Morrow: $17.95). By now she is a name out of a lost past, a blues singer, Broadway musical performer and later a concert performer whose husky baritone helped lift “Moanin’ Low,” “Body and Soul” and other songs to their status as standards.
Bradshaw’s vivid but careful portrait makes Holman a comprehensible human figure, not the tabloid creature she seemed during the days of her notoriety.
She was born poor in Cincinnati (a family bond firm had gone bankrupt), was a vivid but struggling actress in New York and met and married Smith Reynolds, heir to the tobacco fortune. He was shot to death six months later and she was indicted. But the Reynolds family requested the case be dropped and, in the North Carolina of 1931, it was. She was pregnant, and although there were rumors it was not Reynolds’ child, she swore it was.
The child was a son, later killed in a mountaineering accident, another in the skein of tragedies that followed her to her own death in 1971. Despite some ambiguous details, she seems to have committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Her estate went into a foundation, now worth $13 million, which makes grants in the cause of international relations.
“Dreams That Money Can Buy,” like the other biographies, illustrates a time, and places, as well as the subject. The lessons to be learned are the reader’s choice, but among them is the observation that the one thing that is truly classless and democratic in any society is trouble.