Though all but forgotten today, jazz age beauty Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the great media icons of her day, an international sex symbol more famous for her succession of rich husbands and very public affairs than for any modicum of talent she displayed as an actress.

Though all but forgotten today, jazz age beauty Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the great media icons of her day, an international sex symbol more famous for her succession of rich husbands and very public affairs than for any modicum of talent she displayed as an actress.

Rosenblum, a New York Times editor who embarked on this book after discovering a cache of Hopkins Joyce’s personal papers in an antique box, artfully documents this original material girl’s brief but incandescent waltz through the national consciousness.

Rosenblum traces Hopkins Joyce’s rise from small-town Southern roots to the vaudeville circuit, from the Ziegfeld Follies to Hollywood. She recounts the stream of affairs that earned her international notoriety with aristocrats such as Chilean diplomat Billy Erazuriz, who put a bullet through his head when Peggy refused his overtures; with American industrialists like Walter Chrysler, who bought her a $ 300,000 blue diamond; and with showbiz giants like Chaplin and Thalberg. She chronicles the reporters who doted on Hopkins Joyce’s dazzling costumes, haircuts and pets, and her every bon mot: “New husband? Why, listen; I don’t know yet whether I’m divorced from the last one,” she told one journalist. “But give me a few weeks in Paris and New York, and I’ll probably have one.”

As Rosenblum puts it, Peggy and tabloid journalism “were born for each other, and they used each other shamelessly and with equal abandon.”

Given the considerable mythology forever swirling around her — much of which Hopkins Joyce was eager to perpetuate — Rosenblum’s efforts to untangle fiction from the nonfiction proved no small feat. Rosenblum shrewdly uses this challenge to her advantage, however, emphasizing that Hopkins Joyce’s antics, hyperbolic though they may have been, were symptomatic of the rapidly shifting culture she inhabited.

As “the apotheosis of the Jazz Age,” writes Rosenblum, Peggy was a prototype for such 15-minute celebrities as Monica Lewinsky and Amy Fisher, so bewitching to the burgeoning mass media that she became famous “simply for being famous.”

In the end, Hopkins Joyce may have been relegated to history’s dustbin, brushed aside by the next generation of instant celebrities, but for a superstar with few qualifications outside her own naked ambition, she had a remarkable run.

Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce

Holt/Metropolitan; 293 pgs.; $26

Production

By Constance Rosenblum
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more