Excerpted from The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, Chapter IV. “Behind the Scenes: Man and Superman” (PopMatters/Counterpoint, April 2008)
As a teenager, there was one thing I liked to do apart from reading, and that was watching old horror films on TV. On Friday and Saturday nights, when everybody was out and the house was empty, I’d creep downstairs in my dirty pink dressing gown and settle in the front room, itching for a scare. I loved black-and-white movies best of all, the older the better. This was before video, DVD, and cable, and I had to take whatever they happened to be showing on BBC1, BBC2, or ITV. I could usually find something creepy late at night on weekends, though a lot of it was admittedly rubbish. I had very particular tastes, too. I didn’t enjoy looking at anything too familiar. I didn’t really like anything made after 1970, and I far preferred American films to British ones. Compared to the great old black-and-white classics from Universal and RKO, I found the British Hammer movies especially depressing. Why would I want to look at the ferrety Peter Cushing, or the smarmy Christopher Lee, when I could be watching Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi?
Bela Lugosi was my favorite—not only my favorite Dracula, but also my favorite actor. As a matter of fact, he was my favorite man. I had a poster of him in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula on the wall above my bed. I loved his dark eyes, his widow’s peak. His accent gave me goose bumps. Bela was a real gentleman, like Mr. Rochester, or—even better—Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, who’s actually referred to as a vampire, a ghoul, and a devil. In fact, when I saw Bela lying there in his coffin in Dracula, I thought of Heathcliff in rigor mortis with that “horrible sneer” on his face.
When I was 13, we had a “balloon debate” in history class, a kind of staged argument where you had to pretend to be a famous person from history. The premise of this game was that a number of important historical figures were passengers in a hot-air balloon that was rapidly losing steam, and only one could survive. You had to make the case why you were more important than the other people in the balloon, and everyone got to vote on who should be thrown overboard. I won the debate by a resounding majority, managing to convince the rest of the class that I, Bela Lugosi, was of far more importance to the course of history than any of my fellow passengers, including Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Henry VIII, and Bob Marley.
I loved Bela, and I believed in him. Bela was more than a man. To me, he had glamour, in its original sense: the casting of a spell. Bela had me enraptured. I imagined going to stay with him in Castle Dracula. A coach would pull up outside my house, driven by a mystery coachman, all in black. Its door would open slowly. Nothing would be said. I’d climb inside, and be taken away from my dreary life forever.
Imagine my dismay, then, when the spell turned into a curse. One day, rooting through a used bookstore, I came across a copy of Kenneth Anger’s scurrilous Hollywood Babylon, with its startling tabloid shots of a washed-up, gray-haired Lugosi. Aghast, disbelieving, I was devastated by Anger’s bitchy, lubricious account of how Bela was so hard up when he died that his current wife and an ex-wife collectively could hardly scrape together the money for a funeral. He was a ghoul after all, it turned out; not a vampire but a dope fiend, fatally hooked on morphine. I’d imagined him living in a huge Gothic mansion in the Hollywood Hills, not unlike Castle Dracula, but it turned out he lived in a cheap rented apartment in a dodgy part of Hollywood. Dracula was a junkie. I was sickened—not just by the seedy pictures, unassailable in their starkness, but by the sudden unwanted intrusion of real life into my private world, and by (of all things) a book. Books were my friends! Books were the fuel that fed my fantasies, not the source of their destruction. I had enough of that in real life.
Et tu, Brute?
I bought Hollywood Babylon on the spot, and read it so often I came to know the snide photo captions by heart. It was a book of tremendous importance to me. It was the first book to stop me in my tracks, the first to make me reconsider things I’d always accepted without question. Instead of giving me refuge in a fantasy world, it helped me to see things as they really are, all the insects crawling under the stones.
Like most of us, perhaps, I’d taken it for granted that somewhere on earth was a place where rich people lived happy lives—a sort of Platonic realm populated solely by the gods, where everyone was beautiful, and had everything they could ever dream of. As I imagined it, this modern-day Mount Olympus was inhabited by an elite coterie of well-known people who’d been brought together through their involvement in the movies, and who shared the pleasures inherent in their celebrity status. While I realized this idyllic Shangri-La was more an existential state than a physical location, I also recognized its slightly flawed (but still fabulous) real-world embodiment every time I opened a magazine or watched a show about the lives of the rich and famous. I knew this place as Hollywood. To others, perhaps, it’s Beverly Hills, Bermuda, Aspen, Cannes, Palm Springs, Monte Carlo, or simply America. Whatever name you know it by, it’s the place people go to live when they’ve made it, the place where they sit round their swimming pools drinking champagne and chatting on the phone, sailing their yachts, playing roulette.
It was, I’d assumed, where Bela lived.
Like most people who grew up a long way from America (and like many Americans themselves, no doubt), I believed in Hollywood. I thought of it as a place where people unimaginably different from me lived enchanting, unpredictable lives, where everyone’s needs were fulfilled, and where—unlike everywhere else in the world—you could never be bored, anxious, lonely, or miserable. I’d seen the photographs in magazines. I’d read about celebrities, how they lived. I’d watched them on television, those beautiful Americans, arriving at premieres and ceremonies, walking down the red carpet, people stretching out their hands to touch them as they once reached out to touch the hem of a saint’s garment, or a hunchback’s lucky hump. It seemed all too obvious that, due to their beauty, fame, and wealth, people who lived in Hollywood were happier than me.
And why not? Glamorous people cast a spell that makes us believe in them: a spell that works—we DO believe in them. We also assume that, along with their wealth and fame, celebrities are emotionally and personally fulfilled. We assume they must be better off than we are because their money can buy them the power to exert control over their lives, to avoid the kinds of setbacks that would trip up the rest of us, like waiting for a table at a restaurant, being convicted of a crime, or paying for an unexpected funeral.
As soon as I opened Hollywood Babylon, I realized we’d all been duped, which forced me to rethink all my former assumptions about other peoples’ lives. I found this book so compelling, in fact, that I quickly developed an appetite for similar kinds of spill-all Hollywood confessionals and scandalous “true-life” tales of celebrity dysfunction. Compelled to discover the “real” stories behind the public façade, I began to unearth the most lurid and voyeuristic celebrity memoirs I could find, starting with Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford’s inglorious depiction of her movie-star parent, Joan. Other early favorites were Haywire, Brooke Hayward’s chronicle of her life as the daughter of prima donna mother Margaret Sullavan, and Kitty Kelley’s seamy biographies of Frank Sinatra, Jacqueline Onassis, Elizabeth Taylor, and the British royal family.
The stories in these books taught me things that were much more important than anything I could ever have learned from the Gothic novels I’d loved as a child. And yet, were they really so different? Looking back, the jump from Charlotte Brontë to Kitty Kelley seems less sudden and perplexing, more a change of degree than of subject. Like the Gothic tales in which I once immersed myself, these Hollywood horror stories told my own narrative, but on a grand, almost mythic scale. It was thrilling for me to discover that beautiful, wealthy people could be as miserable as me. Suddenly all I wanted to read about was people with horrible lives, but lives that were horrible in grand, interesting ways.
I wanted to read about people who were rich and beautiful, but still unhappy.
Before long, I’d become a connoisseur of books about the “dark side” of Hollywood. It was only old Hollywood that interested me at first. I’d always been fascinated by films from the classic period, the 1930s and ’40s. The fact that people in the movie business today are drug addicts or alcoholics doesn’t seem either surprising or particularly perverse. It was the wealth and glamour of the past that captivated me, but after reading about Bela, I was no longer interested in beautiful people and their daring love affairs if I couldn’t also get a glimpse of their sordid underbelly—that world of greed, lust, jealousy, and shame. And I quickly learned that as long as there were fantasies of a rich elite living in a world of sparkle and style, as long as the movies fueled dreams of glamorous, sexually charged, thrill-packed lives, there were grotesque horror stories of intolerable pressures, violence, and catastrophe.
I especially came to love books detailing the legendary stresses that every celebrity has to face: the criticism, the hypocrisy, the backstabbing, the extravagance, the dramas and scandals, the searching inquisitions into private lives, the fabled rejection that follows the longed-for adoration. Not that I didn’t care about the lavish homes and priceless jewelry—I did!—but I also wanted to know about the personal anxieties and emotional tensions that went with them, the drunken collapses and nervous breakdowns that inspired frenetic and distasteful outbreaks of gossip in the tabloids. I guzzled down tell-all biographies of Jerry Lewis, Frances Farmer, Bing Crosby, James Dean, Grace Kelly, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland. I feasted on Hollywood Cesspool by evangelist Robert L. Sumner, a book published in 1955 by Sword of the Lord Publishers in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, proclaiming itself to be “A Startling Survey of Movieland Lives and Morals, Pictures, and Results” (the back cover advertised other books by the same author, including The Blight of Booze, The Menace of Narcotics, and Hell Is No Joke).
The coda to this epiphany came when I was a little older, and came across Nathanael West’s great Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust. I’ve never found a more vivid expression of the emotional fickleness of fans than the final scene of this remarkable book, when the crowd at a Hollywood premiere, after waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of the stars, runs amok and strikes out at random; the mass of worshippers suddenly becomes a lynch mob, their adoration transformed into a raging desire to kill their idols. Tod Hacket, the novel’s protagonist, sees the crowd’s behavior as the only appropriate response of those who’ve been rewarded all their lives in the coin of the realm—celebrity—only to realize too late that the currency is worthless, and they’ve all been conned:
They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Everyday of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war… Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed.
Confirming Hacket’s speculation about the frantic mob, French sociologist Edgar Morin, in his book Les Stars, claimed that the reason people have such an unquenchable appetite for celebrity stories is because what they ultimately want is to consume their idols. “From the cannibal repasts in which the ancestor was eaten, and the totemic feasts in which the sacred animal was devoured, down to our own religious communion and receiving of the Eucharist, every god is created to be eaten,” he wrote, making the convincing case that the first stage of this assimilation of our idols is the obsessive consumption of information about them through the vicarious voyeurism of the celebrity memoir.