All That Glitters by Thomas Tryon (Knopf: $18.95)
This book starts out as a chore, there's no denying it. "All That Glitters," for the first hundred pages, manages to be both campy and maundering, with that irritating "with-it-and-yet-not-really-with-it" tone that anyone who has taken a menial job in Hollywood, surrounded by Hollywood "hopefuls," will instantly recognize. (The aging soda jerk who once worked as a chorus boy in Sonja Henie's ice skating show is the kind of tone I'm talking about: "What was Sonja's real sexual preference, I mean, really?") The book gets off to such a horrid beginning--with its irrelevant gossip, its spinsterish prurience--that it truly is no mean accomplishment that by page 300 you're actually interested in what happens next.
"All That Glitters," described most charitably, purports to be an entire history of Hollywood told through a handful of Hollywood beauties. First, there is Babe Austrian, a classic platinum-blond tough girl. (This is how the narrator, Charlie Caine, describes Babe at her funeral: "Inside the glass coffin lies Our Heroine, royally embalmed and made up, wearing a gown of ivory satin (or 'ekkroo,' very Babe), her blond tresses lushly curled, a tiara of rhinestones--'strictly for effect'--sling pumps on her feet. Will her 10 toes curl up, I wonder, like those of the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy's house landed on her? Will the coffin crack when they drop it in the hole? But of course, there's no hole; Forest Lawn does not give holes. . . . ")
Forward to Frankie Adonis
By the end of that spate of blather the reader may know far more than he wants to about both Babe Austrian and Charlie Caine, but he's only just getting into the swing of things. Charlie is here, at another level, to chronicle the lives and loves of a good-hearted Italian theatrical agent with mob connections and a bad education but an exceedingly fine reputation as a lover. Indeed, Frankie Adonis has had affairs with all five of the movie queens here listed; he is the link in this tarnished chain of beauties.
Meanwhile, after Babe the Blonde, there's Belinda the Beauty (who drinks too much and makes a comeback thanks to AA). There's April Rain, the love of Frankie's life (except by this time he's married to a frigid socialite of no importance to the story. Hedda Hopper threatens to "expose" Frankie and April's romance, and things end very badly all around).
Then there's Maude Antrim, a Mary Pickford look-alike, very cultured and gracious, dedicated to keeping the memory of her long-dead Douglas Fairbanks look-alike husband as pure as the proverbial driven snow.
Paying a Price--Twice
And finally there's the Joan Crawford look-alike serpent-creature, Claire Regrett, spite and loathing personified, who knows what it is all along to be a movie star and only learns at the end of her life how to be a good human being. And by the end, yes, you do want to see how it all turns out for Belinda and Charlie and Claire. But you have to pay a double price.
The first price is your valuable time. Life is short, terribly short; too short, I think, to read a book you're not crazy about.
The second price attached to "All That Glitters" is a nagging sense of the ersatz. Yes, Tom Tryon was a genuine movie actor, and he spent a good amount of time working in genuine movies. But you'd never know it from this book. All this is the gunk of old movie magazines: a few weeks of reading old Photoplays, and maybe some of the early work of Hollywood novelist Gavin Lambert, and anyone could write this. It's old news. Or more accurately, old gossip.
And yet, after saying all this, one feels sad. A lot of work went into this novel. And who doesn't like to sit around--at the bar at Scratch, or Musso's, or Trumps, for instance--and dish about the lives of the Hollywood great? Why be so puritanical about it? I know the answer. When vice isn't quite as much fun as it should be, that's the time to get puritanical.