You may or may not have noticed the obituary for Axel Madsen in the papers this week. Axel died in Los Angeles at the age of 76. He was a writer who produced great books about a wide variety of topics, from cross-country trucking to philosophers like Andre Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior to business legends like John Jacob Astor. But he was best known for his works about Hollywood and the movies; biographies about Hollywood legends like William Wyler and John Huston and stories of the real Hollywood like “Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy” and “The Sewing Circle: Female Stars Who Loved Other Women.”
I had the pleasure of corresponding with Axel several times over the years after being introduced through mutual friends. He was a funny and interesting man who often spoke about the challenge of writing about truths that people don’t want to hear. Even with all of his great work, Axel was eulogized as being best known for his “salacious” Hollywood writings like the Swanson-Kennedy book and Sewing Circle, both of which I’ve read and picked over while researching my own books. That’s the interesting thing about writing about Hollywood, a point I discussed with Axel numerous times. As long as we write about the classic stars so that they stay on the pedestal and remain untarnished, things are fine. But have the temerity to write about, for example, Barbara’s Stanwyck’s sexuality and arranged marriages or Garbo’s many women or Gable’s men, and the wackos come out of the woodwork. Even though Axel was a Hollywood correspondent for 20+ years before writing about Hollywood the defenders trashed the Sewing Circle and his “sources.” He was an insider, and knew people with first-hand knowledge but still the wackos tried to trash the book. In the end, those were the works for which he was most remembered, which is strange. His body of work was much wider and in truth much more varied. But that’s the way the world works. They’re the most interesting stories I guess.
I’ve got a couple of the wackos that routinely trash my books because I dare to write stories about classic stars that might be unflattering. My favorite is the woman who writes reviews for a movie site that questioned my credibility because I mentioned that Cary Grant was a homosexual or bisexual. It was one of those moments that I actually was surprised at how unbelievably stupid people can be. Or clueless. Or both. She also wrote that Barbara Stanwyck was not a lesbian (even though she herself said she was late in life) and that Robert Taylor couldn’t have been a homosexual because he had so many dates when he was a star! And there’s this redhead pseudo-writer who tries to get herself on every “E” show about Hollywood as a supposed expert who looked at my “Death and Scandal Sites” manuscript years ago and among her many stupid questions was her opinion that I shouldn’t write that Bela Lugosi was a drug addict because I didn’t know it for sure. Bela Lugosi. Who brought reporters and photographers to one of his rehab sessions. She actually told me it was a myth! And now I see that ridiculous haircut and see her spouting about Hollywood on TV. I should publish the list of questions she came up with back then. It’s almost funny.
Axel and I traded emails about that whenever the wackos would trash my books or have their friends write bad reviews on Amazon. It comes with the territory.
If you want to read a facinating account of Hollywood in the 1930’s, find a copy of his book The Sewing Circle. If you want to read an interesting book about truckers, find his Open Road: Truckin’ on the Biting Edge.
I continue to work on the Paul Bern book, compiling research and background. The actual writing has started; I’m probably at about 50 pages but it’s hard to tell because I don’t write chronologically. I write about different events at different times just to keep interested. I’m on my way to the Herrick Library at the Motion Picture Academy later this month to go through the Special Collections are to see what they’ve got about poor Paul. It’s a great story.