Scott Eyman with Clementine
Scott Eyman's day job for over 30 years was to report the news. His beat was always South Florida with news organizations that included Ft. Lauderdale's SunSentinel and most recently the Palm Beach Post where he concentrated on books and literary criticism. His not-so-secret passion, however, was and is the Golden Age of Hollywood and over the course of 24 years he has written 11 books. He has delved into the lives of actors, directors, movie moguls and he has collaborated on two books with Hollywood icon Robert Wagner. Eyman is often referred to as a master biographer and a distinguished film historian, and his books have been called "compulsive reading," "thoroughly enjoyable" and "superbly researched." In his spare time he has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He has two books being released this spring, one about the life and legend of John Wayne and a second collaboration with Robert Wagner. Eyman and his wife, Lynn, live in West Palm Beach and THIRSTY was fortunate to catch up with him at his home for this conversation.
THIRSTY: You have devoted the past 24 years to capturing the lives of some of Hollywood's greatest actors, directors and moguls. From your first book about Mary Pickford to your upcoming biography of John Wayne, what sparked your interest as a writer in chronicling the Golden Age of Hollywood?
SCOTT EYMAN: As a teenager, my initial ambition was to be an archaeologist, with a specialty in ancient Egypt. I read every book I could find on the subject, but when I actually investigated college syllabi my heart sank – I could handle the fieldwork, but there was no way I could handle all the science that archaeology entailed, Carbon-14 and all that.
Fade out/Fade in.
It's about five years later. The movie struck kid has given up on archaeology and is slowly circling writing about movies, specifically old movies. It wasn't until a good ten years after that I realized I had merely exchanged one form of archaeology for another – cultural archaeology.
THIRSTY: Your biography of Louis B. Mayer (Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer) captured not only the man, but also the birth and death of the Hollywood "studio system" and its all-powerful studio bosses. How did you go about researching and writing such a big story?
SCOTT EYMAN: More or less like finding your way out of the forest after you've gone and gotten yourself lost – you have to set a consistent direction and you have to take one step at a time. The first person I turned to for help was the legendary New Yorker writer Lillian Ross, a good friend. She had been on site for the bloody changeover between Mayer and Dore Schary, his successor at MGM, from which she wrote Picture. She thought writing about "a great old pirate" was a good idea.
Lillian gave me a couple of phone numbers: Betty Comden and Adolph Green. They in turn led me to more people. My editor at Simon & Schuster, Chuck Adams, put me in touch with Esther Williams. One person led to three, and so on, geometrically down the line.
The personal aspects of Mayer were harder to come by because his second wife had burned much of his personal correspondence. In that respect, the contributions of Dan Selznick, his grandson, and Robert Gottlieb were invaluable. Gottlieb, the great editor-in-chief at Knopf and The New Yorker, is the executor of the estate of Irene Mayer Selznick, Mayer's daughter. He gave me permission to access a diary Irene had kept of her teenage years, which gave me a strong sense of what life was like in the Mayer household.
The sad thing about this is that even though the Mayer book was only published nine years ago, nearly everybody I spoke to who worked at MGM under Mayer is dead. Only Mickey Rooney and Stanley Donen remain.
I couldn't write the book today.
THIRSTY: Your background as a newspaper journalist in South Florida for the past 30+ years seems very far away from the Hollywood about which you write. Has that distance helped you to better see and understand the historical implications of the early days of the movie industry?
SCOTT EYMAN: I think being a reporter made my books better and my books made my journalism better. Much of journalism is simply developing an instinct for figuring out who can tell you what you need to know, which is similarly invaluable when it comes to books.
Similarly, the broad canvas and sense of narrative that you have to develop to write successful books made my journalism much livelier.
Or so I hope.
THIRSTY: Three of your books are biographies of iconic Hollywood directors – Cecil B. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch and John Ford. What drew you to each of these men and to their particular lives?
SCOTT EYMAN: I've given a lot of thought about why I write the books I do. Although I am a registered Democrat – or was the last time I checked – I tend to write about ardent Republicans (Pickford, DeMille, Mayer, now John Wayne.)
Again, it took me years to figure out what was going on. There's a difference between my ostensible subject, and my real subject, which is power. How it's earned, how it's deployed in a primarily commercial art form like the movies.
I've developed a theory that the mindset that leads people to be Republicans makes them far more comfortable with wielding power than the mindset that leads people toward being Democrats. Republicans take to autocracy easier than Democrats, who tend toward the collegial, and autocracy is essential if you're going to be a director or actor or producer developing a specific point of view and personal signature in the movie industry.
THIRSTY: Your book The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930 clearly lays out how technological changes can affect not only an art form, but also an industry. Do you see any parallels in film as an art form and the movie industry from the advent of the internet?
SCOTT EYMAN: A great many. The primary one is that just as the theater business could have owned the movie business but couldn't be bothered to deal with all those déclassé Jews, so the IBM's of the world could have owned the internet but couldn't be bothered to deal with college dropouts and all their grand ideas.
Steve Jobs, meet Adolph Zukor.
THIRSTY: You have collaborated on two occasions with movie legend Robert J. Wagner. How did your relationship with him come about and how did you adjust your style to doing historical retrospectives with a living member of the Hollywood community?
SCOTT EYMAN: RJ read the book I wrote about Louis B. Mayer and was amazed to find a book that accurately reproduced what people he knew were actually like. He was telling a friend of his in Aspen that he was thinking of writing his memoirs but would need to get a writer who really understood the movie business. "Someone like the guy who wrote this," he said, gesturing to the Mayer book.
"Oh hell, I know him," said Ted Bell, a novelist who used to have a place in Palm Beach. Ted called me and asked me if I'd be interested and I said I'd certainly be willing to talk about it. RJ came down to Palm Beach two weeks later. We began by showing each other pictures of our respective German Shepherds, and a great friendship was born.
In other words, it was pure luck.
Being able to tap RJ's vast knowledge of the post-war movie business – he signed with 20th Century Fox in 1949 – has certainly enriched my books, but knowing him has been far more valuable. He's a textbook example of how a man can go through great success and terrible pain and emerge whole from both catastrophes – a completely graceful human being.
THIRSTY: When we think of the really important Hollywood biographers and film historians, the names that always come up are Kevin Brownlow, Neal Gabler and, of course, Scott Eyman. What is it about Hollywood lives and legends that continue to draw readers, and writers, to this genre of books?
SCOTT EYMAN: Money, power, and not a little sex. That, and great beauty. And the often yawning gap between people who might look like Gods but can't possibly offer up equivalent behavior.
Except for the parts about beauty and power and money and sex, you can make many of the same points about biographers, which is why I try not to judge my subjects. I always keep a snapshot of my subject's grave on my desk, to remind me that they were human beings with the same problems and weaknesses and propensities – death, for instance – as everybody else. It keeps me humble.
THIRSTY: With the upcoming spring publication of your book about John Wayne and your collaboration with Robert Wagner, whom have you set your sights on next?
SCOTT EYMAN: I'm still mulling it over. I gave some serious thought to writing about James Stewart, whom I regard as the best pure actor of his generation of stars. That the same man could play in The Shop Around the Corner and Winchester 73 and Anatomy of a Murder is an amazement. Not to mention a distinguished war record.
But when I proposed him as a subject, there was the distinct sound of chirping crickets, followed by dead silence. In one sense I understand – Stewart was a quiet man, with one wife and no scandal. It's just sad that being a great movie actor and leading an honorable life disqualifies you from serious biographical inquiry.
John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman
You Must Remember This by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman
Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman
The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930
Scott Eyman website