Celebrities – they’re just like us. Except, of course, when they’re hitting the red carpet in a custom-made suit they’ll wear once, sipping vintage Champagne at after parties with their silver screen co-stars or, right now, holing up in palatial LA mansions filming Instagram Stories about how tough they’re finding endless days sat by their infinity pools. A global pandemic truly is a great leveller.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. Time was celebrities didn’t pretend to be like the rest of us. In fact fans expected, nay demanded, that their favourite stars live the kind of life they could only dream of. A great star of the Golden Age of Hollywood should be seen to be living the high life – summering in the South of France, skiing in Aspen and attending endless black tie galas. As for selfies? You weren’t coming within 50 feet of Fred Astaire or Elizabeth Taylor.
So what was life really like for these actors and actresses who were so far removed from the everyday? Well, who better to hear it from than the stars themselves? For the ultimate in escapism, these are the classic Hollywood memoirs to read now…
The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven
The seminal Hollywood memoir. It seems almost unfair on the rags-to-riches tales of his American counterparts that this British public schoolboy should come to represent everything that’s great about tales of classic Hollywood. Moving from his unhappy but comfortable childhood through his early film career, WWII military service (including a memorable encounter with Winston Churchill) and to his time as the most prized horse in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stable, there isn’t a famous face worth knowing about that doesn’t appear somewhere in Niven’s memoir. Full of glamour, casual name dropping, good humour and, apparently, the odd exaggeration, The Moon’s a Balloon is the memoir for people who don’t do memoirs.
By Myself And Then Some by Lauren Bacall
Much like the actress herself, Bacall’s memoir is honest and elegant – and gives real insight into the blossoming of one of Hollywood’s greatest off-screen romances: Bogart and Bacall. Somewhat scandalous at the time thanks to their 25-year age gap and the fact Bogart was married when they first met on set, Bacall’s memoir offers a page-turning depiction of their respective lives, careers, children and friendships with famous faces such as Katherine Hepburn and David Niven. Bacall’s retelling of Bogart’s death, and her fear around how to tell their young children, is especially moving while her telling of later relationships with Frank Sinatra and second husband Jason Robards is a lesson in how grief and loss leave lasting marks on us all.
The Richard Burton Diaries by Richard Burton
Written in true diary format, there are few autobiographies that allow you to step into the life of a Hollywood star quite like Richard Burton’s. Beginning as a teenager growing up in Wales and spanning his entire life until his untimely death at 58, Burton’s unparalleled candour means that, if it’s juicy Hollywood gossip you’re after, this is the memoir for you. Come for Burton’s borderline explicit portrayal of his all-consuming love and devastatingly turbulent relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, stay for the raw emotion of his struggle with alcoholism, conflicted feelings over ending his first marriage and his relatable career anxieties.
Blowing the Bloody Doors Off by Michael Caine
The most recent of Michael Caine’s three autobiographies, if you haven’t yet, it’s worth reading What’s It All About and The Elephant to Hollywood first to get the full Caine story – he explicitly refuses to retell stories in this latest volume. What he does do, however, is offer an honest reflection on his extraordinary career from the vantage point of a man who’s views have changed in the nearly 30 years since his first memoir came out.
Yes, there is name-dropping (most memorably Caine recalling standing in the dole queue with Sean Connery) but there are also useful life lessons, anecdotes bordering on fable and a self-awareness from Caine that he was lucky – both to get his break and not to have to face the trial of the casting couch like his female co-stars. With this tome Caine seeks to share his mistakes and advice in the hope that readers can learn and grow from them – and you’d be foolish not to pay attention.
Yes I Can by Sammy Davis Jr
Published in 1965, when Davis Jr was just 40 and at the height of his Rat Pack fame, Yes I Can is an eye-opening insight into the life of a man who simultaneously has everything and nothing. Despite his undeniable talent and success, Davis Jr recalls how Jim Crow laws meant he was often segregated from his white co-stars, forced to sleep in lodgings on the other side of the city from them and denied entry to the restaurants and bars they frequented. The real jaw-dropper here, though, is Davis Jr’s visceral account of losing his left eye in a car accident in 1954. It fell foul of the bullet-shaped horn button on the steering wheel, a common feature at the time, but that didn’t stop the star chivalrously attending to the other driver with it still hanging out of its socket.
Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn
As its title suggests, Katharine Hepburn’s memoir is not so much a start-to-finish retelling of her life as it is the author’s cherry-picking of episodes she feels interesting enough – or comfortable enough – to share. This is a book by someone who has spent long enough in the limelight to know that it rarely pays to reveal all (don’t expect any great revelations around the many rumours that she was gay) but remains a beautifully written and vivid recreation of Golden Age Hollywood nonetheless. If nothing else, it’s worth reading to hear about Hepburn’s relationships with Howard Hughes and her co-star Spencer Tracy straight from the horse’s mouth.
My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin
For obvious reasons, silent film stars are more unknowable than most – especially when the most prevailing image of them is not their own face but rather that of their most iconic character. Such is the legacy of Charlie Chaplin who, despite being considered one of the most important figures in the history of film, is best known to most as his persona ‘The Tramp’.
This, however, only serves to make his autobiography all the more engaging. Chaplin tells his story in three parts – growing up in poverty in London idolising the vaudeville stars of the West End, his big break in Hollywood and founding United Artists with D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks and, later, his struggle to retain control over his work, his string of failed marriages and eventual exile from America due to his left wing politics. Just like Chaplin’s greatest films, his memoir is at once sad, funny, sentimental and completely riveting.
Tab Hunter Confidential by Tab Hunter
While he might never have reached the level of global fame as his peers, Tab Hunter was one of the 1950’s most enigmatic and misunderstood characters. A hunk in the most traditional of modes, as well as the musician for whom Jack Warner created Warners Bros Records, Hunter spent his life appealing to the fantasies of fangirls while secretly being gay. His autobiography is a candid depiction of his draining public persona and his fear of being discovered in a time when homophobia was rife. His accounts of being ordered by his studio to go on fake dates with co-stars Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds, while secretly dating Anthony Perkins and ice skater Ronnie Robertson, are as much a slice of historical insight as they are personal stories.
My Word Is My Bond by Sir Roger Moore
We were always going to a feature a Bond somewhere on this list and, since Sean Connery’s effort to put pen to paper is more a love letter to Scotland than a portrait of the man himself, it had to be Sir Roger. Moore’s autobiography leans hard into his reputation as the most lightweight but also most beloved actor to take on the role as the super-spy, weaving his on-set memories with tales from his largely happy off-screen life in a comforting, lightly entertaining manner that is as pleasing as the man himself. Uncomplicated, unscandalous and unceasingly charming.
Steps in Time by Fred Astaire
Famously glossy and always picture perfect, Fred Astaire is seen by many as the archetypal swan – gliding serenely above the water while paddling furiously to stay afloat below. Those hoping to uncover the latter may be disappointed in his autobiography, which takes on the tone of a kindly grandfather recounting his life’s successes over whisky by the fire. He is funny and affable throughout, paying particular attention to his working relationships with his sister Adele, Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby and Leslie Caron – making the well-documented stories and people he leaves out all the more notable for their absence.
Fiction more your thing? These are the classic novels you finally have time to read…
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