Fans of You Must Remember This, rejoice! Karina Longworth’s sublime history podcast focused on the hidden side of 20th-century Hollywood returns today with a whole new fount of stories. This season, Longworth trains her attention on Hollywood Babylon, an infamous 1959 book by the avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger that drew controversy for its salacious airing of Tinseltown’s dirty laundry. Trading in scandal, rumor, and gossip about early Hollywood celebrities, the book was written to shock and provoke while possessing a dubious relationship to the truth. Over the decades, Hollywood Babylon has cultivated a legacy as a cult classic that says something about the times within which it was produced.
In other words, it’s the type of Hollywood cultural artifact that’s perfect for You Must Remember This’s historiographical lens, fitting well with Longworth’s season-long studies on the Blacklist, the Manson Murders, and the relationship between Hollywood and World War II. Vulture recently caught up with Longworth via email to discuss the new season, how it speaks to issues of truth and the media, and the upcoming book she wrote about Howard Hughes.
What is Hollywood Babylon, and how will the upcoming season explore it?
Hollywood Babylon is not a novel — or, at least, it doesn’t sell itself as one. I would call it a cult classic of not-entirely-accurate subversive Hollywood history. It compiles stories about (mostly) long-dead Hollywood stars and power players, and their foibles and weaknesses and the scandals, usually involving sex, drugs and/or death, that either ended their careers or were covered up to maintain the façade.
The author, Kenneth Anger, grew up in Hollywood and acted a bit as a child, but is best known as the maker of experimental films such as Fireworks, Scorpio Rising, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome — films that use some of the aesthetics and genre trappings of mainstream Hollywood films to expose and celebrate aspects of counterculture (like gay male biker fetishes, drag, the occult) that were extremely incendiary in the middle of the 20th century when these films were made. Anger’s films were also extremely influential on mainstream filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Dennis Hopper.
(I explored Kenneth Anger’s career and his connections to the ‘60s counterculture, rock stars like Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page, and Manson-associated killer Bobby Beausoleil in episode 49 of You Must Remember This, in the series “Charles Manson’s Hollywood.” Anyone who wants a primer on Anger should, first and foremost, listen to that episode, because I don’t go into his biography much at all in this new season.)
There wasn’t much money to be made in experimental, largely gay-themed films in the 1950s, and Anger found himself in Paris in need of money. He began writing for the French film magazines essays about the previous generation of Hollywood stars. These essays were, combined with pulpy black-and-white photos from crime scenes and unretouched starlet headshots, published as a book called Hollywood Babylon, first in France in 1959. It was not widely available in the U.S. until 1975. Anger later admitted that his “research” basically consisted of recalling the gossipy urban legends he had first heard from his grandmother and her friends, mixed with other rumors and embellishments. There are no footnotes in Hollywood Babylon, no other works cited; if Anger did any interviews, he didn’t source them. If he had had access to the internet, maybe he would have fixed the minor inaccuracies the book is rife with, things like dates and ages and the specific hotel where a starlet died. He probably could have corrected a lot of these things by accessing a library’s newspaper archive, but he didn’t, and that’s part of what makes Hollywood Babylon what it is: The stories come directly out of an oral tradition, and are imperfect as a result.
What’s a bigger problem, and what I’m devoting a lot of attention to in the podcast season, are the additions, implications, and slants Anger imposes on real events which twist them into fiction that in many cases is unfair to the person or persons the stories concern — and which then became part of their canonical legend. For many of the stories in Hollywood Babylon, no serious scholarship was readily available at the time of Anger’s writing. I don’t say this to give Hollywood Babylon a pass — on the contrary, because there was a vacuum of reliable information in many cases, Anger’s story is the one that stuck. I can’t tell you how many books I read for research which repeat stories from Hollywood Babylon with no other supporting source; the book is taken by many to be gospel, despite the fact that Anger never tells you where he got his information, or if he just made it up.
It seems like the season will grapple with the nature of so-called “true” stories. What are the big questions or ideas that you explore in this upcoming season? What inspired you to pursue them?
Hollywood Babylon is not the only book about old Hollywood stars to contain inaccuracies. I’ve talked about quite a few books on the show which have been revealed to be fraudulent — it is more common to find a bad/false biography of a Hollywood star, particularly from the first few decades of Hollywood historiography, than it is to find an exhaustively researched/documented and also literary biography like Lee Server’s books on Robert Mitchum and Ava Gardner, or James Curtis’s Spencer Tracy: A Biography. Some classic-film fans think what Anger did is worse than the average partially fictionalized star biography because he was cravenly exploiting all manner of dead celebrities for the money, and adding embellishments and falsehoods in order to goose sales. But because the book comes out of an oral tradition and was written by a gay man who felt he himself had been tossed aside by Hollywood and the Los Angeles elite, others have embraced it as a valuable attack on the supposed sanctity and hypocrisy of classic Hollywood and its icons.
I started out in the latter camp when I first picked up the book almost 20 years ago, and have come closer to the former. What drew me to Hollywood Babylon for this season is the fact it’s a document which purports to rip open the curtain to reveal what really happened behind the industry’s perfect publicity-managed facades, and yet it is itself a work of spin with an agenda and an extremely casual relationship to the truth. In that sense, I felt like it had a lot of resonance with our current era of “fake news,” in which you can pretty much assume that anyone who tells you they’re a “truth teller” is lying.
Also, a large portion of this season deals with culture wars of the teens and 1920s, during which time the groups (largely church-based) that had pushed for prohibition turned their attention to cleaning up Hollywood. This argument was painted as a moral one but there was really more going on under the surface, such as anti-Semitism, fear of foreigners, and a longing amongst some to reclaim a lost past in which their point of view had prime importance and power in the culture. Sound familiar? Wait until we get to the episode on Will Hays, which has a digression on Warren G. Harding, a president who was both hugely popular and totally incompetent and corrupt.
I can’t help but sense this upcoming season is a little different than the ones before it. For one thing, the focus on an artifact as opposed to specific individuals feels like a shift. In what ways was producing this season different? Or was it mostly the same?
It may look that way, but many of my previous seasons have been inspired by a single book, which motivated me to explore a time period and collection of subjects and ideas further. For the “Star Wars” series on stars during World War II, it was City of Nets by Otto Friedrich. For the Manson series, it was Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn. The thing that made this season a bit different was that there are not a lot of reliable sources to consult about some of these stories, and the whole pretense of the season is accuracy, so it’s been very stressful trying to find confirmed facts and to sort out the truth from legends that got printed and repeated. Some books about Hollywood players of the teens and 1920s are essentially full of “retweets” from other books — sometimes from Hollywood Babylon — and there have been times where I am forced to realize that every book is just repeating these stories that can’t be traced back to any legitimate source. So this season, there is more analysis of myth and legend and attempt to trace where these stories come from, and maybe less film criticism.
Can you tell me a little bit about your process?
I don’t really do journalism anymore, but the process of researching a podcast season is quite different than researching a book simply because I have much less time to do the podcast. I don’t have time to, like, travel to an archive and spend a week digging through boxes of clippings and telegrams from the 1930s, which was how I’ve researched my books. The only difference in the writing style is that in the podcast I’m more likely to use modern slang.
How much time goes into producing a season?
It really varies, but for this season, I started doing research in March. I probably had the first script written by the end of May. With the season about to premiere, I have written nine scripts and I’m still researching two more. Recording each script takes me about an hour or two, depending on the length. Once I’ve recorded an episode, I turn the file over to the editors at Panoply. Using my script as a guide, they combine my voice with music (which they mostly choose nowadays) and any other audio sources that I’ve selected or provided, including the audio that any special guests have recorded on their own. Their turnaround time for providing me with a first draft to listen to is a few days. I listen to the draft, give notes, and they make changes. This process usually continues down to the wire, until a few hours before the episode is posted on Monday nights.
I’ve always been curious: How do you pick your topics?
It’s really difficult. It just involves a lot of reading, sometime for months, until I get excited about something or have an idea that mushrooms into a few ideas that seem like they can be connected across multiple episodes. Obviously there are a lot of Hollywood stories that I haven’t told yet, but I need to be inspired by a bigger idea in order to feel good about committing the many months that it takes to make a podcast season. This last hiatus, I was trying to finish my book and I found it really hard to focus on anything else. I don’t remember why I started thinking about Hollywood Babylon, but it seemed like a good way to do a bunch of stories that I’ve never done before without just feeling like I was going through the motions of talking about someone like Fatty Arbuckle. The more I immersed myself in Hollywood and America circa 1915 to 1927ish, the more I got excited about sharing these stories of cataclysmic cultural conflict.
In your view, how has You Must Remember This changed over time?
Maybe you would be better able to analyze these changes than me — I’m probably too close to it. To me, the biggest change over time is that I’ve given up aspects of making the show, and deciding what it will sound like, to other people, like my current editors, Sam Dingman and Jacob Smith.
You’re also working on a book on Howard Hughes right now. How’s that coming along? To what extent is the book based on “The Many Loves of Howard Hughes” series?
The book is just about finished. It’s called Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, and it comes out on November 13, but it can be preordered now.
Those podcast episodes were useful in writing the proposal and selling the book, but then I spent about three years doing archival research and writing, so it’s not just a book version of the podcast. It’s not a biography of Howard Hughes. It’s more about some of the actresses who were involved with him professionally and personally, and what their lives and careers were like before he entered them (no gross sexual pun intended), and where they ended up once he was done with them. There are ten main characters, including usual suspects like Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, as well as a number of women who are lesser known today, such as Hughes’s second wife, Jean Peters, and Ida Lupino, an actress who became the only successful female Hollywood film director of the 1950s, in part because Hughes gave her a production deal. It’s basically a portrait of what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood from the 1920s into the 1960s, through the experiences of these actresses who got caught up in Hughes’s gravitational pull. It also deconstructs this idea of the playboy movie mogul by taking a look at the nitty-gritty, everyday of how men like him exploited female sexuality for their own pleasure and profit.