Paging through this account of the car wreck that showbiz makes of some people's lives, it is difficult for the reader to resist rubbernecking. A group of obituaries, of course, has no plot, but there is a premise: Hollywood's star-making machinery has its share of industrial accidents.

Paging through this account of the car wreck that showbiz makes of some people’s lives, it is difficult for the reader to resist rubbernecking. A group of obituaries, of course, has no plot, but there is a premise: Hollywood’s star-making machinery has its share of industrial accidents. And while you probably already knew that, “The Hollywood Book of Death” makes for a quick and compelling read, a paperback that glosses over the lives and dwells on the deaths of 127 actors of varying repute. Sadly, it is also an uneven compilation, sloppily constructed and curiously composed.

The collection uses handy categories for cause of death: accidents, alcohol and drugs, murders, and natural causes. Headings also cover deaths in obscurity, puzzling deaths, and suicides.

Details are uneven. We learn David Strickland (“Suddenly Susan”) is wearing black hightops for his suicide and Wallace Reid (“Birth of a Nation”) is reported as having Hollywood’s first private swimming pool, but the latter fact is pointless unless Reid were to have drowned. He didn’t. The flu took him, after an indulgent life that lumps him in with the alcohol and drug deaths.On the natural causes roster is Edmund Gwenn (“Miracle on 32nd Street”), presumably included for his deathbed quote, that dying was “not as tough as doing comedy.” In a glaring omission, the book skips over his great role in the dark-edged comedy “An Apartment for Peggy” as a depressed and suicidal university professor.

Martha Raye is categorized as dying in obscurity, yet her bio mentions her May-December marriage, her final, limelight-prone husband, and a lawsuit over “For The Boys” being based on her life story. Jon Erik-Hexum (“The Making of a Male Model”) is known for a fairly active 3-year TV career and the self-inflicted gunshot that ended it. He was in a makeup chair when he put his stage-prop handgun to his temple and fired, with the concussion killing him. The coroner ruled it accidental. The book lists Hexum among the suicides because his friends said he had been acting recklessly.Some of the reporting by author James Robert Parish is straightforward, but much relies on rumors. Occasionally, rumors are presented as such, but they more frequently take the unfortunate shape of worshipful hagiography. (Parish seems more mournful if his sources are alive.) Those inconsistencies give the text a “this bit is true because I’m telling it to you” quality.

Some cross-referencing would have been helpful in guiding a reader through the fates of interconnected stars. The lack of footnotes or index makes it nearly useless as a reference book.

Exceptions include an exhaustive necrology, a list of dead actors and directors, and a tourist-friendly list of notable actors’ and directors’ gravesites. Those appendices show the awesome pantheon of entertainment names still residing six feet under Hollywood and its environs.

The Hollywood Book of Death

Mcgraw-Hill; 416 Pgs.; $16.95

Production

James Robert Parish
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