‘Starstruck’ Author Rachel Shukert’s Favorite Legends of Old Hollywood

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Rachel Shukert has always been obsessed with the fascinating lives of Old Hollywood icons — people like Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Loretta Young, and Clark Gable. Her deep knowledge of the goings-on of Hollywood’s golden years is on display in her young-adult novel series, Starstruck, which follows three young starlets — Margo, Amanda, and Gabby — as they try to make it in the pictures. Based heavily on the lives of real Hollywood stars, the books are like Valley of the Dolls for a new generation, set in an era when fierce talent and playing the part were vital to survival on and off camera. Love Me, the second book in the series, comes out today, and to celebrate I asked Shukert to talk with me about some of her favorite tales of classic Hollywood scandal, heartbreak, and desperation. Here are the stories she told.

Judy Garland

The Judy Garland-Artie Shaw-Lana Turner Love Triangle

The really good story that I sort of recreate a little bit in Love Me, without giving away too many spoilers, was inspired by the love triangle between Judy Garland, Artie Shaw, and Lana Turner. I think it was about 1940, and Artie Shaw had just arrived in Hollywood from New York, and he was really handsome and really, like, brooding and intense. I mean, a horrible person with an incredibly difficult personality that was just like catnip to women, in that way where he would like make you feel really stupid and so you would really want to fuck him. And Judy Garland completely fell for him.

And they were hanging out, and he really respected her as a singer but he wasn’t attracted to her, because she was like this weird, pudgy, little 18-year-old. But she was like, “We’re in love, we’re dating…” I don’t know if they ever actually had sex or not — I mean that’s sort of an open question. But they would go out, making public appearances, and he would take her to hear music. And she was trying to break out of this little-girl mold and trying to assert herself as a sexual being and all these things, and Artie Shaw was a handsome, viable person who everyone wanted to go out with, and he was hanging out with her. And she was completely besotted with him.

Lana Turner and Artie Shaw

And then all of a sudden, in the newspaper, she read that he had just eloped with Lana Turner, who he had met the night before. Like, they hung out at some nightclub one night, and by the morning, they had driven somewhere and gotten married. Judy was completely brokenhearted and had this total meltdown over it. He and Lana were only married for like seven months, because Lana Turner was also like 18 years old and just really hot. Basically that’s all that it came down to: Lana Turner was really hot.

Judy had this enormous meltdown because she had this rivalry with Lana Turner, because they were both in the Andy Hardy movies, those teen stars. And Mickey Rooney slept with Lana, and Judy always had this huge crush on Mickey. But he always thought of her as his best friend, his kid sister, and then the same thing happened again with Artie Shaw. It sort of set Judy up for this life of romantic disappointment and finding comfort in much younger gay men. Because who doesn’t?

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney

But Lana was the beautiful one that everyone wanted to sleep with and thought of as this sexy woman, while Judy was like this sort of kid sister, asexual little troll — or at least that’s how she felt she was treated. I think Judy might have had suicide attempts, I can’t remember. No one really knows the whole story… Well, Liza probably knows.

Loretta Young

Loretta Young’s Mysterious “Adopted” Child

Most of the girls who were at the studios had these moral clauses in their contract, and they had to keep up these really virginal, ladylike facades for the public. It didn’t start out that way. In the ‘20s and early ‘30s they were allowed to do whatever they wanted. People liked reading about their crazy lives and all their lovers. But then the production code went into effect in about ’34. It was sort of propagated by the Catholic Legion of Decency, and a lot of it came from this anti-Semitic panic that the Jewish movie moguls were corrupting America with their immoral visions. It was very xenophobic and weird. The movie moguls were so terrified for a variety of complicated psychological reasons — part of it is just that immigrant insecurity of wanting to fit in and be seen as real Americans, and some of it was just bottom line-focused. It was a conservative country at the time, especially in the Midwest. And there was also the rising specter of really dangerous anti-Semitism in Europe at the time.

When [the code] went into effect, they also started mandating how the stars could conduct their personal lives. Silent movie stars, whose wild lives had been played up in the press, suddenly found themselves ruined by being publicly gay or publicly, well, slutty. They started to put moral clauses in the contracts of the stars, and they had to abide by certain strictures in their private lives in order to continue making pictures. In private they still fucked around and did whatever, but it was all about what it looks like to the outside.

But Loretta Young was the rare star who actually was incredibly prim and proper and very staunchly Catholic. People would make fun of her because she was the only actual virgin in Hollywood. And then she did The Call of the Wild with Clark Gable. Maybe because it was so cold — they filmed it on location, which almost never happened then, and there was a lot of cuddling in front of fires and things like that — but Loretta Young had an affair with Clark Gable. She was the one that everyone tried to fuck, and he finally did it!

Loretta Young and her daughter, Judy

When they got back from shooting, she disappeared for a while. Then she came back, and about another 18 months later, she adopted this little girl who had these big ears and looked exactly like Clark Gable. It was this open secret that it was obviously this baby she had with Clark Gable that she gave away to this Catholic orphanage, only to adopt her back six months later with this plausible deniability, like, “Oh, she’s adopted!” But she pulled it off! She pulled it off in the press, and no one was going say otherwise because it would have ruined her as a property. She played the game to her advantage.

Clark Gable

Clark Gable’s Secret History

Clark Gable had this sort of shadowy past. There was always this rumor that early in his career he was sort of “gay for pay,” and it was something that he was incredibly ashamed of, to the point where he actually got George Cukor fired from Gone With the Wind. Cukor was sort of the hub of this gay community in Hollywood. Many of them were incredibly successful and basically out, you know, and everyone knew. Cukor had these pool parties at his house with all these boys and then, like, three fabulous actresses — like a whole bunch of half-naked boys and Vivienne Leigh. Those are the kind of parties I feel like we would have gone to. All sort of really smart, fun, more Broadway-type of people.

When he signed on to Gone With the Wind, Clark Gable initially didn’t want to do it. I don’t even think there’s a star now that’s as big as he was back then. He was the star. Maybe sort of like Tom Cruise before Tom Cruise got weird and everyone started to be afraid of him. I mean, the A-List, absolute, ultimate Hollywood star. There was just nobody the public would accept to play Rhett Butler except for him. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book Gone With the Wind, but even the way that Margaret Mitchell describes the way Rhett Butler looks, you know she’s describing Clark Gable. He’s clearly the person who was in her head.

Gable was this man’s man and was really intimidated; he and didn’t want this gay guy telling him what to do. Rumor had it that George Cukor knew about Gable’s past, and Gable was terrified for it to come out; he didn’t want to be around anyone who knew about this thing that he was deeply ashamed of [from] his sort of lean and hungry years. So he really got Cukor thrown off the picture.

Gable’s marriages at this point had also been sort of suspect. He’d been married twice before, and both times to much older women who had sort of helped him — they were either really rich or connected, seemingly opportunistic marriages. I don’t think anybody thought they were love matches, with this incredibly virile, handsome movie star marrying these 50-year-old, matronly women with a lot of money.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard

Then he met Carole Lombard and they completely fell in love. She was a big star. She was this incredibly beautiful, elegant, glamorous comedienne — sort of like a Cameron Diaz if she were more polished and sophisticated. He got a divorce from his wife, and he was given a week off of Gone With the Wind to get married. They made adorable home movies of them camping on their honeymoon, with him pulling fish out of this lake in his long johns — it’s so cute that you’re like, “They’re really in love,” and it’s really nice to see that. And they were very happy for about three years, and then she was on a USO tour during the war, and the plane crashed and she died. He was never the same after that.

Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford’s Inferiority Complex

Joan Crawford’s story is slippery. She changed her name a lot of times. She was born Lucille LeSueur, but then when she was adopted by her stepfather — with whom she may have had a sexual relationship — she was Billie Cassin. Billie was a nickname, and then she went back to being Lucille LeSueur when she started in the silents. Joan Crawford was always a lot older than she ever admitted to being. She’s one of those people that if you actually try to line up how old she said she was at any time, and you’re like, “Oh, so you were 15 for like ten years?” She was probably born in about 1904, but she claimed it was 1910.

She was actually quite like the character she played. She wasn’t really famous for very long before she turned into this camp icon. She always played this sort of shopgirl-on-the-make, this working class girl who managed to catch the eye of somebody rich. The social climber… It’s a really Depression-era sort of story. But her real life kind of mirrored that. I have this biography of her that says she was obsessed with cleanliness because when she was a teenager she was sort of dirty and she gave all these boys crabs. She gave crabs to, like, everybody in Kansas City. She was chunky and slatternly, and she completely transformed herself, basically.

The one thing that never changed about Joan Crawford was this naked, desperate ambition. She just needed to be a star, more than any of these people. She loved being a star. Her most meaningful relationship was really with her fans. She answered every letter and signed every picture personally. She always had these super-fans who she would invite into her house to work for her. It was had a sort of All About Eve thing, you know, with interesting lesbian overtones.

Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

She married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who was like the prince of Hollywood. His father was Douglas Fairbanks and his stepmother was Mary Pickford. They were married at the time, and they had this estate called Pickfair, which is sort of like Buckingham Palace for the royalty of Hollywood. And Joan always felt slighted by them; they didn’t think she was fancy enough for them. It’s very ironic, too, because Mary Pickford started in these nickelodeon movies; she wasn’t like the Countess of Grantham, but people forget over time. All of a sudden she was this untouchable, fancy aristocrat that Joan Crawford wasn’t good enough to have tea with at her house.

Feeling like she needed to measure up was this constant theme in Joan’s life. And after she divorced Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., she married Franchot Tone, who was from this actually sort of WASPy, very rich East Coast family. And again, she felt like she would never measure up to him, and she was desperate to make him happy. A lot of her obsessions about perfection and cleanliness and everything were part of this sense of deep inadequacy. I mean, she was a crazy person, but I don’t think she was really who she was in Mommie Dearest, you know?

But there were also all these rumors that she had worked as a call girl, and that she had done porn and stuff like that before she made it in the movies. And she probably did. That was the past that I drew on a little bit for the character of Amanda. I mean they’re not, personality-wise, very much alike, but that sort of desperation to hide their pasts… And they’re both redheads!