July 3rd, 2008

carole lombard 04
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Tormented reading

With biographies of Hollywood stars, especially those from the classic era, it's always a case of, as is often said on the street, "you pays your money and you takes your chances." Such is the latest in a number of Clark Gable biographies, this one issued last fall.

It's entitled "Clark Gable: Tormented Star," written by a British author named David Bret. It likes to think it's adding something new to the Gable story, and in a perverse way, it does. But upon further examination, any gold found within its pages tends to be of the pyrite variety -- that is, fool's gold, and we're not referring to the Kate Hudson-Matthew McConaughey film issued earlier this year.

You may recall a biographer named Charles Higham, who's now in his late seventies and lives in Los Angeles. In 1980, he wrote a book about Errol Flynn which claimed the star was a bisexual who spied for the Nazis before and during World War II. At least two books have been written alleging Higham's claims are falsehoods, noting that Flynn supported the Spanish Republic, not Franco's fascists, during the Spanish Civil War.

Bret is sort of this generation's Higham, particularly where Hollywood homosexuality is concerned. According to his accounts, far more stars of that era were bi or predominantly gay then is conventionally known...although they conveniently happen to be deceased and can't directly speak for themselves.

So it is with his Gable book. There's little of what made Gable tick, hardly any substantial comment on his film performances. Most of the focus is on the bedroom.

It's now no secret that early in Gable's career, he probably had a sexual encounter or two with William Haines -- the silent star, shown below with Marion Davies in "Show People," who was probably the most openly gay actor of the classic era. (After being forced out of acting, Haines became a successful decorator, and his work on Carole Lombard's Hollywood Boulevard house gained renown.)

Several biographers have said this may have been why Gable was adamantly opposed to having George Cukor, who apparently knew of his tryst with Haines, direct "Gone With The Wind." (Cukor was dismissed early in the filming, replaced by one of Gable's good friends at MGM, Victor Fleming.)

However, according to Bret, Gable also carried on affairs with 1920s star Rod La Rocque and football star turned MGM stalwart Johnny Mack Brown. None of his evidence is concrete, however.

Carole Sampeck of The Lombard Archive said the Haines incidents were "the extent of his alleged bisexuality, as far as I can tell. Mind you, this Gable was the fellow who was married to (the much older) Josephine Dillon because she could help his career."

Bret devotes a chapter to Lombard, whom he told amazon.com was "one of the finest, most respected Americans who ever drew breath and a true inspiration to her country." Well, this is a fine way to show your appreciation:

* According to Bret, "By the age of 17 she had already been calling herself 'fag-hag' -- a derogatory term which she made respectable with her sincerity and loyalty towards her gay friends." I have never seen any Lombard reference -- even those noting her considerable tolerance for homosexuals -- that made this claim. (At least he adds the reasonably accurate comment, "So far as is known, Lombard had no same-sex relationships herself, though with her anything would have been possible.")

* Bret said Lombard was a Wampas Baby Star. Not the case, as we know (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/115275.html).

* Bret not only repeats the claim that Russ Columbo (shown below with Lombard) and photographer Lansing Brown -- whose antique pistol accidentally went off and struck Columbo in the eye, leading to his death -- were lovers, but alleges that Carole's brother, Stuart Peters, had also been involved with him (Peters was one of his pallbearers). Bret adds that George Raft was "allegedly another of Columbo's lovers."

Sampeck said, "this guy's a hack, with an obvious agenda, IMHO. He's just trying to come up with a fresh angle -- unfortunately, he seems to have resorted to re-inventing the past to suit his purpose. How did this thing ever get a publisher lined up?"

Well, Bret does have some sort of track record. According to a listing on the book's inside past cover, his past subjects have included Edith Piaf, Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich, Morrissey (who apparently now owns the Lombard house on Hollywood Boulevard that Haines once designed), Gracie Fields, Freddie Mercury, Tallulah Bankhead and Maria Callas.

But just because someone has written a number of books doesn't mean said author has a good writing style or has done the proper research. Bret's writing is stilted, and he frequently fills up space with long, unnecessary descriptions of the plots of Gable's films (eight pages on "Gone With The Wind," for example).

And his research? Well, Bret writes that "Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone should have been included" in Kirtley Baskette's famed January 1939 Photoplay article, "Hollywood's Unmarried Husbands And Wives"...ignoring that Tone and Crawford had married in October 1935! (They would divorce in April of '39.) The editing is lackluster, too; Bret writes Lombard found a home for herself and Gable in "Elcino, San Fernando Valley." Uh, it's "Encino."

It's no wonder that "Clark Gable: Tormented Star" has received a critical lambasting in much of the press. In March, the New York Times called it "breathtakingly trashy," adding: "How does Bret, the author of numerous celebrity biographies, know so much about Hollywood stars’ sex lives? Judging by this new book’s convoluted wording, he really doesn’t." And of the eight reviews at amazon.com, six give it "one star" (lowest rating), and the other two gave it "two stars."

Their scathing comments include:

* "Not worth the trees that were destroyed to create the paper for its publication. Mr. Bret seems to have facts and information privy to no one else but himself. and is driven by some strange force to make it public."

* "Once again, despite all his attempts to win some sort of respectability, he has provided the world with yet another model of how not to go about writing a biography. ... Libeling the dead aside, Bret's books characteristically exhibit the equally serious offences of terrible writing, frequent misprints, misspellings, misstatements of fact, bad taste, and -- worst of all -- an almost supernatural lack of acquaintance with correct research methods. ... You will learn almost nothing about William Clark Gable, figure of Hollywood history, but everything about David Bret, frustrated celebrity hanger-on and would-be literary mover and shaker."

* "After reading the book I seem to have learned absolutely nothing about Gable. Bret offers little if any insight into what Gable was like as a person. He instead spends countless pages describing his movies and when he does get around to any insights they are brief and rushed descriptions."

* "As is the case with Charles Higham, Bret's unofficial counterpart in sleaze, there are no laws preventing him from publishing his gay fantasy about a dead actor and passing it off on an unsuspecting public as 'fact.' ... David Bret has performed a lobotomy on research techniques and left its brain-damaged husk behind for someone else to clean up."

* "Please don't buy this book. I'd hate to see anyone make money off of this trash."

* "I really want the name of the person who stood by and watched Mr. Gable wash himself (on a private area) so hard that he bled. No, not kidding. That's just an example."

Bret may have had nice things to say about Lombard, but come the afterlife, as George Baxt "found out" (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/50359.html), what will she say about him? As John Lennon once sang, "Instant karma's gonna get to you..."
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