Long before TMZ, Perez Hilton, and leaked celebrity sex tapes, there was Hollywood Babylon.
In their review of the 1975 re-release of Kenneth Anger’s infamous bible of sex and scandal Hollywood Babylon, The New York Times wrote: “If a book such as this can said to have charm, it lies in the fact that here is a book without a single redeeming merit.”
First banned in America in 1965, 10 days after its first U.S. release, the book detailed the sordid and scandalous lives of Hollywood’s greatest stars, from the Silent Era icons of D.W. Griffith and Gloria Swanson to 1960s bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.
Written by underground avant-garde filmmaker Anger, Hollywood Babylon rocked the film world to its core. The slim and badly-written counter-store paperback, first released in France in 1959, divulged secrets from behind the silver screen with its gruesome and gory details of silent and speaking film stars: their suicides, sex scandals, and prescription pill and booze problems.
Hollywood Babylon made outrageous claims about everyone. The book shared “leaked” excerpts from the diary of Mary Astor and alleged to detail her rich sexcapades, as well as digging up information of the children Charlie Chaplin allegedly fathered with multiple different women. Whether it was Mae West’s penchant for multiple sex partners in the one evening, or D.W. Griffith’s exploitation of poor workers on his set (coupled with images of Jayne Mansfield’s infamous car accident), Kenneth Anger’s book had all that Hollywood did not want the public to see or know.
Hollywood Babylon was written to be a scandal.
It was published to expose the dirty secrets of Hollywood’s sanitised and sacred stars and put the words sex, booze, and barbiturates in the same sentence as these icons of the screen.
With its penchant for bad hyperbole and catchy headline titles, Hollywood Babylon remains a titan of a scandal book. It has kept most if not all its cultural and cinematic currency today because the book continues to act as an important antecedent to our rich celebrity scandal and gossip media today.
Hollywood Babylon remains so great because the book was the first of its kind to satirise the obsessive and unfounded gossip so much of Hollywood life was mediated by in the early days of scandal rags and gossip media.
But first and foremost, it is important to note that Hollywood Babylon is essentially a work of fiction. There is no doubt that many—if not all—of the stories Anger shares in his slim bible have no merit. Anger was much more interested in the shock he would generate by writing these bizarre claims about the stars of Hollywood’s golden age than by the substance of these rumours.
Since the idea of the “star” was still a new and abstract idea in the early 1910s and 1920s—and had only been vaguely cultivated with theatre and vaudeville culture—Anger began the story of his stars there. Anger wanted to introduce the idea that stardom, from the very start, was intrinsically tied to scandal. His writing was an attempt to bring down all the stars—living or dead—back to the realm of mortality, and morality.
Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich all occupied a place in the secluded hills of Hollywoodland and away from the sinful and sordid masses (remember, this is before the “-land” rotted away). The book depicted these women as angry and violent drunks, and we readers and fans alike were offered an intoxicating insight into the “other side”—indeed the unseen side—of Hollywood.
Clara Bow was accused of sleeping with the USC football team. The book claimed Ramon Navarro died with an Art Deco dildo shoved down his throat.
Hollywood Babylon—whether actually fiction or unblemished truth—was about “uncloseting” the hidden and scandalous side of Hollywood life.
Before the age of the instant-upload and the celebrity selfie, Hollywood Babylon was the antidote to varnished slick studio shots of its stable of stars.
With its purple prose and slicing, if slightly curt, sentences, Anger’s tome milked the power of photograph to shock and titillate all at once. As a filmmaker and photographer, Anger also knew how to add credibility to his ludicrous and unfounded claims with the elusive image.
The crime scene photo of 1960s B-grade film star Jayne Mansfield’s car crash, which not only killed the star but nearly killed her daughter, actress Mariska Hargitay, is a particularly gruesome example. Buried between blurbs of Mansfield’s recent exploits on and off the studio lots, the crime scene photo– never previously published–tells the readers that what we are reading (and seeing) is all true. By conflating the authenticity inherent in a crime scene photo, alongside the lurid details of Mansfield’s personal life, Anger’s book appeared to be an accurate and truthful tell-all.
Whether it is the star glamour shots of Cara Blow or Ginger Rogers positioned against a dossier Anger has written on their incriminating exploits, photographs fascinate and titillate readers. Crime scene photos achieve the same effect. They are like another film set our great and glorious stars are seen performing their final close-up.
Anger’s inclusion of brief excerpts from Astor's diary, later coupled with the crime scene photos from the Manson murder of Sharon Tate, are an attempt to authenticate all of his claims.
For readers of today, so acclimated to the scandal of leaked documents, the insights garnered from Anger’s claims, such as excerpts Mary Astor’s private diaries, are far from shocking.
Forty years on, Hollywood Babylon can thus be read less as a book about the scandalous life of stars and a more as an attempt to exploit—and ironise—the latency truthfulness invested in images of these stars. These are the artifacts that make or break the star.
At the end of Hollywood Babylon, Anger includes an excerpt of script removed—allegedly at the behest of Jack Warner because it was “too depressing!”—from the 1934 film Moulin Rouge. The excised dialogue is about a young girl trying to make it in Hollywood who stops the star Dick Powell on the sidewalk, asking him about how he made it in Hollywood.
The excerpt is symbolic for Anger’s entire book: in Hollywood Babylon, he wants us to look at what Hollywood has excised, removed, covered up, closeted, concealed, swept up the rug, and hidden to see Hollywood for what it really is: a place of sin, sex, and unbridled spending.
A place where stars go to live—and die.