1. Almost Famous Women: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman
This one’s a new book, just out, and when I first found out about it and its almost, but not-quite-famous subjects I was excited. I was hoping it would be non-fiction and biographical, something along the lines of Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives, another book that resurrects forgotten women in history and tells their stories. Megan Mayhew Bergman’s women are real, but the stories are fictional. Historical fiction isn’t my favorite thing in the world, and when it comes to modern fiction I’m a lot more old-fashioned than I’d like to be, but it didn’t take long for me to get drawn into Bergman’s stories of women who missed fame by a hair. Some were famous enough in their own day but have become gradually less so (Romaine Brooks, Beryl Markham, Butterfly McQueen), while others lived their lives under the shadow of a more famous relative (James Joyce’s daughter Lucia—that’s her, above—-, Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly, Edna St. Vicent Millay’s sister Norma, Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra).
I knew a little about some of the subjects, but nothing about most of them. If I knew anything about Marlene Dietrich’s one-time lover, heiress Joe Carstairs, I had forgotten. I’d love to read more about her life, but honestly could have done without Bergman’s portrayal of Dietrich: campy and insecure and bitchy for no reason. Bergman’s a lot better when she writes about more obscure figures; her stories about lesser-known entertainers and female daredevils had me searching the internet for anything I could find about them. As with All We Know, my favorite parts in Almost Famous Women happen when stories and lives intersect. Serial womanizer Joe Carstairs makes an appearance (or at least gets a mention) in a few stories, as does Natalie Barney, that other notorious womanizer who isn’t the subject of a story in Almost Famous Women, but maybe should be.
2. Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince by Budd Schulberg
Before we went to LA last fall I tried to read up all the old Hollywood books I could download because I was nervous about going there (it’s overwhelming) and I needed some good vibes. I started with Scandals of Classic Hollywood because I’m a huge fan of Anne Helen Petersen’s internet column of the same name. Online, Petersen is both scholarly and gossipy, writing about old film stars as if they were still walking around today. She dusts off old Hollywood scandals and makes them shocking again, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her new book. But I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Most of the stories Petersen writes about are ones that classic Hollywood fans already know: Fatty Arbuckle’s downfall; Judy Garland’s tragic life and James Dean’s short one. They were pretty obvious, and, worse, they were missing a lot of Anne Helen Petersen’s online sass.
Fortunately there always seem to be Hollywood memoirs out there that I had no idea even existed. I signed up for a free month of Kindle Unlimited just to be able to read Budd Schulberg’s memoir of growing up in Hollywood. Budd’s father was B.P. Schulberg, a big studio executive during the ’20s and ’30s, who moved his family out to Hollywood just as its orange groves were being bulldozed to make way for movie studios. Budd grew up playing on silent film sets and teasing moving stars. One time he even threw a fig at Greta Garbo. (?!)
Old Hollywood memoirs tend to have plenty of gossip, which is why I like them. They’re also notoriously unreliable, usually written in later life. Anita Loos is one of my favorite of the early Hollywood chronicallers, even though I’ve heard that her facts are all mixed up and her stories are usually embellished and can’t be believed. But I want to believe them. Schulberg is gossipy in his book, too, writing freely (sometimes too freely) about long-dead stars like Clara Bow. Most of his stories are ones I’d never heard before, and reliable or not, they’re definitely not boring.
3. The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp
Last year I read up every biography I could find of eccentric weirdo contrarians because I spent most of 2014 feeling like one. When my gardening heroine Alys Fowler wrote about having lunch at a restaurant with the British eccentric Quentin Crisp, and how he looked around the room and proclaimed the most stylish people there to be those who were the least trendy, I was inspired. I read a biography on him and then I quickly moved onto his first memoir, and I was hooked.
The Naked Civil Servant might be the best book I read last year. It’s definitely the funniest, though maybe the saddest too. Quentin Crisp was an outcast from the beginning, gay and flamboyant in pre-war London, where homosexuality was illegal. He dressed up like a dandy, wore makeup, and dyed his hair unnatural shades of red and blue, and got beat up on the regular for it, even arrested. But he was too much of an individual to tone down his look; the way he dressed and wore his hair and makeup reflected who he was.
Being an individual and just “being” were the most important things to Quentin Crisp. He claimed never to listen to music or look at art or read books, though that last one is hard to believe considering how well he wrote. He lived in a tiny apartment that he never cleaned—”after the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse,” he said—and the clothes he wore were often secondhand and tailored to fit—-”fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are,” he also said. Personal style was such an important form of self-expression to Quentin that the idea of fashion was something he had no patience for. “If you have no personality,” he wrote in a pretty scathing review of a book of Avedon photographs, “you may be able to save your face and, possibly, your entire anatomy by following the current fashion, but all we shall know about you, when we see you coming down the street, is that you had enough money to buy a glossy magazine.”