Saturday, March 10, 2018

Rosebud Wasn't a Sled – Book Review: Of All the Gin Joints

 I have a bad habit of getting books and then not reading them, case in point Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling through Hollywood History, by Mark Bailey with illustrations by Edward Hemingway. I got it for Christmas 2016 and just got around to reading it in the last several days. I was going on a short trip to visit my mom and sister. I read about half of it waiting in the airport and on the short one-hour flight there and back and then finished it up in the next day or so when I got home.

The book is divided into four parts, by era:

  • The Silent Era, 18951929
  • The Studio Era, 19301945
  • The Post-War Era, 19461959
  • 1960s & New Hollywood, 19601979
When I started reading it, I skipped The Silent Era, figuring I was much more familiar with The Studio Era. That really wasn't necessary. Everyone mentioned in The Silent Era was someone I was someone I knew. Though it didn't hurt either, the individual stories were all self-contained. Occasionally, one story would mention something from a previous story, but never to the point where you felt lost. If you wanted to bounce around the book, going from one favorite person to the next, that would work, but I wouldn't because you might miss something.

The book is mostly stories about people, primarily actors, but directors and writers as well. Interspersed with the people stories are profiles of places, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs with addresses; production of films that had particular interesting back stories; and drink recipes and background on the drink itself, especially if a star had a favorite drink or a certain spot was famous for a certain drink. Oh yeah, did I mention that there was a lot of drinking in this book? It is titled, Of All the Gin Joints, after all.  Most of the best stories from classic Hollywood involve drinking and debauchery, and that's what this book is all about. I guess if you don't like stories about people getting drunk and doing crazy stuff, this book is not for you, but for the rest of us, it's pretty awesome.

Each person profile begins with a brief biography; an Edward Hemingway caricature of the person slightly off-kilter in keeping with the exploits that follow; and a famous quote from the person, almost always related to drinking, sex, drugs, or a combination of the three. By the way, Hemingway also provides illustrations for drinks and places as well. Starting as I did with The Studio Era, the first piece I read was Tallulah Bankhead. Her quote: "My father warned my about men and alcohol, but he didn't say anything about women and cocaine."

Broken up the way it is, Of All of the Gin Joint is a pretty fast read, and the structure makes it easy to read a little bit and find a good stopping point if need be. In practice though, that's not the way it worked, at least not with me. Once I started, I wanted to keep going.

I guess it's fair to ask if every the story is true. Probably not, just like not everything in any Hollywood tell-all book is true. Bear in mind, there are probably a couple hundred individual anecdotes in the book drawn from numerous sources. Of All the Gin Joints is well researched. The Sources chapter is two columns small type and runs eight pages. Everything appears to come from plausible sources, and at times, where two versions of a story exist, the author gives you both and lets you make the call. If there is a story that isn't true, it's likely it's because that's the way it appeared in someone's biography, memoirs, etc. There's actually a story about Spencer Tracy that I hope isn't true, but probably is. It's probably the only thing in the book I would rather have not have known about.

If I have one complaint about the book, and it is a minor one, it is that the stories later in the book are more likely to be ones that I already had heard about, but this is somewhat to be expected. In the 1930s, 1940s, and to a lesser degree afterward, studios hired fixers to keep things like affairs, drunken brawls, arrests, and such from becoming public knowledge. These fixers were very good at their jobs, but with the breakdown of the studio system, the stories were much more likely to get out. This was partially offset by the fact that the places profiled later in the book are much more likely to still be open, even if only as shadows of their former selves. Most of the landmarks of classic Hollywood have long been replaced by strip malls and condos.

Still, even when I had heard the main story there was still quite a bit I didn't know. For example, I knew about Nicholas Ray, marrying Gloria Grahame and her remarrying his son from a previous marriage after they divorced, but there were still tidbits of that story that I didn't know. Also, I never knew that Ray had studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright before turning to theater and film, and that independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch had studied under Ray.

Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling through Hollywood History was published in 2014, but is still available, and I'm sure you can order it through your favorite bookseller or failing that via Amazon in print or Kindle formats.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

I deliberately tried to avoid the temptation of spilling my favorite stories in this review. I allow myself just this one. If you don't want to hear, stop reading right now.

You may have noticed that the title of this post contained the phrase, Rosebud Wasn't a Sled. Herman Mankiewicz, grandfather of TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, was once the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, but his obstinate personality put him at odds with studio bosses and peers alike. Herman Mankiewicz was most famous for co-writing with Orson Welles the screenplay to Citizen Kane, a thinly veiled biopic of newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst and his long-time lover, Marion Davies. Originally, Mankiewicz and Hearst were friends, and he was often invited to parties at Hearst castle in San Simeon. Though not a teetotaler by any means, Hearst did not like drunkenness and went to great pains to prevent it at his regular Hearst castle parties, in particular, with regard to Davies. Mankiewicz on the other hand went out of his way to get Marion Davies as drunk as possible, for which he was eventually banned from their parties and from even seeing Davies.

In the early 1940s, William Randolph Hearst was still a powerful figure both in Hollywood and nationwide with a chain of newspapers across the U.S. Orson Welles sought to tone down Mankiewicz's original biting screenplay, but one thing he overlooked was Charles Foster Kane's favorite childhood toy, a sled named, Rosebud. Apparently, Rosebud was Hearst's nickname for Marion Davies' clitoris.

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