I'm Obsessed With Classic Hollywood Scandals, and I've Found The Perfect Book For Me

I interviewed "Scandals of Classic Hollywood" author Anne Helen Petersen about the most legendary stars and their scandals.
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Kara Nesvig
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I interviewed "Scandals of Classic Hollywood" author Anne Helen Petersen about the most legendary stars and their scandals.

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When I was very small, my favorite way to escape my North Dakota farm reality was through a giant coffeetable book belonging to my mother called “A World of Movies." It was full of photos of classic movie stars, from Claudette Colbert to Mae West to Gable and Lombard. My obsession with this book led me to TCM and countless biographies of these legendary stars, which I devoured over summers off from school. 

Anne Helen Petersen is obviously a kindred spirit. I was addicted to her “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” column when it ran on the Hairpin, and I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek of the book version, out today! Petersen, who left academia for Buzzfeed, let me pick her treasure trove of a brain before its release, and even if you’re not familiar with Old Hollywood, the contents of the book may surprise you. 

Kara: People think tabloid culture is a modern-day phenomenon, but that’s not entirely true. Tabloid culture was alive and well in Old Hollywood too, right? What’s the difference between tabloids now and tabloids then?

AHP: Well, tabloid culture actually goes back to the end of the 19th century and what most people will remember from history class as the "yellow journalism" associated with the Hearst press. You could write another book all about that (and people have! many!) but over the course of the 1900s, the sensationalism of the tabloids turned into the '70s National Enquirer, which was insanely popular and actually not that scandalous.

Long story short: since the beginning of the mainstream press, there have always been publications that work to uphold the narratives of the stars (today, think places like People and Entertainment Tonight) and others that work to tear that narrative down and/or show it as artifice (TMZ, Oh No They Didn't, sometimes Us Weekly). 

Kara: What do you think is the most noteworthy scandal in classic Hollywood? Who’s the MOST notorious?

AHP: *Most* noteworthy is SO HARD but Fatty Arbuckle probably takes it, if only because the scandal surrounding his trials for manslaughter (of which he was decisively acquitted) nonetheless ushered in the sort of reactionary publicity that we associate with Classic Hollywood. It was a real turning point. It might also be the most notorious, if only because the details of what supposedly happened are so lurid (he was accused of raping a young starlet with a bottle, which ended in a ruptured bladder and her eventual death. Again, to be very clear, he was so thoroughly acquitted of these charges that the jury issued an apology for the way that his name had been unfairly dragged through the mud. But it didn't matter: His career was over, and the retelling of the story always neglects to include that second half of the story. 

Kara: We have this idea that classic Hollywood was super glamorous and tame, when in fact it was pretty similar (if not crazier!) than modern Hollywood. Why do you think that is?

AHP: I think it's all about access. In very early Hollywood, you had a bunch of very beautiful people thrown together in what was then known as the "movie colony" in Southern California. This was when Hollywood was seriously a cow town, just an outpost that had great sun and thus made it much easier to shoot movies year-round. I like to think of it like "The Real World: Silent Hollywood, where all of these suddenly very, very rich people had to try to figure out how to live normal lives and very often failed. Plus they were expected to live like gods -- like actual deities, with the very utmost in luxuries. We're talking gold-plated bathtubs filled with champagne -- and somehow not also find themselves in trouble? Such a difficult line to tread. 

But at the same time, especially in Classic Hollywood, the studios controlled all of the publicity that came out. They cooperated with the fan magazines and the gossip columnists and did a fantastic job of "fixing" any scandal that did occur. This meant that major stars could sleep around, drunk drive, have drug problems, you name it, and the gossip press just looked the other way. Now, that's increasingly difficult to pull off.  

Kara: Who do you think were the most publicity-savvy stars of Old Hollywood?

AHP: Mae West, who's a whole chapter of my book, was just a MASTER. Here's this "older" woman (she was in her late 30s when she became a star) who'd worked her way through what was essentially the New York comedy scene before it was called a comedy scene, writing ribald plays about women and sexuality. She had "dangerous curves," and she knew that talking about them would be a great way to differentiate her from all the waifs of mid-'30s Hollywood. She was a master of the double entendre, and her one-liners, even today, are just incredible. She knew exactly what her image was and how to exploit it, in part because she had managed it for so long on her own before "making it" in Hollywood. 

Kara: Can you draw a comparison between any celebrities now and those of Old Hollywood? I know you were thinking about the Jennifer Lawrence “cool girl” and her Old Hollywood counterpart on your Twitter awhile ago. Who is the Elizabeth Taylor of today? Who is the Rock Hudson? 

AHP: The thing with Hollywood stars is that the "types" of images just pop up over and over again, just inflected with the particular concerns of the culture at the time. The old maxim that there are only five stories, just told in different ways, really holds true here. So there's no "exact" new Elizabeth Taylor, but the love triangle scenario between Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Jennifer Aniston played out incredibly similarly to the triangle between Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds. And as for Rock Hudson, that's difficult to know because in the '50s and '60s and even up to his death, Hudson vehemently denied his homosexuality, which came to light only after he died of AIDS. We won't know the next Rock Hudson until, 30 years from now, we know who had to maintain a closeted lifestyle because of the still-conservative ideologies of what "manly" masculinity looks like. 

Kara: What’s something the public often gets wrong about classic Hollywood? 

AHP: You can either think that the stars were all squeaky clean and unscandalous, which is a dramatic underestimation of what was actually going on, or you can think that they were all exactly what all the biographies and scandal rags said they were, which is dramatic overestimation. The truth lies somewhere in between. Or some people think that Classic Hollywood, and the movies it created, were somehow boring. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Kara: What drew you to “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” in the first place? What was the tipping point for the column and eventually the book? 

AHP: I'd been thinking about these "scandals" for years, just under the guise of my PhD work and dissertation, in which I trace the century-long history of the contemporary gossip industry. When I finally turned in my dissertation, I realized I had so much excess knowledge of these various stars just kinda hanging out in my mind, and I wanted to turn that knowledge into something that others could read and think about. Thus: my very first column on Ingrid Bergman. Things just exploded from there. A bunch of agents talked to me, I found the one who understood the academic/popular hybrid I wanted to do, and we moved forward, creating 98.7% new content for the book. 

Kara: For someone who isn’t into classic Hollywood, what are a few good movies to start with? And/or a few good actors to learn about?

AHP: I love this question! Classic Hollywood movies can be just as entertaining, if not more so, than contemporary ones -- the studios put out tons more per year, so there's a lot to sort through, but if anyone ever has questions about what to watch next, please tweet/email me. Modern audiences really seem to love Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and that's in no small part because they're just so incredibly modern. But I think the "screwball," which is basically the '30s version of the rom-com, only much funnier and smarter, is such a great place to start. I always recommend "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, "The Philadelphia Story" with Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant, "The Lady Eve: with Barbara Stanwyck and Peter Fonda, and "The Awful Truth" with Irene Dunne and, you guessed it, Cary Grant. 

Kara: Lastly, if you could change one “scandalous” star’s career path, whose would it be? Why?

AHP: I would make it so that Hollywood would have made a decent leading role for a beautiful black woman like Dorothy Dandridge, because I still believe that her career trajectory is the most tragic. I would have had someone say no, at some point, the hubris that was Marlon Brando. And I would've had someone tell Judy Garland, at a very young age, that she was beautiful and valuable and talented, no matter her weight or her looks. The damage that MGM did to her as a teen is just heartbreaking.