THE HOLLYWOOD love goddesses of the 1940s--Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth--might not have had faces (in the bold, eccentric '30s fashion of Crawford, Dietrich or even character actress Elsa Lanchester with her elfin features and electric copper-curled hair) but they sure had legs. It was this pinup pulchritude which received whistles in the theaters and got them into trouble off-screen, running smack into hand-on-knee studio exploitation, dancing the night away at a constant stream of Hollywood parties, and walking out, clickity- clack, on one love affair after another.
In Lana: the Lady, the Legend, the Truth, a self-dramatizing and flamboyantly cathartic memoir, Lana Turner kicks up hell--her hell, and certainly not self-created, she assures us. The book opens, quite appropriately, with Turner on stage in a survivor-stance appearance at New York's Town Hall as part of the series Legendary Ladies of the Screen. Then, in some sort of theatrical hangover, the book flashes back in time as Turner, like so many celebrity memoirists, defines herself not in terms of career success but almost exclusively in the men she has romanced or married.
Soon after Turner spins off that infamous soda fountain seat (not at Schwabs', she says), she is thrown into a morass which would make a soap opera heroine's head hurt. After a mean Joan Crawford throws a monkey wrench into Turner's first affair, the ing,enue falls into a loveless marriage (wedding night: "what am I doing underneath this man?"). When she finds she is pregnant, the father disavows paternity and she submits to an excruciatingly painful and messy abortion. Afterwards, she marries Steve Crane, who, she finds, is still legally married to another. ("Why, why, I kept asking myself, did these things happen to me?") She gets pregnant, annuls her marriage to avoid bigamy charges, and remarries Crane after he is hospitalized for an overdose of sleeping pills. After a torrid affair with Tyrone Power (He "was special. He was the one who broke my heart") and another abortion, she tries marriage again. Finding herself at a low point, she tries to commit suicide, slashing her wrists. Four marriages follow, including one to Tarzan star Lex Barker, but all come to an end because of her partner's alcoholism, infidelity or jealous outbursts. Her last fling at connubial bliss is amusingly and summarily dismissed with: "His name was Ronald Dante--and still is, I suppose."
But these are mere pirouettes compared to the gut-wrenching mise-en-scene which follows: a no-holds-barred description of the Johnny Stompanato affair and its repercussions. It is Imitation of Life, Peyton Place, and Madame X all rolled up into one, and Turner plays it to the hilt. The account of the tragedy, which involves a child, really doesn't warrant the grade-B movie dialogue or the pulp prose as this self-described "battered woman in diamonds" recounts her dangerous captivation with the gangster--a "whirlpool so strong that we would all be beyond rescue"--the perils-of- Pauline antics in Acapulco, her subsequent solace in alcohol, and the death of Stompanato at the hands of her daughter, Cheryl.
What is disturbing about Turner's autobiography, as voyeuristically fascinating as it is, is the same problem which plagues a bookcase full of memoirs by female stars, including efforts by supposedly "modern" actresses, from the essentially spiritual Liv Ullmann (Changing) to the grass-roots sassy Elizabeth Ashley (Actress). These women, who have been blessed with beauty, money, and successful careers, view themselves as victims, never a catalyst in personal or professional relationships, but creatures of fate -- a leading lady in a life where the script is always out of their control. Helplessness, passivity, and self-sacrifice are recurring themes; the memoir becomes a forum to act out a life. Stereotypical and spectacular, these weepies are played with such a hush of sincerity that in these books it becomes difficult to separate the reel from the real. With Lana, the genre reaches its apotheosis, and Turner sets herself up as the most put-upon heroine since there was no room at the inn.
To be fair, we all live soap-opera lives, and that life under the public's scrutiny, coupled with an image that demands to be upheld and then aggravated by the fast-lane pressure of Hollywood, might send anyone's stray thoughts to the hair of the dog. And the farcical elements of these memoirs often ring true since Hollywood, like TV soaps, are closed sets--their own special, stylized worlds. There are limited numbers of leads, and lives cross frequently; this vaguely incestuous round-robin doesn't exactly create security. (Like the show Dynasty, everybody gets around to everybody else eventually.) Lana Turner and Ava Gardner both married Artie Shaw. They both dated Fernando Lamas and Howard Hughes. Ava Gardner's most famous film role, The Barefoot Contessa,, was reportedly based on the life of Rita Hayworth; the millionaire character in the film was based on Howard Hughes. Lana Turner dated Frank Sinatra; Gardner married him. In fact, more than one Hollywood biography has speculated that the violent row which broke up the Sinatra-Gardner marriage occurred because of a Turner-Gardner lesbian liaison, which Turner finds amusing.
The Sinatra-Gardner marital vicissitudes are the centerpiece for Ronald Flamini's Ava: A Biography, a rather superfluous doodle when compared to Charles Higham's comprehensive 1974 biography, Ava: A Life Story. Again the emphasis is on romance, not career. Although handsomely packaged, with a stunning cover portrait, this is basically a paste-up job with no noticeable legwork, written in a kind of trashy, hopped-up prose. Whereas Higham presented Gardner as a fun- loving free spirit, fiercely loyal to her friends (and ex-husbands) with a salty tongue and a taste for the grape, Flamini presents Gardner as a rootless, often violent spitfire with a voracious sexual appetite, who ditched first husband Mickey Rooney because she said "she was tired of living with a midget."
Flamini retreads nearly all of the anecdotes in the Higham book, but Flamini's mean-spirited penchant for hyperbole often finds him overplaying his hand. He describes Nancy Sinatra in a complete dither--"the turbulence of a Catholic conscience in full cry." The short marriage of Gardner to Frank Sinatra, which is spread over a third of the biography, is loaded with undocumented reportage, unsubstantiated dialogue and pop-psychology. ("Her attraction to men with problems and her masochistic streak found full expression in the relationship.") The corker comes when Flamini accuses Gardner of driving Juan Peron out of his downstairs apartment during the '60s because he was afraid that the vibrations from her all- night carousing would knock over the urn containing his "first wife's ashes." "The ashes were Evita's," Flamini announces dramatically, and the publisher's publicity reverentially echoes this gossipy, if apocryphal, goldmine. Eva Peron, Juan Peron's second wife, was, of course, embalmed, not cremated, and the whereabouts of her body was unknown from 1955 to 1971, when Gardner was shaking the rafters.
James Hill's unusual, sometimes poignant memoir of his short marriage to Rita Hayworth avoids much of the show-biz clutter indigenous to the Hollywood biography, but since it reads like a screenplay--with exteriors described, long situational set-pieces and more dialogue than any celebrity memoir I can remember--it continues the prevailing Hollywood life-as- a-movie syndrome. Hill and Hayworth "meet cute," as the scriptwriters say, first as teen agers in Mexico when Hill mistakes Hayworth as a prostitute; then years later, after the actress is an established star, they "meet cute" again when Hayworth mistakes Hill as a cleaning man and he ends up waxing floors for her. By the third cute run-in--Hill trying to impress Hayworth by squiring a buxom blond starlet suspiciously identitifed only as "Jayne" --the reader suspects he might have seen this screwball comedy, perhaps starring Grant and Hepburn or Lombard and March.
But this is rather light-hearted if somewhat dizzying fun especially with the narrator obviously delighting in his shameless pursuit of the star. (Hill also takes crowd-pleasing pleasure in putting down Hayworth's famous other husbands Aly Khan and Orson Welles, the latter described as spending "most of his time sawing her in half in his magic act--when, that is, he wasn't consuming whole lambs or barbecued pigs. . .") When Hill, producer of such films as Separate Tables and Sweet Smell of Success, finally catches Hayworth, he becomes obsessed with reshaping her career, wanting to turn her into "the screen's most beautiful comedienne."
But by that point, in the late '50s, Hayworth wanted to phase out her acting career to concentrate on painting and hoped Hill would retire from the Hollywood hubbub to become the writer she felt he could be. The tensions caused by the division produced constant fights, heavy drinking and potential tragedy. One night while in a stupor, Hayworth and Hill played a Russian roulette truth game in which a gun was dispatched; the next day, when they realized that they could have killed each other, they separated. This memoir is Hill's tribute to Hayworth, who, it is now known, suffers from a crippling form of Alzheimer's disease. Thus, her comment to Hill about how she envisions her busy future in art, "I want to look in the mirror and see the excitement in my eyes, not the wrinkles around them," takes on new meaning, new sadness.
Elsa Lanchester, Herself is also a performance but it's a real beaut, a joy from start to finish. Finally we get a sense of a life lived, mistakes being made, work examined and pondered over, and intimate relationships savored and skewered. This is one star autobiography uncompromised by the trappings of glamorous self-protection; and, if Lana Turner and her literary ilk are glazed hams, then Elsa Lanchester is ham on wry.
What separates Elsa Lanchester immediately from the pack is that she is, simply put, fun-- ribald, self-deprecating, irreverent. Her voice here is as distinctive and whimsical as the patter of music hall and satirical songs she is famous for, and it gives her story--a dandy --the edge the memoirs of other performers lack.
She was born to a radical suffragette who was once briefly committed to an asylum under Britain's "Lunacy Laws" in 1895 for living out of wedlock with Lanchester's father, a socialist and atheist. (After an air raid in World War I, the family inspected a clean-cut bombed-out space between two other houses. Lanchester's father mused: "If there's a God, he's certainly a good dentist.") If the future "Bride of Frankenstein" inherited some of her mother's boemian ways, she surely also developed her father's wit early. She describes Isadora Duncan -- Lanchester's dance teacher at Duncan's Paris school for talented children--with childlike amusement as the legend, swathed in draperies with only henna hair and painted nails peeking out of this cocoon, gesturing royally from a chaise longue. Lanchester soon learned that "all Isadora could do was teach us to run away from or toward an enemy or to become an autumn leaf . . . "
Years later, Lanchester was back in London as the toast of the cabaret scene, making silent films written by friends H.G. Welles and Evelyn Waugh. (Here Lanchester, who says she and Waugh were exactly the same age right down to the hour, errs: Lanchester was born on October 28, 1902; Waugh the same date, but 1903.) She married theater wunderkind Charles Laughton in 1929, and both appeared happily in stage productions, that is, until Laughton revealed he was periodically homosexual. But their commitment to each other, their admiration for each other's talent, and Lanchester's tolerance (which left Laughton guilt ridden) kept them together for over 30 years, until Laughton's death from cancer in 1962.
Elsa Lanchester, Herself is a double celebration since it details Laughton's life and triumphs with behind-the-scenes information on The Private Life of Henry VIII (in which Lanchester played Anne of Cleves), The Night of the Hunter (Laughton's only foray into directing film) and his various heralded theater projects, along with the chronicling of her own work--althouh one might wish for a more detailed look at The Bride of Frankenstein (in which she played the demure Mary Shelley and the hissing bride) or her other memorable performances in David Copperfield, Come to the Stable or Witness for the Prosecution. But her book combines the qualities of the best memoirs by the stars: the epic sweep of Gloria Swanson, the oddball charm of Mercedes McCambridge, and the bawdiness of Shelley Winters (especially in Lanchester's unflattering portraits of Alexander Korda, Henry Fonda, and, yes, Shelley Winters). All this is a long-winded way of saying I love this book and I think its 80-year-old author is a dish, as Myra Breckinridge, another mischievous chronicler of the follies of Hollywood, used to say.