1. "Rita and her first husband, Eddie Judson, shortly after they eloped, in 1937. He pressed her to sleep with other men if it would help her career." - caption to a picture in Barbara Leaming, If This was Happiness: a biography of Rita Hayworth.
When I flip through a new novel, I first read the description on the inside cover, and the first paragraph. When I pick up a CB, I go right to the photographs.
Usually there will be two or three sets of them in the book. Usually they are in black and white. This says something about my choice of celebrities. I am not of the Britney generation. And I'm nostalgic for the larger than life, black and white divas. Somehow, color is tacky. First we get the family, all unknown faces, badly mounted shots. Then, gradually, one of those faces becomes familiar. A pudgy cheeked little boy with a cap becomes James Dean. Margarita Cansino, at three years and eight months, becomes Rita Cansino, "before she underwent electolysis treatments to alter her hairline," and then Rita Hayworth.
I look for the odd, lewd shot, the one that shows a different level of nakedness � the nakedness of not looking famous, of not having yet achieved, or temporarily discarding, the iconic image. Here�s "a rare shot� of John Wayne without his toupee. And here�s Janis Joplin, naked. John Wayne looks more naked - he has been stripped, briefly, of his recognizability.
2. Captions. The picture stands in the visual order, the caption in the verbal. These two orders come at the world in different ways.
When I look at Rita and her first husband, I see a woman sitting down, smiling, wearing what looks like a camel hair coat. Her hair is a mass of black, pulled back. Not yet the famous hair, the trademark hair. She has made a little pistol with her thumb and index finger. This in itself is interesting and odd � what is she doing? I�ll never penetrate that hermetic gesture, not now. Is she pointing her �pistol� at this man to shoot him, a sort of comic joke between them? Should he have seen the message in this photo? Could he, did he have that much intelligence? There he is, sitting on the arm of the sofa, sitting slightly above her, turned to look at her, a woman who doesn�t look famous at the time the photo was taken, and looks famous now, now that we know this is Rita Hayworth. He, however, looks the same � he was not then, and is not now, famous. He wears a suit, and, oddly, either a scarf or an Ascot tie, left casually unfastened around his neck. I could amass a long list of more and more specific details, here, but the image is systematically fixed, it is all there is of it, it is one of a kind. I�d say that the picture doesn�t change, but of course it did. Fame changed it.
So I read the caption, knowing what I know. What changes with the caption? Not Rita. No, her husband changes. Her husband, not being famous, seems suddenly slightly louche, as if there were something slightly sinister about that scarf or Ascot tie. Is this the ornament that betrays the pimp? And the woman�s gesture - the pistol - is now defensive. She smiles, but she won�t let him get to her. He sits so pretty on the arm of the loveseat, above her, patronizing, even... threatening. He �pressed her� - but surely she resisted.
The caption makes the picture talk to me, as the picture itself doesn�t. The linguistic order, as opposed to the order of the image, is expansive. Whatever frames the possibility of speech, here, is indeterminate. I unconsciously think of the caption as what these two are saying to each other, but that isn�t quite it. It is what they aren�t saying � it is what they are meaning to each other. Something which isn�t said � something which transcends saying. Meaning is easy for the picture, saying is impossible. Linking the picture to that verbal data is the celebrity biographer�s act of supreme fiction. The pictures in the celebrity biography are a sort of abridged version of what the biography is about: becoming-famous.
3. �Who were these serious cocksuckers, these jerk-offs who approached moving pictures as if they were fucking reality, who wouldn�t even know reality if it bit them on the ass?" - Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams.
The technical term for a verbal picture, in classical rhetoric, is ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is considered slightly suspect in the world of scholarly biographies. It exists there, if at all, in order to entertain, as a distraction from the real business of analysis.
Not so in the CB - it is ekphrasis-happy.
Since a verbal picture is a picture, it permits - it wants - a caption. This way, the same dynamic between picture and caption can be embedded in the story. The voice of the caption can become, by imperceptible increments, the actual voice of the celebrity. Martin is not being quoted verbatim by my citation from Tosches, but is being, in a sense, invaded. We are overhearing his thoughts as he ponders some bad press. In Tosches� Dino, we overhear his thoughts quite a bit. Tosches extrapolates from quotes he�s culled from other celebrity bios - most notably, Kitty Kelly�s His Way: The unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra. He couldn�t extrapolate "cocksucker" from, say, Dean Martin�s interview with TV Guide - that language is already public, already completely invaded. It is not Dean Martin�s own, whether he spoke it or not. When the celebrity speaks in an interview, we know the words are part of a program. They are publicity. They are, as Jack Nicholson once said, "selling eggs." Cocksucker, though, is oddly authentic.
It is necessary to stage some invasion if we are going to be intimate with the celebrity. We are presumed to be not famous, our faces never figuring in the pictures. But we have no solidarity with the other not famous � they compete with us. Why them? So the CB, promising us intimacy, restores some fairness. The real story, the man as he has never been seen before. The man behind the mask.
Tosches� technique, in a novel, would be called interior monologue. Because modernist novels started using it in the 20s - Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf - the academic might suppose that the celebrity biography took this technique from the novel. I think, however, that both genres got it from the where captions and pictures come together - the newspapers and the movies.
4. "Here�s the deal: No one knows, and no one with any integrity has ever spoken. About anything" - Loni Anderson, My Life in High Heels, about her alleged fight with Burt Reynolds on the eve of their wedding.
In philosophical relativism, the truth of an expression depends upon a given system�s norms for selecting true statements. Truth isn�t necessarily about picturing facts, unless, within the system, we make it a rule that the truth is necessarily about picturing facts. Coherence trumps correspondence, to use the jargon.
The C.B. is a limit case of relativism. Here, the relation between tabloid truth and the sources of verifiable fact are shadowy, at best. Was Errol Flynn a Nazi Spy, as Charles Higham maintains in Errol Flynn: The Untold Story? Or is Higham a fraud, as Tony Thomas says, in Errol Flynn: The Spy who never was? On her wedding night, did Jean Harlow naughtily wave a giant dildo under her husband�s nose, mocking his penis, which measured about the size of her pinkie? Or was Irving Shulman fantasizing in Harlow: An Intimate Biography, as Jean�s friend Adela Rogers St. Johns forcefully maintained (by "forcefully maintained, I mean she whacked Shulman on the head with her purse on TV, according to David Stenn in Bombshell, Jean Harlow�s most recent biography. As we know from Freud, the purse is a symbol of the vagina. So if Shulman is lying about Harlow�s husband�s dick, how appropriate that he get whacked with Harlow�s friend�s pussy � okay, pussy substitute). Did Sonny Liston throw his first fight to Cassius Clay, as Nick Tosches charges in his just published The Devil and Sonny Liston? Or did Sonny�s lineman, Joe Polino, put a special linement on Sonny�s gloves in the fourth round to blind the challenger, as Nigel Collins says in Boxing Babylon?
It isn�t just that the norms, in this genre, are vague - you get a feeling that they are a sap�s game. There�s another game going on, another history. It�s Chinatown, Jake.