There was a copy of Vogue in my car the summer before I graduated from college, and some afternoons, when the gridlock was so hopeless I might as well have shut off my engine, I leafed through its thin pages and dove far into a daydream, too far to actually, you know, read it. That summer I had driven my car to meet my friend Abby at a North Berkeley Albertson’s, where we got snacks and this copy of Vogue, and we had road-tripped down to Los Angeles listening to “Honky Tonky Women” and “Straight to Hell” for some forgotten reason, perhaps because it was too hot to listen to anything with other sorts of sincerity. She read to me in between bouts of more personal conversation, and I still remember parts from the profile of Winona Ryder, whose face graced the cover. Winona Ryder looks very young for her age, Abby informed me. Winona Ryder shops at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard. Winona Ryder probably ate salad and crossed her legs, Winona Ryder probably was very polite, but I don’t remember. I remember that she went to Book Soup because, while in Los Angeles, I would drive down Sunset for no reason other than traffic-related masochism, and I would notice Book Soup, bleached and bland in West Hollywood. That summer, more so than the Chateau Marmont or the Viper Room or the Pacific Coast Highway, Book Soup seemed to be a sign of something totally mediocre but notable all the same. It was a place where middling celebrity could exist. It had both some value and no value at all. Book Soup is where Winona Ryder shops, I’d think. If I wanted to buy a book, I would go to Skylight.
What I mean is there is a dream-like quality to a celebrity profile, inferred distance and feigned intimacy built into the genre with steel bolts and fasteners. It doesn’t matter how banal the subject matter (Olivia Wilde pauses as she considers her rumored beau), or how sensational the peg (Michelle Williams refuses to speak about the circumstances of Heath Ledger’s death). In a celebrity profile, you are meant to learn what it’s like to be in the room with a person, but you are more likely to understand what the room looks like, what the person is wearing, what they won’t talk about, which animal sound resembles their laugh the most. I read these a lot; I know. Reading a celebrity profile is a bit like reading a war diary. Read them for minor bits of intelligence: what it’s like being there, with them, on the ground. Reach for them when you want an ultimately irrational glamour: what spectacles these people must see, what lengths they must go to escape themselves, what rarified air they must breathe. But don’t read them for clues on how to live, for catharsis, for any of the hallmarks of literature.
And yet I do. I read them as if they were important missives. I email similarly obsessed friends about subtleties in Tom Junod’s style. I analyze the tone in Joel Lovell’s love letters to writers. I go on eBay in search of The Real and the Unreal, a book by celebrity biographer Bill Davidson that purports to be “the most authentic and interesting of the books about Hollywood,” according to a blurb by Louella Parsons. The Real and the Unreal is actually one of my favorite books that I own. Its cover features corny drawings of Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Kim Novak. It’s a paperback from 1961 with blurbs from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Los Angeles Herald. Its first line is: “I have a friend in Hollywood whose name is Jack, but to avoid libel we’ll call him Irving.” To avoid libel! This is the kind of silliness I admire.
I thought of Bill Davidson when I read Tom Junod’s profile of Leonardo DiCaprio in Esquire, the same way I thought of him when I read Amy Wallace’s profile of D’Angelo in GQ, the same way I thought of him when I read Edith Zimmerman’s piece about Chris Evans. There are glimmers of other stars in our current ones; the same story gets told with different faces, by writers who have different levels of willingness to go deep and weird. Wallace’s profile of D’Angelo, which bears reading again, showed a strange man with strange ambition, flailing and bursting out of his skin. Zimmerman’s look at Chris Evans was the prose equivalent of rubbernecking, showing how immune anyone can be to charm and lights. These are expected themes, to be sure, but the details in each are what make the profiles special, what make you think they’re coming from a “real” place, despite their “unreal” qualities. You care, somehow.
There is a phenomenal profile, for instance, of Clark Gable in The Real and the Unreal called “The King and I.” Clark Gable is a star I oddly don’t care too much about. His eccentricities seem pretty rote for a man dubbed a “king,” much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s cipher-like qualities don’t seem to surprise as much as they confirm my suspicions. But Davidson paints a vivid picture. Gable apparently seemed to Bill to have decided that, “if you’ve got to be a glamour boy to survive here, I’ll be the most glamorous goddam glamour boy that there is.”
The facts that support this claim are wonderful, the kind of thing you could tell over a campfire. Clark Gable almost made men stop wearing undershirts, according to Bill Davidson, because he wasn’t wearing one in It Happened One Night, thanks to Frank Capra’s decision to shoot his bare chest for the sake of aesthetics. Clark Gable, according to Bill Davidson, ran over a guy, and everyone kept it out of the papers. Clark Gable once made a woman literally swoon not once, not twice, but three times, all because Gable insisted on carrying her to the doctor and she fainted every time she came to and saw his face. “Is this for real, Doc?” Clark Gable supposedly said. The doctor replied, “If you don’t get the hell out of here, I’ll never be able to bring this woman around.”
I suppose it would be enough to say that gossip is the draw of a celebrity profile like “The King and I.” Sure, there’s the thing about the hit-and-run, and there’s some terribly romantic lore about Joan Crawford. But there’s more, and it’s terrific. For example, despite telling most people that he was of Dutch-Irish descent, Gable was German, so German that his name was Goebel before it was Anglicized. At the height of Nazi fear—can you imagine? Or how about one of the more tossed-off anecdotes about how a young Gable acted in a Kansas City playhouse alongside a one-eyed leading lady? She had lost one of her eyes in a fencing accident. (“She was awfully nice to me,” he said.) In “The King and I,” we learn his first two wives taught him how to dress, how to act civilized, how to care for his teeth. They taught him how to be Clark Gable. This is what nosy people sniff around for: the origin of people’s clothes, the prices of things, the stuff of people’s shame, their teeth. I am, if anything, very nosy.
Clark Gable is a legend that took many people to create; this is a cliche at this point. Perhaps the biggest fiction of all is the idea that there is something impenetrable between us and the people we have chosen to make up our most honored images. There is something leveling about a profile, but I have yet to read one that demolishes this last, huge fiction. I think it’s the fact that a picture can make you fall in love. It can pull you in and have a power over you for years. Words don’t have the same honesty. Which isn’t to say that words can’t be devastatingly honest, but still. Do accounts of how Elizabeth Taylor was the emotional age of a twelve-year-old negate the power of her performance in, say, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Does knowing Frank Sinatra was volatile and rough change the velvet effect of his voice? There’s something separating us from these people. It’s their sound, their faces. Whatever it’s like to be in a room with them, it’s outside of the rest of us, and that’s enough to make it part of a dream.