In its two lives, from 1914 and 1936, and from 1983 to the present, Vanity Fair has kept up an unabashed love affair with Hollywood. Stars have strutted through its pages, across its celebrity covers and perennial Hollywood issues, and jammed its Oscar parties.
This lavish gift book is an encyclopedic tribute to what editor-in-chief Graydon Carter calls the “steady, two-way flow of traffic between the New York offices of Vanity Fair and the bungalows of Los Angeles.”
The volume of 292 photos by house shutterbugs Edward Steichen, Annie Leibovitz and others opens with the “pioneer of eros” Louise Brooks and closes with “the seminal drag duo” Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Its 14 essays, by contributors as diverse as Clare Luce, P.G. Wodehouse and Peter Biskind, range over such topics as Garbo’s mystique, the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton romance and the life of the now reclusive, erstwhile uber-agent Sue Mengers.
Few magazines put so high a premium on physical beauty and fashion, and Vanity Fair’s photo department has long been one of its strongest assets, helping to define standards of celebrity portraiture over the years. From the black-and-white era to the saturated colors of its latest issues, shot in studios, on-set and any number of Hollywood hangouts, the images are splashy, emblematic and often slightly outrageous: Doris Day led by a pack of Technicolor poodles; Whoopi Goldberg emerging from a bathtub full of white paint; Julianne Moore as Titian’s Venus; Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and James Stewart attired in white tie, sharing a laugh in the Crown Room at Romanoffs in 1957.
Scattered throughout are the changing faces of the magazine’s Hollywood issues and cartoon illustrations of the congregants at such places as the Coconut Grove in 1927 (William Randolph Hearst sits in an unlikely circle with Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille and Samuel Goldwyn) and Mortons in 1996 (Sumner Redstone sits –equally implausibly — with Rupert Murdoch, Sherry Lansing and Jonathan Dolgen).
So strong are these images that the articles interspersed throughout the book can’t help but serve as window dressing. There are memorable flights of fancy, like Wodehouse’s hilariously sinister description of a school for movie villains: “The villain suffers from a fatal ingenuity. A hundred times he maneuvers his victim into a position where one good dig with a knife or a carefully directed revolver shot would eliminate her forever, to the great contentment of all, and then, the chump, he goes and spoils it all by being too ingenious.”
More recent dispatches serve up celebrity gossip in the magazine’s sleek, knowing prose. Patricia Bosworth recalls the bloody denouement of Lana Turner’s affair with mobster Johnny Stompanato; Christopher Hitchens cruises Sunset Boulevard with Billy Wilder, who reminisces about life in the studio system: one test-marketing card for “Lost Weekend,” he recalls, “told me it was a great movie, but I should take out all the stuff about drinking and alcoholism.”
The text isn’t as timeless as the pictures, and even the pictures themselves — especially past Hollywood-issue covers — occasionally resemble a fashion shoot, full of forgettable faces.
But like the magazine itself, the book is not just a showcase of Hollywood’s greatest talent, but a barometer of what’s hot. And as such, it will light up many a Beverly Hills coffee table.