Friday, December 12, 2008

Hollywood Bohemians

Between 1917 and 1941, Hollywood film studios, gossip columnists, and novelists featured an unprecedented number of homosexuals, cross-dressers, and adulterers in their depictions of the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle. During this era, actress Greta Garbo defined herself as the ultimate serial bachelorette, screenwriter Mercedes De Acosta wore mannish attire and began numerous lesbian relationships with Hollywood elite (including Greta Garbo herself), and countless homosexual designers brazenly picked up men in the hottest Hollywood nightclubs. These personalities, along with many others, played an important role in establishing Hollywood’s image as a place of sexual abandon, enhancing the movie capital’s mystique and selling Hollywood as a “must-see” destination.

This significant contribution to gay, lesbian, and film studies demonstrates that the Hollywood studios and mass media used images of these sexually adventurous characters to promote the movie industry and appeal to the prurient interests of a more conservative audience. Each chapter examines the happenings in one segment of important Hollywood locales, from stars’ homes to hippest nightclubs. Focusing on the media coverage of each location in nationally distributed newspapers and fan magazines, Hollywood novels, and the movies the studios made about Hollywood reveals how such media images indelibly altered the world’s fascination with old Hollywood.

1) Hollywood Dream: Hollywood bohemians revealed another part of the equation that has been omitted from the Hollywood story. The dream included people pursuing wild, outlandish, and “illegal” sexual activities and interests. This means that there was an audience for that behavior.

2) The bohemians are the forerunners of today’s highly sexualized images. They show us how we arrived at two controversial features of the way our media operates. The bohemians linked the celebrity and their sexual life, the main focus of extensive coverage now. They presented culturally controversial behavior images on display, pushing the envelope of what the media showed. The images were on the “cutting edge” which builds and maintains audience size and interest, then as today.

3) Unlike what appeared in the vast majority of the movies, books and newspapers in the era, the Hollywood bohemians were almost always depicted in a favorable manner.

The following is a note from the author, Brett Abrams:

Unlike many adults, I have not outgrown the habit of asking questions. I enjoy discovering the back stories that shape what exists around us. What’s more exciting, sometimes amazing, and other times disheartening are the discoveries of what could have been.

My curiosity about people and places has always been especially focused on the US entertainment and leisure worlds. Both film and sports cultures forge highly dramatic environments filled with stars who bask in the limelight and adulation of fans. Yet each has a place for role players who can rise to prominence with one amazing performance. My books reveal another commonality between these cultures. In Hollywood Bohemians, we learn how the early publicity machine around the stars forged Hollywood’s identity. In my second book, Capital Sporting Grounds (2009), I demonstrate that stadiums in Washington, D.C. are located and designed as tourism vehicles, promoting the city as a great place to visit.

Research is detective work. There is a range of likely sources of information that one keeps in mind---local newspapers, industry publications, the papers of notable persons and organizations. I read all these sources for insight into the issues and I also look for new names and details to follow-up additional sources and ideas. I take notes everywhere I go. I whip out pen and paper anywhere that I may be and write in short bursts, from coffee houses to standing at the bus stop. I notice that I get a lot of my ideas after random contacts.

So many unusual stories about Hollywood exist that I had to fight the impulse to share them with the people around me. I laughed when I read that during Rudolph Valentino’s divorce trial, his wife testified that he liked using her perfume. It surprised me to learn that Spencer Tracy had a public romance with Loretta Young years before his relationship with Katherine Hepburn. Unbelievably, a Life magazine caption for a photograph of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard called them a couple, while mentioning that Gable was still married to another woman.

Making these stories available to the public is part of what I relish about writing history, being an archivist, and teaching. Archivists play the key role in saving original information sources that preserve the nation’s history. We make information available to others who then write new incredible stories about our world. Teaching the history of sexuality and romance, and particularly the roles that the media have in shaping our understanding of these concepts, offers me the opportunity to share stories--those I have written and those of others.

Brett L. Abrams is a historian who focuses on US cities, sexuality and gender. Hollywood Bohemians is an expansion of his doctoral dissertation. He works as an archivist with the Electronic and Special Media Records Division of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Want to Hear More About Hollywood Bohemians? Tune into these sites on the dates below!
Writers in the Sky
Urban Bohemian
Conversations with Writers
New Writing International
OhMyNews International
Reading & Reviewing
Associated Content

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