For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s interview with Seduction author and You Must Remember This host Karina Longworth from Backstory Issue 34.
There has been an uncomfortable yet necessary spotlight shining over Hollywood for the past calendar year thanks to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and the revelation of allegations against male actors and executives that have rocked the industry. It’s against this backdrop that film historian and critic Karina Longworth releases her 450-page opus Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, about a powerful man in the film business who used and abused his connections to bed the world’s most famous actresses and promised to make stars out of countless others whom he simply discarded along the way. Only this story doesn’t take place in 2018; rather, it harkens back to a household name from the early-mid 20th century: Howard Hughes. He is famous—or infamous—for a number of things, including milestone feats and a fascination with aviation, reclusivity and quirks that bordered on the obsessive, a mental breakdown later in his life. He was also a major player in Hollywood as both a producer and director and famously dated many of the top actresses of the period—think Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, to name just a few. But there was a predatory side to Hughes that was mostly kept out of the press during his heyday, mostly because he would pay off the gossip columnists. He’d become obsessed with a starlet and sign her to a contract mandating that she act only in his films, while others hungry to climb the ladder were promised careers if they dated Hughes.
The behavior is similar to how some men in Hollywood are said to operate to this very day, yet the current reckoning of mores wasn’t Longworth’s inspiration. As the creator, writer and host of You Must Remember This, one of the most popular film podcasts in the world focusing on untold stories of old Hollywood, she did a handful of episodes in 2014 called “The Many Loves of Howard Hughes.” After they got a good reaction, she began to realize a longer look might be warranted. “I had already done some research, and there was just more story left to tell,” Longworth says. “It seemed like a perfect fit for a book, so I wrote a proposal and sold it right away.” Then an exhaustive research period began, which included many of the same things she’d already explored for the podcast but taking them to the nth degree. She pored through various Hughes archives and accounts and dug into the careers of any notable starlets involved. “I knew basically which actresses I wanted to focus on, and I started reading all the available books about them so I could understand the different contours of their lives and find out what movies of theirs seemed to be most important to watch. Then it snowballed from there. You read a book and see what their sources are, and then you try and read the original sources if they’re available.” Indeed, as impressive as the text of Seduction is, its bibliography is a treat in itself.
Research behind her, Longworth was then faced with harnessing all she’d learned into a book. She has a unique style of writing – a blend of fact with her own critical take – that has grown out of her process for You Must Remember This. “As I’m reading a book or reading documents, I take notes, and sometimes the notes start to take the form of prose,” she says. “Usually I make a series of passes through the notes and slowly turn fragments of sentences into sentences and then into paragraphs. Then I’ll add more information and offer some analysis. As you start doing that, you get a lot of text.” For a book that touches on so many different individuals, it’s surprising to hear that Longworth grouped organized her research not according to player but by time period. “It was really useful for me from the beginning to organize all my notes chronologically, so it wasn’t like I had a file on Ginger Rogers or a file on Jane Russell. I was just working from one document that basically went from 1925 to 1985, and I had everything down that happened to all these people together.”
Though Seduction is ripe with the stories of recognizable names, it’s the story of an unknown actress that opens the book, and it’s about as powerful an intro as an author could hope for. The setting is the famous Ambassador Hotel in 1925, and screenwriter Frederica Sagor Mass is attending an MGM party that soon devolves into a scene wherein the men in the room are being treated to “entertainment” by a group of women. But that is not the surprising thing for Maas. What stops her cold is that one of the hired ladies is her dressmaker, a hardworking and gifted seamstress who seemingly chose to perform tasks like this just to make ends meet. It’s arguably a curious place to start Longworth’s story given that Hughes himself was not present at the studio party, though he would soon move into the hotel with his first wife, yet thematically it makes perfect sense. “I always knew I wanted to start the book at the Ambassador because that’s where Hughes chose to live when he decided to conquer Hollywood,” she says. “I did two months of research on the place, and in the course of doing that, I came across Frederica Sagor Mass’ memoir. That story is not the centerpiece of her book—that’s just another day in Hollywood, where being at this work party can turn into an orgy. But I knew this event would have happened around the same time Hughes chose to move to this hotel and I thought it was a good example of the kind of thing he might be involved in.”
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