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baileyWhat made you want to write a book about the drinking habits of classic Hollywood stars?

We had published an earlier book about the drinking habits of famous American writers. This was in part because I was a writer who drank and because my creative partner—the wonderful illustrator Ed Hemingway—is the grandson of a very famous writer who drank. You can guess who that is.

The book was called Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers. Everyone seemed pleased with it, so we decided to do a follow-up book. Since I am also a screenwriter and had by then moved from NY to LA, we landed on Hollywood and its movie stars as the next area of exploration. It turned out to be a much bigger subject than we had anticipated—a lot of boozing has gone down in this town.

Stag by Arv Miller In 1949, Marilyn Monroe, then an obscure starlet, posed for a beer ad shot by Tom Kelley at his commercial photography studio in Hollywood. According to some accounts, a Chicago-based calendar manufacturer, John Baumgarth, saw the ad while visiting Los Angeles and inquired about the model: would she pose nude for a calendar? In other accounts, Kelley recruited Monroe for the calendar job on the day he shot the beer ad, knowing that Baumgarth was shopping for nudes. Either way, nude photos could wreck a Hollywood career at the time, as Monroe was keenly aware, so she only accepted the job after being persuaded that nobody would recognize her. To further protect her anonymity, she asked Kelley to schedule the session for night, with no assistants save for his female business partner. Kelley agreed, and Monroe arrived at the studio at seven p.m. and posed for two hours on a red velvet theater curtain that covered the floor and complemented the color of her hair, then a reddish blonde. Twenty-four shots were taken, and Baumgarth chose one of them for the calendar he marketed as Golden Dreams, a name suggested by Monroe’s blondness, though it also inadvertently referenced the nighttime shoot.

Since Lindsay Lohan’s life seems to be playing out like a campy made-for-cable movie these days (She ran over a pedestrian! She’s going to jail! Her family is insane!), it should have made sense that she was tapped to play Elizabeth Taylor on Lifetime.  Who else would they get? Kate Winslet? Instead, when the news broke the Internet lit up with snarky speculation and gleeful derision. Then, months later, the reviews started popping up. Everyone from the Hollywood Reporter to Huffington Post urged us to watch this train wreck of a biopic and cackle until our abs ached. The reviews promised a Mommie Dearest “so bad it’s good” kind of flick. They told us to play drinking games. They said we’d have a great time. They set us up.

paramount theater marquee

My love affair with movies may have begun with, though not necessarily at, the Paramount Theater in my hometown in Virginia. It’s no accident that the Paramount shared its name with a Hollywood studio; in the early days of the movies, studios owned theaters throughout the country, a practice eventually stopped because of antitrust laws. The Paramount in my hometown was built in 1931, when theaters were palaces, or anyway designed to resemble palaces, so as to treat the little people, then in the grips of the Great Depression, to a fleeting sense of grandeur. The grandeur of the Paramount had dimmed by the time I first saw a movie there forty years later, though the marquee alone, with its hundreds of blinking bulbs, thrilled me as a child whenever I glimpsed it from the backseat of my parents’ car. It made me think of the nightclub marquees I’d seen in Elvis Presley movies on television, quick establishing shots that cut to Elvis performing onstage for girls who, driven wild by the music, spontaneously danced on tabletops and spent the night in jail after the compulsory brawl. There were no such clubs where I grew up, as far as I knew; the Paramount was as close as I could get. From the ticket booth, just below the marquee, a long, wide corridor with a slight incline led to the concession stand and, just beyond that, the theater, and to walk the length of the corridor, ascending step by step, was to have a growing sense of anticipation. The carpeting was dark red, almost burgundy. The only light came from tiered chandeliers with dangling glass beads, and, on either wall, there were gilded-framed murals of powdered-wigged, eighteenth-century aristocrats, shades of Gainsborough. In later years, before the Paramount went out of business (it’s since been restored and reopened), tickets were sold inside at the concession stand, where, when I was child, posters of movie stars were sold: Brigitte Bardot in black leather on a chopper, Raquel Welch in the fur bikini she wore as a cavewoman in One Million Years BC. Victoria Vetri, a Playboy Playmate of the Year, likewise appeared in a fur bikini as a cavewoman in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, the first movie I remember seeing at the Paramount; and Vetri, as well as Welch, stirred things in me that, as a Christian child, I wasn’t sure were right with God.

My brushes with celebrity have been airy to say the least. I waited on tables in Sydney for years, served various ex-politicos and wannabe TV sleazes—their names barely resonate with the locals, much less with US readers. In LA, Pat Benatar’s people bought some earrings from us for a comeback tour, except that I wasn’t in the store at the time, but was nursing my daughter in the rest room, so my sister had to tell me all about it. Steven Seagal pulled up beside us on the freeway. Billy Connelly’s wife Pamela came into a Sydney fashion store I was working in (Billy waited in the car). I shook hands with cardboard cut-out of Sonny Bono in Palm Springs without realizing it was a cardboard cut out. Elizabeth Taylor came up to me on Rodeo Drive and admired my baby daughter. Sandwiched between two minders, Ms Taylor reached out and touched my daughter’s hand. ‘Beautiful child,’ she said. Tremulous, lovely. Her minders, grim young men, waited politely for me to step aside.

For a time, we lived next door to Nicole Kidman’s parents in suburban Sydney. Our Nik. Her father, Anthony, is a psychologist who runs seminars at the local hospital and has a practice nearby where he specializes in family issues. Nik comes to visit occasionally. They go for walks at dusk around the beautiful peninsula. Tall, slender as a whippet, she leans on dad’s arm—we strain to catch a few words, a bit of fairy dust. We try not to make any sudden moves.

Did I feel anything in their presence? Disappointingly, not much. Except with the cardboard Sonny Bono. But with the rest, I wanted to. I really did. I have a friend who talks about celebrities as if they’re her friends. Meg this and Meryl that. ‘The goddess,’ Virgil wrote, ‘can be recognized by her step.’ Nik walks in beauty, granted, and so (eternally) does Elizabeth Taylor, but I felt neither fear not trembling in their presence. I waited for the rush, for the encounter to change everything, or even just one thing, about my life, but all I was left with was my life, an after no different than before (on another note, I remember once on a modeling job the make-up artist was told to make me ugly for the ‘before’ shot. ‘Right, she said. I’ll just leave her as she is then.’ That still smarts.) I think it was the realization that there really is no mysterious divide between my $100 ASICS and Nik’s $1000 Blahniks or Liz’s $10,000 glass slippers. Just a couple of zeros.

Speaking of which I hate the z00. I have managed to avoid many of the world’s most famous animal parks. I just don’t get off on animals in captivity. I get really hungry at zoos. All those lines. All those tables littered with ketchup-soaked napkins. I feel guilty walking past all those cages, all those eyes on me. Wanting to rip my free throat out.

But watching the dolphins play off the southern coast of NSW, or the right wales making their way across the beaches to the North, spinning around, their wing-like flippers reflecting the sun, well for me, it’s kind of rapture. My skin burns, my heart cracks, tears sting my eyeballs, and it is all I can do not to jump in after them. To be in the presence of something at once so alien and yet so familiar. Unlike waiting in the supermarket line behind Hugo Weaving—yeah, I forgot that one—there is a strange pull to the wild. At least for me. Much more so than the time I shook Ian McShane’s hand at work. In contrast, there is that aha moment in which we recognize an almost human quality to the whale, or an almost animal quality in us, but it is a frontier, as philosophy tells us, that can be grasped only in flight. Still it tugs— the Melvillian lure of an alien world, and yet one to which we ‘feel the tie.’ Two species of mammals on either side of an uncrossable divide which we cannot help but imagine crossing. Imagine. Yearn. Return. Same thing, because what we feel during these encounters is a kind of separation anxiety. Homesickness, yeah, or what Freud called, Unheimlich—the uncanny.

Believe me there was nothing uncanny about my close encounter with Oprah in the ladies room at the Sydney Opera House. And nothing true either. But it could have been—Oprah-sightings abounded for a couple of weeks here—and I wondered what all the fuss was about. I wonder if the celebs do too. There can be a great deal of hard work and talent that goes into all those zeros but once you’ve seen, or been, one trapped mammal you’ve seen them all. Not so with the dolphins or the whales. They know, and seem to revel in the fuss. Look at us, they seem to say, we’re the ones that got away.

P.S. BUT. Put me a room with either Mick or Keith and all bets are off.

taylor

At some point, when I was a teenager, Elizabeth Taylor of Hollywood married John Warner of Virginia, my home state. Warner had served as Secretary of the Navy in the Nixon Administration, and, around the time he became the sixth (or seventh) Mr. Elizabeth Taylor, he was seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate. Victory seemed a foregone conclusion. Warner’s new wife was one of the world’s most celebrated women, though she predictably had her detractors. Once, in a panic after oversleeping, I called for a taxi to drive me to school, and the aged cabbie became apoplectic when Elizabeth Taylor Warner was mentioned on the radio.

“That goddamn whore!” he ranted. “She stole Eddie Fisher from sweet little Debbie Reynolds! That goddamn whore ought to burn in hell!”