You’re the dam at Boulder,
You’re the moon,
Over Mae West’s shoulder
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top!
I will preface this post by saying that there is always opportunity for this list to change. Collecting and devouring old Hollywood biographies is a habit that I don’t think I’ll ever kick (my collection is about 180 books now and counting). Thank you to all of the authors who do the research, travel to locations, conduct interviews, and keep the memory of these wonderful characters from yesteryear alive for people like me to discover and enjoy!
I selected my top authors of old Hollywood bios based on the quality of the books they put out, for me defined as author’s voice and ability to portray the facts while still telling an intriguing story of their life, deep dives into the person’s psychology, and interviews with friends and family. I don’t like overly extensive descriptions of films unless they are restricted to a filmography section; I do like loads of photos. Bonus points for physical descriptions and plenty of behind the scenes intrigue.
On to the lists!
My Consistent Favorites
Not only have I rarely (or not at all) been disappointed by an offering from each of these 3 authors, but their books are of exceptional quality.
1). Eve Golden
When you read a book by Eve Golden you know you will be diving into something incredibly well researched and fleshed out. Everything is impeccably sourced, labeled, and discussed. Also, she tells a darn good story!
My favorite works: Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara; Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow; Anna Held and the Birth of Ziegfeld’s Broadway
2). Michelle Vogel
Vogel has an ability to really immerse herself in a story and tell it in an interesting and colorful way. I also love that she picks subjects who are not as talked about as some.
My favorite works: Olive Borden: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Joy Girl”; Lupe Velez: The Life and Career of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire”
3). Stephen Michael Shearer
Shearer is thorough and has a gift for storytelling. There is nothing dry about his writing. Though several books have been written about Hedy Lamarr in particular, his is my personal favorite.
My favorite works: Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr; Swanson: The Ultimate Star
These are authors who have only either written one book about classic Hollywood or have only written one book that I have read. Either way, the book was so excellent that it and its author deserve mentioning.
1). Jeff Gordon‘s Foxy Lady: The Authorized Biography of Lynn Bari
Gordon’s wonderful book on Lynn Bari is one that I have read over and over again. It is special for many reasons, but I particularly love the inside look it gives into the B movie machine and the inner workings of the studio system (particularly Fox, as the title suggests, Bari’s home studio). I also love the many inclusions of Bari’s own telling of events (in bold text throughout the book), taken from interviews she did with Gordon. Read my full review here.
2). Lauren Redness‘ Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies
This is by far THE most unique classic film biography I have ever read. Part biography, part ingenious photo collage, this is one that every classic film buff needs in their collection. Read my full review here.
3). Lynn Kear and John Rossman‘s Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career
Passionate is an understatement. This is a well written account of Francis’ exciting life, made more special by the inclusion of snippets from Francis’ unfiltered and eye opening diary. It’s a goldmine of information on Francis and the time she lived in.
4). Tom McGee‘s Betty Grable: The Girl With the Million Dollar Legs
While some biographies are, for lack of a better word, boring in their telling of a star’s childhood and falter in the telling of their final years, this one keeps its momentum from beginning to end. It’s an interesting look into Grable’s life and is admirable in its desire to explore both the lovely and difficult parts of her life and personality.
5). Jamie Brotherton and Ted Okuda‘s Dorothy Lee: The Life and Films of the Wheeler and Woolsey Girl
This is a loving and fascinating tale of a person who may have been forgotten were it not for this book. The in depth tale of petite, but dynamic actress Dorothy Lee, best known as the frequent female co-star of comedic actors Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey, explores her rise from the chorus to become the “Wheeler and Woolsey Girl,” her on-set triumphs and injuries, and her many romances. The authors had developed a friendship with Dorothy later in life so her memories add flavor to the telling. Read my full review here.
6). Betty Harper Fussell‘s Mabel: Hollywood’s First Don’t-Care Girl, the Life of Mabel Normand
This is an excellent look at not only silent actress Mabel Normand’s life, but the early days of silent film. Sometimes when authors insert themselves into the narrative I want to tune out, but Fussell has a way of doing it that is quite interesting.
7). John O’Dowd‘s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story
Barbara Payton is a notorious figure in old Hollywood, and her story is often offered up as a cautionary tale. I give O’Dowd huge credit for not leaving her legacy like this, but instead trying to understand her as a complete person. This story of her life is a well balanced mix of empathy without a sugar coating. Read my full review here.
8). Eileen Whitfield‘s Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood
Loads of research into Mary Pickford and the time she lived in was put into this book and it shows. This book includes loads of information about the early, pioneering days of film and Pickford’s role in making it what it is today. Whitfield has a gift for storytelling and the art of the cliffhanger that is second to none.
9). Suzanne Finstad‘s Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood
This is one of the first old Hollywood bios that I really developed a love for. It’s one that I’ve read many times and it never gets old. All of the elements fall in place: A well told story, a perfect mix of film descriptions and behind the scenes, and plenty of photos.
10). Sidney D. Kirkpatrick‘s A Cast of Killers
This book is not just the amazing true story of director William Desmond Taylor’s 1922 unsolved murder, it is also the true story of another famous director King Vidor’s search years later to solve his old friend’s murder, and author Kirkpatrick’s attempt to follow in Vidor’s footsteps. The story within a story aspect makes for a fascinating read, as if the tale wasn’t exciting already! As the title eludes, the suspect list is intriguing, consisting of Hollywood’s top comedienne, Mabel Normand, ingenue Mary Miles Minter, Minter’s domineering mother, a conman secretary who disappeared without a trace, and a shadowy figure never to be identified. You can’t make this stuff up!
Who are your favorite authors of old Hollywood bios?