Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yesterday's Hollywood Compared to Today

In today’s often noxious political and entertainment environment it is easy to forget that there was a time in Hollywood when passion for money, politics and prurient behavior where just as prevalent, but privacy, class, and patriotism ruled the day. This past weekend, the chronicler of this golden age of Hollywood, James Bacon, passed away at 96 years old. I first met James Bacon when I was in High School -- he was my best friend’s father. I had heard from another classmate that Mr. Bacon was once on the Mike Douglas Show, and I thought that was pretty cool. I would soon learn that a stint on Mike Douglas was the very least of his accomplishments, and his embeddings into classic Hollywood.

From 1948 until June of this year, James Bacon wrote about Hollywood. He was a reporter, not a gossip columnist, at a time when there was actually a difference between the two. Bacon also wrote during a time when the biggest stars on the planet were more accessible than the most pathetic reality TV personalities of today. But, with that type of access to the stars came responsibility, and James Bacon exercised it better than anyone; he knew how to drink with them, and he knew when to keep his pen silent.

Bacon wrote about the film capital of the world for the Associated Press for 23 years, and then another 18 years with the old Los Angeles Harold Examiner. Even up through this year he was writing for the Beverly Hills magazine 213 telling stories of classic Hollywood. In the 1970’s he wrote two best sellers about Hollywood, "Hollywood Is a Four Letter Town" and "Made in Hollywood." Both outrageous books were filled with juicy stories, often booze infused, about tinsel town. But he always had the trust of the biggest stars. When he overheard Gary Cooper breaking up with another star, a salacious story for the time, he chose not to write about it out of respect for his friend. When Marilyn Monroe confided in him about her affair with President John F. Kennedy, he sat on the story for decades, calling it, “Just a matter of judgment.” He was a confidant of Monroe, even having a brief affair with her, and she introduced him to Howard Hughes. When James Bacon spotted the two of them cuddled up at a club at the Ambassador Hotel Hughes asked Mr. Bacon not to print the story about their date. He didn’t, and from then on he had the outmost trust and friendship of Howard Hughes. So much so that when NBC had a news conference with the reclusive Hughes via speaker phone when he wanted to debunk the Clifford Irving book hoax who claimed he had100 hours of interviews with Hughes, it was James Bacon on the panel who was the only reporter that could recognize his good friend’s voice. Mr. Bacon liked to say that Howard Hughes died owing him $20. Because of such judgment he was given unprecedented access, like being the only reporter allowed into Elizabeth Taylor’s home after her husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash. And when John Wayne was diagnosed with cancer, he broke the story to Bacon.

I would sit, enthralled, listening as Mr. Bacon would tell stories around the living room like any other gregarious father of a friend, but his involved names like Bogey, Sinatra, Duke, Jackie, and  Hope. Another time we were playing basketball in his driveway and Mr. Bacon came out to mail a letter and said in a solemn voice, “What do you tell a great friend who is dying of cancer?” He was speaking of Jackie Gleason whom he wrote his authorized biography, “How Sweet it Is.” Gleason died a month after that slow walk to the mailbox. How many reporters could have been considered “friends” of Patrick Swayze? How many reporters even wrote him a letter as he lay dying? Do you think Michael Douglas has received many get-well cards from the 4th Estate? Sure times were different back then, but Mr. Bacon was in a class by himself.

James Bacon told some crazy stories about Hollywood’s biggest celebrities, but it was always affectionately, he never dished dirt to hurt or embarrass people – especially the living. But, then again this was back when glamour and elegance were as durable as the big three automakers. Even a story about the drinking exploits of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor household had Mr. Bacon confessing, Elizabeth was the bigger drinker of the two, but the most glamorous woman in the world. I have no doubt that Lindsay Lohan could not hold a candle to the drinking prowess of Elizabeth Taylor back in the day, but, whereas Taylor was always the epitome of glamour and class, the image of Lohan is of a slovenly drunk passed out in a car. Certainly, the scruples of reporters have changed drastically since the days when Bacon was writing his syndicated column, but the stars behavior has changed even more. For every photo of a bedraggled movie starlet dressed in blue jeans and a dirty sweatshirt slinking through TriBeCa with coffee in hand you have to ask yourself, is there anyone in Hollywood even remotely approaching the stature of Grace Kelly?

James Bacon was a blue-collar Irish-American from Pennsylvania, and therefore a proud Democrat, and fierce patriot. Hollywood was the number one topic in the Bacon household, but sports and politics were a close second. James Bacon played football for Notre Dame in the 30’s, and voted the straight Democratic ticket always, and he had nothing but the utmost respect for my personal bourgeoning Republican beliefs and equal love of football. This was during the age of Reagan, I was big fan, and as my best friend Tom and I would debate, with fledgling high school debating points, the benefits of left versus right, James Bacon would always be the calm voice of reason. You see, he voted against Ronald Reagan, twice, but always considered him a good friend. IS that physically possible anymore in Hollywood? Bacon met 8 presidents, and was just as proud of his personal written correspondence with his favorite Democrats as he was with the letter he got back from George H. W. Bush that he showed me one night. He came from an era when Frank Sinatra could campaign with equal enthusiasm for both JFK, and Ronald Reagan. Back in the day when most all of Hollywood were filled with patriotic Americans regardless of politics.  Once there was a whispered hint of a rumor about James Cagney being sympathetic to the Communist cause, horrified, he quickly signed on to the film “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Patriotism and dignity was how a man was measured back then. Today, you’d expect a celebrity of that stature to rush the other way, cameras in toe, with loving embraces of murderous dictators and sworn enemies of the United States.

The Hollywood that James Bacon so effectively covered kept vulgar embarrassments out of the public realm, and it was generally good for America – as good as it is currently bad for America that every tawdry detail of every star is repeatedly ripped open like a never healing wound. And today’s stars do their level best to make asses of themselves as well. I don’t think there was any less philandering, or alcohol abuse in that golden age of Hollywood, but there were two critical elements back then that otherwise obscured most human failings that are completely absent today. First, there was a thing called shame, it was a repugnant feeling, and movie stars did their best to avoid it. Though not all of them did, they at least tried because being a gentleman or lady in public was, essentially, required by a civilized society. Today it is virtually absent in this country, and certainly no one in today’s Hollywood ever heard of the term. Second, the press generally used their own judgment based on basic moral beliefs. Their job was to report the news and the news makers and not to tear them down and humiliate their families at will.  Today’s caustic media and obnoxious celebrity sort of deserve one another. But I will always remember true gentleman like James Bacon, as soon as you shared a drink together at the Polo Lounge, always had your best interest at stake. As Elizabeth Taylor once said of my best friend’s dad, “He has always been one of the most forthcoming, honest, true, unbitchy [journalists] ...a dear, dear friend.”

Rest In Peace Mr. Bacon!

Terry Lavin
924 Third Avenue
NY NY 10022


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