Bibliophilia: Half-truths, Sensationalism, & A Book Without One Single Redeeming Merit

Charlie Chaplin hiding behind a black velvet curtain in Hollywood Babylon
Charlie Chaplin hiding behind a black velvet curtain in Hollywood Babylon

I had never heard of Hollywood Babylon before a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon it at an estate sale in Riverside Illinois. The house was a gorgeous relic. The dining room was filled with multiple sets of crystal Champagne flutes sitting on silver serving trays and the woman’s bedroom closet was filled with an exorbitant amount of luxurious hats made from, feathers, and fine velvet. The house had a sort of charming class about it that made me imagine all of the parties there called for the men to wear ties and jackets. Then I headed into the basement which was darker than the rest of the house and filled with a thick musty smell. In one corner of the basement there was a large pile of books. The books were mainly instructional guides for golf and computer amateurs and had found themselves victims to mold. But then sitting right on top was Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. I recognized Anger from his extensive and celebrated avant-garde films so I decided to get it without really knowing what was. Although, after reading it I’m sure not exactly sure what it is.

At face value Hollywood Babylon reads like a dated gossip rag. It’s filled with lurid stories of betrayal, drug use, and murders all surrounding Hollywood’s most famous films and actors. A good example of the type of story you’d read in Hollywood Babylon would be a story about Robert Mitchum smoking pot followed by large full page photographs of the actor nonchalantly smirking during his court trial and from behind the bars of a jail cell. And the stories are mostly all fun and good for the kind of light sleaze you might be looking for if you find yourself drawn to celebrity gossip columns but then some stories in Hollywood Babylon elevate things to an entirely different level.

For instance included in the book are original crime scene photographs that showcase corpses and battered victims. But it is not the caustic nature of the book which has given it an infamous history. Instead it’s Anger’s inaccuracy for describing events and his disregard in preserving truth over sensation. Hollywood Babylon for instance was the origin of the rumor that silent film star Clara Bow slept with the entire USC football team. Anger was also responsible for starting the rumor that Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino shared a sexual relationship when the men, in reality, only met once as acquaintances. Ten days following the book’s initial release in 1965 it was banned. In 1975 the book was republished by Simon and Schuster and received this line of simultaneous praise and condemnation from the New York Times “If a book such as this can be said to have charm, it lies in the fact that here is a book without one single redeeming merit.” Which is about as accurate a description as you can get for a book whose cover features Jayne Mansfield leaning over and exposing her breasts.

Yet despite for all of the horrendous things within the pages of Hollywood Babylon there is still a bright endearing affection that Anger shows in all of his stories. Whether Anger’s affection is for the stars themselves, their fame, their lurid pasts, or for the way he allows himself to pull all of Hollywood’s top stars into a story too good to be true I still don’t know. It’s a book conceived of half-truths and stuck together with sensation. Anger eventually published a second book which although was more accurate was not as well received. More recently another pair of authors beat Anger to the punch and published Hollywood Babylon 3 which upset Anger to a point where he, in the height of sensationalism, placed a curse on their heads.

So what do you think? Do you ever read celebrity gossip columns? Have you ever read Hollywood Babylon or seen any of Anger’s films? Don’t you wish hats were as elegant as they used to be? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on nostalgia, sensationalism, and sleeping with the entire USC football team.

-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

3 thoughts on “Bibliophilia: Half-truths, Sensationalism, & A Book Without One Single Redeeming Merit

  1. Editor September 27, 2012 / 9:43 am

    Dear Lucas, so happy you stumbled across this book. I agree that there’s a disconnect between Anger’s films and HB, but I will admit that I loved it! Similar to the house you describe, HB is a “gorgeous relic” with a dark musty basement (and, yes, there’s some sleaze, but I’m certainly not above sleaze. . . I watch True Blood after all). I was particularly fascinated with the stories surrounding Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Oh, and on a side note, my copy doesn’t have the cover you mention, which is definitely problematic, but this is probably a result of the publishing company’s choice for marketing, not Angers decision.–Simone

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