From the archives: Reading the stars: books from old Hollywood

July 14, 2012

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran an article about celebrity authored books. “In Their Own Words? Maybe” surveyed the spate of recent novels by the likes of the Kardashian sisters, reality TV starlet Lauren Conrad, and Nicole Polizzi, aka Snooki on the MTV show Jersey Shore. The article also mentioned recent works by Nicole Richie and Hilary Duff, and points out that most of these recent novels may not have been written, or written entirely, by the celebs credited as author.

Mystery and intimacy intertwine: can you identify any of the actresses on the cover of this 1915 book?Mystery and intimacy intertwine: can you identify any of the actresses on the cover of this 1915 book?

The New York Times article cites a publisher who traces the current popularity of celebrity novels to Pamela Anderson’s Star, a bestseller released in 2004. Like the works mentioned above, Ms. Anderson, the formerBaywatch star, used a ghostwriter.

Books authored by film and TV stars are nothing new. And in fact, the phenomenon goes all the way back to the beginnings of Hollywood. Imagine yourself a newly minted motion picture celebrity in the Teens or Twenties. Why wouldn’t you tell your story in a book? Or write a novel? Or even pen a book of poems?

I love the movies, especially old movies. I also love books. My two interests came together in an exhibit which has just opened at the San Francisco Public Library. I curated “Reading the Stars,” which looks at some of the many books about the movies published during the silent film era; on display are vintage biographies, pictorials, and how-to titles as well as novels, poetry and self-help works written by some of the biggest names in early Hollywood.


In the early years of the 20th century, both the movies and the movie industry were just getting started. The movies were an art form in search of itself, while the movie industry was growing by leaps and bounds into a business concern whose reach knew few limits. Books were one way in which individuals (actors, directors, producers, and moguls), as well as the studios that employed them, tried to sell themselves to the public. The New York Times article refers to the practice as a way to “extend the footprint of the celebrity.”

Gloria Swanson (step-mother of mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty) graces the cover of this scarce softcover photoplay edition.Gloria Swanson (step-mother of mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty) graces the cover of this scarce softcover photoplay edition.

“Reading the Stars” is divided into five parts. One display case is devoted to general books about the movies – including criticism and commentary, guide books for the aspiring actor or screenwriter, as well as fiction showing both the glamorous and seamy sides of Hollywood. My favorites are the Anita Loos’ classic manual How to Write Photoplays, and Tamar Lane’s provocative What’s Wrong with the Movies?

Carroll and Garrett Graham’s early Hollywood novel, Queer People, says this about itself: “If resemblances to well-known figures in Hollywood life occur in certain passages, it is only because America’s fifth greatest industry has become so completely standardized that everybody resembles everybody else.” Yikes! That’s from 1930.

Like today, the movie going public of the Teens and Twenties had an insatiable appetite for reading material both by and about their favorite actors.

Another case in the exhibit is devoted to books about individual movie stars, while another features books written by or at least attributed to various actors and actresses. On display is Sessue Hayakawa’s novel, The Bandit Prince, Harold Lloyd’s memoir, An American Comedy, Mary Pickford’s novel, The Demi-Widow, and Douglas Fairbanks’ various self-help (“pop psychology”) titles.

Notice the camera man in the lower right-hand corner who's filming the fairy tale-like scene. Could it be your arrival in Hollywood?Notice the camera man in the lower right-hand corner who’s filming the fairy tale-like scene. Could it be your arrival in Hollywood?

Have you ever purchased a novel with the picture of a movie star on the cover? The practice is meant to identify the book with the film, as well as attract the attention of movie goers while boosting sales. Such books are called “movie tie-ins.”

An entire case in “Reading the Stars” is devoted to photoplay editions, the movie tie-in books of the silent era. On display are Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with Lillian Gish on the cover, and Willa Cather’sA Lost Lady with Irene Rich on the cover. And be sure not to miss Little Robinson Crusoe, with child superstar Jackie Coogan on its cover.

Rudolph Valentino was one of the biggest celebrities of the time. His sudden death at age 31 in 1926 made news around the world. It also spurred an already burgeoning cottage industry in books about the beloved star – including a few who later claimed to channel his spirit.

One case in “Reading the Stars” turns the spotlight on this iconic star and presents rare examples of books both by and about the actor, as well as photoplay editions of his films, such as The Sheik. For the record, Valentino’s book of poems, Daydreams, ain’t half-bad.

A cautionary tale, a la “A Star is Born” and “What Price Hollywood.”.

“Reading the Stars” is on display in the Steve Silver room (4th floor) of the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library through August 28th. It is part of a SFPL celebration of the silent era called “Shhhhh! Silents in the Library.”

Other exhibits are devoted to “Downtown Movie Palaces of the 1920s” and “The Silent Screen in the City.” The latter looks at some of the many movie stars who visited San Francisco or made films here in the Bay Area.

“Shhhhh! Silents in the Library” coincides with the 16th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which takes place July 14-17 at the Castro Theater. A display of past posters from the Festival are also on display at the SFPL.


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