LOS ANGELES —At a time when the attention span of a celebrity-infatuated America lasted about as long as a ride on a bucking bronco, it can seem downright amazing that writers even bother crafting a loving, thoroughly researched and sweat-from-the-keyboard tome about the machinations of the Hollywood star system. And also the secrets behind the people who made our country swoon decades before Brad Pitt ever graced the cover of a tabloid.
Then again, there are not many Tommy Garretts in the world. A self-described chicken farmer who lives in the hinterlands of deep rural Virginia, Garrett has fashioned an incredibly successful career as a Hollywood publicist, radio and TV personality and foremost, an author, all from the relative comfort of the sticks and some 3,000 miles from Tinsel Town. Yet he also returns to Los Angeles long enough to pick up new clients, find new writing material and to attend awards shows. It just shows and reminds one that Hollywood is a state of mind – and in my mind, steering a wide berth around the day-to-day meetings at the Creative Artists Agency and hours-long lunches at the Polo Lounge it keeps a romanticism toward the magic of movies alive without getting bogged down in the details.
Take Garrett’s latest literary offering, "So You Want to Be in Pictures" – an exhaustingly researched, meticulously crafted book featuring insights and side notes, anecdotes and yes, interesting details on the lives of 55 Hollywood haymakers and what made them tick. The cast populating the book range from Golden Era legends such as John Wayne and Bette Davis, to the likes of Darlene Conley, an actress who did not cross into big screen fame but maintained a rabid following among daytime soap lovers.
In many ways, Garrett may have crafted the perfect book for these times. Garrett is so obviously a student of the bygone era of Hollywood he likely could have fashioned 55 books from the ranks of thespians detailed in "So You Want to Be in Pictures". Instead, the readers are given quick hits and peeks into the lives of stars from the inimitable Lena Horne to the 1950s icons and later John Waters pet Tab Hunter. Even those with the shortest attention span will not have to comb back a few pages to figure out what they had just read! Even more than sparing readers from having to learn what Ann Blyth’s favorite color was, Garrett offers up something else that gives today’s blogging generation something to sink their teeth into – real dish!
In his own straightforward manner, Garrett offers up this about the marriage of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly: "What many don’t know was that Rainier’s first choice for a wife was the blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. What man in the 1950s was not lusting after Monroe – or that other doomed blonde sexpot, Jayne Mansfield? But between discussions with royal advisors and the Vatican, Rainier figured that Grace Kelly was his best choice. He did, however, fall madly in love with Kelly and probably didn’t know that she spent many of the years of her marriage being a serial adulterer. For example, she continued an affair with David Niven until the time of her death.”
In the hands of another writer, that paragraph would seem to be provocative for its own sake – but with Garrett, the reader gets the feeling he offers up the marital infidelity in the interest of full disclosure, not simply to be the schoolyard gossip. To be sure, Garrett (whose publicity firm specializes in managing the public lives of the more senior members of the Hollywood community like Clint Walker of TV’s Cheyenne fame) has heard and seen more in his life than most, and is uniquely shaped to pass along the lessons he learned and the insights provided from his own, storied career.
What’s more, neophyte celeb-watchers will be shocked to learn the exposes of the Hollywood scandal did not start with Paris Hilton dancing on a tabletop in a Manhattan nightclub. By the very nature of the acting profession, Hollywood has always been a repository for some of the most colorful – and sometimes least judicious – people America has to offer. However many of the stories Garrett offers up in "So You Want to Be in Pictures" may have been lost to history if Garrett had not put in the time and effort to chronicle them.
While dish is plentiful in the book, it never seems ham-handed on Garrett’s part – indeed, he throws more bouquets than spitballs at his subjects. Obviously, knowing Garrett’s background in show business, he is emotionally invested in the people on whom he writes, and it is evident in his turn of the phrase.
It is obvious in this day and age, Garrett could have made a killing knocking out a quickie book rehashing the recent misadventures of Lindsay Lohan. That he instead decided to take on a meatier subject matter – giving readers a real look inside the people who helped build the film and television industry on the backs of their labor, is certainly to Garrett’s credit, even with a lower commercial potential.
After my wife read an advanced copy of "So You Want to Be in Pictures", she commented to me, "Why the heck would anyone want to be involved in that industry? Dumb luck supersedes talent, petty jealousies swallow people whole.” Certainly, the carrot of stardom and adulation looms large on the stick. Even Garrett cautions, “After you read this book and still have yearning for stardom, you’ll gain a great respect for me.”
Garrett gained my respect for writing it.
Roger Hitts, two-time United Press International columnist of the year, is a veteran celebrity journalist whose by-lines appear in numerous magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and around the world.