They had faces then, and every month they appeared on a dozen glossy magazine covers.
Silver Screen, Modern Screen, Screen Book, Screenland – slick, snazzy monthlies that for 10 or 15 cents (only Photoplay, the grande dame of the lot, dared ask for 25) retailed fond daydreams of modern gods and goddesses.
“Why Women Go Crazy for Clark Gable.” “The Madcap Love of the Errol Flynns.” “Career Comes First for Loretta.”
It was a gentler, more glamorous age, one which current fan-mag readers – constantly assailed by stories of Courtney Love’s breakdowns, Tara Reid’s topless photo op and Colin Farrell’s various one-night rendezvous – might find very hard to imagine.
But a copy of “True Story: Remember When,” on sale at newsstands, makes it easier.
In this special collection – the first in a promised series – Kate Smith holds forth on “Why I Am Proud to Be an American” and Don Ameche shares his religious convictions in “In His Hands.” Myrna Loy reveals “My Fight to Be Myself,” Robert Taylor “Tells His Greatest Love Story” and Mrs. Gertrude Temple spills all the dirt about curly-topped daughter Shirley.
Needless to say, these quaintly innocent tell-alls rarely reveal anything more newsworthy than the benefits of strict parents, hard work and clean living. Gertrude Temple’s mother confides that little Shirley still answers her own fan mail; the deathless romance that matinee-idol Taylor wants to share is the touching love story of his Nebraska parents.
Still, occasionally, the seedy side of Hollywood pops up. A long profile of Jean Harlow does its best to avoid the gossip about her sleazy stepfather and her own famous vulgarity. However, the notorious suicide of second husband Paul Bern – who shot himself soon after the wedding, distraught over his impotence – isn’t so easily ignored.
Bern had a “congenital weakness” which he had hoped marriage would help him overcome, the magazine admits. Alas, he soon learned he “could never be a real husband” and took his life; his platinum-blonde widow met the tragedy with “dignity and silence.”
Compared with today’s gossip topics – Did Jen overhear Brad and Angelina having phone sex? Are Lindsay’s breasts for real? Is Michael Jackson headed for prison, and will Robert Blake get there before him? – True Story, even at its most daring, still reads like a white-gloved tea.
But by the ‘60s, the studio system was being dismantled, and with it, those legions of publicity flacks. Bit by bit, all the fan mags – even the venerable Photoplay – began to sell sex and scandal.
Glamour shots of Dietrich in satin gowns gave way to paparazzi photos of Natalie Wood in macrame bikinis. Genteel advice pieces like “Fay Wray’s Design for Marriage” were replaced by steamy news of the love-in life of Jane Fonda. Silver Screen and its sisters were elbowed off the shelves by Rona Barrett’s Hollywood and the National Enquirer.
People, it seemed, no longer wanted to read about how superior the stars were. Instead, they wanted to read about how inferior they were – how crass, how drunken, how immoral – and a new generation of tabloid journalism sprang up to serve the dirt.
Now, with the competition for covers even stronger – how many interviews can J-Lo give, after all? – new, noncelebrity celebrities have been minted to fill the need. Reality show losers. Oval Office sex objects. Mafia daughters. Murderers’ girlfriends.
Given that sad decline, it’s a nostalgic treat to surrender to the comparative innocence of True Story and retreat to a time when teen stars like Deanna Durbin indulged in nothing racier than a chaperoned date, and the sleaziest back-of-the-book ads were about nothing more scandalous than “B.O.”
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