Inside ‘Hollywood Babylon’, The Book That Redefined Celebrity Gossip
Let’s get some things out of the road: No, Clara Bow did not sleep with the entire USC football team. Lupe Velez did not die with her head in the toilet. Virginia Rappe’s death was not caused by Fatty Arbuckle crushing her during an aggressive sexual assault. Jayne Mansfield was not decapitated when she died in a car crash. Thelma Todd wasn’t murdered. The death of Ramon Novarro was not the result of a ‘lead Art Deco dildo which Valentino had given him forty-five years earlier, thrust down his throat’.
If you’re a Hollywood nerd or connoisseur of celebrity gossip in any form, the chances are you’ve at least heard of Hollywood Babylon. If not, then you’re certainly familiar with the lore it helped to establish. While not all of the rumours I mentioned above originated in the pages of Kenneth Anger’s seedy pseudo-expose, the book is certainly responsible for us believing them to be true. Before there was TMZ, there was Kenneth Anger.
Anger is an experimental short filmmaker whose works include the colourfully titled Lucifer Rising and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Part queer art-piece, part mythology-inspired pulp, his films have been hugely influential on directors like David Lynch and John Waters. Anger is not without controversy, and he does seem to love attracting it. This is the guy who would hang around with Anton Lavey and counts Aleister Crowley among his biggest influences. The dude once ‘joked’ that he was ‘somewhat to the right of the KKK’ in his views about black people. I know some folks who saw some of his more recent short films, once of which seemed to be nothing but regurgitated Nazi propaganda. And that doesn’t even get into his Manson Family connection. Essentially, trusting this guy with your Hollywood lore is like having Hannibal Lecter around to give you a vegan cooking class.
Hollywood Babylon was written by Anger because he needed the money. Experimental short films aren’t a cash cow, funnily enough. He put together some stories he’d heard growing up, and a few he claimed he heard about first hand, and a coffee table style book was published in France in 1959. It took a few more years to get to America, due to libel and copyright issues, but by that point, bootleg copies had already made their way across the Atlantic, thus ensuring the book’s infamy. Well, that and the cover, featuring Jayne Mansfield leaning over with her breasts on full show. The copy I have has mercifully edited in an extra inch of fabric, but most editions show her nipples, tinted red for posterity. If that doesn’t tell you everything about the book, nothing will.
Here’s the thing about Hollywood Babylon: It’s bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fascinating and important as a cultural document. Without this, the way we consume celebrity gossip and the entire literature of Hollywood would radically shift. That’s not to say the book has worth, per se. it may be completely irredeemable, actually. It’s a cruel book, utterly exploitative and full of verifiable lies. Film historian Kevin Brownlow infamously described Anger’s research methods as ‘mental telepathy’, and the book has the air of seediness one would associate with third hand rumour-mongering. It’s also full of photographs of the most upsetting images, including the corpses of Carole Landis and Thelma Todd and the car crash that killed Jayne Mansfield (and an image of her dead dog). A lot of the images are just mean, such as the full page dedicated to gawking at Judy Garland’s ageing visage as she succumbed to addiction. Nude women are common too, usually from movie stills, accompanying a chapter on how terrible said starlet was.
Anne Helen Petersen, the Buzzfeed writer and celeb gossip expert, points out how Anger’s lies and complete lack of fact-checking was exacerbated by his, to put it mildly, ungenerous perspective on events: ‘The way he framed things, it made homosexuality, female sexuality, interracial relationships — even being fat, in Arbuckle’s case — into transgressions, amplifying and embroidering instead of normalizing.’ Anger claims he wasn’t trying to be puritanical, but the entire objective of the book is to paint Hollywood as Babylon, and he digs deep into that tawdry metaphor.
Few women come out of the book with any kind of sympathetic narrative, especially if they tried to take on powerful men. The very young women Charlie Chaplin seduced are painted as gold-digging sluts, as are the women who accused Errol Flynn of rape. Lana Turner is portrayed as a desperate woman who find sadomasochistic pleasure in being beaten by Johnny Stompanato, the man who her daughter would later murder. There’s no indiscretion a woman can do in Anger’s eyes that isn’t worthy of his scorn, be it sexual desire, career ambition, getting fat or old or having a stutter.
What he was doing wasn’t especially original either. By the time Hollywood Babylon was published in America, the nation had already experienced the heyday of Confidential Magazine. At one point in the 1950s, Confidential was the most read magazine in the country, whose citizens were enthralled by their no-holds-barred approach that promised to reveal all about the celebrities they loved. This proved to be a mighty success and stark contrast from safe, studio-approved fan-magazines like Photoplay. Where they promised the glitzy fantasy of stardom, Confidential urged readers to reject Hollywood’s hypocrisy and see the celebrities for who they really were: Hard partying sex fiends who *gasp* occasionally dabbled in inter-racial passions. It was Confidential which pioneered the now accepted gossip strategy of using unflattering photos of celebs to illustrate their stories.
While the magazine claimed they didn’t publish anything unless they had two signed affidavits, thus protecting it legally, that didn’t save them from going to trial. Maureen O’Hara was one of the few major Hollywood stars to take a stand against the magazine for a lie they published claiming she’d had a wild night in a movie theatre. The magazine’s publishers tried to push the trial as proof Hollywood was running scared of them after decades of hiding their dirt under a starry veneer, but that didn’t stop them from seriously suffering and eventually de-fanging the magazine. Confidential wasn’t the bulldog it was by the time Hollywood Babylon was published, but it had already established what Anger claimed he was doing anew in the world of celebrity gossip.
So, why do I talk about this book? It’s hard not to see how impactful it’s been on pop culture and the way we talk about celebrities. It doesn’t matter that we know Fatty Arbuckle didn’t rape Virginia Rappe - that we knew that in the 1920s when he was first accused - but it seems like it should be true because it confirms our worst thoughts about the cesspool of fame. With gossip, so often, the abstract trumps the concrete facts. Anger did that well enough to establish a whole new generation of lore, one so powerful that no amount of fact-checking can override it.
Anger’s been threatening to write a third installment in his series for about a decade now, but claims it can’t happen due to the powers of Scientology, which he says would feature prominently in the book. The thing is we don’t really need Hollywood Babylon anymore. We understand gossip better and we expect more of it too. It’s not enough now to simply repeat the same whispers: We want to know how the narrative was formed, why it is the way it is, what media is in play, who’s working to establish the story that makes the headlines, and so on. More importantly, we have the resources to call shit out when we see it, and that would just make Anger sad.
If you want classic Hollywood gossip done right, go read Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood.
(The amazing header image of Anton LaVey and Jayne Mansfield is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).
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