Essayist Ann Taylor Fleming considers the broken hearts and broken dreams of a Hollywood celebrity photo exhibit in California.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: It's hard to imagine a group of photographs more evocative to a southern California native than those gathered in this room at the Los Angeles public library. "Hollywood at Poolside" is the name of this small exhibit, and it drew me here just as the pools of my youth beckoned on long ago hot summer afternoons. Walking among the pictures I could smell the tanning lotion, the chlorine, the optimism of Hollywood in its heyday, and see again my favorite old-timers in their poolside poses, looking so pretty and young and sun-kissed, even in black and white. Here are Bogart and Bacall, Marilyn and Ava, Garbo and Dietrich, all in the robust flush of stardom. The women, so womanly and full-figured—certainly compared to the skinny girl women of today. The men so rakish and handsome—like Johnny Weismuller, AKA Tarzan, or the future president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, and my favorite, Carol Lombard, so saucy and tomboyish at the same time, and her heart throb of a husband, Clark Gable, fully clothed on a diving board, signature eyebrow copped. Obviously, these are not the candids they pretend to be.
They are the work of the dream machine, the publicity departments of the big studios back then pumping out photos of the stars at play for the fan magazines to beam out to an envious America. And what better provocative locale than beside the pool--the status symbol of the golden state and its new golden flock of movie stars and starlets. That's what you did when you got the money, hit the big time, put in the pool, invited friends over, wallowed and dove and flirted and drank and preened and posed. Nothing signaled success and glamour and sensuality in southern California like a pool—like this one at the Beverly Hills hotel, or this opulent one at the Hearst castle up the coast, a Mecca for Hollywood stars during the 1920's.
We got ours in the early 60's, when my actor/director father was flush. And from then on my sister and I spent every summer submerged here, our blond hair turning green from the endless exposure to chlorine. We had the model of the day, turquoise, kidney-shaped, with a patio deck. Our friends came, his friends came. We laughed and swam into the night, our faces ghoulish in the pool light. But there was an undercurrent of sadness. My parents had been divorced. This was my father's house, and we were only weekend visitors. And when you walk through the Stars at Pool Side exhibit and actually read the text accompanying the sunny, stunning photos, you pick up the same undercurrent—of things broken, of lives broken. Certainly we know that of Marilyn. Here's the beautiful Frances Farmer, who was to end up in a series of mental institutions. And here's the bright-eyed 20's scamp Clara Bow, photographed at her bungalow in Beverly Hills. She too ended up living life to the max—loving and drinking and having a nervous breakdown and spending time in various sanitariums. And, of course, Errol Flynn, here with his wife, would have drinking and sexual escapades that would bring him down, dying at only 50. Must we read all this? Of course. It's the other side of the story. It's the dark slide, flip side of fame and fortune.
We always know it's there—the booze, the broken hearts, and the self-destruction. And in the past couple of decades it seems it's all we've been reading about, not just in the tabloids, even in these serious books and biographies. Deconstructing fame and the famous has become a growth industry all its own. But for a minute it's so tempting to step back again from the text on the wall to wallow in the fan mag fantasy, to luxuriate at pool side with the legends when they were young and pretty, and everything must have still seemed possible.
I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.