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Axel Madsen, 76; writer chronicled the lives of celebrities, business giants

April 29, 2007|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

Axel Madsen, a prolific writer best known for his richly detailed biographies of Hollywood celebrities, fashion pioneers and business titans including Barbara Stanwyck, Coco Chanel and John Jacob Astor, has died. He was 76.

Madsen, who also tackled such nonfiction topics in his books as cross-country truck drivers and the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes," died Monday of pancreatic cancer at his Los Angeles home, his wife, Midori, said Saturday.

A Hollywood film correspondent in the 1960s and '70s, Madsen wrote more than a dozen biographies, starting with a short work on director Billy Wilder in 1968. He continued with directors William Wyler and John Huston, then French fashion designers Yves St. Laurent and Chanel.

In addition to profiling the leading lights of Hollywood, he wrote serious studies of French thinkers Andre Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as well as captains of industry William C. Durant and Astor.

But his most popular volumes focused on Hollywood's salacious back stories in "Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy" (1988) and "The Sewing Circle: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women" (1995).

Michael Hargraves, a writer and researcher at the J. Paul Getty Museum who often helped Madsen with his background investigations, marveled at his friend's chosen field.

"I always joked with him, 'How come you never had a regular desk job like I did?' " Hargraves told The Times. "And he said, 'I've been lucky because I've been able to get these assignments and publishers will pay me to do these types of books. They know that celebrities sell.' "

Some subjects cooperated with Madsen, while others avoided his probing. Madsen was hand-picked to tell Wyler's story, and as a film journalist he had interviewed actresses Stanwyck and Swanson years before. But his peek behind the scenes of "60 Minutes" was unauthorized, and St. Laurent backed out of a planned interview.

Madsen's books gained attention from reviewers for high-profile publications who sometimes offered positive responses and at other times less so.

In the New York Times in 1987, Laurence Wylie called the biography of marine explorer Jacques Cousteau "journalism at its best and at its worst. At its best because it is lively, simply organized, clearly written and holds the reader's interest in what might have been a lengthy enumeration of adventures, maneuvers and achievements. At its worst because it is careless.... More important, the book is superficial."

However, Wylie added, "The truth is that I enjoyed the book."

Madsen's varied interests were reflected in his choice of subjects. His wife said he decided to write about truckers after they drove back and forth from Los Angeles to their other home in Bucks County, Pa. He became fascinated with the characters they encountered at highway truck stops, resulting in "Open Road: Truckin' on the Biting Edge" (1982).

Madsen was born May 27, 1930, in Copenhagen to a Danish father and French mother, and grew up in Paris.

He studied music as a young man but turned to writing, initially for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s.

In 1956 he moved to Canada and began working for United Press International.

Madsen moved to Hollywood in the early 1960s to satisfy his interest in film, his wife said. He handled publicity for movie studios and worked as a freelance Hollywood correspondent for national and international publications, including The Times from 1964 to '74, until switching full time to writing books.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons from a previous marriage, Giles of Vancouver and Eric of St. Armand, Canada.

Services will be private.




A wide-ranging author

Selected nonfiction works by Axel Madsen

* "Billy Wilder," Secker and Warburg, 1968

* "William Wyler: The Authorized Biography," Crowell, 1973

* "The New Hollywood: American Movies in the '70s," Crowell, 1975

* "Malraux: A Biography," Morrow, 1976

* "Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre," Morrow, 1977

* "John Huston," Doubleday, 1978

* "Living for Design: The Yves Saint Laurent Story," Delacorte, 1979

* "Private Power: Multinational Corporations for the Survival of Our Planet," Morrow, 1980

* "Open Road: Truckin' on the Biting Edge," Harcourt, 1982

* "60 Minutes: The Power and the Politics of America's Most Popular TV News Show," Dodd, 1984

* "Cousteau: An Unauthorized Biography," Beaufort Books, 1986

* "Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy," Morrow, 1988

* "Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation," McGraw-Hill, 1989

* "Chanel: A Woman of Her Own," Holt, 1990

* "Stanwyck," HarperCollins, 1994

* "The Sewing Circle: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women," Birch Lane, 1995; reprinted in paperback as "Forbidden Lovers," Citadel, 1996

* "The Deal Maker: How William C. Durant Made General Motors," John Wiley & Sons, 1999

* "John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire," John Wiley & Sons, 2001

* "The Marshall Fields: The Evolution of an American Business Dynasty," John Wiley & Sons, 2002

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