7 Books about the Glamour and Intrigue of Old Hollywood

Novels and non-fiction that take you into the golden era of movie-making

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story

It’s difficult to imagine a time when defining yourself by an obsession with a movie, TV show, or celebrity wasn’t a natural part of life, like picking a favorite color as a child. In a time when the internet supplies a constant stream of celebrity news, takedowns, and an outlet for stanning, Old Hollywood seems impossibly mysterious and alluring. Even aesthetically it’s easy to romanticize—the meticulous hairstyling, tailored outfits, even black and white film, though plainly inferior to today’s technology, can be enough to beckon one in for a closer look. 

What took place as Hollywood was being built from the ground up, both as a city and an industry, shapes so much of the way we interact with media today. These books present a nuanced portrait of show business as it was taking shape, reminding us of the people who had to combat the repugnant cultural attitudes of the time, the scandals that dramatically altered lives, and of course, the endless glamour. 

Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe

Delayed Rays of A Star by Amanda Lee Koe

Spurred by a real photo of three film figures—gender-bending performer Marlene Dietrich, Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, and Nazi propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl, Amanda Lee Koe’s Delayed Rays of a Star is a study of how the time we live in shapes who we are and how we live. It could be simple for a historical novel populated and led by real-life figures to coast on the novelty, or become so concerned with sticking to the facts that it remains superficial, but Lee Koe does neither. With great nuance, the novel documents the compromises necessary to reach one’s ambitions.

The Castle on Sunset by Shawn Levy

The Castle on Sunset by Shawn Levy

In Shawn Levy’s book about Los Angeles’s most mythologized hotel, Chateau Marmont serves as a portal to how much Hollywood has changed since the building was first erected, yet how precisely the structures (literally, in the case of the building) have remained intact. Levy turns his eye on the hordes of stars who’ve occupied the hotel and the infamous tales of what has occurred on its premises, but also less expectedly on the peculiarities of the building. Levy offers insight into West Hollywood in the 20s, and how exactly a site that is an emblem of sophistication managed to live through the 30s and a World War, while leaving its air of worldliness intact nearly 100 years later.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen

Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen

It’s disorienting to read a book about a time before celebrity news and gossip became many Americans’ primary cultural engagement. Anne Helen Petersen adeptly tells the tales of how the lives of 16 different stars of Old Hollywood were consumed by the public. It’s sad to see the personal lives of others ravaged for all to see, but it’s especially disturbing to read about the cases documented in Scandals. These pioneers of the silver screen didn’t know quite they were headed toward, the moral salve of thinking “they knew what they were signing up for” no longer relevant. Petersen writes about the stars of the time in a way accessible to both the classic film obsessive and those of us who know about the bare minimum by carefully linking the celebrity culture of yore to its current-day counterpart. 

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Authored by Darcy O’Brien, the son of two actors, this semi-autobiographical novel presents a view of stardom we don’t often come across: that from the eyes of a celebrity’s child. With a wry sense of humor, O’Brien writes mercilessly of a boy’s childhood and teenage years made unstable by the narcissism of his parents. While this isn’t exactly an experience exclusive to the celebrity set, that context allows a little more humor—it’s more enjoyable to watch as a child is left to their own devices if it leads him to move in with a famous director, the father of a friend, who immediately opens him a checking account for his allowance. A Way of Life Like Any Other is both a peek into the ridiculous lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous and the melancholy of trying to return to one’s prime. 

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel 

Though many of the key players in early movie-making were Eastern European Jews, few non-fiction books dive into the complex entanglement of the infancy of Hollywood movie-making and World War II like Salka Viertel’s memoir. In The Kindness of Strangers, Viertel recounts the experience of this intersection through the story of her own life. What we would now call a multi-hyphenate, Viertel took up post as an actress in her home country, a screenwriter, and a reviewer, among others.

Girl From Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs is widely known as the creator of Tarzan, the book series he wrote between the 1910s and the 1940s, and this legacy lives on through Tarzana, the San Fernando Valley plot of land he bought and proudly named. Along with his countless sci-fi and adventure novels, he has a handful of books set in “the real world.” Recently reissued by the LA Review of Books is The Girl From Hollywood, a novel set in a town with physical descriptions that match Tarzana as it was at the time. The book follows Shannon, the titular girl, as she attempts to make her way in Prohibition Hollywood. The novel brings us to a period in time when the desire to work in film and become famous was less than popular—something that feels about as distant as Burroughs’s sci-fi when compared to our current day in age. As you might expect, there’s plenty of paternalism and moralizing as Shannon encounters the reality of the outside world.

The Battle for Beverly Hills by Nancie Clare

The Battle for Beverly Hills is just as much a look at the physical making of the city as it is about the people who took part in its making. In the same way that it’s easy to take the structures of stardom for granted, it’s only natural to forget how townships, and in particular Beverly Hills smack in the middle of Los Angeles, come to be. The book captures the ridiculous capitalist attitudes that ran rampant at the time, most notably in how the town came to be, when its owners bought the plot of land that had already unsuccessfully been mined for oil with the hope that some would turn up the second time around. The Battle for Beverly Hills is a surprisingly dense history that marks one of the first instances of stars using their fame to lend attention to a political issue.

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