By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 19, 2020 at 09:00 AM EST
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Credit: Zack Munson; TMC

Carla Valderrama knows how to make something look good.

The Hollywood historian has chronicled her love for the studio system and the "Golden Age" on her Instagram accounts @ThisWasHollywood and @ThisWasFashion for several years with pizazz and aplomb, but for her first book, TCM's This Was Hollywood: Forgotten Stars and Stories, she needed to take it to the next level.

When TCM reached out to her about doing a book, she pitched them on a title looking at forgotten stars, which they ran with and broadened to include lesser-known stories about more recognizable faces. "They wanted me to do a lot of stories. Initially, they said, 'Oh, how about 50?' and I said, 'How about you jump off a bridge! I'm not doing 50. I'll do 30,'" she quips. "I had such a short amount of time, and I was starting to have a bit of a panic attack about how I was going to do these different stories so that it wouldn't be a listicle. I wanted to have a through-line."

The solution to that problem came in her own collection. Valderrama is an avid collector of classic movies and fan magazines from the Golden Age of Hollywood. While trying to work out the unifying factor for these assorted stories, she was in the middle of the move, which meant the collection was right underfoot, so to speak. "My husband was like, 'Why don't you just do that?' And he pointed at the movie magazine. I was like, 'Oh my god, you're such a f---ing genius.'"

Thus was born the concept of designing and structuring her book like a movie magazine of old. "The classic 'stan' magazine was carefully curated [and] crafted to tell the narrative of Hollywood itself," she says. "It helped build the industry and create the stars. It was such an integral part of the industry at the time."

Valderrama has such a passion for the format that she worked closely with her design and layout team, sending what she describes as "massive e-mail packages" with stick figures drawn into replicas of actual fan magazine layouts and step-by-step instructions for her vision. "The thing about the movie magazines, it wasn't just about pretty design," she says. "It has to have a purpose. It has to push the narrative."

She also opted to include spreads like Pets, Nightlife, and Stars at Home that mirror those of classic magazines in what she calls their version of US Weekly's "Stars, They're Just Like Us."

As for the content of the essays themselves, Valderrama drew on a handful of stories she was already keen to tell, like that of female film pioneer Lois Weber, combined with stories she discovered through interviews and painstaking archival research. "I wanted it to be a journey for me because for me the joy is about the research, the interviews, and the discovery process," she adds.

Many of the stories came to Valderrama through a sort of kismet. She reached out to forgotten child star Cora Sue Collins, who is still alive, to conduct an interview, just hoping to see where it would lead. "I was expecting to get a lot of background information," she explains. "And like five minutes into the conversation, she dropped this A-bomb on my lap."

Credit: Virgil Apger/Margaret Chute/Getty Images

In the early 1940s, Collins was in the midst of transitioning successfully from child star roles to teenage parts (a rare feat then and now). When she suddenly quit the business, fans spent years wondering why. For the first time, Collins told Valderrama her own #MeToo story, alleging her mentor screenwriter Harry Ruskin offered her a plumb project he'd written, only if she'd sleep with him (she was 15, he was 50). When Collins approached studio head, Louis B. Mayer, with her story, she says he first urged her to "get used to it" and then threatened her with the familiar refrain that she'd never work again if she didn't acquiesce. So, she didn't.

In another case of happenstance, one day in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives, Valderrama found a misplaced file in her research. "I opened it and I saw this telegram that said, 'I am the only producer who's ever been in prison for making a movie,'" she recounts. "I was like, 'Give me all those files.'" The result was her chapter "United States vs. 'The Spirit of '76'" about film producer Robert Goldstein, who was branded an enemy of the state for his movie The Spirit of '76. 

Ultimately, she followed where her heart and her research led. There were still some stories that got away, like that of trailblazing African American actress Fredi Washington. " I didn't get to do it because I ran out of time and money," she explains. "If I'm going to tell a story, I want it to be nothing you can find on the internet. I want it to be archival research. All of her papers are at Tulane, and I did not have the time or the means to fly to go there to look through everything. I did not feel I could do the story justice, so that's why I didn't do it."

For Valderrama, the story she's proudest of (and that took her the longest to write because of its emotional toll) was that of actor John Garfield. Garfield was a mega-watt star in the 1940s, but he fell prey to the machinations of the Hollywood Blacklist, branded a communist, and entrapped by the House of Un-American Activities Committee to forward their own aims. Only a little over a week after a 1952 interview with the FBI, Garfield died of a heart attack at age 39. Many of his friends and colleagues believed it was brought on by the stress of the government crusade against him.

Credit: Courtesy Everette Collection

Valderrama spoke to Garfield's daughter, as well as his contemporaries like Norman Lloyd. She also publishes for the first time Garfield's staunch anti-communist statement he wrote to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in the hopes she'd run it (which she never did). "His daughter told me, 'My father had a lot of integrity, his integrity is what killed him,' and it's so true because he never named names to the day that he died."

For Lloyd, who just recently turned 106, but was 104 at the time of the interview, it's still very raw. "He looked at me and he said, 'Do you know how many lives were destroyed? Do you know how many people jumped out of windows? Jumped off bridges? Went to Mexico or Europe or wherever?'" she recounts. "It was like you just ripped the band-aid off of him. 104 years old, and he was ready to cry."

The author hopes that readers will take the time to discover Garfield's work in-depth after learning his story. "He was the O.G. before Marlon Brando, before Montgomery Clift, before James Dean," she opines. "He was the first method actor superstar; he was the one that changed everything. I was talking to Norman Lloyd about this, and he's just like, 'John Garfield was a revolution; Marlon Brando had good publicity.'"

It's this emotional, human angle that Valderrama says she hopes shines through in every story in the collection. "I wanted to really focus on the humanistic story," she says. "I don't have production dates. I don't want to get bogged down in that. I wanted to make it interesting for someone like Leonard Maltin, who gave me a blurb. I want someone like that to be able to learn something, but also someone who maybe the earliest movie they've ever seen is Pulp Fiction. I wanted to be accessible to anybody. That ultimately was the goal of the fan magazines too — to make movies accessible to the public."

This Was Hollywood is now available.

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