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12.27.11

Beware Hollywood Memoirs: They’re Dull and Overrated

Former publisher Michael Korda says that rarely does a movie star deliver a revealing, honest, or even readable memoir—and tells stories of trying to get Laurence Olivier, Glenn Ford, and others to write their tales.

Much of my publishing life was consumed by the memoirs of movie stars—or by attempts to get them to write a memoir. These days I wonder why. With rare exceptions, it was usually not a happy or rewarding experience. Being a movie star is a demanding and well-paid job, of course, but it does not necessarily mean that the person himself (or herself) is particularly interesting, or has any deep insight or gift for self-analysis. Book publishers are always asking, “Will he [or she] tell the truth?” as if that were a simple question, but when it comes to people who have spent their whole working lives creating images of themselves that can be sold to the public, often one which their private lives would contradict, the idea that they will suddenly put “the truth” about their lives, whatever it may be, onto paper, is unlikely. Surrounded by high-paid publicity people and professional ego massagers, movie stars, like politicians, almost invariably come to believe that they are nicer, more charming, and more beloved than they appear to be to a casual observer, and that their stories about their careers are universally fascinating.

They are also seldom likely to want to deface their images, or to puncture the balloon of their egos merely to sell books, thus jeopardizing a lifetime investment for very little return. Years of standing in the limelight portraying other people for large amounts of money does not usually lead to a high degree of self-examination, let alone self-criticism. It used to be said—and may well still be—that the moment a fighter pilot stops to think about what he is doing he’s as good as dead, you have to fly by instinct and self-confidence, and the same can be said of an actor who begins to ruminate about his or her self—ego, self-confidence, and instinct are what you need in front of the camera, it’s a high-wire act without a safety net every time, which is why it’s so hard for most actors to explain what they do, or why some things work and others don’t.

As Laurence Olivier once replied, when asked what the most important thing for an actor to know was, “Why, how to get off stage so they want to see you come back again, of course.” Baring one’s soul isn’t necessarily part of the job description. (Despite a huge fuss on my part, Olivier carefully managed to avoid baring any of his soul in his memoir, Confessions of an Actor.)

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Laurence Olivier carefully managed to avoid baring any of his soul in his memoir, "Confessions of an Actor." (John Springer Collection / Corbis)

My old friend the late Irving Paul Lazar, the diminutive superagent who made a profession late in life of selling star memoirs to gullible book publishers—he realized in his old age that even the biggest of stars is unlikely to telephone his or her book agent with an urgent problem at two in the morning—understood this better than anyone. First of all he liked the publishers to come to him, as much as possible—they were out of their natural habitat in L.A., a continent away from their office in Rockefeller Center or on Fifth Avenue, and the better midtown New York City restaurants, where they were treated with the deference due to very important people in the world of culture and the media. Instead, they were staying at great expense in places like the Beverly Hills Hotel, where even the least promising of starlets gets more attention than the publisher of Random House or Simon & Schuster. There, against a backdrop of floodlit palm trees and ghastly, unnaturally shiny, sprawling vegetation, in a place where a suit and tie brand one as a visitor, Lazar found it easier to glamorize his clients, many of whom had long since dropped to the B-list of stardom, or even provoked at the mention of their name the remark “But I thought she died years ago?”

Stranded in Beverly Hills, where movie stars and studio heads and successful directors outranked them, where you can’t walk to anywhere, and where people who matter arrive at the porte cochère of the hotel or the restaurant in a glittering car or limousine, sometimes to be greeted by a storm of photoflashes, they were fair game, thirsting for tea or drinks with even the most passé of movie stars and prepared to find them glamorous and fascinating.

I was partly inoculated against this since I had spent part of my childhood in Beverly Hills, and have vague memories of Danny Kaye dropping in to entertain the children at a birthday party of my friend Warner LeRoy, grandson of one of the founding Warner brothers, son of Mervyn LeRoy, who directed The Wizard of Oz, and was thus Hollywood royalty. My own aunt was Merle Oberon, so movie stardom was not a faraway mystery to me as a child: it was part of the family business. This has produced in me a certain amount of caution (not enough, let me be the first to admit, but still some), so that just because Marlon Brando was a compelling actor from Day One of his career I did not necessarily believe he would write an interesting or honest book about himself, for example. Then too, it’s not easy to give advice to somebody who is already world famous, so the editorial role is bound to be a difficult one. Lazar’s equivalent to Brando was Orson Welles, whose memoirs he sold to several publishers over the years, neither he nor Welles ever remembering the previous sales, so that half the book publishers in New York and Boston thought they owned Welles’s book.

Lazar had a long list of aging B-list stars, among them Tony Curtis, Glenn Ford, and Gene Kelly, whom he tried, sometimes in vain, for years to sell to visiting book publishers and editors, but to my mind, all movie-star memoirs (and those by politicians) can be divided into two different groups: those (a tiny minority) written by the star and those written by a “ghost” for the star.

Almost all the ghostwritten books are dull, homogenized, bland, and sanitized, a kind of mass product, like Kleenex, intended to get the star onto TV talk shows and give him or her something to talk about; the ones actually written by a star, though few and far between, are likely to be much more interesting, though sometimes crazy, self-indulgent, and full of attempts to settle old grudges.

For example, though Kelly was a genius on his feet, he was a very sweet man, and publishers therefore correctly assumed that he would have nothing bad to say about anyone, and that putting him together with a ghostwriter was therefore bound to produce a dull book. On the other hand, Curtis was determined to write his own book, and given his many flamboyant eccentricities, that was enough to frighten publishers off him for years. The only time I ever had lunch with him, he turned up hugely late looking like someone auditioning for Frank Langella’s role as a vampire, wearing a one-piece velvet jumpsuit and a long white silk scarf wound around his neck with the ends hanging down to the floor, like the one that broke Isadora Duncan’s neck in the Bugatti. One lunch with Curtis was enough to make even the most starstruck publisher hurry back to the office and call Lazar to say thanks, but no thanks. (Lazar never minded, he would just say, “OK, how much will you give me for Gene Kelly then?”) The truth is that Curtis was a safer bet—anybody who is going to write his own book is ahead by a mile. I know that now, by having learned the hard way.

Lazar once talked me into having drinks with Ford at Ford’s house—Ford was dying to write a book and had great stories to tell, he said. I took this with a grain of salt, but I felt guilty at having said no too often, so I agreed. On the way over to Ford’s house, Lazar, who was so short he could scarcely see over the top of the dashboard of his car, and drove the way he talked, aggressively and alarmingly fast, turned to me and said, “Just one thing, kiddo. Don’t mention Rita Hayworth to him.”

Ford was a very respectable actor, with a solid career in the movies behind him, who had had something of a second life on television, but since he had costarred with Hayworth in Gilda, surely her most famous and sexually flamboyant role, it was of course the one question I wanted to ask him: “What will you write about Rita Hayworth?” I urged Lazar to get his eyes back on the road, if indeed he could see it, and asked why the subject was taboo. “He had a big crush on her,” Lazar growled.

“So did millions of other guys,” I said. “Did he have an affair with her?”

Lazar took a wild, blind plunge across the street into the driveway to Ford’s house without giving a signal or looking in the rearview mirror, missing a royal palm tree by a hairbreadth. “That’s the point,” Lazar said. “He was crazy about her, but he never fucked her.”

We were ushered into Ford’s study, which, unlike Lazar’s, contained shelves of books that he had probably read, and the first thing that struck my eye was that there were photographs of Hayworth all over the place. Oddly enough, I had met the actress years ago, after the breakup of her marriage to Orson Welles, as a schoolboy at Le Rosey, in Switzerland, when she was married to Prince Aly Khan, both of whose sons, Karim, the present Aga Khan, and his brother Amin were at Le Rosey. She came to lunch at the school’s chalet in Gstaad with her husband to see her stepsons, and I suppose Warner LeRoy and I were briefly introduced to her because as “Hollywood brats” it was thought our names might put her at ease. If so, it was a mistake, but she still gave off intense waves of sexual magnetism without any effort on her part, strong enough to effect anybody, let alone 80 or 90 teenage boys—she simply lit up the dining room—as she sat silently through the meal with the look of somebody performing an unwelcome marital obligation, and let her husband do all the charming, at which he was world famous on three continents, while the rest of us tried hard not to stare at her.

Ford seemed puzzled by our presence—it crossed my mind that like so many of the stars whose memoirs Lazar pitched, he might not actually be Lazar’s client, or that Lazar had never talked to him about writing a book in the first place. In any event, through the buzz of my recollections, I heard Lazar say, “Listen, you don’t have to do anything—Korda will find you a writer, you talk to him a few times, and he goes away and writes the book. Nobody’s asking you to sit in front of a fucking typewriter.”

[A]ny memoir that is ghost written will very likely turn out to be, with a very few notable exceptions, dead as a doornail, and hardly worth reading. If a movie star isn’t going to sit down to write his or her own book, the hell with it.

Unfortunately, just as Ford was about to ask me if this was indeed the case, I emerged from my memory of that long-ago lunch in Gstaad and asked him the fatal question: “What are you going to write about Rita Hayworth?” Lazar rolled his eyes. Ford, who up to now had been amiable, if distant, turned cold and said he had another pressing appointment, and in minutes we were back in Lazar’s car. Lazar did not complain. He drove me back to his house, and as I was getting out of the car he said, “Well, the hell with that, kiddo, how about seeing Gene Kelly tomorrow?”

What I should have learned from that experience is not to keep my mouth shut about Hayworth, but the brutal truth that any memoir that is ghostwritten will very likely turn out to be, with a very few notable exceptions, dead as a doornail, and hardly worth reading. If a movie star isn’t going to sit down to write his or her own book, the hell with it. I had asked Ford the wrong question.

Over the years my associate Chuck Adams squeezed memoirs out of a whole variety of stars, and now that I look back on those many years, I realize that the only ones worth reading were those by stars who wrote their own, however crazy the book turned out to be. Sometimes they failed, but at least they were real. When I see the words “As told to” or even “With” on the title page or jacket, I put the book in the bag that goes off at regular intervals to the library of a nearby “assisted living” facility. Out of the dozens of star books we did, the ones that were worth it were by Charlton Heston, a real gentleman, who wrote every word of his memoir (In the Arena), and Kirk Douglas, who not only wrote every word, but managed to make The Ragman’s Son a real book, and others who despite stardom wrote by their sweat of their brow: Joan Collins, Karl Malden, Esther Williams (Chuck and I always refer to her book as Wet, She Was a Star, after a famous comment about her when she made a flop in which for once she didn’t swim), Olivier, Candice Bergen, and Cher all come to mind. Mariel Hemingway, Maureen Stapleton, and Tommy Tune also come to Chuck’s mind.

So my advice about movie-star autobiographies is to look at the jacket page and title page carefully, and while you’re at it, scrutinize the author’s acknowledgements too. If you find the words, “I could not have written this book without the help of ------,” and it isn’t the author’s spouse, put it back on the shelf or table. It is the equivalent of picking up a package of some tempting delicacy in the supermarket and finding on the label the dreaded words “meat products and artificial flavoring.”

And so, hats off to people like Christopher Plummer for his engaging and wildly self-revealing memoir, In Spite of Myself, every word of it written by himself, and, more recently Diane Keaton for writing Then Again, a book about herself and her mother that is moving, real, honest, and reads like something she wrote herself, or Peter O’Toole’s ex-wife the actress Siăn Phillips, a favorite memoir of my wife Margaret’s, or Katharine Hepburn, who did it with class before she walked off the great stage of life.

It remains, even today, the same—the whole genre should be stamped with the phrase “Caveat emptor,” not only for the buyer, but for the publisher: rule No. 1 should be the fingers that touch the keys should be those of the star.