Best Biographies of Classic Hollywood Stars

Classic Hollywood Stars with Juicy Pasts

There are few stars from classic Hollywood who were untouched by scandal of any kind. Here's a short list of those who walked on the shocking side:

  • Mae West
  • Joan Crawford
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Lana Turner
  • Rex Harrison
  • Clark Gable
  • Fatty Arbuckle
  • Errol Flynn

The Lives of Stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood

In today's world, information about modern-day celebrities is splashed across magazines, news sites, and blogs--the stars themselves tweet and are much more in touch with their fans. Celebrity wasn't always like this, however--in the era of stars like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, stars were forced to contract with specific studios, who controlled their images and lifestyles to a great extent.

There may have been gossip about a star, but fans primarily got a very white-washed picture of their favorite star's life, habits, and past. That makes reading biographies of classic stars much more interesting than reading those of modern stars!

Read on for the best biographies of movie stars in classic Hollywood.

Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious"
Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" | Source

"Cary Grant: A Biography"

Marc Eliot's "Cary Grant: A Biography" was controversial out of the gate because of its frank treatment of Cary Grant's (possibly) romantic relationship with fellow actor Randolph Scott, with whom he lived for eleven years, well after he was an established star and could have moved on from the financial necessity of a roommate.

It also took some criticism because it is liberal with the conclusions it draws, often without citing a source for those conclusions. In spite of that, for a Cary Grant fan who doesn't know much about the star, it's still a riveting read. Eliot's writing is engaging without being sensational, and you'll learn a lot about Archibald Leach and the perfect Hollywood icon he became, Cary Grant. It covers his childhood, his entry into Hollywood (like Clark Gable, Grant worked as an escort while he waited to make it big), and the peaks and valleys of his success.

Clips from Cary Grant's Best Films

Audrey Hepburn with Cary Grant in "Charade"
Audrey Hepburn with Cary Grant in "Charade" | Source

"Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn"

Audrey Hepburn is one of the few stars whose life was largely untouched by scandal and who was almost universally beloved within the industry and without--a truly kind, lovable person without hubris. Donald Spoto's "Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn" is admiring without being reverent, and doesn't shy away from the details of Audrey's failed marriages or the other pain in her life.

Audrey was notoriously private, but Spoto had access to materials other biographers haven't, and paints a fuller picture of her life than previously presented, from her childhood in Holland during World War II to her early days as an actress to her success as one of the most famous leading ladies of Hollywood, a fashion icon, and a devoted volunteer for children's causes.

"Enchantment" is one of the best Audrey Hepburn biographies, with plenty of anecdotes about both Audrey and life in classic Hollywood.

Best Moments from Audrey Hepburn's Films

Judy Garland in a publicity still from "The Harvey Girls"
Judy Garland in a publicity still from "The Harvey Girls" | Source

"Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland"

Gerald Clarke's "Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland" is decidedly the most gossipy and "juicy" of the biographies on this list, but that's likely because Judy Garland's life was so filled with tragedy and scandal. While "Enchantment" may lift you up, "Get Happy" may break your heart a little--but it's still a great read, especially if you go into it knowing very little about Judy Garland other than that she was an amazing talent.

"Get Happy" covers Judy's traumatic early years (her real name was Frances Gumm), where they moved from town to town to avoid the scandals caused by her father's same-sex inclinations. It covers her quick rise to success in Hollywood, where she was started off early on a mixture of pills both to give her energy and control her weight, and the struggles with addiction and bad relationships she endured for the rest of her life. It also covers the great movies she brought to the screen, and the relationships she forged in Hollywood.

"Get Happy" is compulsively readable, and you may find it hard to put down despite some of the more difficult parts of Judy's life.

Best Moments from Judy Garland Films

Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story"
Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story" | Source

"Kate Remembered"

A. Scott Berg's "Kate Remembered" is a delight from start to finish--it's sparkling, funny, and full of personal stories about its subject, Katharine Hepburn. Commonly regarded as one of the greatest actresses of all time (if not the greatest), Katharine was a strong and determined personality from a wealthy Boston family who did success her way--even if it meant alienating studios in the process.

What makes "Kate Remembered" so special is that the biographer was actual Katharine's close friend, and had access to her stories, thoughts, and life first-hand. By turns funny, touching, and even sad, this biography gives a great picture of a feisty, strong woman who went from being "box office poison" to one of the most beloved actresses of all time.

Best Moments from Katharine Hepburn's Career

Choosing a Biography About Classic Stars

Biographies about classic stars are fascinating--all the more so when the stars' images were originally carefully controlled by the studios. If you prefer your movie stars from that time to remain perfect images, then I wouldn't recommend picking up these biographies--but if you want to put some humanity behind those beautiful faces, then you'll probably love the books on this list.

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