Golden Age of Hollywood: Biographical Novels

The golden age of Hollywood prized women above all for their looks. Most were also very good actresses, but that didn't matter nearly as much to studio heads and directors, who were men. Stars of both sexes had both their professional and personal lives carefully choreographed by the likes of Louis Meyer (think MGM) and documented by "tame" journalists to promote the studio's interests. What did these actors actually think and feel? We may never know, but it does provide a rich canvas for novelists to paint on.

Hedy Lamarr (Hedwig Keisler) may have been most wronged by Hollywood. In her marriage of convenience to an Austrian arms dealer, she learned much about the problem of radio-guided torpedoes. According to the excellent The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict, she may have also had advance knowledge of Hitler's plans for Austria and European Jewry. Jewish herself, Lamarr flees to Hollywood and is burdened by guilt for not acting on this information sooner. With help from a fellow refugee, she solves the problem of torpedoes and patents it, but is told by the Navy to not worry her pretty little head about it and use her looks and fame to sell war bonds instead. Benedict does an excellent job of filling in the gaps of Lamarr's biography and giving a rich inner life to this scientific genius who was cursed with stunning beauty.

Another emigreé from Hitler's Europe was Marlene Dietrich. She narrates her own story in C.W. Gortner's Marlene. Taking her cue from the sexually fluid atmosphere of Weimar Germany, Dietrich marshals her undeniable sexual charisma into a career in Hollywood. Giving moralists and studio heads fits, she lives her life as she sees fit, trying to balance the contradictions. Gortner takes a cinematic approach to this story spanning continents and most of the 20th century.

Told in alternating voices, Seducing Ingrid Bergman by Chris Greenhalgh concerns the affair between Bergman and Robert Capa. It's impossible from the start: he's an adrenaline-junkie war photographer with a drinking problem, and she's married and has a child and a studio very sensitive to scandal. Yet fall in love they do, with Paris as the backdrop. Romantic without being sentimental, this lush novel is full of great dialogue.

Star of Wuthering Heights, exotic Merle Oberon is has a secret: she's Anglo-Indian. That's not the only secret in Lindsay Jayne Ashford's Whisper of the Moon Moth, which whisks us from Calcutta to London to Hollywood. Ashford is able to make much of Oberon's eventful life, which Oberon herself embellished.

Jean Harlow died tragically young, but she made the most of her brief life, and Anne Girard posits what Harlow thought of it in Platinum Doll. Using the glamorous background of old Hollywood, Girard has clearly done her homework in this descriptive, engaging novel of the original platinum blonde.

Have more biographical novels of golden age Hollywood? Tell us about them in the comments.

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