My New Book “On Borrowed Fame”
My sixth book has just been released: On Borrowed Fame: Money, Mysteries, and Corruption in the Entertainment World. It shows the underbelly of show business, and delves into why the financial compensation doled out to entertainers is so inconsistent. In many ways, the industry mirrors our rigged economy at large.
The book was a long time coming. Most of it was written more than a decade ago, when I first began contacting old entertainers from my youth. It was heady stuff to go back and forth with people I’d watched on television, or listened to their records on my old transistor radio. Too many of those I communicated with passed on before the book was published. Skyhorse held it for quite some time before opting not to take it. I went with Bear Manor Media, a publisher that specializes in entertainment books.
I learned a lot while writing this book, as I do while researching all of my nonfiction. The disparity in compensation in the industry is sometimes mind-boggling. To cite just one example; why did Bette Davis, one of the biggest stars in the history of Hollywood, die with less than a million dollars, while Steppin Fetchit, the poster child for old fashioned racism, left a fortune of $10 million? There are lots of figures like that in the book. They fascinate me, and I’m hopeful readers will be intrigued as well.
The inspiration for the book was George “Spanky” McFarland, my favorite Little Rascal, and in my view the greatest child actor who ever lived. He was basically washed up by the age of six or so, but he was the most spellbinding toddler to ever appear onscreen. Spanky’s name and likeness was used by restaurants (and still is), and for other commercial endeavors. The fact he received nothing from this, or from the perpetually run Our Gang shorts, understandably frustrated him. I wrote to his widow, but she never replied.
A secondary inspiration was Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was one of the classic cases of the industry ripping off a vulnerable target. The English-challenged actor was paid all of $3500 for his iconic role in 1931’s Dracula. Meanwhile, David Manners, who was billed third or fourth in the cast, made more than four times that amount. I talked to Lugosi’s son, and more recently, his granddaughter. The granddaughter was a bit too difficult for me, so I didn’t include anything about her in the book. Almost all the others I spoke to were pretty accommodating and friendly.
An underlying theme to the book is; what exactly is fame? Once my nonfiction books were published, I began to relate a bit more to this. I’m not deluded enough to think I’m famous in any way at all, but the fact is some people (who knows how many) have heard of me. They’ve read my work and/or listened to me on the radio. I hear from strangers every day, from all over the world, who admire my work. I have stalkers as well. One guy I’ve never even exchanged posts with online writes about me regularly on a forum run by an Australian researcher who irrationally hates me. He knows way too much about me, and has constructed an inaccurate, villainous image of me. That kind of thing is pretty scary.
So, if the definition of fame is being known to others who you don’t know, I guess I have a very small measure of fame. The CEO of a corporation is famous to the thousands of employees there, but may be unknown outside that cocoon. As I noted often in my book Bullyocracy, the most popular kids in every school are essentially famous in their own little world. Big fish in a small pond. We see this same phenomenon in social settings; cliques form everywhere, from workplaces to country clubs. And there are “famous” people in all of them.
I talk about the totally forgotten famous entertainers from a few centuries ago. The stage was the Hollywood of its day, and there were plenty of marquee names who garnered public adulation. No one knows the name of even the most high profile actor of the eighteenth century now. And if not for the Lincoln assassination, no one would recognize the name of John Wilkes Booth, who was compared to Brad Pitt in terms of fame by a local historian. Like the old ballplayers dubbed The Glory of Their Times, in one of the great baseball books of all time by the same name, the greatest entertainers from a few hundred years ago have lost every measure of their fame.
On Borrowed Fame examines many of the most suspicious deaths in the entertainment business. Elvis Presley. John Lennon. Marilyn Monroe. Natalie Wood. John Belushi. Brittany Murphy. To name just a few. This, of course, is more in my wheelhouse. It is undeniable that show business is the only industry, outside of politics, which features an inordinate number of unnatural deaths, with often absurd explanations for them. Hollywood and the music business both have impressive Body Counts.
I was gratified to get some formerly big names to write blurbs for the book. Billy Gray, who played Bud Anderson on one of the seminal television shows of the 1950s, Father Knows Best. Susan Olsen, who portrayed Cindy on The Brady Bunch. Others, like singer-songwriter Graham Parker, never became household names, but meant the world to me. His music was part of the soundtrack of my youth, and I have to pinch myself to consider that we are now friends.
This book is not really uncharacteristic for me. I have been a Golden Age of Hollywood movie buff since I was a preteen, watching the yearly television broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz and King Kong, which were a big deal in those days. I loved especially the black and white world, the snappy dialogue, and the much higher production values. Everything had class. And even as a child, I wanted to write, and instinctively understood that the words recited in those older films were more literate and interesting than the current stuff.
The foundation of my populist philosophy was deeply influenced by Frank Capra’s quartet of timeless films; It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Like Huey Long’s speeches, those homages to the Little Guy struck a powerful chord within me. Capra’s admittedly naive optimism was responsible for grounding me a bit; without my mother’s happy, carefree outlook on life, and the messages in these uplifting films, I would have been as dark a cynic as my father, or one of my literary heroes, Ambrose Bierce.
I was also a fan of rock and roll from a young age. My sister bought me my first stereo when I turned seven, along with the 45s It’s Up to You by Ricky Nelson and Two Faces Have I by Lou Christie. She also threw in Rick Nelson’s Million Sellers LP. From there, I built a budding collection; most of the 45s from the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and a lesser number of LPs, including the first three Beatles’ albums. If only I hadn’t written my name on most of the LPs and 45s, I might have something really valuable.
I knew, and continue to know, way too much about pop culture. More than anyone needs to know. We used to joke that my head was full of knowledge that could never earn me any money. That turned out to be all too true. No one has ever been willing to pay me for reciting ridiculously obscure trivia about the early talkies, or one hit musical artists. Until now, I guess. Writers earn the same kind of miniscule royalty rates that even the biggest musical artists did. I could relate to the likes of Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits joking about their lack of royalties.
I purposefully tracked down the most mysterious examples of actors suddenly disappearing from the limelight. One early talkies leading man became so obscure there is no record of his death. It is only presumed he died sometime during the 1980s. Think about that; do any construction workers become that obscure? And again, it’s similar to what I run into all the time, in trying to track down JFK assassination witnesses, or those connected to 9/11, Oklahoma City, etc. They can become, in effect, as obscure as some of those old actors.
I am always confident that the my books will sell well. I was right about Hidden History and Crimes and Cover-Ups in American Politics: 1776-1963. But not about Survival of the Richest or Bullyocracy. I just can’t trigger many sales for my non-political books. On Borrowed Fame should appeal to more “normies,” and attract a much larger crossover market, than all my other books. But I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t sell much. Most of my support seems to come from the conspiracy world.
The Foreword for On Borrowed Fame was written by the only person who could write it, John Barbour. My friendship with John is the most rewarding one of my life. This man stood at the pinnacle of success when he created and hosted Real People, the number one television show in America. But he’s humble enough to be impressed with the likes of me. Barbour’s career was undoubtedly impacted by his work with Jim Garrison. Actor Paul LeMat, star of American Graffiti, is someone else I’ve communicated with quite a bit. He admitted that his career was negatively effected by his activism regarding both the JFK and RFK assassinations.
I hope you all will buy and read On Borrowed Fame. The hardback is pretty expensive, but writers have nothing to do with pricing. I’d be just as happy if you suggested it to your local library system, or perhaps your college alma mater, to add to their collection. A library sale is just the same as any other, and it can attract a lot more readers. As always, adding the book on Goodreads (and ideally giving it 5 stars) would be a big favor to me, and rating or reviewing it on Amazon would be wonderful.