Robert Wagner was 7 years old when his family moved from Detroit to Bel Air, which is now an affluent suburb of Los Angeles but in 1937 was “thinly settled,” a place where a boy could ride horses and delight in California, “the way each block offered something delicious for the eye,” an “intoxicating” place compared with Detroit. He grew into a handsome young man of the picture-perfect sort the movies liked to feature in those days, and by the early 1950s he had established himself as a second-tier star in the Hollywood firmament. Over the years he made numerous films, few of which were very good, and then worked as a featured player in various television series.
Wagner is actually less interesting as an actor and screen personality than as a participant in, and close observer of, the life of the movie community. His previous book (also written with Scott Eyman), “Pieces of My Heart” (2008), is an affecting memoir that focuses on his two marriages to the incandescently lovely Natalie Wood, whose drowning in 1981 near Catalina Island left lasting marks on him, though he happily remarried in 1990, to Jill St. John, another lovely actress. Wagner seems to have known anybody who was anybody in Hollywood over the past three-quarters of a century, to have been greatly loved by almost all of them, and to have watched them at work and play with a knowing and sympathetic if occasionally mordant eye.
It is this eye that is at work in “You Must Remember This,” which he calls a book “about the quantum differences between then and now, as seen in how we lived our private lives during the last gasp of radiance that was the studio system . . . a way of life that has vanished as surely as birch bark canoes.” He goes on:
“I guess you might say that ‘You Must Remember This’ is my farewell to the lives that those of us lucky enough to be in the movie industry lived. . . . Some of the book will be about the stars I knew best. . . . Other parts of the book will be about our houses, the architects who built them, the haberdashers who dressed us, the restaurants where we liked to eat and why. It will be about the way Hollywood actually lived, told via a mosaic of memory.”
Memory, to be sure, but also a pretty considerable amount of research, though whether Wagner’s or his collaborator’s we cannot know. After its foreword, the book is divided into chapters about the Hollywood landscape and its development, the private houses and public hotels that were built there, the ways in which movie people spent their private hours, the styles of clothing and deportment they affected, the press that covered (and often covered for) them, and the restaurants and clubs in which they whiled away the night. Though “You Must Remember This” is chockablock with names, it is really more about places than people, which is likely to disappoint readers with a taste for Hollywood gossip; though my own taste in that regard is not very highly developed, I confess to wishing that Wagner had served up a bit more dishing and a bit less doting, but that’s his prerogative.
The world inhabited by Wagner’s generation, and that of stars whom he knew but were older than he, such as Cary Grant and Joan Crawford, was entirely different from that of today’s stars. “We who were lucky enough to be in the movie industry at that time lived in a cocoon of golden lace,” Wagner writes. “We were protected from the consequences of our behavior by the vast studio apparatus. . . . If there was an arrest for drunk driving, there would be a nod, a wink, perhaps some modest amount of money changing hands, and that would be the end of it. . . . Now one of the prime ways to get on the cover of a magazine or to juice up a career is to go into rehab for alcohol or drugs, have a public psychotic episode, or make a porn tape. . . . My sense is that today’s celebrities trade the huge amounts of money they earn for an almost complete loss of freedom.”
No doubt he’s right, as is attested to by the small armies of security people with which the Brangelinas of the world surround themselves and the wrap-around shades behind which they invariably hide. Back in the day, by contrast, stars and bit players, producers and writers could lose money on the gambling ships — “the Monte Carlo, the City of Panama, the Texas, the Showboat, the Caliente” — anchored just outside the three-mile limit, and word of it almost never leaked beyond the circles in which they moved. They could get loaded at Romanoff’s or Chasen’s or the Cocoanut Grove and wake up the next morning, however groggily, with no fear that their misbehavior would be pasted all over the papers. They could have flings — Wagner himself claims to have had several — and do so in the privacy of their mansions in Beverly Hills or bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel. In one of his infrequent ventures into gossip, Wagner tells us:
“Bungalow 5 was the favorite of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Paul and Linda McCartney liked it as well. Bungalow 9 was the home of Jennifer Jones and Norton Simon for five years. Bungalow 11 sheltered Marlene Dietrich for three years, including her custom-made seven-by-eight-foot bed. Bungalows 14 to 21 were known as ‘Bachelors Row,’ and were the favorites of Warren Beatty and Orson Welles among many others.”
To less titillating effect, Wagner describes the rapid evolution of Hollywood and environs from undeveloped countryside to an ever-more-crowded landscape with vast mansions — Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s Pickfair being one of the largest and most famous — constructed in a dizzying variety of styles: “Spanish haciendas were built, as well as Arabian mosques, French chateaux, pueblo-inspired homes. There were even some Tudor mansions. . . . All of this exuberant eclecticism bothered the intellectuals, who thought it was vulgar. But Hollywood made its living manufacturing dreams. If it had looked liked Newport, the dreams wouldn’t have cascaded over the world as successfully as they did.” Actually, if it had looked like Newport — the Newport of Ocean Drive and the Breakers — it would simply have been vulgarity of another order.
“In thinking about those times,” Wagner writes, “I’ve realized that the watchword for the Hollywood lifestyle then was ‘diversity.’ Whatever one’s taste in either people or houses, it could be met.” In men’s clothing, though, conformity seems to have been the rule. Wagner claims that “the most influential figure in twentieth-century American fashion was an Englishman: the Duke of Windsor.” I don’t buy that for a minute, but I do agree with Wagner on this count:
“I believe that the most profound remark about Hollywood fashion — and quite possibly about Hollywood — came from Adolph Zukor, one of the founders of Paramount Pictures.
“ ‘Dress English,’ Zukor said, ‘and think Yiddish.’ ”
Too bad there isn’t more of that in “You Must Remember This,” but it’s an amiable book that does succeed in giving a reasonably convincing sense of what it was like in the glittering firmament a half-century or more ago. I just wish he’d given it another title, as ever since I started reading it I’ve been unable to get “As Time Goes By” out of my head.
YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS
Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age
By Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman
Viking. 262 pp. $27.95