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The book that made me feel dirty

I have read any number of books that made me salivate because of delectable descriptions of food or made me cry because they touched me. Books have made me angry, happy, sad and disgusted, and even a little horny, but the only book that has ever made me feel dirty was Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, a nasty, sour little collection of photographs and scandal stories featuring actors and other famous Hollywood personalities. I bought it (second hand) out of curiosity, having read an article in a newspaper about the Fatty Arbuckle trial that referenced it. I read the whole thing in 2 sittings and emerged from it with an itchy, prickly feeling in my skin like I had been rolling in something nasty that had left a crust, and my stomach feeling like I had been eating something that wasn’t good for me. Unfortunately a shower does little to alleviate this kind of dirty feeling. What I needed was a psychological cleansing, but the shower did clear my head and make be feel a little better.

At the time I couldn’t understand why I didn’t just stop reading it when the feeling started, but now I have come to the conclusion that while undeniably icky, it is also the best example of a page-turner that I have ever come across. It is hard to put it down because you can’t believe what your eyes are seeing and reading, and morbid curiosity draws you onwards as you read about the sad and often horrible fates of famous Hollywood personages: their sexual escapades, accidents they were involved in, crimes they committed or were committed against them, and their sometimes miserable and horrible deaths. What made me sick was not so much reading about these things or even the often explicit photographs of dead celebrities, but the cynicism and sensationalistic tone and the schadenfreude and total lack of sympathy of the author for his subjects. I cold almost hear him sniggering as I read some particularly lurid allegation or looked at any of the numerous photographs of the famous looking less than glamorous, meant to show their moral turpitude but really just showing them as being human after all.

It has been proved that a number of the stories told in the book are partially or wholly inaccurate and there is much speculating by the author that doesn’t hold up to even the most basic standards of reporting. It has also been alleged that some of the photographs in the book are not of the people he purports they show, and that some photos have been doctored to make them look more shocking, particularly some apparently pantyless shots of actresses, although that may have been in book 2 (I no longer have the book to refer to). Subsequent editions – I don’t think the book has been out of print since its original publication in 1959 – have not corrected the inaccuracies, so it should be taken with many grains of salt.

If you like lurid and sensational accounts of famous people and their “scandalous” behaviour and you don't care about the truth, this is a must read, but if you want historical accuracy and objectivity, look elsewhere.


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