When I started thinking about interviewing Eve Golden about her new book, John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars, I had to stop and think how long we’ve known each other. Would you believe 20 years? At least. We got acquainted when we both wrote columns for Classic Images magazine.
We first met in 1995 when I was in New York to interview Barbara Barondess for The Sound of Silence. Eve and I had tea at the Algonquin and later strolled around the theater district.
I was an instant fan of her work and still aspire to someday write like her.
When I was planning to tie the knot in New York City in December of 2011, I thought of Eve as the one I wanted to “give me away.” She didn’t hesitate to be part of one of the happiest days of my life.
When I told Eve I was writing a biography of Mae Murray, I think she let out some expletive that translated, “Damn you, I was planning to write that book.” After realizing that I had tracked down Mae’s kin and was interviewing her son, Daniel, Eve offered me her research material, including her priceless interview with Jane Ardmore, Mae’s first biographer. She gave me one warning, “You’d better do right by Mae.”
When it came time to dedicate Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, I knew it was Eve’s book. “For Eve Golden — A Haughty Dowager with a Heart of Gold.”
Michael: John Gilbert was a huge star in his day, but yours is the first critical study of his life and career. Why have writers avoided him as a subject?
Eve: There is no logic about who gets written about and who doesn’t—I can just as well ask you why no one had written a Mae Murray book till you did, or why did no one get to Kay Kendall before I did?
Michael: What drew you to him?
Eve: Gosh—a gorgeous, screwed-up, self-destructive alcoholic, what’s not to love? If only he were gay, too, he’d be most of my ex-boyfriends. Also, of course, he was immensely talented and likable, and self-aware, which makes him utterly charming.
Michael: Was he a fun companion along the way? Would he be someone you’d want to have as a dinner guest?
Eve: Loved him. He was smart and funny and self-deprecating. Of course, he would see me as one of those silly, middle-aged lady scribblers—and he’d be right.
Michael: Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, wrote about her father in Dark Star. What is your opinion of her book? How cooperative was she with your project?
Eve: Leatrice was fabulous, told me she was totally in favor of another book, and did not ask for “power of veto,” which was important. I am very nervous about her opinion of this, as she and I do not always agree on everything. I love her book, but of course it is a “daughter’s book,” which is different from a disinterested party. She interviewed people who are now long-gone, which was important to me, as well.
Michael: I remember Eleanor Boardman telling me that Gilbert had some pretty violent mood swings. What were some of the demons that haunted the actor?
Eve: I think today he would be diagnosed as bipolar or manic-depressive—he self-medicated with alcohol, which is not unusual. He admitted himself that he was always too up or too down. He did have a lousy childhood, but so did a lot of people, you can’t blame everything on that. And his career was charmed till things started going wrong at MGM in the late ‘20s.
Michael: How close did The Artist, the recent silent film, compare to Gilbert’s life?
Eve: I was nervous about The Artist, as of course I am very protective of Jack and his story, but I loved the film. It is really more “Gilbert and Crawford” than “Gilbert and Garbo”—the romance plot has nothing to do with him. And Jack jumped agreeably right into talkies, unlike George Valentin. But Jean Dujardin looked as much as possible like Jack, and his character had the same persona—and of course Jack was the biggest male star to plummet when talkies hit.
Michael: One of the lingering rumors about Gilbert revolve around his voice and whether the coming of sound ended his career. Were you able to validate or dispel these stories through your research?
Eve: As much as one can. There are so many reasons why people did or did not succeed in talkies, and I go into that at length. Why did Ruth Chatterton make it but not the Talmadges? Why Warner Baxter but not Jack Gilbert? Sometimes there is no logic. Jack did not have a great voice for talkies, but he could have become a successful, busy character actor like Adolph Menjou if he had not made so many enemies and destroyed his health.
Michael: A classic Hollywood quote came when a reporter asked Gilbert and his new wife, Ina Claire, how it felt to be married to a star. Ina speaks up,” I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him.” Is this lore or fact?
Eve: Like Mae Murray’s dubious “none of us floozies was that nuts!” quote. I love that story: I told it, of course, but admitted it is probably apocryphal. You can’t not tell it, though—I adore Ina Claire, such a bitch.
Michael: What is the main point you want to get across about Gilbert?
Eve: I don’t know if there is a “point”—it’s just an interesting story about an interesting man who did interesting things! Publishers do not like to hear that, but I think it’s all that is necessary in a book. I was surprised to find that the Gilbert/Garbo romance was nowhere near as interesting and moving as the Gilbert/Dietrich romance.
Michael: I’m a huge Eve Golden fan. I’m intrigued by the subjects you choose for your biographies: Anna Held, Theda Bara, the Castles, Kay Kendall, Jean Harlow, and John Gilbert. I look for a common thread, but nothing stands out. How do you select your subjects?
Eve: Oh, thank you, darling! I have to like my subject, or at least admire their work. Who can spend all those years with someone you dislike? There cannot already be a definitive book about them, and no other writer can have “dibs.” If there is a family, I want their cooperation. I don’t know why one person grabs me; for instance, I love Carole Lombard, but I have no desire to write a book about her. Michael: Your biography of Jean Harlow, Platinum Girl, was one of the first books to set the record straight about Harlow’s life after Irving Shulman’s 1960s biography. How factually flawed was it? Did you literally go through the book and address every lie and misrepresentation?
Eve: Omigosh. What did Mary McCarthy say about Lillian Hellman? “Every word he wrote is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Some of the stories I repeated to disprove them; others were so silly I did not bother to even address them.
Michael: In the Rise and Fall of Theda Bara, you write that Bara was one of the few actresses to survive intact from being a sex symbol, unlike Monroe and Clara Bow. What made her different? Eve: I think she grew up with a stable, supportive family, had a good sense of herself, a happy marriage, and had a lot of outside interests. And she did not take herself—or her career—too seriously. Colleen Moore said that Theda Bara did the funniest Theda Bara imitations.
Eve: I loved Kay since the first time I saw her—she was so bright and sparkling and funny; I don’t know why no one had written about her. I was so lucky to get the cooperation of her wonderful sister, Kim, and Maraday Wahlborg, who had already interviewed a lot of friends who’d since died. I can tell you that looking at photos of Kay Kendall for two years will give you one helluva inferiority complex.
Michael: As a writer who has worked for many years in New York City and who has felt an affection for the silent film era, have you ever known or crossed paths with those actresses who lived out their lives in the city: Garbo, Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, Aileen Pringle?
Eve: You and I were both friends with Anita Page—wasn’t she a delight? Lillian Gish was practically my surrogate grandmother for 20-some years, she was much funnier and warmer than her interviews imply. We never talked about her career; just what we were doing from day to day. And—name-dropping alert—I had tea with Olivia de Havilland in Paris last year, she and I have kept in touch since she helped me with the Jean Harlow book. She is still gorgeous and witty and has more marbles than I do.
Michael: Do you care to take a stab at commenting on some of the interviews you’ve had when researching your books? Which do you treasure? Who were pains in the asses or really difficult? Or, can you say?
Eve: Well. Stanley Donen and Mitzi Gaynor and Blake Edwards refused to get back to me, so they can all go . . . well, no, I am too ladylike to say it. Other than the movie people, I loved talking to the Society Swans for the Kay Kendall book. My favorite call was from Suzzie Dillon: “Darling, I’m so sorry it’s been so long, but we just closed up the Florida house and opened the New York house and we’re breaking in a new cook, and well, you know what that’s like.” How can you not love that?
Michael: If you could transport yourself to 1920s Hollywood, who would you seek out first to interview? What question would you ask him or her?
Eve: The heck with 1920s Hollywood, I want to go back to New York in 1900 and become a Girl Reporter, and write about theater and the beginnings of the motion-picture business!
Michael: You have an almost perfect imitation of Adela Rogers St. Johns. How did you capture her, and what others do you do?
Eve: Ha! If only there was a market for Adela Rogers St. Johns impersonators. I actually do a pretty good Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, too.
Eve: Terry has two books on the burner now, I will have to ask him how it is going. I loved his first two, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure, and I am not even into that genre, usually. I can’t wait to find out what happens to the characters from the first two books!
Michael: What’s next, my dear?
Eve: Oh, dear. Most of the people I’d like to write about are either taken by other writers, there is not enough documentary material to make a book, or they are too unmarketable to interest a publisher. If I cannot find another bio to do, I have a comic suspense novel and a true-crime book I am contemplating, if I can find a good publisher.
The next time you see Eve, ask her to do her famous Adela Rogers St. Johns for you.