Sex Symbols: Old Hollywood Edition

In 1954, Life Magazine ran a photograph of a trio of Hollywood heartthrobs. Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Robert Wagner posed hanging off a ladder, looking squeaky-clean in their penny loafers and Pepsodent smiles. The photo, like an ancient Greek potsherd depicting young Olympians, is a fragmentary glimpse into a bygone era: the last days of the studio system, when publicists held a firm grip on actors' images. That era was almost bygone when the picture was snapped: Marlon Brando had already appeared in "The Wild One," and James Dean's "Rebel Without a Cause" was only a year away. Movie heroes were changing, and so were the carefully crafted connections between the stars and their fans. But in the early '50s, all those young Tabs, Troys and Rorys were still investments for the studios—Hollywood tadpoles who'd started at $75 a week and whose worth was measured in the volume of their fan mail. Stars, and the studios, went to considerable lengths to protect their value. Rock Hudson, on the highest rung of that ladder, would soon marry his agent's secretary to quash the rumors that he was gay.

That emblematic ladder photo finds its way into new memoirs by both Curtis ("American Prince") and Wagner ("Pieces of My Heart"). George Hamilton, who also has a new autobiography ("Don't Mind If I Do"), missed that photo op by about a decade, but he's very much a part of the same Old Hollywood culture that produced Curtis and Wagner. They started out long before the mainstream tabloidization of the culture, with its torrents of celebrity magazines, cable shows and wildfire Internet gossip. With far fewer media outlets in the '50s and '60s, things were easier to control—and it was all about quid pro quo: the studios and their stars courted the top two syndicated columnists, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. On the other side, the movie magazines—Modern Screen, Photoplay—depended on the studios for access and pictures, and in their pages, Hollywood marriages and romances were idealized—or sometimes just made up.

Was it worth it? Wagner and Curtis certainly thought so. Since childhood, both men had been consumed with a passion for movies and movie stars—and a powerful ambition to crack that elite world. Wagner, who grew up in a fairly prosperous Los Angeles family, opens his story with an indelible memory of the Bel-Air Country Club, where, at the age of 12, he watched awestruck as a foursome approached on the golf course—Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Randolph Scott and Fred Astaire (he had the best swing). Curtis's beginnings could not have been more different—a hardscrabble childhood in New York as the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Though Curtis changed his name from Bernie Schwartz, he never stopped feeling the sting of anti-Semitism, or the insecurity that came from his impoverished roots and lack of education. Hamilton, less driven, seemed to slide into show business. But he was born debonair. The original metrosexual, he haunted thrift shops for bespoke suits until he could afford his own tailor. He also may be the only straight guy in history who, while trying to decide whether to splurge on a battered Rolls-Royce that once belonged to the Queen of England, asked himself, "What would Gloria Swanson do?"

All three books are awash in sex. Curtis's makes for particularly exhausting reading. Hamilton is more of a gentleman, though the word "love" is not in his vocabulary. Wagner is also fairly discreet, yet he supplies some surprises. His one-night stand with Joan Crawford (25 years his senior) that began in her swimming pool is memorable—as are his longer relationships, especially a quiet four-year liaison with Barbara Stanwyck (only 23 years older).

And of course there was Natalie Wood. The luminous former child star left him the first time after she made "Splendor in the Grass" with Warren Beatty. Wagner still prefers to think she didn't take up with Beatty until after their separation—though in a shocking moment, he writes, "I was hanging around outside [Beatty's] house with a gun." Gentlemen, please! We do believe in his heartbreak—one so profound that he moved to Europe, though it happened his career was stalled, too. The couple's remarriage 10 years later seemed a true Hollywood ending—and genuinely happy, he writes—until Wood drowned off their yacht in 1981.

Wagner sheds no new light on that tragedy. Nevertheless, his is the best of the three memoirs by far, with its wonderful glimpses into the older generation of screen stars who became his friends and mentors—Spencer Tracy, David Niven, Frank Sinatra—and its always astute delineations of how exactly Old Hollywood worked: who knew how to take care of a felonious assault without it ever hitting the papers, or who could make a girl go away who claimed she was pregnant after a one-night stand. Of course, the studios wanted something for their trouble. At one point, Twentieth Century Fox announced, to Wagner's fury, that he was engaged to Terry Moore, his costar in "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef"—after she discovered she was pregnant by her boyfriend Howard Hughes. Curtis tells a similar story: Universal offered him $30,000 to marry his costar Piper Laurie—about the only one of his leading ladies that he didn't want to bed.

Natalie Wood once said that Wagner was "a star before he was an actor." She could have said the same thing about Hamilton and Curtis. All three wanted to be Cary Grant at a time when most actors wanted to be Brando. Curtis was the most talented—see "The Sweet Smell of Success" or "Some Like It Hot"—but he made an appalling number of bad films. Hamilton was fun to watch when he could mock his own image. Wagner was the most self-aware: he succeeded in television, he says, because, finally, "I had to be me." In shows like "It Takes a Thief" and "Hart to Hart," he became a small-screen Cary Grant.

George Hamilton now appears on "Dancing With the Stars" and R. J. Wagner doesn't (his wife, Jill St. John, won't let him). Tony Curtis lives in Vegas with wife No. 5. Though it's not yet the final curtain, as Sinatra sang, it's sweeter to think of these stars when they were young, just swinging from the rungs of Hollywood's ladder.

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