I´ve very much enjoyed reading Debbie Harry´s Face It and thought of James Maker whilst reading the first few chapters. She was also an obsessive of the New York Dolls, travelled miles to every gig, subsequently became friends with most of them. She comes across as a real New York Art girl, first on the fringes, hanging out at The Factory, eventually invited to dinners with Warhol — who not only did the usual silkscreen portrait but also an experimental one with a commodore, one of the first done using only computer technology — and at the bunker with Burroughs etc. Basquiat appears in ´Rapture´one of the Blondie videos, and she offers the best description of his charm and attractiveness i´ve read. She also describes herself as ´Punk Til I Die´. And the combination of Art and Punk makes for an interesting set of observations, cool, intelligent, perceptive, detached; always surprising.
Face It is the tale of a woman who set out to be an artist, ended up being a pop star and chose a bohemian life. There are three incidents, two already much publicised, that speak of an attitude. On heroin: ´you either quit or you die´: she doesn´t linger on the struggle. On being mugged and raped in front of Chris Stein in her own apartment, she says it´s terrible but what she remembers feeling most is that the mugger stole their equipment and without it they could not work. No mention of psychological damage or what effect it might have had on her relationship with Stein. An interesting accent on the telling, perhaps an elision and occlusion. The last is when Bowie playfully takes out his dick and waves it at her. She admires it but wonders why Iggy Pop, who is sitting next to Bowie, doesn´t do the same.
It´s a marvellous book, full of such stories. She seems to know everybody in the New York Art scene, partly because of where she worked in the early years (Max´s Kansas City) or through the career with Blondie and beyond. We get stories on the music scenes of the period and filmmakers she worked with like Cronenberg and John Waters, and she has interesting and original observations on all of them. And , of course, her own music and its making is covered in detail.
The person that is evoked is a New York tough cookie, with glimmers of a heart of gold (her nursing of, and lifelong attachment to Stein) burdened with a lifelong fear of abandonment but with the will and daring to make her own life in conditions not of her making, plowing on and following her interests in art, music and fashion, fearlessly experimenting in all those areas. And appreciative of her fans whose art is lavishly illustrated throughout the volume. We see he as she chooses to depict herself in her life and as fans have seen her through her career.
For those like I for whom Blondie marked and is central to their youth this book is very heaven indeed.
When life gets busy and stressful, I find comfort in reading a biography and sinking into other people´s lives. This first week back teaching I read Demi Moore´s Inside Out. There’s surprisingly little on the career, a sparkly one that is central to an understanding of popular Hollywood cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, and even less about the films: Joel Schumacher helped her keep her role in St. Elmo´s Fire whilst she got off drugs; people still want to talk to her about Patrick Swayze and Ghost; she thinks Indecent Proposal is a better film than is credited; she gives an insight into how she got that big paycheck for Striptease; the fights to resist the love affair between her character and that of Tom Cruise´s in A Few Good Man that the studio was begging for; she talks of how men in the industry reacted to her G.I Jane body etc. But there´s not much and more space is devoted to the Vanity Fair covers she did with Annie Leibowitz (perhaps rightly). The spine of the story is her relationship with her mother and the best parts of the book are her descriptions of growing up with two parents who were mainly interested in drink, drugs, gambling and a good time, running away from bills and responsibilities all over the country, scamming their way into new houses, and then repeating the cycle all over again every few months with new names, constantly on the move and always on the fringes of criminality. One of Demi´s daughters says she wasn´t raised but forged. And reading the book one understands why. A book I very much enjoyed reading.
Gary Indiana goes to Havana in 2012 to write his memoirs. In between sex with hustlers, he tries to remember what it was like to be part of the LA political underground that gathered around various communes, the punk movement around the Mudd Club, the intellectual circles of the Reagan years, etc. It´s beautifully written and very entertaining but leaves a sour note. He admits to a lack of empathy and the book does indeed demonstrate the extent of it. He´s gallant about the personal cost of growing up in a homophobic culture — the bullying, the abuse, the breakdowns, the rapes — the need to invent oneself, to imagine a way of existing whilst every experience chips away at expectations of romantic love, to find community and survive the pandemic raging around. He´s clear-eyed, unsentimental and dispassionate about this. But it is disconcerting that every Cuban is depicted as a hustler on the make, out to get something from him, each is dehumanised in some way, even as he gallivants around Havana flashing his dollars and expecting the whole culture to bend its knee. It´s a quite extraordinary example of sexual tourism , American entitlement, and white privilege. And yet….it´s also a portrait of how a homophobic culture turns a sensitive young boy into an embittered old queen, and ends up being both illuminating and moving.
An enchanging book about the lifelong friendship of three fascinating women who met as tweens. Oona was the daughter of Eugene O´Neill and married Chaplin whilst barely legal. Gloria Vanderbilt was the famous ´Poor Little Rich Girl´of 1930s tabloids. She married a gangster agent at the age of 17, quickly divorced, married Stokowski when he was in his 60s, then married Sidney Lumet, before divorcing him and founding the jean empire that made her another fortune. She´s also famous as the mother of Anderson Cooper,. Carol also married an older man, William Saroyan. Kenneth Anger was so smitten by her he chased her across Spain and America and their letters are so striking they´ve been published. Some say Capote´s Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany´s is based on her. After twice divorcing Saroyan, Carol married Walter Matthau in the 50s, and the particular spotlight that come from being the spouse of a star for the rest of Matthau´s life probably obscured her very real accomplishments as a writer. Her Among the Porcupines is particularly memorable. What´s interesting about this book is that it´s written almost like a novel by Aram Saroyan, Carol´s son. He must have had access to all the letters, notes, and people, as he captures their individual voices and writes convincingly and with authority of what they´re thinking, feeling, desiring. It´s a beautifully written book and an absorbing read, Going very cheap on amazon.
Robert Morley flashed by on the TV yesterday and I remembered how much I loved him. Does anyone remember him in Who´s Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? Since I had a rare day with no other commitments I went on to read Sheridan Morley´s biography of him, very funny and well-written. You certainly get to know more about him but you don´t get to know him any better. After I read Morley´s biography of his father, I went on to read that of his grandmother, Gladys Cooper. And the same thing. It´s like eating brioche, satisfying and delicious but without much substance.
John Lehr is a contemporary of Sheridan Morley´s and he also wrote a biography of his father Bert, which makes for an interesting comparison, both as works of biography but also about cultural differences. John´s bio is all about finding interiority, psychological complexity, motive. Sheridan´s is all about jokes, attitudes, ways of being. Very enjoyable reading nonetheless.
I carried on with Sheridan Morley´s book on James Mason, and cumulatively the biographies led me to reflect that there once was a market for light, brief books, written by someone seemingly in the know, on film stars. This book is on James Mason but like most of his others it´s a bare outline of a life and career; very well-written but critically deficient; peppered with interesting anecdotes from people who knew the subject and who were willing to contribute to a portrait the subject would be happy with. ´Research´in Morleyland is having tea or cocktails with interesting people willing to share a piquant story that doesn´t cross the boundary into potential embarrassment. This one, like the others, provides 250 odds pages that make an afternoon disappear in a vague haze of pleasure and leaves no residue, rather like afternoon tv now. No wonder they could be churned out annually at considerable profit.
After seeing all episodes of Ekaterina available on Prime, I re-read Robert K. Massey’s marvellous Catherine the Great, which I’d read when it first came out. There were things in it that either didn’t make an impression then but do now or that I’d forgotten. The scandal of Catherine wasn’t that she had so many lovers — she was a very romantic person and it was a kind of serial monogamy with her — but that the ones she took in her later life were so much younger than herself, the men twenty-odd to her 50-odd. That Potemkin bedded his three nieces one after the other when they were in their teens garnered no censure. That Orlov seduced a thirteen year-old relative was used as an excuse to break up with him but no other problemo. And of course, John Paul Jones, the founder of the US navy was tried for having raped a 12-year old and this led to his leaving the Russian navy. I’d also forgotten that though serfs in theory were tied to the land, in practice their lot was one of slavery and they were bought and sold with no regard for kinship ties as African-American slaves were in the US. Serfs were emancipated in 1861. Slaves were freed in the US in 63. It also struck me that Catherine lived then as many gay men do now, with former lovers adding up to an extended family and support network.
Robert K. Massie’s book is a truly great popular biography, history as page turner, all 656 pages of it and i re-read it in what felt like one huge gulp. Her dangerous beginnings, the murder of her husband, Russian expansion into Poland and the Crimea, her correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot, her art collection, her palace building, her faiIure to free the serfs even as she vaunted the liberty of men, are all clearly written, based on enormous learning, and streamlined into a drama in which the central protagonist is made knowable and admirable. I highly recommend.
I highly recommend Dylan Jones’ oral biography of David Bowie. I’ve only ever seen the form applied to sweeping historical subjects and was first introduced to it by Studs Terkel’s landmark work, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970). It’s interesting to note how this form, developed to put the personal back into the historical, to give first-hand accounts of vast social changes, evolved into first-hand accounts of one person’s experience of a historical period (for example the Nella Last’s Mass Observation Diaries, turned into books and which Victoria Wood then used as a basis for Housewife, 49.) and latterly, as a form of biography cobbled together from interviews of people who knew the subject at various points in their life (Michael Zuckoff’s excellent Robert Altman: An Oral History, 2010)
Jones’ book has the great advantage of getting dozens of first-hand perspectives on Bowie across a long period of time whilst almost entirely keeping the ‘author’ out of the narrative, which, if you dislike him as much as I do, is a good thing He brags, without a soupćon of irony about bringing Giles Coren, Rod Liddle, Piers Morgan. AA Gill and Boris Johnson to write for GQ. You can imagine all as teenagers, wearing their public school top hats, burning £5 pound notes and throwing rocks at that David Jones with the long hair from Bromley.
What comes across in David Bowie: A Life is a very nice man, unfailingly polite, constantly curious, trying to find form in sound and image to express states and feelings, and seeking to do so with great interest, curiosity and application. Students of film will find his constant process of developing, trying on, marketing and discarding personae so that the changes in personae become the persona itself, particularly fascinating. Fans of Bowie will find an incredible amount of detail on the recording of some of the great pop music of the last century. Those interested in the salacious will also find what they seek in this book.
We’re so lucky now to be able to follow this type of book whilst listening to and seeng all the music and films referred to on you-tube. I was surprised at how familiar I was with all of it, much of which I wouldn’t have recognised by titles alone. In listening and seeing now, I remember what I felt then, but can now name, contextualise and articulate. Great book.
Orry-Kelly was a bachelor all his life; he was chief costume designer for Warner Brothers between 1932 and 1944; lived with Cary Grant in the late Twenties and was furious when Grant moved on to Randolph Scott in the Thirties; was bestie to Texas Guinan, Ethel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Fanny Brice, Hedda Hopper and other formidable women; and oh did he love his mom. But it was only upon finishing the book proper and reading Catherine Martin’s Foreword and Gillian Armstrong’s Afterword to Women I’ve Undressed that I could be sure he was gay.
Gilliam Armstrong, the superb Australian director of Mrs. Soffel (1984), Starstruck (1982) and many other films that deserve to be classics (Little Women, 1994), had made a documentary on Orry-Kelly called Women He’s Undressed (2015). Orry-Kelly, born in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia and winner of three Academy Awards for costume design, was internationally one of the most famous Australians of the first half of the twentieth century — his billing in Australia often read ‘costumes by our Orry-Kelly’ — and of clear interest to an Australian filmmaker and an Australian audience (and beyond). It was amidst the publicity surrounding the release of the film that the memoir came to light. As Armstrong recounts, ‘ I mentioned Orry in an interview on a Newcastle radio station and a friend of Orry’s grand-niece contacted me, wondering if I’d be interested in meeting his niece who, by the way, had his memoir! She had been keeping Orry’s memoirs in a pillowslip in her laundry cupboard for her mother for over 30 years.’
The main reason for reading this book is because Orry-Kelly remains one of the outstanding costume designers of the classic era: when you visualise the Busby Berkeley musicals, or Warners gangster films or Bette Davis at her peak or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, you’re re-invoking the dreams, characters and stories that Orry-Kelly helped to create. Only Adrian, Travis Banton, Edith Head and Irene could be considered peers in Hollywood’s classic era. Plus, after his Warner’s period, he designed the costumes for An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951), Auntie Mame (Morton D’Acosta, 1958), Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) and many other classics. As Catherine Martin, the costume designer who in 1994 finally superseded Orry-Kelly as the Australian to win most Academy Awards notes, his influence continues to be felt, beginning with the impact his work had on hers, and illustrating it with a comparison between the costumes Orry-Kelly designed for Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) and what she herself designed for Nicole Kidman in Australia (Baz Luhrman, 2008).
Orry Kelly wrote the book for an audience of the time after his peak (the late fifties, early sixties) but not quite yet for publication so it’s full of all kinds of obfuscation that act as a kind of discretion (what kinds of crushes where those that Cary Grant had on all those women; were they akin to those I have when I meet a new friend — a kind of romantic idealisation of who they are – or was it sexual. It’s not clear) and all kinds of indiscretions that would never have made print had the book been published in his lifetime (Errol Flynn’s drug consumption, Joan Fontaine’s imperious demands, Monroe’s exhibitionism in Some Like It Hot). The book is full of superb anecdotes: Flynn explaining that he hadn’t stolen that emerald necklace in Sidney – it had been a gift; Fanny Brice eagerly watching and dissecting Bette Davis’ performances like the true fan she was; Katharine Hepburn ensuring that Ethel Barrymore regularly received fresh flowers in her last years…an many more.
The book offers a wonderful evocation of lost worlds: Bohemian Sidney post WW1; the underworldly New York of gangsters and speakeasys. These raffish milieus take on an even brighter sheen if, to borrow Alexander Doty’s phrase, one makes things perfectly queer; that is to say not only a personal and subjective reading but one informed by a knowledge and understanding of gay cultures and identities in the first half of the twentieth century, an important if rarely valued kind of cultural capital. Read through a ‘gay lens’, those milieus where prostitutes and petty criminals intersected with show business are not only where Orry-Kelly got his start designing but also those that intersected with homosexual sub-cultures; the rage and hurt expressed by all the bitchy attacks on Cary Grant become those of a deserted lover rather than merely an ungrateful room-mate; the love for the nightlife of Hollywood and Vine becomes textured with sexuality; the friendships with George Cukor, Cole Porter, and Somerset Maugham, a network of middle-aged homosexuals gallantly staving off the worst ravages of middle-aged spinsterdom.
I’m not sure that the book is doubly inflected in the way that Harry Louis Gates Jr. indicates in Blues, Ideology and African American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, where he writes of black performers putting on blackface to perform minstrelsy but doing so in such a way that white audiences remained unaware and understood it one way whilst black audiences understood that it was a black person performing and understood it another. Did Orry-Kelly doubly-inflect it that way so that his gay friends and contemporaries understood a layer of meaning unavailable to other audiences? I’m not sure. Can it be read to bring out this double (at least!) inflection? Without a doubt and to great pleasure and advantage.
It’s a fascinating book; I now look forward to the film.
Browsing through the bookshop of the National Portrait Gallery, trying to make sense of its superb and revelatory exhibition on Giacometti’s work, ‘Pure Essence’, I stumbled on a lovely object: Grey Tiger Books’ edition of Jean Genet’s essay on the artist, The Studio of Giacometti, in a new translation from the French by Phil King. It’s got a photograph of an abstract image — bits of white seeping through different shades of brown with a lashed layer of purple at the bottom — glued onto stone grey paper, with the title overlapping both the grey frame and the image itself. Inside, the pages are, appropriately, a lavender pink. More striking abstract images, all credited to Marc Camille Chaimowicz, break up, interrupt, and accompany Genet’s essay, itself a kind of kaleidoscope composed of brief bursts of inspiration on art in general and Giacometti’s in particular. It caught my attention almost immediately:
‘There isn’t any other origin for beauty than that of a wound’ Genet writes, ‘singular, different for each, hidden or visible, that all mankind keeps within itself…To me Giacomettis’ art seems to wish to discover the secret wound of any being and even that of any thing, in order to illuminate them’.
The book is a beautiful object, a mise-en-scène for allusive and eloquent writings that themselves become part of but exceed the object, on that which starts as a wound, sets out to illuminate and ends up being beautiful.