reviewed by Amy Bermudez (Army)
After a year of heavy (but wonderful!) military reads, I was actively seeking out lighter options. My ears perked up when one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff Mom Never Told You, happened to interview Anne Helen Petersen about her upcoming nonfiction book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood. Petersen has a PhD, she blogs, and she is able to draw a connections between the Kardashian family and Pride and Prejudice. I needed this book. Needed it.
author Anne Helen Petersen
In the podcast interview, it became clear that Petersen takes a smart look at gossip. It’s not about rehashing the hard times that people of the past have finally lived down; instead, she wants to dig deeper and analyze what those scandals say about us. The fact that someone is shunned for drinking, or their sexuality, or for looking a certain way is much more telling about our society than it is about that particular person. The little taste of her approach in the 40 minute podcast is fully fleshed out in the 304 page book.
Petersen discusses the interesting lives of the likes of Mary Pickford (a silent movie actress from the turn of the century), James Dean, and many a star in between. Although most of the stars were people I had heard of, their respective scandals were news to me.
The Clara Bow chapter stood out. She was the original “It Girl” and a 1920’s version of Lindsay Lohan.
After achieving colossal film fame, her money and the pressure of the spotlight left her dissatisfied. Bow searched for happiness in parties, alcohol, and drugs. Stardom of 100 years ago wasn’t so different as it sometimes is today. She had crashed and burned by the time she was twenty five.
I had never heard of the love story between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Sure, he was still legally married to his second wife when he fell in love with her, but it sounds like Lombard was Gable’s true love. (A few of his close friends said as much despite the fact that he racked up half a dozen marriages over his life.)
Lombard brought out the best in him, and they lived a relatively boring life despite the image that was presented of them in the tabloids as a big time party couple. On a flight returning home from selling war bonds, Lombard’s plane crashed. Everyone aboard died. Later that year, Gable enlisted in the Army Air Force, even flying combat missions. He wasn’t the only star of his day to put life and career on hold for World War II. Still, I’m impressed by his eager participation in combat.
Montgomery Clift, known only to me as a pretty face in From Here to Eternity, had more than his share of scandal. He bucked Hollywood tradition by refusing to sign with a particular studio, which was unheard of at the time.
Instead, he hand-picked every movie he appeared in and turned down most parts he was offered. Clift was one of the first actors to use the method acting approach. He was brooding and mysterious. For years, many thought that he and Elizabeth Taylor were Hollywood’s most perfect couple. However, they weren’t actually dating. Clift was mum on his private life, only adding to his mystique. When he suffered a horrific accident in 1956, Taylor rushed to the scene and saved him from choking on his own tooth. Clift survived the accident, but it left him in constant pain and dependent on pills and alcohol. Though he lived another ten years, they were tortured years.
I picked up this book looking for an escape, to a different time, to a different place. But I also appreciate that the scandals, in essence, are the same as today. People fell in and out of love, lost their careers and got them back again, made and lost millions. Despite the fact that many of the stories lack a happy Hollywood ending, it’s an upbeat book. Petersen brings her depth of knowledge and keen observation to the tale of each story. She illuminates them in ways that are funny and smart and relatable. She made me think about my consumption of gossip, which I have zero plans of curtailing. She taught me a thing or two about some of the industry’s elite. And, just like we always hope movies will do, this book entertained me.
Amy Bermudez is a writer, educator, and Army wife currently stationed at Fort Bliss. She loves running, reading, and ice cream (but maybe not in that order) and writes a popular blog, Army Amy. She’s written for Spouse Buzz and the Huffington Post, reads multiple books a week, and recently wrote a very moving post called “This is a War Like That.”