Book Talk: You Must Remember This

“This book (is) about the quantum differences between then and now, as seen in how we lived our private lives during the last gasp of radiance that was the studio system. I want to try to document a way of life that has vanished as surely as birch bark canoes. And I want to do this before the colors fade.”

“You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age” by Robert Wagner with Scott Eyman (2014)

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Y’gotta love RJ. He’s one of those actors. Robert Wagner was a welcome face in any film and his was a gorgeous face. However – and this may sound negative but it’s not, really – it was never a face to actually carry a picture. He has reached star status at this point in history from sheer resilience and longevity. He’s a dude, though, make no mistake. See him at his best in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, A Kiss Before Dying and The Pink PantherHe makes good contributions to Titanic (1953), Harper, Winning and The Towering Inferno with Newman, the Austin Powers films and TV’s Hart to Hart.

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Perhaps what RJ is best known for is being a man about town, a Hollywood sharpie and a ladies man. Wagner was once engaged to Tina Sinatra and married to Natalie Wood twice and has been wed to Jill St. John since 1990. He has also claimed affairs with the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Canada’s Yvonne De Carlo, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Ekberg and Joan Collins. In the book we’re looking at today, Wagner dishes on life in the golden age of Hollywood outside the studio gates.

You Must Remember This is the second of three books RJ has written with author, editor and critic Scott Eyman. Eyman has major Hollywood cred and has issued books on the longtime friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, on John Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, John Ford and Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart from Toronto. And I suppose it must be said that the extensive and detailed research apparent in the writing of this book must be due to Eyman’s efforts.

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RJ presents some wonderful Hollywood history in this book, presenting it from an insider’s perspective. He breaks the book up in chapters that deal with different aspects like satellite towns, homes and hotels, nightlife, etc. Wagner starts at the very beginning, detailing the Methodist developers arriving in the area in the 1880’s, one of which was Horace Wilcox. Real estate mogul Wilcox’s wife named the area “Hollywood” and Wilcox began offering land to any settlers willing to come out and start a church. Stipulations were that there be no saloons, liquor stores, red-light districts or theatre people; “No Jews, actors or dogs allowed”. Wagner relates the time he walked onto the veranda of the Hollywood Hotel and saw D.W. Griffith sitting in a rocking chair. Wagner lists some specifics of the early development of the town Griffith helped to put on the map;

  • 1904 — Sunset Boulevard is completed
  • 1905 — the town’s first grocery store opens at Cahuenga and Sunset
  • 1905 — trolley cars begin running between Los Angeles and Hollywood

The red and yellow trolley cars are interesting. By the Fifties, cars and freeways had displaced the trolley cars. The trolley tracks were pulled up and the trolley cars were either chopped up and destroyed or – believe it or not – sunk off the coast.

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Wagner speaks of the satellite towns like San Bernardino and Lake Arrowhead that sprang up around Hollywood that provided an escape for actors. The Arrowhead Springs Hotel was founded with investors like Darryl Zanuck, Al Jolson, Claudette Colbert and others. RJ relates the origins of Malibu where “you could lease a lot with thirty feet of ocean frontage for thirty dollars a month”. Many took advantage including Barbara Stanwyck, John Gilbert, Ronald Colman and William Powell. Off the coast was Catalina, originally owned by one family, the Wrigleys of chewing gum fame. In the ’20’s and ’30’s movies were shot on the island and it became a getaway for the Hollywood set. Wagner says he must have spent half his young manhood on Catalina. Swank. Robert traces the beginnings of Palm Springs to actor Ralph Bellamy buying 52 acres in the desert for $3500 and starting a racquet club. RJ remembers the town as very western – horses and such – and relates chatting with Bill Powell, playing in tourneys at the racquet club and living there with two of his wives.

When Wagner speaks of the homes of the stars, he will often provide exact addresses which is always fun and sends me straight to Google Maps. Fascinating that some of these homes and buildings still exist; you just hope the current owners and tenants understand their Hollywood history. There is “Pickfair”, the home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. This was a dump Fairbanks bought “on Summit Drive, off Benedict Canyon, about a half mile above the Beverly Hills Hotel” that the couple turned into the most notable residence in Beverly Hills. Parties were “sedate” there, RJ says, as Fairbanks didn’t drink and didn’t want anyone else to drink.

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Pickford and Fairbanks at home.

Falcon Lair – Rudolph Valentino’s estate – was at 1436 Bella Drive which is now Cielo Drive. High-earning but high-living Rudy had to borrow to buy the place and spent a year refurbishing it with money he didn’t have and then dropped dead. Valentino loaded the place with antiques and there were stables for his horses and kennels for his many dogs. Wagner was good friends with Harold Lloyd who’s Greenacres estate was on Benedict Canyon Drive and boasted 22 acres, 40 rooms and 36,000 square feet. A seven-car garage and twelve gurgling fountains. Wagner dated Lloyd’s daughter and his smiling mug adorned Lloyd’s “Rogues Gallery” of pictures of stars including Chaplin and DeMille.

RJ goes on to dish about the origins of the Beverly Hills Hotel and all the shenanigans that went on there. He talks also of Hollywood decadence at the palatial “beach house” belonging to Marion Davies and the mansion of Jack Warner. I went into a bit of detail here to show the wonderful specifics that Wagner shares, often revealing his own appearances in these tales of the Golden Era of Hollywood.

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A later chapter looks at style and RJ maintains that the greatest influence on American fashion came via Englishman the Duke of Windsor and it was an Italian, Valentino, who perfected the look causing it to catch on around town. Other visible proponents of the “British cut” were Douglas Fairbanks and Fred Astaire. Wagner details the work of Sy Devore who initially dressed Dean Martin, followed by Jerry Lewis and then Sinatra and Presley. In the chapter on the press, Wagner relates the practice in the old days of reporters working with the studios, often suppressing negative stories, whereas nowadays it’s quite the opposite. Robert tells the story of the death of David Niven’s first wife during a game of hide-and-seek at the Niven home and how it was gently handled by the papers; a courtesy that he conjectures wouldn’t be afforded Niven today.

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RJ with his first and third wife, Natalie Wood.

The nightlife section is fun with tales of the Café Montmartre on Hollywood Blvd where the practice of fans hovering outside waiting for autographs was originated. And the Brown Derby where RJ once suggested a title to George Raft for the story of Raft’s life. The Hollywood Canteen at 1451 Cahuenga was started by Bette Davis and John Garfield. Ciro’s on Sunset where Wagner saw Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers, an act RJ calls “the best nightclub act I have ever seen in my life” and the Mocambo at 8588 Sunset where the Nat King Cole Trio played. Much ink is afforded restauranteur Mike Romanoff, his iconic establishment and his insistence that he was “a cousin of the late Czar”. Then there’s the story of the origin of Don the Beachcomber’s on McCadden Place founded by a man who eventually legally changed his name to “Don the Beachcomber”.

You Must Remember This derives its charm from Eyman’s research and Wagner’s swank style – every time RJ is able to relate an anecdote wherein he himself appears at these famous places, chatting with these legendary people, you realize that he was indeed the perfect cat to present this history. The book ends with a wistful lament that finds Robert Wagner missing the places that have long since made way for “progress” but more than that you can tell that the telling of this tale has made him realize how much he misses the people he’s known in his life. And this is a feeling that all of us can relate to.

This book is easily found at AbeBooks (always cheapest) and Amazon. You can hear me review this book on Koop Kooper’s Cocktail Nation radio show.

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3 comments

  1. Great review. I read Scott Eyman’s work on LB Mayer, which was very well done, I thought.

    Hollywood is such a fascinating place, because there is so much history compressed into such a short time frame. There is something eternally magical about it, provided you don’t think too deeply about what went on behind the myth.

    • I must admit I have never read a lot of books about Hollywood itself; its always a specific person. I must rectify that. Years ago I did read a book called The Hollywood Studios that I enjoyed.

  2. I think a good Hollywood bio tends to provide a good deal of perspective beyond the primary subject. Here are a couple of humble suggestions that you might find interesting, if you haven’t already come across them.

    The First Lady of Hollywood, by Samantha Barbas – About Louella Parsons but just as much about the early days of Hollywood and the relationship between media, government and big business, particularly WR Hearst. (Not much has changed)

    Goldwyn – A great bio of Samuel Goldwyn by A Scott Berg – lots of fascinating stuff about the very early days. (He also did a great book on Charles Lindbergh.

    An Empire of Their Own, by Neal Gabler – About the first generation of moguls and discusses how their Jewish heritage influenced their lives and work

    Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind – A much later perspective – the rise of the independents in the early ’70s. (This is one of my real favourites)

    Hollywood Be Thy Name by Cass Warner-Sperling – Harry Warner’s grand-daughter on the history of Warner Brothers; perhaps not the most scholarly ( think a little poetic licence in places) but interesting in terms of the perspectives from the rest of the Warner family.

    Sam Spiegel, by NatashaFrazer-Cavassoni
    David Lean, by Kevin Brownlow
    Charmed Lives (About Alexander Korda), by Michael Korda.

    Keep up the great work. By they way, not sure if you might have done something along these lines already, but It would be great to see your take on the making of Its a Mad Mad Mad World, particularly the locations, if you can fit it in at some stage.

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