THE ZANUCKS OF HOLLYWOOD The Dark Legacy...
THE ZANUCKS OF HOLLYWOOD The Dark Legacy of an American Dynasty by Marlys J. Harris (Crown Publishers: $24.95; 352 pp.)
Marlys J. Harris has written a salacious, scandal-mongering book, quite in keeping with the subject of the film mogul and tyrant whose entire family fortunes crumbled in decadence, misery and addiction shortly after his death.
Darryl Zanuck’s “most significant recollection,” Harris reports, was falling in a cesspool when he was a child, having disobeyed his mother’s instructions not to go near it. The image serves to organize the book, a portrait of hatred, jealousy, greed and skulduggery--to say nothing of ugly deaths--that decimated the family and its fortunes in the space of a few years.
Beginning his career with “You’ve Never Seen a Bald Indian” (essentially a publicity film for a hair lotion), Zanuck continued to attract notice with his flair for titles. He was a gag writer for Mack Sennett and then for Charlie Chaplin. By 1926, Zanuck was by far the most prolific writer at Warner Brothers, and was forced to write under pseudonyms to avoid criticism from competitors. His box- office hits continued for decades.
A short, rough-cut figure, Zanuck married Virginia Fox, who had been educated in private schools but was determined to be an actress. Over her parents’ objections, she took her first part as a bathing beauty in a Mack Sennett production. Zanuck never seemed to be very attached either to Virginia or to their children, Richard, Darrylin and Susan. He instructed the children to brush their teeth, study and behave via typewritten memo. As they grew up, his children and grandchildren spent money recklessly and led addictive, miserably unhappy lives. When his son was in trouble as head of 20th Century-Fox, Zanuck coolly voted to have him fired.
Zanuck had countless mistresses. His liaison with Juliette Greco became public when in her autobiography, “Je Suis Comme Je Suis,” she recounted that Zanuck wore short, “Babydoll” pajamas and a sleep mask to bed; that he struck her during an argument on location in Africa and put out a cigar on her neck. But Zanuck’s most long-lived affair was with the French fashion model Genevieve Gillaizeau, 44 years younger and 3 inches taller than he.
Zanuck’s death in 1978 was followed by a rash of court battles and untimely deaths. Wrote grandson Andre Jr.: “It seemed as though one year we were all sitting at the table together for Thanksgiving dinner. Then, like in a year, nobody was left.” His grandfather, mother, father and brother were all dead; his mother died of alcoholism, his brother (Dino) of an overdose. Virginia died in the fall of 1982, adding to the toll, and her death set off more battles over inheritance.
THE CIVIL WAR NOTEBOOK OF DANIEL CHISHOLM A Chronicle of Daily Life in the Union Army 1864-1865 edited by W. Springer Menge and J. August Shimrak (Orion Books: $18.95; 224 pp.)
Daniel Chisholm fought in Company K of the Union Army in the final months of the Civil War. When he returned home to Illinois, he collected and preserved his own letters home as well as those of his brother, Alexander, and the field diary of Sgt. Samuel Clear. While these records give little sense of the overall course of the war, the accounts of daily experience give valuable insight into the deadly new methods of warfare that foresaw the enormous destruction of World War I. In the first battle of the Civil War, Union casualties numbered between 2,600 and 3,300. Three years later, 17,660 died in the Wilderness, the late recruits’ first engagement.
From their induction on Feb. 29, 1864, the recruits have a slow start, taking several weeks to reach their first camp. On March 18, they receive their muskets. Their first battle comes barely six weeks later on May 5. The greenhorns are quickly seasoned. By May 29, Samuel Clear writes: “I had been with the colors so long that I hardly knew how Co ‘K’ was standing the hardships she had been called upon to go through . . . three months in The service of Uncle Sam.”
Clear’s observations in the diary are generally more engaging than the letters, since a great deal of the Chisholm correspondence is written from the hospital. In one battle, his group is relieved by the Colored Division of the Tenth Corps: “We laid down and they passed over us, and theirs was the best line of battle I ever seen go into action, it was perfect. When they came to us they swing around like a gate, and passed over us without a falter.” The national elections held on Oct. 11, 1864, are interrupted by a rebel shell. “I voted the way we was shooting for Old Abe and the Stars and Stripes. . . . Our Regiments vote was very close (many of the men favored Lt. S. G. Vanderheyden), we only beat them three votes.” St. Patrick’s Day was naturally a great event for the Irish Brigade, and they seem to have celebrated as hard as they fought. In a horse race, “a sergeant of the 69th New York was trampled to death and half a dozen others badly wounded. The Ambulance was hauling wounded away all day.”
There is also, of course, plenty of the horror of actual combat and the discomfort of life led in the open without adequate supplies. “The woods was full of the ghastly corpses of the dead, and the shrieks of the wounded and dying mingled with the crack of the musket and rumble of the artillery was calculated to impress the whole upon the mind so indelibly that it would last as long as life continued. As I was running past a wounded rebel he caught me by the Pant leg and held me so tight I had to beat his hand loose with my gun. He wanted me to help him off the field.” As the war winds down, Clear muses: “Was she worth the powder, and the lives lost, was it for the best, who can tell, not me I declare . . . how many brave boys are laying by the wayside. Echo answers how many. 76 men that does not answer at Roll call, 14 Enlisted Men and 2 Co officers respond and answer to Their names, as we drop off to sleep I feel very sad.”
AMERICAN VAMPIRES Fans, Victims, Practitioners by Norine Dresser (W.W. Norton: $17.95; 255 pp.)
“Gooood Eeevening, I am a folklorist,” begins Norine Dresser, promisingly. In “American Vampires,” she argues that the legendary inhabitants of Eastern Europe have taken up residence in the American imagination and become as American as spaghetti and vegetarian burritos. Dresser notes that while an enormous proportion of the population agrees on specifics of vampire lore, they do not know much of the vampire’s pre-American history. About 20,000 Americans visit Romania every year, of whom 80% eventually ask tour guides about Dracula. “It’s hard to tell them it isn’t true,” Dresser quotes one tour guide. “Most Americans,” she continues, “are not aware that Bram Stoker’s (book) “Dracula” is banned in Romania, or that the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, is thought of by Romanians as a hero, though tyrant, and considered to be the founder of Bucharest, Romania’s capital city.”
The media is largely responsible for the extent of people’s knowledge on the subject of vampires, Dresser concludes. “I have answered your questions to the best of television’s ability,” comments one informant. Since the first Dracula movie in 1931 (with Bela Lugosi), more than 100 vampire films have appeared. Not only has the vampire become familiar, Dresser comments, but he has to a large extent lost his evil qualities. He is a common--and very effective--figure in advertising. The most entertaining chapter in the book describes the myriad appearances of Dracula in the media, from a pizza commercial to a series of Count Dracula cookbooks.
The great disappointment of the book is that Dresser insists on being scientific. As a folklorist, she has collected wonderful vampire stories from societies all over the globe, as well as poking into obscure corners of the familiar world (for example, a convention for fans of “Dark Shadows,” a television series featuring a vampire). But as a social scientist, she feels called upon to intrude on her own narrative with statistics, superficial psychological explanations, and tedious descriptions of test administrations, which would strike any scientist as extremely arbitrary.
SECRETS OF THE SOIL by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (Harper & Row: $24.95; 444 pp.)
The authors of “The Secret Life of Plants,” which argued that plants respond to emotional stimulation, return with another book that means to revolutionize our thinking about the chlorophyled co-residents of the planet. Responding to recent headlines about the toxicity of food we grow, their object is to teach people how to reverse the process of polluting the soil. As early as 1912, they point out, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Alexis Carrel warned that “since soil is the basis for all human life our only hope for a healthy world rests on reestablishing the harmony in the soil we have disrupted by our modern methods of agronomy.”
While many of the ideas in “Secrets of the Soil” may strike readers as far-fetched or wacky, the book repeats the approach that was so appealing in the authors’ first book. Rather than make abstract statements that sound as if they were thought out in seclusion in Northern California, the authors offer a survey of methods already in use by groups in various countries. “Healthy and economic alternatives do exist, though some of them appear extraordinary,” they write. The methods considered range from the substantive, like natural fertilizers, to the more ethereal, like Sonic Bloom, a packaged broadcast of sounds pleasing to trees. Another area of research is methods of non-chemical pest control.
The sense of humor they maintain in their interviews effectively deflates dismissive, superior attitudes. In the opening chapters, they visit a couple to learn about the simple substance, barrel compost : “Our various astrological signs determined to the satisfaction of Lee, a Virgo, and Maureen, a triple Scorpio, we were led to a greenhouse that stretched the length of the house.” They seem to say to the reader: “You don’t have to buy into everything these people say to take the ideas seriously.”