Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Book, The Update

You know why I haven’t posted anything for a month? Because I’ve been writing the crap out of my book.  And now, having just sent in the middle section to my editor, is a good time to pause and tell you a bit about it, how it’s going to be different from the blog posts, and how I’ve been putting it together.

As many of you know, it’s being published through Plume, which is an imprint of Penguin Books.  I have a fantastic editor there whose idea of what the book would be was very much in line with my own, and after signing the contract in December, I spent the Spring (and my luscious two week Spring Break) putting together the first third of the book, which details five major scandals of the silent era.  The book is set-up in “volumes,” each with two or three scandals/stories/stars, but whose stories rotate around the same theme: Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino are in one “volume,” each with their own chapter, but the overarching theme of the volume is SEX (and desire) SCARES PEOPLE.   I call all the silent era stuff, which I turned in sometime in April, “the first chunk.”

Since Whitman’s graduation in mid-May, I’ve been working on “the second chunk.”  There’s the “Blonde Menace,” which covers Jean Harlow (You guys! The scandal! I had (only a very limited) idea!) and Mae West, and an as-of-yet unnamed section on classic Hollywood romances.  Next up: sad sack ’50s masculinity and deviant ’50s femininity, in all its various valences.

When people ask me about the book, I say it’s an academic-popular hybrid: I’m researching everything the way I would for an academic text, not to mention drawing on the years of Hollywood and cultural history I’ve consumed over the last ten years, but I’m writing in a style that’s purposefully at odds with many academic texts.  In short: you don’t have to have attended graduate school to understand what I’m saying.  It’s somewhat akin to the the tone of the posts on The Hairpin, but in the words of my editor, “less bloggy” — there’s no all-capslock (SORRY I KNOW I LOVE IT TOO), no asides about my personal life.

If you’re one of the people who mourns that loss, have no fear, I’m going to keep disclosing embarrassing things about myself, probably in all caps, for the rest of my internet life.  But recall that I hold a weird, tenuous place in the academy: I really like being a professor, but I also really like writing outside of the academy: I take it as an ethical obligation to take the knowledge that the government has in no small part funded and make it accessible outside of the so-called Ivory Tower.  That’s not dumbing my stuff down, per se, but providing proof that the Humanities, writ large, have a place in the future of education in this country.  But in order to prove that, at least right now, I understood that I needed to talk a bit less about the Boys of My Youth.

For the posts on The ‘Pin, I always do a fair amount of research.  I think popular misconception is that I just pull this stuff out of my brain — which, I mean, that would be rad — but I usually spend about a week collecting details and thinking through the place of the star and his/her scandal.  I watch the movies I haven’t seen; I rewatch the important ones I have.  If there’s a milestone academic article that’s been written about a star, I revisit it and think about how I can do (hopefully a lot more) than simply reiterate the points within.  But I never felt the need to read everything, know everything. 

With the book, I’m still not obsessed with knowing everything — that’s how books don’t get written, after all — so much as reconstructing the star’s reception, at the time, the very best I can.  I avoid star biographies, as they often read like hagiographies with a very solid dash of unsubstantiated rumor.  What matters to me, and what I’m committed to writing, isn’t what “really” happened so much as how the story of what happened unfolded — and the industrial and cultural specifics of why it unfolded the way it did.  Because here’s the thing: all the people who know what “really” happened are dead.  People who carry those stories along with them are unreliable.  I’m not an investigative journalist, and have no desire to “get to the bottom” of these stories.  Rather, I’m more invested in what each star scandal says about the time, what we expected and tolerated of our stars, and the fascinating mechanics of Hollywood and the gossip industry that manufactured specific narratives that sometimes worked very well, and other times not so much.  This stuff is so juicy and fascinating, just not in the way we’ve come to expect star tell-alls to be.

But if you read and like Scandals of Classic Hollywood, or this site, you know that already.  So how am I excavating how these stars, and the scandals that surrounded them, were mediated at the time?  Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to — at least not without a lot of expensive trips to archives.

But three things have changed: 

1.) I have access to all of the major newspaper coverage of the United States in PDF form.  ProQuest, I can’t thank you, and my college library that pays so much money for your services, enough.

2.) I have access to full text searchable fan magazines via the Media History Project, which scans magazines that have gone out of copyright.  I need to write an entire post on how this site has revolutionized both my star studies classroom and my own work, but here’s the concise version: most libraries don’t collect or archive fan magazines, because they were cheap, pulpy, and feminized.  Thus the only way to get your hands on one was to either hope that your library had microfilm of Photoplay (which some did, because it was the People Magazine of old school fan magazines) or travel to the Herrick Library in Los Angeles, or buy them via eBay.

But magazines pre-1945 are expensive — we’re talking anywhere between $20 and $100 a piece — on eBay, in part because there’s a huge collecting community of the hand drawn covers.  For my dissertation, I had to rely almost wholly on microfilm of Photoplay from the UT library; for this project, especially the stuff from the ’20s and ’30s, I have half a dozen magazines to choose from, including magazines directed at different class levels, thanks to MHP.  Here are some choice examples from New Movie Magazine, the most popular fan magazine in the early ’30s and also one of the cheapest, sold at Woolrich’s –

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3.) I’ve received funding from my college to buy a crap-ton of post-1945 magazines on eBay.  The Media History Project currently only goes up to 1943, which means that for some stars, I have a pretty big gap.  I’ve returned to the Photoplay microfilm (this time at the University of Washington), but post-1945 is such a crucial time in scandal meditation, as the power to control the narrative shifted from the studio, working in close concert with the gossip press, to the star.  I need scandal mags (of which I already have dozens, thanks to some careful estate sale shopping in Austin), I need fan mags of all sorts, I need stuff from “popular interest” press, aka Saturday Evening PostLife Magazine, Coronet, Look, Time, Newsweek, I need stuff from more niche publications – Ebony for my research on Dorothy Dandridge; Ladies Home Journal and McCall’s for my work on ’50s femininity.   Most of the last half of that list I can get via Inter Library Loan, as they’re are middle class publications and thus deemed worthy, historically, of collecting and archiving.  Life Magazine is even gloriously available, in full color, via Google Books.

But what I can’t obtain through the library, I buy: thus a constant stream of very Granddad’s-basement smelling magazines have been arriving at my door.  Because sellers rarely list the table of contents, I have to rely on luck to see if the piece promised within is a one page pictoral (unhelpful) or a five page profile (very helpful).  Either way, these magazines are usually around $10, and they’ll prove very useful in future classes.  Now I just need to come up with a nerdy star scholar database to figure out all that I have.

So what do I do with all this material?  I’m a type-A researcher, which means that I read it all, figure out recurring themes and crucial details, come up with a quasi-outline, and then transcribe pertinent passages, along with citation (this is key, whether you’re writing a 2 page paper or a book — when you transcribe quotes, never forget the citation).  I use Scrivener, a wonderfully intuitive program that allows me to create little mini folders, and mini documents within them, of all the stars and the themes, events, etc. that compose their images. Then, when I write the piece, I can split the screen in half horizontally and keep whichever set of notes I’m working with visible below.

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I write fast but sloppily — I like to sit down and pound out 3,000-4,000 a words a day — and then I go back and clean it up, buffing out the ridiculousness, making the narrative more coherent, figuring out how to put in a compelling personal detail that I’d left out.  I tighten the prose, try to make myself sound like less of a blowhard, and take out any accidental super-academic-speak.  Then I send it to my editor, who takes a few weeks to go through it with a fine-tooth comb and sends it back to me for more revisions — some on the level of the word, others pertaining to the overarching sweep of volume as a whole.  I hate the edits (it’s like pulling teeth — I can sit there and stare at an edit for an hour convincing myself that it can’t be done before finally just doing it) and love the first drafts, but editing is what makes a string of words into writing, and I’m very fortunate to have someone so generous and perceptive serving the role for me.

After I finish a chapter, I go back and do it all over again.  It’s a great way to avoid the tedium (transcribing for two weeks would give me carpal tunnel) and, since I have to read piles of material, I can readily do that outside, in my sweet lawn chair, while watching my tomato plants grow.  It’s not a bad summer — and I’m completely amazed by how much I thought I knew about each of these stars and didn’t.  My hope, of course, is that you will be too.

I’m turning in the final draft, final edits and all, at the very end of August….which means publication sometime in Spring or Summer 2014.  Get excited, and thanks, as ever, for your support.  Questions about the process? Let me know below!

14 Responses to “Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Book, The Update”

  1. Ruth says:

    Thanks for the update! I am SO excited about this project of yours and can’t wait to purchase a copy!

  2. Alyssa says:

    I’m (very!) anxiously awaiting the “pre-order” link. Best of luck with the research and looking forward to devouring its results!

  3. Tiffiny says:

    Kindle version? Obvs?

  4. Tawnia says:

    Thank you so much for this peek into your writing process. As a researcher myself, I love knowing how others do their work. So fascinating, and I cannot wait to see the end result!

  5. Laura says:

    Jean “the T is silent” Harlow! SO EXCITED FOR THIS.

  6. Naomi says:

    I can’t tell you how excited I am about this book. Please, please insist your publishers give you a wonderful graphic designer putting together the final product. That old cliche about books and covers is so true. One of my all time favourite books is Mary Lovell’s biography of The Mitford Girls but I can’t convince people to pick it up as the cover makes it look like a harlequin romance.

  7. Monica says:

    So exciting! As I finish drafting my dissertation, I love reading about other people’s research and writing habits, and I’m especially excited to hear about the Media History Project for my own teaching in U.S. history. Go go go AHP!

  8. Déborah says:

    I cannot wait! I will pre-order the shit of out this book!

  9. Natalie says:

    Completely worth the lack of blog posts if it’s in exchange for a whole book.

    *thanks the film criticism gods*

  10. Congratulations on the progress you’ve made towards book publication. As a regular reader of your blog I can’t wait to read your book.

    Question: How did you get hooked up with Plume? Can you talk about entering into the non-university press publishing world?

    I am an academic and I also have aspirations to write a book for a non-university press. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Also, I hope you celebrate the end of every chapter you send off!

  11. Nicki says:

    Love it! Love this! Keeping up with this blog (as well as the various places it links me to) is a constant source of inspiration. Thanks AHP!

  12. Virginia Postrel says:

    Ebony is also available on Google Books, and some general interest magazines, such as Collier’s, as well as a lot of pulp magazines are available at Unz.org (no fan mags, though).

  13. Natalie says:

    I just came upon this page and you have no idea how much I am smiling right now! I am a HUGE Classic Hollywood Fan, especially the Silent Era and especially all the juicy “Scandals”! Of course I have read “Hollywood Babylon”, but also “The Parade Gone by”, “American Silent Film”, “A Cast of Killers”(about William Taylor’s murder), “Hot Toddy” (about Thelma Todd’s murder), “Deadly Illusions”(about Jean Harlow and Paul Berns suicide or murder?). Plus alot more. So I can wait to buy this! While I wait thought do you or anyone have any recommendations for some good classic scandals?

  14. priscilla peña ovalle says:

    congratulations on the wonderful news and kudos on your very impressive goal of balancing the academic and popular (so important!). and thanks, too, for the srivenver recommendation. i am about to start the next project (on hair!) and am looking for all the software support i can find.

    keep up the good work!
    priscilla.